This new Sony model is loaded with features, including Anti-Dust technology, a 9 Point Autofocus Sensor array with 10 assist points, a 40 Segment Metering System, a superb 3.0-inch (approx. 922,000 pixel) LCD Screen, available ISO speeds from ISO 100 through ISO 6400 in 1/3 stop increments, with RAW and JPEG image capture using a variety of settings combinations for fine tuning of the camera's output.
The A850 also gives you a 3fps burst speed, with the ability to use any Sony Alpha or Minolta Autofocus mount lens ever made (including 20+ year old lenses from Minolta that were designed for the Minolta Maxxum and Dynax film cameras). I can remember reading a lot of discussion from users thinking that a sensor shift stabilization system would be too difficult to implement with a full frame (35mm film size) sensor. But, Sony did just that, and delivered a body based stabilization system with the A900 and carried that feature over to the new A850. So, as with all other Sony dSLR models, any lens you use on the A850 is stabilized, thanks to the built in SSS (Super Steady Shot) image stabilization system, reducing camera shake to allow slower shutter speeds that would normally be possible without using a tripod. The viewfinder also displays a Super Steady Shot bar graph (so you can tell how hard the stabilization system is working to combat your camera shake), making it easier to predict the results you'll get for the conditions you're shooting in if you can't use a tripod.
For greater versatility, the Sony A850 offers dual card slots. This feature allows a user to use either Memory Stick Pro Duo media or CompactFlash, and it includes support for UDMA capable CompactFlash cards for better performance. You can change between CompactFlash and MS Pro Duo media with a simple flick of a switch in the card compartment. Like other Sony dSLR models, the A850 offers Sony's great Infolithium battery system that lets you know the exact percentage of battery life remaining, allowing approximately 880 photos (CIPA Rating), and is able to use the same Sony NP-FM500H Lithium-ion rechargeable battery found used by the A700 and A900. We did not observe a low battery indication in a single shooting session while using this camera.
The A850 gives you a very rugged magnesium alloy body incorporating rubber seals with all buttons and controls, offering great resistance to dust and moisture. We found the A850's ergonomics to be superb, making it very comfortable to use, without as much bulk and weight as you sometimes find in a pro grade body of this caliber, weighing in at approximately 30 ounces (850 grams). The A850 has a high-quality Pentaprism with a 98% frame coverage viewfinder that made it a real pleasure to shoot with. If you're accustomed to a model with an APS-C size sensor, the A850's larger and brighter viewfinder is a pleasant surprise. Sony also offers an optional VG-C90AM vertical grip, allowing extended shooting time with two NP-FM500H batteries (automatically switching to the backup battery) allowing approximately 1760 photos to be taken in one shooting session. This optional grip duplicates a number of camera controls for comfortable portrait orientation shooting. Like the A850, the optional portrait grip is rugged with a magnesium alloy body construction, with all buttons and dials resistant to dust and moisture.
The Sony A850 incorporates a Quick Navisystem (as found in models like the A700 and A900) that displays with a touch of the Fn button, allowing easy changes to key shooting parameters using the multi-directional control pad. The A850 also offers a wide variety of dedicated dials and buttons for many frequently used settings. Even with all of the advanced features available, the A850 is simple to operate. Also, note that Sony A700 users looking to upgrade will feel right at home with this camera, with familiar controls and menus.
The A850's performance is better than expected, especially considering it's large files with over 24MP of resolution. Power on to first shot runs approximately 5/10 of a second. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image was approximately 1/10 of a second when prefocused; with Autofocus lag running approximately 2/10 to 3/10 of second when using a Sony 70-200mm f/2.8G SSM lens with the Macro Limiter switch set to reduce the focus range. Shot to shot times using Single Shot drive mode ran approximately 1/2 second. Shooting JPEG Extra Fine with Drive Mode set to Continuous, I was able to capture photos continuously at 3fps without any indication of a slowdown, even after a full 60 seconds of shooting. Switching to cRAW, I was able to capture 28 images at 3fps before the camera slowed down to approximately 2 frames per second, exceeding the 18 frame buffer size before a slow down, thanks to parallel processing while writing to a fast UDMA card. A full buffer took only 6 seconds to clear. Testing was performed using a Sandisk 16GB Extreme Pro 600x UDMA CompactFlash card. From our testing, it's very obvious that you'll get better results from the fastest available UDMA capable cards with this Sony model.
