Sony DSLR-A200 Review
The A200's ergonomics are almost identical to its older brother. The only real difference is the weight, the A200 is about 13 grams lighter. The large handgrip offers a comfortable and secure feel, and the camera controls are positioned well. In fact, the controls on the back are similarly arranged, however the A200 features a new Fn (Function) button, which gives access to a very useful shortcut menu with options for Flash mode, Metering, AF Mode, AF Area, White balance, and D-Range Optimizer. These functions use to be accessed via the Function dial on the A100. The large 2.7-inch ClearPhoto Plus LCD is a high-quality display that is not only used for navigating the Menu system or reviewing images, but also serves as the a shooting information display. This mode display is very informative, with indicators for essentially all of the available camera settings (flash mode, exposure comp., ISO, Metering, etc.). I found it to be very useful, and liked how the display would turn off once I put my eye to the viewfinder. While the LCD is very bright, and a pleasure to use indoors, there is not an anti-reflective coating, so outdoors in bright sunlight you will have several angles which reflect the sun and make it difficult to see. The onscreen Menu system is logically organized and thanks to the larger LCD, the font size is bigger and more legible. I also liked the addition of the battery level % indicator. Instead of just a battery icon with four or five levels that show the approx. life, there is an actual percentage of the remaining battery power; Kudos to Sony for this helpful feature.
During image playback, you have the ability to magnify an image up to 12x for critical examination of focus, expression, and image details. There are two index display modes to choose from, allowing you to quickly search thorough stored images. Another added feature on the A200 is the RGB histograms when viewing the detailed exposure information screen. Add to that a histogram with under/over exposed area highlighting and detailed shooting information and you have a very versatile playback system. For those who just want to share their pictures with friends and family, you can press the DISPlay button to clear all information from the screen, showing just the picture itself.
Sony chose a less costly penta-mirror style viewfinder on the A200. I found the viewfinder was enjoyable to use with its nice deep rubber eyecup, and there's plenty of camera information along the bottom. The dioptric adjustment easily accommodates those who wear glasses, providing a clear and full view of the focusing screen and display areas. The intended focus areas are illuminated briefly when autofocus is locked, and I loved the ability to use the focus area selector on the back of the camera to choose which of the 9 AF points will be used (when using the Local AF area option via the Fn menu). The matte focusing screen is the same as found on the A100. It's effective for manual focusing, and the camera's AF system operates during manual focus, lighting the focus confirmation indicator when it is in agreement. Just like we saw on the A100, on the right side of the viewfinder display is a small scale that informs you of the amount of shake the Super SteadyShot system has detected; reducing the amount of camera movement that is detected, will improve this systems results.
Sony claims the A200's AF performance is up to 1.7 times faster than the A100. I found shooting performance was very robust. From power- on till the first image was captured measured a mere 6/10 of a second; waking up from its power-saving sleep mode took about the same amount of time (5-6/10 of a second). Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was almost instantaneous (less than 1/10 of a second) when pre-focused, and between 1/10 and 3/10 second including auto focus time; depending on the degree of focus change required. Shot-to-shot delay averaged a fast 5/10 second without the flash, and between 1.2 and 2 seconds including the internal flash depending on subject distance.
