When the Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 was launched at PMA, I suspected Sony might be onto something with their new live view system. After I spent a few minutes shooting in live view mode with a demo version, I was even more intrigued. When the A350's junior sibling, the A200, earned our Editor's Choice recognition for being a solid all-around camera at a great price, I almost couldn't wait to get an A350 review unit. With a simple interface, great image quality, and just the right balance of features, could this be the live view DSLR we've been hoping for?
After spending some in-depth time exploring what the A350 and how it does it, we've come to some conclusions on this unique consumer camera. While it's certainly not perfect, Sony has definitely put together another winner in its Alpha line that should be very appealing to a certain kind of shooter. If you're looking for a point-and-shoot style experience, but with DSLR image quality and features, the A350 may just be everything you need.
Building on the same physical platform as the step-down A200 and A300 models, the A350 brings the same basic interface and technology to the table as the A200, but with more resolution – 14.2 megapixels from an APS-C sized CCD sensor in this case – as well as Sony's innovative live view system. A Sony Bionz processor completes the image pipeline in this application, providing "improved white balance and exposure control, and expanded D-Range Optimizer capabilities."
The A350's tilting Clear Photo LCD is relatively unique as well, making it easy to "shoot from the hip" (or over your head, for that matter) with the camera in live view mode. In-body image stabilization, a reasonably powerful pop-up flash, eye-start AF and nine focus points, and a list of Creative Style preset JPEG processing options provide additional goodies for A350 shooters. The A350 uses a 40-area multi-segment metering system by default, and Sony's D-Range Optimizer tools can be used to bring out contrast-elided details in high-contrast shots.
The A350 is one of the few DSLRs in the consumer space to hang onto CF memory instead of moving to a more compact format, and it's a bit surprising that Sony didn't incorporate a MemoryStick slot in place of or in addition to CF compatibility.
Packed with an 18-70mm kit lens (more on that a little later in this section), the A350 uses the Alpha lens mount that Sony inherited from Konica-Minolta, making the camera compatible with DSLR glass from either manufacturer.
Like most consumer DSLRs, the A350 goes beyond P/A/S/M shooting modes with a small selection of scene presets as well. Every mode option on the camera is accessed via the mode dial, which includes the following shot capture settings:
For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.
Although the A350 would be a fine, capable camera without it, Sony's live view system (which allows you to compose shots on the camera's LCD, just like on a point-and-shoot, in addition to using the optical viewfinder like a traditional DSLR) is almost certainly the A350's most buzz-worthy feature. Part of the reason for the hype has to do with the fact that Sony elected to go in a technical direction with their live view implementation that is markedly different from anything else out there.
In your typical current live view DSLR, the system works by flipping the camera's internal mirror out of the way and letting light from the lens pass directly to the sensor, which in turn produces the image you see on the screen. Because of the mechanics of auto focus in DSLRs, however, when you want AF, the camera has to flip the mirror down and focus the image. This mirror up/mirror down/mirror up process blacks out the on-screen preview in the process and can take several seconds to complete.
While several manufacturers have proposed solutions to this dilemma, Sony's is unique in that it uses a secondary imager housed within the viewfinder prism – rather than the camera's primary sensor – to create the live preview. Flip a switch to change from optical viewfinder (or OVF) mode to live view shooting and a swiveling mirror in the viewfinder redirects the through-the-lens image onto this sensor.
Optical Viewfinder mode
Live View mode
What this also means for the A350 is that auto focus performs as normal, using the camera's DSLR-quick phase-detection system without having to black out the preview image to do it. To demonstrate just how easy the A350's live view system is to operate, and how quickly it focuses even when shooting in live preview mode, we've put together a short demo video.
For all it does well, the A350's live view performance is certainly not flawless. More on how the system holds up in testing can be found under the "Display/Viewfinder" and "Auto Focus" section headings below.
