DigitalCameraReview.com
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 Review
by Jim Keenan -  6/11/2008

The Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 is the follow-on model to Sony's first DSLR, the entry-level A100, and according to Sony it's faster, lighter, and easier to use than its predecessor, in addition to providing improved noise control and AF acquisition times. Not having ever had my hands on an A100, I'll have to defer to Sony on those points.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200


My first-ever digital camera was a Sony Mavica F717, which, in spite of lethargic shutter lag, provided an otherwise enjoyable introduction to digital imaging. So, with mostly happy Mavica memories rattling around my brain, let's see how Sony does with their second try at an entry-level DSLR.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

The A200's basic hardware includes a 10.2 megapixel Super HAD CCD sensor and Sony's advanced BIONZ processor, which combine to "expand dynamic range, minimize noise more effectively and provide greater detail...to enhance images with rich tonal reproduction, improved white balance and exposure control, and expanded D-Range Optimizer capabilities." That D-Range Optimizer helps "improve results with backlit subjects and recover details hidden in shadows or lost in glare." There's a 100 to 3200 ISO sensitivity range, a 2.7-inch LCD monitor, dust reduction technology, mechanical image stabilization that Sony rates for up to a 3.5-stop advantage, and an automatic pop-up flash in certain shooting modes.

In addition to Sony's Alpha lens lineup – including the company's Carl Zeiss lenses – all Minolta Maxxum mount lenses are compatible with the A200. The A200 comes packaged in kit form with the 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom that we used for this review, or in a second kit that adds a 75-300mm zoom to complement the 18-70. The A200's APS-size sensor results in a 1.5x crop factor for any lens mounted.

The camera accepts CF or Microdrive memory media, and can use Sony's Memory Stick Duo media with an adapter that must be purchased separately. Sony includes a battery and charger, USB and A/V cables, shoulder strap, body cap, software/USB driver CD-ROM, and printed instruction manual with each camera.

There are six primary shooting modes:

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

While a bit more compact and lighter than many contemporaries, the A200 follows traditional SLR/DSLR thinking with regard to overall design and layout.

Styling and Build Quality

The A200 presents a somewhat mixed bag of goods in this regard. The composite material that makes up the body is fairly smooth and somewhat plain in appearance, but the camera itself appears well put together with smooth lines and seams where panels interface.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

The 18-70mm kit lens, however, features a body of hard, semi-shiny plastic that at least visually and tactilely did not inspire confidence as to its durability.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

Of course, Boeing's new 787 airliner is some 50 percent composite materials, so plastics are certainly moving up in the world, and what's good for a jet should probably be alright for a land-bound camera.

Ergonomics and Interface

As I found with the Olympus E-420, the A200 body is just a bit small for my medium-size hands. My little finger on the right hand can't decide whether to half-grip the front of the camera or slide underneath the body completely: the former is awkward-feeling and the latter results in rubbing on a small nib on the bottom of the body.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

My forefinger also wants to lay on the body just forward of the shutter button – I have to consciously move it back to get to the shutter. Sony has placed the camera control dial on top of the body just forward of the shutter button, and this seems to be where my shooting finger instinctively wants to go.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

The contoured portion of the camera back where the shooting hand thumb rests is an excellent fit, but would benefit from some tacky material instead of the smooth composite of the camera body, in my opinion.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

Control placement and layout is good and quickly becomes intuitive, and spacing between controls/buttons is wide enough to preclude inadvertent activations of adjacent controls. The front grip is quite good and promotes a secure feel for one-handed shots. Another nice touch, the attachment point for the camera strap on the right side of the camera body is on the top of the body and set flush with the camera top so as to not interfere with the right hand when shooting. Despite the minor gripes outlined above, the A200 has a very good overall feel when shooting.

The function (Fn) button on the camera back allows quick access to flash, metering, and AF modes, as well as AF area, white balance, and D-Range Optimizer settings. A half-push of the shutter button performs autofocus, but also brings up a recording information display on the monitor that includes shooting mode, shutter speed, aperture, exposure, flash mode, exposure and flash compensation, ISO sensitivity, drive and focus modes, AF area, metering, white balance, creative style setting, D-Range Optimizer, and battery level. The battery level includes an icon with segments as well as a numerical reading indicating percentage of battery life remaining.

Display/Viewfinder

The 2.7-inch LCD monitor is of 230,000 pixel composition and there are five brightness settings available. The monitor was a little better than most others in bright conditions, but can still be difficult to use, particularly if smudged. Sony doesn't indicate, but field of view appeared to be about 100 percent.

The viewfinder has a diopter adjustment and a 95-percent field of view.


PERFORMANCE

The A200 can be a simple to use DSLR while still offering users plenty of creative input options should their desires or needs dictate.

