Sony A350 Review

Sony A350 Review

The “newcomers” to the Alpha system are the Alpha 200, the Alpha 300 and the Alpha 350, with the last two protagonists even mastering a very special form of real-time image preview (LiveViews). In this one of two current Alpha test reports, we take a close look at the Alpha 350.

Brief assessment

Pros

  • Foldable and tiltable screen
  • LiveView with white balance and exposure preview
  • Very high resolution (can only be stretched with powerful lenses)
  • Uninterrupted image preview with unrivalled fast AF

Cons

  • Set lens overstrained in terms of performance
  • Spongy control button field, ergonomics in general in need of improvement
  • Not particularly brilliant and sharp screen
  • Moderate viewfinder comfort

 

Ergonomics and Workmanship

With the Alpha 350 (short: A350), the demonic figure of 666 grams is distributed over 131 x 98 x 75 millimeters when you hold the camera body alone (but with memory card and battery) in your hand. With the DT 18-70 mm F3.5-5.6 set lens, the weight increases to just under a kilo, i.e. 910 grams. The A350 no longer weighs any more, thanks to the generous use of polycarbonate. As with so many entry-level digital SLR cameras, the plastic feels a bit “cheap plastic” in some places – which is somewhat detrimental to the subjective feeling of quality.

The front gripping surface of the A350 is covered with rubber in grained leather look. This is to prevent the photographer’s hand from slipping off the only slightly roughened plastic surface. Unfortunately, people with slightly larger hands have problems holding the camera comfortably in their hands. The little finger likes to slip over the bottom edge of the camera into the void; a rogue who thinks evil and accuses Sony of wanting to promote the sale of the optional battery/portrait format handle VG-B30AM. In general, the A350 is not necessarily a model of ergonomics. Despite an exemplary bright or clear viewfinder image, just about 95% correct field coverage, not too close interpupillary distance of 20.8 mm (16.7 mm without rubber cup) and 0.74x magnification, the viewfinder appears small and narrow, and it is difficult for people wearing glasses to look comfortably into the eyepiece. There is often no other choice than to take off the glasses and adjust the viewfinder sharpness to the individual visual acuity via the existing dioptre correction wheel (-3 to +1 dpt). The rest of the ergonomics is also a bit lacking. The 19 operating elements (12 knobs / buttons, 4 slide switches, 1 program selector wheel, 1 setting wheel and 1 control panel) are clearly and logically arranged, but especially the vertical row of buttons on the left of the screen is difficult to reach or operate due to the slightly protruding LCD.

Not that we want to dismiss the A350 rapidly, but we’ve seen better LCD screens from Sony. The small monitor with its 6.9 cm screen diagonal (equivalent to 2.7″) and its 230,400 pixels lacks a bit of brilliance – and especially in LiveView mode it lacks a bit of sharpness. But it could be so nice to work with the A350 in LiveView mode. Thanks to a special hinge, the screen can be folded up to 130° or tilted down 40°, and on top of that, not only is the typical picture preview available, but also an exposure and white balance preview. If the monitor focus were correct, even with the 1.4x and 2x magnifiers, a fairly precise focus control or manual focus would be possible. Too bad it’s not. Otherwise, the LCD looks good: the brightness and color difference between the monitor image and the captured image is small, the image reproduction is smooth (i.e. without strong jerking/tracking), and even in low light the screen is largely free of noise.

By the way, the LiveView image on the A350 is produced in a slightly different way than on most other current digital SLR cameras with image preview. While the latter “tap” the image signal for the monitor directly at the image sensor, the A350 has a second image sensor in the viewfinder path dedicated solely to the generation of the live image – similar to the Olympus E-330. Sony has come up with a pretty clever mechanism. When using the optical viewfinder, the image captured by the objective is transmitted to the eyepiece through a set of mirrors or mirrored plastic surfaces in the prism housing, as in many entry-level DSLRs. Here, the front mirror in the prism housing is mounted on a kind of hinge and is tilted forward a few millimetres when switching to the LCD. As a result, the image-forming light rays are slightly deflected in the viewfinder and then no longer fall into the eyepiece but onto the LiveView sensor above it.

