Sony A300 Review
Review Date: December 22nd 2008
Author: Zoltan Arva-Toth
The Sony A300 is one of four digital single-lens reflex cameras released by Sony in the course of 2008. The Sony A300 sits at the lower end of the range, above the entry-level A200, and below the very similar A350, more expensive prosumer A700 and the new full-frame 24 megapixel A900. The A300 is virtually identical to the A350 model, with the only difference being the megapixel count - 10 on the A300, 14 on the A350. Headline features include nine AF points, a tilting LCD screen, sensor-shift anti-shake and anti-dust systems, eye-start AF, Dynamic Range Optimisation, wireless TTL flash control, a very useful Manual Exposure Shift function and, above all, Live View with fast auto-focus. With a street price of under £350 / $550 with a kit lens, is the Sony A300 entry-level DSLR worth considering? Zoltan Arva-Toth found out...
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Ease of Use
2008 has been a busy year for Sony's DSLR department, with no less than four models released in a matter of just a few months. The A200 replaced the A100 as the entry-level offering, whereas the full-frame A900 took the title of flagship from the A700, with the latter remaining on offer as the highest specified cropped-sensor model in the lineup. Slotting in between the A200 and the A700 are the new A300 and A350 LiveView-capable DSLRs. We have already reviewed the A350 – now it is time to put its near-identical twin, the Sony A300, to the test. Since the two cameras share the same design and control layout, a lot of the comments that we made in our review of the A350 will be repeated here.
The first word that comes to mind when picking up an A300 is 'chunky'. Measuring 130.8x98.5x74.7mm, there is no way this camera is going to win the 'smallest DSLR' award, and at 582 grams it is not the most lightweight kid on the block either. Not that this is a bad thing – on the contrary, the good size and solid feel of the camera will likely appeal to anyone with average to large hands. There is a sizeable right-hand grip which, while not the most comfortable I've seen, is definitely deep enough to provide a secure hold. The body is unashamedly plastic but does not feel cheap or low quality at all.
The A300 may be average in terms of size and weight, but it does have something that makes it stand out of the crowd: Live View with fast auto-focus. None of the currently manufactured competitor models – the 'non-SLR' Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 aside – can auto-focus quickly in live view mode, and that's because they get the live view feed off the main imaging chip, which means their mirror must be raised while in this mode, blocking light from reaching their AF sensors. So they either have to temporarily lower their mirror for auto-focusing, which is loud and interrupts the live view, or resort to contrast-detect AF, which their lenses are not optimised for.
Sony have circumvented this problem by using a secondary sensor. The idea isn't new – the very first DSLR to sport continuous full-colour live view, the Olympus E-330 of 2006, had two live view modes, one of which, labeled 'Mode A', also made use of a second imaging chip. This allowed the use of fast phase-detect auto-focus and did not introduce any extra shutter lag. The catch was that this solution did not provide anywhere near 100% field coverage and left the optical TTL viewfinder – one of the most important parts of any SLR – dim and small. But for those cases when you needed precise framing or manual focus, the E-330 had a 'Mode B' – this used the main sensor for live view, gave 100% field coverage and provided an option of magnifying 10x into the live view for very accurate manual focusing. Later on, when other manufacturers started to market LV-capable DSLRs, everybody except Sony opted for this second solution – even Olympus dropped 'Mode A' in order to improve the brightness of their viewfinders.
Sony thought otherwise. They went back to the drawing board, and devised a solution for using a secondary sensor without leaving the optical viewfinder dark. Instead of utilising a semi-transparent mirror in the optical path – the main culprit for the dim OVF in the original E-330 - they devised a moveable one sitting in the pentamirror housing, which can direct the light either to the optical viewfinder or to the dedicated live view sensor, but not both at the same time. A logical choice, given that you cannot peer through the OVF and look at the LCD at the same time anyway. The result is a much brighter optical viewfinder, for which Sony deserve our applause. Unfortunately, the other problems associated with secondary-sensor live view – namely, poor frame coverage, no magnified view for accurate manual focusing and low viewfinder magnification – have not been resolved. And, since Sony do not offer any 'Mode B' live view off the main sensor – presumably because the main CCD of the A300 is not capable of providing a live view feed - those that like to frame their shots accurately and/or need to focus manually are left without the proper means to do so.
