Sony Alpha A850 Digital SLR Review: Field Test Report


The World’s Most Affordable Full-Frame DSLR

a850 Product

Boasting the highest resolution available in a 35mm size DSLR, the latest Sony camera is also the most affordable full-frame model on the market. Priced to sell at about $700 less than the Sony A900, the Nikon D700 and the Canon EOS 5D Mk II, the A850 is a downright bargain (from Amazon Sony Alpha DSLRA850 24.6MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only); from B&H Photo).

In spite of the moderate price, it’s identical to the A900 in most aspects, including the 24x36mm CMOS sensor with 24.6 million effective pixels. Each light-sensitive dot is quite large: 5.9 microns squared. In addition to excellent light gathering ability, analog-to-digital conversion and noise reduction processing- right on the sensor-combine to provide optimal image quality.

Because the A850 employs a sensor that's the same size as a 35mm film frame, there's no field of view crop. Hence, even a 24mm focal length includes a very wide portion of any scene. The 24.6 MP CMOS chip provides superlative resolution at commonly used ISO's, making this camera an ideal choice when huge prints are required. (Carl Zeiss 24-70mm zoom at 24mm)  ©2009 Peter K. Burian

Because the A850 employs a sensor that's the same size as a 35mm film frame, there's no field of view crop. Hence, even a 24mm focal length includes a very wide portion of any scene. The 24.6 MP CMOS chip provides superlative resolution at commonly used ISO's, making this camera an ideal choice when huge prints are required. (Carl Zeiss 24-70mm zoom at 24mm) ©2009 Peter K. Burian



The oversized sensor also eliminates field of view crop so even a 28mm lens provides a true wide angle effect. This aspect is great for those who love ultra wide image making and don’t want to buy extremely short lenses such as an 11-18mm zoom. On the other hand, a 300mm lens does not provide a 450mm equivalent effect as it does on the small-sensor Sony DSLRs. Frankly, that’s not a big deal with this 24.6MP camera. Even if you crop 50% of the image area to make a subject appear larger, the photos will retain 12.3 megapixel resolution.

Because it employs a much larger sensor than most of the Alpha cameras, the A850 is ideal for use with the large multi-platform AF lenses. The camera also accepts the smaller DT lenses but will then provide a smaller 11 megapixel image-after in-camera cropping to eliminate the vignetting that's visible in this photo. (Sony 30mm DT lens)  ©2009 Peter K. Burian

Because it employs a much larger sensor than most of the Alpha cameras, the A850 is ideal for use with the large multi-platform AF lenses. The camera also accepts the smaller DT lenses but will then provide a smaller 11 megapixel image-after in-camera cropping to eliminate the vignetting that's visible in this photo. (Sony 30mm DT lens) ©2009 Peter K. Burian



Targeting serious photographers, the Sony A850 is richly specified with many pro-caliber capabilities and some unique amenities. It proved to be a fine choice for shooting stock images during many events and for autumn landscape photography. This DSLR provided extraordinary resolution, great convenience and high speed in most aspects. I also tried using multiple flash units with Wireless TTL flash control and found that the basic process is quite uncomplicated.

Features and Technology

This is a rugged DSLR with a large magnesium alloy body, moisture-resistant seals, all-glass pentaprism, SteadyShot stabilizer and 3-inch LCD with 921,600 dots. The A850 is identical to the A900 except for two aspects. The continuous drive speed is 3 frames per second vs. 5 fps and the viewfinder provides “only” 98% vs. 100% coverage. Note too that the RM-DSLR1 wireless remote controller that’s included with the A900, is an optional extra but costs only $30 (Amazon;   B&H Photo).

