Sony Alpha 200: Camera Test

This is a heck of a kit for under five hundred bucks.

When Sony introduced its first DSLR, the Alpha 100, we liked it enough to name it our 2006 Camera of the Year. While its replacement, the new Alpha 200, doesn't break much new ground, it will certainly give its entry-level competitors a run for their money. And money is the operative word, given the A200's bargain street price of $500 with a 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens ($700 with additional 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens).

As we mentioned in our first look at the A200 (March 2008), the new camera has the same 10.2MP (effective) CCD sensor as its predecessor, placing it on par with other entry-level DSLRs in terms of pixel count. Like all cameras in this class (except for those made by Olympus, with the Four Thirds system), it has an APS-C sized sensor, which in this case gives it a 1.5X lens factor. Sensor-based image stabilization is built right in. Where the Alpha 200 outstrips most: sensitivity, which reaches ISO 3200. That's not only 1 stop more than the A100, but 1 stop more than the Canon EOS Rebel XS and XSi, Olympus E-420, andPentax K200D.

The real question: How well does the Alpha 200 perform? Very well indeed in our tests both in the Pop Photo Lab and in the field.

Overall, image quality was Excellent from ISO 100 through 800. It slipped to Extremely High at ISO 1600-3200, when noise reduction, a default setting, kicked in at the expense of resolution. This dropped to 1725 lines at ISO 3200 from 2150 lines on average at lower ISOs.

The A200 also fared very well in our noise tests, slightly edging out Canon's Rebel XSi from ISO 100 through 800. But even at lower sensitivities, its noise advantage costs the Sony resolution: The Canon beats it by about 100 lines at ISO 100.

And color accuracy scored an Excellent rating in our Lab test, with an average Delta E of 7.6 -- more accurate than any consumer-grade film. Sony's Dynamic Range Optimizer does a good job of producing images with a wide range of tones from light to dark. Images also show excellent contrast.

Sony's 40-segment honeycomb-pattern metering system determines the right exposure for a given scene, and it's supplemented by both centerweighted-and spotmetering for trickier conditions. While its multisegment metering doesn't quite measure up to Nikon's nearly telepathic 3D Color Matrix Metering II in adapting to extraordinary situations, such as a heavily backlit portrait, we're still plenty impressed. We're also glad that Sony's multisegment metering errs on the side of preserving highlights, since it's easier to resurrect shadow detail in postprocessing than it is to salvage blown highlights.

Burst shooting came close to matching Sony's claim of 3 frames per second in our tests. A camera's actual burst rate in the field depends on a number of factors, sometimes including which memory card you use. We were able to get 25 images in 9 seconds, for an average of 2.8 frames per second using a Lexar 2GB UDMA 300X-speed card. Conveniently, you can shoot JPEGs continuously until your card fills up, though you're limited to 6 RAW images, or 3 RAW + JPEG frames, before the buffer runs out of space.

FOCUS ON CONVENIENCE

The Alpha 200's 9-point autofocus system proved speedy in our Lab tests, especially in very bright light. It was
faster than the Canon Rebel XSi and Nikon D60 in bright conditions, though slower than both of them as the light dimmed. Compared with the Pentax K200D and midlevel Olympus E-520, the Sony was faster across all levels of brightness.

At EV 10 and 12, the brightest light in our test, the A200 was able to lock focus in a scant 0.27 second. In very dim light, it slowed but still managed a respectable 1.4 seconds at EV -1, a little brighter than the light of a full moon, which was the darkest light level the AF system could take. That's common in this class of DSLR. Canon's Rebel XSi can reach down to EV -2, but the Nikon D60 joins the A200 in bottoming out at EV -1. The Pentax K200D can reach EV -1, but not reliably, while the Olympus E-520 didn't autofocus below EV 0 in our tests.

A pair of sensors just below the optical viewfinder trigger the Eye-Start AF function. As the name indicates, the camera will begin to focus as soon as you raise it to your eye. However, since the Alpha 200 can't distinguish between your eye and your chest, you may want to dig into the custom menu to turn off this function if you wear your camera around your neck.

Also, as indicated by the 0.89X viewfinder magnification we measured in the Pop Photo Lab, the A200 suffers from only minimal tunnel vision. If you wear eyeglasses, though, you may have trouble seeing info at the bottom of the finder and a full view of the frame at the same time. Thankfully, when we tested the finder, it served up a very impressive 95-percent accuracy.

That's crucial, since you won't find live view on the Alpha 200, so if you want that, you'll have to step up to the otherwise nearly identical Alpha 300 ($600, street, with the same lens).

A host of other features make shooting more convenient, though. For instance, to let you tailor color settings to your subject, Sony's main menu offers what it calls Creative Style settings. Standard is good for general shooting; Vivid boosts saturation; Landscape boosts saturation, contrast, and sharpness; Night View rolls back contrast to accommodate for the wide dynamic range of night-time scenes; Sunset accentuates the red of sunsets; and B&W creates monotone images. Creative Style is also where you can choose the Adobe RGB color space, which offers a wider gamut of colors than the sRGB color space used by all the other styles. You can also adjust contrast, saturation, and sharpness.

Another nice touch? The filter in front of the sensor has an antistatic coating, and the entire sensor assembly vibrates when you turn the camera off to shake away any dust that may have landed on it.

GET A GRIP

You have to hand it to Sony's design team: The A200's revamped body design has curves in all the right places. Starting with the reasonably long grip, Sony creates an undulating set of swoops that make it effortless to achieve a firm hold. Around back, an odd ridge bends to the left and creates a curve toward the top, providing an awesome resting place for your thumb.

While we applaud the inclusion of dedicated buttons for ISO and drive mode atop the camera, the drive button is too far to the left to reach comfortably while shooting. Excessive leftward placement also plagues the exposure-compensation button, which, along with the exposure lock button, is too far recessed for our taste.

This would be less of a problem if Sony included a rear control wheel. Instead, to change aperture in manual-exposure mode, you have to hold down the exposure-comp button while turning the wheel next to the shutter.

That wheel provides well-defined clicks for feedback as you rotate it, but one with a larger diameter and slightly less-coarse surface would have been a better choice. The mode dial, which has a nicely knurled edge, gives quick access to six scene modes that DSLR newbies should find useful.

In keeping with the trend in entry-level DSLRs, you have to jump into the Function menu to change the most commonly used settings. The type is pleasingly large on the 2.7-inch LCD screen, and it's fairly quick to control the camera while out in the field.

And we really like that there's a physical switch for the sensor-shifting Super SteadyShot image stabilization.

If you want to take full advantage of an accessory flash, such as Sony's new HVL-F58AM, the Alpha 200 includes a wireless flash mode. This doesn't offer the same level of control as you'd get if you use the F58AM as the master wireless unit, with which you can adjust the lighting ratios of slave units. Still, it's better than having no wireless control -- a drawback of entry-level Nikon and all Canon DSLRs.

Sure, the selection of Sony-branded lenses and accessories isn't quite as large as those from Canon and Nikon. But the company continues to add more and more lenses, and third-party lens makers have been bolstering their offerings as Sony sells more bodies to the DSLR-hungry masses. Of course, there are still plenty of older Konica Minolta-mount lenses that fit Sony bodies, too.

All in all, Sony's Alpha 200 is a capable bargain-priced DSLR. Once you consider that the kit comes with a longer-than-usual 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens for only $500, it becomes a steal.

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