Performance when using Continuous advance mode was great, as long as you are using the right brand CF card. When using either a Kingston elite pro 133X 8GB or 16GB CF card, the A200 captured images at just over 3fps (around 3.4fps) but for only 15 frames, then there was a significant slowdown where the capture rate dropped to about 1fps. Sony claims "unlimited" continuous capture at 3fps shooting Large/Fine JPEG mode. In RAW mode, the capture rate stayed at 3fps, but only 8 images (Sony claims 6) could be captured before the buffer filled, and the interval to capture subsequent images slowed dramatically to 1.5 seconds; it took about 14 seconds to flush a buffer full of RAW images. However, when using a Sandisk Extreme III 1GB CF card, the A200 captured at about the same rate (3.4fps), and never slowed down (I stopped at 50 frames). In RAW mode I captured 10 frames at 3fps, then it slowed to about 1.5fps. It also cleared the buffer much faster at only 5-6 seconds for a full buffer of RAW files. This is puzzling as both cards are rated at a 20MB/sec. These results were obtained using the 18-70mm Sony AF DT kit lens, Program mode, flash off, AWB, 10M Large/Fine JPEG mode, ISO Auto, unless otherwise noted. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
The A200 features Sony's Super SteadyShot anti-shake system. They claim that this system will allow you to capture blur-free images at shutter speeds 2.5 to 3.5 stops slower than the 1/focal-length rule of thumb. While this feature is very effective at reducing blur caused by camera-shake, it won't help with blur that is caused by subject motion.
The A200 features a very similar autofocus system with the same options as the A100. It provides a choice of focusing modes including Manual, Single AF, Continuous AF and Automatic AF, which allows the camera to switch between single AF and Continuous AF depending on subject movement. A Priority Setup function is provided to give priority to AF, which prevents shutter release until the camera focuses, or Shutter Release, which releases the shutter even if focus can not be confirmed. The autofocus system can be set to Wide Focus Area, allowing the camera to select the optimum focus point from the 9 available, Spot AF Area using the center AF point, or Local AF area selection, allowing the photographer to choose the focus point using the 8-way controller on the back.
I was surprised at how well the AF system performed in low lighting conditions, even though it does not feature an AF-assist lamp. When the flash is popped up, it will fire a few short bursts to help the phase-detection system achieve precise focus. As good as the AF system is, there are always conditions that favor the use of Manual focus. The AF/MF switch, located on the left side of the body adjacent to the lens, switches the camera between manual and autofocus, allowing you to keep your eye at the viewfinder while switching focus modes. While in MF mode, the A200's AF system monitors your focusing effort; it turns on the Focus Locked indicator along the bottom of the viewfinder (to the right of the MF icon) when it is in agreement, but does not illuminate the in-focus AF point.
Both Continuous and Single bracketing are offered, with steps limited to ± .3 or .7 EV for three frames. Exposure compensation can be set ± 2EV in .3 EV steps. There's also White balance bracketing with Low or High options. The Creative Style option in the record menu allows you to choose from several "color" or "style" modes that are optimized to help bring the best possible exposures in various conditions. You can choose from Standard (default), Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Night view, Sunset, B&W, and AdobeRGB. You can also adjust the contrast, saturation and sharpness in a range of 7 steps, -3 to +3, for each setting.
Our image quality results when using the 10-megapixel Large/Fine JPEG image mode were outstanding for an entry-level consumer dSLR. Using the Program exposure mode allowed me to produce very pleasing images with accurate and rich colors as well as good exposure. The D-Range Optimizer function, which Sony claims will help recover details in dark or bright areas of the picture, worked very well when shooting on sunny days with fresh snow on the ground. Many cameras have problems with the sun reflecting off the snow, which usually gets washed out. As you can see from our small statue example, this feature helped the A200 retain much of the snow's detail. It has 2 operating modes, Standard, which adjusts the brightness and contrast of the entire image, and Advanced, which performs the adjustments by area. I feel this feature should be left On for the average consumer who will be using this camera, as it did help produce pleasing images in our tests.
Noise levels were also good for a model in this class. Imager noise is very low at ISO speeds of 400 and below. At 800, you can start to see some speckling in the dark or low contrast areas of the image, when viewing them at 100% for critic inspection. However, they are still capable of producing very nice prints. At ISO 1600, the High ISO NR (Noise Reduction) feature seems to kick in (if enabled via the record menu), and I found it does a good job of helping reduce the noise, however detail is lost in the process. Without this feature turned on (shooting at 1600), there's quite a bit of noise present, and 3200 is even worse. While you will loose a bit of detail, I highly recommend keeping the High ISO NR option turned On, especially if you plan on making prints of images shot at these high settings. Luckily, the A200 features a capable Anti-shake system that will allow you to keep the sensitivity settings as low as possible, and still capture nice shots in situations where you would normally have to raise the ISO.
