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Sony Alpha 850 DSLR Review

Sony A850 Review.jpg

In the territory of the DSLR camera we seem to have inherited a duality that continues, model to model.

On one hand we have cameras with an APS-sized sensor, roughly half the area of the 35mm film frame. These benefit from the use of smaller, cheaper lenses, yet still capture well-accepted images.

In the other hand we have high end DSLRs with full size sensors, like this one, able to use ‘normal’ 35mm lenses, with no enlargement factor involved when comparing the field size. Bigger and more expensive lenses is the price we pay for a full frame sensor.

However, there is much going on behind the scenes as makers of high end medium format digital cameras watch with creeping anxiety as full frame DSLRs lift resolution levels, while offering comparable camera product at much lower prices. Watch out for the battle between Hasselblad and kin versus Canon, Nikon — and Sony.

Sony, in particular, is biffing the market with its attractive full frame pricing, as already seen in the A900 and now with the A850.

Sony Alpha 850 DSLR Features

This is a hefty piece of kit, the high-tensile aluminium chassis and magnesium alloy body shell tipping the scales at just under 2kg, with battery, lens, card and strap loaded.

Sony A850 lens.jpg

The lens supplied with the review camera was a Carl Zeiss f2.8/24-79mm optic. All up, substantial, but well-balanced, thanks to the prominent grip.

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I found in general shooting that steadiness was not a problem, only getting a little ‘dangerous, in lowish light on one occasion with the zoom out a bit and an exposure of 1/50 sec. This shot needed a little sharpening as a result.

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But sometimes a little movement can create a pleasing image.

As I suggested earlier, cameras like the A850 with 24.6 million pixel capture have high ambitions and nowhere is it more evident than its image specs: the maximum size of 6048×4032 pixels will make a 51x34cm print.

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No movies, sorry. You’ll have to look at APS-sized cameras from Nikon, Canon and others. Oddly, Sony does not offer a movie capture feature in any of its DSLR cameras.

There is also no Live View as the camera uses a pentaprism (a solid block of optical glass) rather than a pentamirror (a mirrored box constructed to mimic a pentaprism). Live View requires elements of the pentamirror to be physically movable, simply impossible when using a pentaprism.  

There’s also no built-in flash, but the hot shoe and PC flash sync terminal link with external flash.

Sony pursues the principle of an internal stabiliser, no mean feat given the size of the full frame CMOS sensor. The promise is up to 4 f stops of anti-shake performance. A five bar finder indicator shows how well the stabiliser is performing, telling you when the camera is most stable.

The nine point AF system is augmented by 10 focus assist points to assist subject detection, improved out-of-focus detection to reduce 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.

The RAW file format is an image written to memory as pure data; in adding cRAW capture Sony has taken it one step further and applied data compression to the file. Here’s how it works out:

Typical RAW file: 37.4MB. cRAW data compression takes it down to 25.1MB. RAW+JPEG weighs in at 41.7MB. cRAW+JPEG: 29.4MB. An Extra Fine JPEG image on its own: 10.4MB.

The CD supplied with the camera contains a free app — Image Data Converter SR — that can ‘unpack’ the RAW files. Alternatively, you can download a Photoshop plug-in (http://labs.adobe.com/wiki/index.php/Camera_Raw_5.6).

ISO speeds run from 100 to 6400. Here are some examples:

Sony A850 ISO 100 f3.2 1-80 sec.jpg
The best you can get is at ISO 100.

Sony A850 ISO 800 f3.2 1-640 sec.jpg
At ISO 800 smooth, clean pictures with no noise.

Sony A850 ISO 1600 f3.2 1-1250 sec.jpg
At ISO 1600 noise is slowly creeping in. Still, a useable setting.

Sony A850 ISO 6400 f3.2 1:5000 sec.JPG
Flat out, guns blazing at ISO 6400, we hit noise to such a degree that you would have to be careful in choice of subject.

Finally, continuous shooting is not a red hot spec, as the A850 will only run a burst of 3fps. RAW allows a total of 16 shots, while the Extra Fine JPEG setting delivers 34 shots.

Sony Alpha 850 DSLR Quality

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This is the sort of sharpness you get with the Carl Zeiss lens and full frame capture.

The Sony A850 is simply a magnificent machine to pull stunning pictures from the world around you. It rarely gets much better than this! But to be honest, the camera would be absolutely not ideal for the beginner.

Why you would buy the Sony A850: full frame quality; access to superb Carl Zeiss lenses; internal stabiliser; great price.

Why you wouldn’t buy the Sony A850: no pop-up fill flash; LCD screen does not tilt/swing; no Live View; no movie capture.

Sony Alpha 850 DSLR Specifications

Image Sensor: 24.61 million effective pixels.
Metering: Evaluative and partial metering, centre-weighted; spot.
Effective Sensor Size: 35.9×24.0mm CMOS.
35 SLR Lens Factor: 1:1.
Exposure Modes: Auto, Program AE, shutter and aperture priority, manual.
Shutter Speed: 30 to 1/8000 second, Bulb. Flash sync: 1/250 or 1/200 (SteadyShot activated/deactivated)
Memory: CompactFlash card Types I/II, Microdrive, Memory Stick Duo.
Image Sizes (pixels): 6048×4032, 6048×3408, 4400×2936, 3984×2656, 2896×1928, 3024×2016, 1984×1320.
Viewfinders: Optical pentaprism, 7.5cm LCD (921,600 pixels).
File Formats: RAW, cRAW, JPEG, RAW+JPEG, cRAW+JPEG.
Colour Space: Adobe RGB, sRGB.
ISO Sensitivity: Auto, 100 to 6400.
Interface: USB 2.0, AV, HDMI, remote, DC input.
Power: Rechargeable lithium ion battery, AC adaptor.
Dimensions: 156.3×116.9×81.9 WHDmm.
Weight: Approx. 850 g (body only).
Price: Amazon currently has the Sony A850 DSLR priced at $1999 USD Body Only or $3598.99 USD with a 24-70mm lens.

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Barrie Smith
Barrie Smith

is an experienced writer/photographer currently published in Australian Macworld, Auscam and other magazines in Australia and overseas.

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