Sony Alpha SLT-A35

The Sony SLT-A35 reworks the A33 model -which we reviewed and raved about in September 2010- by adding a new sensor and trimming back on some design traits for a yet more cost-effective camera. As well as expanding the Single Lens Translucent (SLT) range, the £530 asking price of the A35 falls into direct competition with the budget DSLR sector that’s currently dominated by Canon’s 1100D and Nikon’s D3100. But as Sony’s latest relies on an electronic viewfinder (EVF) rather than an optical version, can it charm the public into purchase?

What's SLT?

First thing’s first: what is an ‘SLT’? Similar to a DSLR system, a Single Lens Translucent camera, or SLT for short, has a translucent mirror that bounces light to a focusing sensor while simultaneously allowing light to pass to the imaging sensor. Unlike a DSLR an SLT’s mirror needn’t move out of the way to take a picture, meaning this whole mechanical process can be removed -the result is a smaller body that also brings other benefits such as a fast burst rate with continuous autofocus.

However, due to the low levels of light reflected from the mirror it’s not possible to successfully employ an optical viewfinder (it’d be too dark), so instead the image from the sensor is shown as a live preview on the LCD and/or electronic viewfinder.

Super Sensor

So, back to what’s under the A35’s hood: the camera’s prime feature is its 16.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor. It’s a sensor that can be found in a number of other (far more expensive) cameras, including the Nikon D7000 and Pentax K-5. Based on those cameras’ performances the A35 has crammed some high-flying tech into a far more budget specification body, and this can only be a good thing.

Sensitivity ranges from ISO 100-12,800 at full resolution and the level of detail remains impressive from ISO 100-1600. Above this, quality diminishes, but shots are still useable, with the exception of the very highest ISO 12,800 setting which feels more like a ‘marketing numbers game’ than true benefit to users.

In-camera HDR and Sony’s D-Range Optimizer (DRO) also feature and can be used to balance out shadow and highlights for more equalised exposures. Scene selection and Sony’s well-known sweep panorama modes are also available from the main mode dial.

The biggest qualm we have with image quality comes down to the basic 18-55mm kit lens that comes in the box -it’s just not bitingly sharp. But there’s a quick fix to that: buy a better lens and the A35 will open up a whole new world of sharp imaging.

Speedy Snapper

One of the other main characteristics of an SLT is the ability to sustain fast burst rates while continuously autofocusing. The A35 is no exception in this department, though its 5.5fps burst rate is less speedy than the previous A33 model. The reason for this is due to the increase in resolution, meaning more data will fill the buffer more quickly. There’s a halfway solution where the camera crops into the frame by 1.4x in order to offer a 7fps burst rate but this means smaller file sizes due to the magnification.

Perhaps more impressive, however, is the autofocus system. The A35’s 15-point system includes three cross type sensors for enhanced sensitivity and the system is quick off the mark to lock on to subjects. Pop the camera into C-AF (continuous autofocus) and it’s able to follow moving subjects with a good level of focus accuracy -certainly one of the camera’s stronger features.

This focus speed also proves useful with the A35’s 1080i50 AVCHD movie mode -point the camera at a moving subject and there’s no trouble maintaining focus even between differing focal depths. You needn’t press anything either as the A35 takes control. However, as with the A33, only the centre focus point can be used and the choice of focus falls to continuous and manual focus only. Despite the inclusion of a 3.5mm microphone jack for using third party mics (great to see at this level), yet more movie control would have made for a better experience. But Sony’s got to hold something back for its premium models.

Is Electronic Acceptable?

Electonic viewfinders don't come close to the quality of an optical equivalent. It's here that SLT cameras fall down. However, the 1.15 million dot resolution is of ample quality and does allow for spirit level overlays and various information to be displayed straight back to your eye. The 100% field of view also trumps DSLR cameras of a similar price-point, resulting in exactly what you see being exactly what you capture. But low light can become the enemy as the image preview tends to be noisy and any panning or movement will result in image lag.

To support the EVF is a 3-inch, 921K-dot LCD. Its high resolution and adjustable brightness make it a decent display, though no longer has the tilt-angle ability of the previous A33. It’s a cost thing, and given the £100 difference in launch price, the A35 ought to attract a wider audience. However, the screen’s 16:9 aspect ratio is well suited to movie capture, but shooting 3:2 stills (as is normal use for a stills camera) will result in black borders to the horizontal edges of the screen.

Verdict

The A35 digs its heels in to try and put the SLT format on the map. And with its 16.2-megapixel sensor it’s well on the way to doing just that. Indeed the A35 is a solid performing budget camera that produces fantastic images and holds its own against the DSLR market. In fact it often betters it.

The main issue is whether an electronic viewfinder is going to be right for you. If you’re the type of person to not use one at all then the rear LCD provides a decent live view mode that outperforms DSLR cameras at any level -though a smaller Compact System Camera such as the NEX-C3 may be better suited to your needs. And if the viewfinder just doesn’t measure up to expectation then there are higher spec options if you’ve got the cash -just look at the forthcoming SLT-A77’s 3million dot OLED version and prepare to be stunned.

All things considered the A35 succeeds in almost every area. It’s affordable, images are great, continuous autofocus and the 5.5fps burst mode are top drawer and movie mode is capable beyond its peers. What more could you want at this price?

Additional photography by Lars-Göran Nilsson