Sony Alpha A35 Hands-on Preview
by Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins, and Zig Weidelich
Sony continues their two-pronged strategy to bring SLR image quality to the masses, with the unique Sony Alpha SLT-A35. While the first prong is a mirrorless, or compact system camera, like the latest NEX-C3, that strategy will take time to build momentum, as there are very few E-mount lenses available to make it into a system. But the Sony A35 and its two predecessors leverage Sony's broader line of Alpha-mount SLR lenses, while taking advantage of translucent mirror technology.
If size says anything, Sony seems to have aimed the A35 at the ultra-zoom market. Its grip, height, and even its use of an EVF (electronic viewfinder) bring to mind the Sony HX100V or Nikon P500. But snap on an Alpha lens and the A35 becomes a hybrid: it has the speed and image quality of a semi-pro shooter, and the body of a long zoom digicam.
As such, it can look a little odd and disproportionate, with that largish lens--even the 18-55mm kit lens--sticking out the front with a body clearly intended for a larger camera. But there are some interesting advantages inside that small body that make the Sony A35 unique, and it all starts with that translucent mirror.
Seen peeking out from the gaping Alpha-mount, the Translucent mirror serves only to reflect a small portion of light up to the phase-detect autofocus sensors, mounted up inside the camera body. The rest of the light passes straight through to the imaging sensor, where a live image is also drawn to allow the user to compose the image. No more complicated mirror and prism relationships are necessary; it's all electronic. The translucent mirror doesn't move at all. Behind the translucent mirror is the new 16-megapixel Exmor sensor, optimized for low light performance.
On the grip note the infrared remote port and the command dial above that. Just lower left of the lens mount is the depth-of-field preview button.
Nearly identical to the A33, the top of the A35 has a slightly modified Mode dial, which now includes the new Tele-zoom high-speed shooting mode and the addition of the Picture Effects icon to the Scene setting. Sony's proprietary hot shoe sits atop the EVF, which protrudes far back from the A35's LCD. The pop up flash swings up and slightly rearward, released by the electronic button on the left of the lens mount. It's only available in PASM modes, something the LCD will tell you if you press it while in other modes.
Flanking the hot shoe are two stereo microphones for recording audio with video files. A button to the right switches between the EVF and LCD for image composition and viewing. And the D-Range button brings up the A35's three dynamic range options, including DRO (Dynamic Range Optimization) Off, DRO Auto, and HDR (High Dynamic-Range) Auto.
Positioned on a slanted deck so that they're visible from both the front and back are the Movie Record button, and the EV and AEL buttons. You can also see the aggressive flare of the rear thumbgrip.
One major element missing from the Sony A35 is the tilt/swivel LCD screen found on the A33 and A55, but the resolution is still a fine 921.6K (640x480) from a 3-inch LCD.
Right of that is the Function button, with which you access items that you want to have readily available, things like Flash and Autofocus modes, ISO, Metering modes, and the like. Display, Drive, White Balance, and ISO settings can also be accessed via the multi-selector disk. Pressing the center button turns on autofocus. Playback and Trash buttons are self-explanatory.
Sensor and processor. Sony has engineered a new generation of image sensor and processor for the A35, with the pairing expected to bring improvements in a number of areas. The Sony A35's Exmor APS HD image sensor has dimensions of 23.5 x 15.6mm, and yields an effective resolution of 16.2 megapixels. Total sensor resolution is 16.5 megapixels. As well as its maximum 3:2 aspect resolution of 4,912 x 3,264 pixels, the Sony A35 also offers up a 16:9 aspect ratio mode that allows a maximum image size of 4,912 x 2,760 pixels.
Data from the newly developed sensor is passed to a Bionz-branded image processor that is itself a new design. Together, the duo are said to provide incremental improvements in detail and gradation, and in low-light sensitivity. The Sony A35 provides a sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 12,800 equivalents, which can be expanded to a maximum of ISO 25,600 equivalent when using the Multi-frame NR function. Sony has also achieved a significant step forwards in power efficiency, with a claimed 30% improvement in battery life. Although we don't have specific figures, we understand that video recording times have also improved, likely due to a reduction in sensor warming brought about thanks to the chip's improved efficiency.
Burst shooting. Compared to those of its predecessors, the Sony A35's continuous shooting performance is somewhat more modest, but it still compares favorably to competing DSLR models. At full resolution, the A35 can capture as many as six Raw / Raw+JPEG or 14 Fine JPEG frames at a rate of 5.5 frames per second. As well as this high-speed mode, there's also a lower-speed mode that captures three frames per second.
That's not the full story, however. Sony has added a new continuous shooting mode for the A35 that yields increased frame rates by cropping data coming off the image sensor, likely pointing to imaging pipeline bandwidth as the limiting factor in terms of burst speed. When shooting in Tele Zoom Hi Speed mode, the Sony A35 has an approximate 1.4x focal length crop compared to its full-res mode, but the burst shooting rate increases to seven frames per second, with a maximum burst depth of 21 Fine-quality 8.4-megapixel JPEG frames. Of course, since the sensor data is cropped, Raw shooting isn't possible in this mode.
Translucent (pellicle) mirror. Undoubtedly the biggest story of the Sony SLT-series cameras is their use of a translucent mirror. Also known as pellicle mirror, this works by allowing most light to pass through to the imaging surface beneath, while a small portion is reflected for other purposes. In the case of the Sony SLT cameras, this reflected image is used for the phase-detect autofocus sensors.
