Sony DSLR-A200 Review

 
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Sony A200 Imaging


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good overall accuracy and saturation, with only minor shifts in hue and intensity.

In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.

Saturation. The Sony A200 pushes strong reds and blues just a little, but actually undersaturates bright yellows, greens, and cyan tones slightly. Thus, color saturation is a little truer to life. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. Here, with the color balanced properly for the light source, the Alpha A200's skin tones looked just about right. There were some slight red tints in places, but overall skin tone looked natural. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. The Alpha 200 showed only a few small color shifts relative to the correct mathematical translation of colors in its subjects, but had overall pretty good accuracy. Most noticeable was a shift in reds toward orange, and yellow toward green, with some slight shifts in cyans and blues. Still, color accuracy was quite good. Hue is "what color" the color is.

Saturation Adjustment
The Sony A200 has a total of seven saturation settings available, three above and three below the default saturation. This covers a pretty wide range of saturation levels, about as wide a range as you're likely to find photographically relevant, apart from special effects that are arguably better achieved in software. The fine steps between settings mean you can program the camera to just the level of saturation you prefer.

Saturation Adjustment Examples
Click to see AA200OUTSAT01.JPG Click to see AA200OUTSAT03.JPG Click to see AA200OUTSAT04.JPG Click to see AA200OUTSAT05.JPG Click to see AA200OUTSAT07.JPG
-3 -1 0 +1 +3

The table above shows results with several saturation settings, see the Thumbnails index page for more (look for the files named A200OUTSAT0x.JPG). Click on any thumbnail above to see the full-sized image.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Good color with both the Manual and 2,700 Kelvin white balance settings, though warm results with Auto and Incandescent. About average positive exposure compensation required.

Auto White Balance
+1.0 EV
Incandescent White Balance
+1.0 EV
Manual White Balance
+1.0 EV
2,700 Kelvin White Balance
+1.0 EV

Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, the Sony Alpha 200 produced warm color with its Auto and Incandescent white balance settings, Auto being the warmest of the two. Both the Manual and 2,700-degree Kelvin settings produced more accurate results. It was a bit of a toss-up between them, as the Manual setting was a hint warm and the Kelvin option a little more true to white value. Though the Manual setting did preserve a touch of the original mood, the 2,700-degree Kelvin mode produced the most accurate overall color. At +1.0 EV, the average amount of positive exposure compensation, the exposure is just a hair bright. However, results at +0.7 EV were too dim overall. Color looks good throughout the frame, with only the slightest purplish tints in the blue flowers. (Many digital cameras reproduce these flowers with a dark, purplish tint, so the Alpha 200 actually performs a little better than average here.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.

 

Outdoors, daylight
Great results under harsh lighting, with good handling of contrast, detail, and color.

Auto White Balance,
Default Exposure
Auto White Balance,
Auto Exposure

Outdoors, the Sony Alpha 200 performed well, with overall good exposure, if slightly too bright. Contrast is a little high, as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera does an excellent job of holding onto detail in both the deep shadows and bright highlights. The highlights were blown out a bit in the House shot, but not too badly. Color balance is good as well, with good saturation considering the bright lighting. The camera's contrast adjustment did a very nice job of toning down the exposure without creating any strong color variations in the skin (though skin tone does change slightly). Overall, very good performance.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
High resolution, 1,600 lines of strong detail.

Strong detail to
1,600 lines horizontal
Strong detail to
1,600 lines vertical

Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,600 lines per picture height in both directions. Extinction didn't really occur, though lines began to merge around 2,000 lines. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Sharp images overall, though minor edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Minimal noise suppression visible.

Good definition of high-contrast
elements, though
evidence of minor
edge enhancement.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast,
though detail remains strong in
the darker parts of Marti's hair here.

