A change is as good as a holiday
As some of you will know, I have been a devotee of Nikon cameras for practically all my photographic life and to be quite honest I can’t see myself changing from what I know and love. But, I am always willing to try new cameras and lenses as you never know whether or not you might be pleasantly surprised. I also believe, to a certain extent, that it is the person behind the lens that will make or break a great photograph; a bad workman always blames his tools and all that…
So here I am with a Sony Alpha 350 digital camera in my hands teamed up with a f3.5-6.3 18-200mm lens, ready and raring to go.
It looks and feels much the same as any other digital SLR with pretty much the same functionality too. The Sony α350's menu is very easy to use, functioning with a tabbed and a scrolling menu. When you get to the bottom of the first tabs list, the Sony α350 automatically switches to the top of the next tab. This design makes it easy to scan through the items looking for what you need. If you see that a given tab isn't what you need, regardless of where you are in the list, you can press the left or right arrow to move between tabs. It's a little confusing if you've been using a Nikon, where pressing the right arrow often selects a menu item, but it's not hard to get used to using the middle button instead. There is the usual full mode selection on the left hand dial on the top of the body, for those that dare to step outside full auto mode and chance upon creative photography!
Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the Alpha 350 for me was the Live View capability, common in the lower level digital SLRs but not something I tend to use when shooting on a regular basis. I do spend a good deal of time ‘composing’ my images where possible, through the conventional optical viewfinder. I always think that I want as little as possible to do later on in terms of digital ‘tidying-up’ or retouching. That said, I found the Live View very useful when my body position was awkward; say with the camera well above my normal standing height sight-line or when the camera was positioned at a very low height. Here, in these situations, combined with the 2.7 inch clear photo LCD display I was comfortably able to view what I was shooting in live time. Put yourself in this situation; you are in a crowd of people at a wedding or maybe in a paparazzi-type ‘scrum’ and you lift your camera above your head to get some sort of angle for your shoot, but it’s a bit of a hit-and-hope situation. With the Live View on you can be relatively sure of what it is that you are getting. I am sure it is part of the way I am used to shooting my images, but I couldn’t see myself using this facility a lot, however it is handy nonetheless. Shooting in Live View did seem to drain the battery more quickly than shooting with the traditional optical viewfinder, so this is something to keep in mind.
The actual LCD screen itself is ‘movable’ and this also aided shooting in awkward positions. It will flip up to a 90 degree angle and down by approximately 35 degrees. Unlike some other Live View LCD screens it does not ‘swivel’, but the actual build-quality of the LCD screen and its movement is excellent; some other screens feel very fragile and as if one good knock would be the end of them. The image quality of the screen is excellent too.
Super SteadyShot wins the race
The Sony Alpha 350 has its own vibration reduction system, Super SteadyShot. Given your specific shooting conditions, be it low light, strong winds or maybe when shooting in Macro, the SteadyShot system from Sony will indicate via a flashing warning light that you are likely to encounter camera shake and therefore a ‘soft’ or slightly blurred image will be captured. Upon seeing this warning indicator light you can flip on the Super SteadyShot switch located on the bottom right-hand corner of the back of the camera. Sony claim that using this can reduce the effect of camera shake by the equivalent of approximately 2.5 to 3.5 increments of shutter speed. This is helpful but not a cure-all. Ultimately, you may have to resort to a tripod if your shooting circumstances allow and think about the use of additional artificial lighting. I personally always try to think my way around a particular set of problems and try to solve them, where possible, without the means of too many ‘electronic’ tricks. That said, I think the Super SteadyShot is a helpful addition with the Sony Alpha 350. You should note too that the indicator warning light is displayed only in the modes when the shutter speed is automatically set. It is not displayed in the M/S/P modes.
Leading on from this, exposure compensation with the α350 is another helpful route to minimising particularly difficult working conditions. The compensation controls, operated by the +/- bottom and the fly-wheel, give you the opportunity to alter your exposure by up to + or – 2 in 1/3 stop increments. Given the Alpha 350’s reasonably generous ISO range of 100-3200, the need to use the SteadyShot should be fairly limited but there are always some occasions where a steady-hand is useful.