Optics. The Sony A35 retains the same Alpha lens mount and translucent mirror design seen in the previous A33 and A55 models. The company currently offers a selection of 32 Alpha mount interchangeable lenses, all compatible with the A35, and the camera will also accept historic Minolta or Konica Minolta Maxxum lenses. Sony's unusual Translucent Mirror design brings three main advantages over a traditional SLR: full-time phase detection autofocusing (even during video capture), improved burst shooting performance, and a modest reduction in camera body size. As with its predecessors, the Sony A35 includes the company's Super SteadyShot sensor shift image stabilization system, said to be good for a 2.5 - 4 stop correction.
Electronic viewfinder. As in its predecessors, the Translucent Mirror design necessitates use of an electronic viewfinder, rather than an optical one. The Tru-Finder's design looks to be unchanged from that used in the earlier cameras, with 100% field of view, 1.1x magnification, a 19mm eyepoint (from the eyepiece), and a generous -4.0 to +4.0 diopter correction available.
Display. Also unchanged is the 3.0-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio Sony Xtra Fine LCD panel, which has VGA (640 x 480) pixel resolution, and includes the company's TruBlack technology for improved contrast. While the display's the same, there's an important difference, though. Unlike the earlier cameras, Sony hasn't included an articulation mechanism in the Alpha A35, so the display can't be tilted or swiveled.
Autofocus. The Sony A35 also retains the same 15-point CCD autofocus sensor from its predecessors, which includes three cross-type focus points. As mentioned previously, one of the main advantages of Sony's Translucent Mirror cameras -- including the A35 -- is that this sensor can be used at all times, even during video capture. (Traditional DSLRs must switch to the slower contrast detection autofocus method during live view and video capture, or must interrupt the video feed to flip mirrors for a phase detect operation.)
Exposure. As with Sony's earlier Translucent Mirror cameras, the A35 relies on its image sensor to perform metering. Where its predecessors broke the sensor down into 1,200 metering zones, the Sony A35 uses a less fine-grained 49 zone metering pattern, however. As you'd expect, the A35 offers a choice of multi-segment, center-weighted or spot metering, and provides the typical selection of automatic, program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, manual, and scene exposure modes. It also retains some of the Sony-specific multi-shot functionality seen in previous models, such as Sweep Panorama and 3D Sweep Panorama, Auto HDR, and Handheld Twilight, as well as the company's Dynamic Range Optimizer function. Shutter speeds on offer range from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds.
Flash. Like Sony's previous Translucent Mirror models, the Alpha A35 includes both a built-in popup flash, and a proprietary A-mount system flash shoe. The built-in flash has guide number of ten meters at ISO 100 equivalent, and a coverage of 18mm equivalent.
Picture Effects. A new addition for the Sony A35 compared to its predecessors is its Picture Effects menu. This offers up a variety of functions that expand possibilities for creative types who don't want to rely on post-capture editing of images on their computer or other device. Sony provides eleven different picture effect modes through this new menu, although several of these are variations on the same effect type, and so the full number of effects possible is seven. The Pop Color filter yields a punchy, saturated look, while the High-key filter aims offers a bright, dreamy feel. The Toy Camera filter mimics images from plastic-lensed film cameras, while the Retro Photo filter has a sepia tint. The High Contrast Monochrome filter gives a grainy, newspaper-like result. The Posterization filter, meanwhile, has both color and black-and-white modes, each giving flattened and abruptly banded gradients. Finally, the Partial Color filter removes all but one color range from the output image, and allows the photographer to opt to keep only red, yellow, blue, or green hues.
Movie capture. Sony's Translucent Mirror camera design brings its greatest benefit during movie capture, and so it's not surprising that the company's A35 continues to offer Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) video capture, where some DSLRs limit themselves to a lower 720p maximum resolution. As with the earlier models, Full HD video is saved as 59.94 fields per second interlaced AVCHD video with Dolby Digital AC-3 audio, with the video feed derived from 29.97 frames per second sensor data. At lower resolutions, the Sony A35 stores its video in MP4 format with MPEG-4 AAC-LC audio, with a frame rate of 29.97 frames per second. One change of note versus earlier cameras is that the Sony A35 should allow longer video recording times at equivalent ambient temperatures, before sensor heating necessitates that recording stop.
Connectivity. As with its predecessors, the Sony A35 includes USB 2.0 data and HDMI high definition video output connectors, but doesn't provide any form of standard definition video output. The A35 also includes a 3.5mm microphone jack, and caters for both wired and wireless remote control units.
Storage. The Sony A35 offers a single flash memory card slot, compatible with both Memory Stick PRO Duo / PRO-HG Duo or Secure Digital cards. For the latter, the A35 will also accept the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC card types.
Battery. One last change of particular note is to be found in the Sony A35's battery life. Thanks to improved image sensor efficiency, Sony rates the A35 as good for around 30% greater battery life than its predecessor. As with the earlier camera, the greatest battery life is achieved when using the 3.0-inch LCD panel, with a claimed 440 still images on a charge. When using the electronic viewfinder, this falls slightly to around 420 shots on a charge. The Sony A35 uses a 7.2V 1080mAh lithium-ion battery with part number NP-FW50.
Analysis. The Sony A35 replaces the A33 at the entry level of Sony's SLT line. It drops the articulating LCD, but keeps the LCD's high resolution, and adds a new cropped high-speed mode. A few picture modes are added as well, and the resolution for the low-end now starts at 16 megapixels. They've retained the Full HD movie capability, important in this market, making the A35 yet another interesting prospect in the burgeoning video capture market. It's not a huge upgrade, and in some ways they've reduced the cost of the entry-level camera, but there are hints of greater things to come as the line continues to be revamped higher up the line.
We hope to get out with the Sony A35 soon to get some gallery shots and video samples. Meanwhile, the camera's gone through the full lab treatment, so feast your eyes on the Thumbnails.