Sony Alpha 350 digital camera review

Sony has marched on with its Alpha range of DSLRs introducing what now seems to be a full set of cameras from the budget to the top, enthusiast, market with the Alpha 200, Alpha 300, Alpha 350 and of course the Alpha 700; the A350 marks the mid-point in the range.

The A350 sports a high resolution 14.2-megapixel sensor at its core that sits upon a CCD-shift platform to allow both anti shake (called Super Steady Shot) and sensor cleaning features, which vibrate the sensor on that moving carriage when the camera is switched on and off.

Another standout feature is the camera’s large 2.7-inch LCD, which can be flipped out and tilted away from the body for viewing as a waist level finder for over the head type shots. And that’s because the camera also has Live View. It doubles as a large information display when not being used for Live View and an orientation sensor ensures the information always the right way round as well, so that’s neat.

However a downside is the large screen has a mediocre 230,000-dot resolution so looks a little course but it’s bright and clear in most lighting conditions. Sony’s implementation of Live View on the A350 is unlike other makers Live View but is similar in many respects to that employed in Olympus DSLRs.

To achieve Live View the A350 uses a tiny CCD camera built-into the reasonably bright pentamirror viewfinder’s housing, which focuses on the ground glass viewing screen to relay that image to the big screen. In other words, you don’t look at the image captured by the imaging sensor.

Two drawbacks become apparent at this point: the pentamirror viewfinder has a frame coverage of 95%, so not brilliant and because the Live View camera cannot "see" the entire ground glass viewing screen you get just 90% coverage in Live View, most competing models will provide 100% field of view.

So, framing options are slightly more challenging than some competitors but on the upside, Sony’s Live View does allow the "normal" use of auto focusing without the usual sequence of press shutter button, wait for mirror to raise, wait for the AF and then wait while the shot’s taken. So, the drawback in terms of framing is ably offset with Sony’s responsive Quick AF Live View.

This means you can use the camera in Live View mode just like a point and shoot compact, something not possible with the more usual mirror up Live View cameras. Another Live View plus is the way the camera meters a shot using Live View. The A350 has a 40-segment evaluative metering set-up when not using Live View; switch it on and the metering changes to a 1200-zone metering system that is very accurate indeed.

Live View also reflects changes to exposure settings you make and to white balance adjustments, the latter providing the usual array of presets (plus magenta and green compensation), each easily adjustable, plus you get a custom setting and the Kelvin scale to play with as well. There is also a preview histogram to back up your exposure settings.

However, manual focusing in Live View on an enlarged image is not possible as the camera used to provide Live View in the viewfinder is relatively low resolution. You do get 10x and 14x magnification in playback though. As with all the Alpha models, the A350 uses Sony’s A Mount lens mount system, actually the old Konica Minolta Dynax (Maxxum in the US) lens mount from which all Alpha models have been bred.

Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO) has been improved here and helps get well-balanced backlit shots and works by pulling more detail out of highlights and shadows, it can also be used in RAW+JPEG shooting and you can tag RAW files so that Sony’s supplied RAW processing software can even apply the DRO when the images are processed on PC later.

DRO provides off, standard and advanced (or DRO+) modes and works well particularly when combined with Sony’s BIONZ image processor, tweaked, and enhanced since the A100, to help reduce noise issues (more on its effectiveness later).

And the improvements to the BIONZ processor are needed, not least because of the densely packed 14.2-megapixel sensor but also because the A350 has a boosted sensitivity range that runs from ISO 100 to 3200 and includes, with an auto mode of course, though disappointingly, you cannot define the range of ISO settings employed when shooting in auto mode.

In short there’s lots to play with and a new, streamlined control layout helps you get to them. Live View, ISO and drive modes are activated from top plate buttons while a large mode dial provides the P, A, S and full Manual shooting modes along with six subject program modes that incorporate the standard set of landscape, portrait sports and macro modes. There’s also a useful flash off position as well.

On the back plate there’s the tilt and flip out screen plus a set of buttons down it’s left side for menu, display, delete and playback while the on/off switch sits high and to the left of the screen. Across the top of the screen are two Eye Start sensors that fire up the camera, activate the AF all as you bring your eye to the finder, which makes the camera even more responsive.

Speaking of responsiveness, the nine-zone AF system has been tweaked with a new, cross type central sensor and is extremely fast and accurate and I found it to be extremely effective particularly when combined with the faster frame drive of 2.5fps that allows you to shoot until the CompactFlash Type I/II storage is full in JPEG more, or, four RAW files or three RAW+JPEG shots.

Other controls include the new function or "Fn" button. This in effect replaces external controls for white balance, flash modes, metering, AF area selection, D-Range Optimiser settings, and the focus mode. This streamlining in terms of the number of external or "hard" buttons makes the camera tidier, but makes the task of quickly changing things such as the white balance less user friendly.

Auto exposure lock and exposure compensation buttons are ranged across the top of the right side of the back plate and there’s a single control wheel just forward of the shutter button; the four-way jog buttons sit on the back too and the central button is an additional AF control which helps when using Live View with the camera tripod mounted, for example.

There are a couple of surprising omissions, such as no depth of field preview, even in menus, the AE lock button no longer provides a fast spot metering control and there’s no direct manual focus control so you must enable/disable the focusing modes on the body switch on the lens mount’s throat and you don’t now get the MemoryStick Duo CompactFlash slot adaptor, a £30 accessory that came free with the Alpha 100.

Last up, in terms of controls, is the smart teleconverter button. In Live View, the smart teleconverter crops into the centre of the sensor making it a digital zoom option for any lens you have attached. Of course, the downside is reduced resolution. Step one is a 1.4x magnification providing 7.1-megapixels and at step two, you get 2x magnification and an effective resolution of 3.8-megapixels.

So what of the all important image quality? Happily, the Sony Alpha 350 acquits itself very well indeed. White balance is excellent and noise is well controlled right up to ISO 3200, while ISO 1600 is equivalent, in terms of noisiness, to the older A100 at ISO 800. Detail is excellent too and the kit lens I had for this test is a great 18-70mm F/3.5-F/5.6 optic that is light and responsive to the AF commands.

Metering is excellent but with the Live View, metering performance is extremely accurate even in difficult lighting situations. Colour is a little more restrained than I’d expected although, of course, you can tweak such things in menus along with most other image parameters and you can assign the Adobe RGB colour profile too, if required.

Verdict

The Sony Alpha 350 is the step-up model from the Alpha 200, itself the replacement for the original Alpha 100 tested here in August 2006. Significant improvements have been meted out and there is some streamlining in terms of controls as well. However, it is an accomplished model and it is the highest resolution sub-£500 DSLR on the market. Well almost, it’s £519 body only.

And so, overall, the Alpha 350 has been balanced out to provide a range of advanced features and Live View with a high-resolution sensor but at the cost of some of its predecessors handling capabilities and control. Its performance is excellent and the image quality, even at higher ISOs is very good indeed and makes the Sony Alpha 350 certainly worth considering if you’re in the market for a mid-range digital SLR.

Excellent performance and great image quality combine neatly within in an easy to use body and good price that make the Sony Alpha 350 worthy of serious consideration.