 

The advantage of this design is that the main mirror in the mirror box of the camera no longer has to be folded up as with other DSLRs capable of live images. This mirror redirects, among other things, the image captured by the lens to the autofocus sensor in the bottom of the camera. So while in Live View mode, the competition either has to fold down the oscillating mirror briefly to get an autofocus signal, or use the image sensor as an autofocus sensor, the A350 uses the same autofocus sensor in Live View mode as it does when using the optical viewfinder. The correct distance setting can still be determined according to the phase comparison principle; if you use the image sensor for sharpness/distance calculation, you have to resort to the much slower method of contrast analysis for technical reasons. In fact, the A350’s automatic focus is as fast and reliable in Live View mode as it is in conventional operation via the optical viewfinder. The only downer: The LiveView image and the image finally captured do not come from the same sensor, so that there can be deviations in the image section shown. The live image sensor only reaches 91% of the size of the image sensor responsible for the image acquisition; the camera captures a larger image section than seen on the LCD, and those who want to have the same section as on the screen in their photos have to crop the images later. Thereby one “gives away” approximately 1.3 megapixels.

When the camera monitor is not used as a viewfinder replacement or alternative and as a playback screen, the camera menus and/or current settings are displayed on it. Thanks to the eye sensor, the screen switches off automatically during normal operation when the eye is moved to the eyepiece. This saves power, but an additional grip sensor would be useful if you don’t want the screen to constantly turn on and off when the camera is dangling on the strap. This can be countered by not carrying the camera around with you when it’s turned on, but it’s still not very nice. The menus of the A350 can be described as clear and easy to read. Unlike the compact cameras of the in-house Cyber-shot series, you don’t have to search for different settings in 1,000 detours; here, everything is “neatly” divided into four main categories (shooting settings, advanced settings, playback settings and basic settings) with more than 80 different settings in 41 menu items. When resuming the current settings (the camera screen then acts as a status LCD), the screen automatically switches to portrait display when the A350 is held upright. But better is the enemy of good, and other cameras show the A350 how it could be made even better. For example, on the Canon EOS 450D and almost all Olympus E-System cameras, the status values displayed can be changed directly on the screen using the control buttons. That Sony can do this is shown by the quick navi system of its big sister, the Alpha 700; one can only wish that Sony would also give the entry-level models this form of ” access”. Not a pious wish, but a real criticism is our statement that the A350’s control panel has a rather spongy pressure point and thus navigating through the camera menus isn’t really fun; these are all small details that one can easily live with, but that slightly cloud the good overall impression of the camera.

It remains to be mentioned for this section that the (CompactFlash) memory card and the lithium-ion battery of the A350 are housed in separate compartments with hinged hard access lids/doors and can thus be changed separately; while the video output shares space with the card slot, the remote release connector and the power input are located on the other side of the camera behind a rubber cover. The tripod thread of the A350 is made of metal, is located far enough away from the battery compartment to allow the battery to be changed even when using a permanently mounted tripod quick-release plate, and lies – as it should – in the optical axis.

Equipment

A former (Konica-)Minolta and current Sony speciality is the so-called Eye-Start-System. For example, we mentioned at the beginning of this review that a built-in eye sensor turns the camera screen on and off (as some of our competitors’ cameras can now do). But with the Eye-Start system, the camera also starts to automatically focus and measure the exposure as soon as you put your eye to the eyepiece. In its original form, the Eye-Start system even worked in conjunction with a contact sensor on the camera handle (so that these operations were even performed when you just took the camera in your hand); due to some EU regulation (at least that’s the official reason given by Sony), a handle sensor is taboo, at least for the Alpha DSLRs sold in Europe. But even with the eye sensor alone, pre-focusing can save valuable time. However, if you find this function annoying, because the camera then behaves a bit “hyperactive”, you can switch off the Eye-Start system in the camera menu.

Many users would certainly prefer to do without another system tradition: that of the proprietary flash shoe. While with cameras of other producers, one oftenly has to specially fix the external flash device by turning a thumbscrew, with (Konica-)Minolta- and Sony-cameras, one only has to plug in the flash, but the non-standard flash shoe limits the choice of usable and/or available flash devices a little. Even the entry-level A350 is capable of wireless control of one or more flash units while maintaining TTL auto. The camera’s built-in miniature flash can then serve as a control unit, and it can also flash wirelessly on multiple channels and/or with multiple flash groups, including the distribution of light intensity. In general, the A350 cuts a good figure in terms of flash technology: The built-in flash pops up either automatically (in full-auto program and most subject programs) or on command at the touch of a button (in all other exposure modes), the flash coverage is good, the color temperature of the flash light is largely neutral, and there are no overflash effects even in close-up photography, the relationship between flash light and ambient light is balanced, the on-board flash jumps out just high enough to cause hardly any drop shadows and red eyes, and if the somewhat tight flash sync speed of 1/160 s is not reached, you can fall back on the HSS function (High Speed Synchronisation)