Our A350 test unit came bundled in kit form with Sony's 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 entry-level lens. As we found out in reviewing the A200, the 18-70mm isn't the best looking or feeling piece of gear out there, and the slight softness that was apparent even with the lower-resolution A200 is somewhat more pronounced in this application. Plus, it has the silliest looking, most questionably useful lens hood I think I've ever come across.
In short, if you want to take full advantage of the A350's imaging system, upgrading to something with a little more optical horsepower probably isn't a bad idea, but for casual or general purpose shooting, the 18-70mm isn't a bad choice, either.
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
Styling and Build Quality
The A350 looks much like the rest of Sony's consumer-grade Alpha cameras, with a mid-size composite body. Stylistically, the camera is angular and modern if a little plain to look at; in short, it looks very much like a Sony.
Build quality is in line with what we saw from the A200. While we warmed up to the lower-end model's acres of plastic over time, there's no denying that Sony's latest models aren't exactly the most premium looking or feeling pieces of kit on the block. Simple rubber covers plug up the ports when not in use, the buttons are thin plastic units as a rule, and the same toy-like 18-70mm kit lens is bundled with the body in this application as well.
In spite of some generic, budget-cam build, there are some high points here as well. The A350 is slightly heavy and bulky for its class, which gives the camera nice balance and, moreover, the kind of mass that tends to imply a well-built device. Although the A350's matte, untextured plastic panels look a little downmarket for a camera in this class, the body doesn't exhibit too many telltale squeaks or rattles. The A350's articulating LCD is also on a sturdy metal bracket that moves easily and feels well dampened at the stops.
Overall, as with the A200, the A350 is a camera that has some aesthetic turn offs initially – at least it did for us – but proves in use to be more rugged, functional, and purposeful in its construction than a quick initial evaluation would suggest.
Ergonomics and Interface
With kit lens, battery, an CF card all mounted, the A350 weighs in at a rather portly 2 pounds. While this weight, combined with a thick body and deep grip recess, makes the camera feel a bit cumbersome at first, everyone who shot with the A350 quickly adapted to the setup and found it reasonably well balanced and comfortable for a full day's shooting.
The camera does appear, at first blush, to suffer more than a bit from the dreaded "button bloat" – having not just a lot of buttons, but indeed an grouping structure that places controls on just about every flat surface of the camera.
Like most interface issues, you do get used to the way the A350 is laid out with time, but this one's less easy to adapt to than some other DSLRs I've worked with, even ones with an equal number of physical controls.
Part of the problem, it seems, is that getting your thumb to the most used control, the d-pad, requires some right-hand contortionism that can make this heavy camera difficult to support with one hand. Combined with the occasional imprecision of the A350's compass controller (which requires a very precise push to select the focus points that are in the "in-between" positions between the four positions, for instance), the A350 can be physically and mentally taxing to navigate at times. As with most physical interface issues, though, whether this one upsets you will largely depend on the size, shape, and strength of your hands, and hence we strongly recommend giving this camera an in-store test drive before buying if you're having concerns.
Working in conjunction with its very good live view system, the core of the A350's graphic interface is its LCD. Using the optical viewfinder with the on-screen info display mode selected, the A350 reads out basic exposure control and settings information (including my personal favorite: an exact percentage of battery life remaining) in large, plain type that's easy to read against the screen's default black background.
Navigating the interface in live view mode is even easier, as the bulk of this information can be overlaid on the preview image, with additional selections (drive mode or ISO settings, for instance) popping up in their own sidebar menu – just like with your compact camera.
In both live view and OVF shooting modes, the camera's function button calls up a selection menu for all basic shooting parameters not covered by their own dedicated button.
The master menu is a straightforward, four-tab affair, with separate columns for shooting controls, interface customization, playback options, and general camera setup functions. In contrast to some of the A350's physical interface headaches, it really doesn't get much simpler than this camera's graphical interface: there's a place for everything, and everything is right where you'd expect to find it.
