Sony Alpha 35 £716
16th Aug 2011 | 10:30
Lightweight Sony SLT camera packed with innovative features
Sony Alpha 35: Overview
The Sony Alpha A35 is the latest launch to join the manufacturer's innovative Single Lens Translucent (SLT) camera line-up, debuting a number of new technologies that look set to turn the heads of first-time entry-level buyers and upgraders alike.
SLT cameras incorporate a semi-transparent mirror that splits light between the CMOS sensor and the separate AF sensor. As the mirror doesn't need to be moved out of the way to allow light onto the CMOS, SLT cameras can offer fast full-time phase-detection AF, improving performance as a result.
Not to be confused with the mirrorless compact system cameras (CSCs) that are also currently available on the market, SLT cameras differ from these in that the former uses a contrast-detect AF system, which offers a comparably slower performance.
Reasons to consider the SLT system cameras in place of a DSLR or CSC are many, but the technology is not without its drawbacks. Read on to discover how the SLT-A35 fares in our in-depth tests and find out whether its speedy credentials are enough to impress.
Replacing the older 14.2mp SLT-A33, the entry-level SLT-A35 boasts an upgraded featureset that - notably - includes a new 16.2mp EXMOR APS-C HD CMOS sensor, as seen in the recently-launched NEX-C3.
Having impressed the photographic community with its revolutionary Translucent Mirror Technology (TMT), Sony has taken things a step further by equipping the SLT-A35 with a new Tele-zoom High Speed Shooting mode. Although the maximum burst rate remains the same as its predecessor's - 7fps - the new model enhances the performance of its continuous tracking AF by magnifying the central portion of the frame by 1.4x (producing an image at approximately 8.4mp): a bonus for sport and action photographers.
There's also a respectable 5.5 fps drive mode available if you prefer to shoot stills at full resolution.
TMT also means that the SLT-A35 benefits from an impressively responsive full-time phase-detection AF system that's available when shooting both stills and HD movies.
The result is seamless Live View shooting that's a cut above the systems currently offered by traditional-design DSLRs. Add these features to the 1080i AVCHD movie, new Picture Effect options (which we'll discuss in more detail later), plus significantly improved power consumption performance and battery life over the SLT-A33 (440 stills compared to 340 on the earlier model) and we have what looks like a pretty complete package on our hands. That said, there's more to a camera than its feature-set, so let's take a look at how it performs.
Sony Alpha 35: Build quality and handling
Despite being slightly lighter than the SLT-A33, there's little else to separate the new launch from its ancestor externally. Sporting a tough plastic outer shell, the SLT-A35 feels robust enough to withstand daily use. The ergonomically shaped front grip combines with a neatly sculpted rear thumb grip which - in conjunction with a lightly textured, rubberised coating - provides a firm and very comfortable purchase on the well-balanced camera body.
The control layout remains the same, with well-proportioned and intelligently placed buttons spread across the camera body. To the right of the viewfinder hump, the top panel houses a button to toggle between the EVF and LCD, although the former is equipped with sensors that detect when you lift the camera to your eye, automatically shutting off the LCD and switching to the EVF. A customisable D-Range button accesses the camera's dynamic range optimizer feature by default, while the large silver shutter release - which is encircled by the power switch - sits atop the front grip.
The left hand side of the top panel is home to the well-stocked mode dial, which offers a comprehensive array of automatic and scene modes, as well as Sony's excellent Sweep Panorama (with 3D options), plus the new Tele-zoom High Speed feature and manual exposure modes.
A dedicated movie button - perched on the sloping section that links the top to the back panel - provides one-touch access to the SLT-A35's HD video mode, while intuitively-positioned menu, exposure compensation and AEL buttons provide fast access to their respective functions.
Around the back, the Fn button calls up an interactive set of icons on the 3-inch LCD, a feature that - in tandem with the softkey access to frequently-used functions provided by the four-way d-pad - results in a handling experience that is as slick as it is simple. One surprising change is that the high-resolution LCD is now fixed, unlike the SLT-A33's vari-angle version. This makes the SLT-A35 somewhat less versatile by comparison, but - in a bid to keep costs down - Sony had to make a compromise somewhere.
In bright light - although the LCD's anti-reflective coating is usually pretty effective - sometimes it's not enough. In these situations, the SLT-A35 offers an alternative in the form of its electronic viewfinder. Unlike a DSLR - which uses a solid mirror to direct light to its optical viewfinder, giving you a crystal-clear view of the scene as it is transmitted through the lens - the use of SLT technology in this camera means that an optical viewfinder isn't an option.
