Pros: Superb image quality, fast autofocus, useful live view, Minolta lenses, intuitive operation, 16:9, image stabilization...
Cons: 16:9 view not available in viewfinder, body needs more rubber, small viewfinder image.
I've been a professional Nikon user for many years. When my first Nikon D300 started failing, it made me pause for just a minute to re-evaluate my gear situation. As a photojournalist, I have a large closet filled with gear for just about any situation. Too much gear. I started examining my photography and my workflow more carefully and I realized they could benefit from two things: 1) a wider format image, and 2) more compact and accessible camera gear. I remembered a friend from college who was studying photojournalism and made amazing photographs from a very basic Minolta setup. I began researching my options, leaving nothing off the table. With few wide format cameras available, my search quickly turned to the Sony Alpha 350 (or A350). The relatively inexpensive price tag made it easy to make the leap, especially with an eBay marketplace filled with low reserve Minolta lenses.
Sony's website has a complete list of features and specifications for the Alpha 350. I've listed below what I think are the most useful features of this camera.
- Super SteadyShot image stabilization
- Live View LCD with contrast autofocus and tilt
- Dust reduction features, including sensor vibration
- compatibility with all Sony AF lenses, Minolta AF lenses, and select Carl Zeiss lenses
- 14.2 megapixel resolution
- 16:9 wide aspect ratio shooting and recording
- 9 point autofocus selection
- eye-activated focus system
As of late March, 2008, the A350 has a street price of about $780 (US) for the body only. Get the body only - don't buy the kit lenses if you care about image quality. As of April 2009, the street price for the body is $600- amazing deal!
Camera System Accessories
Sony is one of the oldest digital camera manufacturers. Minolta was a pioneer in SLR technology, inventing such things as autofocus lenses. When Sony bought out Minolta, I figured something big was going on. Still, I was a little nervous purchasing the A350 because I knew I wouldn't get the incredible selection of lenses and accessories offered by Nikon. As it turns out, Sony offers a serious arsenal of accessories and lenses and is showing some serious commitment to digital SLR photography. Where do you get all this stuff? Sony's website has the best selection.
Based on my discussions with a couple fellow photographers, they also have really good customer service when there is a (rare) problem with a camera. I chatted with one of Sony's customer service reps last night through Sony's website to inquire about the availability and serviceability of focusing screens for the A350. The representative was knowledgeable, friendly, and prompt. So far, I think Sony has slightly better customer service than Nikon or Canon, neither of which I would call 'bad'.
After shooting with Nikon F5's, D300's, etc., I was prepared to be disappointed in the build quality of the A350. As I expected, it is constructed almost entirely of polycarbonate, save the lens mount, hot shoe, and tripod mount. For someone who is used to shooting with all metal cameras, this takes a little while to get used to. While it certainly feels more sturdy than a Nikon D40 or Canon Digital Rebel, I was skeptical going into my first shoot. Afterwards, I felt much more confident of the build quality of the A350. Don't misunderstand, this is certainly no Nikon D300 or Nikon D3 in terms of body strength or weather sealing, but I never expected that. However, without question, the A350 has a much tighter and more precise connection with every Sony, Zeiss, and Minolta lens that I've tried than my Nikon D300 has to most Nikon lenses. I would still like the A350 to be just a little more robust feeling overall, but it isn't bad at all.
How reliable is the A350? It's too early to tell. Despite what JD Power may think, there is no such thing as "initial quality", as related to the reliability of a machine. Things like reliability reveal themselves only through extended periods of time. That being said, I'll update this review as soon as I have any reliability issues with the A350. So far, it's perfect. All A350 cameras are built in Japan, not in Southeast Asia or Malaysia like some Nikon and Canon cameras. I have yet to have a critical failure with a Japanese-built camera.
On an environmental note, it's really nice to see that Sony is paying more attention to consumption and pollution issues than the other camera companies. The instruction manual is printed on recycled paper using soy-based ink and, most impressively, parts of the A350 itself is made from recycled castor oil. Nikon and Canon should take note and follow Sony's path here.
The A350 is one of the more compact digital SLRs available. Not quite as small as the Nikon D60, but in exchange the A350 provides slightly better handling characteristics. If you need even more than what the A350 has to offer, Sony offers a vertical grip that doubles the A350's battery power, provides more counter-weight for heavy lenses, and greatly improves portrait shooting ergonomics.
