The Sony A290: the perfect DSLR for those on a small budget? The What Digital Camera Sony A290 review tests it out...
Sony Alpha A290 review – Features
At its heart the A290 employs a 14.2-megapixel APS-C sized CCD sensor and Sony’s BIONZ image processor. In addition to the standard DSLR quartet of Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual shooting modes, the A290 also offers a fully Automatic point-and-shoot mode along with a number of specific scene modes. This gives the novice user the flexibility to learn the ropes by taking control of the camera, with the safety net of a point-and-shoot mode when required.
Given that the A290 is aimed at users without much, or indeed any, prior experience of using a DSLR, Sony has attempted to simplify its operation as much as possible. To this end the camera’s Help Guide explains in simple terms how the various settings and shooting modes affect images. The Graphic Display on the rear screen offers an easy-to-understand graphical representation of how the chosen shutter speed relates to still or moving objects, and how aperture affects depth of field. To an advanced user the Graphic Display will probably look overly simplistic, but to someone picking up a DSLR for the first time it’s a handy reference point, especially when taking the camera off of its fully automatic mode for the first time.
Another useful feature in the A290’s armoury is the inclusion of Sony’s proprietary SteadyShot Inside image stabilisation technology. This sensor-shift based technology counteracts motion blur, allowing the user to shoot at much slower shutter speeds than would normally be possible. We even managed to shoot as low as 1/15th second with perfectly acceptable results. Because the technology is already inside the camera, there’s no need to pay extra for image stabilised lenses either. On the downside longer lenses don’t benefit from a live feed of stabilisation through the viewfinder, but those using older lenses will find the sensor-based version most useful indeed.
On the back of the camera is a 2.7in LCD that displays at a resolution of 230k-dot. This is about the norm for an entry-level camera like this; the Nikon D3100 does offer a 3in screen of the same definition, but this will cost around £100 more. In real-world use we found the A290’s screen perfectly adequate to review images with. In addition to displaying a histogram and shooting data for each captured image, there’s also a zoom function to check image sharpness with, while screen brightness can be altered to suit conditions via the menu.
Design & Performance
Sony Alpha A290 review – Design
The A290 is encased within a lightweight plastic shell. The finger grip is coated with texturised rubber to add extra grip while the plastic top-plate and flash housing alludes to magnesium alloy with its mottled finish. The overall finish, while hardly premium, isn’t bad at all, and is certainly consistent with other DSLRs at this price.
The finger grip is set fairly deep and is comfortably able to accommodate between two and three fingers. There’s also a neat little indent on the back of the camera just where the thumb sits. Between the two, getting a secure grip on the A290 is fairly straightforward. It is even possible, though not always advisable, to shoot one-handed.
The A290’s viewfinder is bright and clear although a bit on the small side. It only offers a 95% field of view, meaning the camera will capture a fraction more than what you actually see through the viewfinder. As with all Sony DSLRs an eye sensor sits just below the viewfinder that automatically turns the rear display off when the camera is lifted to the eye. If, for any reason, this proves annoying then it can be switched off via the in-camera menu.
The A290’s external controls and buttons are kept to a minimum. What is there is well placed and easily reached though. While the Menu button is used to access settings such as Image Quality, Aspect Ratio and Noise Reduction, the Fn button just by the thumb is where the camera’s more immediate and regularly used settings – AF mode, Metering mode and White Balance for example – are found. Each of these benefits from the Help Guide, thereby helping the DSLR newcomer to understand what each of the settings adjusts.
Sony Alpha A290 – Performance
The A290 offers nine autofocus (AF) points, spread evenly within the
centre of the viewfinder. Using the Fn button, it’s possible to switch
between Automatic, Centre and user defined AF points. The central AF
point is the only cross-type sensor (that offers increased sensitivity
in both landscape and portrait orientation), while the other eight use
vertical line sensors. Focusing is therefore more accurate when only the
central AF point is used and the general array of focus points isn’t
In good light the camera find focus pretty much
instantaneously, and remains quick in situations with less than ideal
light. While there’s no built-in AF Assist light, the A290 can use a
quick burst of flash to help find focus in really poor light (though
this isn’t always preferable as it’s far from discreet).
Sony Alpha A290 review – Image Quality
Sony A290 review – Tone and Exposure
Overall, we found the A290’s image quality to be very good. Exposure metering tends to err on the side of underexposure, which is generally preferable to overexposure as shadow areas are easier to reclaim than blown highlights – especially when images have been recorded in lossless Raw format rather than compressed JPEG files.
Sony A290 review – Colour and White Balance
Used on its Standard colour setting, colour can a bit flat. To add a bit more punch and immediacy to images, the A290 offers a range of Creative Styles that can be accessed via the Fn button. These allow the user to dial in bespoke contrast, saturation and sharpness settings. Once tweaked, these settings are stored as presents that can be easily switched between as circumstances dictate.
Sony A290 review – Raw vs JPEG
The A290 uses the Sony .ARW file format for Raw files. Compared side by side, unprocessed Raw images shot at lower sensitivities come out slightly softer and with less contrast than their processed JPEG counterparts. At higher ISOs, Raw images also display more visible noise than JPEGs. Of course, there is significantly more scope to use post-processing software to sharpen and reduce noise in Raw images than with JPEG images.
Sony A290 review – ISO Sensitivity and Image Noise
At lower sensitivity settings of up to ISO 400 noise is well controlled with little visible effect on image quality, even when viewed at 100%. From ISO 400 image noise does become more visible with noticeable image degradation from ISO 1600 onwards.
Sony A290 review – Sharpness and Detail
At 14.2MP the A290 is able to resolve plenty of detail, which allows for creative cropping of images at the post-production stage with no obvious loss in quality. Although a bit lightweight and plasticy, we were also fairly impressed with the performance of the bundled 18-55mm kit lens. Used at an f/8 setting, sharpness and detail remain consistent throughout the frame, with no obvious loss of sharpness towards the edges. Likewise, chromatic aberrations – usually visible as purple fringing on the edge of high-contrast borders – are also kept to a minimum.
Value & Verdict
Sony Alpha A290 review – Value
The official Sony Store lists the A290 at £410, however if you shop around it’s possible to pick one up from a reputable retailer for around £330. For that price there are few other DSLRs on the market. The 10.1MP Canon 1000D is perhaps the nearest competitor in terms of price, and for the extra £30 it costs, you will gain live view functionality but at the expense of a smaller screen and a lower overall resolution. It’s also worth pointing out that the 1000D was released in 2008, which in digital camera terms at least makes it something of al old model. If live view is a must then the next Sony model up from the A290 – the Sony A390 – does include this, along with a tilting LCD screen. Expect to pay at least a £50 premium for one though. Overall, there can be few grumbles about the cost of an A290 – it does represent good value for money.
Sony Alpha A290 review – Verdict
For the first-time DSLR user, the A290 is a solid performer that offers good value for money. Simple to use, and offering good image quality, there’s really not much to criticise. Yes, it does lack advanced features, and its construction errs on the side of plasticky, but for a first-time DSLR user it offers a solid entry point to the ever-expanding Sony DSLR system. While the supplied 18-55mm kit lens is a bit flimsy, the addition of a better quality lens would make this a solid performer. If you are looking for a first DSLR on a tight budget then the A290’s current sub-£330 pricing is definitely its strong point and is likely to find its way onto your budget DSLR shortlist.