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Can this small, lightweight starter DSLR deliver big camera results?
Minolta’s demise as a camera maker brought Sony into the serious digital camera fold. Nearly five years have passed. Let’s see how Sony’s doing by looking at their current entry-level DSLR, the A230.
10 megapixel resolution
APS-sized CCD sensor
2.7-inch LCD monitor
Small and lightweight
8 Creative Style settings
Dynamic Range Optimizer
PASM exposure controls
Minolta/Sony-mount lens system
Interchangealbe flash system with wireless operation
Best Suited For
Family photography and portraits
When Sony bought the Minolta camera factory and camera designs (and hired most of its engineers) in 2006, the consumer electronics giant entered unfamiliar territory: the photo hobbyist and pro shooter space. One of the questions on my mind at the time was: Will Sony learn the market and respond with new and innovative products that meet photographers’ needs, or simply merge its newly-acquired Minolta unit into the huge Sony techno-gadget melting pot? Would a great line of cameras and lenses continue, or get lost in the sauce?
I am happy to report that my worst-case scenario fears have not only been averted, but Sony has indeed learned much about the unique needs of serious photographers. They’ve developed an impressive line of cameras, lenses, from full-frame pro DSLRs with a growing following, to enthusiast interchangeable-lens cameras, lenses, and accessories that clearly show the best of their legendary Minolta DNA. To see how far they’ve come, I put their latest entry-level DSLR, the A230, through its paces. Here’s what I learned.
Look and feel
The A230 is remarkably light and small, thanks to its all-polycarbonate construction. Even with the battery and 18-55mm SAM kit lens, the camera is small and won’t weigh you down if you’re traveling with it. The flip side is that it does not feel as solid as a higher-end camera, and if you have big hands, you might have trouble finding a comfortable hold. But for people with moderate or smaller hands, this camera is a comfortable fit.
Controls are logically placed and adequate in size, although I wish the “click” that confirms a control has been pressed enough to activate it was a bit more pronounced. I like the placement of the EV compensation and menu buttons, which are towards the top of the back but set on a slant, a perfect angle for thumb operation for these two frequently-used controls.
I have two quibbles with this camera, and both have to do with the viewfinder. Image magnification is low, and the projected image is on the small side, and is slightly dark. As an eyeglass wearer, I found it difficult to view the whole image without a bit of cutoff in the corners. To save weight and size, the prism is constructed of mirrors rather than solid prism glass, which is typical of cameras in this price range. Second, the diopter control (right), which adjusts image clarity for eyeglass wearers, to the right of the finder window is slightly recessed, making it hard to get to. While this protects it from accidentally being nudged, a good thing, it also is a challenge to adjust, a minor inconvenience.
One of the nice Sony innovations on the camera is the sliding door on the left side of the camera (right), which reveals HDMI and USB ports, and dual card slots for Sony’s proprietary (and slightly pricier) Memory Stick memory card and a more widely-used SD Secure Digital card. A filp-out door, which is more common, has a greater chance of breaking loose. The Sony slider door is a simple solution.
A stand-out innovation that goes back to Minolta’s film days that Sony wisely kept is the automatically-re-orienting LCD display. As you flip the camera from horizontal to a vertical hold, the menu flips as well so you don’t have to turn your head to read a sideways horizontal menu.
Now you see it: There’s an autofocus on/off switch on the camera body and on SOME of the lenses, such as the 18-55mm kit lens. Which one should you operate? Both of them! Is that confusing? You bet!
Now you don’t: Some Sony lenses don’t have AF/MF switches, such as this 75-300mm lens, so AF/MF is controlled via the camera. That’s more straightforward ergonomically, but I found that these lenses focused a bit more slowly or searched more while lenses with AF/MF switches built in focused faster and more decisively.
AF buttons were a bit confusing, as some Sony lenses have AF buttons, and others don’t, but the camera has internal AF controls. If you place a lens with an AF switch on the camera, and the camera’s AF switch is off, the lens’s AF won’t work until the AF switch on the camera has been turned on. This can cause confusion if you’re switching from a lens with an AF switch to one without an AF switch.
The LCD monitor is average, and is hard to view in bright sunlight. The Sony LCD Viewfinder Hood can effectively block much of this reflective light and may be a good investment if you plan on relying on the LCD monitor in daylight.
