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Sony's Alpha DSLR-A850 has been around for a while, but it could still prove a great investment for enthusiastic amateur photographers. It offers 24.6-megapixel full-frame digital photography for less than half the price of other digital SLRs that are similarly equipped in the sensor department.
At around £1,700 for the body-only version and £2,500 with the 28-75mm kit lens, the A850 is an undeniably serious purchase. But, in relative terms, it's still a bargain. So how far down the road of compromise does it travel to bring near-professional quality to near-affordable levels?
The A850 costs much more than many other dSLRs because of its image sensor. The Exmor CMOS chip inside Sony's high-end camera measures 35.9 by 24mm -- the same size as a full frame of 35mm film, hence the term 'full frame'. Full-frame sensors offer a number of benefits over smaller sensors, including a potentially sharper image with less noise, better quality at larger printing sizes and much more flexibility when it comes to lenses, particularly those for wide-angle photography.
To put things into perspective, you can expect to pay anything up to £5,000 for a full-frame dSLR, which makes the A850 one of the most attractively priced cameras of its type, particularly when you add in the fact that the sensor also has one of the highest resolutions currently available in a dSLR -- 24.6 megapixels.
The A850 is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a subtle piece of equipment. It's big, black and weighs just shy of a kilo before you've even attached a lens. There's a consciously retro feel to the rugged design and textured black plastic casing. Basically, the A850 looks like what it is -- a very powerful, modern camera with some very traditional core values.
The pyramid shape on top of the unit is a clue to the fact that the A850 uses a fixed, eye-level viewfinder system with an optical pentaprism. The viewfinder is great for framing shots. It's outstandingly bright and clear, which is just as well, since there's no live view on the 3-inch LCD screen.
The LCD screen is of excellent quality, showing 921,000 pixels of fine detail. But it's reserved for reviewing shots after the event, and for accessing settings. A secondary, top-mounted, monochrome LCD display provides further status information, including battery level and shots remaining.
The A850 features two memory-card bays -- one for Memory Stick Duo cards and one for CompactFlash media. You can only use one card at a time, however, and you'll need to change a menu setting in order to switch between one type of storage and another.
Sockets-wise, USB-out is accompanied by HDMI, which is a little curious given that the unit is incapable of capturing high-definition video. Still, you can connect the A850 to a Sony Bravia TV and play back your photos on the big screen.
Using the A850 is surprisingly simple if you're fairly conversant with the fundamental rules of manual camera control. The camera also makes it easy to experiment. There's a large number of dedicated buttons, dials and switches, but the combination of the LCD screen and five-way mini-joystick provides straightforward access to virtually all the settings you might want to tweak during a session, from exposure levels to drive mode.
One of the switches on the rear of the unit activates the camera's SteadyShot function. Interestingly, Sony has implemented an in-camera version of its image stabiliser for the A850. It works very well and, as a bonus, means that you get image stabilisation with any lens you care to attach to the device. Sony has its own range of Zeiss lenses, but the A850 is also compatible with a variety of Minolta and Konica Minolta lenses too.
As for image quality, the A850 is, without doubt, one of the best dSLRs we have ever had the pleasure of reviewing. Thanks to its ultra-high-resolution sensor, it easily outguns virtually any APS-C camera you'd care to mention, allowing you to crop into shots and still have bags of detail left. Indeed, we reckon that, in the detail and sharpness stakes, the A850 easily rivals many 'proper' professional cameras.
Colours are well rendered and accurate, with no noticeable fringing or over-saturation at the edges of contrasting tones. Noise is kept to a minimum, particularly at lower ISO settings, and a three-level dynamic-range optimiser affords you fine control over the balance of light and shadow in your photos.
The A850 is surprisingly fast too, especially given the large amounts of data it needs to process for each high-res image. Power-up time is a fraction of a second and the device's dual Bionz processors help to keep shot-to-shot pauses down to a minimum. Battery life isn't bad, either. You'll get an estimated 880 shots from a single charge of the battery.
On the negative side, the A850 has a few glaring omissions among its feature set. One of the more obvious missing options is a video mode. Even the most basic dSLR can now capture moving pictures as well as still ones, with many recent models happily recording video at a 'Full HD' 1080p resolution.
There's no built-in flash either, and no scene modes. Plus the A850 is missing a few of the features of its more expensive counterpart, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A900, namely its remote-control unit (although this is available separately); its faster continuous-shooting mode (the A900 can shoot 5 frames per second compared to the A850's 3fps); and its 100 per cent coverage viewfinder (the A850's covers approximately 98 per cent of the field of view).
The Sony Alpha DSLR-A850's missing features pale into insignificance when you consider the possibilities that the camera offers for the price. The A850 may not be the best all-rounder and it's clearly not for everyone. But, for a high-end camera, it's refreshingly straightforward to use, represents one of the cheapest opportunities to experiment with full-frame photography and, ultimately, takes a damn good photo.
Edited by Charles Kloet