The Sony a850 is a pro-spec, stripped-down version of the Sony a900. As the most affordable full-frame DSLR to the market, does the Sony Alpha a850 really open full-frame shooting to the masses? The What Digital Camera Sony Alpha DSLR-a850 review finds out...
Beyond being the most affordable current-range full-frame DSLR to market, even against its considerable peers, has the Sony a850 ticked the right boxes to make it a worthy sibling of the Sony a900, and, more importantly, an attractive venture for prospective purchase?
Sony Alpha a850 review – Features
Sony Alpha a850 sensor
Featuring a highly resolute 24.6 megapixel full-frame Exmor CMOS sensor, the Sony a850 is certainly one for those who want to print big – ideally suited for studio work or similar. It’s 35mm-equivalent 35.9x24mm full-frame also brings a wealth of benefits to enhance shallow depth of field, provide greater low light performance and a wealth of image clarity – something that the dawn of digital photography hadn’t made immediately affordable to the everyday man.
With the Sony a850 there had been many rumors and much talk that Sony would introduce the ‘Exmor R’ sensor type – a backlit sensor which significantly improves signal to noise ratio and, as such, high ISO image quality – but this is not the case.
The Sony a850 has exactly the same Exmor CMOS sensor and Bionz processor as the Sony a900 released before it. In fact the a850 is nigh-on a carbon copy of the a900, albeit with some stripped-down features: the 5fps burst mode dips to 3fps, the remote commander has gone from the box (though available as a separate accessory) and the viewfinder coverage has been pulled back from its former 100% glory to a 98% field of view. Everything else, bar the price, is very much the same as before.
Sony Alpha a850 ISO
Of course, this means the Sony a850 is a powerful bit of kit and such processing power allows for ISO sensitivity to range from 200-3200 as standard, but this can also be extended to ISO 100-6400 or in conjunction for those looking to straight switch from using traditional pro film types, such as ISO 160 portrait or ISO 125 black & white. 13 in-camera Creative Styles add further control, through from in-camera black and white to vivid and other options, shooting Raw + JPEG will mean you always have the original data at hand should you wish to tweak or change results back to their common standard.
Sony Alpha a850 image stabilisation
Sony is the only current manufacturer to provide in-camera image stabilisation to a full-frame DSLR too. Unlike competitors which utilise lens-based stabilisation in some lenses, Sony’s SteadyShot Inside utilises sensor-shift to compensate for handshake and camera movements – and, given the range of Konica-Minolta lenses of old that will still fit to this body, adds an injection of value to long-term photographers looking to retain old kit or take the leap from film to digital.
Whilst the a850 doesn’t come bundled with a lens as standard, the new f/2.8 28-75mm is an ideal accompaniment, also complimented by a host of other top-end Carl Zeiss optics.
Sony Alpha a850 file formats
As well as Raw and Jpeg options, including Raw + Jpeg, the a850 also offers a space-saving compressed Raw (cRaw) format too. Given the huge sensor, the average ‘X.Fine’ JPEG weighs in at around the 15-20MB mark, or a Raw file at around 36MB, output at 6048×4032 pixels – if size is your thing then make sure your computer has the processing power to keep up, particularly when processing volume.
Sony Alpha a850 focusing
Autofocus is the same 9-point system as found on the a900, with the option of selecting between single, continuous, AF-A – which automatically provides a combination of the two aforementioned – or manual focus.
Sony Alpha a850 body
Keeping up with its pro-spec name the a850 also offers a rugged aluminium chassis and magnesium alloy body panels for extra strength, without being excessively weighty. Like the name, the body weighs in at around 850g and this is a good weight to grip in the hand.
A 3in, 920K-dot high resolution LCD screen on the back completes the package. It’s also worth noting that, like other pro-spec cameras, the a850 doesn’t include a pop-up flash, live view nor, as per all Sony DSLR cameras to date, a video mode.
The a900’s doppelganger, an inspection of the a850 doesn’t reveal any cosmetic differences for the simple fact that there aren’t any to be had.
To be clear, as there are no revelations here, the a850’s body dimensions, size, shape, layout and menu systems are identical to the a900.
Despite speculation of changes to internal processing, an interview with Sony confirmed that, again, there are no changes here either. The bottom line is that the a850 will produce superb, like-for-like full-frame images, just like the a900. Now that can be no bad thing.
There’s an air of elegant simplicity about the a850. It’s tank-like build is reassuring and the button layout commands ease of use. I’m also particularly fond of the SteadyShot ‘on/off’ switch to the rear – not only does this compare to high-end lenses with a similar control, albeit without the through-the-viewfinder benefit, it also takes the faff out of menu digging. Ideal when switching from tripod to handheld shooting.
The top-panel display has an on/off light for darker scenarios, so you’ll always be able to see what you’re doing both on-camera and in the viewfinder.
Surrounding this panel are four quick-access buttons to adjust exposure compensation, drive mode, white balance and ISO – the foundations of further control at your fingertips.
In fact the only real mishap of button-placement is the Preview Button to the bottom right of the lens base to the front of the camera – this feels awkward to press, and becomes a finger-bending struggle to utilise with ease.