On the A350, the most important functions and settings can be accessed directly via the Fn key. These are in detail the flash modes (including Long-term synchronization and wireless control), the exposure metering mode (honeycomb/multi-field, center-weighted integral metering, spot metering), the autofocus modes (single AF, focus tracking, or automatic switching between the two), the autofocus-mode (automatic focusing area selection, Spot AF, manual target selection), the white balance settings (automatic, 6 presets with the possibility of fine correction, color temperature/color filter value input, manual white balance) and last but not least the settings for the so-called “dynamic range optimization”. The self-timer with its lead times of either 2 or 10 seconds, the continuous shooting function (see table of measured values) as well as the series automatic for white balance and exposure are called up with a separate button. Other functions with their own buttons are exposure compensation, AE lock, light sensitivity level setting, and the digital zoom function – unusual for a digital SLR camera. Among the playback functions (including image magnifier and image rotation), we have mainly missed an image cropping function (known as crop function) and a function for automatic red-eye detection and retouching; in the camera menus, you will find image parameter sets, a time/date stamp, a flash exposure correction function, noise reduction settings, a pixel mapping function and much more.

Lens

In the smallest kit the A350 is sold with the DT18-70mm F3.5-5.6 (product code: SAL-1870). The special thing about this set lens is its somewhat more generous focal length range. While the digital SLR cameras of many other manufacturers come with an 18-55mm zoom or similar in the smallest camera/lens package (which is roughly equivalent to a 28-80mm lens for 35mm), the SAL-1870 has a little bit more telephoto. The nominal focal length range of 18 to 70 millimeters results in a 28-105mm zoom after conversion to 35mm ratios; the light intensity from F3.5 to F5.6 is almost standard in this price range.

The SAL-1870’s plastic bayonet shows that, given the tightly calculated prices of set lenses, one should not expect too much from their workmanship. Now the lens itself does not weigh much (about 235 g), so there is no real danger that the bayonet will break off under the weight of the lens at some point, but if the camera falls, the plastic bayonet is the “Achilles heel” of the small (Ø 66 x 77 mm) zoom. Also, the SAL-1870 was not really designed to be manually focused. MF operation is possible by flipping the corresponding switch on the camera, but the focusing ring is so narrow and difficult to grasp even with small fingers that one prefers to turn the sun visor when focusing by hand.

Despite the conventional drive, the SAL-1870 focuses quite “jaggedly” when using the autofocus. The focusing process is then most of the time not to be overheard and one thinks to be dealing with a cordless screwdriver on speed, but Alpha photographers in need of discretion will find some lenses with whisper quiet and fast ultrasonic drive in the lens catalog of Sony and third party supplier Sigma. It is gratifying to note that Sony is in the process of increasing its stock of SSM lenses (SSM = Super-Sonic Motor) at this year’s edition of the US photo trade fair PMA at the latest. Although the equipment with an ultrasonic motor will remain in the near future primarily the privilege of higher quality/priced Zeiss and G optics, the trend is slowly moving towards the generalization of SSM technology.

In general, the range of compatible lenses for the Alpha system has grown rapidly in recent times, even though the stock of lenses has always been impressive thanks to the acquisition of Konica Minolta, including the bayonet mount. Most of the “old lenses” can be used with the cameras of the Alpha series without any problems, but it is not always possible to guarantee that their imaging performance will meet the special requirements of modern image sensors, especially with the highest expectations on image quality and with increasing sensor resolution. They are now gradually being replaced or displaced by “digitally optimized” versions.

Back to autofocus: While the focusing speed of the Alpha 350 – similar to that of the Alpha 300 and Alpha 200 – has been improved by a factor of 1.7 according to the manufacturer, this is due more to the new camera-internal servo motor than to the AF module. This remains largely unchanged since the Alpha 100 with its nine AF fields (one of which is a cross sensor) and its sensitivity of IL 0. However, the control software of the autofocus system has been partially rewritten so that the focus tracking now works even better.

