Bet I had you guessing for a second what the shrouded camera above was...I've had the opportunity to test out a Sony alpha 350 for the past week or so, and I've got to say, that this iteration of DSLR from Sony is the first that seems like they're really trying. I've used the alpha 100 and alpha 700 extensively, but they both felt sorta half-finished. They changed a lot with this new version, and if it feels like Sony had dipped their toe into deep end with the a350, then they decided to do a canon-ball dive with the new alpha 900 which will be in stores in a few weeks.
First thing you'd notice about the a350 thats new and improved over the a100 is the big LCD screen on the back that bulges out a bit. It seems a little odd at first, almost as if they couldn't fit the whole LCD inside the camera, but if you look closer there is a little grip on the side of the screen that allows you to pull it out and tilt it up about 140° or down about 45° (these are my estimates, I couldn't find exactly what degree of tilt Sony claims). The screen displays your basic information such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, flash, white balance, focus, quality, and battery settings fairly simply, however I want to focus on a few things that make this model stand out a bit from the competition.
So why have a flip-out LCD? Well this DSLR was one of the very first to have a functional live-view mode, which allows the photographer to frame up his or her shot by using the LCD instead of the optical viewfinder. While I'm still very much of the mindset that a photo should be taken through the viewfinder for a number of reasons, this feature can be VERY helpful to first time DSLR owners who are very used to using an LCD on their compact cameras in this way. It also allows the photographer to get more interesting perspectives on many different subjects allowing the photographer to get an image they would previously have had to lay in the dirt or dangle off dangerous ledges to try and get the shot they wanted.
What makes the live-view on the Sony so special is that it actually autofocuses quickly, unlike the AF system on the Canons and even my flagship Nikon D3 can do when using live-view. Sony accomplishes this by directing a portion of the light that would normally be hitting your image sensor to a separate AF sensor that focuses the same way you camera does when it's not in live-view, phase detection (explanation of the differences will be saved for another time). That said, the a350 LCD is especially susceptible to glare and is not overly bright, therefore not entirely useful in the environments you'd think it would be the most beneficial in. I found it to be a little off in what appeared to be a proper exposure and even after adjusting the brightness and tone settings on the camera's screen, I was still not impressed with what it was able to produce out in broad daylight. The photos I took however came out fine, however unlike my Nikon gear or my older Canon gear, I couldn't trust the image the screen was showing me at all, I had to rely on my experience and the histograms I could view.
Ergonomics are far improved over the alpha 100, however are still not to my personal liking. The layout of the buttons and controls is a blend of the Olympus E-series DSLRs and the last generation of the Canon Rebels (XT/XTi). Slightly wider grip, which would be great for most guys looking for an SLR, however not very tailored for the average soccer mom looking to take great images of her kids. Of all the control placements, most felt positioned appropriately except for ISO, which was placed on the top of the camera in a place that was very awkward to adjust on the fly with my thumb. Had they moved that one control to the rear panel, I feel that the entire feel of the camera would have been changed for the better. Also I found my pinky curled up on the bottom of the camera frequently as it was shorter than I am used to. On the top left of the camera, you have access to what Sony calls "instant-expert" modes, which I call "don't know how to use my camera, so I'll try this icon" modes (I'm kidding, sometimes those can be useful for beginners). My experience with using these were just like any other DSLR brand, they work...sorta. These modes pick predetermined settings that would get you a great picture in ideal situations, but as any photographer will tell you, there are RARELY any ideal situations, never enough lighting, lighting is bad, lighting is changing too much, ect. I tried out several of those modes, got frustrated with under and over exposures and went back to using full manual, and everything got better.
The two lenses I had access to during my tests were the kit lens which was an 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 and an 18-200 f/3.5-6.3, which were designed for consumer use, being rather slow for indoor use. Both were definitely acceptably sharp for the pricing, my copy of the 18-200 becoming a little mushy in fine details at around 140mm-180mm. Another interesting feature of the Sony while I'm at it, is that EVERY lens you put on the camera is stabilized, which is to say that every picture you take is stabilized. The reason for this, is that Sony has implemented sensor-shift stabilization, which works great, however you won't see the effect of the stabilization until you take the shot which is a little unnerving to me as when the viewfinder blacks out I expect to see exactly what I expect as the result of my picture. If the sensor is still moving around to stabilize itself after you click the shutter, it is possible that what you intended to be in your frame may longer be there. The benefit is obvious however as you do not need to spend more money on a lens that has image stabilization, although we all know higher end lenses have more than just stabilization going for them.
As a side-note, I also was able to test out one of their entry level flashes the F42-AM, which was surprisingly powerful for the price and I was able to fire off a shot outside at 1/2000" and still have the flash show up on my image which was rather impressive for an entry-level system without needing to change things like sync-speed settings.
Last week I was in San Antonio for about 36 hours (long story) and had a chance to go outside for a bit and give the camera a real world spin. Below are a couple of the images I took at around 2PM-4PM on a nice sunny Texas afternoon to show off the dynamic range and image quality out of this model.
One new feature that works only 50% as advertised (but that 50% works great) is DRO+, or Dynamic Range Optimizer. What this mode is designed to do is automatically adjust your over and under exposed parts of your image to compress the dynamic range to bring out details in the shadows and control blown out highlights. In my experience with this, the a350 was able to hold its own against highlights, but it didn't seem to bring out any additional detail in shadows at all. This mode however if great for using in all sorts of outdoor environments, especially for getting better detail in bright white clouds (and there were some great ones last week in TX).
An example of some mushy details at around 180mm, not the sharpest feathers in the bunch, but still good for an entry-level lens
Apparently there was some sort of "chemical scare" at the courthouse...HAZMAT suits are never a good sign...
Had to throw this image in the mix. I used a timer and the F42-AM Sony flash bounced off the ceiling which remotely fired two SB-800's set in SU-4 mode. I was getting a lot of looks at the conference I was at because I was the only nut who would haul around 3 flashes for 1 camera (even more crazy since two of the flashes were from a different brand).
Sony has built this camera from the ground up to appeal to NEW DSLR users. If you're currently a Nikon or Canon user, there is NO incentive for you to switch over or consider getting a Sony as a second system [you folks know who you are :) ]. However for a first time buyer, there are some great benefits to this system and Sony is showing no signs of slowing down the innovations they put out there. I doubt that Nikon or Canon would have EVER put live-view into their cameras if it wasn't for Sony or Olympus to do it first. This competition is good for us as photographers...it's what is giving us HD video in cameras like the D90 and 5D MrkII. If a friend or family member is looking into buying a camera and doesn't need/want a bunch of expensive and heavy f/2.8 glass, I wouldn't hesitate telling them to play around with a Sony and see how they like it. I'm not saying it's going to be the best for them, but it certainly is a viable alternative now and looks like Sony will just be pushing more and more to take more marketshare from Nikon and Canon.