Sony DSLR-A350 Review
Sony A350 Imaging
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Accurate color and saturation, with only minor shifts in hue and intensity.
Saturation. The Sony A350 pushes strong reds and blues just a little, but actually undersaturates bright yellows, some greens, and cyan tones slightly. Thus, color saturation is a little truer to life than many consumer cameras. 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 A350's skin tones looked natural, but perhaps a bit on the cool side. 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 350 showed only a few small color shifts relative to the correct mathematical translation of colors in its subjects, but had pretty good accuracy overall. Most noticeable was a shift in reds toward orange, and yellow toward green, with some shifts in cyans and blues as well. Hue is "what color" the
The Sony A350 has a total of seven saturation settings available (only five are shown below), 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|
The table above shows results with several saturation settings, see the Thumbnails index page for more (look for the files named A350OUTSAT0x.JPG). Click on any thumbnail above to see the full-sized image.
| See full set of test images
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Good color with both the Manual and 2,700 Kelvin white balance settings, though very warm results with Auto and slightly warm with Incandescent. Average to slightly above average positive exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
|2,700 Kelvin White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, the Sony Alpha 350 produced very warm color with its Auto white balance setting. The Incandescent setting wasn't too far off the mark, but had a slight magenta cast to it. 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 for this shot, the exposure is just a hair bright in all modes but Auto, which required a touch higher exposure compensation at +1.3 EV. 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 350 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.
Very good results under harsh lighting, with good handling of contrast, detail, and color.
|Auto White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
Outdoors, the Sony Alpha A350 performed well, requiring just +0.3 EV exposure compensation for the Portrait to avoid rendering Marti's face too dim, clipping just a few highlights in process. Contrast is a little high, as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera does a better than average job of holding onto detail in both the deep shadows and bright highlights, with Sony's default standard Dynamic Range Optimization taking some of the credit here. The Sony A350 nailed the exposure in the House shot, and managed not to blow-out many highlights at all, or lose shadow detail in the process. 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.
Very high resolution, 1,800 ~ 1,900 lines of strong detail.
|Strong detail to
1,900 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
1,800 lines vertical
|2X chart: strong detail to
1,900 lines horizontal
|2X chart: strong detail to
1,800 lines vertical
Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,900 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and about 1,800 in the vertical direction. Extinction didn't occur until about 2,600 to 2,800 lines on the 2X res target. 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.
Sharpness & Detail
Sharp images overall, though minor edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Minor noise suppression visible at low ISO.
|Good definition of high-contrast
evidence of minor
|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 350 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 minor 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, especially considering the smaller photosites on a 14 megapixel sensor. 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 A350 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 A350 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 4.4, then sharpened in Photoshop. (We've found that sharpening results in ACR are inferior to those obtained with the Unsharp Masking tool in Photoshop itself. For the Sony A350's images, we found better 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 A350 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 ISO 100 and 200. Effects of noise reduction visible from ISO 400 up.
The Sony Alpha A350 produced low noise at its lower sensitivity settings, however we start to see some slight smudging and loss of detail already at ISO 400, along with noise pixels and some chroma noise in the shadows. As you'd expect, noise and loss of detail becomes more apparent at ISO 800, with noise "grain" becoming increasingly courser. At ISO 1,600, along with increased detail loss, the chroma noise becomes more obvious and no longer relegated to just shadows. ISO 3,200 continues this trend with even more detail loss and blotchiness. Keep in mind that these are 14 megapixel files, though, so detail loss may not be quite as apparent at normal print sizes. The ISO 3,200 shot with the same exposure compensation as the others in the series was also underexposed despite being twice the shutter speed and the same aperture as the the ISO 1,600 shot, indicating a possible linearity issue with the A350 sensor's sensitivity as ISO is increased. See the Print Quality section to find out what the recommended maximum size print is at each ISO setting.
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 A350 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. A lower-than-average +0.3 EV exposure compensation was required to keep Marti's face from looking too dark, as the default exposure was a touch dim. This resulted in some lost highlights in Marti's shirt and in some of the flowers, but not as much as we're used to seeing in many consumer models, thanks again to . 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.)
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 A350's contrast setting meets both challenges.
|Minimum Contrast, normal D-R setting|
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the A350 did an excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. The A350 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|
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 A350'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 A350: DRO Off, Standard DRO, and Advanced DRO. Unlike the A700, the A350 does not allow you choose the strength for the DRO effect. Standard DRO looks at the entire image and effectively adjusts contrast and brightness across the entire image for best effect. Advanced DRO analyzes everything, but makes local adjustments to bring out shadow detail and preserve highlights.
|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 Sony A350 shoots with DRO set to the Standard level. Interestingly, there's a pretty pronounced difference between DRO Standard and Off, in terms of exposure. We confirmed that the shots above were all captured with the same aperture and shutter speed settings, but the DRO Standard version is 2/3 of a stop or so lighter than the shot with DRO turned off entirely, a behavior we saw with the A200 and A700 as well. Still, the DRO-enabled shots have fewer clipped highlights than the DRO Off shot with a simple exposure boost applied to bring the shadows up to the same level.
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 we'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 we would be comfortable leaving an image-tweaking option enabled by default.)
Low light. The Sony A350 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, and you can always add exposure compensation or use manual mode to brighten them up by using a longer shutter speed. Color balance looked quite good with the Auto white balance. Noise was fairly low up to ISO 400, but as expected, became more noticeable with higher ISOs. There were also a few hot pixels visible at ISO 1,600 and 3,200 and lower light levels. The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject almost down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level unassisted (and in complete darkness 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 A350 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.
Great print quality, good color, sharp 13 x 19-inch prints.
The Sony A350's printed output is really impressive, able to output usable 16x20-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 also look good at 11x14, though chroma noise in dark areas is less than appealing. But at 8x10, they're less of a problem at arm's length. 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 they're actually better at 4x6. A little noise suppression post-processing does a lot to fix the 5x7 version. I used Noise Fixer to remove most of the chroma noise and the image looked a good deal more like the ISO 1,600 version. Another impressive performance. As expected, the results as you go up the ISO ladder decay a little more quickly than they did on the 10-megapixel Sony A200, but with noise suppression technology and careful sharpening, you should be able to get greater detail out of the A350's low ISO images than you do from the A200.
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.)
Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.
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