The Sony DT 18-70mm (27-105mm in 35mm equivalence) f3.5-5.6 kit lens complements the A200 nicely. While it won't be mistaken for an expensive professional series lens, it does have the ability to produce nice sharp images throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. The lens does exhibit a moderate amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle, but is essentially distortion free at moderate to telephoto focal lengths. Chromatic aberration (aka purple fringing) was pretty much nonexistent in our test shots. I only noticed one instance on the museum/library shot, and instead of the typical purple/blue color it's more orange/yellow. You can see it along the left edge of the building.
The internal flash unit did well when shooting some indoor portraits. It provides sufficient coverage for the 18mm wide angle of the kit lens, and the AF-assist and red-eye reduction functions were both very effective within its limited range. I found the A200 can capture beautiful "people" photos when using either the Program or the dedicated Portrait scene mode. When using Portrait mode, the camera switches back to ISO Auto, and also changes the D-Range Optimizer setting from Standard to Advanced. I tested the Portrait Creative Style option using Program mode. In fact, I enjoyed the look of these images over using the dedicated Portrait mode or just plain Program. It seems to produce more pleasing skin tones and saturation. However, they are not as natural looking. Our subject did have more pale looking skin tone due to the winter weather and lack of sun. The creative style mode helped bring more color to her face and highlighted her hair a bit; thus producing "better" looking images in my opinion. And, as mentioned before, you can tweak these modes further with adjustments for contrast, saturation, and sharpness. Be sure to see our three portrait examples on the samples photos page.
The self-cleaning image sensor helps eliminate one of the most difficult issues that dSLR users face - removing image-ruining dust from the sensor. Many dSLRs are taking up some forum of this feature. The risk of dust on the sensor occurs at every lens change; it's not a matter of if it will happen, but more of when your images will have noticeable dark spots - especially noticeable at small apertures. The A200's self-cleaning process is invoked each time you power the camera on or off, causing an ultrasonic vibration to shake dust loose from the image sensor. I did not have the opportunity to test any other lenses with this model, so I wasn't changing lenses frequently to incur much dust.
Power is supplied by a powerful 7.2v 1600 mAh NP-FM500H lithium-ion battery, which Sony claims will power the A200 for up to 750 photos (using CIPA Standard testing). Battery life was good, however I did not shoot anywhere near 700 shots. I captured about 185 Large/Fine JPEGs and about 25 RAW images with extensive reviewing. That, along with our other test did exhaust the cameras battery; I did a LOT of image reviewing as well as menu navigation. I highly recommend purchasing a second pack (about US$70), and keep it charged and ready at all times.
Bottom line - back when we reviewed the Alpha 100, the amateur or entry-level dSLR market was pretty competitive. These days, that's an understatement. Instead of only releasing one camera in this class each year to year and a half, camera makers like Sony are producing two or more. This, coupled with falling prices has made it quite difficult for the amateur or novice users to decide on which model to buy; especially if they are just making the jump into the dSLR world. The Sony Alpha 200/DSLR-A200 is a worthy competitor in the entry-level market, offering awesome image quality, robust performance, great ergonomics and loads of useful exposure options. One feature that stands out is the Super SteadyShot option. While many manufactures (Panasonic, Canon, etc.) are starting to offer stabilized lenses with these dSLR kits, the A200 features an effective anti-shake system that works not matter what type of glass you are using. This means many of the other models in this class with require you to purchase more expensive image stabilized lenses to achieve the same level of low light shooting performance. That said, with an MSRP of US$699 for the DT 18-70mm f3.5-5.6 zoom kit or US$899 for the dual lens (DT 18-70mm and a 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 lens) kit, I highly recommend the A200 to anyone who is in the market for an affordable and capable consumer level digital SLR.
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