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...
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.