After making a rather slow start in the lucrative digital SLR market with the original Alpha 100, Sony has recently announced a flurry of new models. The latest of these is the mid-range Sony Alpha 350, a 14.2Mp model, which is one of the maker’s first to feature Live View using a novel, pull-out 2.7in screen.
Like Sony’s other offerings, the Alpha 350 shares handy features such as built-in antidust and antishake systems, and is compatible with older Minolta AF lenses and some choice optics from Carl Zeiss. Although it’s a good performer considering the price, the 18-70mm starter lens often bundled as a kit lens isn’t the best choice for discerning users.
Our Sony Alpha 350 sample came kitted out with the optically superb Carl Zeiss 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 ZA DT. It’s the equivalent to a 24-120mm – a particularly handy range – and, with the Alpha 350’s Super SteadyShot (SSS), it benefits from image stabilisation. This lens adds £425 (excluding VAT) to the body-only price; our only slight disappointment with it is that it’s designed for digital APS-C-size sensors. Be aware that it will be of limited use, or maybe of no use at all, when Sony finally announces its long-awaited full-frame model, currently rumoured to be called the Alpha 900.
Live View was omitted from the semi-pro Alpha 700, in spite of rivals offering the option, and now we can understand why. Unlike conventional Live View systems that use the main imaging sensor to display a live preview prior to capture, the Sony Alpha 350 adopts a fairly complex system using secondary CCD in the viewfinder.
Using a tiny lens, the Sony Alpha 350's CCD actually views the image displayed on the optical viewfinder, much like a mini-video system. A mechanical slider on the top-plate drops a mirror in the viewfinder, reflecting the image from the viewfinder screen to the secondary CCD. While this means that you retain the faster focusing phase detection-based wide-area nine-point AF array – complete with an overlaid green target area confirming the active point – the actual viewing area is less than on rival systems.
That’s a real shame, as Live View is often adopted for macro work, where 100 percent viewing can be a real advantage. Nevertheless, the system works well for handheld, day-to-day usage. Indeed, the Sony Alpha 350's operation is faster than rival systems that adopt contrast-detection autofocus using the main imaging sensor.
As the video-feed bypasses the need for mirror lock-up, one of the main rewards is the Sony Alpha 350's absence of rivals’ disconcerting double mirror flap.
It’s of little consequence when using the Sony Alpha 350 bolted to a tripod but, for handheld use, it’s a pleasant surprise. Metering accuracy with Live View is excellent, and both exposure and white balance can be fine tuned in real-time, to good effect.