As with the interface and build quality, there's some good news and some not so good news here. The good news is that the A350 utilizes a very smooth and bright, acceptably large 2.7-inch LCD. As noted previously, the screen is double hinged along the horizontal axis, allowing the user to pivot it up or down as need for shot composition (using live view) or settings adjustment (using the optical viewfinder).
If you shoot a lot in portrait orientation, though, you may wish for vertical-axis swiveling as well. The lack of a hinge in this direction reflects the overall setup of the live view system, which doesn't utilize an orientation sensor to move image information to the bottom of the screen when the camera is rotated – furthering the awkwardness of the live view arrangement for portrait shooting.
Contrast and color on the A350's are both very accurate in playback, making it easy to trust the results you're seeing, and as noted, the screen provides plenty of punch for displaying shooting status information in OVF mode. An eye sensor between the LCD and viewfinder window also automatically shuts off the LCD to make viewing a little easier when your eye comes to the finder.
Live view presents its own set of performance difficulties with the screen, however, in terms of fluidity, gain-up, and coverage: because a secondary sensor is used, you're only seeing about 90 percent of what's actually captured in the final image when shooting in live view mode. This level of compositional inaccuracy alone may be enough to turn some shooters off to the concept.
Additionally, refresh is a little slow compared to the best compact cameras, with lots of blurriness and "catch up" lag when shooting moving subjects or panning. Likewise, while the screen gains up automatically in low light, you may have trouble picking out details due to lots of grain and soft contrast in the preview image. All of these concerns are relatively minor on their own, but they do raise the issue that while Sony's live view system is a very functional and generally a joy to use, it's certainly still a compromise in some ways.
If the screen is, on its own at least, generally satisfactory, the optical viewfinder is another story. Whereas the A200 had one of the best, widest, and brightest viewfinders in its class, the need to squeeze a secondary live view sensor into the viewfinder prism makes looking through the A350 like a return to the bad old days of consumer DSLRs – or at least the entry-level cameras of about two generations back.
Eye-glasses wearers will find the level of magnification unrewarding (time to tune up that diopter...), and while coverage is a respectable 95 percent, the finder is dark and cramped. Whether or not you can effectively manually focus a lens through the A350's pentamirror depends largely on how good your eyesight is. Spartan status information through the viewfinder barely covers the basics (with the exception of Sony's cell-phone style "shake sensor" bars), and the text is fairly small to boot.
Timings and Shutter Lag
Like most DSLRs, pure shutter lag (the press-to-capture time with exposure and focus locked) is small enough to be basically negligible. A 0.08 second average mark in OVF shooting mode in our testing doesn't put the A350 at the head of the class (the best times we've recorded have been in the 0.03 range), though you're really splitting hairs at this point. What is impressive, though, is that the same test in live view mode yields equivalent numbers: just above 0.08 seconds from press to capture.
If shutter lag numbers aren't class leading, the A350's auto focus is plenty fast. In our standard test, with the 18-70mm kit lens set at its maximum wide-angle position, the A350 managed to grab a shot in 0.21 seconds in OVF mode. Again, though, it's the live view number – 0.24 seconds from scratch – that's simply hard to beat. Because of the design of the live view system – because the A350 neither uses contrast-detection AF nor requires additional mirror motions for phase-detection AF – there's essentially no difference between the performance in OVF and live view modes. What you're getting in live view mode with the latest Alpha from a performance standpoint is what many have hoped for all along: DSLR speed with compact camera ease of use.
The Alpha A350 can grab shots from power-up in as little as 1.2 seconds in either mode as well – also a good time.
As with other timings tests, continuous shooting averaged similar numbers in both live view and OVF modes. When working in live view with full-res JPEGs and a UDMA compliant card, we hit five frames in 2.4 seconds, for an average frame rate of around 2.1 fps. Limit your shooting to three consecutive shots and the system plows ahead a little faster than that, even, capturing at a rate of 2.3 fps initially.
