Sony Alpha a450 review
For a sub-£500 DSLR the a450 is a decent performer, despite its lack of a more comprehensive live view system that even Sony's lower-spec models and many competitors' entry-level models have. Manual Check Liveview features, which is quick-accessed from a button on top of the camera, but this mode is exactly as described - manual focus only. Of course, for those users unphased by the presence of live view, this is a good compromise: save money buying a more affordable model that still has high speed features as per the Alpha a550 above it in the range.
When using the 18-55mm kit lens in manual focus it's easy for a drifting digit to get in the way of the front glass element too as there's little distance to grab at. The lens itself does provide a useful AF/MF switch on the side for absolute control, which is a useful feature. The main qualm with the kit lens is the notable volume made in autofocus mode. For optimum results there are plenty of other Sony-compatible lenses out there, and future lenses penned for release too.
The a450's 9-point autofocus system is relatively nippy, though with no AF-assist lamp as such it will struggle to attain focus in low light. Attempting to take an ISO 3200 portrait at 1/25th in a dimly lit pub one Saturday afternoon was a struggle - and with the capacity to shoot up to a sensitivity of ISO 12,800 (i.e. in yet lower light) this seems to be a bit of an anomaly to get to use the high-ISO settings appropriately. The pop-up flash does act as an illuminator by pre-flashing the subject for focus, though flash isn't always desirable and a dedicated lamp would have provided the option of variety. There are three AF options - the usual AF-S for a single focus, AF-C for continuously adjusting focus and the AF-A option providing a combination of the two for initial single focus and only re-focusing should your subject move.
Compared to entry-level models, the a450's Speed Priority mode trounces competitors' continuous shooting modes by offering up to seven frames per second. However, outside of this specific mode it's a 5fps maximum or 4fps when in Manual Focus Liveview.
The LCD screen is 2.7in, 230K-dot and not a free-angle tilting type - the same as found in the entry-level Alpha a230 model. Most DSLR cameras these days come with a 3in screen minimum, and this one does feel small; further emphasized by the black borders and space around the screen placement.
In-camera HDR (high dynamic range) and D-Range Optimiser (DRO) features also provide options for ways of exposing images, without the need for any post-production. The in-camera HDR mode takes two frames in quick succession and ‘threads' them together to render one single image with suitable highlight and shadow exposure that would not be possible in a single standard exposure. Although Sony is currently the only manufacturer to provide such a mode that can be used handheld, it won't always be successful in lower light with some image ghosting on occasion. In general though it's a good option to have, with user-defined control of a 1-3EV difference (in 0.5EV values) between first and second exposures.
Results are reasonably subtle and useful for real-world use, though it would be preferred to see more creative control, as per the depth of light smoothing, saturation and other controls found in post-production software such as Photomatix. When not using the HDR mode a similar, yet entirely different, D-Range Optimiser option is available. The key difference here is that this works by pulling exposure detail from a single exposure, so the overall available dynamic range of the image is lower and this can limit the extremes of what's possible. However, with five levels available from slight-significant adjustment, the capacity is there for more subtle results than the HDR - though above DRO level three the shadow exposure can look wrong in some scenes. The biggest downside of both modes is that when shooting in Raw (including Raw & Jpeg) these modes aren't accessible.
Raw files are captured in Sony's native ARW file format, with Image Data Converter software provided in the box to read, edit and manage your files. An imminent Camera Raw (ACR) update from Adobe will also see these files readable using Photoshop or Elements too. Although Sony's software isn't as nippy as Adobe's offering, it does provide camera-specific adjustments to be made in post-production, such as using the D-Range Optimiser presets. Battery life is extended beyond an acclaimed 1000 shots per charge. Certainly a full day of shooting left the camera with a good 15% remaining, which is pretty good going after hundreds of shots, some playback and lots of continuous AF work. Having this battery power symbol as an accurate percentage - not the common ‘four bars of power' - is also an accurate way to keep on top of the charge. Still no movie mode to be found either, though the next generation of Sony DSLRs will come with Full HD capture in tow, as we found at a press conference at the PMA show 2010 in California.
Overall good results, though it's the placement of the camera that's perhaps most confusing. With yet another model number in the range, the monetary and spec difference between the nearest Alpha cameras is very subtle. Plus, in the sub-£500 category there are competitor cameras that offer live view, video, proper AF-illuminator lamps and larger screens.