The Sony a450 is a new mid-level DSLR to the Alpha range, but is it a successful release? The What Digital Camera Sony Alpha a450 review...
Sony Alpha a450 review – Features
Sat in the range between the lower-end Sony a380 and marginally higher mid-level a550, the Sony a450 offers the majority of the a550’s spec at a sub-£500 price point. There are some key differences however: the rear screen is a 2.7in, 230K-dot LCD version that cannot be freely tilted as per the a550’s larger 3in, 920K-dot tilt-angle version. The other significant omission is that the top-performing Quick AF live view capability lacks – where other Alpha models have a dedicated live view image sensor, the a450 does not, meaning Manual Check Liveview is the only method available.
Apart from these changes the a450 is very much like the a550 found above it in the range. The high-resolution 14.2megapixel CMOS sensor outputs large images as either Jpegs or using Sony’s ARW Raw format. Steady Shot INSIDE image stabilisation technology features as standard, with the sensor capable of countering a claimed 2-4 stops of shake whichever lens is attached to the front. The Bionz processor provides images up to an extended ISO setting of 12,800 and there is even an Auto HDR feature that takes two images in quick succession and auto-combines in camera for a single images with extended shadow and highlight exposure captured.
The a450’s Priority Speed Mode also offers the same high speed continuous shooting of seven frames per second, as per the a550. When not in this specific mode an ample 5fps is offered or a potential 4fps when in live view. The 9-point AF system keeps things up on the speed-front, including an Eye-Start activation that readies the AF system when your eye nears the viewfinder.
The a450’s body design is the same as the other mid-level Alphas, bar the rear LCD which is fixed to the rear, meaning a solid and sizeable grip is on offer and the camera feels good in the hand. However the exterior doesn’t feel entirely polished and is somewhat ‘plasticy’, though not flimsy. Saying that the overall layout is welcome when compared to the lower-end Alpha models with their sunken-grips that make for less-comfortable extended periods of use.
A variety of one-touch buttons around the a450’s body provide ease of control. Most functions are quick-accessed using the Fn button on the camera’s rear, avoiding any excessive menu-digging among the myriad of options in the full menu. One-touch D-range (Dynamic Range Optimiser), Drive mode and ISO buttons each sit just behind the shutter release atop of the camera. A further exposure lock and exposure compensation control buttons feature on the cameras rear, accompanied by the usual d-pad layout for general control and playback. Interfaces are displayed in an easy-to-understand format that’s designed to visually inform about exposure, presenting the shutter value change when adjusting aperture for example. This visual prompting is great for new users getting to grips with manual controls but, and importantly, doesn’t slow down a more advanced user’s use in any way.
The provided 18-55mm kit lens has a set-forward front focusing ring that makes accidental touching of the front element common when manually focusing – a focus ring further set back in the lens would have made for better use.
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.
Image Quality & Value
Sony a450 review – Tone & Exposure
Exposure in general is good, though tonally can seem a little flat at times. Additional in-camera D-Range Optimiser and HDR do offer additional ways to adjust final exposure too, though these results are obviously entirely separate from a standard exposure. The rear AEL exposure lock also came to the rescue on a number of occasions to maintain exposure levels in compromising conditions.
Sony a450 review – RAW/JPEG
When using the bundled Image Data Converter software it’s possible to output the ARW Raw files as Jpeg or Tiff formats. In unprocessed form the original Raw files are similar to the Jpeg counterparts, the most notable difference being the level of noise – the Jpeg files seem less noisy but slightly softer due to increased noise reduction processing.
Sony a450 review – Colour & White Balance
In the ‘standard’ mode colour can be a little on the flat side. In evening light or with fill-flash, auto white balance did occasionally produce cool blue/cyan results that looked a little ‘bleached-out’. However a variety of other Creative Style shooting modes – b&w, Sunset, Landscape, Portrait and Vivid – are also selectable in-camera for other colour effects.
Sony a450 review – ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
Although ISO 12,800 is available it’s not likely to be an everyday setting. Its use is limited due to focusing issues in low light, and the image noise level is significant, even when viewed on the LCD screen. From ISO 200-400 images are very smooth and low-noise, with a gradual increase in colour noise from ISO 800 and above. Real-world use to ISO 1600 is consistent.
Sony a450 review – Sharpness & Detail
Considering the high-resolution of the sensor the image detail is good, though this does deplete due to the high ISO noise reduction that softens images for sake of partial noise removal. The main issue with sharpness is the 18-55mm kit lens which is a little soft, plus produces visible chromatic aberration, in particular to the corners at the wider end. Although not unexpected, to get the most from the a450, or indeed most DSLR cameras, putting a variety of lenses in your kit bag is an ideal solution. Something like the prime 50mm f/1.4 will provide superb portrait results without breaking the bank.
Sony Alpha a450 review – Value
For a penny less than £500 the a450 is an affordable DSLR. However, by stripping out the Quick AF live view, one of the stronger features of Sony’s range lacks. Of course, for a buyer not fussed by live view the a450 is then perhaps an ideal proposition.
However the similar spec and price-point to both the a500 and a550 models may only assist in confusing prospective buyers as to which is the model to go for – plus the lower-spec a380 model can be found for nigh-on the same price as the a450, as close as £20 difference.
A450 vs A500 vs A550
|Sensor||14.2MP Exmor CMOS||12.3MP Exmor CMOS||14.2MP Exmor CMOS|
|LCD||2.7in, 230K-dot||3in, 230K-dot tilt-angle||3in, 921K-dot tilt-angle|
|Live view:||Yes, Manual Focus Check mode only (no autofocus)||Yes, Quick AF live view & Manual Focus Check mode available||Yes, Quick AF live view & Manual Focus Check mode available|
|Viewfinder field of view:||95%||95%||95%|
|Drive mode:||5fps (7fps Speed Priority Mode)||5fps||5fps (7fps Speed Priority Mode)|
|Steady Shot INSIDE:||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Weight:||520g approx||597g approx||599g approx|
|Dimensions:||137 x 104 x 81mm||137 x 104 x 84mm||137 x 104 x 84mm|
The a450 excites and perplexes. It’s a decent DSLR, but when considered against the saturated Alpha range it becomes a little harder to place, predominantly due to the subtle price differences between the next models up and down the range.
Performance is identical to the a550 where features match, despite the notable lack of Quick AF live view – arguably one of Sony’s foremost features – and the smaller 2.7in, 230K-dot screen.
For some potential buyers it will wrap up exactly what’s on the wish list for under the £500 mark, so it does have some marketplace spread.
Yet, with some competitors’ more entry-level models offering more features, with the exclusion of super-fast 7fps continuous shooting, it’s not necessarily top of its game.
Certainly good, but worth considering if the a450 has all you’d want when pitched up against other closely-specced and similarly-priced models.