- Review Price: £449.99
Sony’s campaign to cut itself a bigger share of the lucrative digital SLR market continues to gather pace. We reviewed the flagship Alpha A700, a 12-megapixel professional model in November of last year, and in February we took a look at the Alpha A200, the 10-megapixel entry-level model currently priced at £300 with an 18-70mm lens. There were two more models launched in March of this year, the Jessops-exclusive Alpha A300, currently £399.99 including an 18-70mm lens, and today’s review camera, the Alpha A350.
With a sensor resolution of 14.2-megapixels, the A350 occupies a relatively new band in the digital SLR market, along with the 14.6-megapixel, £800 Pentax K20D. Neither market leaders Canon nor second-placed Nikon has anything that directly competes in this band, which must be helping with Sony’s stated intent to overtake Nikon and put a serious dent in Canon’s seemingly unassailable lead. The A350 is currently priced at a very competitive £449.99 body-only, £499.99 with an 18-70mm zoom lens, or £649.99 as a two-lens kit with the addition of a 55-200mm zoom. Nikon’s closest competitor is the D80, currently £499 body only or £639.99 with an 18-70mm lens, but the D80 is only 10 megapixels. Olympus offers the E-520 for £499.99 body-only or £549.99 with a Four-Thirds system 14-42mm lens, but again it is only 10 megapixels. Canon has a slightly closer match in the shape of the popular 12.2-megapixel EOS 450D (review coming soon) at £459.99 body only or £499.99 with an 18-55mm lens.
Of course sensor resolution isn’t the only criteria by which a camera should be judged, and the A350 has another important feature that sets it apart from the competition. Sony was a relatively late adopter of live monitor view for its digital SLRs, and both the A700 and A200 lack this feature. However the A350 not only has live view, it also has a two-way tilting 2.7-inch 230k monitor and, more importantly, a fast nine-point TTL phase-detection autofocus system available in live view mode. Competitor DSLRs that offer live view have either simpler and slower contrast-detection AF systems when in live view mode, or have to temporarily flip the reflex mirror down to use their phase-detection AF systems. Sony’s solution is faster, more effective and much more useful, enabling full autofocus function in live view mode.
The A350 shares the same body as the A200 and A300. It is made of plastic, but the rounded shape feels very strong and build quality is at least as good as any of the competition. It is a relatively small camera, measuring 130.8 x 98.5 x 74.7mm, and at 582g it is less than 40g heavier than the A200. Some of that is accounted for by the monitor screen, which is mounted on a two-way hinge, allowing it to tilt 45 degrees downwards or 90 degrees upward.
The control layout is almost identical to the A200, excepting the addition of a slider switch that activated the live monitor view and closes a shutter inside the viewfinder, and a extra button for the “Smart Teleconverter” mode. This is available only in live view mode, and magnifies the image by either 1.4x or 2x. In other words it’s yet another new name for our old friend digital zoom. Given the camera’s extremely high maximum resolution it is possible to crop and enlarge the image and still get a good picture, but it’s still no substitute for using a higher magnification lens.
The camera handles well and is comfortable and secure to hold, but I do have a couple of comments. The gap between the handgrip and the side of the lens mount is very narrow and anyone with larger fingers (like me) will find it a bit cramped, and will also find that their fingernails leave white scratch marks on the matt black plastic finish. The adjustment wheel, used for altering exposure settings, is quite small and rather stiff, making it difficult to operate quickly and smoothly.
I also found the live view mode to be less useful than I’d hoped. I used it at a local charity fun-run, and found it’s downward-tilting ability very useful for shooting over the heads of the crowd, while the upward tilt was useful as a waist-level finder for inconspicuous shooting, however in even moderate sunlight the monitor simply wasn’t bright enough to be seen clearly, even with the brightness turned up to maximum.
One potential use of live view is for studio photography with the camera mounted on a tripod, but here too I encountered a problem, and one which appears to be a bit of an oversight on the part of the designers. The monitor view automatically adjusts to preview the effects of altering exposure in manual mode, so an under-exposed shot will appear darker and an over-exposed shot will be lighter. The problem is that when using a separate flashgun in manual exposure mode, as one would normally do in a studio, the exposure settings typically used mean that the view on the live monitor is so dark it’s impossible to see anything at all. Unfortunately there is no menu option to disable the exposure preview function, so the A350’s live view is useless for studio photography. I really hope this problem can be amended with a firmware update, because it is a major handicap that ruins a potentially very useful feature.
Apart from the live view and AF system the A350’s list of features is really no more advanced than the entry-level A200, and lacks a number of useful functions that even advanced amateurs will miss, such as depth-of-field preview and mirror lock-up in two-second self-timer mode. These features were present on Sony’s first DSLR the Alpha A100, and are available on the more advanced A700, but for some reason have been omitted from the A200 and A350. The camera seems to be geared towards beginners, with a fairly simple menu system more akin to an advanced compact, and lacking the huge flexibility of some more advanced DSLRs. Contrast, sharpness and saturation can be adjusted independently for any of eight Creative Style colour modes, but the range of adjustments is fairly limited. There is at least dial-in white balance, but no colour space options.
