We've provided this printable version of our review for your convenience. Please remember that your shopping clicks support this site. If you think this camera is a good choice for you, please consider returning to the link below to check prices and make a purchase via our shopping links.

Also note that this is just one of the pages from this review. Full reviews have several pages with complete analysis of the many test shots we take with each camera. Feel free to download and print them out to see how the camera will perform for you.

Full Review at: http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/AA850/AA850A.HTM

 

Sony A850 Overview

Review by Dave Etchells, Shawn Barnett, and Zig Weidelich
Overview by Mike Tomkins

Full Review Posted: 08/27/09

When it was first announced in September of 2008, the Sony A900 broke new ground in affordability for a full-frame DSLR. Since then, the competition has sharpened, with Canon's EOS-5D Mark II forcing an even lower price point. Now, slightly less than a year after the A900's announcement, the Sony A850 once rewrites the rules again, as the first-ever full-frame digital SLR with a list price of less than $2,000. While it's "only" $700 less than the current price of the A900, this is truly a landmark price point for a full-frame camera, let alone one with 24.6 megapixels of resolution.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Sony A850 is just how close it is to the A900 (which will remain in the market) in specs and behavior, at a price that's roughly 26% lower. Here's the very short list of differences:

Sony A850 differences vs A900
  • 3 frame/second continuous mode, vs 5 fps for A900
  • 98% viewfinder coverage, vs 100%
  • IR remote is optional, not included in the box
  • Slightly higher default color saturation
  • Slightly (microscopically) softer images?
  • List price of $2,000 vs $2,700

That's it! Sony tells us that the body, sensor, and electronics are identical to those of the A900, and our tests of the Sony A850 bear that out: Image quality is essentially identical to that of the A900, and other performance characteristics apart from the continuous-mode speed and viewfinder coverage appear identical as well. If you've been hungering for an A900 but couldn't quite justify the cost, the Sony A850 is the camera you've been waiting for. And if you've been wanting to get into full-frame digital photography but couldn't previously afford it, this might finally be your opportunity.

Because the body, user interface, sensor, and electronics of the Sony A850 are the same as the A900, the bulk of our verbiage in this review is lifted straight from our review of the A900 last year. We did completely redo our image analysis and performance measurements, though, because we never simply take a company's word for it that a camera or part of a camera is "identical" to another: We always test to verify, and arrive at our own conclusions. In the case of the Sony A850, though, our tests supported the contention that it's the same image-wise as the A900.

So, if you're already well-familiar with our review of the A900, you can save yourself some reading here and make your decision whether or not to buy a Sony A850 based on price and the few differences from the A900's specs described above. On the other hand, if you're new to Sony's flagship DSLR cameras, read on: It's an impressive story.

As with the A900, the Sony Alpha A850 gets a whopping 24.6-megapixel resolution from its full-frame Exmor CMOS image sensor -- the highest sensor resolution of any 35mm digital SLR yet announced. To handle all the data produced by the high-resolution imager, the Sony DSLR-A850 uses dual Bionz image processors, allowing for three frames-per-second shooting for up to 23 JPEG or 16 RAW frames (in our tests).

The sensor is mounted on a moving platter that allows for in-camera image stabilization, branded as SteadyShot Inside. That's another world's first for a full-frame digital SLR, and it's no mean feat when you consider that the sensor shift mechanism has to deal with the extra mass of a full-frame sensor. The various digital SLR cameras seen to date that feature sensor-shift stabilization all have significantly smaller 1.5x crop sensors. Sony rose to the challenge by designing a new more powerful sensor shift mechanism, and rates the Alpha A850 as good for a 2.5 to 4-stop improvement.

Body. The Sony A850's body is magnesium alloy, with large openings for the LCD and lens mount, as well as a cutout for the card door. The battery grip is also magnesium alloy, as shown here. The overall feel is quite solid. The body is sealed against moisture, as are the buttons and dials.

The Sony A850's body is constructed from five main magnesium alloy sections, and includes sealing to reduce ingress of moisture between the body panels, as well as at the various control dials and buttons. The Sony A850 has a Sony Alpha lens mount that also accepts Konica and Konica Minolta glass. A large pentaprism sits above the lens mount, both dictating the camera body's workmanlike visual aesthetic, and providing a very large and bright TTL optical viewfinder with 0.74x magnification. The rear panel features a large 3-inch LCD display with 921,600 dot resolution, equating to VGA (640 x 480) pixel with three R, G, and B dots per pixel. This is used solely for reviewing of images, as well as for menus and status display; the Sony A850 doesn't offer live view capability. There's also a small top-panel status LCD which indicates remaining shots and battery life, as well as the basic exposure variables.

The Sony Alpha A850 offers ISO sensitivity from 200 to 3,200 equivalent, but is expandable to ISO 100 to 6,400 equivalent. Shutter speeds range from 30 to 1/8000 second, plus a bulb setting, and x-sync is 1/250 second (or 1/200 second when SteadyShot is enabled). Metering is achieved by a 40-segment honeycomb sensor, and you can also choose from center-weighted or spot metering modes. Focusing is achieved courtesy of a a nine-point phase detection autofocus system with f/2.8 dual center cross sensor, and there are also ten supplemental AF-assist points arranged adjacent to the main AF points. There's no built-in flash in the Sony A850, with the design instead offering a hot shoe and PC flash sync terminal to allow for external flash strobes and lighting setups.

