Sony DSLR-A350 Review

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Sony DSLR-A350

Steve's Conclusion

Sony has flooded the entry-level dSLR market this year (2008) with three offerings in this category, the A200, A300, and A350. These models share very similar specifications, with resolution, Live View, and the LCDs being the main differences between them. The 14.2-megapixel Alpha 350 or DSLR-A350 is what I consider the "top model" from Sony in this field. Like the A200 we reviewed earlier in the year, the A350 offers an APS-C sized imaging sensor with Anti-dust system, Alpha/Minolta A-type bayonet lens mount, Super SteadyShot image stabilization system, D-Range Optimizer, 9-point AF system with Eye-start option, 40-segment metering, etc. Sony has improved this model with more resolution, Live View function and a large variable angle 2.7-inch ClearPhoto LCD screen. However, the burst or continuous capture rate has dropped to 2.5fps compared to the 3fps of its sibling.

Like all of the Alpha models, I was pleased with the ergonomics of this camera. The A350's body design is almost identical to the A200. The differences include the variable angle LCD, Live View/OVF (Optical ViewFinder) switch on the top, and the "Smart Teleconverter" button on the back. I found this button to be pretty much useless. It can only be used in Live View mode, and by lowering the image size, it acts like a digital teleconverter (1.4 or 2x). This function reminds me of the digital zoom feature you find on many consumer digicams. We feel that this button could have served a much better purpose, and hope that in the future Sony will release an update that will allow you to choose the setting that is controlled by this button.

The A350 is about 50 grams heavier that its "little" brother, but is still what I consider a lightweight camera. The handgrip offered a nice comfortable feel in my large hands, and the camera controls are positioned well. Again we found the Fn (Function) button to be very handy, allowing us to make quick changes to several functions like AF mode/area, Flash mode, metering, etc. The large 2.7-inch ClearPhoto Plus LCD is a high-quality display that is not only used for navigating the Menu system, reviewing images or as the shooting information display, but can also be used to frame your pictures thanks to the Live View function. This is becoming an almost standard option on consumer based dSLRs, however, unlike many manufactures, Sony has the cleverest system yet; in my opinion. Instead of having the mirror move twice to capture a single image, the system on the A350 features a separate image sensor used just for the live image that is displayed on the LCD.

One feature that I like about the latest Alpha models is the sensor right below the optical viewfinder. When enabled via the menu, the camera will shut off the LCD and focus the camera when you bring your eye up to the eyepiece. While the LCD is very bright and can be tilted up or down to help you capture those tuff shots, it would benefit from an anti-reflective coating. In bright sunlight there are several angles that reflected the sun during our testing. Indoors the display gains up well, even when using Live View. However, it does get a little grainy. The menu system is also identical to the A200 with only a few options that differ. This system is logically organized and thanks to the 2.7-inch LCD, the font size is large and very legible.

Playback mode offers several options. You have the ability to zoom-in or magnify an image up to 14x 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 useful feature on the A350 is the RGB histograms when viewing the detailed exposure information screen. Add to that an exposure 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, perfect for displaying images on a TV set.

The A350 employs a penta-Dach-mirror style optical viewfinder. I found the viewfinder was comfortable to use, thanks to the deep rubber eyecup. There's plenty of shooting information along the bottom, and 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 you also have 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 all of the models in the Alpha series. 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 and A200, on the bottom 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 the results of your handheld photos.

The A350 is quite a robust performer. From power up till the first image was captured measured a mere 5/10 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 4-5/10 second without the flash, and between 1 and 2 seconds including the internal flash, depending on subject distance. With the optional HVL-F42AM flash unit attached, the shot to shot delay averaged 7/10 of a second. Sony claims the A350 can continuously capture images at 2.5fps in Continuous Advance or burst mode. I was able to capture 10 Large Fine JPEG images in just 3.4 seconds. This is about 2.9fps, exceeding Sony's claims. In RAW mode, the capture rate got even better, allowing me to capture 7 frames (Sony claims 4) in just 2.3 seconds (3fps), slowing to about 1fps once the buffer was full. It only took the A350 about 6-7 seconds to flush a full buffer of RAW images.

Performance when using Live View was also impressive when compared to other models that offer this feature. Power up till the first image was captured was similar at just 6/10 of a second. Shutter lag measured the same as above, less than 1/10 of a second when prefocused and between 1-3/10 of a second including the AF system. The shot-to-shot delay averaged about 5-6/10 of a second between frames without the flash, and 1 - 2 seconds with the flash. Continuous capture slowed a bit, to about 2.3fps (10 images in 4.3 seconds). The LCD briefly shows the last image captured when in burst mode, much like a consumer digicam. So, I feel your best bet is to use the optical viewfinder when following fast moving subjects. All our results were obtained using the 18-70mm Sony AF DT kit lens, a Sony UDMA 300x 4GB CF card, Program mode, flash off, AWB, 14M Large/Fine JPEG mode, ISO Auto, unless otherwise noted. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.