Sharpness. The Sony Alpha 200 produced, good detail overall, but with slight softness. Some edge enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects such as the crop above left, but overall results are still good. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows only minimal noise suppression, as the darker areas of Marti's hair show a lot of detail. Individual strands are still distinguishable even in the lighter shadows, though they begin to merge as shadows deepens. Still, good performance here. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Sony A200 does a pretty good job at balancing between sharpness and visible sharpening artifacts in camera JPEGs. A little more detail can be obtained from carefully processing RAW files though, without additional artifacts. Take a look below, to see what we mean:

In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above. Examples include in-camera Fine JPEG (the A200 doesn't have an Extra-Fine setting like the A700), RAW file processed through Sony's Image Data Converter SR version 2 software, and RAW file processed through Adobe Camera Raw version 4.3.1, then sharpened in Photoshop. (I've found that sharpening results in ACR are inferior to those obtained with the Unsharp Masking tool in Photoshop itself. For the Sony A200's images, I found best results with no sharpening at all in ACR and then 250% unsharp masking with an 0.3 pixel radius.)

Note: ACR renders colors somewhat differently than either the A200 or the Sony software, so the greens in the trees are rather different. There's no mistaking the increase in detail though, regardless of changes in color or tone.

ISO & Noise Performance
Low noise at the normal sensitivity settings, with good results even at ISO 400. However, big jumps in noise at the highest settings.

ISO 100
Noise Reduction
ISO 100
Noise Reduction Off
ISO 200
Noise Reduction
ISO 200
Noise Reduction Off
ISO 400
Noise Reduction
ISO 400
Noise Reduction Off
ISO 800
Noise Reduction
ISO 800
Noise Reduction Off
ISO 1,600
Noise Reduction
ISO 1,600
Noise Reduction Off
ISO 3,200
Noise Reduction
ISO 3,200
Noise Reduction Off

The Sony Alpha 200 produced low noise at its lower sensitivity settings, and even at ISO 400, noise isn't terribly high. At ISO 800, the noise level increases, but the camera still holds onto a lot of fine detail. Even with Noise Reduction turned off at ISO 800, fine detail is still good. At the higher settings of 1,600 and 3,200, noise levels are much higher, but even here detail is arguably pretty good for this level of sensitivity. Activating Noise Reduction does blur details more than without anti-noise processing, but results are still more favorable because of the less distinct noise pixels.

Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
High resolution and good exposure at the default setting. Very good shadow detail. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.

Default Exposure +0.3 EV +0.7 EV

Sunlight:
The Sony Alpha 200 handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above pretty well. Though contrast is a little high, shadow and highlight detail are very good. The camera's contrast adjustment also did a good job of decreasing overall contrast without producing strong color variations. The default exposure did the best job here, as even the tiniest nudge to +0.3 EV produced very strong highlights. Be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)

Contrast Adjustment
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Sony A200's contrast setting meets both challenges.

Minimum Contrast, normal D-R setting
Contrast set to lowest,
+0.3 EV
Contrast set to lowest,
Auto Exposure

At its lowest contrast setting, the A200 did an excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. The A200 captures good color outdoors, though just slightly on the warm side. Overall, very good results here, especially when the contrast setting is tweaked.

Contrast Adjustment Examples
Click to see AA200OUTCON01.JPG Click to see AA200OUTCON03.JPG Click to see AA200OUTCON04.JPG Click to see AA200OUTCON05.JPG Click to see AA200OUTCON07.JPG
-3 -1 0 +1 +3

The series of shots above shows results with several different contrast adjustment settings, showing the minimum step size around the default, as well as both extremes. While you can see the extremes, it's hard to really evaluate contrast on small thumbnails like these, click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.

One very nice feature of Sony's contrast adjustment is that it has very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. Sony did a good job here.

Sony's DRO (Dynamic Range Optimization)
While the Sony A200's contrast adjustment feature works very well, their Dynamic Range Optimization system is a critical part of it. This system analyzes the range of brightness of each image, and adjusts the camera's image processing parameters accordingly, to make the best use of the available dynamic range. Three options are available on the A200: DRO Off, Standard D-R, and D-R Advanced. Unlike the A700, the A200 does not allow you choose the strength for the D-R effect. Standard D-R looks at the entire image and effectively adjusts contrast and brightness across the entire image for best effect. D-R Advanced analyzes everything, but makes local adjustments to bring out shadow detail and preserve highlights.