The Sony A850 has dual flash card slots, and hence can store images on either CompactFlash Type-I or Type-II cards, or on Memory Stick Duo cards. The Sony A850 draws its power from a proprietary NP-FM500H InfoLithium rechargeable battery that's rated for about 880 shots per charge, to CIPA testing standards. Connectivity options include both USB 2.0 High Speed for computer connection, and both standard and high definition video. For standard-def, there's NTSC / PAL switchable composite video output, while high-def is achieved via an HDMI connection.

Sony A850 Pricing and Availability

Pricing for the Sony Alpha A850 is set at US$1,999.95, with availability slated for availability in the US beginning October 8, 2009. The product bundle includes the camera body, battery, and charger, and eyepiece cup. There's also a range of software in the bundle: Image Data Converter SR, Image Data Lightbox SR, Remote Camera Control, and Picture Motion Browser. This last application is Windows-only, while the remainder are included in both Windows and MacOS versions.

 

Sony A850 User Report

by Shawn Barnett and Dave Etchells

It takes but a glance to see that the Sony Alpha A850 is unique among modern digital SLR cameras. The large, pyramidal shape behind the SONY logo suggests that a very large pentaprism glass element lies underneath. A quick glance through the viewfinder completes the impression: it's like a room in there, into which it seems you might fall if you're not careful. 35mm camera owners from the last century will find the Sony A850's viewfinder comforting, then quickly forget about it and begin composing with an impressive photographic tool.

Like its most advanced sub-frame predecessor the Sony A700, the Sony Alpha A850 is big and boxy, not attempting to appear sleek, it looks more like a big industrial device, as cameras once did. Yet it fits well in the hand: a machine to the eye that is nevertheless well crafted for the human intended to use it.

Its weight is substantial, at 2.07 pounds (939g) without a lens, but with a battery and CF card (that's lighter than the Nikon D700 and just a little heavier than the Canon 5D Mark II); and it measures 6.1 x 4.6 x 3.2 inches (156 x 117 x 82mm). We mentioned the bulk and weight of the excellent Zeiss 24-70 f/2.8 zoom lens in our review of the A900; a natural companion to the A900/850, but one that came at a heavy price, both financially and in terms of weight. Simultaneous with the announcement of the A850, though, Sony also announced a new and very intriguing 28-75mm f/2.8 optic, with is not only substantially lighter (only 20 ounces/565g, vs. 33.3 ounces/955g), but sports a list price that's over a thousand dollars lower than the previous Zeiss optic.

The Sony A850's front panel looks a lot like that of the earlier A700, though the handgrip bulges a bit more into the hand, and the Mode dial is positioned straight and level, while the A700's was mounted at a slant. Missing from the front of the grip is the Grip-sensor that was part of the Eye-start AF system.

Just under the bright orange Alpha logo is the PC flash sync terminal, covered with a rubber flap. Like all other rubber flaps on the Sony A850, this terminal cover swings open and stays open, as it's hinged to the camera, rather than the rubber itself serving as a hinge. That means you don't have to fight with it as you make your connection.

The Sony A850's grip has a comfortable finger groove for the middle finger, in which the infrared Remote Commander sensor is nestled. The inside of the grip is indented for a better finger grip, as is the front of the camera between the grip and lens, which is fairly obvious in the photo above: a very nice touch that those with long fingers will appreciate. Textured rubber surrounds the grip areas both left and right of the lens. The bottom of the body on the left (on the right side in this image) is tapered to allow a more comfortable fit into your palm as you reach your fingers around to the lens barrel.

The rear of the Sony A850 is laid out identically to the Sony A700. Positions are slightly different, with the LCD taking up less of the overall space, mostly because there's more width overall. The left side tapers away just left of the LCD, somewhat minimizing the bulk of the bulge at the left, giving your nose a little break as well, as you move your right eye up to the viewfinder.

Shutter. Just left of the optical viewfinder, you can barely see a latch for the viewfinder shutter. Closing this when shooting on a tripod prevents light entering the eyepiece from affecting the exposure sensor.

The Sony A850's LCD is the same resolution as was on the A700, with 921,600 pixels, and a transflective (both transmissive and reflective) design, meaning that in bright daylight you can still frame images. Checking exposure accurately is a little harder, but that's what histograms are for. Note that though it's a hot feature on many of the latest digital SLRs, the Sony A850 has no live view mode; however, there is a new Intelligent Preview mode that can serve on occasion, and do a few tricks. More on that later.

Note that though there are still infrared sensors beneath the optical viewfinder, these are only for turning off the LCD when you put the camera up to your eye; Eye-start AF is no longer a feature on the Sony A850.

The rear Status display also opens up the option to change many settings right on the screen. Just press the Fn (function) button and use the joystick above it to navigate around the screen. Pressing down on the joystick activates your selection, which you can modify with one or the other control wheel (the rear or front wheel). It'll take a little time to figure out which wheel is necessary for each item, unfortunately. Some use only the front, others use both.

