by Shawn Barnett
Hands-on Preview: 01/30/08
Full Review: 04/11/08
Perhaps it was a feint, perhaps it was just a matter of introducing the right camera to the right audience, but Sony's Alpha A200 introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show early this year was a very minor upgrade to the A100. The more buzz-worthy news came with Sony's announcement of the Alpha A300 and A350 at PMA. Both incorporate a new Live View mode, with a unique mechanism that no one has yet tried: drawing an image from inside the optical viewfinder with a special tilting mirror.
While the A300 is essentially an A200 with an articulating LCD screen and Live View mode, the A350 also raises the resolution from 10 megapixels to 14.2 megapixels.
Like the A200, Sony says that improvements to the A300 and A350's AF have made focus acquisition 1.7 times faster, thanks to the high-torque AF motor and improved AF sequence borrowed from the A700. Autofocus in Live View is also as fast as it is in optical viewfinder mode, a major breakthrough among digital SLRs.
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, but the version on the A300 and A350 tilts up and down for easier viewing while shooting low or overhead.
The same LCD-based function menu that appeared on the A200 earlier this year replaces the old dial-based function menu on the Sony A100, and many of the menu items and systems from the Sony A700 have made their way into the Sony A300 and A350.
The Sony A300 and A350 also have a new pop-up flash, rather than the old "pull-up" type. Now these consumer cameras 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 big orange Alpha logo.
The old battery icon has been augmented with a "percent remaining" indicator on the Sony A300 and A350. It now reads "100%," in addition to displaying four bars to indicate battery status. Sony's new vertical battery grip (VG-B30AM) already announced for the Sony A200 also works with the new digital SLR cameras, duplicating many of the controls necessary for vertical shooting, and holds two InfoLITHIUM batteries, making all three cameras capable of shooting up to 1,500 shots.
Eye-start Autofocus, also from the A100, starts up the autofocus system so the camera's ready before you even match your eye up to the viewfinder in most cases. Super SteadyShot stabilizes 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.
Expected to ship in April, the 14-megapixel Sony Alpha A350 will ship in April for $800 body only, $900 with the 18-70mm lens, and $1,088.99 with the 18-70 and a 55-200mm lens.
Sony A350 User Report
by Shawn Barnett
The Sony Alpha A350 measures 5.25 x 4 x 3 inches (130.8 x 98.5 x 74.7mm), and weighs 24 ounces (682g) with a memory card and battery. That's just two ounces heavier than the Sony A200.
Look and feel. As on the Sony A200, a Function button on the back of the A350 brings up a simply worded Function menu for easy access to commonly changed items. The A100 had a Function dial on the top deck that was a little more difficult to use. Now you just press the Fn button and the menu appears on the LCD.
Another new button on both the Sony A350 and A300 is the Smart Teleconverter 2x zoom button. Active only in Live View mode, pressing this button first zooms the live view by approximately 1.4x, then to 2x. According to Sony literature this gives the camera's 70mm kit lens the equivalent of a 200mm zoom. Essentially, on the A350 it's cropping the image from a 14.2-megapixel image down to a 7.1-megapixel and 3.8-megapixel image, respectively without incurring the blur normally associated with digital zoom. The button does nothing else in regular Record mode or Playback mode.
The LCD is a little wider to match the 3:2 aspect ratio of the Sony A300 and A350's sensor. Note the new battery indicator icon with the numerical percent-remaining display. This LCD also swivels out away from the body to tilt down or up for easier overhead or low-angle shooting.
Essentially identical to the Sony A200, the top deck of the Sony A300 and A350 have one unique feature: the Live View/OVF (Optical ViewFinder) switch. This switch engages the Live View mode and may even move the front element of the Pentamirror forward. When compared to the Sony A100, the Sony A350 has a new ISO button, and the mode dial has moved to where the Function dial used to be.
Grip. The Sony A350's grip is different from the A200, as it has no distinct divot for the middle finger, just a soft curve. At left you can see the CF and video out door.
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.
Missing from the front of the Sony A350 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.