EVFs are not without their issues, with low resolution displays, a lack of contrast and a slow refresh rate being common complaints, however they have come a long way since they were first implemented, and we're happy to report that the SLT-A35's is pleasingly usable. Offering a fairly detailed display (1.15mp) and 100% frame coverage, the EVF also has the added advantage of being able to display detailed shooting information, as well as an optional live histogram and grid lines to aid in composing your shots - traits that you don't get with an optical viewfinder.
Overall impressions of the SLT-A35 are very good. While we do miss the freedom of shooting with a vari-angle LCD, the impact left by the simple-to-interpret interface, uncluttered menu system and handy on-screen hints and tips (to help beginners with the process of getting to know the camera) is very favourable.
Sony Alpha 35: Performance
As advertised in Sony's literature about the SLT-A35's responsiveness, this camera is very quick to start-up, being ready to shoot near-instantaneously. Half-press the shutter release and whichever of the 15 AF points you have selected almost immediately glows green, indicating a positive lock on your subject. Select the continuous AF option and there's some operational noise from the kit lens as it refocuses, but new locks are acquired at speed as you move around and recompose your shots.
Taking a shot is a similarly speedy process. With no discernible shutter lag to slow you down, shooting moments as they unfold with the SLT-A35 is as effortless as it is enjoyable. Whether you're snapping still life subjects on a table top, capturing landscapes out in the field, shooting a high-speed sports event or chasing around after your kids, this camera takes it all in its stride.
The same can be said for shooting movies, with fast one-touch recording available via the dedicated movie button, the camera is ready to start filming at a moment's notice. Once you've finished capturing your scene, there's a short delay while the file is written to the memory card, the duration of which depends on the length of your clip. Video quality is very good, with plenty of detail and smooth panning. Sound quality is good, but the stereo microphones will pick up some operational noise from the lens as it refocuses.
We shot RAW files in conjunction with JPEGs at the SLT-A35's top quality setting, and can happily report that -generally - results live up to the rest of this camera's impressive performance. JPEGs straight out of the camera exhibit a touch of softness when viewed at 100%, but nothing that a bit of post-shoot sharpening can't fix. Set to Standard mode, colours are faithful, with enough punch to bring images to life.
Delve into the Creative Style menu and the additional Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset and Black & White options provide some scope to adjust the look of your images in-camera, with decent results across the board. You can take things a step further with a new set of Picture Effects, accessed via the scene mode slot on the exposure mode dial. Like the popular effects that were pioneered by the Olympus PEN range, the SLT-A35 offers fun options like Toy Camera, Pop Color, Retro and Selective Coloring. Some of these aren't quite to our taste, but for the most part results are effective.
By default, dynamic range is slightly better than some of its closest competitors, although the metering system does occasionally blow out the highlights when shooting particularly high-contrast scenes. More experienced users will be able to quickly correct this with a touch of exposure compensation, or the SLT-A35 also offers Sony's effective D-Range Optimizer feature, which broadens the range of tones captured in your shots automatically by combining several differently-exposed frames.
There's also an in-camera HDR feature, which takes a succession of photos at different exposures and quickly combines them to produce a shot with an extended dynamic range. Each feature can be quickly accessed using the interactive on-screen menu (activated by pressing the Fn button on the back of the camera), although the HDR function is only available if you're shooting JPEGs alone (no RAW option).
RAW files processed with the bundled software are detailed and contain enough information to really make the most of the SLT-A35's sensor, with scope to rescue highlight and shadow detail, sharpen up your shots and remove any unwanted noise, as well as adjusting the colour output to precisely suit your taste.
The auto white balance system is pretty accurate, with even indoor mixed lighting situations proving to be relatively unproblematic, save for a touch of extra warmth in the occasional image taken under tungsten lighting. There's a comprehensive array of presets available for you to select manually should this happen however - each of which can be individually tweaked - as well as the facility to take your own custom reading where accuracy is of the utmost importance. Alternatively, shoot RAW and adjust your colours to suit post-shoot.
Noise is well controlled throughout the SLT-A35's native sensitivity range, with a good level of detail being maintained across the board. Everything looks clean up to ISO 400, where noise remains unobtrusive. At ISO 800, noise is visible, but retention of detail prevents it from becoming much of an issue. Images shot at ISO 1600-3200 are perfectly usable; ISO 6400 is best reserved for emergencies however. The top expandable setting - ISO 12800 - is noisy and image quality suffers, as you'd expect.
The kit lens is lightweight, but feels well balanced on the camera body. It offers a rubberised zoom ring to set the focal length, which we found to be a little notchy - not a huge issue for stills but it can produce some juddering if you're recomposing while filming. Barrel distortion at the wide end of its 18-55mm focal range is quite strong, with pincushion distortion taking over at maximum extension, however neither of these traits is out of the ordinary for a bundled lens at this price point.
