Price When Reviewed: 425 . 850
Pros: Great image quality, with smooth images and oodles of detail – especially using the Carl Zeiss 16-80mm zoom; effective anti-shake system; good build and handy pull-out LCD monitor.
Cons: Disappointing ergonomics, with small right-hand grip and poor layout of controls; tunnel-like viewfinder; conventional use compromised by Live View system; limited range of pricey accessories and lenses.
After making a rather slow start in the lucrative digital SLR market with the original Alpha 100, in the past few months Sony has announced a flurry of new models, in a bid to compete with the usual Nikon and Canon choices. The latest of these is the mid-range Alpha 350, a 14-megapixel model, which is one of the maker’s first (along with the similarly designed 10-megapixel A300) to feature Live View using a novel, pull-out 2.7-inch screen.
Like the maker’s other offerings, the A350 shares handy features such as built-in anti-dust and anti-shake systems, and is compatible with older Minolta AF lenses and some choice optics from Carl Zeiss. Although it’s a good performer considering the price, the 18-70mm starter lens often bundled as a kit lens isn’t the best choice for discerning users.
Our sample came kitted out with the optically superb Carl Zeiss 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 ZA DT. It’s the equivalent to a 24-120mm – a particularly handy range – and, with the A350’s Super SteadyShot (SSS), it benefits from image stabilization. This lens adds £425 (excluding VAT) to the body-only price; our only slight disappointment with it is that it’s designed for digital APS-C-size sensors. Be aware that it will be of limited use, or maybe of no use at all, when Sony finally announces its long-awaited full-frame model, currently rumoured to be called the A900.
Live View was omitted from the semi-pro Alpha 700, in spite of rivals offering the option, and now we can understand why. Unlike conventional Live View systems that use the main imaging sensor to display a live preview prior to capture, the Alpha 350 adopts a fairly complex system using secondary CCD in the viewfinder.
Using a tiny lens, the CCD actually views the image displayed on the optical viewfinder, much like a mini-video system. A mechanical slider on the top-plate drops a mirror in the viewfinder, reflecting the image from the viewfinder screen to the secondary CCD. While this means that you retain the faster focusing phase detection-based wide-area nine-point AF array – complete with an overlaid green target area confirming the active point – the actual viewing area is less than rival systems.
That’s a real shame, as Live View is often adopted for macro work, where 100 per cent viewing can be a real advantage. Nevertheless, the system works well for handheld, day-to-day usage. Indeed, operation is faster than rival systems that adopt contrast-detection AF using the main imaging sensor.
As the video-feed bypasses the need for mirror lock-up, one of the main rewards is the absence of rivals’ disconcerting double mirror flap.
It’s of little consequence when using the A350 bolted to a tripod, but for handheld use, it’s a pleasant surprise. Metering accuracy with Live View is excellent, and both exposure and white balance can be fine tuned in real-time, to good effect.
The pull-out and folding 2.7-inch screen is certainly capable of high-quality playback, but Live View is grainy and blacks out almost completely in low light, so it’s not as useful as it could be for night scenes. Conversely, in bright daylight the screen washes out easily and is almost impossible to keep free of frustrating smudges.
As the monitor doesn’t fold flush with the body, it’s especially noticeable if you have been using the viewfinder. You have to press your face up tightly to the screen, otherwise distracting reflections appear in the eyepiece. The space required for the additional video-feed in the prism area also makes for a cramped viewfinder experience, reminiscent of the tiny Four Thirds system digital SLRs.
Add to all this the overly deep body and undersized handgrip, the lack of a rear selector dial and small, poorly placed buttons arranged on the left-hand edge of the body, and you have a heavily compromised design. Sadly, the ergonomics don’t work for me and the overall effect is unconvincing.
To help counter this, some high points of the A350 include unlimited fps continuous shooting in JPEG mode with a fast CF card (dropping to just six Raw frames before stalling), simultaneous Raw and JPEG capture, bracketing for WB and exposure (but only up to a rather limiting ±0.7EV). A handy detachable battery pack, complete with additional shutter release, is also available as an option.
Unlike Sony’s recently released CMOS-based Alpha 700, the 14-megapixel Alpha 350 returns to CCD. Free of additional heat demands from extended Live View operation, the main CCD delivers silky smooth images across a wide range of sensitivities. As the all-important noise levels are low, the majority of users will find the maximum ISO 3200 quite usable.
At the lower sensitivities, picture quality is very high, and, thanks to the high-grade Carl Zeiss zoom and built-in anti-shake system, images are pin sharp. At the wider 24mm equivalent setting, acceptably sharp images can be had at 1/10 second.
Over conventional, non-image stabilized alternatives, that’s a gain of around 1.3 stops, and a pretty convincing result for the A350.
Apart from inaccuracies under indoor lighting, where images appear to have a slightly more orange appearance than the majority of rivals, the A350’s colour rendition is good. It doesn’t quite match that of the superb colour from the semi-pro A700, but it doesn’t fall behind the Canon or Nikon equivalent.
For imaging creatives, one of the most offputting aspects of the Alpha A350 also applies to others in the range, and that’s the maker’s somewhat pricey and limited choice of system accessories and optics. While there are some outstanding optical designs in the range, such as the four Carl Zeiss lenses and the maker’s re-badged Minolta G-series, few offer the benefits of built-in, purpose-designed motors like rivals’ quieter and faster-focusing ultrasonic offerings. Some lenses, particularly wide-angle and macro types, don’t usually have a real need of it, but when you can buy into it so easily with Canon, and a lesser extent Nikon, it makes you wonder why you should put up with less.