Everybody else will, however, likely be happy with the live view implementation of the A300. Auto-focus works at the same speed as when using the optical viewfinder. You can specify which of the 9 AF sensors you want the camera to use. All the markings on the focusing screen are visible, plus you can also have loads of shooting information or a live histogram overlaid. My only gripe is that when the histogram is shown, the number of shots remaining is not displayed. The LCD tilts up and down, making LV even more useful by enabling you to compose with the camera held at waist level or above your head. In live view mode you also get to preview the effect of exposure and white balance adjustments, although I have found that the colour balance of the live preview did not fully match that of the captured image shown in playback. Toggling between live view and the OVF is done by way of a mechanical switch on the top plate – a simple and elegant solution.
The other top-panel controls include a mode dial that lets you quickly select the various shooting and scene modes, a Drive Mode button, a most welcome – albeit somewhat inconveniently located – ISO button, the shutter release and a single control wheel. Situated on top of the viewfinder hump is the odd proprietary hot-shoe inherited from Minolta. Unlike other DSLRs, which typically allow the use of non-dedicated flash units in Auto or Manual – though obviously not TTL – mode, the A300 and other Sony DSLRs only accept flashguns tailor-made to their peculiar hot-shoe. This also means that you cannot use Pocket Wizards or other typical hotshoe-mounted accessories either, unless you buy a separately sold adapter. Since I happened to have access to a Minolta-dedicated Sunpak M440AF-MX flash, I fitted it on the A300 to see how it worked. It performed admirably, producing remarkably consistent exposures even when bounced off the ceiling. One thing I noticed was that I was able to mount the Sunpak flash even when the A300's pop-up unit was fully raised. However, my hopes that the on-board flash could thus be used for fill when the hotshoe-mounted unit was bounced were not fulfilled, for in these cases, the A300 would invariably fire the external unit only.
Moving to the back of the camera, we find the afore-mentioned tilting LCD and optical viewfinder. When the latter is used for framing, the LCD turns into a status screen. Unlike the A700 and virtually every competitor DSLR, the A300 does not allow you to change settings right on this screen. Instead, the Drive Mode and ISO buttons have their own screens, whereas those functions that have no dedicated button – including flash mode, auto-focus mode, white balance, metering mode, AF area and Dynamic Range Optimiser – are grouped together on a Function screen accessible by way of the Fn button. The only actions that do not require you to navigate away from the status screen are the setting of the aperture / shutter speed and the selection of the AF point you intend to use.
Left of the optical viewfinder is the camera's power switch, which is easy to find and operate. The same cannot be said of the four buttons arranged in a vertical row immediately below this switch – they are very small and recessed. These buttons are used for bringing up the camera's menu folders on screen; activating, switching off or changing the view of the display settings; erasing images and entering playback mode. On the opposite side of the LCD screen is a responsive four-way control pad for selecting the active AF point as well as tabbing through and affecting change to settings or images.
Above the navigation pad to the right of the viewfinder are the Exposure Compensation and Auto-Exposure Lock buttons Apart from locking the exposure in most shooting modes, the latter is also used for activating the very useful Manual Exposure Shift (ME Shift) function in manual exposure mode. ME Shift is similar to the Program AE Shift function found on many cameras – including the A300 itself - but is not dependent on the internal meter, which makes it better suited to shooting in constant lighting conditions. ME Shift makes it easy to keep the exposure value constant when quickly changing the shutter speed or aperture, and should be a standard feature on every serious camera in my view. The Smart Teleconverter button on the far-right is among the most conveniently located controls – but also the most useless one. It acts as a 1.4x / 2x digital zoom when shooting JPEGs in Live View mode, delivering a cropped 5.6 / 2.5 megapixel image respectively. When shooting RAW and/or outside Live View mode, the button is idle. To add insult to injury, pressing this button whenever not shooting JPEG in live view causes the A300 to display an arrogant message saying “Invalid operation”. Sony should really have found a useful function for this button – or at least have made it configurable.
