up to ISO 3200 with selectable high-ISO noise reduction for successful
handheld shooting in low light without flash
Sony Alpha A350 compared to Nikon D80 SLR Review: Navigation Menu
The Sony A350 features a new 14.2 megapixel CCD sensor compared to the 10.2 megapixel CCD sensor on the Nikon D80. Both sensors are APS-C size which means that there is a 1.5 x multiplying factor that applies to the focal length of the lens in use to get the equivalent field of view (FOV) in 35mm terms. For example, a 50mm standard prime lens mounted on the Nikon D80 or the Alpha A350 will give you the equivalent FOV of a 75mm lens when compared to traditional 35mm systems.
As seen in the cropped image areas above, the additional 4 MP resolution offered by the Sony A350 does provide the ability to capture greater detail and definition compared to the 10.2 MP D80 as would be expected.
The benefit is that the Sony A350 will allow the option of being able to produce even larger size prints or to have the extra latitude for cropping into an image while still maintaining quality.
One of the primary tradeoff's with respect to the 14 MP resolution advantage offered by the Sony A350 is having to deal with larger file sizes from both a storage and image capture perspective. Storage is not such a big issue considering the availability of larger capacity flash memory cards and back up hard drives at a relative inexpensive price in today's market.
The tradeoff becomes more pronounced during image capture. The additional resolution provides extra image data that has to be recorded to the memory card which leads to a slower performance in write speed when compared to the capabilities of the Nikon D80.
Both the Sony A350 and the Nikon D80 employ a 2-channel sensor read out for data transfer. If we use the analogy of traffic moving along a two lane highway to describe the flow of information from the sensor to the image processor there are fewer vehicles traveling along the "D80 highway" compared to the more congested and slower "A350".
With the Nikon D80 we managed to get one extra shot with a total of 6 frames in the same interval. When we increased our shooting burst to cover a six second extended duration however, the Sony A350 frame rate dropped significantly after the first 3 shots and the camera was only able to capture a total of 7 Large JPEG images during this period.
The Nikon D80 in comparison maintained close to its 3 fps rate throughout the test and we were able to capture a total of 16 JPEG Fine images over the same time sequence. (More than double the number of frames captured versus the A350)
In general, we found there was a big difference in the buffer (temporary memory) performance of the two cameras . The Nikon D80 was able to flush the information to the memory card considerably faster than the Sony A350.
After we shot a continuous burst of three frames the D80 flushed the buffer to the memory card in about one second, while the A350 took a total of six seconds to write the same three shots to the card. This slowed down the overall handling of the Sony A350 considerably, since certain operations can not be performed on the camera while it is still recording to the memory card.
When dealing with a higher megapixel sensor it becomes important to have a lens that can match the resolution capabilities provided by that sensor. With the higher resolution 14MP sensor found in the Sony A350, it becomes even more important to make sure that it is supported with a good quality lens.
As seen in the below cropped area taken from our 18mm wide-angle resolution chart comparison test, the Sony DT 18-70mm kit lens is unfortunately not quite up to the job of supporting the capabilities provided by the sensor found in the Sony A350 digital SLR.
The above crops are taken from the same image that we used to initially illustrate the resolution advantage of the Sony A350 further above. The difference is that these second set of crops are taken from the right corner of our sample image tests that fall outside the center "sweet spot" coverage of the lens.
Although the Sony AF DT 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens is reasonably sharp in the center it quickly deteriorates as you move towards the edges of the image area. We tested both lenses under the same conditions at three focal lengths 18mm, 35mm and 50mm and in each case the Nikon lens showed much better edge to edge sharpness and detail.
We also noticed during our side by side image comparison tests that the Nikon AF-S DX 18-55mm VR lens did a consistently better job of controlling chromatic aberrations (CA) compared to using the Sony DT 18-70mm kit lens mounted on the Sony A350. The term "colour fringing" is commonly used in photography to describe chromatic aberrations. As we can see in the above crops there is considerable colour fringing around the edges in the image on the left from the Sony A350 compared to the "cleaner" edges on the image from the Nikon D80 with the AF-S DX 18-55mm VR zoom.
