Sony Alpha A200 Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Ultimately, it is the image quality that makes a camera worth buying. For an SLR, image quality greatly depends on the lens used. While color, noise, exposure and contrast are properties of the camera, distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations are properties of the lens. Sharpness depends on the weakest link. That is, the camera cannot capture more detail than the lens lets through. Conversely, it is possible for a lens to transmit more detail than the sensor can capture.
Multi-segment metering of the A200 is good. Exposure is usually bright and ready for direct printing. Unlike the majority of DSLRs, small highlights do not cause the A200 to under-expose. Default metering is extremely consistent, probably due to the 40-segments used to calculate exposure.
The Sony Alpha A200 produces very accurate colors in standard mode and slightly over-saturated colors in vivid mode. Colors in vivid mode are excellent for prints, with pleasing color saturation. The white-balance system is good, and substantially better than most other digital SLR cameras. Outdoor white-balance is quite neutral. Indoor white-balance is not as accurate but still great. On automatic, the A200 sometimes leaves a slight color cast, particularly in mixed lighting. Preset white-balance is much better, requiring only a little fine-tuning under artificial light. Custom white-balance, on the other hand, is excellent and adapts well to unusual lighting. The custom white-balance function can also be used as a color-meter since it reports the sampled color-temperature.
Noise levels are extremely low on the Sony A200. From ISO 100 to 800, there is barely any noise to notice and only a slow degradation of image details due to noise reduction. At ISO 1600, noise starts winning against noise-reduction and becomes clearly apparent at the expense of even more image details. As expected, ISO 3200 continues the trend and produces soft image with visible noise. Still, this high ISO setting is very usable for small prints and sharing on the web.
While the most important factor for image sharpness with a digital SLR is the lens, the camera's internal processing affects the result. In this case, sharpness is controllable in 7-steps. Each step results in a small but noticeable jump in image sharpness. The default is decent but a single-step increase in sharpness substantially improves images for display purposes. Note that increasing sharpness also makes image noise more visible, so one must be cautious when using the two highest sharpness settings. Relative to sensitivity, sharpness slowly diminishes at each ISO step.
The overall image quality of this DSLR is rather good. The Sony Alpha A200 produces very nice images, thus matching its best competitors in terms of color, noise and exposure. White-balance is more accurate and consistent than with most DSLR cameras. Noise levels stay relatively low at all sensitivities and start overtaking image details at ISO 1600. Compared to the Alpha A100, this is where the A200 has made the most progress.
One of the Sony A200's most outstanding features is its built-in stabilization. This feature proved to be very effective. In practice, we consistently got at least a 2-stop advantage. A 3-stop advantage was frequently possible but not consistent.
The Sony A200 is fast and responsive. Shot-to-shot lag is very short and focusing is extremely fast. Certainly, the A200 is faster than most entry-level DSLRs. Note that focusing speed depends on the lens used and on lighting conditions. This is where the eye-start focus works to the Alpha A200's advantage. By pre-focusing before the shutter-button is half-pressed, focus lock time is greatly reduced. In terms of speed, this DSLR rarely lets the photographer wait. Continuous shooting at 2.8 FPS can go on until the memory card gets full. Unlimited buffering is a rare feature among entry-level DSLR cameras.
Image playback and zoom are very fast except for the display mode with a row of thumbnails above. This is natural because all those thumbnails require reading more data from the memory card. Unfortunately, getting to the histograms and back requires cycling through all the display modes - including the slow one. This would be a non-issue if Sony had provided a way to display the histograms without cycling through all the display modes. One easy way to do this is to use the up and down arrows to invoke and dismiss the histogram, respectively.
The Sony Alpha A200 is a compelling entry-level DSLR due to its high image quality and excellent speed of operation. In many ways, this is what new DSLR buyers are looking for. Beginners often want to improve image quality and speed of operation without getting something significantly more complicated then they are used to. The A200 fulfills this role very well as well. Plus, its built-in stabilization helps keep the cost of entry into the DSLR world relatively low.
Advanced users will see the Sony A200 differently, although its hard to deny this camera's image quality, especially when combined with excellent Carl-Zeiss optics available for it. The issue is the A200's limited interface and lack of custom options to taylor the camera to a particular way of working. For that market, Sony has the Alpha A700, which features higher resolution, higher maximum sensitivity and faster continuous drive.
There are many more reasons to like the Sony A200. Its accurate white-balance system, reliable exposure, very fast focusing speed and eye-start sensor are among the top ones. Since the eye-start sensor allows the camera to prefocus under most conditions, the A200 appears to focus at lightning speeds.
The bottom line is that the Sony Alpha A200 is positioned to satisfy new DSLR owners by giving them excellent image quality and speed in a simple to use model. Although the Alpha A200 has few customization options, it has a good feature set, including body-based image stabilization, dust-reduction and most features that are expected from a modern DSLR.
Sony A200 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 24 x 16mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|10 Megapixels DSLR||ISO 100-3200|
|Sony A Mount|
|2-Axis Built-in Stabilization||Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|Custom white-balance with 1 axis fine-tuning|
|Automatic Eye-Start sensor||Spot-Metering|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Hot-Shoe|
|2.8 FPS Drive, Unlimited Images||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|2.7" LCD 230K Pixels||Compact Flash|
As Sony's first DSLR, the Alpha A100 was a great start but it was not that close to the perfect DSLR. Here is a look back at the wish list we had for the A100 and what the A200 did about it:
- Lower image noise at ISO 800 and above. Done
- Add a second control-wheel for faster changes in manual mode. Also, let it control ISO or exposure compensation in semiautomatic mode. It could also be used for zooming during playback. Not done, but Sony since introduced the A700 with 2 control-wheels.
- Add an ISO dial or dedicated ISO button. This would allow changing ISO without leaving the viewfinder. It would be nice if the ISO setting remained visible in the viewfinder at all times. The A200 adds the dedicated button, but ISO is not visible in the viewfinder at all times.
- Provide a usable ISO 3200 (or higher) option. Done
- Make the viewfinder have 100% coverage.
- Add a setup option to reset some settings on power-off. The most likely candidates are EC, WB, drive-mode, metering and ISO. They should be individually selectable.
- Make the simple vs. detailed status screen a setup option, that way the display button becomes an on/off switch. Since the detailed status screen is a superset of the other, users are expected to use one only.
- Add a DRO virtual bracket option. This would take one picture but save it 3 times, once with each DRO setting applied.
It is not bad to have 3 wishes granted! Note that the A300 and A350 are just about to ship, so we may have to wait an extra generation for our remaining wishes to be addressed.
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