Full-frame DSLRs are a rare bunch – currently there’s the Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon’s D3, D3X and D3S, and Sony’s A900 and A850. All these cameras boast a huge sensor that’s physically the same size as a 35mm film frame – hence the ‘full-frame’ moniker – and the Sony A850 is the most affordable model around.
Haul it out of the box for the first time and you know straight away it’s one serious DSLR. Sturdy and large – almost a kilo sans lens – it feels like the sort of snapper a pro would use, although it can’t really be classed as pro quality: its 3fps max shooting speed and the inclusion of only 9 autofocus points, while more than enough for the ambitious amateur, aren’t really the sort of specs most pros would be happy with when shooting a footie match or concert.
Blur those backgrounds
But it’s the full-frame sensor that’s the key here. Full-frame allows you to achieve a shorter depth of field than the ‘crop’ sensors of regular DSLRs (handy for portraits and similarly arty shots where you want to blur the background in an attractive way).
Because it’s larger than a crop sensor, a full-frame sensor is also able to suck up more light in a shorter space of time. That means you can use shutter speeds at lower ISO settings, meaning sharper snaps with low noise in less than ideal light.
Twin it with a decent quality lens like the 28-75mm F2.8 kit zoom and the Sony A850 shows why full-frame cameras are so popular with hardcore shutterbugs. The huge 24MP shots it serves up boast a huge dynamic range, crisp detail and beautiful colours (especially at ISO 200), and even higher ISO settings deliver usable shots.
No HD video
There’s no HD video, which is a big disappointment. Sony has always been behind the curve on this front – Canon and Nikon both produce full-frame cameras capable of recording hi-def – but is promising HD movie capture on future DSLRs. That’s not much of a comfort for home movie fans that have just dropped two grand on an A850, of course.
There’s also no Live View, so you have to frame shots through the viewfinder – you can’t use the 3in LCD screen. While that’s a shame, because the screen is fantastically clear, bright and sharp, the viewfinder is superb. It’s not quite as mindblowingly large and clear as the A900’s (it’s 98 percent coverage rather than the A900’s 100 percent), but it’s not far off.
There’s no built-in flash either, and it’s clear Sony expects anyone who’s serious enough about photography to own an A850 to also own (or at least plan to own) a separate flash.
The camera is a joy to use, thanks to Sony’s straightforward menu layout and handy thumbstick, plus a multitude of good old-fashioned buttons for quickly adjusting ISO, metering, focus type, exposure compensation and the like.
All in all the Sony A850 is a triumph. While it’s not perfect, and in many ways feels like an A900 Lite, it’s also a full-frame camera that doesn’t break the bank (well, relatively speaking). In the hands of a decent photographer it’ll deliver incredible stills, but the lack of video is a weakness.