Here's the A900 with the big, beautiful Zeiss 24-70 f/2.8 zoom lens, a fitting if high-dollar mate to the Sony A850. We shot extensively with this lens, and found it to be better than satisfactory, worthy of the A850/900. It also balances out the camera's big body. See our review of this $1,800 lens on SLRgear.com. More intriguing for the A850 might be the new Sony SAM 28-75mm f/2.8 model (shown at right), which is smaller, significantly lighter, and over a thousand dollars less expensive. Watch SLRgear.com, we'll post a review of this new lens there as soon as we can get our hands on a sample!

Now's a good time to point out that there is no pop-up flash on the Sony A850, due partly to the very large pentaprism inside. I think many of the Sony A850's intermediate owners will miss the convenience of a pop-up flash, as an external flash unit significantly raises the weight of an already large and heavy camera.

The Mode dial on the left has only full Auto, Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual modes, plus three user-programmable Custom modes; there are no Scene modes. To the right there's a new top status display, one that's very simple compared to most high-end digital SLR cameras. It displays only numbers, usually the shutter speed and aperture values, along with remaining frames available.

Top buttons. Buttons for White balance and ISO are harder to reach with your hand on the grip.

Some settings like ISO and EV are easily readable via the top Status LCD, but items like Drive and WB can be cryptic, so it's better to use the rear Status display. An illumination button just right of the LCD turns on an orange light, which Sony representatives jokingly insist is the same cinnabar orange that adorns the Alpha logo, lens ring, and other assorted accent areas. We'll let you decide.

The other four buttons on the top control Exposure Compensation, Drive mode, White balance, and ISO, working in concert with the rear control dial. While the front buttons for Exposure compensation and Drive mode are easy to press, we found the other two a little harder, comfortable with neither the thumb nor forefinger without removing your hand from the grip.

Quality port doors. Ports in clockwise order from the top left: Remote, HDMI, USB/Video out, and DC In.

The Sony A850's rubber doors are the best-behaved doors of this type that we've seen on any camera, swinging open and staying put, rather than flapping shut when you let them go. In clockwise order from the top left, they are Remote, HDMI, USB/Video out, and DC In.

Two card formats. CompactFlash and Memory Stick Duo slots.

Sony A850 owners will have the option of using CompactFlash (including Microdrives) or Sony Memory Stick Duo format. Unfortunately, switching between cards is not automatic when one fills up, as is common on other dual-card digital cameras; still, you can access it on the rear Status display, which turns into an onscreen menu when you press the Fn (Function) button.


Steady there, big boy. Though it's big, Sony managed to stabilize their 35.9 x 24mm, 24.6-megapixel imager. Click the icons in the lower left corner to see animation. Animation courtesy Sony Electronics.

SteadyShot INSIDE. Sony says many experts thought adding sensor-shift image stabilization to a full-frame digital SLR would be impossible, but they managed to get it done nevertheless. They're moving a very large sensor at high speeds, so it is quite an achievement. We haven't tested it in the SLRgear.com lab yet, but in casual shooting it seemed to work quite well. Sony states that it offers from 2.5 to 4 stops of exposure latitude.

Though all of us like seeing the stabilizing effects of Canon and Nikon's optical image stabilization through the viewfinder, we also like (very much) the five-bar meter that appears in the optical viewfinder to tell you just how much the SteadyShot system has to work. This lets you pick a moment to trip the shutter when the camera is the most stable, increasing your chances of getting a sharp shot.

The same mechanism activates at startup and shutdown to shake dust from the sensor, and a new anti-static coating has been applied to the outermost glass to reduce the amount of dust that can stick to the sensor. (Note that we've found most anti-dust systems to be only somewhat effective, and the lower shaking frequencies of IS actuator-based systems make them that much less effective than those using a piezo element to produce the vibration.)

Improved EV bracketing. Recent Sony digital SLR cameras were limited to only two automatic bracketing settings: +/- 0.3 EV or +/- 0.7 EV. The Sony A850 allows a full spread of EV options, up to +/- 2.0 EV, a more useful spread.

Interchangeable screens. The Sony A850 comes with a Type G focusing screen, but two additional screens are available: Type M and Type L. Type M, called Super Spherical Acute Matte is superior for discriminating between in-focus and out-of-focus objects, but unfortunately it dims the view somewhat, enough that it's only usable with lenses with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or more. Type L is the same as the very bright Type G, but with a grid for alignment or applying the rule of thirds. As with other digital SLRs that have interchangeable screens, the user has to set the type of screen in Settings menu 3.

Sensor. Sony's Exmor CMOS sensor is what gives the Sony A850 its magic. Above you can see how the A850's size compares to the Sony APS-C-sized sensor. Its pixels are actually larger than those in the Sony A700's 10-megapixel sensor, making for greater ISO sensitivity. The 24.6-megapixel sensor is more than just a sensor, however, as it includes the analog to digital (A/D) conversion circuitry right on board the chip. Over 6,000 A/D converters work in parallel to convert the image data before electronic noise can creep into the signal-processing chain. That makes for fast data acquisition too.

Processors. From there, the dual Bionz processors take the large files and crank them through fast enough to allow up to five frames per second capture, even in RAW + JPEG capture.

