by Shawn Barnett and
Preview Date: 01/06/08
Full Review: 03/13/08
Sony's Alpha A200 is a relatively minor revamp to the electronics giant's first digital SLR, the A100, which itself was a more significant step up from the Konica Minolta 5D. The Sony A200 is lighter and smaller than the A100, and a good deal easier to use.
Sony claims improvements to the Sony A200's AF system that will make focus acquisition 1.7 times faster, thanks to the high-torque AF motor and improved AF sequence borrowed from the A700, and our test results do indicate a significant improvement.
Sony's Alpha-mount lens system is the oldest SLR autofocus system in the business, going back 28 years, so there's a broad and growing selection of lenses to choose from.
The Sony A200's 10.2-megapixel sensor is the same resolution as its predecessor, but it's said to let more light reach each pixel for lower noise and more detail.
Shaped to better match the sensor's 3:2 aspect ratio, the Sony A200's 2.7-inch "Clear Photo" LCD has an anti-reflective coating for easy viewing in the sun, and 230,000 pixels.
A new LCD-based function menu replaces the old dial-based function menu on the A100, and many of the menu functions and systems from the Sony A700 have made their way into the Sony A200.
New to the Sony A200 is a pop-up flash, rather than the old "pull-up" type. Now this consumer camera can deploy the flash in auto modes when necessary. Like most other digital SLRs, the user deploys the flash with a button on the left side of the lens mount housing, by the Sony A200's big orange Alpha logo.
The old battery icon has been augmented with a "percent remaining" indicator on the Sony A200, which reads "100%," in addition to displaying four bars to indicate battery status. Sony has created a new vertical battery grip (VG-B30AM) for the Sony A200 that duplicates many of the controls necessary for vertical shooting, and holds two InfoLITHIUM batteries, making the camera capable of shooting up to 1,500 shots.
Eye-start Autofocus, also from the A100, starts up the autofocus system so the Sony A200 is ready before you even match your eye up to the frame in most cases. Super SteadyShot sensor-based stabilization reduces blurry images with any lens mounted. Sony claims up to 3.5 stops of extra exposure with their body-based image stabilization system. Anti-dust is also built in, with a static-free coating on the CCD's filter that is shaken each time the camera is powered off.
The Sony A200 kit (DSLR-A200K) comes with a DT 18-70mm (3.9x) f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens for an estimated US$600.
A separate Sony A200 kit (DSLR-A200W) includes two lenses: the DT 18-70mm mentioned above, and a 75-300mm f/4.6-5.6 telephoto zoom for an estimated US$800.
Sony Alpha A200
by Shawn Barnett
Sony's Alpha line got off to a slow start until late Summer of 2007, when the company introduced the Sony A700, their camera for intermediate photographers. This year, things sped up. In January 2008 Sony introduced the A200, and less than a month later they followed up with the A300 and A350 in the same body style with a few more features than the A200. All three of the digital SLR cameras introduced this year are aimed at the consumer SLR market, and are surprisingly simple to use.
Omitting the Function dial/button combination has done a lot to make setting the Sony A200 and its brothers easier to use. Most settings are available via a button, with the drive and ISO buttons on the top deck, and less commonly changed items nested in the Function button on the back.
The Alpha A200 is smaller and lighter than the A100, though still a little larger than the Canon Rebel XTi. It's really not that different from the A100 in look or feel, with dimensions of 5.2 x 3.7 x 2.8 inches (133 x 95 x 71mm), and weighing 22 ounces (625g) with a battery and card loaded.
Look and feel. There's really only one major physical change from the A100 that affects both the top and the back of the Sony A200, but it makes a big difference. Here on the back, there's a new Function button that brings up a simply worded Function menu for easier access to commonly changed items. The A100 had a Function dial on the top deck that was a little more difficult to use. To change ISO, for example, you had to look at the top deck so you could turn the Function dial to ISO and press the Fn button nestled in the center of the dial, then tilt the camera forward to look at the LCD, and use the Controller or Main dial to select the ISO. Having the Fn button on the back makes more sense, because your main interface to the camera is the LCD.
