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.