Power like that also allows for sophisticated functions like Peripheral Illumination correction, which fixes vignetting problems in many situations.

AF Sensor array. Blue points are the main AF points, oriented in the direction shown. The green blocks are the supplemental AF points.

AF system. The Sony A850 has the same new autofocus system that was introduced with the A900, with nine primary autofocus points and ten supplemental AF points. The user can select the nine AF points, but the ten additional points are used by the system to enhance the performance of the others when the Sony A850 is set to wide-area AF mode. A larger sensor in the center of the frame switches on when lenses of f/2.8 or larger are attached, allowing the system to take advantage of the larger aperture.

If you choose to use the Local AF mode, you can select from the nine AF points in the viewfinder with the joystick on the rear panel. Choose Wide, and the Sony A850 will choose for you. Choose Spot and the Sony A850 uses the more accurate center AF point. See the Optics section for a more detailed discussion of the Sony A850's AF system.

Lens compatibility. While the Sony A850 is compatible with the company's DT-series lenses, many of them, if not most, will vignette significantly with the full frame camera, since they were designed to deliver a smaller image circle to the company's APS-C format cameras. When a DT lens is mounted, the camera automatically captures an APS-C sized frame. Only four thin brackets inside the viewfinder indicate where the cropping will occur; it does not gray-out as seen on the Nikon D3. Incidentally, you can choose to shoot an APS-C sized image when a full-frame lens is mounted via an option on Settings menu 4. The image captured is 11 megapixels maximum in that mode. (Pretty amazing that you can crop the sensor that much and still have 11 megapixels to work with!)

Storage and battery. The Sony A850 uses CompactFlash (Type I and II as well as Microdrives) and MemoryStick Duo cards. The battery pack is the now-standard InfoLITHIUM NP-FM500H, a 7.2V 11.8Wh lithium-ion design, rated for 880 shots (same as the A900).

An optional battery grip is available for the Sony A850, the Sony VG-C90AM, which is light in weight, but increases the height of the overall camera to exceed the height of the Canon 1D-series and Nikon D3.

Still, the battery grip has a few interesting features, including the full array of buttons on the rear that duplicate the controls accessible by the right hand on the camera itself. The Sony Alpha system also uniquely has the unusual second shutter release location that is positioned slightly down from the right corner of the grip, which changes the balance dynamic of the camera. It puts the lens in the same plane with the shutter whether you shoot vertically or horizontally, and does distribute the weight more evenly in both hands if you keep the camera upright and use a lighter lens. The downside is that with a heavy lens, like the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8, most of that weight rests in your left hand.

 

Physical Comparisons

Sony A850/900 vs Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III

Pro configuration: If you're going to be shooting for long periods, a battery grip is a good idea, but it makes the A850/900 bigger than the comparable EOS 1Ds Mark III. Naturally, you don't have to use the battery grip to enjoy all the quality that the A850 offers.


Sony A850/900 vs Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Smaller full-frame: The Sony A850/900 is just slightly bigger and slightly heavier than the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The Sony A900 beat the original Canon 5D handily in terms of resolution, but the competition is now close with the 5D Mark II. The 5D Mark II has the advantage of also recording HD video, albeit at a higher price, and minus the rugged injection-molded alloy frame and environmental sealing of the Sony A850/900.


Sony A850 vs Nikon D3x

David vs Goliath?: Here's the Sony A850 next to the Nikon D3x, this time without the optional battery grip that we showed on the A900 in the first comparison above. People have been waiting for/expecting a "D700x" from Nikon for a while now, packing the sensor from the D3x into a compact body, as was done with the the sensor from the original D3 and the subsequent D700. That hasn't happened as of this writing yet, so for now this is as close as you'll find to comparable resolution in the Nikon line.

 

Using the Sony A850/900

Note: In this section, Shawn writes of his experience with the original Sony A900. Given that the two cameras are the same size and weight and have the same user interface, we've simply copied Shawn's words about the A900 here to the Sony A850 review. Update notes about viewfinder accuracy and frame rate have been added as appropriate, though, calling attention to those two areas of difference vs the A900.

Though the Sony A900 is large and heavy with the Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 mounted, I quickly came to accept that burden and just enjoyed shooting with the camera. It's a little like moving from driving a nice car to driving a big truck. Handling is different, somewhat unfamiliar at first, even a little ungainly, but soon you're tooling along like you've been driving a big truck for years.

The big Carl Zeiss optic is beautiful, and both looks and feels terribly precise. Focus and zoom rings are tight and smooth. Even the metal and plastic lens shade is perfection. It mounts to the machined bayonet slot tighter than a piston ring and snaps briskly into place.

Its bulkiness almost makes the Sony A900 look a little more primitive, like some kind of early digital SLR design, or else a film camera from an earlier era. It certainly looks different from other cameras on the market, to be sure.

That big optical viewfinder is wonderful, and it does indeed seem to show 100 percent of the frame, to my surprise. Sometimes it was an unwelcome surprise, because I'm used to framing with tighter, less accurate viewfinders. Often when I thought I'd get away without stepping back to include just a little more of the subject's boundaries in a tight shot, I found that the Sony A900 was instead quite faithful to what I saw in the viewfinder. Gone was the slop I had come to count on from other digital SLRs, whose viewfinders seldom show more than 95 percent of the frame.

