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Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 Gordon Laing, April 2008
 

Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 lens and stabilisation

The Sony Alpha DSLR A350 employs an A-mount for lenses and is compatible with the complete range of Sony lenses and third party models designed for the Sony or Minolta AF systems, including Sony’s DT models. Like the A700 and A200 before it, the polished metal surface of the lens mount extends a few millimetres beyond the trademark Alpha orange ring – see photo.

Sony A350 - lens mount












All lenses attached to the A350 can exploit the camera’s built-in Super SteadyShot stabilisation, and since the A350 employs the same physically sized sensor as previous Alphas, all lenses effectively have their field of view reduced by 1.5 times.


 
Sony A350 with DT 18-70mm
 
Sony A350 twin lens kit


The Alpha A350 is typically sold in a kit with the Sony DT 18-70mm lens. This is the same model supplied with the A100, and offers a slightly longer range than the typical 18-55mm lenses supplied in other kits. The build quality is ok for a budget bundle, but like most kit lenses, there’s not much of a manual focusing ring to speak of, and both it and the end element rotate while focusing. See our results and gallery pages to see how this budget lens copes with the 14 Megapixel demands of the A350.

Like all Alpha DSLRs, the A350 is equipped with sensor-shift image stabilisation to combat camera-shake. This moves the entire sensor platform in two axes and is branded by Sony as Super SteadyShot. With the A350, Sony claims improved performance over the debut A100, with between 2.5 and 3.5 stops of compensation depending on the lens and shooting conditions.

As with all sensor-shift stabilised solutions, the major benefit is that it works with any lens you attach, new or old, wide or long, prime or zoom. The downside is that you won’t see the stabilising effect through the optical viewfinder, which can be annoying when framing at longer focal lengths. And due to the way Sony has implemented Live View on the A350, you won’t see a preview of the stabilising effect on-screen either. Like other Alphas, there are at least indicators in the viewfinder (and on-screen during Live View) which show how hard the system’s working, or when it’s gone beyond its capabilities.

To test the effectiveness of the A350’s built-in stabilisation we took a serious of photos with the DT 18-70mm zoomed-into an equivalent of 105mm where traditional photographic advice would recommend a shutter speed of approximately 1/100 to eliminate camera shake. Our sequence started at 1/100 and reduced by one stop each time until 1/3.





 
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 Super SteadyShot off / on
100% crop, 18-70mm at 70mm, 1/6, 100 ISO, SSS off
 
100% crop, 18-70mm at 70mm, 1/6, 100 ISO, SSS on

Without Super SteadyShot, the slowest shutter speed with which we could achieve a sharp image (at an equivalent of 105mm) was 1/50, whereas with Super SteadyShot enabled we achieved sharp results down to shutter speeds of 1/6. A shutter of 1/6 corresponds to three stops of compensation over the 1/50 non-stabilised shot, and four stops over the 1/100 speed suggested by traditional advice. As always, the lens, conditions and the photographer themselves can produce different results.

Achieving three stops of compensation in real-life is a respectable result, and once again the proves the usefulness of Sony's Super SteadyShot system. It’s still clearly a very useful facility to have built-into the camera – especially as it works with any lens you attach.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 focusing

The Alpha A350 is equipped with the same 9-point AF system as the A200 and A100 with a centre cross sensor, and like earlier Alphas, the system can be started as you look through the viewfinder; this can indeed save time, but many DSLR traditionalists will prefer to switch it off and go for a half-press of the shutter release instead.

Sony A350 - AF mode Sony A350 - AF area
   

Like the earlier A100, you’ve the choice of single-shot AF-S, continuous autofocus AF-C, or a hybrid AF-A mode which automatically switches between AF-S and AF-C. Unlike the higher-end A700, there’s no AF clutch on the back of the A350, so you’ll need to switch from AF to MF by the lens mount to disengage the focusing motor for manual focusing.

Like the A200, Sony’s fitted a higher-torque AF motor to the A350 and claims an improvement in speed over the A100 of 1.7 times. In use the A350 certainly feels quicker than its predecessor and also focuses a little more quietly too, although it’s far from the virtual silence of Canon’s USM, Nikon’s SWM or Sony’s own SSM system. The A350 and DT 18-70mm (zoomed-into 70mm) also managed to stay focused on vehicles approaching face-on at 50kph, capturing sharp sequences in AF-C mode using the viewfinder.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 anti-dust

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Like all Alpha DSLRs to date, the A350 uses its sensor-shifting mechanism to double-up as an anti-dust system. This vibrates the sensor during power-off in an attempt to shake-free any foreign particles. The sensor filter also has an anti-dust coating.

Following our usual DSLR torture-test we left our A350 face-up without a lens, inside and outside for ten minutes each, before powering it up and down twice, then searching for dust; we can’t know how much dust entered the body during this time, nor even how much was present to start with, but we know such a process would result in dust being a problem for most models.

