The Sony Alpha line of cameras constitutes the "new kid" on the DSLR block, and for a while the newcomer seemed to be respectfully keeping its distance. While various innovations were claimed for the successive Alpha models, their origins seemed to lie with Sony the electronics giant, Sony the eminent manufacturer of imaging chips, more than Sony the camera maker. On-chip noise reduction and a "better" in-camera processor may represent real improvements for recording pictures, but they're the kinds of features you expect from the computer geek, the science nerd who moved in across the street. The others on the block are the track stars and the football captains who strut around flexing their muscles. With the A350, Sony's Alpha line begins flexing a few muscles of its own.
This model is the first Sony to incorporate a full suite of cutting-edge features that have become standards in the market. An in-camera image-stabilization system is one, the oscillating imaging chip having made its debut five years ago and embraced by every DSLR manufacturer except Canon and Nikon (who prefer stabilized lenses). A dust-reduction feature is also included.
Equally imaginative, and enormously useful, is the Live View monitor, which permits composing a picture with the camera a distance from the photographer's eye. The pages of PTN yelled and screamed about the value of this for years, before the feature first appeared in an Olympus model. Now all the brands include it, and in the Sony A350 it is one of the most effective.
Two attributes of Live View systems as they've appeared here and there in the marketplace have limited the value of the feature--not rendering it useless, but still not exploiting it to the max. One is the tendency to keep it in a fixed position on the camera's back, just like the DSLR monitors that display menus only. This serves a purpose, but a monitor screen that's hinged so it can be angled in various directions is far more useful. It permits placing the camera in otherwise difficult positions: down low, up high, enabling the user to compose easily on the monitor despite an odd viewing angle. This feature tremendously expands the creative and practical range of the camera.
The monitor screen of the A350 is quite large--just under three inches across. It's a double-jointed affair that can be angled downward about 45 degrees for a clear view with the camera held overhead (to see over a crowd of people, say), and angled upward anywhere through a 90-degree arc, permitting the camera to be held at waist level, floor level, or anywhere in between.
I've always found the articulated monitor to be particularly useful in low-light shooting, when notwithstanding an in-camera image-stabilization system, the camera benefits from steady support. A tabletop, a fence post, the hood of a car--all provide the steadiness required but limit the ability to put the eye to a regular viewfinder. The problem disappears with a hinged monitor screen like the A350's.
Another consideration for Live View is that factors besides the viewfinder image depend upon the SLR viewfinder. Exposure and focus are also read off the internal mirror, requiring a brief pause before making an exposure in some Live View designs. With the A350, Sony introduces a system that causes internal viewfinder components to move around a little, bringing a second optical system into play for the live view. Thus all three are operative all the time--AF, AE, and LV (live view).
THE BIG PICTURE
In most other regards, the A350 is an evolutionary more than a revolutionary step beyond earlier Sony Alpha models. Its possession of a 14.2-megapixel imager (4592x3056 maximum picture size) is a noteworthy achievement in an APS-C-size imager, matched only by the Pentax K20D (whose Live View doesn't use a hinged screen, although the Pentax body is more weather-resistant than the Sony's).
No one can say for sure that 14MP represents the practical upper limit for APS-C imagers, but it seems likely--cramming more pixels in the same space adds to noise-control issues. Sony's formula for this purpose is very effective--pictures taken with the A350 at ISO 800 are excellent--but there's probably a point of diminishing returns.
The Alpha cameras use the Minolta mount, thus equipping them for all the latterday Minolta-branded lenses.
One of the sour notes of recent camera history was the dissolution of Minolta as a camera-making force, for with it went a mindset that had delivered many novelties and innovations over the years. Minolta made excellent lenses, too. The products were always well-planned, workable under practical conditions, and capable of excellent results. This all continued as the digital age began.
A few reports have called Minolta a "late bloomer" in digital, but I can't imagine why. Even before real digicams as such, they were in the industry forefront with experimental electronic still cameras. When there were only two other DSLR makes in the world--the Kodak DCS and the Fuji/Nikon digital F3--the Minolta RD-175, based on a Maxxum film camera, was the one that delivered a fully processed picture. It was the first and only DSLR to use a three-chip imaging system, a principle that still merits exploration. Its picture size was a bit bigger than the others (which output a one-megapixel photo) and it was just all-around nice.
It was 1996 when the consumer floodgates opened and VGA-resolution digicams poured out. Among the most original was the Minolta Dimage V, whose lens and CCD could be removed as a unit and placed on the end of a cable, to feed pictures back to the camera's LCD screen. No other camera has been so handy for squeezing into tight spaces, or for finding creative angles-of-view, and this feature also merits further development.
The point being that since the rise of "serious" 35mm SLRs, there's been a spirit about Minolta cameras that says "Follow Us" more than "Me Too." Most major camera companies produce products with "personality," but "The Mind of Minolta" took a very pleasing stance. When word came around that Sony would pick up the pieces, everyone hoped for the best. Sony makes a lot of great products, but that company's culture strutted its stuff differently than Minolta's had.
It's been interesting, therefore, and even encouraging, to hear a recent murmur that seems to originate with Sony. They've begun making reference to Minolta designers now in their employ, moving forward with the development of their own digital Maxxums--wearing the Sony Alpha brand. Sony never tried to suppress this information, but somehow lately it's been more in the air; we've begun hearing about "Minolta's original team of designers" in connection with the Alpha 350, and it would be nice to think they're there. It's as though Sony recognizes the value of associating a tradition with their new product line as it enters the market.
The Alpha line as we know it appears to begin where the Minolta Maxxum 5D left off. This was essentially Minolta's "prosumer" model, the earlier Maxxum 7D having been their "pro" model.
I had a complete Maxxum outfit, back in the days when 6MP represented the state of the art. I wondered if the lenses would continue working well on a camera with more than double the pixels. For this review, therefore, I broke out an old favorite of mine, a Rokkor 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. It performed admirably, and it substantiates Sony's claim for compatibility with Minolta-mount lenses.
Many of the Sony-branded lenses offered with the Alpha series appear to be the earlier Minolta lenses with a new name. The 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 "kit" lens that comes with the Alpha 350 appears to be identical to its Minolta-branded predecessor.
The camera is selling generally in the $600 to $800 range, which seems like a bargain price for all it offers. And its offerings seem to include not only Sony's technical muscle, but a lot of Minolta's spirit as well. Welcome to the neighborhood, folks.