Sony A350/A300 Live View
Sliding that Live View switch forward does several things at once. First, it moves the mirror to reflect the light to the secondary sensor inside the pentamirror housing. Second, the same motion closes a shutter inside the optical viewfinder to prevent stray light from entering and affecting either the Live View image or the exposure. (Other manufacturers have this as an optional separate step, which I think is a mistake, because it's too easy to forget to close the shutter.) Finally, it turns on the Live View sensor and the LCD to give you a real-world live image that's in-keeping with the spirit of the SLR. The beauty of the system is that the Sony A300 and A350 only use the secondary sensor to get a live image to the LCD, not for autofocus. Since it happens in the normal SLR pathway, the normal autofocus system is not interrupted as it is on Live View systems that use the main capture sensor, so there's no blackout, and autofocus is as fast as the system can produce regardless of the viewfinder mode.
Optical Viewfinder. A normal pentamirror arrangement reflects the light out the optical viewfinder eyepiece.
Sony Live View mode. With a simple shift of one of the mirrors, Sony deflects the image up to another optic that reflects the image onto a secondary sensor. Because no partially silvered mirrors are used, the image is fairly bright.
The only disadvantage could be that if the Live View sensor or its optical components are slightly out of alignment with the main sensor, what you see in Live View might not be what you get in the final image.
Sony A350 Live View with Tilting LCD
Sony Swivel LCD. Though it's a shame it doesn't face more angles, the Sony A350 and A300's LCD is very sturdy, while most Live View digital SLR cameras don't even have a swiveling LCD; certainly none in this price range.
The other major difference between the Sony A200 and the more expensive A300 and A350 is that they both have a tilting LCD. First it tilts down not quite 45 degrees, then it tilts up beyond 90 degrees. It's not as nice as some models that also swivel left, right, and even forward, but those cameras are quite a bit more expensive than the A300 and A350.
Like all Live View SLRs, I'm surprised when I actually use the feature, and pleasantly surprised when I remember that a given camera has a swiveling LCD. The truth is that up and down are the main ways you're going to shoot with Live View, at least in horizontal format, and the Sony A350 delivers good results. But I still do shoot vertically a lot, and it would be nice to swivel left and right for low angle kid shots and even overhead shots that include a tall building or other subject where I want a different perspective.
What's positive about this design is that it's pretty solid, and seems less likely to break in heavy use than the more versatile swivel screens.
You also don't have to choose which Live View mode you want, as you do with many competing Live View SLR designs. You have one choice, and it works just like it does when you look through the optical viewfinder.
An image of the AF points is displayed on the LCD, and when you half-press the shutter button, the chosen AF points are surrounded by green brackets. It works like a digicam does, and it works like an SLR does.
There is no alternate mirror-flip-up mode where the phase detect AF takes a stab at focusing while the screen goes blank, and you don't have to wait for Contrast detect to work, either. There is no Contrast-detect. Instead, Phase detect is always available in the usual way: through the partially-silvered main mirror, which reflects light via a secondary mirror to the AF sensor below the exposure chamber. (See the cutaway image below.) This new system makes autofocus in Live View as fast as AF through the optical viewfinder. Sony has found the holy grail of Live View mode.
Cropped and soft. You do end up with a cropped view of the final image, however, when composing via Live View mode. In fact, it's more cropped than the optical viewfinder. While the optical viewfinder gives 95 percent coverage, the Live View mode gives only 91 percent coverage. The Live View display is also slightly soft, especially indoors or in low light, making pre-shot focus verification more difficult. I'm most often pleasantly surprised, though, once the picture pops up crisp onscreen after capture.
Optical Viewfinder. Of course, there's still the Optical viewfinder, which I shoot with more often. Unfortunately, compared to the Sony A200, the optical viewfinder of the Sony A350 appears dramatically smaller, thanks to the Live View sensor in the latter models. Both vignette in the corners when I look through the viewfinder with my glasses, but I do get a bigger image with the A200, which is better for seeing detail. For reference, the Sony A350's viewfinder appears about the same size as the Rebel XTi's, whereas the A200 appears just slightly bigger than the new Rebel XSi. My one major complaint about the XTi after using it for awhile is its small optical viewfinder, so I'd have to apply the same complaint to the Sony A350. It's certainly not a deal-breaker, but is a notable tradeoff for the Sony A350's Live View capability.
Still, the benefit of Sony's implementation is real, making composing and focusing in Live View mode as natural as doing so through the optical viewfinder. Even when shooting outdoors at night, I found the Sony A350 as simple to use in Live View as a digicam, but with the speed of an SLR.
I still get startled when I put my eye to the Sony A350's optical viewfinder and see blackness. First I check for the lens cap, then I remember the Live View switch.
