The 14-megapixel Sony Alpha A350 is a mid-range enthusiasts digital SLR that offers an innovative new approach to live view with the aid of a tilting LCD rear screen.
On paper, the A350 is a very interesting proposition. Its 14.2MP resolution and articulated LCD screen are both firsts for Sony, however its crowning glory is in its live view functionality. Sony may have waited a while to implement live view within the Alpha range, but it seems this time was spent wisely, resulting in arguably the finest live-view system currently available on a DSLR.
The A350 is the Sony’s fourth DSLR, and features a 14.9MP CCD sensor giving a 14.2MP effective resolution. The 23.6×15.8mm dimensions of the sensor are the same as that of the Sony A100 and Sony A200, though the extra four million pixels here necessitate them to be made smaller. Theoretically, this limits dynamic range and makes noise more of a concern, but this is only one part – albeit a large one – of how well the camera can handle image capture.
Image Processor and Sensitivity
As has been the case on previous Alpha models, a Bionz imaging processor handles image processing and noise suppression. Both Raw and JPEG recording options are available, as well as the option to use the two simultaneously, with Raw files saved in Sony’s proprietary .ARW format. A choice of the AdobeRGB colour space and seven preset Creative Style settings is offered, while the Dynamic Range Optimiser’s ‘Standard’ and ‘Plus’ settings may be used prior to capture to bring out detail from shadows and highlights, as well as in post-processing via the supplied Image Data Converter SR software. The camera’s sensitivity range covers ISO 100-3200, and is adjustable in one-stop increments. This is complemented by both high-ISO and long exposure noise reduction options, with the former available at sensitivities over ISO 1600 and the latter at shutter speeds over a second.
A 40-zone honeycomb pattern metering system offers multi-segment, centreweighted and spot options, with a -/+2 exposure compensation range selectable in 0.3 stop increments. Bracketing is offered on both single and continuous modes, with two- and ten-second self-timers also provided. The standard PASM quartet, meanwhile, is joined by Auto and six scene modes, all of which are selectable via the mode dial on the top-plate.
Focusing is taken care of by a TTL phase detection system, and offers single-shot, automatic and continuous focusing options. Nine focusing points work in conjunction with the wide, spot and local focusing offerings, in addition to a manual focusing option which is selected via a switch under the lens release.
A Function (Fn) button above the menu pad accesses six main shooting parameters; Flash mode, White Balance, AF mode, AF area and metering, as well as the Dynamic Range Optimiser. Each white balance preset is augmented with six extra stops of adjustment to provide either a little extra warmth or coldness, while a white balance bracketing option is also provided via the shooting mode button.
The rear sees a 2.7in LCD screen with a 230,400dot resolution, and for the first time on an Alpha model, supporting live view. Yet, despite this being Sony’s first foray into offering the function, it has ticked a lot of the right boxes. A pentamirror-tilt mechanism enables autofocusing during live view operation, by directing light to a separate sensor in the viewfinder prism. Not only that, but the use of a second sensor allows for a continuous live view feed between shots, while burst shooting is in operation.
The LCD screen itself may be extended out from the body and adjusted around a 170° angle – 130° upwards and 40° downwards – to further enhance the live-view technology and enable high- and low-level shooting, while a live histogram is also available. With the screen rotating around one axis, it doesn’t quite match the vari-angle capabilities of Panasonic’s L10 and Olympus’s E-3 LCD screens, though it is larger in size and on a much cheaper model.
A continuous shooting rate of 2.5fps is available, though this drops to 2fps when using live view, and although the JPEG burst depth is limited only by the capacity of the card, the camera’s buffer can only manage four RAW or three RAW+JPEG frames before it is exhausted.
Dust Control and Image Stabilisation
The Anti-Dust technology seen on previous models features, utilising an antistatic low-pass filter coating together with a sensor-shift vibrating mechanism to help prevent and dislodge dust. The continuation of Sony’s Super SteadyShot image stabilisation, meanwhile, allows shutter speeds of 2.5-3.5 stops slower than would usually be possible, and is effective when used with Alpha and most Minolta lenses. The supplied InfoLithium battery allows for an impressive 730 shots when using the viewfinder or 410 shots when using live view, though using the LCD screen for image reviewing and general operation will obviously cut these figures down. Nevertheless, the battery helpfully indicates its remaining charge as a percentage.
Gripes and Annoyances
Its specifications may make the camera a logical upgrade for Sony A100 users, but there are a few issues which may bother prospective buyers. The omission of the Depth Of Field Preview button may come as a surprise, while the NP-FM55H lithium battery compatible with the Sony A100 isn’t accepted by the A350, and as such can’t be used as a backup. Also, the mirror lock-up that featured within the Sony A100’s self-timer modes hasn’t been carried over, which is mildly disconcerting considering that the camera is otherwise perfectly suited to still-life and macro work. Admittedly these aren’t major issues in themselves, but nevertheless ones that potential Sony A100 upgraders should be aware of.
Design And Performance
Similarities to A200
Despite the extra technology incorporated in the A350 over its younger siblings, Sony has done a good job of keeping its size and weight down. Aesthetically, the camera is a tweaked version of its Sony Alpha A200 sibling (tested in last month’s issue), weighing only slightly more and bearing almost the same dimensions. Much of the camera’s design has also kept true to its roots, though there are a few evolutionary differences. On the topplate, the mode dial is positioned to the left of the rear, with the other side playing host to shooting mode and ISO buttons, as well as a switch for changing between the viewfinder and live view. Directly below these on the rear, are exposure lock and compensation buttons, also allowing for zooming in and out of images.