The A350's nine-point AF system utilizes three drive modes and three area modes. Single-shot and continuous drive are both available, as is a "hybrid" Auto AF mode that automatically detects moving subjects and switches into continuous drive as necessary. In testing, the system worked well enough, though occasionally gave up a second or so on picking up a moving target. If in doubt (if you're working with low-contrast subjects, for instance), it's better to just go ahead and call up the continuous drive mode instead.
Area mode options are the conventional ones for a DSLR: center-point, automatic multi-area, and user-selected multi-area. The user-selected multi AF mode – my preferred AF setting – uses the nine directions of the d-pad (four cardinal directions, plus the center button and the four "in between" positions) to select the desired AF point, which makes getting focus where you want it relatively intuitive: tap the up direction, for instance, and the A350 selects the top center focus point, press the center ("OK") button to return to the center point, and so on. The selected point is highlighted on screen in live view mode, and on both the AF area grid display on the LCD and in the viewfinder when shooting in OVF mode.
Multi-area AF, left-central focus point selected
Focus is usually as rapid as the timings above would suggest, though it does help to allow the A350 to pulse the flash (there's no separate assist lamp) when shooting in darker or lower contrast areas. Also, at least one A350 user perceived the outside ring of AF points to be a little slower and less consistent, hunting more before grabbing a lock than the center cross of points.
The A350 sports a reasonably powerful pop-up flash, with a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100 – not as much punch as either the Pentax K200D or the Canon Rebel XSi (which both tout 13 meters), but plenty of power for an onboard unit just the same.
Of course, there's also a hot shoe for adding an external flashgun, as well as wireless flash control for managing a single group of Sony's wireless-enabled flashes. As an aside, I've always slightly disliked Sony's DSLRs for continuing to use Minolta's oddball flash hot shoe, which makes it next to impossible to shoot with generic manual-exposure flashguns, but it's doubtful that most potential buyers will care one way or the other.
In addition to auto and suppressed settings in auto-exposure mode, the A350 supports four basic flash operations: fill, slow sync, rear-curtain sync, and wireless control. A separate function controls whether or not red-eye reduction, which fires a rapid series of pre-flashes, is enabled. In the same vein, I found getting to the flash compensation – the on-board unit can be comped up or down 2 EV – a bit of a chore: it's in the main menu, rather than with the flash mode settings.
Sony's default flash mode uses a hybrid metering system that the manufacturer terms Advanced Distance Integration, or ADI, to combine information from typical pre-flash TTL metering with distance-to-subject info for more uniform exposures that are, according to Sony, less prone to exposure problems common to TTL flash metering in some shooting situations. While we've commented on the nice, uniform exposures provided by the ADI system on other Sonys, we were able to spend a little more time exploring the differences between the A350's ADI and pre-TTL metering modes this time around.
I found the most noticeable differences in exposure accuracy came when shooting light-colored or reflective surfaces.
Pop-up flash, TTL metering
As seen above, TTL metering will slightly miss exposure on the following shot nine times out of ten, tripped up by the small hot spot into underexposing the rest of the frame. If you spend a lot of time shooting flash photography, you probably reach for the exposure compensation control on a shot of this kind as a matter of course.
Pop-up flash, ADI metering
Because it's gathering data from multiple sources, the A350's ADI metering mode is able to correctly identify what's going on in this case and not fall into the same trap, providing a balanced, even, correctly lit exposure using nothing more than a straight-ahead burst from the camera's pop-up strobe.
The Alpha A350 utilizes Sony's Super SteadyShot sensor-shifting image stabilization system, which means that every lens you can mount to this body becomes a stabilized lens. A dedicated switch on the A350's back panel engages or disables the system as desired.
Beyond the basics, there's very little to report about the Alpha's IS, which is so unobtrusive you'll be hard pressed to even notice its effects – other than subtly sharper shots of course. On that score, I found two stops of sharpness improvement over what I could reasonably expect handheld to be a good guide number with the A350.