The A230’s feature set is typical for a current starter DSLR. Snapshooters stepping up from a compact camera will appreciate the green Auto setting, which cedes all exposure, ISO and focus control to the camera. In Program, the camera still makes exposure decisions for you, but you can adjust the ISO and also access the self-timer, flash on/off options, turn the display screen on or off, and change the ISO. Aperture and Shutter priority let users control depth of field and action stopping abilities, respectively. Experienced photographers can go directly to Manual to take full control of the camera.
Typical scene modes are night portrait, sunset, action, close-up, scenic, portrait and flash-off.
You’ll quickly realize that the Fn (function) control button is one of the most important controls on the camera. It quickly accesses key controls and useful options that you will want to explore. You can adjust autofocus mode and area of coverage, metering pattern (multi-segment, center-weighted and spot), and white balance, but things start to get interesting when you reach the D-Range Optimizer.
D-Range Optimizer instructs the camera to use software to effectively increase the range of light sensitivity by opening up shadows to show more details. I found D-Range Optimizer at its strongest setting (DR+) to be moderately effective and perhaps added an extra stop or two of shadow detail.
The final feature the Function button will get you is Creative Style, which controls color intensity, ISO and contrast, although the camera refers to these combinations of settings in non-technical terms, like “Landscape” or “Night” or B/W” or “Vivid.”
Other set-up, printing and preview functions can be accessed via the menu. If you’re used to navigating menus in cameras, this one’s fairly easy to master. If you’re not sure what the setting you just arrived at does, wait a moment and a descriptive pop-up window will appear and explain it.
Unlike a typical compact camera, when you press this DSLR’s shutter release, there’s no lag time. The picture is taken instantly, which is as it should be. This will help you photograph active subjects, such as squirmy kids or pets, or even take portraits without making your subject wait (and possibly blink) while the camera is warming up.
The 3-fps shooting rate only lasts about 4 frames before the frame rate slows. Shooting could continue as buffer was being emptied, but at a slower frame rate of about 1 frame a second. I wouldn’t recommend this camera for photographing fast-paced sports, but it’s fine for little league or Pop Warner football, or the occasional pick-up basketball game (right).
The processor didn’t seem to slow down significantly when shooting RAW + JPEG, although it took slightly longer to complete writing to disk than when shooting just JPEGs. Both frame rate and number of frames shot before the camera slowed down to empty the buffer were identical in JPEG and RAW+JPEG shooting modes.
DxOLabs’ extensive image quality test of the A230’s RAW images at the sensor level confirm what I observed by studying image files shot in the field: The camera delivers very good overall image quality, with excellent color depth and a nearly 11.5-stop dynamic range, which is quite good. ISO is excellent up to ISO 400, but grain starts to become noticeable by ISO 800 and is prominent and bothersome by ISO 1600. The camera’s measured ISO sensitivity is consistently within ¼ stop of the manufacturer’s claimed speed, which is a good result.
I found the D-Range optimizer to be nominally effective in improving details in deep shadows, but it was helpful in punching up details in moderate shadows. You can probably squeeze an extra stop of dynamic range out of an image by using this feature. In general, the A230’s sensor delivered improved image quality compared to earlier entry-level Sony DSLRs according to DxOLabs.
If you’re already invested in Minolta film or digital SLRs and lenses, the A230 will function with your old lenses. This is a key consideration as there are millions of Minolta lenses in circulation. The camera retains the funky, proprietary hot shoe (above) that only accepts Minolta/Sony flash units, but you can operate compatible Sony flashes wirelessly.
About the kit lens
The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM lens, which is sold with this camera, is adequate for general photography, and adds little to the weight of the camera. I did find pronounced blue and purple fringing at the edges of the frame although in the center of the image there was no fringing. Flare was noticeable throughout the zoom range. Vignetting was minimal. There is very slight pillow distortion at 18mm that disappears by 28mm. The lensmount is plastic, which raises suspicions that it may not be as durable as higher-end lenses. While this is a good starting point and more than adequate for prints up to 8x10, I’d start adding higher-end lenses to get an upgrade in quality and a wider range of focal lengths if you are serious about image quality. The kit that also includes the 75-300mm zoom may give you more bang for your buck.
The Sony a230 is a great starter DSLR. It is small and light, but gives you the benefit of a real optical viewfinder and a quick, responsive shutter release. It provides snapshoot-easy operation but also gives beginners an opportunity to grow via its manual exposure controls. Image quality is a vast improvement over any compact camera, and compares favorably with other cameras in its class. The camera feels plasticy but not flimsy, and that choice of material makes it much lighter. If you’re stepping up from a point-and-shoot camera, I highly recommend this camera.