Timings and Shutter Lag

The A200 powers up quickly, and I found I could start up and get off a shot in about 1.25 to 1.5 seconds if necessary. Shutter lag is also good – in the .05 second range (unless red-eye reduction flash modes are in operation) – and focus acquisition in good lighting conditions was as quick as .1 seconds. There is an AF illuminator to help in dim lighting conditions, where acquisition times predictably lengthened, taking as long as three seconds in some cases even with the illuminator active.

Sony provided a 300x UDMA CF card for evaluation purposes with the A200, but I also tried my 133x and 80x Lexar Professional cards in the camera as well. Shooting JPEG Fine quality, both the 300x and 133x cards made nine shots in about three seconds, with an additional 1.5 seconds being required to clear the buffer with each card. The 80x card took about 3.6 seconds to take nine shots, and four seconds to clear the buffer.

Auto Focus

Single, automatic, and continuous AF options are available. Single focuses and locks with a half-press of the shutter, Continuous continues to focus with a half-press, and Automatic focuses and locks if the subject is stationary and continues to focus if the subject is moving. There are Wide, Spot, and Local AF area options as well: the camera selects any of nine focus points in Wide, the center AF point is used in Spot, and the user selects any of the nine points for Local.

There is also an interesting Eye-Start AF option that initiates AF operation when you raise the camera to your eye rather than waiting for the half-press. In practice, I found it worked quickly and accurately – subsequent half-presses of the shutter did not alter the Eye-Start focus. However, old habits are hard to break and I found myself consistently using the half push even with Eye-Start engaged to actually make image captures. The half push is a good way to help eliminate camera shake by minimizing finger travel to activate the shutter, and simply bringing the camera up for a quick full push while trusting Eye-Start would generally result in a jerkier depression of the shutter button, with potential to impact the image negatively.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Eye-Start AF
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Standard AF

Note that in the side-by-side shots above, conventional AF provides a slightly sharper image – presumably for the reasons outlined previously. The difference is subtle but clear when viewing the full-size images.

Flash

Sony lists a flash range out to 79 feet at ISO 3200, and a four second recycle time. Recycle times were in the 2-2.5 second range with shots in average lighting conditions, and never more than about three seconds with seemingly full discharges (ISO 100, telephoto lens, and minimum lens aperture in a pitch black environment).

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

The camera fires several pre-flashes in red-eye reduction mode, and this mode can be specified as on or off via the main menu. When on, red-eye reduction is applied to any flash mode selected – there is no separate red-eye reduction mode per se, as on many cameras.

Image Stabilization

Yes! The A200 incorporates Sony's Super Steady Shot stabilization system into the camera body, which indicates it's probably of the mechanical type that adjusts the sensor to compensate for camera movement.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Stabilization On
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Stabilization On, 100% crop
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Stabilization Off
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Stabilization Off, 100% crop

Sony claims a 2.5 to 3.5 stop advantage depending on specific shooting conditions and lens type, and recommends turning the feature off when mounting the camera on a tripod. With stabilization engaged, a small indicator appears in the lower right hand corner of the viewfinder – when the bars of the indicator are minimized, stabilization is at its peak efficiency. In practice, you'll hardly ever pay attention to the indicator since you'll be more intent on framing the image and focus acquisition, but it's there if you have the time to look for it.

Battery Life

Sony rates the A200 for about 750 shots, but my shooting style was going to come up a bit short of that figure due to lots of chimping and menu work. The camera will come pretty close to the claim in normal shooting, I'd expect. A battery indicator that gives an actual percentage of battery life remaining is a welcome feature in this regard.


IMAGE QUALITY

The A200 might be Sony's entry-level DSLR, but you wouldn't know that from the images it produces.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

The A200 produces nice images with the auto modes and default settings from the factory, but offers a range of user inputs to allow manipulation of images to suit just about any taste – particularly with regard to contrast, saturation, and sharpening. Here's an auto shot in Standard color mode, followed by one in Vivid mode and then Black and White.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Standard
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Vivid
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Black and White

Here's the vivid shot again, and then vivid with maximum in-camera sharpening.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Vivid
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Vivid (maximum sharpening)

Finally, here's the standard shot again, and then standard with contrast, saturation, and sharpening all set to maximum values.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Standard
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Standard (maximum contrast, saturation, sharpening)

Exposure, Processing and Color

The A200 has multi-segment, center-weighted, and spot metering options available, with multi-segment the default setting. Multi-segment did an excellent job with average lighting on subjects, but could lose highlights on some scenes with higher contrast features. This seemed to be the case even with the camera's D-Range Optimizer set to its Advanced mode. The two shots on the top row below have lost some detail in the left foreground from the arch and in the banks of the lake beyond the dam, respectively, while the more average scenes like the bottom two images hold detail throughout.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

The A200 has the D-Range Optimizer feature with Standard and Advanced settings (images made by the A200 for this review were shot with the Advanced setting unless otherwise noted). The D-Range Optimizer attempts to preserve detail in both shadow and light areas by "attenuating the contrast across the entire image to produce an image with proper brightness and contrast" in Standard mode; the Advanced setting divides the image into small segments and "analyses the contrast of light and shadow between the subject and the background, producing the image with the optimal brightness and gradation."