Sony claims that the A350 can pull 700-plus shots from a single charge of its InfoLITHIUM li-ion pack. What's even better in our opinion, though, is the fact that the Alpha tells you exactly, in easy to understand percentages, just how much life is left – and that the gauge seems to be accurate and the battery relatively linear in its discharge besides.
Of course, the above number is an OVF estimate. If you do a lot of live view shooting, expect to watch that gauge fall about twice as fast according to Sony. In our month-long experience with the A350, however, both numbers seem to be reasonable estimates of what to expect in the real world.
Utilizing more than 14 million pixels per capture to make its images, the A350 does something in a sub-$1,000 camera that would have been simply unthinkable not long ago where resolution is concerned. Bionz processing backs up the A350's CCD imager with an impressive number of processing options and shot improvement tools.
Generally speaking, we were pleased with the high-res results offered up the mid-level Alpha. While there's an appreciable difference at 100 percent view between shots from this camera and the 10 megapixel A200, though, you'll have to make some fairly enormous prints to see much benefit from the step-up camera's extra pixels. Just the same, the generally smooth, neutral processing, acceptable dynamic range, and competitive high-sensitivity performance of the A200 could equally describe shots from the A350.
Exposure, Processing, and Color
To my eye, the A350's baseline JPEG shot in the default processing mode looks perhaps just a bit more contrasty than the more neutral images produced by some of its competitors.
As in the shots from the A200, the shadow areas, especially, in our studio test shot seem to roll off a little abruptly, even at ISO 100 with the default D-Range Optimizer settings enabled. Engaging DRO Plus in place of the default setting does help somewhat in restoring shadow detail, especially.
Note in particular the more finely detailed wood grain on the pipe, and more pronounced text in the shadow areas of the bottle label. While DRO Plus may help a bit under even lighting to soften the A350's tone curve, it's much more subtle here than in wide-range outdoor shots – and the extra post-shot processing time may not make this slight improvement worth the trouble for many. Better to roll off a step of contrast in the Creative Style setting instead and reprocess the image post-shot as needed.
Not surprisingly, the difference between non-DRO and DRO Plus captures when dealing with a high-contrast outdoor scene is somewhat less subtle.
All in all, I was a little underwhelmed with the A350's image output initially, finding it often a touch underexposed and compressed looking. With the right combination of settings and some slight exposure tweaking as necessary, the A350 proved itself to be capable of subtle gradations across its dyanmic range, and we were much happier with the results after some adjustments to processing, metering, and DRO settings.
In terms of preset JPEG processing options, the A350 features quite a list. Beyond the basic Standard (default), Vivid, Portrait, and Landscape modes, the A350 offers Creative Styles that are optimized for night and sunset shooting.
Most users will likely spend the most time working in the saturation-neutral Standard and the more high-sat Vivid styles.
Beyond the default Creative Style presets, users can also fine tune processing with controls for contrast, saturation, and sharpening.
Of course, for ultimate image processing control, the A350 offers raw shooting as well. In comparative tests, it seems you can get a little more fine detail out of the raw images than from the A350's JPEG processing (especially at default sharpening), but you have to get at least to the 100 percent view level before the difference really starts to show.
It seems like current DSLRs, especially in the consumer class, are varying degrees of bad where automatic white balance performance is concerned. The A350's most egregious trouble spot is (drum roll, please) pure incandescent light, with the camera failing to come close in the 3000-4000K range.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
The presets can also be hit or miss in this regard. Thankfully, the combination of a relatively hue-accurate LCD and a good live view system makes visual white balance tuning a viable (and sometimes necessary) option. Unlike some of its classmates, white balance can be set based on color temperature (2500-9900K), and a plus/minus slider on each white balance setting allows further hue-based adjustment.
