BODY AND DESIGN
The Sony a850 looks very functional and daunting, but I think its very well designed. I'd worked out my way around it in a few minutes, and I still haven't looked at the manual!
It is certainly heavier than I've been used to for a while. Its just under 900g and with the lens fitted is around 1450g. The camera is around the same weight as a Canon 7D or 5DMkII and lighter than a Nikon D700, all cameras I've used.
However the Nikon D3X, its obvious competitor weighs 1310g, body only and fitted with a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom weighs in at around 2200g.
Handling is very good. There's a nice grip and everything falls into place very nicely. Its much closer to a Nikon than a Canon in terms of using it. It feels very well made indeed. Some Sony cameras can feel a bit cheap, not so the a850.
The viewfinder is incredible. Very bright and large. No APS-C tunnel vision here. The rear screen is bright and sharp. The menus are clear and functional. Having used the A55 and now this I'm actually very impressed with Sony menus. Someone should make whoever designed the Olympus Pen menus look at these until they understand that menus should be SIMPLE!!!
AF is quick enough for me. I've just upgraded to the new firmware, which is supposed to improve that. I'm not a sports or news photographer, so don't need blistering fast AF. The a850 is reputed to be very accurate and I certainly haven't had any errors so far. This is more important to me than speed. One of the things that annoyed me with the Canon 7D, which had very fast AF, was that it sometimes misfocused even when it claimed to be correct. I'll find out if the a850 keeps getting it right after more use.
The shutter gives an almighty clunk when taking a picture, but the body stabilisation works very well. I took some pictures at 1/30th sec. using only one hand and there was no sign of camera shake. I do like Sony's body IS system very much. I think it works very well.
Just to get it out the way I took some shots indoors. Here's a couple at ISO 1600 and 3200. Both from raw and processed in Photoshop ACR.
I don't know if your reaction is the same as mine. Where's the noise? The stories of this camera and poor high ISO performance have been greatly exaggerated. I've seen some pretty dire examples posted on the internet, and I was expecting these shots to be pretty noisy. Well they're not. The camera actually turned out some pretty good results and what was interesting was that the raw files produced cleaner results from raw which is unusual. There's noise reduction on the raw files and the camera had this set to normal. However its not intrusive and the images were still very sharp. I took quite a few shots in pretty murky conditions and was very impressed. I haven't looked at ISO 6400 yet but up to ISO 3200 the files were very useable. I would have no hesitation in using this camera and lens for a wedding or indoor event, which certainly wasn't what I was expecting. Easily as good as a 7D and from what I remember very similar to the D3X, which is always regarded as a better camera for this kind of work.
I will however put one observation in here. I do think the metering is out on this a850. In certain situations I think it underexposes by 1 stop. I had it set anything from +1/3 to + a full stop all the time I used it. The two examples above are +1 stop and they are certainly not over exposed. Whether this is Sony protecting the highlights or a camera variation I won't know as yet. Certainly the dynamic range is very good indeed.
In terms of outdoors, where its going to get most of its use, I loved the results. Even on a very dull day the pictures were sharp, with great colour and obviously incredible resolution. I was expecting results to not be as good as those from my D3X and that proved to be unfounded. I was also somewhat apprehensive about the (non-Zeiss) quality of the lens and that was also unfounded. Its actually turned in a great performance in very gloomy light. Most of my shots were in the f2/8 - f4 range and these were fine. It even focuses quite closely for a zoom, .38 metre or 1.2 ft. and the bokeh is better than I was expecting.
Its obviously very early days and I need to use it much more, but my initial impressions are very positive. So much so that I'm thinking that I missed an opportunity by not buying the a900 when it came out. I was very interested in that camera but was put off by the reviews and image samples that came out when it was initially announced. Not for the first time have I experienced something different with a camera than I would have expected from its internet assessment.
I'm also beginning to wonder quite how Nikon justify the £5000 price tag for the D3X. The Nikon has a lot more speed, complexity and customisation possibilities, virtually none of which I ever used, but seeing as the a850 body cost me £1650 quite how Nikon explain the extra £3350 is somewhat of a mystery. There seems to be no compromise in the build quality of the a850 and the picture quality looks to be very similar to me, so maybe you do pay extra for the red stripe.
Another company that needs to look at its pricing in relation to a camera like this is Olympus. The Sony cost me about £150 more than a new E-5. In terms of the quality and size of the image produced this is plainly ridiculous. If Olympus had priced the E-5 sensibly I would probably have bought one and the a850 would have remained on the shelf. In terms of my first few hours with the Sony however I'm actually glad about that. It was a camera I hadn't really considered though I had always liked the look of it and the relative simplicity of its operation. It was my frustration with the dynamic range of my other cameras that led me to it, but then I still wouldn't have bought it without seeing the Photography Blog review.
The Sony a850 strikes me as a somewhat neglected camera. I get the impression that the kit I bought has been sitting on the shelves of Warehouse Express for some time. The firmware in the camera was version 1.0 and the battery was stone dead, which usually isn't the case if regular stock replenishment occurs. It was also at a discounted price. At some UK dealers the camera alone is selling for more than I paid for the kit ! There are also rumours that the camera may be discontinued and the future of Sony full-frame is somewhat uncertain. I can't imagine that either this or the a900 have been big sellers.
I won't get ahead of myself but if my initial enthusiasm is confirmed by future use then I might have to make a few decisions about what to keep and what to head off to ebay. Certainly the high ISO performance has surprised me and the quality of the 28-75mm lens was also somewhat unexpected. The arrival of the a850 has been somewhat serendipitous but its certainly put a smile on my face. There's some sunshine forecast for today, and I must admit I haven't looked forward to going out to take some pictures this much in a while. 25MP and good light, can't be bad!