The A850 is loaded with advanced capabilities but often provides very good results even in Program mode with or without flash. Sony makes many flash units from inexpensive to full-featured; the high-end HVL-F56AM is definitely the best choice for this prosumer grade full-frame DSLR. (P mode; Vivid style; ISO 400; Carl Zeiss 24-70mm zoom.)  ©2009 Peter K. Burian

The A850 is loaded with advanced capabilities but often provides very good results even in Program mode with or without flash. Sony makes many flash units from inexpensive to full-featured; the high-end F58AM is definitely the best choice for this prosumer grade full-frame DSLR. (P mode; Vivid style; ISO 400; Carl Zeiss 24-70mm zoom.) ©2009 Peter K. Burian



This new camera also employs two BIONZ processors, but provides even greater burst depth: 16 RAW photos or 34 Extra Fine JPEGs in a single series. The AF system can easily keep up with the 3 fps drive speed when tracking most action subjects; for the best results, use a lens with an SAM (Smooth Autofocus) or the even faster SSM (Supersonic) motor. The AF sensor features nine detection points plus 10 “assist” points to minimize the risk of lost focus. And the camera includes Sony’s most versatile Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) feature for increasing shadow detail during capture processing.

While the A850 is equipped with a series of analog controls, the Quick Navi screen provides quick access to many features. Note too that the camera offers a very useful feature, Intelligent Preview, a temporary image that changes to reflect the modifications made exposure, White Balance and the DRO level.

While the A850 is equipped with a series of analog controls, the Quick Navi screen provides quick access to many features. Note too that the camera offers a very useful feature, Intelligent Preview, a temporary image that changes to reflect the modifications made exposure, White Balance and the DRO level.



The body sports a full range of well-marked, well-placed analog controls including an Fn button that activates the Quick Navi screen for controlling 11 distinct camera features. It’s also equipped with two memory card slots: for CompactFlash and Memory Stick Duo/Pro Duo media. There’s no built-in flash in this high-end DSLR but it’s equipped with a PC cord socket and supports wireless off-camera TTL flash with optional flash units.

Instead of providing Live View like many competitors, the A850 offers Intelligent Preview: a pre-capture image of the subject on its ultra-high resolution LCD screen. Make any modifications to exposure, White Balance or Dynamic Range settings and the preview changes accordingly. While some buyers will miss Live View, serious photographers will appreciate Intelligent Preview, using this feature to achieve exactly the desired effects without bracketing.

The Intelligent Preview feature is very useful in serious photography when it's important to get exposure, white balance and the DRO level just right. However-as with cameras that provide true Live View-it's impossible to pre-evaluate the effect that flash will produce. (Vivid style; flash).  ©2009 Peter K. Burian

The Intelligent Preview feature is very useful in serious photography when it's important to get exposure, white balance and the DRO level just right. However-as with cameras that provide true Live View-it's impossible to pre-evaluate the effect that flash will produce. (Vivid style; flash). ©2009 Peter K. Burian



Evaluation: This is not the most sleek or handsome DSLR, but it features a very large, bright, contrasty pentaprism and an intelligently-designed user interface. Its large, rubberized grip was molded to fit just about any hand. This high-end camera is packed with features, many in the 13 page electronic menu, so it does require study of the instruction manual. Overall however, operation is quite intuitive. After an initial setup, I typically needed to use only the functions available in the Quick Navi screen.

The A850 employs the same SteadyShot mechanism as the A900, making this duo the only full-frame DSLRs with a built-in image stabilizer. In my tests, SteadyShot provided a two to three shutter speed step benefit. Bracing my elbows on a firm support (as for this photo) produced even more impressive results. (At 70mm; 1/10 sec. shutter speed. ISO 1600.)  ©2009 Peter K. Burian

The A850 employs the same SteadyShot mechanism as the A900, making this duo the only full-frame DSLRs with a built-in image stabilizer. In my tests, SteadyShot provided a two to three shutter speed step benefit. Bracing my elbows on a firm support (as for this photo) produced even more impressive results. (At 70mm; 1/10 sec. shutter speed. ISO 1600.) ©2009 Peter K. Burian



As a semi-pro DSLR, the A850 is not equipped with built-in flash. Instead, Sony provided a PC cord socket for connecting studio “strobes” and support for wireless off-camera TTL flash with two or more optional flash units. The camera is also loaded with advanced capabilities such as AF Micro Adjustment (for improving an older lens’ autofocus precision), several options for high ISO Noise Reduction and exposure bracketing in increments as large as +/- 2EV. The latter will be useful for experienced photographers who shoot multiple images for composites to be made later, using HDR software.

