Sony’s giant killer: Alpha 850 DSLR

Barrie Smith
21 April, 2010
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Here we have a camera that shows Sony is a stayer in the DSLR game, and is a signal to companies such as Canon and Nikon to look alarmingly over their shoulders.

The Sony a850 has a full-frame sensor that captures 24.6 million pixels, delivered to the CMOS by a range of Carl Zeiss lenses, and could well give medium format camera owners serious food for thought. After all, if you can pull an image with a maximum size of 6048 x 4032 pixels and a final print size of 51 x 34cm out of the ether you’re looking pretty schmick … and let’s face it, we’re not talking tens of thousands of dollars.

Substantial and a touch on the heavy side, the aluminium chassis and magnesium alloy body shell weighs just under 2kg, with battery, lens, card and strap fitted. The lens supplied with the review camera was a superb Carl Zeiss f2.8/24-79mm optic.

Thankfully, the ergonomics and the prominent speed grip account for a well-balanced camera. Weighty, but good in the hands.

The a850 uses an internal stabiliser, a technical triumph given the size of the full-frame CMOS sensor. With this you have the potential to get up to four f-stops of anti-shake performance. The finder has a five-bar finder indicator showing the performance of the stabiliser, informing you of the camera’s stability. I was surprised at how often this indicator rang the danger bells.

The nine-point AF system is augmented by 10 focus assist points to assist subject detection, improved out-of-focus detection to minimise focus hunting and a dedicated f2.8 sensor for enhanced AF accuracy with wide-aperture lenses.

The a850 can save images as RAW files, cRAW, JPEG and bundles of RAW+JPEG — as well as cRAW+JPEG. With cRAW capture, the a850 applies data compression to the file and saves 40 per cent of the file size; there is no image degradation.

The Sony a850 has dual flash card slots, CompactFlash Type-I /II and Memory Stick Duo cards.

There are a few negatives: there’s no Live View, no built-in flash (but the hot shoe and PC flash sync terminal link with external flash), no movie mode, and continuous shooting depends on a burst of 3fps. A RAW burst can run to 16 shots, while the Extra Fine JPEG setting saves 34 shots.

But the positives are many: the lens factor is 1:1, so a 25mm lens is a 25mm lens; shutter speeds run from 30 seconds to 1/8000 and Bulb, with flash sync at 1/250 or 1/200 (SteadyShot activated/deactivated); both analogue AV and digital HDMI outputs are built in. Exposure modes run from auto and Program AE to shutter and aperture priority as well as manual operation.

Metering options include multi segment (40), centre-weighted and spot readings.

ISO speeds run from 100 to 6400. In my tests I found that 1600 was useable, although with some noise evident. Hitting ISO 6400 indicated that, whilst a useable setting, you would have to choose subjects with no areas of one tone.

As is the way with even the highest-end cameras, on the a850 there is a host of ‘creative style’ programs. Travel this route and you can twist an image to the vivid end, enhance portraits with some softening, enhance sunsets, autumn scenes, etc.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice

Aside from the colour accuracy of the a850, its absolute sharpness is undeniable. For the experienced and knowledgeable photographer this model should be on your wish list.

This review originally appeared in the March issue of Australian Macworld magazine.

Sony Alpha 850 DSLR

Rating 4
RRP Body, $3499; Carl Zeiss f2.8/24-79mm lens, $3,299
Cons LCD screen does not swivel; no movie capture; low burst shooting rate
Pros Full frame capture; 1/8000 sec maximum shutter speed

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