A850 note:
This is one key area of difference between the A850 and A900. The view through the eyepiece is still huge compared to sub-frame SLRs; the jokes about being careful not to fall into the viewfinder still apply. The reduction in accuracy might be an issue for some pro users, but the 98% coverage of the A850's viewfinder is still quite noticeably more accurate than the 95% found in most prosumer-grade SLRs. We measured the VF accuracy on our A850 test sample at just a shade under 98% (well within the tolerance of our measurement vs the claimed 98%), and the image was centered to within 0.15 - 0.33% of the frame's height and width, respectively.

Controls. Most controls are well-placed, and the dials and wheels have the appropriate resistance. They're not too firm and not too light, and they don't feel cheap. The mode dial is also quite firm, locking into position well. Though I seldom expect much from joystick controls, the Sony A900's joystick is just right. You can toggle in four directions, and press down to activate many controls. It's especially useful for moving the focus point around in a hurry, as well as for navigating the Function menu.

Two controls are not perfectly placed, though. One is the Function button itself. It's a long reach from the joystick to the button, making the onscreen menu more difficult to use than it should be. Also vexing is how after making a change to a menu item, you're not returned to the Function menu display to make another selection; instead you're dropped back into the Status display. If you want to change more than one item, you'll have to make that reach to the Fn button again.

The other occasional problem control is the Depth-of-field preview button, which I have set to serve as the Intelligent Preview button. I too frequently press this button when shifting the heavy A900 from hand to hand, or while turning it to shoot in vertical format. Intelligent preview exposures take a few seconds to expose and appear, meaning that the camera is occupied for those seconds; more dangerous is that the camera will continue to display the image for some time, waiting for input, thus draining the battery without my knowledge.

Intelligent preview. Sony's innovative use of a limited RAW file to create the A900's Intelligent preview is useful in a number of ways. Though it's meant to be used to subtly tweak a sample image before making the real exposure, I found myself using it more often as a substitute for Live View mode when I couldn't get my eye to the viewfinder. I just pressed the Depth-of-field button to make sample exposure after sample exposure until it was framed just right, then pressed the shutter release. Intelligent preview is really better used for tripod work, where your framing is already set. It's designed to let you pick just the right white balance, exposure compensation, or DRO mode. If you're in Aperture priority mode, you can also adjust your aperture -- though you won't see a depth-of-field change; it's not that good. Similarly, you can adjust Shutter speed if in Shutter priority mode. Of course in Manual mode, you can adjust everything. Intelligent preview is pretty useful.

Many Sony A900 users will wonder why they can't just save the image they've tweaked, rather than take another exposure. The simple answer is that the A900 only captures a very limited-resolution RAW file to make quick, on-camera processing easier, thus delivering an adjusted image to the LCD as fast as you need it. If you accidentally captured that perfect smile when you pressed the Intelligent preview button, though, you'll just have to say goodbye to perfection and try again.

Small AF area.

Shooting. Despite its size, the Sony A900 is really fun to shoot. The big viewfinder makes looking around in your potential image more like detail work than a rough framing job, as it is with most digital SLRs. You can carefully consider what's in focus, and select another focus point by moving the joystick (provided you've chosen to use Local AF area mode) to another position. As with other full-frame SLRs, the diamond-shaped AF array is small relative to the overall viewfinder area, which isn't as good for portrait compositions as you'll find in the A700 or Canon 40D, for example, as it's harder to get an AF point close to one of the subject's eyes in a head-and-shoulders shot.

The shutter sound tells of a very large mirror, one moving as fast as its large size will allow. We're told that the mirror is extra large not just for the full frame, but also to deliver that 100% viewfinder area. (A850 note: We don't know if the A850's mirror is the same size as that of the A900, or slightly smaller. Our contacts at Sony said it's the same mechanism, but tweaks in some unspecified aspects of the mirror/shutter cocking mechanism allowed the trade-off of slower continuous shooting speed to achieve lower production costs and therefore lower selling price.)

Mirror. The Sony A850/900's mirror lifts rather than swings up thanks to a special hinge. This helps squeeze the huge mirror into the space dictated by the flange/sensor distance of the Sony lens mount, while still allowing room for the sensor-based IS system. Click the small mirror icon in the lower left corner to see animation. Animation courtesy Sony Electronics.


The mirror lifts, rather than flips up. It's a pretty cool compromise, necessary to accommodate the large SteadyShot engine, we're told, while still allowing that large mirror. The sound is just a simple click-click, with no winding sound, so it feels nostalgic and does the job without a lot of fanfare. Viewfinder blackout time is supposed to be improved, but it's still a little slower than I like. Again, it's a big mirror.

The Sony A900 is also able to shoot up to five frames per second, quite a feat for a 24.6-megapixel camera with a full-frame sensor. Its 1/8,000 second shutter speed makes it an impressive action camera, rivaling its more expensive high-res competition, the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, which also captures five frames per second. The shutter mechanism is rated for 100,000 cycles.

A850 note: This is the other key area of difference in the A850 vs the A900: The A850 only gets to 3 frames/second. Still impressive for such a large mirror and huge amount of sensor data generated by each shot, but a step behind the A900 and most other full-frame DSLRs currently on the market.