Performance and Quality

During extensive testing, this Sony Alpha DSLR proved to be fast and reliable. It started up in a half second, fired a long series of images at 3fps, and was almost always ready to shoot another burst on the Sony 300x UDMA CompactFlash card. Autofocus was fast and accurate with any lens even in dark locations. When shooting a bicycle race, I found that continuous AF was almost foolproof with wide aperture SSM (supersonic-wave) lenses. While some of the $5000 – $8000 DSLRs do provide even more reliable tracking focus with very fast/erratic motion, the A850 is no slouch in this aspect.

While the 3fps is not super fast, most photo enthusiasts should be satisfied with the ability to shoot a dozen frames in four seconds with continuous AF tracking the action. (ISO 400; Vivid mode; Carl Zeiss 24-70mm SSM zoom; Hoya Pro-1D polarizer.)  ©2009 Peter K. Burian

While the 3fps is not super fast, most photo enthusiasts should be satisfied with the ability to shoot a dozen frames in four seconds with continuous AF tracking the action. (ISO 400; Vivid mode; Carl Zeiss 24-70mm SSM zoom; Hoya Pro-1D polarizer.) ©2009 Peter K. Burian



The early sample A850 still had a few problems, producing slightly cool color balance in daylight with AWB and slight overexposure of mid-tone scenes with multi-segment. These were easy to prevent with overrides but should not occur with the final production camera. When testing the A900-which is identical in image quality and other aspects-I found that AWB and light metering were very reliable, although some light-toned scenes required a +2/3 compensation level.

In the Standard creative style mode-at default settings-the A850 produced JPEGs with slightly high contrast, moderate sharpness and fairly high color saturation. In fact, some red tones are excessively saturated. Naturally, entirely different effects are possible with overrides (such as +1 for Sharpness) or with the features available in imaging software and the RAW converter program. When shooting JPEGs of colorful subjects, I often preferred to use the Vivid style for even richer hues and snappier contrast.

The Standard creative style provides moderately high contrast, slightly low sharpness and fairly high saturation suitable for a wide range of subjects. Naturally, Sony provides numerous user-selectable options for creating entirely different effects including other Styles and overrides for Contrast, Sharpness, Color Saturation as well as DRO. (Standard Style; Hoya Pro 1-D polarizer.)  ©2008 Peter K. Burian

The Standard creative style provides moderately high contrast, slightly low sharpness and fairly high saturation suitable for a wide range of subjects. Naturally, Sony provides numerous user-selectable options for creating entirely different effects including other Styles and overrides for Contrast, Sharpness, Color Saturation as well as DRO. (Standard Style; Hoya Pro 1-D polarizer.) ©2008 Peter K. Burian



The Dynamic Range Optimizer’s Advanced Mode was slightly useful for lightening shadow areas and taming very bright highlight areas. For the best results in very high contrast lighting, set the DRO to Level 2. That will provide adequate mid-tone and shadow detail without an over-processed effect or a significant increase in the visibility of digital noise. (If shooting in RAW capture, you can apply any of the DRO options in Sony’s SR 3 software.)

The Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) feature is very versatile, with two automatic modes and five user-selectable levels. This series-made for illustration purposes with the SR 3 converter software-provides an indication as to some of the effects that can also be achieved with in-camera DRO.  ©2009 Peter K. Burian

The Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) feature is very versatile, with two automatic modes and five user-selectable levels. This series-made for illustration purposes with the SR 3 converter software-provides an indication as to some of the effects that can also be achieved with in-camera DRO. ©2009 Peter K. Burian



In RAW or Extra Fine JPEG capture, image quality is superlative at ISO 100 to 200. My best RAW photos-made with Carl Zeiss ZA lenses at around f/8-are suitable for gallery quality 24×36-inch prints. By ISO 400 some digital noise is apparent, but that’s not a problem in 13×19″ prints. The sensor’s ultra-high resolution provides incredible definition of texture and the most intricate detail. This is not the best full-frame DSLR for high ISO quality. Even so, at ISO 800, the images are smooth and richly detailed, suitable for excellent 11×16.5″ prints.

