Sony Alpha 350 – a Creative Review
The introduction of a £399 (street price, RRP £449) DSLR with 14.2 megapixels – with or without a useful type of Live View – should have been applauded by reviewers. It’s the single most important point about the camera. No other DSLR approaches this image size and resolution at such a low price.
Canon’s new EOS 1000D, for example (above in consumer live view composition mode), remains a 10.1 megapixel offering with a £499 (body only) price likely to sell at £449; Nikon also has nothing above 10.2 megapixels in the range until you come to the D300.
The hesitation of reviewers to see a high pixel count as a useful alternative stems from genuine doubts as to whether anyone really needs it. Some think that even 10 megapixels is more than the typical user is ever going to want.
However, Sony introduced two cameras – the Alpha 350 and the Alpha 300. The 300 has a 10.2 megapixel sensor. In Britain, they took a decision to sell the Alpha 300 only through Jessop plc, the store chain giant which has recently shed half its outlets and liquidated some £27m in surplus stocks.
The late, and limited, availability of the Alpha 300 in one market doesn’t change the fact that Sony counters criticism of the some failings of 14.2 megapixels by providing a 10.2 megapixel alternative at £50 less. For those who don’t like Live View, another £50 budget reduction buys the Alpha 200 with 10.2 megapixels and no LV.
These three cameras were announced within a single month but appeared in shops over a three-month rollout. That is now complete. It should not be possible to review any one of these three models – 200, 300, 350 – without references to the other models
The other major makers clearly think the same way. Canon now has three models in the same price bracket – EOS 400D, 1000D and 450D – which offer 10.1 megapixels and no LV, 10.1 megapixels with LV, and 12.1 megapixels with LV. It is worth noting that the pitch and packing density of the EOS 450D 12.1 megapixels is close to the Sony 14.2 megapixel sensor; if the Canon CMOS was the same physical size as the Sony CCD (1.5X instead of 1.6X) it would be 13.6 megapixels.
Nikon offers a 6 megapixel D40, a 10.2 megapixel similarly lightweight D40X, and a more fully-featured 10.2 megapixel D60; none of these offers Live View.
Olympus has a neat trio with the E-400, E-410 and E-420 – all are 10 million pixels, and prove that 1.5X sensors can still go further. One of these Olympus sensors made in the same size as the Alpha range would be 16.2 megapixels. The distinguishing features of the three are that the 410 adds Live View and the 420, Live View plus Image Stabilisation.
Pentax has a simpler approach though the price positions and features are harder to compare. Live View and a 14.6 megapixel sensor are only there in a slightly more expensive model, the K20D.
Sony is, therefore, doing much the same as the other makers by providing three DLRS in the sub-£500 price bracket and using marketable features like live view and pixel count to position each one.
What has Sony done wrong?
From the first sight of specifications, I felt that the Alpha 350 would do badly in tests and reviews. Where the other makers ensure that you get a little more of everything with each step up in price, the Alpha 350 offers more of only one thing, pixels. This gain is traded against higher image noise levels (especially at high ISO), large file sizes, slower sequence shooting, slower image review and slower image transfer. The body size and construction is fixed for the entire 200-350 range.
Camera reviewers like to ‘benchmark’ the products. Timings, speeds, and noise levels are measured. They also want to comment on the feel and build quality, ergonomics, weight and size of each model. Here, Canon displays perfect command of the situation. The more you pay, the more weight and size you get. The extra space is used to improve handling or add features like a 3 inch screen in place of a 2.5 screen
Sony’s decision to stick with a common internal frame has made the Live View models 300 and 350 cramped on the right-hand side (as viewed from behind), pushing the multi-way control pad downwards and out almost to the edge of the body. The front hand-grip loses a ridge and the rear shaping for the thumb becomes less positive.
These live view bodies would have benefited from an extra 5-10mm in length, but even more from a slight increase in height or prism housing size. By using a shared prism casing and pop-up flash assembly (with the Alpha 200) all three cameras suffer. The Alpha 200 gets a flash which does not lift as high above the lens as that of the earlier Alpha 100, and this creates more problems with lens or lens shadows at close range. The short ‘legs’ are there to allow the live view mechanism (not present in the 200) some space.
The Alpha 300 and 350 could really use a larger mirror-prism and a higher magnification ocular to overcome the class-losing 0.74X magnification (a true 0.47X relative to a life-size 100% view with a 50mm lens on full frame). Only Olympus and Panasonic FourThirds models have smaller apparent viewfinder size.
Hiding in the Alpha 300/350 specifications is another penalty paid for Live View. The 300/350 exposure metering is one stop less sensitive at EV2 compared to EV1 (Spot Metering, EV4 versus EV3). Perhaps a different type of focusing screen is needed to ensure LV without vignetting. It could be caused by the smaller prism and changes to the metering module.
