Camera Test: Sony Alpha 350

Packed with performance and appealing features, Sony's 14.2MP Alpha 350 provides first-time DSLR shooters with a big step up at a not-so-big price.

What’s in a name? With DSLRs, not much. Case in point: Sony’s new Alpha 350 ($800, street, body only; $900 with 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Sony DT lens). Based on quick math, you might guess it’s half the camera the Alpha 700 ($1,300, body only) is. But the A350 actually boasts a higher-megapixel (14.2) sensor than the A700, plus several conveniences such as a tilting LCD and a live-view mode with fast autofocusing.

Then again, Sony didn’t design the A350 to compete against advanced DSLRs such as the A700. It’s geared toward photographers coming from digital compacts, who may be drawn to its live view, high megapixel count, compact size, and friendly price. The A350’s closest competitors in terms of megapixels, the 14.6MP Pentax K20D and Samsung GX-20, both cost $500 more. The Canon EOS Rebel XSi, priced similarly to the A350, offers 12.2MP. And the less-expensive Nikon D60 and Pentax K200D pack 10.2MP.

Experienced DSLR shooters know that megapixels don’t tell the whole story, and the A350 confirms this. In Pop Photo Lab tests, the A350’s APS-sized 14.2MP sensor delivered less detail (average 2150 lines of resolution at ISO 100-800) than the 12.2MP Sony A700 (2280 lines). Resolution was significantly below the 2350 lines of the Pentax K20D at ISO 100, and nearly the same as the Pentax at ISO 6400 with noise reduction on. (Indeed, the Sony captured detail on par with the 10.1MP Canon EOS 40D.)

Still, the A350’s resolution, combined with Excellent color accuracy (Average Delta E of 6.9) and Extremely Low noise at low to moderate ISO settings, helped the camera achieve an Excellent image quality rating at ISO 100-800.

Detail heads south quickly if you set the camera to ISO 1600 or 3200, where the shadows and midtones require cranked-up noise reduction — especially in JPEGs. RAW shooters will have plenty of choice, control, and better results at all ISOs when converting to TIFFs or JPEGs using the included Image Data Converter SR Version 2 software.

At ISO 1600, we set the noise reduction slider to 50 (on a 0-100 scale) and got a Low noise rating, while resolution dropped nearly 20 percent to 1730 lines, just making an Excellent rating. To keep noise under control at ISO 3200, especially in shadow and midtone areas, we slid NR up to 100 and watched resolution drop further to 1530 lines. That’s still an Extremely High rating, and overall image-quality results at these ISOs followed a similar trajectory.

STEADY AS SHE GOES

While noise performance at high ISOs doesn’t come close to the latest DSLRs we’ve tested, Sony has another low-light weapon: Super SteadyShot image stabilization. Based on our DxO Analyzer 3.1 Blur tests of A350 images shot using a 100-300mm zoom set to 200mm, this sensor-shift system delivered between 2.5 and 3 stops of improvement, similar to the A100 and slightly less than the A700.

So while you might have to crank up the ISO to get a good exposure in low light on the Canon and Nikon, or spend more on image-stabilized lenses for them, you can slow the A350’s shutter speed a few stops without needing a tripod.

Most of the A350’s competitors boast a slightly faster burst mode of 3 or 3.5 frames per second. We got a continuous rate of 2.5 fps for Fine-quality JPEGs using a super-fast CF card, the 4GB SanDisk Extreme Ducati (rated at 45MB/sec). We captured up to 7 RAW images at 2.1 fps (better than the 6 Sony claims). There’s no RAW + JPEG burst, and in that mode JPEGs can be set only to Large/Fine quality.

In our field tests, the Sony’s 40-zone metering system proved fast and accurate, except in very low light below EV 2. Menus were easy to navigate, and we readily accessed important exposure adjustments with the press of the function button.

Image-quality controls are extensive, and include Sony’s proven Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) for expanding highlight and shadow details in high-contrast scenes. (The included conversion software also allows you to apply advanced DRO settings to RAW files.) Adjustments can be made to all white-balance presets (including flash), and you can select Kelvin temperature or custom settings. Access to the exposure and white-balance bracketing adjustments is tricky — you have to press the self-timer/motor drive button and scroll down the menu to find them.