The AF-S DX 18-55mm VR lens features a number of advanced technologies like Nikon's silent wave (AF-S) motor for faster and quieter focusing and an optical vibration reduction (VR) unit that compensates for camera shake under lower light conditions.
In general, we found the Nikon AF-S DX 18-55mm VR zoom delivered surprisingly good quality for an entry level kit lens and we have no problem recommending this lens as a companion to either the Nikon D80 or the new entry level oriented Nikon D60.
For those that are leaning
towards buying one of the new Sony Alpha digital SLR's, and are considering
a kit with the Sony DT 18-70mm lens, we would recommend upgrading to a
better lens alternative like the Sony DT 16-105mm zoom. This is the same
higher end zoom lens that Sony bundles in their Sony Alpha A700P digital
A350 SLR versus Nikon D80: Auto
Focus System Comparison
The Nikon D80 also features an Auto-Area AF mode that measures from all 11 focus areas, automatically determines which of them are on the primary subject, and activates only those areas as a group. A nice feature especially for more novice users.
During our tests we were very satisfied with the fast focus capabilities of both the Sony A350 and the Nikon D80 under normal daylight conditions.
Under darker conditions when the cameras had to activate their respective AF-assist systems to be able to focus, the Sony A350 AF system tended to hunt while trying to get a lock on the subject, and the camera often had to resort to firing more than one repeated burst of the built-in flash in order to achieve focus thereby slowing down the overall performance.
The Nikon D80 did a good job of focusing under very low light conditions and locked on the subject quickly once illuminated by the camera's AF-assist beam. Comparing the focusing capabilities of the Sony Alpha A350 and the Nikon D80 under a range of low light conditions we found the Nikon D80 to consistently provide faster AF in this type of situation.
Sony A350 versus Nikon D80: Image Stabilizer Vibration Reduction Technology
The Sony Alpha series of DSLR's including the Sony A350 / A300 incorporate a CCD based Anti-Shake vibration reduction mechanism inside the camera body that offers the benefit of providing image stabilization with any Sony or Konica-Minolta compatible SLR lens attached. According to Sony their Super SteayShot image stabilization system will offer between 2 to 3.5 stops compensation for camera shake depending on the lens in use.
Nikon (and Canon) build their vibration reduction(VR) technology into their lenses, so in order to benefit from image stabilization technology you have to buy a lens that features VR. Nikon offers lenses in their lineup that will provide up to 4 stop VR effectiveness (designated as VR II).
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As a general purpose lens for the Nikon D80, the Nikon AF-S DX 18-55mm VR Nikkor zoom offers the best value, and the new AF-S DX 16-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR II zoom serves as a higher end choice. For those that want an all in one solution, Nikon offers the AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR Nikkor zoom that makes for a nice everyday walk around lens. Sony offers lenses that cover a similar range with the Sony DT 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom and the new Carl Zeiss 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 T* DT Vario-Sonnar zoom lens.
Note: the Nikkor AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED VR zoom is designed and made by Nikon. We suspect that the Sony DT 18-250mm f/3.5-5.6 is a re-branded lens made by Tamron (a generic third party lens manufacturer), based on the very close similarities between the Tamron version and the Sony lens.
The advantage offered by the Nikon D80 when used with a VR lens is that optical based image stabilization systems generally offer a greater range of VR compensation ability, as well as allow you to preview the effects while looking through the viewfinder of the camera. Nikon states that with the AF-S DX 18-55mm VR zoom lens you can expect up to 3 stops compensation to counter the possibility of unsteady camera movements while taking the picture.
With the Sony A350 / A300 the stabilization effect is not visible as you are looking through the viewfinder which can make it harder to see and compose your shot.
We found the Sony A350 SLR kit with the Sony DT 18-70mm lens provided on average a 2 stop level of effectiveness in countering camera shake.