The 2.7-inch LCD is a little wider to accommodate the 3:2 aspect ratio of the Sony A200's sensor. The images still don't fit exactly in the frame, slightly letterboxed with a black bar top and bottom. Note the new battery indicator icon with the numerical percent-remaining display.
Another minor change is the left-right orientation of the Super SteadyShot switch on the back, and the deletion of the Remote connector, which has been moved to the left side of the Sony A200, under the rubber door, a much better location.
With the Function dial now replaced by software, the Mode dial has room to move to the left side of the pentamirror housing, making the top deck very clean. The Drive button has been moved left to make room for the ISO button. This used to reside on the Function dial, but I think ISO is important enough to warrant its own button. I use both of these buttons quite often. Note the addition of something that was missing on the Sony A100: the Focal plane indicator just right of the ISO button.
There's one additional icon on the Mode dial: the No-flash Full-Auto mode, for when you don't want the Sony A200 to exercise its new ability to pop up the flash.
Missing from the front of the Sony A200 is the depth-of-field preview button, which was present on the A100. Sony might have thought it wasn't worth the extra cost for a feature that most consumers won't know how to use. Frankly, I seldom use the feature myself on other SLRs. It's hard to see much difference in such a small viewfinder, and it's easier to just snap a shot and zoom in on the larger LCD screen. Whatever the reason, it's good to consider if optical depth-of-field preview is important to you. Though that begs for such a feature with the Live View mode, I doubt the tiny secondary sensor would do much better than my eye with the lens stopped down.
Grip. The Sony A200's grip has a nice sculpted divot, quite similar to the A100. Appearing on more digital SLR cameras, this divot helps you quickly acquire a proper hold on the camera.
Left side. The Remote control and DC-in sockets are now together, covered by a rubber door that opens from the front. Upper left in the now-traditional location is the manual flash release button, which activates an electronic switch to let the flash pop up. Lower left is the autofocus selector switch.
Powering it up. Sliding the power switch on the upper left of the Sony A200's rear lights up the main LCD's Status display briefly and you can hear the lens motor quickly whirring. If the lens's focus mechanism is out, the Sony A200 will pull the lens back into the lens barrel, setting it to infinity. Wrapping my hand around the grip, I find a very comfortable hold, with a nice divot for my middle finger to center my hand; however, my fingers tend to rub up against the tapered lens mount body. It feels a little more cramped in there than on most other cameras, at least for my fingers.
When I bring the Sony A200 up to my eye, I'm greeted by another whirring noise: The infrared sensor just under the optical viewfinder has sensed my approaching face and started focusing on the nearest subject, and the lens is already slewing into focus. Focus is very often set quickly, thanks partly to this prefocus function. Sony says that the A200 focuses faster than the A100, and our test results bear that out. Where the A100 performed full autofocus and capture in 0.31 second, the Sony A200's time is 0.189 with the same lens. That's a pretty big improvement. And if you prefocus, the A100, whose shutter fired in 0.116 second, is bested by the Sony A200's 0.088 prefocus shutter lag time. (See the Performance tab of this review for more on the Sony A200's performance.)
The Sony A200's autofocus is pretty fast, overall, and the nine-point autofocus system works fairly well, but I've taken to locking it to the more accurate center AF point, as I do with most digital SLR cameras. The AE Lock button is perfectly placed for setting your exposure, moving the camera to an AF point, then moving back for the capture; and because they've re-tapered the back of the A200, it's a little more difficult to accidentally press the button than it was on the A100.
Fire! Press the shutter button on the A200, and you're greeted by a more competent, sharper sounding shutter than the A100's lethargic "rake-into-a-bucket-of-water" sloshing sound. Viewfinder blackout time, a more important factor, is also reduced thanks to the snappier mirror mechanism in the A200, making model and action photography a better experience.