The A350 offers several focusing modes choices 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.

Like the A200, when shooting in marginal lighting the A350 performed quite well, even without an AF-assist lamp. If you are in very dim lighting, the camera will use the flash as an AF-assit illuminator, which then fires 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 A350's AF system monitors your focusing effort; it turns on the Focus Locked indicator on both the optical viewfinder and the LCD in Live View when it is in agreement.

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.

When reviewing our sample images, I found the A350's image quality results to be very pleasing for an entry-level dSLR. We primarily shot using the 14M Large Fine JPEG setting and Program mode with the ISO set to 100. Doing so, the majority of our samples showed good overall exposure. When using the Standard creative style mode, color saturation was very natural looking. I was impressed with the low noise levels found when shooting available light shots of our M&M man. Noise was very low at ISO speeds of 800 and below. At ISO 800, you can start to see some signs in low contrast (shadow) areas when viewing an image at 100%. Using 1600, noise is present throughout the photograph. This also seems to be when the High ISO NR (Noise Reduction) kicks in. There is slight detail loss from this, which you can see by looking at the wording on the magazines in our samples. The ISO 3200 option shows even more noise, however, I feel both of these settings still have the ability to produce usable prints up to maybe an 8x10. Using an aftermarket noise reduction software might allow for even larger prints. Like I stated about the A200, your best bet is to leave the High ISO NR option turned On. Be sure to check out our ISO examples on the Sample Photos page.

The kit's DT 18-70mm (27-105mm in 35mm equivalence) f3.5-5.6 lens works well for general photo taking. While it won't be mistaken for an expensive professional series lens, it does have the ability to produce nice images throughout the zoom range. The majority of our shots were sharp, but I did see some edge softness on several photos. The lens also exhibits plenty of barrel distortion at full wide angle, however, was essentially free of chromatic aberration (aka purple fringing). Like the A200, 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 A350 is capable of capturing great portrait images. The internal flash is sufficient for snap shots in mid sized rooms, however, if you plan on taking a lot of family photos, an external flash unit like the HVL-F42AM we used is strongly recommended. The built-in flash has sufficient coverage for the 18mm wide angle of the kit lens, and the AF-assist and red-eye reduction functions both worked very well. With the warmer weather, we captured mostly outdoor portraits of our children, and our results were very pleasing. The camera was able to capture sharp facial details, and skin tones were very natural using the Program exposure mode. The Wide AF area mode also did very well, even when our subject was off center. If you're a beginner and want to capture more creative portraits, you have several options. You can simply used the dedicated Portrait exposure mode on the Mode dial, which uses the Advanced D-Range optimizer setting. The only downfall is the ISO also changes back to Auto, so there could be times when the camera selects higher settings than one would want. Another option would be to use the Portrait Creative Style option when shooting in Program exposure mode. We saw great results when doing this with the A200, and I'm sure they would be similar with this model.

The self-cleaning image sensor helps eliminate one of the most difficult issues that dSLR users face - removing image-ruining dust from the sensor. Thankfully, almost all dSLRs these days have 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 you will start to see dark spots on your images - which are much more noticeable at small apertures. The A350'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.

The A350 is powered by a 7.2v 1600 mAh NP-FM500H lithium-ion battery, which Sony claims will allow you to capture up to 730 photos (using CIPA Standard testing) on a single charge. I found that battery life with this pack was pretty awesome. I was able to capture over 570 JPEGs, several RAW files, and conclude most of our other test with the camera still showing 36% battery power left. As always, we highly recommend you add a second pack (about US$70) to you purchase, nothing is more irritating that missing a unique photo opt due to a dead battery (or full memory card for that matter).

Bottom line - Sony's "top of the line" entry-level Alpha 350 or DSLR-A350 is an outstanding camera. In this saturated market, consumers really have a lot of great cameras to choose from, all at competitive pricing. At about US$899 or less as tested, I feel the A350 offers a great value for such a well balanced camera. The Live View performance offered by the A350 is way ahead of its competitors. Another feature that helps make this model more appealing is the fact that you have an effective form of Image Stabilization built right in. This will allow you to save some money when buying lenses, where with other models you'll have to spend a nice chunk of change to acquire a stabilized lens to achieve the same level of low-light performance. While we feel this is a great camera, if you don't need 14-meagpixels, a variable angle LCD or Live View, be sure to check out our review of the A350's "little brother", the DSLR-A200. It offers the same overall features, with lower resolution at 10- megapixels, but a slightly faster burst mode.

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