The reason for this is that the Sony Super SteadyShot system built into the Sony Alpha DSLR's serves as a jack of all trades and offers a level of compensation that has been averaged to cover all focal lengths.
Optical image stabilization systems offer superior VR effectiveness since they use individual mechanisms which are specifically optimized to offer the best level of VR compensation taking into account the actual focal range coverage of the specific lens.
To test the image stabilizer effectiveness of the Sony Alpha A350 with the Sony DT 18-70mm lens compared to the Nikon D80 with the AF-S DX 18-55mm VR lens, we took 3 hand held shots at the 50mm focal setting with each camera and then waited 30 seconds and took another three shots. We then kept the best result from each as shown below.
The shooting parameters were; shutter priority exposure mode set to 1.6" sec with full area evaluative metering, ISO set to 200, Auto WB, and standard processing.
Hand holding a camera for such a long exposure and getting a clear image is a difficult task, although as seen above, the Nikon lens VR technology offered a clear advantage versus the Sony A350 Super SteadyShot in-camera stabilizer system.
Under this very low light hand held test, the Nikon D80 with the 18-55mm VR kit lens provided us with images that we would classify as usable at smaller print sizes. In comparison, we found the sample test images from the Sony A350 with 18-70mm kit lens were all too heavily compromised by camera shake in this situation.
Sony A350 SLR selected an aperture of F/8 and the Nikon D80 selected an
aperture of F/10 to match the shutter speed that was set in Shutter Priority
mode. There is about a 2/3 stop difference in the exposures seen above
as calculated by the two cameras.
The D80 features Nikon's 3D Colour Matrix Metering II technology based on readings from a 420 segment RGB sensor. Evaluating brightness, color, contrast, selected focus area and camera-to-subject distance, the system references the data against an expanded onboard database created using data from more than 30,000 actual photographic scenes to instantly calculate the final exposure value for the shot. Variable center-weighted metering and spot metering centered on the active focus area (one of the 11 points) is also available when greater control and precision is required for exposure metering.
As seen in the image
samples from our Vibration Reduction (VR) test above, the Nikon D80 did
a better job of metering the scene in this tricky lighting situation based
on its more precise analysis of information from its 420-segment evaluative
metering system, compared to the 40-segment more averaged reading from
the meter on the Sony A350. We did not test the 1200-zone Live View metering
for this shot, opting instead (as with the D80) to use the TTL viewfinder
to frame the subject.
Sony A350 SLR vs. Nikon D80: LCD Monitor and Viewfinder Comparison
Much of the interest in Sony's Alpha A350 and A300 SLR's centers around Sony's new "Quick AF Live View" technology which allows you to frame photos on the camera's rear LCD monitor without sacrificing auto-focusing speed common to other live-view systems.
Quick AF Live View on both the Alpha A350 and A300 is made possible by Sony's new innovative Penta-mirror Tilt mechanism that directs light to a dedicated live view image sensor, enabling TTL phase-detection auto focusing, even during live view.
Since Sony's approach is to incorporate a second sensor inside the viewfinder housing, Sony's Quick AF Live View technology differs from the Live View systems we have seen to date which use the actual image sensor for Live View. The issue with previous Live View methods is that the mirror first has to swing open to allow for autofocus and exposure readings, and then again when the image is actually captured. Sony's system is definitely faster.
On both the Sony Alpha A350 and the 10.2 MP A300 SLR, Quick AF Live View is supported by a variable angle 2.7-inch Clear Photo LCD screen. This makes it possible to frame scenes from high or low positions difficult to reach when using an eye-level viewfinder. The variable-angle LCD monitor can be tilted upward by up to 130° or downward by up to 40°.
Based on our time spent with the Sony Alpha A350 digital SLR we found that although the concept of full time Quick AF Live View is certainly appealing there are a number of tradeoff's associated with Sony's Quick AF Live View feature.
The majority of the support for this technology centers around the ability that you can frame and shoot by using the large LCD monitor on the back of the camera, just like you can with most compact digital point and shoots. For this feature to offer a real benefit the quality and capabilities of the LCD monitor becomes an important component.