Checking. Seeing whether you got the shot after capture is key, and of course the Sony A900's high-res 3-inch LCD really helps on that score. You always have to be careful with transflective displays, however, especially in sunlight. This can be complicated by using DRO modes, which, combined with the transflective display's metallic look, can make you think a shot is washed out more than it is. You can get used to this, and adjust accordingly, as I have, but checking the histogram is also a good habit, as is taking a few extra shots or shooting RAW when the work is critical.

Touching the Custom button (marked with a C) toggles on the Histogram screen, along with most of the exposure data. You get not just a luminance histogram, but red, green, and blue as well to help you gauge color casts.

You can zoom in by pressing the AF/MF button and turning the rear command dial. Zoom level starts at 1.2x and goes to 19x.

One disadvantage to the Playback system on a 24.6-megapixel camera is that it's very slow to bring an image up, especially if it's still writing to the card. I've pressed the Playback button a second time, and then a third, only to have the image finally flash to the screen after three seconds, then disappear for another two seconds, then reappear. Sometimes it gets even worse before I remember to just wait five or six seconds to see where the camera is in the cycle.

Once images are saved to the card, flipping between them is easy, and very fast. Just don't get stuck in Index mode, activated with the Display button. It takes some time to bring up those five thumbnails across the top. It's convenient if you have time, but not if you don't.

Tricked out. Thought I'd include a little eye candy, with the Sony A900 outfitted with a Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G, the Sony HVL-F58AM flash, and the VG-C90AM battery grip. With two batteries in the grip, the combination weighs 7.63 pounds (3,464g). (The same grip fits the A850 as well.)

The function of the front and rear control dials varies from menu to menu, which can often leave you spinning the dial in vain waiting for something to happen. Sometimes it's one dial, sometimes it's the other, and sometimes it's both. In cases where only one dial controls a given function, it would make more sense for Sony to allow both dials to control the function.

Size has a price. There are those who go for the biggest and the best, and they're likely to slap down their largest credit card on the Sony A900 for 24.6 million little reasons. But while they're at it, I suggest they check their computer hardware and either upgrade or at least invest in redundant, multi-terabyte disks, because the Sony A900's files are huge. A typical outing for me with the Sony A900 is filling a 4GB card in a hot hurry. Some of that's shooting RAW, some of it is just the JPEGs I shoot, which average from 7 to 18MB each. Yes, I said 18MB for a JPEG.

Thankfully, Sony at least planned for the larger files and created a USB download pathway that is among the fastest we've ever tested, moving 12,568 KBytes per second. Still, when you take as many test shots as we do, it's an ordeal to move all these images around. The sample photos we've posted total almost 4GB of data.

 

Sony A850 Image Quality

Back when we reviewed the original A900, the only other camera with roughly comparable resolution was the $8,000 Canon 1Ds Mark III. Fast-forward just a year, though, and we find the Canon EOS 5D Mark II competing at close to the same resolution level and a price point of about $2,700, as well as the Nikon D3x, albeit at the same lofty $8,000 price as the 1Ds Mark III.

Before I continue my simple analysis, which is bolstered by the other, more in-depth tabs to this review, remember that the Sony A850 is a $2,000 digital SLR intended for both pros and enthusiasts, while the Canon 1Ds Mark III and Nikon D3x models are $8,000 cameras really only meant for pros. (The 5D Mark II is arguably within reach of the well-heeled amateur, but the $700 price premium isn't to be sneezed at.)

First, the Sony A850's image quality is truly awe-inspiring. Opening a file in Photoshop and hitting Command + to get to 100% reminds me of that scene in Blade Runner when Deckard uses the Esper photoanalysis machine. If you know the film, you'll remember that he finds tremendous detail in the print photograph from the year 2019: "Enhance 57 to 19. Track 45 left. Stop. Enhance 15 to 23. Give me a hard copy right there." In the end, he's found a reflection in the mirror that gives him an important clue.

While I'm not doing my searching via voice command (that now-old technology that didn't take hold for most), it takes six enlargement steps in Photoshop to make it from 12.5 percent in portrait orientation to the 100 percent I need to check focus. The image is 4,032 x 6,048, for goodness sake.

Wide detail.

Most astonishing was to take a 24mm wide-angle photo of the World of Coke in Atlanta from across a large field and be able to almost recognize faces standing near the building. (Shot at right, captured with the A900.) You'd actually be able to recognize them, I'm convinced, had I not focused on the buildings in the background. And look at the detail in those buildings! Take anything to 100 percent, and it doesn't seem like a big deal, of course, but start dragging around in the frame once you're there, and you start to appreciate just how much the Sony A850 has captured.

Now let's compare the Sony A850 to some of its near-competitors, resolution-wise. These are crops shot in our lab using a Sigma 70mm f/2.8, the very sharp lenses we use for our lab testing to get more comparable results.