As noted earlier, the main camera menu system on the Sony A300 is accessed by pressing the Menu button on the rear of the camera. There are four main menus, Camera, Custom, Play and Setup. The Camera menu has 11 options spread over 2 screens, the Custom menu has 6 options, the Play menu 9 and the Setup menu 14. One of these is pixel mapping, but it is not what you'd think it is. You don't get to map out any stuck/dead pixels on the main CCD – this function simply serves to “deal with... issues that may appear in Live View mode”, as the user guide puts it. Completing the rear controls is the large Super SteadyShot on/off switch, located below the navigation pad, which like the main power switch requires a reassuringly firm flick of the thumb, meaning that accidental activation or deactivation isn't a problem. Turning it on when taking hand-held shots at shutter speeds that are critically slow for the focal length used can mean the difference between a sharp photo and one ruined by camera shake, as illustrated in the Image Quality section of this review.
On the left-hand side of the A300's body sits a large rubber flap, covering a port for a remote release cable, and a DC-in port for a mains power adapter. Unlike the more expensive A700 model, there is no HDMI functionality on this camera. On the right side is the CompactFlash slot. Finally, moving to the bottom of the camera, we find the metal tripod socket, ideally positioned in-line with the middle of the lens mount, and the battery compartment. The Sony A300 uses an InfoLITHIUM rechargeable battery pack, and can also display the remaining battery life on the LCD screen as a percentage, so that you always know how much power is left.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
As with the older A100 and its successor the A200, the Sony A300 has inherited a number of core Minolta technologies. In addition to the Minolta A-type lens mount that boasts day one compatibility with 29 years worth of existing lenses, the Sony A300 inherits Mionolta's sensor-shift anti-shake technology, which is built into the camera body itself rather than the lens, adjusting for external hand-shake by counter-moving the CCD in a compensating manner. Crucially, it works with any lens that you attach to the camera, removing the need to buy more expensive lenses with anti-shake. The apparatus that moves the CCD is also used to shake off dust particles that may have settled on the sensor during or after a lens change – or so Sony claims. Doubts remain over the long-term effectiveness of this anti-dust solution, especially when compared to other systems that use much faster ultrasonic vibrations to get rid of dust particles.
Another old Minolta technology that has found its way into the Sony A300 is called Eye-start AF. There are two proximity sensors located just beneath the optical viewfinder, which send a signal to the auto-focus system whenever you bring the camera up to your eye, so that by the time you see your subject through the finder, the camera has already focused on it – if you have a fast-focusing (SSM) lens mounted, that is. With lenses lacking a built-in focus motor – and that's the majority – Eye-start AF can be more of a curse than a blessing. Fortunately, it can be turned off.
In use, the camera felt responsive. Start-up took about a second – this is not class-leading performance, but fast enough for most purposes. Importantly, power-up was just as fast with the Live View / OVF switch in the Live View position, which is noticeably better than with other LV-capable DSLRs. Auto-focus speeds depended heavily on the lens used, being roughly proportional to the weight of the glass that had to be moved to achieve focus. This is pretty much a fact of life with an AF system that uses a focus motor built into the body. Konica Minolta – and now Sony – offer a number of SSM lenses with integrated supersonic motors for quick and quiet focusing. With the lenses I used – none of which had SSM - focus speeds ranged from pretty fast to excruciatingly slow, with the supplied Sony DT 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 superzoom lens falling somewhere in between (though closer to the latter). Auto-focus times were not affected by the use of live view. Continuous shooting averaged 3 frames per second when using the OVF, and just under 2fps in Live View mode. Battery life was very decent, and the percentage display of the remaining battery life proved really helpful.
Once you have captured a photo, the Sony A300 has a fairly good range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can instantly scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails, zoom in and out up to 12x magnification (though this may take some time), view slideshows, delete, protect, rotate an image and set the print order. The Display button toggles between no information, a simple settings information screen, a Histogram screen showing a combination of brightness and RGB histograms plus small image and key camera settings, and five small thumbnails above the main image.
So far, so good. But how does the image quality stack up? Read on to find out...
PhotographyBLOG is a member of the DIWA organisation. Our test results for the Sony A300 have been submitted to DIWA for comparison with test results for different samples of the same camera model supplied by other DIWA member sites.