Soccer moms and Nascar dads will like the speed and sensitivity of the A350’s autofocus, as will anyone who uses live view. The 9-zone AF system has only one cross-type sensor in the center, but it’s extremely fast in bright light, very fast in low light from EV 4 to EV 0, and respectable in dim light at EV -1 (its limit). To compare, the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi is faster in low light below EV 0, and its AF can still lock onto detail at EV -2.

SONY’S AUTO-FOCUS ADVANTAGE

The Sony’s real AF advantage becomes obvious in live view. In addition to the imaging sensor, a second, lower-resolution sensor sends a live signal to the LCD. While this two-chip system is similar in concept to that of the groundbreaking Olympus Evolt E-300, the Sony has a unique two-mirror design that lets light hit both the imaging sensor for live view and the AF array simultaneously. That means AF occurs at nearly the same speed when you use live view as when you use the optical viewfinder — there’s no delay while the mirror swings up and down as with the live-view AF systems on competing DSLRs.

To keep the A350 compact, Sony fit the normal optical viewfinder path under the additional live view path. In our opinion, that compromised the design of the optical viewfinder, resulting in a tunnel-vision effect, Acceptable magnification of 0.74X, and a tiny, hard-to-read data display. Most other APS-sensor DSLRs in this class deliver 0.85X or greater magnification, plus better eye relief.

TILT THAT LCD

Sony was smart to give the 2.7-inch LCD some wiggle room. Using the tilting monitor, photographers should be able to compose and shoot steady waist-level shots or capture images while holding the camera overhead. But the LCD doesn’t rotate away from the body or forward for self-portraits, unlike the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10K and Olympus E-3. Nor can you fold it inward to protect the screen.

Rotate the A350 to a vertical orientation, and the data display follows. Hold in the display button for a few seconds and the LCD brightness adjustment appears, and the display shuts off immediately when your eye approaches the optical viewfinder. As on earlier Sony models, looking through the viewfinder also triggers an AF-activation mode, but we usually keep this turned off to prevent battery drain.

During live view, the LCD can be set to display exposure information, a live histogram (with RGB colors), or AF points with highlight indicators. You can also zoom in for manual-focus adjustment. These features, and the responsive live-view AF, should appeal to those who prefer an LCD to an optical viewfinder.

The A350 also has a “Smart Teleconverter” mode — that is, digital zoom. Activated by pressing the display button, it zooms in to either 1.4X (7.1MP) or 2X (3.9MP). Again, since most compact cameras do the same, this function may appeal to point-and-shooters who are stepping up. But digital zoom is still digital zoom, no matter what it’s called — and you’re better off cropping in the computer.

GRAB IT, IT GRABS YOU

In terms of ergonomics and controls, the A350 has much in common with Sony’s new entry-level A200. It’s nicely balanced, the grip is more comfortable, and it feels solid and well built. Unlike the Olympus E-510, Pentax K20D, and Sony’s pro-level A700, the A350 doesn’t sport weather and dust seals, but it does include a dust-repelling sensor coating and a sensor-shake function to help dislodge dust.

A new button on top allows you to switch quickly between optical viewfinder and live view. A knurled dial on the left gives quick access to exposure modes and seven image-preset modes (including night view, portrait, and sunset), all of which can be adjusted. But we wish the buttons to activate exposure compensation or AE lock were raised instead of flush to make them easier to find with cold or glove-clad fingers.

Sony carries forward on the A350 the ability to control external flash units with the pop-up flash — a great feature that has yet to show up in any Canon DSLR. You can adjust the pop-up’s output, though only through the menus, not by a dedicated button (as for ambient exposure). In ADI flash mode, you can also set the A350 to ignore reflections and combine lens information and ambient light to make a balanced flash exposure.