One thing is certain – both the Alpha 200 and 300/350 could have been optimised in their design and ergonomics had Sony not been so intent on economies of manufacture using shared components. It follows that they could have been more expensive too. Would I have paid £50 more for an Alpha 350 with better handling? With or without alike! Had Sony introduced 14.2 megapixels at twice the price I would have wanted it.
Countering the criticism
The BIONZ processor used in the 200-350 range is probably shared. Interface differences, which are minor, belong to the camera’s main CPU and not to the BIONZ which the image-processing unit. It includes technology from Apical Ltd, probably including the IRIDIX chip which controls DRO (Dynamic Range Optimisation). This chip has a limit of 16 megapixel file size; the Alpha 350 has a margin in safety, but DRO processing takes longer with larger files.
Had Sony wanted to bring the 14.2 megapixel CCD up to Alpha 200 speeds for image capture, processing and review an entirely different processor would have been needed. We could have been looking at a £700 body not a £400 body just to get from 2.5fps to 2.8 or 3fps.
The ‘Smart Teleconverter’ – better known as on-the-fly JPEG cropping – has been criticised because it does nothing more than crop the file. It does not improve shooting speed (the same size raw file is still being processed) and it can’t be used in raw or RAW+JPEG modes. It’s not totally intelligent. If you set Medium (7.7 meg) JPEG shooting, 1.4X Smart Tele will retain your filesize, 2X will cut it to the same as Small (3.5 meg). If you set Small as your normal choice, you get small normal views, medium 1.4X views, and small 2X. It would be better if the 1.4X size was scaled down, so shooting 3.5 megapixel files meant that matter what setting you used – 1X, 1.4X or 2X – you always got a 3.5 megapixel image.
This would be ideal for many everyday family uses where a 3.5 meg shot is all that’s needed to go straight into iPhoto or on to a digital photo frame. There is no option on the Alpha 350 to shoot anything like a 640 x 480 image directly. Nikon’s post-processing in camera which allows resizing and crops from raw or JPEG is a more versatile if time-consuming feature.
While the Smart Teleconverter is most useful with the Alpha 350 as there are more pixels to work with, it’s also present on the 300 and produces proportionately smaller files. Again, these may well suit more users than the average (professional background) reviewer would imagine.
Target market miss
This logic falls down when discussing one of the plus points of the Alpha system, the consistent use of CompactFlash storage. Small filesize shooters are often making new uses of their images, transferring them to hybrid PDA/mobile phone devices, games consoles, digital keyring, watch or frame viewers. Very few of these use CF and most use SecureDigital (SD, MMC, HDSC) or even smaller card formats.
I don’t like SD or smaller cards for photographic work. I prefer to have the more easily handled, less easily lost, CF cards shared across a wide range of cameras. But in my EeePC I have an 8GB SD card, rarely removed, that cost only £20. I can use that in an SD-equipped camera in an emergency, and I can read SD cards and view their contents directly on the EeePC, or my HP palmtop device.
Alpha’s current connectivity with new mobile comms, computing and game devices is limited. Don’t underestimate the appeal of Canon and Nikon’s shift to SD, which in turn gives adaptor access to MicroSD and easy JPEG transfer to 3G mobile phones for upload to albums.
The CF slot is at least consistent throughout the entire KM/Sony Alpha range and the earlier Minolta/KM Dimage 7/A series, and adaptors enable the use of smaller card formats. But it’s not a match for the entry-level consumer, bridge cam or pocket cam upgrader we keep being told must be the market for the live-view Alphas.
So who is it for?
It is not easy to give a DSLR a 9/10 or a highly recommended rating when the signals are so confused. The Alpha 350 is impossible to position against any other range, or any previous type of DSLR, or any easily categorised type of user.
I criticised the rather bland appearance of the in-camera JPEGs at default settings, but a month into using the Alpha 350 that criticism seems totally irrelevant. The exceptional dynamic range of the camera – found by Anders Uschold (British Journal, 28/5/08) to be 9.1 stops at ISO 100 – is partly due to the way the JPEG conversion is handled, and you can’t fit a higher dynamic range into an 8-bit JPEG without flattening off some tones.
The dynamic range of the A350 is exceptional – in this image, full detail is easily recovered from inside the restaurant as well as on the tops of the sunshades
The raw files are a delight to work with. Fit a really good lens, and the 350 delivers a finely detailed, smooth and accurately coloured rendering with ample scope for adjustment using conversion contrast curves. Highlight recovery is good but even Sony’s own IDC converter can not match the in-camera extraction of extra shadow detail without too much noise. Despite views to the contrary, general image noise is not an issue and you have to hit specific tones (strong sky blue is one of them) to need software NR.