In terms of JPEG shots, the Sony produces larger images that are sharper, especially with the defaults from both cameras, but if you bring both to 100 percent and move around in the images, you'll find they're nearly the same. After all, it's only 3.5 million pixels between the two, and when you get out to 21 megapixels, adding a few more doesn't have that large of an effect. Detail is detail, though, and the Sony does appear to give you more at low ISOs. Some of the difference in the images below is in the sharpness, heavily dependent on the default sharpening, and the presence of luminance and red channel noise from the Sony A850, where the Canon 1Ds Mark III does a little better with those artifacts.

Here are a few samples to get you started, but be sure to explore the full test results on the other tabs of this review, where we go into much greater depth.

Sony A850 Detail vs Competition

Sony A850 vs the Competition: Subtle Detail
Sony A850
Sony A900
Canon 5D Mark II
Nikon D3x
All the images above were shot with the Sigma 70mm f/2.8 macro lens, stopped down to f/8, as the best trade-off between ultimate sharpness and sufficient depth of field to accommodate the 3D objects in the test scene. All shots are at base ISO, ISO 200 for the two Sonys, ISO 100 for the two others.

Squinting closely at the results, the image from the Sony A850 appears just microscopically softer than that from the A900. We don't think this is a focus accuracy issue, as elements in the scene closest to and farthest away from the camera seem to be about the same amount softer than the corresponding elements in the shot from the A900. The difference is truly microscopic, though, particularly at the overall resolution level we're talking about here. The smaller size of the image from the 5D Mark II is because of that cameras slightly lower resolution, 21.1 vs 24.5 megapixels. Despite its slightly lower resolution, the 5D Mark II shows slightly more subtle detail, noticeable in the tan frame around the figure and in the khaki-colored background on the label. The D3x's image leaps out at you as being sharper, but a good part of that is the higher default sharpening that the D3x applies to its images. Even allowing for the increased sharpening, the D3x does seem to capture slightly finer detail, but again, doesn't do quite as well as the 5D Mark II in the tan and khaki-colored areas. All four cameras are certainly very, very close, though, particularly when you consider the degree of pixel-peeping we're indulging in here!


Sony A850 vs the Competition: Tone-on-Tone Color
Sony A850
Sony A900
Canon 5D Mark II
Nikon D3x
This shot is a giveaway for the impact of noise suppression in most cameras, particularly in the red fabric swatch. For ultra-high resolution cameras, it's also a tough test of detail, in the thread patterns of the fabrics. Here again, we see some (very) slight differences between the Sony A850 and A900. The thread pattern is a bit more evident in parts of the bright pink fabric swatch, but details in the red fabric look a little softer. There does seem to be some slight difference in the imaging between the two cameras, perhaps in the noise reduction processing. While the 5D Mark II beat the others in its rendering of subtle detail in the previous crops, here it lags behind somewhat, with less definition in the bright pink fabric, and much softer rendering of details in the red swatch. (But it's sharper-looking in the lighter pink patterns in the background. It's interesting how differently each camera's NR processing handles different shades and hues.) The crop from the Nikon D3x again looks sharper, but this time not just due to its cranked up in-camera sharpening, but also because it seems to be going a bit lighter on the noise reduction processing, particularly in the red swatch.

Sony A850 vs the Competition: Sharpening and Fine Detail
Sony A850
Sony A900
Canon 5D Mark II
Nikon D3x
This set of crops probably give the best look yet at the impact of in-camera sharpening. The Sony A850 seems to be applying just a bit less sharpening by default than does the A900 here. In this particular crop, the Canon 5D Mark II seems to have the strongest sharpening of any, but you'll notice elsewhere in the full-size image that the Nikon D3x seems to apply a stronger sharpening effect around the edges of large blocks of dark tone than it does in smaller areas such as the type above. Once again, while you can see differences between the cameras, doing so involves some fairly fine hair-splitting relative to the size of the overall image.

Sony A850 vs the Competition: High-Contrast Fine Detail
Sony A850
Sony A900
Canon 5D Mark II
Nikon D3x
In this final set of crops the raw resolution of the sensors is more evident. Here, the 5D Mark II's 21 megapixel chip shows aliasing in the finest lines, from about 43 on the scale onward. The Sony A850 edges it out in this shot, but is itself slightly eclipsed by the performance of the A900 and D3x. Whether the result of slight differences in the anti-alias filter or in-camera processing, we do see very slight differences in ultimate resolution between the A850 and A900. As we've been pointing out, though, these differences are so microscopic as to be entirely ignored in any practical photographic application.


Sony A850 ISO series vs Canon 5D Mark II

ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
The Sony A850 holds its own very nicely against the Canon EOS 5D Mark II at its base ISO of 200, but the 5D Mark II is the clear winner at high ISO settings. Here is a series from ISO 200 to 800 from both cameras, with images from the Sony on top. You can see that the Sony loses somewhat more detail as it moves up to ISO 800 than does the Canon. And remember, the Canon's lowest "approved" ISO setting is ISO 100. Considering the resolution, we're really pixel-peeping here, but that's the only way to compare two very high quality cameras like these.

Analysis. As with the A900 before it, the Sony A850 presents a bit of a trade-off between detail and image noise. It's a camera with enormously high resolution, but also somewhat higher noise levels at high ISO settings than some of its competition. (Admittedly with some competing models selling for dramatically higher prices.) As with the A900, though, you can also achieve significantly better detail by turning its in-camera sharpening to its lowest setting and sharpening after the fact in Photoshop. And as usual, working from RAW files brings significant benefits.