The reasonably large rubberized grip on the A350 accommodates my slightly larger than average hands fairly well. Part of me wants this grip to be a little larger, part of me is really enjoying the compactness of this camera compared to my Nikon D300. My little finger occasionally wants to wander off the bottom of the camera, but fits okay most of the time. I wish the A350 was covered in a little more rubber, particularly on the upper right rear corner where my thumb likes to slide just a little too much. There is a fairly large protrusion here that usually suffices, but it is only made from fairly slippery plastic.
The buttons to the left of the LCD screen (menu, display, playback, trash) are a little too small to operate easily without using my fingernail. The more important buttons to the right of the LCD screen (ISO, AV, AEL, drive mode, and Function) are all large enough to easily operate with just the tip of my finger. The mode dial is easy to grip and clicks firmly into place at each setting. Sony uses toggle switches for power, Live View/OVF, and Super SteadyShot, which are all easy to operate. The shutter release button is much more response than my Nikon D300's, but isn't a hairline trigger like the D300's vertical grip shutter release. The command dial is just a little too recessed for my taste, but it works fine now that I'm used to it.
Perhaps the most unexpectedly useful ergonomic feature of the A350 is the eye-controlled autofocus start. Unlike the old Canon's which attempted to track eye movement and select the corresponding focus point (which never really worked), the A350's system simply begins the focus process as your eye approaches the viewfinder. As long as your eye remains near the viewfinder, the camera will continually autofocus on anything at which you point it (using whichever autofocus point you had selected). When the moment is happening now and I have a split second to catch it, this feature has made the difference between getting the shot and not getting the shot on a couple of occasions. If memory serves me correctly, this was a Minolta invention from many years ago and its usefulness remains to this day.
The viewfinder itself is very clear. I'm not sure what glass Sony is using for it, but it's really nice. The image size is not nearly as large as my Nikon D300, but it's not quite as bad as I thought it would be based on the numbers. Still, it should be a little larger. Thankfully, a magnifying eye piece is available if this becomes an issue. The large, rubber eye cup is very flexible and is the nicest I've used. It is also easily replaceable if something goes wrong. Eye relief is not great, and I'm wishing it was better when I'm wearing my glasses. Unfortunately, there is no way to view the 16:9 wide format in the viewfinder, although there are four gridlines on the focusing screen to assist in composition. I really wish someone could figure out a way to do this (without an electronic viewfinder), because I'm finding the 16:9 format to be a more sophisticated canvas than the 3:2 format. So, overall, the A350 has a very clear but otherwise average viewfinder. If this is an important issue for you, I strongly encourage you to consider the Olympus E3, which has an amazing viewfinder.
Hmmm... what's missing? The top LCD screen. Wow, somebody finally figured it out. Do we really need three LCD screens showing us copious amounts of camera information? Of course not. In fact, they are distracting to the photographic process and just suck more battery power. All the information you need is displayed on the rear LCD prior to shooting, and also in the viewfinder. You can customize how much information you want to see on each screen, but not quite enough. I'd really like to have the ability to see nothing other than my image on the rear LCD. Unfortunately, Sony forces me to see a minimum amount of information, such as aperture and EV.
In a word, fast. The A350 just barely keeps up with my Nikon D300, which is one of the fastest focusing cameras in the world. For over $1000 less, that's impressive. Of course, all the autofocus speed in the world is useless without focus accuracy. Once again, the A350 shines. Even in very low light conditions, this machine hunted very little and nearly always locked on target, sometimes even without the autofocus assist light (which is unfortunately just the flash and only available in Auto mode). On occasion, the A350 would focus lock in very low light conditions with a 15 year old Minolta lens while my D300 would struggle with a new Nikkor lens without its autofocus assist light enabled. In continuous focus mode, the A350 had no problems keep up with birds in flight or bicyclists riding down my street. Combined with the almost non-existent shutter lag, the A350 can yield a high percentage of keepers. Just be prepared for the somewhat low 2.5 frames per second rate, which may limit the utility of the A350 in certain situations. For reference, all of my autofocus tests were performed with the Minolta AF 24mm f/2.8 lens and the Minolta AF 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 lens.
