Sony a290 Review

Sony a290 Review

The Alpha 290 currently represents the cheapest way to enter Sony’s SLR class. For the price of a very good compact camera, the Alpha 290 offers an APS-C size sensor with an impressive 14 megapixel resolution. Sony has, however, economized on the equipment: LiveView doesn’t know the Alpha 290, it can’t record videos. Our test clarifies whether the Alpha 290 has what it takes to be a purist entry-level camera or has already been overtaken by the passage of time.

Brief assessment


  • Ergonomically well formed housing (but cheap material appearance)
  • Image stabilizer via Sensor-Shift
  • Easy to use even for beginners
  • Decent image quality (but annoying color noise from ISO 800 on)


  • Low serial frame rate
  • Slightly limited range of functions (e.g. no depth-of-field preview)
  • Set lens does not exploit the full potential of the camera
  • No LiveView, no video recording

Ergonomics and Workmanship

Like so many DSLRs from Sony, the Alpha 290 is a member of a whole family. We recently tested its bigger sister, the Alpha 390 (see link). The Alpha 290 differs from it above all in the absence of the LiveView option. With the smallest DSLR from the Sony range, you can compose your photos in the classic way by looking through the viewfinder. On the other hand, the Alpha 290 is around EUR 150 cheaper than its bigger sister, making it one of the cheapest digital SLR cameras around. And it offers an optical viewfinder that still lives up to this name. Although the inexpensive pentangle mirror construction produces only a moderately bright viewfinder image, it is still large enough (95 percent viewfinder field coverage, 0.83x magnification) that even people wearing glasses can cope with it to some extent. The exit pupil also offers a dioptre correction, so the glasses do not necessarily have to be put on for the image to be taken.

The case of the Alpha 290 sits well in the hand. While Sony had dispensed with a pronounced handle on the previous Alpha 230 model, the current Alpha 290 once again shows the familiar hump on the right-hand side. The plastic housing does not look very valuable, but on the other hand it does not respond to bold grabs with crackling or creaking sounds. The fact that metal has been largely dispensed with also makes the Alpha 290’s housing pleasantly light – not even 500 grams presses it onto the scale ready for operation (but without the lens). After all: bayonet and tripod thread are made of solid stainless steel and promise a long life. Obviously, the Sony engineers have placed the on/off switch in a ring around the shutter release, following more fashion considerations than ergonomic aspects. This means that the main switch is too close to the front dial, increasing the risk of operating errors. At the top left of the camera body is a neat mode dial that can be used to quickly change the configuration of the Alpha 290.

The Sony engineers have hidden all the important connections and the slots for the memory cards in an easily accessible position on the left side of the case under a large “sliding door” – which is practical. On the back, on the other hand, there is only plain fare: The display is not exactly lavishly dimensioned with a diagonal of 2.7 inches (6.9 cm), the resolution of 230,400 pixels is modest by today’s standards. The Alpha 290’s monitor is always happy to provide information: on request, it displays a brief explanation and example picture of the currently selected setting. If you want, you can also use the “Display” button to show a small graphic showing the selected time/aperture combination – beginners to DSLR photography will quickly learn to appreciate this support.

Typical for cameras from Sony, the menu is quite clearly arranged. This may also be due to the fact that the Alpha 290, as an entry-level camera, is a little tight on settings. Thanks to the practical Fn button on the back of the Alpha 290, trips to the menu are rarely necessary anyway: Important basic functions, such as white balance or the choice of exposure metering method, can be called up quickly with their help. Less practical, however, is that individual AF fields can also be selected using this Fn button only. The Alpha 290 offers a dedicated button for exposure compensation only. Therefore, Sony has placed the battery bay in a decent distance to the tripod thread. The NP-FH50 energy dispenser can therefore be easily replaced even with the quick-release plate attached. With an output of 6.1 Wh, the battery is sufficient for a good 500 shots.