What's sure is that the Sony A850 plays well against the field, holding its own even against cameras costing up to four times its breakthrough $1999.95 list price. I really enjoyed shooting with the original A900, and had almost as fun looking at the images afterward. The new A850 does indeed appear to offer very similar (if not quite identical) image quality as the original A900 and a virtually identical user experience, save only the slightly cropped viewfinder and somewhat slower continuous shooting speed. That it manages to do so at a list price that's $700 less is pretty remarkable. While the announcement of the Nikon D3x a little while back means that the Sony A850/900 no longer hold the uncontested DSLR resolution crown, the Sony A850 still offers truly amazing resolution for the price. It's not all about resolution, of course: As the last set of pictures above shows, high ISO performance is a very important factor as well, and more expensive models from the competition do still hold an edge in that area.

The most interesting aspect of the Sony A850 is the extent to which it brings full frame photography within the reach of everyman (and woman). Without a doubt, $2,000 is still a lot of money for a camera, so owning a Sony A850 does involve a fairly serious financial commitment. Nonetheless, it represents an important step in bringing full frame photography down to a cost level that non-professionals can afford.

As I've said of other Sony digital SLRs, what's nice about them is that they're relatively easy to use, and simple to learn as well. A well designed menu system, along with the Quick Navi screen make tweaking settings fast and clear, and now the new Intelligent Preview mode makes short work of complicated shots, making it a little easier to pay attention to the small details as you set up a shot.

Shooting with the Sony Alpha A850 can be summed up in one word: Satisfying.

 


 

Sony A850 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Extraordinary resolution, nothing touches it at its price point, but there's literally no other full-frame DSLR at its price point anyway
  • Built-in SteadyShot image stabilization
  • Good color rendering: Natural without seeming flat (slightly more saturated than the A900)
  • A lot of nice user interface touches, well thought out controls
  • Intelligent Preview feature is a real time-saver for determining best camera settings
  • +/- 2 EV steps on auto bracketing is nice for HDR (High Dynamic Range) shooters
  • RAW files are truly RAW! (Able to turn off high-ISO noise reduction in the RAW files)
  • Huge viewfinder image, really hearkens back to the days of film SLRs (in a good way)
  • User interchangeable focusing screens
  • Lighter than many other full-frame SLRs in its resolution class
  • Rugged magnesium alloy body
  • 3.0-inch, high-resolution LCD
  • Top panel LCD (albeit a small one)
  • Dramatically low price for a full-frame camera with this much resolution
  • HDMI output
  • Good battery life
  • Dual memory card formats
  • Some image noise even at ISO 200
  • At anything above ISO 200, noise limits maximum print size before resolution becomes an issue
  • High-ISO performance doesn't match that of competing full-frame models (but all such are a good bit more expensive)
  • Dynamic range of JPEGs less than that of many current models, though excellent dynamic range expected from RAW files
  • Viewfinder resolution dropped to 98% vs 100% for the A900
  • Top frame rate only 3fps; lowest among full-frame DSLRs
  • Slower frame rate translates into noticeable early shutter penalty (it won't fire if you press the shutter button too soon after previous shot, A900's "dead time" was much less apparent)
  • Noticeable delay when switching from record to playback mode is annoying
  • Despite being much lighter than its's only competitor, still a big, heavy hunk of metal and glass (not the camera's fault, just a fact of life with full-frame.)
  • No built-in flash (not unusual for a pro model though)
  • APS-C mode does not improve burst speed
  • Exposure accuracy may suffer with DT lenses in APS-C mode
  • No Live View mode
  • No Movie mode

 

Sony rocked the full-frame DSLR world when they first announced the A900, bringing unprecedented resolution at a price point under $3,000. In the intervening time, Canon announced a camera with slightly lower resolution and a price point below the original A900 (the 5D Mark II), and Nikon announced a camera with similar resolution but at a much higher price point (the D3x). Now, the Sony A850 decreases a couple of specs (viewfinder coverage and continuous frame rate), but brings the cost down to under $2,000. Isn't competition great?

The Sony A850 is a formidable camera. It's big, which won't work for everyone, but I found it more than bearable with my medium-sized hands, and even my daughter had no trouble hefting the A850 with the (very beefy) 24-70mm f/2.8 attached and firing off a few frames. If the image quality is as good as we're hoping for, the new 28-75mm f/2.8 will reduce both the overall price and bulk of a full-frame body/lens kit significantly.

If you want the most pixels in a small package at the best price on the market, the Sony A850 is where you'll find it. Canon's EOS 5D Mark II beats the Sony A850 in high-ISO capability and (slightly) in size and weight, and offers HD video recording as well, but at a price point that's $700 higher. Nikon's D3x offers the same resolution, but at a cost literally 4x that of the A850. If you're into landscapes or architecture, or need a studio camera with enormous resolution at a relatively budget price, the Sony A850 would make a great choice. It truly ushers in a new era of affordability for full-frame DSLR cameras.

Making full-frame digital photography more affordable than ever before, and at a level of 24.6 megapixels to boot, the Sony A850 is one impressive image maker, and a clear Dave's Pick.