Sony Alpha 350 Review
The Sony Alpha 350 (or the a350 as it will be referred to here) builds on the success of the a100 and is designed to compliment the a200 and a300 DSLR cameras. It is the first Alpha camera to feature live view but its implimentation is different from other DSLRs. Not only that, the a350 features the second highest imaging sensor resolution (the a900 of couse being the highest).
The live view works by displaying the image the image that forms in the viewfinder rather than the one that forms directly on the sensor. This permits the camera to use it's standard phase detection autofocusing rather than resorting to the slower contrast based method. This shall be discussed later.
- 14MP imaging sensor
- Bionz Image processing engine
- 40 segment evaluative meter
- Quick Live View
- 9 point AF sensor array
- 2.7" articulating LCD monitor
- In body image stabilization (Steady Shot Inside)
- Contrast Optimiser (D-Ranger Optimiser)
The a350 is using what is now the standard 40 segment honeycomb metering. This meter can be configured for evaluative, centre weighted or spot metering. The evaluative metering is the default metering method and capable of handling a range of lighting situations.
With the camera set to live view, the metering method changes. The metering is from the image formed in the viewfinder and meter in over 1000 areas.
All the standard exposure modes are provided in the form of aperture priority, shutter priority, full manual and program modes. The parameters are changed via the single control dial on the front of the hand grip.
In keeping with DSLRs of a similar range, the fastest shutter speed is 1/4000 seconds. The slowest shutter speed is 30 seconds.
The ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 to 3200 to provide flexibility in a range of lighting conditions.
The D-Range Optimiser feature is designed to give better detail and clarity by sophisticated adjustment of an images contrast. Once activated it comes into play when capturing high contrast images. This feature only affects images that are saved in the JPEG format.
The a350 AF sensor array seems to
be derived from that in the a100. However, the
performance of the AF sensor has been improved to give
faster focusing. The central sensor is of the cross type
design permitting it to be sensitive to both horizontal
and vertical contrast image information. The remaining
sensors are only most sensitive to single contrast
The default AF will determine if it is necessary to lock focus or switch to continuous focus it a moving subject is detected. The focusing mode can be determined manually if necessary. Unlike the a700 there is no switch that will toggle the focus mode between AF and manual.
The a350 with it's 14MP sensor demands a high quality lens to make to most of the available resolution. The images rendered are typically highly detailed with smooth gradations. As expected the high pixel count makes the sensor prone to higher levels of image noise compared to lower resolution sensors.
The a350 uses the same Quick Navi feature as employed on the a700 for adjusting the parameters for flash, metering, autofocus, AF area, white balance and D-Range Optimiser. It is a very intuitive system to use. Direct access to ISO, Drive, LiveView, exposure compensation, exposure lock and Smart Teleconverter is provided for on the body. The d-pad style controller on the back is for entering or adjusting parameters and selecting AF sensor.
To the left of the LCD screen are buttons for accessing the Menu, Display, Delete and Playback. Above them is the power on/off switch. One the top left of the camera is the exposure mode dial which has all the standard P, A, S and M modes as well as scene modes to assist the beginner.
The LCD monitor articulates to enable the camera to be held away from the eye and at different angles. This comes into it's own when the a350 is used in live view mode. It makes a great waist level viewfinder and will make life easier when trying to shoot above the heads of a crowd. When Live View is activated a blind comes down in the viewfinder and a tilting mirror is adjusted to redirect light to the live view imaging sensor within the viewfinder. The process is very quick and it is easy to go from standard view to live view and back in hardly any time at all.
I found that I liked the size of the a350 body finding it nice to travel with as it does not take up too much space in the camera bag. It is not the smallest of DSLRs but it's size seems about right for most purposes. Perhaps the most notable external body design aspect is that of the articulating LCD monitor. Unlike many other designs I does not sit flush with the body but protrudes by the thinking of the screen. In practical terms it did not seem to cause problems but it may make the screen more liable to get scratched in some circumstances.
The Eye Start implimentation if will either please or annoy you. As expected when the eye is near the viewfinder the autofocus and exposure systems become active. The omission of no hand grip sensor (as implimented on the a700) meant that whilst carrying the camera the lens was continuously focusing. This inevertably impacted on the battery life and so when not actively shooting or carrying the camera for extended periods was best to switch the camera off. There is perhaps one benefit that was gained from this, by switching the camera off the anti dust feature is activated to keep the imaging sensor clean.
With regards to the anti dust feature, I found it not to be 100% effective as I noticed a couple of particles of dust it could not remove. However, it is a feature well worth having as the instances of dust particles appearing on images (after lens changes) was lower than I had experienced with cameras without this feature.
The articulating LCD screen is of the design that permits the screen to be angled upwards or downwards but it cannot be set at fancy angles or set to front facing. In the field accessing the screen is fast and simple and does not get in the way of a shoot. The other typical design as found on some Olympus, Panasonic and Canon cameras I have found a bit more fiddly but they do not protrude when not in use and can be reversed as an added measure to protect the screen.