A maximum aperture range of f3.5-5.6 means that it's reasonably fast when shooting wide-angle images, but performance at 55mm and in low light isn't so impressive. Thankfully, the camera's in-camera sensor shift image stabilisation feature comes in handy to combat camera shake.
Sony Alpha 35: Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Sony Alpha 35, we've shot our resolution chart with a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens mounted.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Sony Alpha 35 is capable of resolving up to around 28 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 100, score: 28 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 28 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 26 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 26 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 3200, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 6400, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 12800, score: 28 (see full image)
Sony Alpha 35: Noise and dynamic range
These graphs were produced using data generated by DXO Analyzer.
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using the DXO software.
Signal to noise ratio
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
JPEG images from the Sony Alpha 35 are on a par with those from the Sony Alpha 55 up to around ISO 3200.
This chart indicates that the Sony Alpha 35's JPEGs have a at least a 1EV higher dynamic range than the Canon EOS 1100D's JPEG files upto a sensitivity of ISO 3200.
Sony Alpha 35: Sensitivity images
Sony Alpha 35: Sample images
The bundled kit lens offers a wide-angle setting of 18mm, making it ideal for capturing landscapes, as well as groups of people.
The metering system performs well under a variety of conditions, producing accurate exposures in most situations.
The ability to set the aperture allows scope for creating photographs with a shallow depth-of-field, for beautiful out-of-focus effects that draw attention to your subject.
The AF Tracking system does a good job of keeping up with moving subjects, with performance being enhanced by the camera's unique Tele-Zoom High Speed Shooting mode.
The Toy Camera Picture Effect produces particularly pleasing images, with warm colours and a subtle vignette that really adds impact to scenes like this one.
Lots of detail and great colours are particularly favourable traits in the SLT-A35s images, which rarely failed to impress us during our image quality tests.
This is a fine example of the accuracy of the SLT-A35's metering system, which has done a superb job of correctly exposing the horse in the foreground, set against the comparatively bright background.
Beautiful shallow depth-of-field shots are easily achievable using the SLT-A35's Aperture Priority or Manual exposure modes.
This shot of a backlit leaf showcases the level of fine detail that the camera's sensor can reproduce, as well as the faithfulness of the colours it records.
Sony's excellent, easy-to-use Sweep Panorama mode produces seamless results in a matter of seconds. The 3D panorama options are an added bonus if you have 3D TV/monitor to view images shot with this feature.
The SLT-A35 offers a new range of Picture Effects that produce uniquely stylised images in-camera: no need for any complicated post-processing.
Sony Alpha 35: specifications
16.2mp 23.5 x 15.6mm (APS-C size) CMOS
Focal length conversion:
Memory Stick PRO Duo / Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo; SD / SDHC / SDXC
Electronic Viewfinder 'Tru-Finder' (Xtra Fine) (1.15 million dots effective resolution), with 100% frame coverage, shooting information and grid line display modes
AVCHD: 1920 x 1080 at 60, 29, 97 fps); 1440 x1080 at 30 fps; 640 x 424 at 29.97 fps, stereo sound
ISO 100-12800 expandable up to ISO 25600
TTL 15-point phase detection AF system with 3 cross sensors
Max burst rate:
5.5fps at full resolution, or in Tele-zoom Continuous Advance Priority AE mode: up to 7 fps (approx. 1.4x magnification), with tracking AF
LCD screen size:
473g (with battery and Memory Stick PRO Duo)
124.4 x 92 x 84.7mm
Li-ion NP-FW50 battery supplied
Sony Alpha 35: Verdict
Sony has succeeded in taking an already impressive piece of technology and really exploring its potential. Using their innovative SLT design, the manufacturer has created a very responsive camera that impresses in just about every aspect. With a glut of high-end features that elevate the SLT-A35 above the rank of your typical 'entry-level' camera, there's plenty to love about this model.
The fast performance of the SLT-A35 - thanks to its SLT design and intuitive handling - makes a very good impression. Couple this with superb image quality and an impressive feature-set, and we're sold.
The fixed LCD feels like a bit of a step backwards after using the older SLT-A33's more versatile vari-angle version.
Offering simple, no-fuss handling, beginners will find the camera very easy to get to grips with. There's a good range of automatic and scene modes, as well as in-camera colour and picture effects - all of which produce great results with minimal effort on the photographer's part. That said, the SLT-A35 is also a camera that will grow with you as your skills progress, offering full manual control and RAW shooting capability once you're ready to advance.
In terms of performance, the SLT-A35 is highly responsive, while image quality - whether you're shooting JPEGs and/or RAW files - is equally as impressive. When it comes to finding fault with this camera, there's little for us to complain about: it's an excellent potential choice for amateur photographers and as such comes highly recommended.