The LCD is usable outdoors in bright sunlight, but you have to work at it. Unfortunately, it's in style to have a beautiful glossy cover glass over LCDs these days, so you have to look through a very sharp reflection to see the softer, transflective LCD image. It works in bright sunlight, but you sometimes have to move your head to avoid reflections for a better view, because the reflection of the sky, for example, can overpower the LCD. And beware reflections of the Sun, because the beautifully glossy cover glass will give you a pretty faithful view of that bright orb, making it even harder to see that LCD beneath.
Flash. For the intended market, it's good that Sony made the A350'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 A350'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.
Sony A350 Interface
Buttons, dials and switches. Most of the external controls on the A350 are quite good, with an emphasis on buttons. I like how the buttons give a distinct "pop" when depressed, letting you know you've sent the message with tactile feedback. The one exception is the Controller disk, which is a little mushy.
The Mode dial sometimes rests between modes, unfortunately, rather than moving on to the next mode detent if accidentally nudged.
I'm a little disappointed with the feel and position of the Live View switch. It's doing a lot rather efficiently, closing the optical viewfinder door, and maybe even moving the mirror, but I think a button would have made more sense here: with linear motors driving the door and mirror movement. I also wonder about whether dust and sand will eventually get under this switch and make movement sloppier and noisier over time; or else cause a jam.
Menu. The Sony A350'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.
Live View LCD. In Live View mode, the viewfinder shows most of the information that the optical viewfinder shows, but with more room, it's spread out over more of the screen area, rather than only across the bottom. The most critical component, besides the shutter speed and aperture, is the Super SteadyShot meter, which appears in the lower right corner of the screen, just as it does in the viewfinder.
Pressing the Display button brings up the histogram view, which includes a small, semi-translucent histogram in the lower left corner along with basic information across the bottom. There's also a mode with nothing overlaying the image area.
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 A350'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 Sony A350 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 straightforward in practice.
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. (These images below are from the Sony A200.)
Storage and Processing. The Sony A350 uses a compact flash card for memory storage. At left you can see the USB port, which is only revealed with the card door open.
The top ISO on the A350 is 3,200. The Sony A350 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. Think what you like about the method, but the ISO 1,600 shots from this 14-megapixel sensor can produce decent 8x10-inch prints, and ISO 3,200 prints actually look good at 5x7. That's quite an achievement.
Lenses & Accessories. The Alpha lens line includes 24 Sony-branded lenses that will work with the A350, 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 Sony A350 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.
The Vertical Grip features the unique modified shutter release placement, first seen on the vertical grip for the Minolta Maxxum 9, a professional film SLR. This allows you to hold the camera and lens vertically with the same feel you have with the horizontal grip. It does make the vertical hold a little top-heavy, but I like the way the relationship between my right and left hands stays the same regardless which way I'm holding the camera.
Image Quality. The Sony A350's kit lens and its imaging sensor are of pretty good quality, competing favorably with its Nikon and Canon rivals. More impressive is that its quality holds up well despite the small pixels on the A350's 14-megapixel sensor. Below is a sample comparison between the Sony A350 and the Canon Rebel XSi, both at ISO 1,600.
Shooting. There's something odd about reviewing a camera that just works: There's not that much to say. Sony's former Minolta team has hit on a design with all three of the latest cameras that is so easy to approach and use that it's hard to come up with anything clever. It reminds me a lot of the switch between PC and Mac. I used to love tweaking MS-DOS and Windows to eek out a little more speed, but the Mac just worked, and worked well. Suddenly I had to focus on getting stuff done with my computer, rather than messing with settings to make a window pop up faster. The consumer Alpha cameras are a lot like that.
What struck me most about my Sony A350 shots, especially in bright daylight, was the extraordinary detail this 14.2-megapixel sensor can deliver. Yes, zoom in all the way, and there's a slight softness; but look at the bike shot at left. This is hanging about 15 feet up on the wall, as the window and angle should tell you, but if you zoom in on the photo, you feel almost like you're standing right next to it.
As I walked around Las Vegas, I was mostly taking snapshots. I tried out a few modes, but just wanted to see what the camera could do if I shot like a tourist. I got the better shots when I didn't do much tweaking. Adding a +0.7 EV seemed to help the night shots pop a little more, though. Super SteadyShot made up for a lot of camera movement on my many handheld shots. And the basic kit lens once again proved its mettle, performing well enough day or night.