Avoid underexposure and the camera can produce clean, richly detailed photos at ISO 800 in daylight photography. While the digital noise pattern is more visible in low light images -- particularly when DRO or software is used for shadow lightening -- overall ISO 800 performances is really very decent. (Vivid style; 1/640 sec.)  ©2009 Peter K. Burian

Avoid underexposure and the camera can produce clean, richly detailed photos at ISO 800 in daylight photography. While the digital noise pattern is more visible in low light images -- particularly when DRO or software is used for shadow lightening -- overall ISO 800 performances is really very decent. (Vivid style; 1/640 sec.) ©2009 Peter K. Burian



At ISO 1600-with the Standard NR level-the images are still quite smooth; a mottled color pattern is visible but there’s not much loss of detail. By ISO 3200, more obvious digital noise and some loss of saturation and resolution are apparent, but the images still make for good 8×10″ glossies. (ISO 6400 is strictly a problem-solving tool.) A stronger or weaker level of high ISO NR can be set. Standard NR is fine though a bit aggressive, smudging some fine detail. Photographers who plan to use Noise Reduction software-on their JPEG or RAW captures-should set in-camera NR to Off and Sharpening to a low level at ISO 1600 and above.

While image quality is not perfect at ISO 3200 (with the A900 or the A850), the images are certainly useable as this small portion of a full-frame JPEG indicates. For the optimal quality at ISO 1600 to 6400, consider the technique mentioned in the text. (ISO 3200)  ©2009 Peter K. Burian

While image quality is not perfect at ISO 3200 (with the A900 or the A850), the images are certainly useable as this small portion of a full-frame JPEG indicates. For the optimal quality at ISO 1600 to 6400, consider the technique mentioned in the text. (ISO 3200) ©2009 Peter K. Burian



Evaluation: Although the A850 is very fast in most respects, it is a tad slow in displaying images in instant playback and when switching to the full playback mode. (And I was using a fast 300x UDMA CompactFlash card.) My only other complaint is about the noise created by the shutter and oversized reflex mirror. This is not the ideal DSLR for shooting during the vows at a wedding or for nature photography with very skittish subjects. The full-frame 24.6 MP sensor is great for those who frequently want oversized prints of exhibition quality. Use low ISO, RAW capture mode-and the best lens you can afford-and you’ll be amazed at the level of resolution that your images will exhibit.

Final Assessment

Considering the $2000 price, the Sony A850 is an absolute bargain in terms of resolution, versatility and acceptable speed as well as the built-in image stabilizer, excellent viewfinder and high-res LCD. In my estimation, the benefits provided by Intelligent Preview make Live View unnecessary in a semi-pro camera. This DSLR may have fewer custom functions than its competitors, but it’s not lacking a single important feature. It’s particularly competent in off-camera flash photography. While sports shooters will prefer a faster and more expensive model (like the A900), the A850 should be adequately fast (at 3 fps) for most photo enthusiasts.

Some competing brands do offer more lenses and accessories, but Sony has expanded its line of the multi-platform Sony and Carl Zeiss series. Many are equipped with the super fast/silent ultrasonic SSM focus motor. In future, we should see more lenses with the less expensive SAM motor such as the new 28-75mm f/2.8 SAM model. The company also offers a wide range of accessories, including the full-featured HVL-F58AM flash unit with a unique swiveling head for shooting vertical photos. If you’re in the market for a full-featured camera, or for an entirely new DSLR system, be sure to check out the options provided by Sony while comparison shopping.

While some of the lenses are primarily for use with the small sensor cameras, the Sony system is expanding. In fact, several new full-frame lenses have been introduced since this photo-the most recent available-was taken.

While some of the lenses are primarily for use with the small sensor cameras, the Sony system is expanding. In fact, several new full-frame lenses have been introduced since this photo-the most recent available-was taken.