The A350’s sensor dedusting mechanism should not work much better. There’s no evidence that Sony has improved it, and – in the absence of specific tests and/or long-term experience reports from the user community – it must be assumed that the Alpha 350 doesn’t remove dust from its image sensor any more effectively than the Alpha 100. Their method of shaking off the dust from the antistatically coated sensor surface by overriding the image stabilizer had turned out to be largely ineffective in tests by the online magazine Pixinfo and the French photo trade magazine Chasseur d’Images, and so it will probably be necessary to occasionally approach the dust on the sensor directly with suitable “cleaning tools” (sensor swabs or similar) on the A350.

Just a reminder: The dust should be removed by moving the image sensor up and down. This is because it is movably suspended in a special frame and is pushed up and down, left and right by two piezoceramic elements. Naturally with such a high frequency that a kind of shaking movement is created. This mechanism primarily serves to compensate for shaking movements that cause blurring and is only misused as a sensor dedusting mechanism with stronger shaking movements. How the sensor dust removal mechanism works more precisely in its original function as a CCD shift image stabilizer (called “Super SteadyShot” by Sony) can be read in our review of the Alpha 100 as also in the already mentioned Alpha Lens Book of Sony (see the further links for both). For the A350, this should result in approximately 2.5 to 3.5 f-stops in terms of shake resistance. In practice, the system works quite effectively, and with the SAL-1870 in telephoto position, useful freehand shots are still possible even at 1/20 s. The only disadvantage of the CCD shift method is the fact that the viewfinder image is not stabilized. Instead, there is a shake warning icon and a small bar graph in the lower LCD viewfinder bar to visualize the strength of the shake correction, and you can also enjoy the benefits of camera-side image stabilization with any connected lens.

Image quality

Since Samsung has now also entered the production of image sensors for digital SLR cameras, the “three big ones” that are Canon, Samsung and Sony have been trying to outdo each other. In the first round of this triathlon, the Koreans from Samsung emerge as winners, who were/are one step ahead of the competition in terms of resolution (14.6 megapixels). That same year, in 2008, Canon announced the EOS 450D with its comparatively “lean” 12.2 megapixels; and Sony followed with the A350 and its 14.2 megapixels inmediately thereafter.

However, the set lens does not necessarily bring this to bear. Not only in terms of resolution, but also in terms of vignetting and distortion, the SAL-1870 gives a rather modest performance picture on the A350. Especially when it is used with the aperture open and/or in 18 mm position (approx. 28 mm according to KB). The electronics are more powerful than the optics, and this is also noticeable in other disciplines. Sony, or rather its BIONZ processor, has a good grip on noise over the entire sensitivity range, and even when the relatively strong high-ISO noise reduction from ISO 1.600 onwards comes into effect, the smoothing effects don’t really make themselves felt. There are also good marks for dynamic range. The A350 has excellent input dynamic range of 9.1 f-stops at ISO 100 – even without the Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) function enabled. The camera processes the images sometimes more (for low-pass filtering, processing fine image details and tonal reproduction), sometimes less (for sharpness). Like other entry-level DSLRs, the A350 is largely tuned so that the images – as they come out of the camera – are pleasing to the eye. This makes it less suitable for reproduction purposes or other tasks with absolutely neutral image reproduction; while the pleasing tonal value reproduction chosen by Sony emphasizes the edge darkening even more, the low resolution values of the set lens dampen the artifact formation associated with the strong detail processing a little bit.

The A350 exposes very accurately in most cases. In normal camera operation – unless otherwise selected – the proven honeycomb measurement with its 40 honeycomb measuring fields is used; in LiveView mode the camera switches to a classic multi-field measurement with no less than 1,200 (!) measuring fields. As always, when using flash you have the choice between distance-related ADI (Advanced Distance Integration) and TTL pre-flash measurement, although there is still some dispute in forums as to which of the two measurement modes is the better one. But no matter if with or without flash: there are hardly any wrong exposures, and only the exposure metering systems from Canon and Nikon (3D color matrix metering, iTTL or E-TTL flash metering etc.) work even more precise (but not always). When it comes to white balance, the A350 shows the same weakness as most DSLRs: across manufacturers, even expensive professional models have their difficulties with perfect white balance under incandescent light, and the A350 is no exception. Switching to the default setting for incandescent light largely eliminates the red-orange cast, but manual white balance still gives the best results.