I used Live View with the fountain shots, which let me set the camera on the wall for more stability without having to crouch down to see through the viewfinder. If you look at the background of some of them, focus is soft, but that's because I was trying to focus on the fountains. Of course, they look soft too, thanks to the motion of the water. A little higher ISO could have let me stop down a bit more, bringing the lights into better focus and still capture the fountains; maybe next time. Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the results.
When action shooting, I wasn't overly impressed with the A350's focus tracking ability, but I did manage to get a few sharp shots at the relatively slow 2.44 second speed of Continuous mode. What I was impressed with was the Sony A350's AF speed. Whether in Live View or via the optical viewfinder, the A350 can autofocus in 0.18 second. Prefocusing results in a shutter lag of 0.08 second. Very fast.
Analysis. Having reviewed several digital SLRs in the past few months, I can summarize the Sony A200 and A350 in two sentences: They're simple to use and take good pictures, and you don't have to wade through complicated menus to use them. It's refreshing.
Despite the addition of Live View, a swivel screen, and a 14-megapixel sensor, the Sony A350 is quite similar to the A200. It's a little slower to save, thanks to the larger image file sizes, and the optical viewfinder is tighter; but other than that, you'd have no trouble switching between the two. Given the relative printed image results, the A200 and A350 are very similar, though those extra four million pixels do deliver more detail at the lower ISOs.
ISO 3,200 is good as well, despite the early noise suppression in RAW that many enthusiasts will distrust. The printed results at 3,200 are good enough for a good 5x7, which is what most consumers will want. That's pretty rare from any camera.
As was the case with the A200, the A350's short blackout time makes people photography easier, as does the fast autofocus. I also like that the 18-70mm kit lens stands up so well to the 14.2-megapixel sensor, something uncommon among kit lenses. That it reaches out to 70mm instead of just 55mm makes it a very good value.
As I said of the A200, the Sony A350 is easy to recommend to just about any consumer photographer wanting higher quality in their images. Using the Sony A350 is a convenient and easy way to learn more about photography, and get great shots of the family to boot.
Sony A350 Basic Features
- 14.2 MP Super HAD CCD delivering resolutions as high as 4,592 x 3,056 pixels
- 3.88x Kit lens, 18-70mm (27-105mm equivalent), f/3.5-5.6
- Optical viewfinder
- 2.7-inch Clear Photo LCD Screen mounted on a tilting base
- ISO Sensitivity: 100 to 3,200
- Shutter speeds: 30 seconds to 1/4,000 second
- Compact Flash Type I, II, Microdrive
- Lithium-ion battery
- Dimensions: 5.25 x 4.0 x 3.0 inches (131 x 99 x 75 millimeters)
- Weight: 24 ounces (682g) with lens, battery, and card
Sony A350 Special Features
- Tilting LCD
- Live View mode
- 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 2.4 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 A350 Kit ships with the following items in the box (it is also available body-only):
- Sony A350
- DT 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Zoom lens
- NP-FM500H rechargeable battery
- BC-VM10 battery charger
- Video and USB cable
- Body cap
- Lens caps
- 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 A350 Conclusion
Sony's Alpha A350 is the company's top-tier consumer SLR for 2008, offering a high resolution 14.2-megapixel sensor, Live View like no one else has, and an articulating LCD screen. It's a very complete package for the experienced and inexperienced alike. 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 A350'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 is not only improved in the Sony A350, it's not at all slowed down by the camera's Live View mode; no other digital SLR on the market can make that claim. Viewfinder blackout time is 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 A350 hangs around your neck. Optical performance from the Sony A350'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.
The only real dilemma presented to those interested in a Sony digital SLR is which one to pick. Though the Sony A200 has an advantage in its low price and larger optical viewfinder, the A350 has the very fast AF in Live View mode with that nice tilting LCD screen. So the true bargain may be the 10-megapixel Sony A300, available for $200 less than the A350 and only $100 more than the A200 when each is purchased with the 18-70mm lens. As for resolution, though the A350 does give you a higher number over the A200's 10.2 megapixels, the printed results are actually pretty similar across the ISO range. Whatever you choose, though, the Sony A350 is a well-rounded package, offering the best of all worlds in terms of usability, resolution, and intelligent design, all of which earns it a Dave's Pick.