Though I'm used to almost all digital cameras bringing up an immediate playback of the image I just captured, the Sony A200 is better behaved, not wanting to blind you in dark settings. It waits until you pull it away from your face before it displays the last image captured. You can turn this option off if you want to work a little faster, but it's not a bad idea if you work in dark places where a bright LCD might ruin your ability to capture a follow-up shot.
Playback. My favorite Playback mode has five images across the top, and a limited display across the bottom. The image currently displayed is underlined in orange. It makes reviewing changes across a range of similar images quite a bit easier. I wish the five thumbnails could come up a little more quickly, but that's somewhat card-dependent. The other very useful Playback screen is the full-data display, with a small thumbnail of the image, but with a more full set of data including the EV, metering mode, image size, and even the focal length of the lens, plus luminance, red, green, and blue histograms, useful for gauging proper exposure in a hurry.
Hitting the Zoom button in any of these playback modes (the AEL button) zooms the view in to 6.1x, a good magnification to check focus. From there, you can press the AEL button to zoom in up to 12x. Pressing the OK button takes you back to full screen view, where you can move the zoom box around the screen and press the OK button again to zoom back in.
Function Menu. Pressing the Fn (Function) button brings up a simple menu for adjusting most of the important items. Just use the Arrow pad to navigate to the desired option and press the center button to select your mode, in this case, the AF Area mode.
White balance. Of particular interest is the Sony A200's White Balance menu, which offers a very simple approach to a complicated subject. It's actually identical to the A100's White Balance system, but the interface is slightly easier now. Just use the up and down arrows to pick a white balance method, and use the left and right arrows to adjust the color bias of that particular setting. If you've chosen Tungsten, for example, but your light source is just a little off from the norm, hit the left arrow button to make the image a little bluer, or to the right to make it a little more yellow or orange.
If you know a little more about color balance, you can switch to Kelvin mode and dial in the right color temperature, and add green and magenta filters. You can use the A200 as a gauge by moving to Custom mode, which will ask you to take a picture of a white or neutral object and dial in the correct temperature and filter setting to match. There are no pretty graphics to accompany the adjustment, as is more common on other cameras, but it's pretty straightforward in practice.
Menu. The Sony A200's menu is also very easy to use, functioning like a tabbed menu and a scrolling menu. When you get to the bottom of the first tab's list, it automatically switches to the top of the next tab. This design makes it easy to scan through the items looking for what you need. If you see that a given tab isn't what you need, regardless of where you are in the list, you can press the left or right arrow to move between tabs. It's a little confusing if you've been using a Nikon, where pressing the right arrow often selects a menu item, but it's not hard to get used to using the center button instead.
Flash. For the intended market, it's good that Sony made the A200's flash a pop-up design. The old one had to be lifted into place. Here you press a button on the left of the camera's pentamirror housing and it pops up. What that means is that the auto exposure modes can activate the flash when they deem it necessary, rather than suggesting the user raise the flash. The flash doesn't go up as high as the one on the A100, however, and that's probably because the bodies of the A200, A300, and A350 are molded to make room for the Live View mode components in the latter two cameras. The flash on the A100 is hinged much further back, where the A200's is hinged about 3/4-inch forward. The flash bulb also ends up a little more forward, but that still means you'll have trouble with some lenses and lens hoods, which will block the short little strobe's light over much of the frame.
Storage and Processing. The Sony A200, like the A100 and A700, uses a compact flash card for memory storage. At right you can see the USB port, which is only revealed with the card door open.
Worst case buffer clearing time was 14 seconds in single shot mode. The most most shots the buffer would hold was 8 with our Kingston 266x 2GB card, and the buffer cleared in 11 seconds. The A200 captured 2.81 shots per second.