The Sony α350 has a nine point auto focus system and is remarkably fast at ‘snapping-to’, my expression for quickly latching on to my subject matter, again obviously given the specific shooting conditions; low light or more ‘un-defined’ surfaces will always slow things down a bit on the auto focus front. This auto focus system is said to be 1.7 times faster than in previous Sony cameras due to an improved auto focus motor and improved auto focus sequencing borrowed from the α700. The auto focus is also as fast in Live View mode as it is in the optical view mode. Either way; for me and my now less than perfect eyesight, the system works very efficiently.
The Sony α350 also incorporates the Smart Teleconverter 2x zoom button. Active only in Live View mode, pressing this button first zooms the live view by approximately 1.4x then to 2x. According to Sony literature this gives the camera's 70mm kit lens the equivalent of a 200mm zoom. Essentially, on the Sony α350 it is cropping the image from a 14.2-megapixel image down to a 7.1-megapixel and 3.8-megapixel image respectively, without incurring the blur normally associated with digital zoom. The button does nothing else in regular Record mode or Playback mode. To be honest, I find this a bit of a gimmick and I would always prefer to be properly kitted out with the correct lens in the first place, but I guess it does give the sense of more adaptability for your money.
For its intended market, it's good that Sony made the flash on the α350 of ‘pop-up’ design. Previously, you had to lift the flash into place. With the Sony α350 you press a button on the left of the camera's pentamirror housing and it pops up. This means that the auto exposure modes can activate the flash when they deem it necessary, rather than suggesting that the user raise the flash. The flash doesn't go up as high as on other models and that is probably because the bodies of the Sony α200, Sony α300, and Sony α350 are moulded to make room for the Live View mode components in the latter two cameras. The flash bulb also ends up a little more forward, but that may mean you'll have trouble with some lenses and lens hoods, which will block the short strobe's light over some of the frame. For me though, generally speaking, I tend not to use a flash source like this anyway knowing that it will give such a harsh, uncompromising and unflattering image result. Using additional on-camera flash, I would be bouncing the light off the ceiling or using some type of diffusing device.
As you would expect from a digital SLR camera in this sector of the market, the Sony Alpha 350 comes with a comprehensive metering system, offering multi segment, centre weighted and spot metering. These allow you to control and fine-tune the exposure for your image and give you expanded creative control.
The Sony α350 provides a standard and advanced DRO, or Dynamic Range Optimizer. Dynamic Range Optimization's purpose is to prevent highlights from blowing out and shadows from plugging, and it comes in two varieties. The Standard DRO attempts to optimize the tonal curve across the entire image, and Advanced DRO applies it differently in each area of the image if necessary. You'll find more highlight and shadow detail in the Advanced DRO images but overall image contrast can actually decrease, depending on the subject.
Sony Alpha 350 – My conclusions
Overall, this and the Sony Alpha 350’s other fine tuning controls give a fairly complete package and offer excellent value for money. Combined with the hefty 14.2 megapixels on offer, you could do a lot worse than to have this camera and lens in your photographic armoury. The 18-200mm lens is pin-sharp and there was enough focal length variation to make it adaptable for most shooting situations, tight portraits, wide landscapes and the like.
At 200mm, the 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 lens worked nicely for the portrait shown here, allowing me to shoot fairly tight on the face and throwing the background out of focus quickly. Generally speaking, this is my preferred way of shooting such an image. Equally so, when shooting with the lens at 24mm it was a wide-angled enough focal length to give the sort of ‘landscape’ coverage that I would normally need.
The action of the lens itself was very smooth, not at all ‘sticky’ as you can get in some lens mechanics, so all-in-all, this is a good choice of lens giving sharp, clean and clear images, and plenty of creative control. A great lens to keep in mind if you are considering an upgrade from the 18-70mm kit lens.
After having this camera to review over the last few weeks, I am confident that if I needed to ‘deliver’ on a shoot then I could safely and creatively do so with the Sony Alpha 350 teamed with this 18-200mm lens and all at a very manageable price.
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