During our tests we were not very impressed with the performance offered by the Sony 2.7-inch Clear Photo LCD monitor on the A350 / A300, especially when compared side by side with the LCD screen on the D80.
The weaker anti-reflective coating on the Sony Alpha A350 / A300 Clear Photo LCD monitor means that it is more difficult to see the screen under brighter daylight conditions or when any stronger light source bounces on it. The brighter LCD monitor on the Nikon D80 incorporates a better anti-reflective coating and offers a wider viewing angle compared to the screen on the Sony A350.
We found tilting the Clear Photo LCD monitor upward at a 130° angle was the worst position since then the the sun and sky or other bright light source (indoor stage lights, office ceiling lighting ) located directly above reflected even more off the LCD screen.
Sony labels the ability to do real-time image-adjustment using the Live view display as one of the benefits offered by the Sony A350 / A300, since it lets you "confirm the effects of exposure and white balance adjustments on the Clear Photo LCD monitor in real time something that is impossible to do with an optical viewfinder." In reality, we found the Sony A350 LCD monitor darkens significantly during Live View mode and the LCD screen does not display great colour accuracy, so the benefits as described are effectively canceled.
The reason that the LCD monitor dims down during Live View on the A350 is to reduce further drain on the battery, since both the Sony A350 and A300 SLR already use close to 50% more power in this mode. Using the Quick AF Live View feature on the Sony Alpha A350 will allow approximately 400 shots per charge compared to about 750 shots if you use the TTL viewfinder to compose your subject.
The screen captures above show how the Clear Photo LCD monitor dims down during LiveView (left) and how the captured image looks in playback back mode on the Sony Alpha A350 / A300 SLR LCD screen.
In Quick AF Live View mode the Clear Photo LCD monitor offers a smaller 90% coverage of the actual image area (compared to the 95% coverage provided when you look through the viewfinder). Using Live View with the Sony A350 / A300 SLR's makes it difficult to do critical framing. Notice the corners that become visible in the final image compared to the way the image was perceived in Live View mode. The natural solution would be to use the viewfinder system for more critical framing situations.
The TTL viewfinder on the Sony A350 / A300 SLR offers 95% coverage of the final image that is recorded, which is the same as the coverage offered by the Nikon D80 SLR . Next we take a look at how these viewfinders compare.
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Sony Alpha A350 versus Nikon D80: Viewfinder System
The Nikon D80 easily triumphs over the Sony Alpha A350 with respect to having the best TTL viewfinder system. Delivering a large bright viewfinder the Nikon D80 incorporates a glass pentaprism viewfinder similar to the type found on more expensive digital SLR's. The Sony A350 / A300 employs a pentamirror type viewfinder system which has been shrunk down to make room for the extra sensor required for Live View to work.
The viewfinder magnification on the D80 is 94% compared to the viewfinder magnification on the Sony A350 / A300 SLR at 74%.
Below is a real representation (image taken through the respective viewfinders) showing the relative difference between the viewfinder on the Nikon D80 versus what is seen in the viewfinder system on the Sony Alpha A350 / A300 digital SLR.
The cramped viewfinder system on the Sony A350 / A300 delivers a tunnel like viewing effect when compared to the larger viewfinder on the D80, and will be especially pronounced for people that wear eyeglasses (poorer eye relief). You can also see the benefits offered by the glass pentaprism viewfinder in the D80 versus the pentamirror type on the Sony A350 / A300. The Nikon D80 viewfinder delivers a larger, brighter and sharper view of the image and does not exhibit flaring as seen in the viewfinder incorporated into the A350 / A300 SLR.
the Nikon D80 you also have the benefit of being able to select on-demand
grid lines that are superimposed in the viewfinder. (Useful for assisting
in vertical and horizontal composition, architecture etc.)
Sony A350 versus Nikon D80 Review: Next Page Built-in Flash Test
Sony A350 Intro (top)