Sony A350 £401.22
6th May 2008 | 10:54
It may have arrived late to the DSLR party, but Sony's making up for lost time
On the face of it, this new Digital SLR from Sony is positively groaning with extra features and some very clever functions.
But just like a bargain car that comes with electric windows, alloy wheels, CD player and air-conditioning, those extras don't necessarily make it enjoyable to use or even good value.
A camera is so much more than mere specifications; if it feels clumsy and cheap to use, then it won't be a pleasure to own. And it's this 'pile-'em-high' trap that the company is in danger of falling into with the Sony A350.
Appealing price from Sony
Compared with its nearest competitor - the Pentax K20D - the A350 seems like a bit of a bargain at almost half the price.
However, where the Pentax is an extremely well-built camera with large quantities of metal and excellent environmental seals from dust and moisture, the A350 is more of a low-budget, plastic-feeling affair.
The switchgear and quality of the materials just don't match what the Pentax has to offer, although when it comes to sheer number of features and functions, the A350 can hold its own.
A multitude of features
For starters there's a new breed of Live View and a tilting 2.7-inch LCD screen. The A350's Live View boasts an autofocus speed that's every bit as fast and snappy as when it's not in Live View mode.
The secret to this innovation is a secondary sensor in the pentamirror that's used to feed the Live View image to the A350's screen. It's for this reason that the colours look slightly 'off' in Live View and why the live image only shows 90% of what the camera is recording. Still, the ultra-fast Live View autofocus is so quick you'll soon forgive the slightly dodgy live image and framing.
Moving on to the image sensor, the A350 has a 14.2MP CCD chip that also incorporates Sony's Super SteadyShot image stabilisation technology. This means that any Sony Alpha-mount or Konica Minolta A-bayonet lens will benefit from image stabilisation.
The technology works well and enables up to 2.5 to 3.5 extra steps of exposure without blur. The sensor also has a special anti-static, indium-tin coating and a sensor shift dust-busting mechanism to keep the sensor free of dust.
The image processing is carried out by Sony's oddly named Bionz processor and includes a very effective D-Range Optimiser function. This handy setting boosts shadow details without burning out an image's highlights.
Nikon pioneered a similar system, called D-Lighting, which is much the same. Once you've used this setting you'll wonder how you managed without it. It's perfect for high-contrast conditions, such as keeping the detail in skies while bringing out more detail in the shadow areas of an image.
Confusing to handle
At the rear there are switches all over. The Power switch is an unpleasant slider on the left that feels like it should be on the right, near the shutter button for those 'decisive moment' shots.
There are four buttons beneath the On switch for playback controls. To the right of the screen is a rather cheap-feeling navipad and a function button that offers quick access to flash mode, metering, focus, AF area, white balance and the D-Range Optimiser settings.
It's not quite as fast as using dedicated buttons, but it works well enough. Above the navipad sits an EV compensation button, AEL lock and a frame expansion button. Beneath the navipad is another sliding switch to turn the image stabilisation on and off.
On the A350's top plate is a large exposure mode dial, a sliding Live View switch, a drive button and an ISO selector. In total, there are nearly 20 switches, knobs, dials and sliders, which can make you wish you were an octopus in order to keep on top of this feature-laden beast.
Overall, though, the usability of the camera is a bit confusing and it takes a while to get used to the layout.
Tilt without swivel
Finally, at the back of the A350 is a 2.7-inch LCD screen that tilts upwards and 20-degrees downwards for when you're using Live View. It's not as good as a proper tilt-and-swivel screen but it's handy for candid or low-level shots.
The anti-glare coating of the screen does seem prone to smearing and clouding whenever a smidgen of nose grease gets deposited on it. Above the screen is the slightly dim optical viewfinder; its dark and pokey nature may be to do with the incorporation of the Live View sensor.
Two small detectors located under the viewfinder can sense when you're looking through the viewfinder and will then wake things up and turn the autofocus system on. It's nice but you can turn it off if you don't want to use it.
In use, the A350's shutter sounds a bit tinny and suffers from a slight recoil. The mirror needs more damping to make it sound more expensive and little less like a cheap car door shutting. Thankfully, the shutter noise can't detract from the quality of the A350's images, which are extremely good.
Poor lens performance
Okay, so maybe there's a tendency for the A350 to underexpose by up to half a stop, and the auto white balance can, occasionally, veer slightly towards yellow, but in terms of image resolution it's an extremely good performer.
The ISO noise levels are very low and the amount of sharpening applied to JPEGs is on the conservative side, which is fine as you can always add your own sharpening during post processing.
However, we do have one major complaint with the A350, and that's the performance of the 18-70mmm Sony kit lens. It simply isn't good enough for the sensor it's working with.
The cheap-feeling lens is no match for Sony's excellent 14.2MP chip and you'd be well advised to shell out some extra cash for one of Sony's superb Carl Zeiss zooms.
However, If you do choose to do that, then the good value offered by the A350 begins to melt away as the cost starts to creep up or even exceed the far-better-built Pentax K20D - so it might be an idea to think very carefully before you go down that route.
A clumsy Digital SLR
With the A350, Sony has managed to produce a camera that's relatively inexpensive and yet capable of producing some truly excellent quality images.
However, the downsides are the rather clumsy controls and a cheap level of build quality with low-grade plastic, which means it feels, well... a little bit cheap.
But if you can find it within yourself to live with the plasticky body, the flapping shutter noise and the slightly cack-handed controls, then you're likely to be rewarded with a camera that, in the right hands, can shoot some great images.