Sony Alpha a850 review
In use the a850 is a near carbon copy of its a900 peer, with subtle variations in the lesser viewfinder coverage and lower burst rate.
The difference is relatively slight however, with the 98% field of view as close to full as you're likely to need.
Weighed up against its biggest competitors - the Canon EOS 5D mark II and Nikon D700 - this meets head-on, though the Sony's 24.6MP resolution is the most resolute by quite some margin.
Whether that'll sway prospective buyers is another issue entirely however, as the higher expandable ISO settings and better high-ISO performance range of both aforementioned competitors means the Sony can rule in good light, but lags behind in dimmer conditions.
There is a long-exposure noise reduction setting (on or off) and a three-band (off, low, standard, high) noise-reduction setting when using higher ISO settings.
When in the upper echelons of ISO sensitivity the ‘low' noise reduction can be of use, despite it not fully resolving noise issues, but it's the better option over the ‘high' level which compromises sharpness and detail to excess.
Pop the a850 in the studio though and there's a mighty fine, affordable camera to use under controlled light - it looks as though Sony's tactic, in part, is to undercut some of the medium format players by offering a class-leading DSLR resolution.
Autofocus itself follows that of the a900 system, relying on a 9-point system that's nippy, though doesn't quite match up to Nikon's advanced 51-point system (as found in the D700 and beyond).
Also, while brand new Sony lenses are steadily on the rise, the more specialist range isn't quite catered for as yet: If super-telephoto or specialist tilt and shift lenses are what you're after, then a little patience from camp Sony is to be required before those (as yet unconfirmed) products are likely to rear their heads.
Saying that, the four different lenses used on this body during this test were all excellent, from the ultra-fast, swift-AF of the 50mm f/1.4 through to the hefty wide-angle 16-35mm f/2.8 and decent, if not a little more sluggish, 75-200mm f/3.5-5.6.
If you are going to dabble in purchasing one of Sony's silent SSM lenses do prepare to part with quite some cash though - as with all full-frame purchases, things don't come cheap. But if you pay for quality the benefits will speak volumes.
The Preview Button at the front of the camera is used for the Intelligent Preview function, an interesting feature that takes a preview shot for display on the camera's LCD screen. From here it's possible to make live adjustments such as Dynamic Range Optimisation, exposure, white balance settings and so forth, further aided by four histograms - Red, Green, Blue and Exposure - for accurate capture. It's just the button's physical placement that frustrates; the mode will be widely useful for a number of users.
Speed-wise, when using a 133x CF card, the burst mode happily fired off three frames per second to 11 frames, one less than the quoted spec-sheet's acclaimed 12 Raw + Jpeg frames. Pop in a faster 300x card though and it outperforms its quota, with 35 consecutive X.Fine Jpegs firing off with ease. Once the buffer's full it can take quite some time to fully clear before being able to shoot at full capacity once again.
The rule here is the better the card the better the camera's potential performance, and, whilst not limitless, the current UDMA 6 cards (Lexar Professional 600x and SanDisk Extreme Pro 90MB/s are viable options) will provide the swiftest results if burst-shooting is essential to your working process.
As per the a900 the lack of live view or video mode is unlikely to alienate buyers, as this feels like a grass roots, straight-to-the-point DSLR.
The sell point is the full-frame sensor, high resolution and undercutting price point. Of course, a number of other high-end DSLR cameras offer comprehensive video modes and the majority of all DSLR cameras are now equipped with live view too.
The lack of a pop up flash is also to be expected at this level although, as found with the Nikon D700, its inclusion would actually be greatly useful for off-the-cuff, quick fill-flash when out and about.