Equipment And Features

The fact that the Sony Alpha 290 doesn’t want to be a professional camera is already revealed by its exterior, which is only sparsely equipped with buttons and switches. Rather, the camera is primarily aimed at photographers who want to get good-looking pictures quickly without extensive adjustment orgies. The Alpha 290 does most of the work for you with the green “Auto” program. Here she chooses independently the settings that suit the subject and the lighting conditions. If you would like to have it more detailed, select one of the seven scene mode programs (such as “Portrait” or “Landscape”). Creative and experienced photographers will also find the usual semi-automatic exposure programs (aperture or time preselection) on the Alpha 290, and the camera can even be controlled fully manually. The flash system leaves hardly anything to be desired: The Alpha 290 masters flashes to the second curtain as well as synchronizing with a slow shutter speed. A small flash (guide number 10) is on board, it can also serve as a control unit for an unleashed system flash. If the light is not sufficient for autofocus, the small flash illuminates the scene with a stroboscopic salvo.


Even though the Alpha 290 is the smallest DSLR in the range, Sony has given it the SteadyShot. This anti-shake feature uses sensor movement to compensate for the shaking of an excessively unsteady photographer’s hand. Advantage of this system (as it is similarly used by Pentax and Olympus): The anti-shake feature works with any lens. In practice, this anti-shake allows an extension of the exposure time by about three steps. On the other hand, Sony is extremely economical with the Alpha 290 in terms of “ISO auto”: the camera stubbornly selects a sensitivity between ISO 100 and ISO 400, but manual settings can be made up to ISO 3,200. The Alpha 290 can tame overly strong contrasts in the scene with the “Optimize dynamic range” (DRO) function. If it is switched on, the dark parts of the image are automatically brightened. This works well, but is by far not as effective as a real HDR function, where several differently exposed images are offset against each other. With semi-automatic or manual exposure control, the Alpha 290 also allows you to adjust the contrast, sharpness and saturation of the images to suit your personal requirements. Additionally, there are some image styles as defaults, for example for “landscape”, “black and white” or “evening scene”.


The autofocus of the Alpha 290 is based on nine measuring fields. This means the camera needs between 0.3 and 0.6 seconds to focus on the subject. Although these are not peak values, they are still okay. Pre-focused, the Alpha 290 reacts quite firmly, and a picture is in the box about a tenth of a second after the shutter release button is pressed. We determined these values with the Sony DT F3.5-5.6/18-55mm SAM set lens. This lens does not fully exploit the potential of the Alpha 290, especially a rather high drop in resolution towards the edges of the image is its decisive weakness. After all, Sony has given the set lens an autofocus drive via micro motor, which shifts the lens groups quite quietly. This is especially important for video recording, a feature that the Alpha 290 lacks. In return, it still has the mechanical autofocus drive inherited from Minolta. So all AF lenses introduced by Minolta since 1983 can be used on the Sony Alpha 290 without restrictions.


Image quality

At the heart of the Alpha 290 is a CCD sensor with a resolution of around 14 megapixels. In the meantime, CCD technology has gone a little out of fashion for DSLRs, CMOS sensors simply make much less noise at higher sensitivity. In addition, the somewhat aged CCD sensors cannot be read out as quickly as their CMOS cousins, resulting in lower serial frame rates. On the other hand, CCD technology is said to have clear advantages in detail reproduction at lower sensitivities. And indeed, the Alpha 290 at ISO 200 impresses with its clear reproduction of fine details and appealing micro contrasts. Sony can easily do without aggressive processing of the image sharpness, and the Alpha 290’s restrained sharpness is convincing all along the line. The Alpha 290, on the other hand, has less control over image noise: the camera’s noise curve already increases significantly from ISO 400. Above all, the red canal in particular is moving upwards in a hurry. And so, even at low ISO sensitivities, spotty, often red-tinged color disturbances appear. With increasing sensitivity, these interferences grow cloudy. The Alpha 290 has a much better grip on brightness noise: it only becomes slightly noticeable from ISO 1,600 upwards, but does not interfere with the printout.