Sensitivity and Noise
The A350's 14.2 megapixel CCD imager provides a sensitivity range from ISO 100 to 3200 in whole EV steps, in addition to an Auto ISO setting.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Comparing the A350's high-ISO shots side-by-side with those from the similarly speced (but CMOS equipped) Canon Rebel XSi, the A350's primary issue – blue channel noise – becomes apparent in darker areas of the crop.
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350, ISO 1600
Canon Rebel XSi, ISO 1600
Noise in lighter areas at ISO 1600 is about the same, though, and while Sony doesn't offer the class leading performance that the XSi provided, with greater pixel density and a CCD sensor, performance is nonetheless better than we were expecting. If the A350 is more "average" than "exceptional" above ISO 800, it should also be noted that the camera offers usable if not exactly clean ISO 3200 shooting – something the Canon (and most other offerings in this class) can't claim.
Though it's disabled by default, the A350 does feature a high-ISO noise reduction system that can be powered up as desired.
ISO 800, NR On
ISO 1600, NR On
ISO 3200, NR Off
ISO 3200, NR On
Comparing crops with and without NR, the trade-offs that are being made are probably obvious. Without noise reduction, the A350 does a much better job of retaining detail. Engaging the system visibly smoothes out much of the A350's solid-field noise, especially, but at the expense of hard edge definition. Ultimately, it's a classic example of "pick your poison" in this case.
Additional Sample Images
The Alpha A200 was a solid performer, but at the end of the day what it really had going for it was one key spec: a fantastic price point for its level of specification. With street prices for the A350 all in the $800 range, the value equation changes somewhat. Sure, the A350 adds an excellent live view system – undoubtedly the most highly functional and uncompromised one on the market. I can't emphasize this enough: even considering Olympus's well thought-out live view system, the A350 is the first DSLR to offer a clean-sheet design approach to the live view problem, and thus not surprisingly, it's the first DSLR I've spent time with where live view feels well integrated with the rest of the device.
But if live view – even good, well implemented live view – just isn't your thing, the A350 has to work a lot harder to sell itself. If you can live without on-screen shooting in your DSLR, then what you're paying for with the A350 is essentially a $300 resolution bump. And if, in turn, you don't need 14.2 megapixels for the kinds of all-around shooting you have in mind, the A200 provides a better viewfinder, snappier continuous shooting performance, and a level of specification otherwise that meets the more expensive model point for point.
If you're looking for a camera to ease the transition from a point-and-shoot, something with a live view system that you can use every day for every shot without compromising AF performance, the A350 is your camera. Those willing to settle for a "purer" DSLR experience, however, can get most of the rest of the A350's performance for less money. Ultimately, then, whether you'll find the Alpha A350 to be the pinnacle of consumer DSLR development to this point or an abomination to its reflex-camera heritage really comes down to a question of personal preference.
|Sensor||14.2 megapixel, 23.5x15.7mm CCD
|Lens/Zoom||Minolta A-type bayonet mount (Alpha mount)
|LCD/Viewfinder||2.7", 230K-pixel tiltable TFT LCD; Penta-mirror optical viewfinder
|Shutter Speed||30-1/4000 seconds|
|Shooting Modes||Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Scene
|Scene Presets||Night Shot, Night Portrait, Action, Macro, Landscape, Portrait, Flash Suppressed
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent, Tungsten, Flash, Color Temperature/Color Filter, Custom|
|Metering Modes||40-Segment, Center-Weighted, Spot|
|Focus Modes||Single-area AF, Multi-area AF, User-selectable AF
|Drive Modes||Normal, Burst|
|Flash Modes||Auto, Fill, Rear Flash Sync, Slow Sync, High-Speed Sync, Wireless
|Self Timer Settings
||10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
|Memory Formats||Compact Flash|
|File Formats||JPEG, RAW
|Max. Image Size||4,592 x 3,056|
|Max. Video Size
|Zoom During Video||N/A|
|Battery||STAMINA rechargeable lithium-ion battery, 730 shots
|Additional Features||Dynamic Range Optimizer, Super SteadyShot, Live View, Bionz Engine Processor|