As a wizened old pro I can be extremely sceptical of changes and I am not always convinced that when a manufacturer launches a new or upgraded product it is always better than the one it replaces. My lack of conviction is not confined to cameras; I feel the same about cars, entertainment systems, mobile phones â€¦ most things really. This has made me quite critical more especially when anything new often brings the necessity to learn new technology and to wade through a hefty, poorly conceived instruction book. I had no reason to feel any different when I unpacked the new A230 camera that arrived from Sony but having never previously used any of the companyâ€™s still cameras I was in a grey area. When I removed the body from the box, clicked the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens into place my initial reaction was to dismiss the A230 as a serious DSLR.
But as I raised it to my eye I was immediately impressed by the balanced and comfortable feel of the camera, particularly by its marked lack of weight. My opinion soon changed. This is, after all, an entry level DSLR but it also has plenty that might appeal to the more serious photographer.
I mention the weight because this is very significant as every photographer who has ever lugged a heavy bag loaded with a camera body and various lenses for a number of years will testify. It can have a marked adverse affect on your body.
An experienced photographer will soon appreciate how a camera weighing just 450 grams (15.9 oz) without battery, memory card and body accessories can very quickly become an attractive prospect. By knocking almost 100 grams from the weight of its predecessor, the A230 evolved as the worldâ€™s lightest DSLR. This alone will make it instantly appealing to a wide group of users including those of a certain age, females and children who find weighty cameras difficult to handle, the disabled and anyone who needs to carry equipment over difficult terrain, over long distance and on to public transport. Hence the A230 will be particularly attractive to sports, wildlife and travel photographers who find heavy gear not only a hindrance but a health hazard.
But, while the featherweight attributes of a camera will have its appeal, this is of no relevance if the equipment fails to perform seriously on the image capture front. With a 10.2 megapixel APS-C sized CCD sensor combined with the fast BIONZ processor, the A230 is certainly no light weight when resolution is considered and the high image quality can only really be criticised by the most discerning. The majority of users will probably be content to produce images for non-commercial purposes and they will not be disappointed by the sharp, mostly noise free results this camera produces. During my brief test with the camera set at various ISO settings, I found little noticeable deviation in quality even when shooting at 800 ISO or higher in poor light. The colour saturation and image sharpness remained generally consistent although I had to slightly lighten some images, but not all, that I had taken using the auto and aperture priority settings with the white balance set to auto. I stuck with using the camera only on fine JPEG and RAW settings but this allowed me to produce professional quality images that were perfectly acceptable for publication.
I have never understood why anyone would compromise image quality by shooting at lower resolutions in any case, unless they are playing the numbers game by cramming as many images onto a card as they can. I see no point in this. I assume that most buyers of the A230 will be stepping up from a compact or fixed lens film or digital camera therefore their quality expectations are likely to be less critical and the camera is likely to impress. The A230 is versatile, user-friendly and capable of operating up to 3200 ISO with an incorporated noise reduction feature on higher ISO settings that provides excellent image quality even at very slow shutter speeds under difficult lighting conditions. The camera also has in-built Steadyshotâ„¢ stabilisation; a useful feature that deploys automatically at slow shutter speeds without flash thus diminishing the need to use a tripod. As Sony has embedded this feature into the camera body it also removes the need to buy costly image-stabilised lenses that incorporate this facility.
Controls and display
It has been stated that this is the first camera that Sony has designed without any input from Konica and Minolta and they can be congratulated for making the operation of the A230 almost idiot proof. The controls are neatly arranged in a format that will be familiar to many existing DSLR users with the aperture/shutter control wheel set into the front fascia above the hand grip to the right of the prism, with the exposure compensation button set behind on a ledge. As expected, the on/off control and shutter release button is located into the top of the body immediately above the shutter/aperture control.
To the left of the prism, mounted on the body top plate, there is a dial that sets the camera mode to manual, fully automatic, aperture or shutter priority, or to any of six scene selection modes (indicated by small icons). These are portrait, landscape, action, night view, macro and sunset but the camera can also be â€˜fine tunedâ€™ for creative styles and colour preferences such as standard, vivid and black and white. The A230 has a built in flip-up flash located above the viewfinder prism that is sufficiently high above the lens axis to reduce red eye. Behind this the hot shoe will accommodate any of the optional Sony HVL range of external dedicated flash guns and the A230 also has built in radio flash capability.