That's all great when comparing the Sony A200 to other cameras tested on the same target in our lab, but I kept running into odd slowdowns that I couldn't explain. Most often, I could shoot and shoot, up to 17 shots in continuous mode with no slowdowns, and at other times the Sony A200 would slow down after just three shots. It seemed to be related to Advanced DRO (Dynamic Range Optimization) mode, so we tested it out in the lab.
After eliminating differences in the lenses and card speed, we finally realized that when you throw more work at the Advanced DRO mode, giving it too many dark and light components in an image, it'll throttle the camera's frame rate back dramatically after three frames. Give that same lighting situation to Standard DRO or DRO Off, and the slowdown doesn't occur. So it seems that the Sony A200 is evaluating how much work it'll have to do to process the images and is slowing the camera down so it can do its work. So beware that if you want to benefit from Advanced DRO processing, you might run into slowdowns based on the relative contrast and detail of your subject. It's better to use Advanced DRO for special circumstances, and stick to Standard DRO for everyday work.
Dynamic Range Optimization. Dynamic Range Optimization's purpose is to prevent highlights from blowing out and shadows from plugging, and it comes in two varieties. The Standard DRO attempts to optimize the tone curve across the entire image, and Advanced DRO applies its algorithm differently in each area of the image if necessary. You'll find more highlight and shadow detail in the Advanced DRO images but overall image contrast can actually decrease, depending on the subject.
Sony has raised the top ISO on the A200 to ISO 3,200 as the maximum level. They say that their new Bionz processor helps deliver lower noise at all ISO levels. The Sony A200 applies noise reduction in the RAW file at both ISO 1,600 and 3,200, according to Sony, and then applies it again after the usual image processing. It's unclear whether this noise reduction is applied to RAW images at lower ISOs. This might be undesirable for those shooting RAW as their main mode of storage.
Sony A200 Comparisons
Lenses & Accessories. The Alpha lens line includes 24 Sony-branded lenses that will work with the A200, plus dozens of older Minolta branded lenses that should also be compatible. You're probably better sticking with the newer designs, which are optimized for digital capture, and are designed to work with these latest cameras, but it's nice to know that you can use some of the old lenses, especially if you already have a bag of Minolta lenses at your disposal.
Accessories for the A200 include the Vertical Grip (VG-B30AM), three conventional bounce flashes, plus a Macro Twin Flash Kit and a Ring Lite for macro and close-up work. Those interested in macro work might also want to look at the Angle Finder and Magnifier options.
Image Quality. The Sony A200's kit lens and its imaging sensor are of pretty good quality, competing favorably with its Nikon and Canon rivals of the same resolution. Below is a sample comparison between the Sony A200 and the Canon Rebel XTi, both at ISO 1,600. Though the A200 image is a little darker than the other, you can still see a difference in how the two cameras handle noise.
Performance at ISO 100 from both cameras is good, with the Sony A200's shots coming out a bit sharper than the Canon XTi's. Both were shot with our Sigma 70mm f/2.8 benchmark lenses, whereas if you go to the XTi review, you'll see images shot with our Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro, which isn't quite as sharp.
Shooting. The Sony A200 is really easy to shoot with. You can leave it in Full Auto mode most of the time, but my first time out with the A200 I ran into a situation that required me to adjust for difficult lighting that most point-and-shooters wouldn't be prepared to handle: Snow.
Here in Georgia, we're not often prepared for snow as it is, but I knew just what to do, and the Sony A200's use of a traditional location and interface made adjusting the exposure value easy. No matter what digital SLR camera or digital camera you buy, you should know about this simple exposure adjustment method. Just press the EV/AV button on the back and the Exposure compensation scale comes up on the LCD. Use either the Control dial on the top in front of the shutter button or the left and right buttons on the rear Controller to move the bright orange arrow to the setting you think you need. I first shot at +0.3 EV, but after a quick look at the excellent histogram display, I switched to +0.7 EV.