For shooting control, the A850 has a wide range of options available, including Manual Exposure, Programmed AE, Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority. The A850 also offers 3 custom setting positions on the mode dial. The control layout of the A850 made it very easy to change settings with confidence, as it includes dedicated buttons and dials for frequently used features like ISO speed, Drive Mode, Focus mode, White Balance, Exposure Compensation and more. It's Fn (Function) key allowed rapid access to other key shooting parameters, making use of Sony's excellent Quick NaviSystem.
The Sony A850 also includes a wide variety of Creative Styles, each individually settable for contrast, sharpness and saturation, and also has the ability to store multiple Custom White Balance settings (in addition to the numerous presets available for different conditions like Tungsten, Sunny, Flash, Shade, Cloudy and a manual color temperature). All white balance presets are individually tunable with blue/amber compensation. The Sony A850 also offers Metering Options including Spot, Center Weighted and Multi-Segment (Matrix). The A850's focus system worked well, and this camera also has the ability to fine tune AF accuracy for up to 30 individual lenses. Also worth mentioning is the Sony A850's Intelligent Preview Feature, allowing you to review a shot using your settings before taking the actual shot that stores it on your memory card, allowing you to fine tune your settings without wasting memory card space.
Image quality from the A850 is outstanding at lower ISO speed settings and very usable even at higher ISO speeds. If you look closely enough at 100% viewing size, you can see a small amount of noise in shadow areas at relatively low ISO speeds (for example, ISO 400), it really doesn't start to become objectionable at most viewing sizes until after you reach ISO 1600 (and even if then, you probably wouldn't notice it in most prints, given this camera's very high resolution output), with usable images well into ISO 3200 or higher settings at frequently used print sizes, especially when shooting RAW. The Sony A850 offers multiple levels of Noise Reduction (off, low, normal and high), so that you can tune the output to taste.
An interesting new development is that Sony just published a brand new 3.2 version of their Image Data Converter SR software for converting RAW files. This new version is now available for download on some of the Sony international sites and should be available on Sony sites in all regions soon. Sony's Image Data Conversion SR Version 3.2 improves Noise Reduction algorithms dramatically compared to the 3.1 version that shipped with the camera from what we can see from our testing of it, with a much better balance between noise and retained detail. We applaud Sony for listening to users and offering a better solution for Noise Reduction. Note the DSC0248 image in the review samples, where we compared the camera produced JPEG file to RAW conversions using both the 3.1 and 3.2 versions of Sony's Image Data Converter SR to show the improvements this new software offers. We can only hope that Sony incorporates this advanced Noise Reduction into the camera's Noise Reduction algorithms for processing JPEG images at some point, too.
Bottom Line - The Sony A850 is a camera with a wide variety of interesting features, including a capable Autofocus system with class leading resolution and Dynamic Range. We only had a handful of minor complaints, and found that the A850 was fun to use with it's great ergonomics, superb build quality and control layout, combined with features oriented towards professional photographers. The A850 is great choice for virtually any type of photography. With a current MSRP price of only $1999.95, we can easily recommend this camera to dSLR users looking for a camera offering offering the highest possible image quality with a very high resolution output, suitable for all types of photos except perhaps the most demanding conditions encountered during some sports shooting (where you may want a faster frame rate than this model offers). The Sony A850 is a rare bargain for photographers looking to move up to camera offering a very high resolution output (a full frame, 35mm film size sensor producing over 24 Megapixels) with superb image quality, detail and Dynamic Range, combined with a body that has build quality able to withstand the demands of an active professional photographer.
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