As a pro-spec camera expect serious, gimmick-free use. While the a850 doesn’t provide live view or movie modes, or a pop-up flash, this isn’t always going to be at the top of a pro’s ‘want list’. In place, of course, you do get a hugely resolute 24.6MP full-frame sensor and what feels like a resounding pro camera considering the price-point.
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.
Image Quality & Value
Sony Alpha a850 review – Image Quality
Sony a850 – Tone & Exposure
Shooting with standard settings was very pleasing, with shadows and highlights being retained realistically. Switch on the Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO) at any of its five levels and images take on a completely different light, brighter and darker areas becoming more equally exposed, though at the expense of some slight artifacts in those ‘manipulated’ image areas.
The odd under or overexposure did occur however, and the LCD screen’s brightness wasn’t always entirely accurate to that when reviewing images on a computer monitor (admittedly, a very slight difference). The +/-5 LCD Brightness compensation can adjust for this somewhat, though images playback in camera is most pleasing.
Sony a850 – RAW/JPEG
Sony supplies its Image Data Converter for Raw file processing, or Adobe’s Photoshop will perform more swiftly (from Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) 5.6 or later).
Jpegs are suitably sharp though can do with a bit of a boost, and the finer compression is advised over ‘standard’. Real control, of course, comes from working on the Raw files directly, which are sharper, more saturated and have a much more satisfying grain-like quality.
cRaw (compressed Raw) opens up just as many options as the Raw file, though it’s best saved for space-saving shooters where minor tweaks, rather than demanding, epic post-production sessions, is the most you’ll be processing your files.
Sony a850 – Colour & White Balance
Auto White Balance, like other Sony cameras, tends to lean towards the cooler, bluer end of the spectrum in predominantly white settings, which isn’t necessarily ideal for portraits.
In some circumstances, such as interior shots under dim light, or even some controlled lighting, the AWB leaned to the warmer end, with overly pronounced magenta tints. All in all, this makes for rather disappointing control across a variety of scenarios.
However, manually assigning white balance, using the ‘Portrait’ or other Creative Styles, bracketing or post-production/tweaking of Raw files will more than resolve your images to look as you wish them to. Colour in general is pleasing, sumptuous and realistic. Or, with the addition of Creative Style modes it’s easy to amplify, neutralise and adjust colour manually in-camera with preset Vivid, Neutral, Portrait and Landscape modes, plus manual Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness, Brightness and Zone adjustment.
Sony a850 – ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
A full-frame sensor should mean high quality low-light images. But, and this is a fair compromise here, such a populated sensor – 24.6 million pixels over such an image plane – undoes some of that work. Whilst images to ISO 1600 are still excellent, they don’t override the low-noise of, say, Nikon’s D700.
Plus with new pro-spec cameras from Canon also really pushing the ISO-boundaries not only higher but better, the Sony is better for the lower-end of ISO sensitivity, but does bring ultra-high-detail output – perfect for the studio where light can be controlled and lower ISO settings utilised.
In-camera noise reduction options (Off, Low, Normal, High) do a good job of reducing chroma noise, but when using the ‘high’ setting the loss of detail does overly compromise the image’s final quality.
Sony a850 – Sharpness & Detail
Get the right lens on the front and the a850, just like the a900, can capture significant detail thanks to such a high resolution sensor. Both Raw and Jpeg files respond well to sharpening, though beyond the +/-3 ‘Sharpness’ setting in Creative Styles there is no further in-camera sharpness control, bar the usual Raw file post-processing.
Sony a850 review – Value for Money
The supposed clincher of the a850 is also its simultaneous come-uppance: price. Upon initial release, the a850 was a penny under the £2000 mark – which, in many shops, was actually more expensive than the better-specced a900.
As prices do though, fluctuation has been fairly swift, with some online retailers now offering the a850 at the body-only price of £1650.
Add the 28-75mm f/2.8 lens and expect to pay just a shade over the £2000 mark – safely earning the a850 its place as the ‘most affordable full-frame camera’ to market. However, savvy shopping is a must to avoid over-spend, and the subtle variation in pricing between the a850 and a900 really is a touch close to the mark.
The a850 pleases yet perplexes in equal measure. It’s certainly a fine camera, like the a900 before (and still currently above) it, yet one that seems a little misplaced in the market place.
If its price point really undercut the competition then it’d be a genius proposition to full-frame hungry consumers. But despite the removal of the in-camera remote, lowering the burst rate and shaving 2% from the viewfinder’s field of view the effective monetary compensation is somewhat paltry.
The a900 was, by and large, a superb studio camera thanks to its 24.6MP count, but lacked low-light capabilities to the same standard of some of the competition. What the next generation of Sony DSLR is really waiting for is the implementation of the Sony’s backlit ‘Exmor R’ technology – something that lacks here and leaves the a850 in a curious position of offering nothing ‘new’.
In effect there’s an argument to bag an a900 over this newer, less-equipped venture each and every time. That is unless, of course, your savvy shopping locates it at a sensible price that trounces its initial RRP.
The a850 is a solid piece of kit that pulls down the full-frame DSLR price-point by a whisker, but otherwise sadly lacks that anticipated next-level punch and, as such, feels like a bit of a gap-filler in Sony’s newly and rapidly expanding DSLR range.