LCD Screen and Live Viewing
A lot of companies have jumped on the live view bandwagon. Essentially, this allows an image to be viewed on the large rear LCD screen in real-time. A lot of newer SLRs have it, but Sony is the only company that gets it right. On the other side of the spectrum is the Nikon D300 which has the most useless live view mode available, and was obsolete even before you could buy the camera. Sony allows the LCD screen to be tilted (but not swiveled) for overhead and low-angle shots, much like the Olympus E3 (another superb camera). In my opinion, this is the only reason to have live view mode. Of course, this is worthless if you can't focus while using the live view mode, and Sony is the first to allow reliable and very fast autofocus in live view mode. And it works very well. The frame rate drops to two frames per second while doing this so if you're shooting race cars from a close distance, go get yourself another camera (or improve your photographic technique. Hmmm....). The other amazing thing about live view mode on the A350 is how fluid it is. It's like watching a movie shot at a high frames per second rate. No more jerky movements, no more waiting for the image to catch up to the camera motion (except in really low lighting conditions). Combine all that with a true 2.7 inch screen with an anti-glare coating and good brightness and you've got the makings of a really useful live view mode.
The toggle switch on the top of the camera allows for instant transition between the optical viewfinder and the LCD live view mode. This transition is really transparent - no waiting, no mirrors clicking and banging around, it just works.
I've been asked if the A350's smaller 2.7 inch LCD screen is a disadvantage compared to the larger 3.0 inch LCD screen of the Nikon D300. The Nikon D300 doesn't have a viewable area of 3.0 inches, but is instead actually closer to the 2.7 inch viewable area of the Sony. So, no, the A350's screen size is not a disadvantage. The D300's LCD might offer just a little more clarity, but not by much and certainly not in live view mode where the A350 has a far superior refresh rate.
Battery life on the A350 is very good, but not as good as the new benchmark of DSLR battery power, the Nikon D300. Sony claims just over 700 shots using the optical viewfinder with some occasional LCD use, and just over 400 shots using mostly the LCD in live view mode. Based on a couple weeks of shooting in cool temperatures, I think these numbers are fairly accurate. Like all DSLRs, it is always wise to carry a spare battery and if you do, you'll never have to worry about battery life.
Sony refers to their in-camera image stabilization system as "Super SteadyShot", which I think is a reasonable description. According to Sony, it provides a 2.5 - 3.5 f-stop stabilization effect, thereby allowing for sharper shots while hand-held in low light conditions. It has its greatest effect with longer focal length lenses and I've been able to achieve about a three f-stop improvement here (not quite the 3.5 stops that Sony claims). It's better than the image stabilization system of either Nikon or Canon. Why? Because it's in the camera, which means it works on any lens, including my beautiful fifteen year-old Minoltas. This works to reduce my overall expenses because I don't have to pay the extra cash for a vibration reduction system in every lens. It's also silent, consumes less power, and probably reduces weight a little.
14.2 megapixels crammed onto an APS CCD sensor? Sounds like noise to me. Nikon found a way to break all the rules with 12.2 megapixels on an APS CMOS sensor in the D300, but I was skeptical that Sony could do the same. Then again, Sony builds the sensors inside most Nikon digital cameras, so anything is possible. Based on my outdoor, daytime observations, there is no significant visible noise in the A350 images from ISO 100 to ISO 400 in my RAW files (I did not test JPG). The Nikon D300 and the Sony A350 have comparable noise that is ever so slightly visible in slightly different shadow tones at their base ISO levels. With RAW files at ISO 800, noise becomes more visible, but it is consistent throughout the image and not to objectionable levels by my discerning eyes. At ISO 800 with longer exposures (although still handheld) under indoor low light conditions, noise is more visible than in my daytime shots but again, not to objectionable levels. A slight twitch of the noise reduction slider in my image processing software and all is good. In other words, noise is not an issue for the A350. I have not tested ISO 1600 or 3200 thoroughly because I only use these ISO levels when all else has failed. With large aperture lenses and image stabilization, I can't really find a use for these higher sensitivities. However, based on my limited experience with ISO 1600 and 3200 on the A350, I can say that the Nikon D300 and Nikon D3 both have noticeably less noise at these higher sensitivities. Remember, evaluations of noise in an image must always been conducted in the context of media type and appropriate viewing distance; placing your eyes twelve inches from your computer monitor and enlarging a 14.2 megapixel image to 100% is not a proper evaluation of noise in a photograph.