Though snow fell all around us, the Sony A200 had no trouble focusing, and the metering handled the bright light pretty well, leaving detail in the highlights despite my EV compensation. I also found viewing and judging images on the screen was pretty easy, despite the enveloping white light all around us.
Most of the images needed some contrast adjustment once I got inside to give them a little more pop.
When shooting Gallery shots and casual portraits on a sunny day is when I ran into that DRO+ problem. Once portraits start, you need to be able to fire off as many as are necessary to catch mood and subtle face changes, so that was a frustrating discovery. Still, I was pleased with the results.
The Sony A200 was easy to get familiar with, and I found the new Function button arrangement to be much easier to use. Though most of the controls don't have their own button, that's probably the right idea for the A200. The most important buttons are ISO and Drive mode, and the other major adjustment items are under the Function button, so finding what you want to change is quick and easy. Consumer cameras should generally have fewer buttons and labels to prevent intimidation, and the Sony A200 strikes a good balance.
On paper. Printed results from the Sony A200 show that the company's noise suppression works pretty darn well, and their sensor is excellent. ISO 100 images held up well when printed at 16x20 inches, and would have been helped by a little more sharpening on the computer. Even ISO 400 images looked good at 13x19 inches, and ISO 800 and 1,600 were quite usable at 8x10. ISO 3,200 shots were still quite usable at 5x7, an excellent performance from a 10-megapixel digital SLR.
Analysis. I'm happy to report that Sony has shipped a digital SLR that I find easy to recommend to anyone, a position previously held mainly by the Nikon D40/D40x and Canon Rebel XT/XTi. The Sony A200's handsome, compact body fits well in most hands, and it is easy to learn and use on a daily basis. The Sony A200 has a large array of good quality lenses to choose from, and the kit lens turns out excellent images without much trouble.
Improvements in autofocus speed are real, and welcome, as is the ISO 3,200 setting; and the pop-up flash is a must for the consumer market that the Sony A200 is courting. As a people photographer, I really love the extremely short viewfinder blackout time, because it allows me to keep my eye on changing expressions and track unfolding events while grabbing shots. I was a little disappointed when the camera slowed down to process the Advanced DRO images, but once I learned about that problem, I just shot in Standard DRO mode, and used RAW when quality was my chief concern.
More than anything, I think I'm drawn to the Sony A200's decided lack of bells and whistles that would detract from its easy nature. For all the nifty features on other cameras, I'm more impressed by a camera that dazzles with its output more than its spec sheet.
Sony A200 Basic Features
- 10.2 MP Super HAD CCD delivering resolutions as high as 3,872 x 2,592 pixels
- 3.88x Kit lens, 18-70mm (27-105mm equivalent), f/3.5-5.6
- Optical viewfinder
- 2.7-inch Clear Photo LCD Screen
- ISO Sensitivity: 100 to 3200
- Shutter speeds: 30 seconds to 1/4,000 second
- Compact Flash Type I, II, Microdrive
- Lithium-ion battery
- Dimensions: 5.2 x 3.7 x 2.8in (133 x 95 x 71mm)
- Weight: 22 ounces (625g) with lens, battery, and card
Sony A200 Special Features
- Super SteadyShot in-camera image stabilization offers from 2.5 to 3.5 stops of compensation
- Bionz Image Processor
- Dynamic Range Optimizer: Normal DRO improves detail using standard gamma curves for fast shot-to-shot response time. Advanced DRO adjusts dynamic range area-by-area
- Anti-Dust Technology
- Auto Pop-Up Flash with four main operating modes and a variable Slow-Sync function
- External, proprietary flash hot-shoe for Sony accessory flash units
- Built-in support for wireless TTL flash exposure with certain Sony flashes
- Eye-Start Autofocus System
- 9-Point Center Cross AF Sensor
- Auto and Manual focus options with Single and Continuous AF modes
- 40-segment honeycomb metering system, plus Center-Weighted and Spot metering options, with AE Lock function
- Scene Selection Modes: Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Sunset and Night Portrait/Night View situations
- Creative Style Settings
- sRGB and Adobe RGB color space options
- RAW and JPEG file formats