Additional Information

For full A850 specifications visit: the Sonystyle web site
For information on retail pricing, availability and accessories, we recommend Amazon (s) and B&H Photo (Sony A850)

Comments

  1. Great review. Out of curiosity, why would you recommend the 56 flash over the 58?

  2. Thanks, Zach. The 58 has a lot of great features, so if you can afford it, that one is ideal. But expensive.

    …The new model replaces the former HVL-F56AM model, and features a new Quick Shift Bounce system. The flash head can pivot 90 degrees left and right on a horizontal axis in addition to the conventional up and down. It offers a higher degree of flexibility for external lighting control …

    There is an interesting discussion about the two flash units at

    http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1037&message=33037800

    Cheers! Peter
    http://www.peterkburian.com

  3. And it was the HVL-F58AM flash that I mentioned in my report.

  4. It goes against the grain because I’m a Nikon man, but this Sony camera has captured my interest. In my line of photographic work, a robust, reliable digital camera is essential. Something akin to a Nikon F2, FM or F4. Plastic fantastics should be shot and buried, quickly. Use a face mask to reduce smell. Cameras are tools, not playthings, like chisels to a woodworker. I was drawn reluctantly to digital, but it is, sadly, here to stay. The earth has indeed moved in the photographic world – and all bets are off when it comes to brand loyalty. The manufacturers – particularly Nikon – would be well advised to forget gimmicks and concentrate on at least one line of pro cameras – simply, a strong, inexpensive box to which is attached a quality lens. After all, true photographers know the difference between an F-stop and a bag of spuds …

  5. Flash: Hm, yes, in one spot, I accidentally said HVL-F56AM . My mistake, Zach; I’ll fix that.

    Nikon: Well, Tony, the a850 is built like a TANK. Actually, it’s a lot more weather resistant than a tank. So it qualifies.

    .. a strong, inexpensive box to which is attached a quality lens … Yeah, and I guess the a850 qualifies since it has a lot fewer Custom Functions. And the Sony Carl Zeiss ZA lenses are fabulous!!! But check the full specs and you’ll see that the a850 is loaded … just not AS loaded as a D3x (or even a D300).

    Sony seems to know they cannot beat Nikon and Canon in the high price range so they are taking a different approach. Is the a850 as desireable as the D3x? Proably not but it costs about 1/4 as much. And its resolution will blow your mind, at low ISO anyway.

    Back when I was shooting Velvia slide film, I would have thought ISO 400 was high ISO.

    Some cameras are excellent at ISO 3200. Cool! How often do most people need to go above ISO 800?

    See my thoughts about that at
    http://www.photocrati.com/q-a-should-i-be-concerned-about-high-iso-performance-in-a-dslr/

    Anyway, all food for thought.

    Peter

  6. Well, Peter. Let’s hope Nikon, et al, get the message. Photography is a hard and expensive business and pros require solid workhorses, not flimsy fillies with awkward attachments that cost the earth to run. A strong metal box, an accurate optical viewfinder, the best chip available, depth-of-field button, small LCD to provide basic exposure information. A sort of ramped-up Box Brownie. About it, really. The rest is nonsense.

    Quote: “Sony seems to know they cannot beat Nikon and Canon …etc … so they are taking a different approach.”

    Well, Peter. I welcome this – Nikon and Canon has held pros hostage for too many years. About time they got a shot across their bows …

  7. Should read “have” held …

  8. FOR CANADA – a550 AVAILABILITY

    Here’s a note I got from Sony Canada:

    This product is just shipping now. ….Henry’s in Ontario and London Drugs out west are the major retailers who have some stock. ….. Sony Style retail locations will stock it across Canada as will many photo specialty dealers.

  9. How compatible is the A850 with the old Konica-Minolta lenses?

  10. If Sony makes such pro DSLR’s, Why professional photographers choose Canon and Nikon and not Sony alpha DSLRs?

    • If Sony makes such pro DSLR’s, Why professional photographers choose Canon and Nikon and not Sony alpha DSLRs? Well for several reasons:

      * They already own Canon or Nikon lenses and accessories
      * Canon and Nikon make more pro lenses and pro accessories, like Wireless Data transfer devices, GPS units, etc.
      * Both companies operate a Pro Network with many benefits for working pros

      But 95% of DSLR buyers are not pros. Now, Sony offers them two pro cameras and pro-calibre Carl Zeiss lenses and a pro flash unit.

      Cheers! Peter http://www.peterkburian.com

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