Here are images made with the Optimizer off, and with the Standard and Advanced settings enabled. Their is some difference between the three images, but these are minimal.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
DRO Off
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
DRO Standard
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
DRO Advanced

A close look at the histograms for each shot showed the Advanced setting moved the histogram a bit left in comparison to the other two, giving up some shadow detail to preserve highlight detail. The Standard setting moved the histogram the most to the right, giving up some highlight detail to bring out shadow detail. Off split the difference between the two, although its histogram closely mimicked that of the Advanced setting. The bottom line? D-Range Optimizer can make some differences in details on images, but the changes are minimal if our test shots are any indication.

White Balance

Auto white balance is the default on the A200 and did a pretty good job with various light sources except for pure incandescent, which shot predictably warm. Here's an incandescent shot as it came out of the camera and the same shot corrected with a white control point setting in post-process.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
As Shot, Auto White Balance
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Corrected

Here's a shot on Auto WB at the Carroll Shelby Museum in Las Vegas – the blue Cobra was lit by a mixed bag of light, including neon and fluorescent, but the Auto WB shot is practically the same as the corrected one.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
As Shot, Auto White Balance
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Corrected

I'd trust the A200 on Auto WB except for purely incandescent light sources.

Sensitivity and Noise

On the full-size shots, the A200 does a good job through ISO 1600 and doesn't look too bad at 3200, although there are some hints of noise in the darker areas starting at 800. For images of the 5x7-inch genre (and perhaps a bit larger) ISO 3200 appears usable if nothing else will do.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 100
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 100, 100% crop
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 200
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 200, 100% crop
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 400
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 400, 100% crop
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 800
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 800, 100% crop
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 1600
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 3200
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Cropping the images to 100 percent shows a bit of noise at ISO 400, increasing a bit at ISO 800, and a fairly distinct loss of detail in the Whitman's box at ISO 1600. ISO 3200 looks much worse than in the full-size shot, with drop offs in detail and color compared to ISO 1600.

As with many current DSLRs, high-ISO noise reduction can be disabled if desired.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 800 (NR Off)
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 800 (NR Off), 100% crop
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 1600 (NR Off)
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 1600 (NR Off), 100% crop
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 3200 (NR Off)
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
ISO 3200 (NR Off), 100% crop

The ISO 1600 and 3200 shots seem to look noisier in darker areas with noise reduction disabled, but a bit cleaner in the light areas with better color fidelity. It almost seems like the noise in the non-reduction shots looks a bit more like detail in the light areas. Overall, not a bad performance from the A200.

Additional Sample Images

Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

CONCLUSIONS

The A200 is the second iteration of Sony's entry-level DSLR, and I don't know how good the first one was, but this one isn't bad at all. There are some nice features present for an entry-level camera – notably dust reduction, in-camera stabilization, and the ability to use Sony and Minolta lenses. The A200 should be even more attractive since Sony recently dropped its MSRP with the 18-70 kit lens to $500 USD.


Image and color quality are good and there's a host of inputs available to customize image parameters if the default shots don't suit your fancy. The shutter is "DSLR quick" and auto focus performance is good in normal to marginal light, and acceptable in dim light. The camera posed a few annoying ergonomic quirks for my medium-sized hands, but overall it's well thought out and designed from a handling standpoint. The plastic of the 18-70 kit lens imparts a certain air of doubt as to its ability to withstand an impact, but operationally the lens performed flawlessly.

If you're looking to move into a DSLR and aren't wedded to any particular brand, there's a lot to like in the simplest Sony.

Pros:

Cons:


Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 Specifications:

Sensor 10.2 megapixel, 23.6x15.8mm CCD
Lens/Zoom Minolta A-type bayonet mount (Alpha mount)
LCD/Viewfinder 2.7", 230K TFT LCD; pentamirror optical viewfinder (95% coverage)
Sensitivity ISO 100-3200
Shutter Speed 30-1/4000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Scene
Scene Presets Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Sunset, Night Portrait
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent, Tungsten, Flash, Color Temperature, Custom
Metering Modes Multi-Segment, Center-Weighted, Spot
Focus Modes Wide AF, Spot AF, Area AF
Drive Modes Normal, Continuous
Flash Modes Auto, Fill, Rear Flash Sync, Slow Sync, High-Speed Sync
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats Compact Flash
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, RAW
Max. Image Size Not Specified
Max. Video Size
3872 x 2592
Zoom During Video N/A
Battery STAMINA rechargeable lithium-ion battery, 750 shots
Connections USB 2.0
Additional Features Dynamic Range Optimizer, Super SteadyShot image stabilization, BIONZ Engine Processor