After processing a batch of a thousand or so A350 files, I found the A700’s output a touch crude in its handling of colour, contrast and white balance. The 350 is almost a better professional tool; no way can the body or handling compare, but in the end all that counts is the image. I shoot stock travel images, and most of these are required to have a touch of sunshine even though the industry no longer insists on cloudless polarised skies. I’m locked at ISO 100 to 200 most of the time. A few are night scenes with people, where even 800 or 1600 is not enough – I could use 25,600 for these!
Unlike the wildlife or sports photographer, I rarely need a fine quality 800 to 1600 and if I did the Alpha 350 would not be the camera I would use. But with its modest sequence shooting rate (anything between 1.4 and 2.8 frames a second depending on how you set it up and view) it is clearly not a choice for this market anyway.
It excels for landscape, architectural, travel, still life, macro, copystand, record, fine art, studio, aerial and other similar fields where ultimate image quality is the goal and conditions normally suit low ISO working with time to set up and review images carefully.
How to know if you want the Alpha 350!
The Alpha 350 is to the current 1.5X factor DSLR world what Fujichrome RFP (ISO 50) slide film used to be for professional 35mm use. RFP never had the spring-like snappy colours of RDP (Fujichrome 100) or the intense but unforgiving contrast and saturation of RVP (Velvia). It retained highlights the way a compensating developer does, almost contrast-masking them, and if underexposed could look very flat. In return, it yielded the finest detail from shadow to highlight, printed and duplicated well, and tolerated slight overexposure. You had to know your lenses, filters and processing to avoid a hint of magenta-blue-purple depending on conditions.
Actually the A350 is far better (RFP had very inaccurate colours by the standards of today’s colour managed digital cameras) but you have to think of the camera in these terms. Would you, twenty years ago (had you been around) have loaded a Minolta X-700 with Fujichrome non-process paid professional ISO 50 reversal film, and had not a single roll of colour neg or anything faster than Ektachrome 200 in your bag?
Did you rush to get the first rolls of Fuji Reala negative film, and then realise you could never use anything else after seeing the prints? Did Konica’s Impresa 50 neg stock persuade you to try a Konica film just because of the claimed resolution? Did you grab a pack of Agfacolor Ultra 50 before the last freezers were emptied?
Maybe you shot black and white. Looking through the focus-finder of your enlarger, you could see how Ilford Delta 100 was finer grained than FP4 even though the tone curve didn’t totally agree with your favourite paper. Did you try films like Pan F or Agfapan 25, and experiment with compensating developers to tame the contrast, and get rollfilm quality from your 35mm gear?
If your answer is yes to any of these, the Alpha 350 is for you. You are an experimenter, not one of the herd; you were probably curious to try unusual materials in the past, and today the Alpha 350 has a similar relationshop to mainstream DSLRs.
And, if you are currently using a 6 megapixel DSLR, moving up to the Alpha 350 is like moving up to 6 x 4.5cm rollfilm from 35mm (that’s an almost exact comparison, not a throwaway guess). I am not saying, as some rather obtuse dPreview forum pundits have implied, that the Alpha 350 is comparable to film or equals rollfilm or anything like that. Just that the actual difference in the size of enlargement (print or screen) you can produce is similar.
Criticisms and solutions
I found that the Alpha 350 failed to focus occasionally. Eventually, the cause was revealed; when using the camera single-handed, or any time that a firm right hand grip was needed, the base of my thumb could just touch the control pad. If the edge of this is lightly pressed, it prevents the AF from activating when you touch the shutter button. Awareness, and a change of grip, has reduced the occurrence.
The viewfinder magnification is low, but my Alpha 350 is now fitted with a Pentax ME-53 magnifying eyepiece. I also use one on my Alpha 700, giving it a really big viewfinder image. On the A700 the eye-sensor (for turning the rear screen off) is totally reliable, less so with the A350 where a correctly fitted ME-53 will obscure a touch too much of the sensor’s field.
The LCD screen was clearly taking a hammering, being positioned further out on its extra thickness of articulating mount. I have covered this permanently with a self-healing skin, because my A700 has acquired several permanent scratches in six months of use. I have no solution to the difficulties of seeing the LCD in bright light outdoors other than to use a baseball cap to shield it.
As for the noise at higher ISOs, I already have other cameras (7D, A200, A700) which offer various degrees of friendliness through innately lower noise or strong noise reduction. What I can not so easily get from them is an effect the Alpha 350 produces to perfection – digital noise which looks exactly like classic colour neg film grain in a large print.