The tonal value curve of the Alpha 290 is rather crisply tuned, with strong contrasts in the lowlights and highlights. In principle, such a crisp tone curve is well suited for photos that are to be output on paper without further image processing. However, this is countered by the fact that the Alpha 290 (like so many cameras) records a black level that is too high – black tends to be reproduced as a very dark grey, which makes the images appear flatter than necessary. The input dynamic range of the Alpha 290, on the other hand, is decent: up to ISO 800, it processes a contrast difference of around eight aperture stops (EV); only at the highest sensitivity of ISO 3,200 does the dynamic range drop to a still acceptable 7.3 EV. Sony has also done nothing wrong with the compression levels of the JPEG files: although the Alpha 290 only offers a choice between “Standard” and “Fine”, both levels are well matched to their respective purpose (file size or image quality). Those who do not want to rely on the Alpha 290’s internal image processing also have the option of recording their photos in RAW format and then developing them on the PC screen using the “Sony Image Data Converter SR” software included in the scope of delivery, just as they wish.


The Sony Alpha 290 does not shine either with impressive picture quality or with an exuberant wealth of features. But measured by the price, the puristic concept of the camera may well appeal. For those who can do without video recording and LiveView, the Alpha 290 is a camera that offers much more than a compact camera in the same price range, especially in terms of “image quality”. Most importantly, the Alpha 290 fits seamlessly into Sony’s DSLR system, providing a decent basis – even for AF lenses from the Minolta heritage. Also worth mentioning is the image stabilizer via sensor shift, which stabilizes practically any lens. Typical for an entry-level DSLR, however, professional features such as mirror lock-up or a dimming button are missing. The operation is a bit menu-heavy, but hardly gives up any puzzles. It’s just a pity that the Alpha 290 reacts somewhat sluggishly to input and that the sensor is no longer able to introduce contemporary color noise into the images beyond ISO 800.


Manufacturer Sony
Model Alpha 290
Price* approx. EUR 360 at market launch
Sensor Resolution 14.2 megapixels
Max. Image resolution 4.592 x 3.056
(aspect ratio) (3:2)
Lens Sony DT F3.5-5.6/18-55mm SAM
Filter thread 55mm
Viewfinder Pentas Mirror
Field of view 95 %
Enlargement 0.83-fold
Dioptre compensation -2.5 – +1 dpt.
LCD monitor 2,7″
Resolution 230.400
as Viewfinder
Video output HDMI
Automatic programming yes
Automatic aperture control yes
Automatic timer yes
manual exposure yes
BULB long time exposure yes
Scene mode programs
Portrait yes
Landscape yes
Macro yes
Sports/action yes
More 2 additional scene modes
Exposure metering Multi-field, centre-weighted Integral, Spot
Flash yes
Flash connection System hot shoe
Remote release Infrared (optional)
Interval recording
Storage medium SD/SDHC, Memory Stick (Duo)
Video mode
Resolution (max.)
Frame rate (max.)
automatically ISO 100-400
manually ISO 100-3,200
White balance
Automatic yes
Sun yes
Clouds yes
Fluorescent lamp yes
Incandescent lamp yes
Miscellaneous Shadow, Flash, WB Fine Correction
Manually yes
Number of measurement fields 9
AF auxiliary light Lightning bolt
Speed approx. 0.3-0.6 s
Languages English
More 14 additional languages are available
(Ready for operation)
567 g (body only )718 g (with lens*)
Zoom adjustment manually on the lens
One-hand operation
(zoom and shutter release)
Triggering during storage possible. yes
Battery life approx. 500 images according to CIPA (without LiveView)
– = “not applicable” or “not available
“* with lens Sony DT F3.5-5.6/18-55mm SAM

Brief assessment


  • Ergonomically well formed housing (but cheap material appearance)
  • Image stabilizer via Sensor-Shift
  • Easy to use even for beginners
  • Decent image quality (but annoying color noise from ISO 800 on)


