Sony breaks $2,000 barrier for full-frame dSLRs

Resolution junkies just gained a more affordable dSLR option.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography | PCs and laptops | Gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
4 min read
Sony Electronics

News of the A850, Sony's full-frame follow-up to the Alpha DSLR-A900, surfaced on the Web weeks ago--Sony itself accidentally leaked the entire manual, for pity's sake--but the most important aspect of the product, the camera's price, remained only speculation. Without that context, one really didn't know what to make of the subtly stripped-down version of the A900. Now we know it'll cost $1,999 for the body, making it the least expensive full-frame dSLR currently available. That makes it newsworthy, but does that automatically make it droolworthy?

Sony Alpha DSLR-A850 photos

See all photos

It's worth taking a step back and considering the benefits--and drawbacks--of a full-frame dSLR; that is, a camera with a sensor that has the same active area as a frame of 35mm film. In comparison, typical consumer dSLR sensors are anywhere from two thirds to half that size. Since larger sensors are generally better for cramming a lot of pixels in without losing ground to an excessive amount of image noise, full-frame sensors are commonly accepted as the best choice for high-resolution and/or low-light photography (without opting for the significantly larger and more expensive medium format option). It's also easier to build wide-angle lenses for larger sensors.

A big, low-noise, high-resolution sensor: what's not to like? Well, for one thing, big sensors mean big cameras; they require lenses with larger circumferences than the smaller sensors, larger viewfinders, larger bodies, and so on. And all of that costs more. The A850 is still $1,000 more and 10 ounces heavier than its newly minted 14-megapixel little brother, the A550.

Here's how the A850 compares with the A900, as well as with its two main competitors:

Sony Alpha DSLR-A850 Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 Canon EOS 5D Mark II Nikon D700
Sensor (effective resolution) 24.6-megapixel Exmor CMOS 24.6-megapixel Exmor CMOS 21.1-megapixel CMOS 12.1-megapixel CMOS
35.9 mm x 24mm 35.9 mm x 24mm 36mm x 24mm 36mm x 23.9mm
Raw bit depth 14 bits 14 bits 14 bits 14 bits
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 50 (expanded)/100- ISO 6,400/25,600 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6,400/25,600 (expanded)
Shutter speed 1/8,000 - 30 sec; bulb; 1/250 X-sync 1/8,000 - 30 sec; bulb; 1/250 X-sync 1/8,000 - 30 sec; bulb; 1/200 X-sync 1/8,000 - 30 sec; bulb; 1/250 X-sync
Continuous shooting 3 fps
16 raw/34 JPEG
5 fps
12 raw/11 JPEG
3.9 fps
14 raw/310 JPEG
5 fps
17 raw/100 JPEG
98% coverage
100% coverage
98% coverage
95% coverage
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type
10 assist points
9-pt AF
center cross-type
10 assist points
9-pt AF
center cross-type
6 assist points
51-pt AF
15 cross-type
Metering 40 segment 40 segment 35 zone 1,005 pixel
Live View No No Yes Yes
Video No No 1,920 x 1,080 at 30fps, H.264 MOV No
Voice annotation No No No No
LCD 3 inches fixed
921,600 dots
3 inches fixed
921,600 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
Shutter durability 100,00 cycles 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles
Wireless flash controller No No No No
On-camera flash No No No Yes
Image stabilization Body Body Lens Lens
Battery life (CIPA rating) 880 shots 880 shots n/a shots 1000 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 6.1 x 4.6 x 3.3 6.1 x 4.6 x 3.3 6.0 x 4.5 x 3.0 5.8 x 4.8 x 3.0
Body operating weight (ounces) 31.8 (estimated) 33.4 32.9 38.7
Mfr. Price (body only) $1,999.99 $2,699.99 $2,699.00 $2,999.95

In order to carve $700 off the price of the A900, Sony cut costs in four key areas: the A850's viewfinder isn't as nice; it's burst shooting isn't as fast; the finish is a little less...finished; and the remote is optional rather than included. According to Sony, that extra 2 percent of viewfinder coverage is really expensive to attain, and the fast mirror mechanism necessary to gain that 2 extra frames per second in burst shooting adds a lot of cost as well.

But rather than looking like a bargain, the A850 simply makes the A900 look overpriced. The A900 has generally slower nonburst performance than the D700 and 5D Mark II, and its high ISO noise profile isn't nearly as good--unless Sony has seriously tweaked its autofocus and image-processing algorithms, those characteristics will carry over to the A850. (Oddly, the A550 gets all the interesting innovations there.)

That said, for photographers who've been reluctant to shell out almost $3,000 when they simply need the extra resolution or Minolta lens compatibility, and don't care about video capture, best-in-class speed, or low-light shooting, this price drop may be just what they've been waiting for. For them, the wait's not over until the end of September.