We then took a series of photos at every aperture setting of a plain white surface at close range with the DT 18-70mm lens zoomed-in and focused to infinity. Dust marks normally become most apparent at the smallest apertures (eg f16 and f22), but it’s also important to test at more common apertures.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 dust example at f22 / f8
100% crop, 18-70mm at 70mm, f22
 
100% crop, 18-70mm at 70mm, f8


At f22, a number of dust marks were quite visible, and we’ve shown a 100% crop of a typical offender above left - there's no need to do a levels adjustment here. At f16 and f11, these grew larger and more diffused, but didn’t become truly hard to see until you were working at apertures of f8 and above. We've included a crop of exactly the same area at f8, above right, and at first glance the mark appears to have disappeared. Look closely though and you might just see it at a much larger diameter which almost touches the top and bottom of the image. Feel free to save the image to your computer and adjust the Levels to reveal the mark.

So like the A100 and A200 before it, we’d say the A350’s anti-dust systems are far from infallible and if you change lenses regularly, you’ll need to rely on the manual cleaning technique of opening the shutter and using a blower.


Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 sensor and processing

The Alpha A350 is equipped with a new 14.2 Megapixel CCD sensor, measuring 23.5x15.7mm - this is the major difference between it and the cheaper A300. It generates 3:2 aspect ratio images with a maximum resolution of 4592x3056 pixels and there’s the choice of two lower resolutions at 7.7 and 3.5 Megapixels respectively. A new cropped 16:9 aspect ratio is available in 12, 6.5 and 2.9 Megapixels.

Sony A350 - resolution Sony A350 - aspect ratio Sony A350 - compression
     

Images can be saved with Standard or Fine JPEG compression, or recorded as a RAW file either by itself or accompanied with a JPEG. Best quality Large Fine JPEGs typically measure between 3.8 and 5.8MB each, while RAW files typically measure between 13.5 and 14.5MB each. There’s no dedicated button for the quality settings, but it’s easy to adjust them using the main menu.

Sony A350 - sensitivity
 
Sony A350 - D range menu
 

While the earlier A100 topped-out at 1600 ISO, the new A350 offers sensitivity between 100 and 3200 ISO, with optional High ISO noise reduction at 1600 ISO and above. Long exposure noise reduction is also optional, and if enabled, applies to exposures of one second or longer; you can see how the A350 performs across its sensitivity range in our A350 Results and A350 Gallery pages.

Sony A350 - creative style
 

Colour, contrast and sharpness are applied using a number of Creative Styles, chosen from the main menu system. Along with the default Standard setting are Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Night View, Sunset, Black and White and Adobe RGB; in the colour modes you can adjust contrast, saturation and sharpness in a range of +/-3 steps, but there’s no filters for Black and White.

Like other Alphas, the A350 is equipped with Sony’s D-Range Optimiser feature which can adjust the tonal range as you record the image. Unlike the broad array of options on the A700 though, the new A350 has the same three as the A200: D-R Off, D-R Standard, and D-R+. We used the default D-R Standard for all our test shots.

We tested the A350's DRO settings in a variety of situations where detail in bright highlights or dark shadows would normally be lost, but in every case, the effect was subtle to say the least. You may have more success with DRO on the A350, but in our tests it offered little which couldn't be achieved with careful exposure and tweaking in software later.


Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 drive modes

The Sony Alpha A350 offers one Continuous Shooting mode rated at 2.5fps with the optical viewfinder or at 2fps in Live View; Sony quotes a maximum buffer of three frames in RAW+JPEG mode, four in plain RAW mode, and no limit for recording JPEGs, although it does warn the shooting speed becomes a little slower for the fourth image or later.

This is a little slower than the 3fps of the A200 and A300, although the latter also falls to 2fps in Live View.

Sony A350 - continuous shooting
 
To put this to the test we fitted our A350 with a high-speed Lexar Professional UDMA 4GB 300x CF card. We fired-off 47 Fine JPEGs (100 ISO / DRO Standard / AF-S) in 20 seconds using the optical viewfinder, corresponding to a rate of around 2.35fps. Switching to Live View saw this fall to 36 frames in the same 20 seconds, corresponding to a rate of 1.8fps. In RAW mode using the optical viewfinder we fired-off eight frames in 3.5 seconds before the A350 stalled - this works out at 2.3fps. In Live View we managed nine RAW frames in five seconds, working out at 1.8fps.

So in all our continuous shooting tests, the A350 came up slightly slower than quoted, and even Sony's official figures aren't particularly impressive. Continuous shooting is certainly one of the downsides of the A350 - it really feels like it's chugging along and isn't particularly suited to capturing fast action sequences. And while the A350 performs below average in this respect, Canon's slightly raised the bar with the 3.5fps of the 450D / XSi. To make a serious difference though, you'd need to go to the Canon 40D or Sony A700 which offer 6.5 and 5fps respectively.

In terms of other drive modes, there's the choice of two or 10 second self-timers, but sadly unlike the A100, no mirror-lockup facility. There's also three bracketing modes: two shoot three images at 0.3 or 0.7 EV apart, one in Single advance and the other in Continuous advance. The third mode offers White Balance bracketing, shooting three images with the choice of low or high shifts (10 mired and 20 mired respectively).



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