Conclusion

As the first Alpha model with LiveView, the Alpha 350 is what can be described as a thoroughly successful first attempt. However, Sony’s unique LiveView concept is not entirely convincing. The actually uninterrupted image preview with unrivalled fast automatic focusing (Quick AF) is opposed by a poor viewfinder comfort and the moderate sharpness of the camera screen does not really bring out the advantages of the LiveView. Otherwise, the Alpha 350 behaves like a typical entry-level digital SLR camera with a compact camera feel (thanks to LiveView), processing quality typical of the class, fairly good image quality and an operating concept suitable for beginners. If you operate the camera with a higher quality lens instead of the supplied set lens, you can get even more image quality out of it.

Brief assessment

Pros

  • Foldable and tiltable screen
  • LiveView with white balance and exposure preview
  • Very high resolution (can only be stretched with powerful lenses)
  • Uninterrupted image preview with unrivalled fast AF

Cons

  • Set lens overstrained in terms of performance
  • Spongy control button field, ergonomics in general in need of improvement
  • Not particularly brilliant and sharp screen
  • Moderate viewfinder comfort

Ansmann extends battery handles by the model S 350pro

Battery handles for Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Pentax and Samsung are already available – now Ansmann has alternative energy for Sony in its product portfolio. The Battery Grip S 350pro for the Sony Alpha 200, 300 and 350 camera models has a portrait format shutter release and corresponding setting wheels. The battery compartment door of the camera can be placed in a special compartment in the handle. This reduces the risk of losing the flap. The power supply is provided by two lithium-ion rechargeable batteries type FM 500H, which are not included in the scope of delivery. Sony’s own VG-B30AM handle comes with additional function keys, but also costs 250 EUR, whereas the Ansmann handle only costs 130 EUR. The Battery Grip S 350pro is available already since October 2008.

Ansmann Battery Grip S 350pro for Sony Alpha 200, 300 and 350 [Photo: Ansmann]

Sony Alpha 350 Datasheet

Electronics

Sensor CCD sensor APS-C 23.6 x 15.8 mm (crop factor 1.5
)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
Metadata Exif (version 2.2), DCF standard

Lens

Lens mount
Sony AF

Focus

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

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 230,000 pixels

Exposure

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)
Scene modes Landscape, Macro, Night Portrait, Portrait, Sunset, and Sports/Action scene modes
White balance Clouds, sun, shade, fluorescent lamp, incandescent lamp, manual
Color space Adobe RGB, sRGB
Continuous shooting Continuous shooting function max. 2.0 fps at highest resolution and max. 6 stored photos
Self-timer Self-timer with 2 s interval, special features: or 10 s (optional)

Flashgun

Flash built-in flash (flip-up) Hot shoe: Sony Alpha (also Minolta)
Flash code Guide number 12 (ISO 100)
Flash functions Auto, fill-in flash, flash on, flash off, slow sync, red-eye reduction

Equipment

Image stabilizer Sensor shift (optical)
Memory
CF (Type II)
Power supply unit Power supply connection
Power supply 1 x Sony NP-FM500H (Lithium Ion (Li-Ion), 1,650 mAh
)730 images according to CIPA standard
Playback functions Image index
Image parameters Sharpness, contrast, noise reduction
Special functions Live view
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 CorrectionSensor
Cleaning function and antistatic coatingFlash sync speed
1/160sWhite balance bracketing
Hi or Lo stepsContrast
, saturation, sharpness and brightness can be changed (-3 to 3)
Zone matching (-1 to 2)
Dynamic Range OptimizerNoise reduction
from ISO 1600AF
Sensitivity -1 to 18 EV

Size and weight

Dimensions W x H x D 131 x 98 x 75 mm
Weight 642 g (ready for operation)

Miscellaneous

standard accessory Sony NP-FM500H Special Battery

ChargerBattery

Charger

BC-VM10Video Connection CableUSB Connection CableStrapBeltImage 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-FM500H Special Battery Power Supply
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Peter Dench
I am Peter Dench. Digital Photographer, born in London 1972, currently living in Deerfield, near Chicago. I have numerous photography expositions and also working in model photography. In this website, PhotoPoint, I usually review cameras provided by local dealers in Illinois and by the manufacturers. Sometimes I, Peter Dench, review lenses too, but only when I have a suitable camera for them. Please let me know in the comments if I can improve any of these articles.