The camera back incorporates a four way navigation pad with a central AF button (occasionally referred to as the â€˜OKâ€™ button) that controls the various menu functions including image resolution, ISO, white balance, drive options (single or up to 2.5 frames per second), metering modes, flash control etc. Making changes to any of these functions is made easy for a novice if they follow the clearly devised menus on the bright 2.7 inch Clear Photo LCD screen that explains what the different functions do. The A230 graphic interface has been well devised to display the various current settings and includes the mode (auto, manual etc) shutter/aperture settings, metering mode, flash (on/off), file resolution, number of remaining frames on the recording media etc. Sony has attempted to visually demonstrate the effects that the selected aperture/shutter speed combination will have on the resulting images. This is particularly useful to those new to photography who may find it difficult understanding the mysteries of depth of field. It is achieved by using icons placed either end of a pair of scales depicting the shutter speeds and aperture f numbers. A marker moves along the scales as you change settings to show the relationship between the shutter speed and aperture. On the shutter speed indicator a graphic heads towards an icon representing a stationary figure at the slower end of the scale; towards a running figure as the shutter speed is increased. The aperture scale operates the same way but uses a row of icons that are all darkened at the smallest aperture (f22) and with only the first icon showing dark at the widest aperture (f1.4). Thus, the more icons that are shown in dark colour, the greater the depth of focus will be.
A further function of the display system is to provide additional information that explains the purpose whenever any of the scene programme modes (portrait, landscape, night view etc) are set. The LCD screen is bright, concise and allows the user to change the screen colour, but it does not provide a continuous â€˜live viewâ€™ or tilt facility that is a feature of the A330 and A380 models. I am aware that live view has its supporters but I always find it disconcerting to work with a moving display of this kind and I am more comfortable composing images using a conventional viewfinder.
Using aperture priority and matrix metering landscapes tended to be under exposed.
Image capture and transfer
The A230 metering system can be set in multi-segment; centre weighted or spot modes and uses a 40-segment light metering sensor and D-Range optimiser with advanced mode. This automatically adjusts the exposure to each part of a scene to provide even colour balance, rich shadows, good highlights and optimum brightness/contrast exposure in back-lit subjects. Precise, fast auto-focussing is achieved by a 9-point centre cross AF system with Eye StartÂ® but the camera can also be set to manual focus when required.
The camera has dual card slots located in a recess on the left end of the body hidden by a tidy smooth-sliding door that accepts either memory stickâ„¢ PRO DUO or PRO-HG Duo media as well as HX/SD and SDHC memory cards. A switch within the card department needs to be manually set for the card/socket in use to operate. Sony has worked tirelessly on the effective HD compatibility of the Alpha camera range and all models connect direct to HD ready televisions via the built in HD/HDMIâ„¢ jack. BRAVAâ„¢ sync also allows images to be played back using the television hand control on suitably compatible equipment and if a camera memory stickâ„¢ has been used this can be plugged into various Sony VAIO, Playstation 3, digital photo frames and printers. As a wide number of compact cameras already use HD cards, it is likely that the memory cards that you used in your previous camera will also be compatible to use in the A230. The camera is also equipped with a high speed USB 2.0 jack to connect direct with computers and other devices.
The A230 handles close up detail well. This was shot of fine JPEG and is enlarged from the central portion of the original image.
I was irritated by being unable to open the RAW files shot on the A230 directly into Adobe Photoshop. Instead it is necessary to run Sonyâ€™s own Image Data SR software first and then save the files from there into Photoshop but I was unable to save the files as JPEGs. .
Other features include a smart teleconverter to provide instant scene magnification for viewing purposes, even when a telephoto lens is not being used, to give a clearer, closer view of the subject being photographed. As every DSLR user will know, changing lenses can allow dust to enter the camera body where it will adhere to the sensor and appear as annoying marks on the stored images. To reduce the amount of dust entering the camera, Sony has incorporated a dual anti-dust system into the Alpha range to effectively reduces sensor contamination
The Sony DT 18-55mm lens handles close up detail with clarity
The camera is sold in three kits: DSLR-A230Y (around Â£575) that includes the body with standard zoom DT 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 SAM and telephoto zoom DT 55-200mm f4.5-5.6 SAM lenses; the DSLR-A200K includes the body and DT 55-200mm zoom lens and the DSLR-230L (around Â£399-Â£435) includes the camera body with standard DT 18-55mm lens. The camera also accepts all Sony lenses but it is also compatible with A-mount bayonet lenses from Minolta and Konica Minolta.
Overall I found the A230 design visually attractive and solidly built. It is relatively simple to use, handles well, the auto-focus responded accurately and quickly and the image quality was exceptionally good; better than I would have expected from an entry level camera. For a camera in this price bracket I believe the A230 offers great value for money. And, for the record, I found the instruction book easy to wade through.
The light weight of the Sony A230 makes it an excellent tool for photo-reportage and travel photography. This image, shot as a fine JPEG, when seen enlarged retains excellent sharpness as well as detail in the movement of the spinning wheel.
Nikon D60, Olympus E-450, Pentax K2000, Canon EOS 450D.
Please note that the image quality is compromised for web use @ 150dpi
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