Activating what Sony refer to as Quick Live View is straightforward. Its was just the the flick of the switch to get things started and as the very same focusing system was still employed in this mode as the standard mode using the optical viewfinder the focusing array is represented in the standard positions.
I found it regretible that the live view design has meant that the optical viewfinder had to be compromised. The image seen through the viewfinder is smaller than I have seen in recent DSLRs making manual focus even more difficult than it would be on an APS-C based camera. All the usual viewfinder information present.
It seems the live view has also impacted on the built in flash. The flash is raised by pressing the flash button but unlike most modern flash designs the flash does not raise very high.
The LCD screen appeared not to have any anti glare coating. This is unfortunate as images on the screen were difficult to see in bright day light or sunlight.
There is no hard protective screen cover available but a protective sheet. I found it needs to be carefully applied to ensure it stays in position. It won't protect against impacts but it will against scratches.
At this point I must refer you to the user controls on the a350. The front control dial is adequate for most tasks but slows down the use of the DSLR because this is no rear dial. With the LCD screen designed to articulate things are a bit cramped on the back of the camera. The positioning on the d-pad AF sensor selector makes it prone to being accidently pressed. I found it best to lock the control to protect my selection.
The autofocus on the whole seemed swift and precise. It was considerably better than the version used by the a100 and almost seemed like a match for the a700. No doubt the a700 has a stronger motor but certainly autofocusing with a range of lenses the a350 felt just as confident. There is an exception to this however. Under more demanding conditions, I found that the a350 lacked the accuracy of the a700 when shooting with fast lenses. The a700 has the advantage of it's central double cross sensor and it's extra precision for fast lenses. I also found that on occasions the a350 AF will hesitate. Despite this, the AF system held up very well during a shoot capturing wildlife.
As I have found in the past, live view is not a feature that would be used everyday but only when really necessary. The a350's quick live view did not interrupt the flow of my shoots and allowed me to take photos at more interesting angles. A histogram overlay came in handy to help avoid burning out highlights. I found it ashame that the focusing areas were fixed to the standard focus areas. Part of the charm of live view is that usually any area on the screen can be focused on. The a350 is not autofocusing via the screen hence this feature cannot be offered.
The Smart Teleconverter feature has limited appeal. It magnifies an image by effectively cropping towards the centre of the screen and can produce the equivalent of x2 magnification. It's use is limited because it only works in the Live View mode and jpeg file format must be selected. With the high pixel count sensor the results maintain a decent level of detail but it is a feature that can easily be achieve within an image editing package. It's a shame the button used to activate the feature cannot be re-assigned to about task as I found I had no use for it.
Unlike the a700 and the a900, the a350 only has a single RAW file setting which seems to be the equivalent of cRAW on the bigger cameras. This is a compressed file and I could that typically a file can be anywhere from 8MB to 18MB in size. These are relatively small files given that they are derived from a 14MP sensor. I feel raw is the format of choice in order to get the best possible image quality. JPEG format is there for those who need it and it is the only format that can be used if the D-Range Optimiser feature is used. The extra flexibility as offered on the a700 was missed but you cannot have everything at the price bracket this camera is targeted at (at least not for now).
Generally, handling is good. The Quick Navi feature makes controlling the camera straightforward. Care has to be taken when gripping the camera as it is easy to accidentally press the controller and upset the AF setting. It was therefore necessary to check the AF selection or better still set the AF area to just use the central AF sensor.
Not unexpectedly, image quality is not at it's best when the highest ISO of 3200 is used. It is what I term 'for emergency use only' or when producing small prints. I found ISO 1600 useable in some situations but I generally preferred not to go above ISO 800. If I demanded the best image quality I would not shoot above ISO 400. I was very happy to just leave the camera set to Auto ISO which would set the ISO from 100 to 400 based on lighting conditions. To minimise issues with image noise correct exposure was important. The a350 does not have the same flexibility at the a700 when it comes to making adjustments to raw images because of the higher susceptibility to noise of the sensor. No doubt this will not be an issue to the average consumer but those who want to make very big enlargements or demand the highest quality should be aware.
There is a switchable image noise reduction provide what helps to keep high ISO noise under control. At the other end of the scale there is noise reduction available for the exposures beyond 1 second.
Battery life seemed reasonable in terms of permitting over 600 frames to be shot per charge with lots of use of the LCD screen. The battery level is accurately represented on the screen but when the level is showing empty it is still possible to shoot a number of frames before the camera shuts down.
The a350 has turned out to be an interesting camera to use. The compromises imposed surely suggest the a350 very much aimed at the average consumer but in use once the limitations are understood the a350 proves to be a very capable. I would hope that Sony makes improvements to the implementation of their Live View system so at the very least the viewfinder does not have to be compromised to the same level as the a350. Despite the availability of Live View the viewfinder was still the main way to view and compose a subject. EA