While it may lack some useful features, the A350 makes up for it with others that are equally useful. Like the other models in the range it has built-in moving-sensor image stabilisation claimed to provide approximately three stops of additional hand-held stability when shooting at low shutter speeds. As usual I found that this claim was fully justified, and I was able to shoot hand-held at shutter speeds as low as 1/10th of a second at a focal length of 80mm.
The camera also has Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimiser, which as the name suggests enhances shadow and highlight detail. This is also a very effective system, and since it appears to have no negative effects on most normal shots it is worth leaving it turned on permanently.
The A350’s overall performance is excellent. Shutter lag is effectively zero and the AF system is very quick, including in live view mode, so it’s great for capturing spur-of-the-moment action shots. The nine-point AF system is similar to the one in the A200, with the centre AF sensor a cross type, and I found it to bit exceptionally accurate and reliable with excellent low-light performance.
In single-shot mode the camera can shoot pretty much as fast as you can press the shutter button, easily sustaining 1.25 frames per second. In continuous drive mode and using the JPEG Fine image quality setting it can shoot at approximately 2.5 frames per second in viewfinder mode, although this drops to two frames per second in live view mode. It appears to be able to maintain this speed indefinitely in JPEG Fine mode, but in Raw mode it shoots seven frames at this speed, but then drops to approximately one frame per second.
The A350’s image quality also helps to make up for its lack of professional versatility. At 100 ISO it produces some of the sharpest and most detailed images I’ve ever seen from a digital camera. There isn’t a massive advantage to a 12-megapixel camera over a 10-megapixel camera, but pushing that extra step up to 14 megapixels makes a noticeable difference. Details that were a bit fuzzy on cameras such as the Nikon D80 are pin-sharp with the A350. Exposure and colour rendition are superb, and even with the DRO system turned off the dynamic range is excellent, producing rich well-saturated colours with plenty of shadow and highlight detail.
My only image quality concern is the presence of noise at higher ISO settings. Although 100 and 200 ISO settings produce fantastic image quality, there is noise visible at 400 ISO that I wouldn’t have expected to see, and image quality at the highest settings of 1600 and 3200 ISO is actually rather poor, especially when compared to the excellent high-ISO performance of the A200.
The Sony Alpha A350 is a superb camera, but anyone who was expecting a full professional DSLR like the A700 will be disappointed. Instead you get an A200 with the addition of live view and a massive 14.2-megapixel sensor. The live view system with fully-functioning AF and tilting monitor is much better than all its competitors, although its usefulness is limited by a sensor too dark for daylight use, and the annoying exposure preview that can’t be turned off. Image quality and performance are up to standard, as is build quality and design. This is a very appealing camera for the advanced amateur, and an outstanding bargain at the current price.
”Over the next few pages we show a range of test shots. On this page the full size image at the minimum and maximum ISO settings have been reduced to let you see the full image, and a series of full resolution crops have taken from original images at a range of ISO settings to show the overall image quality.”
This is a full-frame image at the minimum sensitivity of 100 ISO.
At 100 ISO the image quality is superb, with no trace of noise.
Still very good at 200 ISO.
At 400 ISO there is a hint of colour speckling in the mid-tone areas that I wouldn’t have expected to see.
At 800 ISO noise in the red channel is really becoming a problem.
At 1600 ISO the level of detail is dropping off as noise gets worse.
At 3200 ISO the image quality is actually pretty poor.
This is the full frame at maximum ISO.
”A range of test shots are shown over the next few pages. Here, the full size image has been reduced for bandwidth purposes, and a crop taken from the original full resolution image has been placed below it in order for you to gain an appreciation of the overall quality. The following pages consist of resized images so that you can evaluate the overall exposure. For those with a dial-up connection, please be patient while the pages download.”
Here’s my usual DSLR test shot of Sidmouth sea-front for direct comparison with other cameras.
Colour rendition is superb, and exposure is very accurate.
Summer’s here at last, and the gardeners have been out at Sidmouth’s spectacular Connaught Gardens.
”This page consists of resized images so that you can evaluate the overall exposure.”
The tilting live-view monitor is very handy for shooting over the heads of a crowd. This was a charity 5km fun-run here in Exeter, and no, I’m afraid I wasn’t competing.
Five kilometers later and some people are still enjoying it. The ultra-fast AF system is great for capturing fast-moving subjects.
With zero shutter lag you can time your photos to perfection.
With 14.2 megapixels to play with, even a partial crop of the frame is still a stunning high-resolution shot.
Score in detail
Image Quality 9
Build Quality 9
|Camera type||Digital SLR|
|Megapixels (Megapixel)||14.2 Megapixel|
|Optical Zoom (Times)||Not Applicablex|
|Image Stabilisation||CCD Shift|
|LCD Monitor||2.7 in|
|Flash modes||Auto Flash, Red-eye Reduction, Flash OFF|
|Memory card slot||CompactFlash (CF) Card, Memory Stick PRO, Memory Stick PRO Duo, Microdrive, Memory Stick Duo|