The Alpha 350 at 1600 is fairly clean from raw, but at 3200 the pictures comes to life with crisp, non-smeared, excellently distributed grain-like noise. Combined with my 100mm f/2.8 Minolta Soft Focus lens the results on flower studies are lovely. Noise reduction is turned off, just in case it has any effect on the raw file (it doesn’t appear to) and Adobe Camera Raw with default sharpening, no luminance noise reduction, and a variable amount of colour NR is used.
This doesn’t look much like the full size image you can view on pBase by clicking the pic!
I love the results. It’s like having access to GAF 500, 3M Chrome 1000/640T or Kodak VR1000 again, and if I shot portraits or nudes, it would be a wonderful addition. I realised, after experimenting with Alpha 350 ISO settings, that while the 350 does not give the same low noise results than most DSLRs achieve above ISO 400 now, it closely matches what you might expect from film. Each ISO step does look a bit different, and by the time you reach 3200 – a setting Canon don’t even try to offer on the 1000D, 400D or 450D – you have a great pictorial effect waiting to be used.
Again, I’m not talking about films such as Ilford XP2 with its soft dye-cloud chromogenic structure or even the last generation of ultraspeed colour neg films like Konicolor 3200. They suppress the grain structure very well and you have to do special work to pull crisp grain out of them. The Alpha 350 can take you right back to the 1970s and 80s – Sarah Moon, David Fairman, John Claridge, Paul Yaffé. It does it best at 3200 and the results will look better if you use diffusers, soft focus lenses, and indeed the same techniques once used with film. A b/w conversion would probably work well for false infra-red and lith printing simulation.
That’s maybe not what you expected to hear about noise!
But the Alpha can do this better than any other DSLR I know of – no speckled dots of high colour, no mosaic tile patterns, no ugly excess coloured shadow noise, no sudden loss of the noise into the highlights. At 3200, NR off, an A350 raw file can imitate high-grain film to perfection and FAR better than any desktop film scanner result. The only way of getting close to it is to use a noise addition filter or film effect, with great attention to blending across the luminance values using Layers. Alpha 350 shoots it straight out on demand and it’s really fun to try it out.
The noise at ISO 400, 800 or 1600 is more conventional and despite some very damning remarks made about 800 as a useful setting, I’ve found it well up to professional output standards. Here is an ISO 800 shot taken using Night Portrait, onboard flash, SSS, CZ 16-80mm at 16mm:
As with the 3200 shot, you can click the image and go to my pBase pages, and view the full size result which in this example is a 5120 pixel wide up-rez for stock library sales. I do not do this willingly! It has also been commented that I do not put up many image examples with this article. That’s because my pictures are taken for stock sale and even posting web-size versions means I lose control of the image. Posting full size versions means that I could never offer the shot in future to most major picture libraries – if it’s been sold as royalty free or microstock, or posted with public access on pBase, they won’t take it.
Sony uses that slogan – ‘like.no.other’. Dead right. You can not call the Alpha 350 ‘recommended’ or ‘best buy’ or anything else like that. It is unique at the price, it offers performance features entirely out of line with the expected aims of a new DSLR at £399, and it can do half a dozen things which no competitor can match.
As it happens, 1.8fps continuous live view shooting with AF – dismissed by dPreview as ‘fairly relaxed’ – is an industry best. No other DSLR made can shoot at this rate with live view and AF. Its battery capacity is also a benchmark for all comers in LV mode, and one of the best in regular mode; despite having 14.2 megapixels, loads more data to process and store, it shoots 50 per cent more frames than some models in the same consumer class (twice as many in LV).
It does not have the widest ISO range of any 14 megapixel DSLR – the Pentax K20D goes to 6400 and my own feeling was that at 1600 it bettered the A350 by a big margin when working from raw files. But the A350 JPEGs test out as lower noise than the Pentax, especially at 1600, in Uschold’s BJP lab report. What it does have is about the cleanest, most artefact-free high ISO noise free from salt and pepper pixels even when processed from raw without NR intervention. This type of file can be post-processed almost as you want, removing noise or emphasising the grain.
The Alpha 350 should never be classed as an entry-level DSLR, or a choice just for the upgrading screen-composing camera phone user. It will repay use in the hands of experienced creative photographers more than almost any other DSLR in this group.
If you benchmark it against the expectations of shooters who look to power grips, fast burst rates, fast/long lenses, and high ISO settings to capture the things they are interested in (sports, family indoors, school events, garden wildlife, parties, concert gigs, amateur dramatics, hunting without guns) it fails.
But it you once were creative in the darkroom; if you use your camera the way you might use paints and brush; if you work with colour, texture, light, found subjects, moods, shapes, spaces, tone, tripods… if you used to enjoy trying rollfilm in a TLR or experimenting with half-frame… the Alpha 350 could be the DSLR which makes you appreciate digital most.
– David Kilpatrick