Earlier this year, Sony became the most prolific D-SLR manufacturer by announcing
four cameras within a two-week period. This included a pro model, due later
this year, that had scant specs available at press time. I was able to extensively
test the other three, which are quite similar in that they all start from the
same "base": the entry-level 10-megapixel A200, which replaced the
A100. The A300 adds Live View and a vertically tiltable LCD monitor. Boasting
much higher 14.2-megapixel resolution, the A350 is otherwise the same as the
A300. During a six-week period while traveling extensively, I tested all three
cameras in order to fully appreciate the benefits of each model.
Shared Design And Features
Slightly smaller than the A100, the A200 is also a tad lighter, while the A300
and A350 are thicker and a bit heavier because of the "variable angle"
LCD mechanism. All feature a large, rubberized handgrip as well as many well
marked external controls. They're finished with a scratch-resistant matte
black exterior over a strong metal chassis. There's no data panel because
the 2.7" LCD monitor is used for menu navigation and for displaying data
about current camera settings in large, easy-to-read text. The display's
orientation automatically switches from horizontal to vertical when the camera
is turned on its side.
new Alpha D-SLRs include a wide range of overrides for modifying
many aspects of an image, but they often produced very pleasing
photos even at default settings. While the A200, A300, and A350
differ in a few respects, they're similar in versatility and
in overall image quality. (This Large/Fine JPEG was made with the
A350, using P mode, ISO 400, and the Standard Picture Style mode.)
All Photos © 2008, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved
Sony has added an Fn button (replacing the A100's less convenient Function
dial) for quick access to the flash, autofocus, metering, White Balance (WB),
and Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) functions. That does minimize the need to
access the full menu with its eight tabs, each listing a series of items for
logical--though somewhat slow--navigation. After setting up the camera
to meet personal preferences there's not much need to access the menu
except to find the new Picture Style modes, which make the cameras very versatile.
Scroll to select the Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, or Night
View mode and the processor will provide a different look to the images. You
can also set a desired level for Contrast, Saturation, and Sharpening. A B&W
Picture Style is also available for shooting monochrome photos but does not
include any filter effects or toning features; those options are becoming common
in other brands of D-SLRs. Otherwise, Sony's Picture Styles with overrides
do provide great versatility without complexity.
Standard Picture Style mode--with default levels for Contrast,
Saturation, and Sharpness--provided pleasing results but for
most landscape and travel photos, I preferred to use the Vivid mode,
sometimes with a +1 level Saturation and Sharpness. Those options
produced a more punchy or striking effect suitable for many scenes
although other Picture Styles were more suitable for certain subjects,
particularly portraits. (This image was made in Vivid mode with
a +1 level for Saturation and Sharpness, using ISO 400, at f/8 and
When compared to the A100, the new Alpha trio offers a few benefits, including
a slightly larger (2.7" vs. 2.5") LCD screen; 1.7x faster autofocus
with improved tracking performance; a slightly quieter shutter; higher sensitivity
(ISO 3200 vs. 1600); improved digital noise control; a very precise battery
life indicator; and an auto pop-up mechanism for the built-in flash. Apparently,
the Super SteadyShot (SSS) stabilizer has been improved, although the specs
do not indicate greater maximum effectiveness.
Evaluation: Most of the A100 camera's features have been
retained, including Eye-Start (for instantly activating metering an AF), Wireless
Off-Camera TTL flash capability, and the Dynamic Range Optimizer. Do note, however,
that Sony has eliminated reflex mirror pre-lock and depth of field preview,
which may be missed by nature and landscape photographers. The new Alpha cameras
accept an optional vertical battery grip while the A100 was not compatible with
any such accessory. The new VG-B30AM ($229, street price) includes a secondary
set of controls for convenient vertical operation and holds two of the InfoLITHIUM
batteries but does not boost the framing speed in Continuous Drive mode.
camera start up is delayed by a second for sensor cleaning, but
afterward the cameras respond instantly to a photo opportunity,
especially when the Eye-Start feature is on. This function--unique
to Sony D-SLRs--activates metering and autofocus as soon as
it detects your eye at the viewfinder. (This image was made in P
mode with ISO 400, at f/5.6 at 1/60 sec, using the built-in flash.)
Sony has refined camera operation, making these three models convenient and
relatively uncomplicated in most respects. They're not loaded with a multitude
of functions but the A200 and A300 are surprisingly affordable, offering excellent
value. The A350 is a bargain, too, because of its remarkable 14.2-megapixel
sensor. Some other mid-range D-SLRs are more impressive in terms of feature
set but no other sub-$1000 model can match the high resolution provided by the
All of the cameras started up in about 1 second, after a brief delay caused
by the automatic sensor cleaning process. (That system was moderately effective
in keeping the CCD clean.) Then they responded without any apparent shutter
lag and were almost always ready to shoot another long burst of photos. Autofocus
performance was very good in daylight and better than average in dark locations.
Continuous tracking AF was reliable with an affordable 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Sony
zoom and even better with an SSM-series lens with the incredibly fast/silent
Super Sonic focus motor. Viewfinder blackout time was short, making it easy
to keep a moving subject correctly framed while shooting a series of photos.
In terms of continuous drive speed, the Alpha trio is identical with one exception.
Instead of a 3 frame per second (fps) advance, the A350 is limited to 2.5 fps
and a fewer number of raw captures in a burst. That's understandable considering
the much larger image files, but the 14.2-megapixel model is still fast enough
for all but serious action photographers. The framing rate also slows slightly
when the A350 or A300 is used in Live View mode.