The thickness of the LCD screen protrudes slightly and, as such, can make the four small buttons along the left-hand side a little awkward to press. Conversely, the Function button above the menu pad is not only logically placed but makes changing key shooting parameters a doddle.
Given the model’s similarity to the Sony Alpha A200, I half expected the same handling issues here. Carrying the camera around for some time highlights the shallowness of the grip, though this, and other issues such as accessing certain buttons, are less of an importance here than on the A200, as the camera’s live view and tilting LCD allow for it to be used in various shooting positions, and so, understandably, only a compromise can be struck.
Start Up Speed
As soon as the camera is turned on, it’s ready for action. The familiar displays and menu interfaces make changing settings easy and clear, with the graphic user interface rotating to the correct shooting orientation and the Eye Start focusing feature (if activated) kicking the autofocus into play. The design of the live view system means that autofocusing can be employed without the need for any mirrors flipping up or temporary blackout, with its speed more-or-less equal to that when using the viewfinder.
Ease of Use
Having the separate Fn button makes changing settings such as white balance and metering easy and fast, and negates a trawl through the menu to find the one thing you need to change. It would have been even better to see a customisable menu option included – such as Canon’s My Menu – to further speed up operation, but then you can’t have everything.
Overall operation speed is generally fast, but images can take a while to display on the LCD post-capture. A larger buffer or faster processor would therefore have sat as a better complement to the improvements Sony has made with overall focusing speed.
Given that the only differences between the A350 and its 10MP launch partner the A300 are its resolution and burst rate, it stands to reason that it’s the extra resolution that’s slowing the latter down here. And, though the A350’s maximum burst rate of 2.5fps is disappointing, Sony has at least provided the faster A300 alternative – even if it can only manage a maximum 3fps.
The A350’s unique secondry sensor and extendable LCD screen means the camera suffers from none of the issues or problems commonly associated with the more traditional combination of a fixed LCD screen and tardy autofocus. In fact, the only issue we encountered with the A350 was when trying to frame portrait shots, where we realised how beneficial a multi-angle LCD screen would be. Anyone who has used a viewfinder for a prolonged period while composing a image will know how much strain can be put on the eyes, however the competence of the A350’s system resulted in its use for much of time.
The only other niggle is that the live-viewing of images can’t be conventionally zoomed in to; the only way to do this is via the Smart Teleconverter, which either refocuses when you zoom back out or takes the zoomed image at a lower resolution. The other option is to use the Smart Teleconverter while manually focusing, but with just 1.4x and 2x magnification options it’s a little limiting.
JPEG File Size
Once opened, JPEGs measure around 40MB in size. This is a fairly substantial file size, and means that images can withstand some pretty brutal cropping. On the other hand, the closed files will fill up your memory card quickly, so for general snapshots that you’re not likely to post-process, it may be a better idea to lower the resolution a notch to 7.7MP.
One final point is that the viewfinder is a little on the small side. We would imagine this is due to the secondary sensor inside the viewfinder prism providing the live-view feed.
Image Quality And Value
Generally High Standard
The standard of images from the A350 is generally very high. Even when the camera may struggle, features such as the Dynamic Range Optimiser and adjusting parameters of white balance presets make tweaks easy to carry out.
Raw and JPEG Comparison
Straight from the camera, the standard of JPEGs is satisfactory. Sharpness is good, but even without any processing certain Raw images showed a little more detail than their converted JPEG counterparts. Traces of vignetting and noise still remain, but colour and tonality are accurately handled and colours given a slight boost where necessary.
The camera’s metering system generally proved itself reliable in a variety of conditions. This was particularly noticeable in images with large areas of sky and clouds, where the camera consistently delivered detailed and noise-free shadow areas.
Noise is well controlled. ISO 400 is where detail begins to be compromised but even at the highest settings, it’s only an even-textured chroma noise that shows and one that can be easily removed in post-production. The lack of luminance noise is impressive. Noise is most visible in the midtones, while the high-ISO noise reduction is fairly gentle, smoothing out only the coarsest chroma noise and retaining adequate sharpness. Long exposure noise reduction shows noticeable softening of edge sharpness, but contrary to my expectations, at all sensitivities and with noise reduction both on and off, it’s extremely difficult to tell noise levels apart from those of the A200.
Tone And Contrast
The Dynamic Range Optimiser makes a noticeable difference in lifting overall contrast and bringing out detail and is recommended in such situations, especially when shooting in overcast conditions. Colour and tonality are otherwise very good.
Colour and White Balance
The Auto White Balance is generally accurate, and only seemed to struggle when faced with a mix of tungsten and daylight lighting, delivering a rather cold result. A quick adjustment of the preset tungsten values warmed images up to the correct level.
Sharpness and Detail
There are no complaints with sharpness. In comparison with Raw images, JPEGs appear sharpened to just the right level, with no visible artefacts such as halos.
Value for Money
The A350 performs well in its own right, but whether it’s good value for money depends on if you envisage using the live view, or need the resolution of its full 14 megapixels. Otherwise, the similarly specified Sony Alpha A300 and Sony Alpha A200 may be worth a look, with both being cheaper alternatives. Even so, at this price the model is something of a unique offering, with no other model currently offering its blend of 14MP sensor, autofocusenabled live view and tilting LCD screen.
Despite a few shortcomings, the autofocus-enabled live view is the best we?ve encountered and is exactly what compact owners looking to upgrade to a DSLR have been waiting for. We would even say that Sony has set a benchmark for how live view systems should operate, and we look forward to seeing further refinements of the system in future models. Image quality is generally high, and if you take advantage of the A350’s live view function, you?ve got one cracking camera.