The A350 is capable of extracting just a little more detail from a scene than my Nikon D300, which is mostly attributable to its extra two megapixels of resolution. Of course, this is only noticeable with good glass. With resolutions this high, you must use the best lenses available if you plan to use all of the resolution for making very large prints (or heavy cropping). Otherwise, the A350 will simply out-resolve your lens. I recommend only using lenses that have a weighted MTF above 0.70 throughout their range, which many Minolta lenses do. Any of the lenses made by Carl Zeiss for Sony will also satisfy this recommendation, for a high price. Sony's kit lenses (such as the 18-70mm) simply can't keep up and I don't recommend them.
Thankfully, Sony's default color gamut is sRGB. This means better mid-tone rendition and fewer over-saturated Disney colors (if you prefer Disney colors, you can select Adobe RGB from the menu). The A350 has several other color gamuts to choose from, including "vivid", "landscape", etc. I personally never use these because sRGB works so well and I can always adjust this later in post-processing if I need to. With good Minolta glass, the A350 yields some of the truest and most appropriately saturated colors I have ever seen from a digital camera. Much better than the Nikon D200, and at least as good as the Nikon D300.
The A350 has three metering modes: spot, center, and multi-segment. The accuracy of all of three is incredible. Much better than my Nikon D200, and even slightly more reliable than my Nikon D300. I really have to try hard to fool this system. My only possible complaint is the responsiveness of the metering when using live view mode. It seems to take just a split second longer to determine the correct exposure than what I'm used to when using the viewfinder in my D300. If that's the price to be paid for such accurate exposure, I'm more than willing to accept it. Otherwise, Sony nailed the metering system on this camera. Which brings me to dynamic range. A camera's metering system can be greatly helped out by the sensor's dynamic range (what we call the "shoulder" of film). So far, the A350's dynamic range has really impressed me. Still not quite as good as film in the highlights, but not far behind, and noticeably better than the Canon 40D and Nikon D200. Without doing a whole lot of extra work, I can't really determine if the D300 or A350 has better dynamic range - they're both really good.
At the end of the day, comparing images between the Sony A350 shot with good Minolta glass and the Nikon D300 with good Nikon glass (70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S, etc.), the A350 just edges out the D300. The Minolta lens' liquid colors, the A350's slightly higher resolution, and the A350's slightly more reliable metering system work together to provide slightly better image quality than the much more expensive Nikon D300. For me, Sony also offers 16:9 shooting RAW format, which isn't available in any format on any SLR camera from Nikon, Canon, Olympus, or Pentax, and this really helps it stand apart.
UPDATE (April 14, 2009): The more time I spend with this camera, the more impressed I am. I've had no problems whatsoever, despite some unavoidable meteorological abuse (snowstorms, etc.). Sony's Super HAD CCD has proven to yield the highest quality images I've seen. They are sharp, contrasty, saturated, with much better dynamic range than any other sensor I've used. I much prefer the image quality over that of CMOS sensors, which tend to produce flatter colors and less contrast. I really hope Sony continues development of these Super HAD CCD imagers.
I've been comparing the Sony A350 to some pretty high-powered cameras and the A350 has been coming out on top. So what do these high-powered cameras offer that the A350 doesn't? In the case of the Nikon D300, Canon 40D, and Olympus E3, you get stronger build, some environmental sealing, more frames per second, more frames in a burst mode, larger buttons, and much more customization of nearly every control. The price you pay for these features is $400 - $1000 more, much more weight, and a larger size. Only you can decide what is best for you, based on your type of shooting.
As of Spring 2008, the A350 is by far the most bang for the buck. No camera in this price range even approaches the level of image quality, ergonomic control, and overall utility offered by the A350. As a semi-professional photographer, I never thought I would own an SLR camera made by a company like Sony, but I'm very happy that I do. Nikon and Canon have already fallen behind and I'm very interested to see how they will respond.