Still, we suggest buying an accessory flash unit such as Sony’s HVL-F56AM or F36AM ($310 and $200, street, respectively). This would not only enable wireless control and high-speed flash sync, but would prevent redeye and lens shadows — a common problem on the A350 due to the short height (less than an inch) of its pop-up flash.

MOVING ON UP

In all, the A350 has impressive features, specs, and price. But it’s still too early to tell whether it will lure serious shooters away from the new Canon EOS Rebel XSi or Pentax K200D. Though we haven’t tested them yet, both promise to control noise well in low light and high ISOs. And the Canon is likely to capture more detail.

As for stealing customers from Sony’s own A700? We doubt it. That camera will continue to attract hard-core shooters. The A350 is aimed at those moving up from a compact or for those who want (and can afford) more from an entry-level DSLR than Sony is offering in its new A300 ($600, estimated street, with 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens), Nikon in its new D60 ($630, street, body only), or Olympus in its new E-420 ($500, estimted street, body only). For such photographers, the A350’s increased image quality and overall performance will be amazing, and the extra features — especially live view — will be reassuringly familiar.

VITAL STATISTICS

Camera Test: Sony Alpha 350

Imaging: 14.2MP effective CCD sensor captures images at 4592×3056 pixels with up to 12 bits/color in RAW mode.

Storage: CompactFlash Type I/II; Microdrives, and MS Duo using optional CF adapter. Stores JPEG, RAW, and RAW + JPEG files.

Burst rate: Fine-quality JPEGs: 2.5 fps continuous with fast CF card, up to 7 RAW at 2.1 fps (tested).

AF system: 9-point TTL phase-detection AF with diamond pattern, center cross-type sensor with 8 linear sensors. Single-shot and continuous AF with fore/aft and across-the-frame tracking. Sensitive down to EV -1 (at ISO 100, f/1.4, tested). Live-view AF uses 9-point AF system with no mirror-lockup delay.

Shutter speeds: 1/4000 to 30 sec plus B (1/3-EV increments).

Image stabilization: Sensor-based, works with all lenses.

Metering: TTL metering with 40-zone evaluative, multi-segment, centerweighted, and spotmetering (approx. 8% of viewfinder). 1200-zone metering in live-view mode. EV 2-20 (at ISO 100).

ISO range: 100-3200 (in 1-EV increments).

Flash: Built-in pop-up unit with TTL autoflash with ±2EV exposure compensation (1/3-EV increments), GN 39 (ISO 100, feet), covers 18mm lens field of view. Flash sync to 1/160 sec. Dedicated Sony/Minolta hot-shoe and wireless control of optional flash.

Viewfinder: Eye-level, fixed penta-Dach mirror. 96% accuracy with 0.74X magnification.

Live view: Pentamirror tilt mechanism with separate sensor.

LCD: 2.7-in. transflective TFT with 230,000-dot (77,000-pixel) resolution.

Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, NTSC video. PictBridge and PIM III compatible.

Battery: Rechargeable NP-FM500H InfoLITHIUM M; CIPA rating, 730 shots, 50% with flash. 410 shots with live view on.

Size/weight: 5.25x4x3 in., 1.49 lb with card and battery.

Street price: $800, body only; $900 with 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Sony DT lens.

For info: www.sonystyle.com.

COMPETITIVE SET

• Canon EOS Rebel XSi ($800, street, body only) Without testing it, we can’t assess image quality. The Rebel has more sophisticated AF, with cross-type sensors, plus a better optical viewfinder and faster burst of 3.5 fps (Sony’s is 2.5). But its 3-inch LCD doesn’t swivel, and there’s a delay when using AF in live view. And the Sony has wireless flash control and sensor-based IS.

• Pentax K20D ($1,300, street, body only) At 14.6MP the closest DSLR in megapixels, it costs $500 more. The Pentax delivers 10% higher resolution and image quality, especially at ISO 1600 and 3200. It has weather and dust seals, and its optical viewfinder, with removable focusing screens, is vastly superior. Plus, its 3-fps burst mode has a 16-shot RAW capacity vs. 7 on the Sony. But AF is slower in low light below EV 2, and there’s a mirror delay in live view.