DRO Examples
DRO Off DRO Standard DRO Advanced

The crops above show the results of three DRO settings. They were shot in rapid succession, but you'll notice that minor movements by Marti mean that the shots aren't absolutely identical. The cropped areas are very closely equivalent in terms of light level though. As you can see, the bulk of the difference between different levels of DRO is found in the shadow areas. By default, the A200 shoots with DRO set to the Standard level. Interestingly, there's a pretty pronounced difference between DRO Standard and Off, in terms of exposure. I confirmed that the shots above were all captured with the same aperture and shutter speed settings, but the DRO Standard version is a good 2/3 of a stop or so lighter than the shot with DRO turned off entirely.

As noted in the A100 review, we felt that DRO had some limitations, but the technology seems to have matured very nicely in the intervening time since that model was introduced. It works well enough and with little enough impact on normally-lit subjects that I'd be entirely comfortable leaving it in Standard mode all the time. (Sony obviously felt so too (since it's on by default), but it's unusual that I would be comfortable leaving an image-tweaking option enabled by default.)




  1 fc
11 lux
1/2 fc
5.5 lux
1/4 fc
2.7 lux
1/8 fc
1.3 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16fc
No NR
ISO
100
Click to see AA200LL010003.JPG
1.6 sec
f2.8
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2.5 sec
f2.8
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4 sec
f2.8
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8 sec
f2.8
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13 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL010007xNR.JPG
13 sec
f2.8
ISO
200
Click to see AA200LL020003.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
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2 sec
f2.8
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4 sec
f2.8
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6 sec
f2.8
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5 sec
f2.8
ISO
400
Click to see AA200LL040003.JPG
0.4 sec
f2.8
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0.5 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL040006.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
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3.2 sec
f2.8
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3.2 sec
f2.8
ISO
800
Click to see AA200LL080003.JPG
1/5 sec
f2.8
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1/4 sec
f2.8
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0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL080006.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL080007.JPG
1.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL080007xNR.JPG
1.3 sec
f2.8
ISO
1600
Click to see AA200LL160003.JPG
1/10 sec
f2.8
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1/6 sec
f2.8
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1/4 sec
f2.8
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0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL160007.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
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0.6 sec
f2.8
ISO
3200
Click to see AA200LL320003.JPG
1/20 sec
f2.8
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1/15 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL320005.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL320006.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL320007.JPG
0.3 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA200LL320007xNR.JPG
0.4 sec
f2.8

Low light. The Sony A200 performed very well on the low-light test, capturing usable images at the lowest light level with the lowest sensitivity setting (ISO 100). Images are a little dim at the lowest light level, but still usable. Color balance looked good with the Auto white balance setting, and the camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject almost down to the 1/8 foot-candle light level unassisted (down to the darkest light level with the AF assist enabled). Keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Sony A200 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Great print quality, good color, sharp 13 x 19-inch prints.

The Sony A200's printed output is really impressive, able to output usable 16 x 20-inch prints at ISO 100. They're slightly soft, but really quite good. 13x19-inch prints are a little better, though. ISO 200 shots print the same as 100, producing a good 16x20 or great 13x19. ISO 400 images do just fine at 13x19, and of course are better 11x14, but not by much. ISO 800 shots are better printed at 8x10, because at 11x14, detail is marred by small circular noise suppression artifacts that are visible in dark objects. But at 8x10, they're gone. ISO 1,600 shots remain quite good at 8x10, even with noise reduction turned off. ISO 3,200 shots, however, need to step down to 5x7; but then they're great. Turning off noise suppression at 3,200, though, is not a good idea, as it still produces a lot of chroma noise even at 4x6. Detail at this size is still quite impressive. It's a very good performance from the Sony A200, quite a nice surprise.

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5200 here in the office. (See the Canon i9900 review for details on that model.)

 

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