  • Low serial frame rate
  • Slightly limited range of functions (e.g. no depth-of-field preview)
  • Set lens does not exploit the full potential of the camera
  • No LiveView, no video recording

Sony Alpha 290 Datasheet


Sensor CCD sensor APS-C 23.6 x 15.8 mm (crop factor 1.5
)14.9 megapixels (physical) and 14.2 megapixels (effective)
Pixelpitch 5.1 µm
Photo resolution
4.592 x 3.056 pixels (3:2)
3.408 x 2.272 pixels (3:2)
2.288 x 1.520 pixels (3:2)
Image formats JPG, RAW
Color depth 36 bits (12 bits per color channel)
Metadata Exif (version 2.2), DCF standard


Lens mount
Sony AF


Autofocus mode Phase comparison autofocus with 9 sensors
Autofocus functions Single AF, Continuous AF, Manual, AF Assist Light

Viewfinder and monitor

SLR viewfinder Mirror reflex viewfinder (prism viewfinder) (95 % image coverage), dioptre compensation (-2.5 to +1.0 dpt), replaceable focusing screens
Monitor 2.7″ TFT LCD monitor with 230,400 pixels


Exposure metering Center-weighted integral measurement, matrix/multi-field measurement, spot measurement
Exposure times 1/4,000 to 30 s (Automatic
) Bulb function
Exposure control Programmed automatic, Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Manual
Exposure bracketing function Exposure bracketing function with a maximum of 3 shots, step size from 0.3 to 0.7 EV
Exposure Compensation -2.0 to +2.0 EV with step size of 1/3 EV
Photosensitivity ISO 100 to ISO 3,200 (manual)
Remote access Remote triggering
Scene modes Landscape, Macro, Night Portrait, Portrait, Sunset, and Sports/Action,
White balance Clouds, sun, shade, fluorescent lamp, incandescent lamp, manual
Color space Adobe RGB
Continuous shooting Continuous shooting function max. 2.5 fps at highest resolution and max. 6 stored photos
Self-timer Self-timer with 2 s interval, special features: or 10 s (optional)
Recording functions Live histogram


Flash built-in flash (flip-up
) Hot shoe: Sony Alpha (also Minolta)
Flash range Flash sync speed 1/160 s
Flash code Guide number 10 (ISO 100)
Flash functions Auto, fill-in flash, flash on, flash off, slow sync, red-eye reduction


Image stabilizer Sensor shift (optical)
Memory Stick (Duo Pro)
Power supply unit Power supply connection
Power supply 1 x Sony NP-FH50 (Lithium Ion (Li-Ion), 3.6 V, 960 mAh) 500 images according to CIPA standard
Playback functions Image index
Image parameters Sharpness, contrast, noise reduction
Connections Data interfaces: USBUSB type
:USB 2.0 High Speed
AV Connections AV output: HDMI output Micro (Type D)
Supported direct printing methods PictBridge
Tripod thread 1/4″
Special features and miscellaneous optical image stabilizer (CCD shift) with 2.3-3.5 light values Correction sensor
Cleaning function and antistatic coatingFlash sync speed
1/160s Optional
noise reduction from ISO 1600Contrast
, saturation, sharpness and brightness adjustable (-3 to 3)
Zone matching (-1 to 2)
Dynamic Range OptimizerNoise reduction
from ISO 1600AF
Sensitivity -1 to 18 EVPrediction

Size and weight

Dimensions W x H x D 128 x 97 x 80 mm
Weight 508 g (ready for operation)


standard accessory Sony NP-FH50 Special Battery



BC-VH1Video Connection CableUSB Connection CableStretch StrapImage Editing Software

Sony Software Package for Windows (XP/or higher) and for Macintosh (System X/or higher)

additional accessories Sony HVL-MT24AM Macro FlashSony
NP-FH50 Special Battery Power SupplyPower SupplyAC-PW10AM


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