- Contrast, saturation, and sharpness adjustments
- Adjustable White Balance setting with presets and a manual option, as well as a full range of Kelvin temperature settings
- Index and Slide Show Display
- High-Resolution Thumbnails for PhotoTV HD Viewing
- Function Guide Display
- Continuous Burst Mode at three frames per second
- "Storage-Class" USB 2.0 High-Speed interface
- USB 2.0 High-Speed cable and interface software for connecting to a computer and downloading images
- NTSC or PAL selectable video output signal, with cable included
- Optional wired remote control accessories
- DPOF (Digital Print Order Format), Exif 2.2, Print Image Matching III and PictBridge compliant
In the Box
The Sony A200 ships with the following items in the box:
- DT 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Zoom lens
- NP-FM500H rechargeable battery
- BC-VM10 battery charger
- Video and USB cable
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap with eyepiece cap and Remote Commander clip
- Instruction manual
- Software/USB Driver CD-ROM
- Camera case
- Additional battery
- AC adapter
- External flash
- Big CompactFlash memory card, 2GB or larger recommended
Sony A200 Conclusion
Sony's SLR juggernaut got rolling early in 2008 with the Alpha A200, a simple, inexpensive, 10.2-megapixel digital SLR camera that takes some pretty impressive pictures. There isn't a whole lot to talk about in terms of new or revolutionary features, but that's not a strike against it. Rather than starting a revolution, the Sony A200 refines what was a good camera -- the A100 -- making it better in several important areas. It now confidently competes favorably with similarly priced digital SLR cameras from other manufacturers, and its big brothers, the A300 and A350 add just enough to take on the newcomers. Though it comes at a low price, the Sony A200 still offers an array of features that will help you make great pictures. Dynamic Range Optimization successfully makes up for common shortcomings in digital capture by rescuing highlight and shadow detail, and Super SteadyShot optimizes every lens in the line with sensor-shift image stabilization technology that delivers clearer images. The Sony A200's high ISO of 3,200 has noise and softness due to noise suppression, but you can actually get a decent 5x7 from this output, which is impressive.
Autofocus speed was indeed improved in the Sony A200, turning in very fast shutter lag numbers, meaning that you'll more likely get what you see when you press that shutter. Viewfinder blackout time is also quite good, allowing you to better keep your eye on the subject between shots. The Eye-Start AF sensors really do help you acquire focus more quickly, though I do wish it could be activated in concert with a grip sensor as on the A700 to avoid the AF system coming on when the A200 hangs around your neck. Optical performance from the Sony A200's kit lens is actually better than most kit lenses, and the lens has a good quality feel to it.
Though shot-to-shot performance was good, it was a little bothersome when the Advanced DRO mode slowed the camera's frame rate down significantly. We recommend using Advanced DRO sparingly, or only in situations where rapid capture is not important. It's a slight disadvantage that the Alpha line uses a proprietary flash hot shoe, because common flashes, cords, and accessories that you may already have will not work with the Alpha cameras. Adapters do exist, though, so there's a way to make it work.
While the Sony A200 won't make you do back flips for its techno-gadgetry, the Sony A200 does instill confidence. If you're like me, gadgetry isn't what you buy an SLR for; you just want great pictures. The Sony A200 delivers. It works very well, is easy to understand and use, and most importantly it produces great images. The technological gadgetry that it does have is all directed toward that purpose, and Sony's execution is excellent. In that respect the Sony A200 reminds me a lot of the Canon 20D: not designed to impress with anything but its ability to make great images. At the end of the day, when you're sitting at your computer appreciating your photographs, you'll appreciate the Sony A200 all the more for what it's given you. Those wanting Live View might want to look at the Sony A300 or A350, but if you just want a good quality digital SLR camera that does what it's supposed to, check out the Sony A200, an easy Dave's Pick.