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Full Framed

June 9, 2010 - Dave Hecei

In the world of DSLR cameras there are essentially two types of cameras, Full-Frame and sub Full-Frame. What I mean by full frame is that the digital sensor is the same size as a frame of 35mm film. A camera with this type of sensor, under most circumstances, should produce superior images to those shot with smaller sensors.

The problem with full sensor DSLRs is the price. Up until just recently, the lowest priced full-frame model was the original Canon 5D, one of the first ones under $3000. For the professional photographer who needs quality, this is not an outrageous price. For the advanced amateur, 3 grand can be very hard to swallow.

After the Canon 5D, Nikon stepped up to the plate with their full sensor equipped D700. This mid-line model sports a 12.1 Megapixel (MP) full frame sensor. While it doesn’t compare with the newer Canon 5D mark II and its 21.1 MP sensor, it does have a street price under $2500. The new Canon 5D mark II is often sought out for its amazing HD video capabilities.

All that said, it’s time to clear the decks. Sony, yes Sony makes DSLR cameras, has a new model – the Alpha A850. This new sibling to the amazing Alpha A900 utilizes the same high resolution 24.6 MP full frame sensor, but has a street price under $2000 (best current price - $1899).

If you weren’t aware of it, Sony purchased Konica/Minolta a while back and has incorporated that line into their own Alpha series DSLRs. They have kept the Minolta AF lens system, and brought in their collaboration with Carl Zeiss lenses to the line. Sony now offers some excellent Carl Zeiss T* lenses in the A-mount. Other accessories clearly put the Sony Alpha cameras in league with Canon and Nikon.

There is just something about the look of the A900 and new A850. It has a very distinctive ‘old school’ SLR design. What really stands out is the prominent pentaprism cap. While this might be just part of the design, the reason the pentaprism is so predominant is that it has a real honest to goodness glass pentaprism. A pentaprism is a solid piece of glass that is cut in a special five-sided design to bounce an image from the camera’s focusing screen to the viewfinder. It also allows you to see it in its proper right-side-up left-to-right orientation.

These days, and it is really due to cost than size or weight, the pentaprism has been replaced with sets of mirrors, sometimes referred to as a pentamirror. This is a set of mirrors assembled together to emulate a pentaprism. This mirror set is cheaper and lighter than a glass pentaprism. While a pentamirror does the job, a pentaprism is superior with a brighter more accurate viewfinder image.

Along with the same CMOS full frame sensor, the A850 has many of the same features as the A900 (check it out here). The major features are 24.6MP, 3-inch high-resolution color LCD display, sensor-shift image stabilization (stabilization on all lenses), and dual Bionz image processors. What sets it apart, for the lower price, is slower continuous shooting and a 98% viewable image viewfinder (the A900 is 100%). If you have been shooting with an APS-C type DSLR, looking through the A850 is amazing.

While the A850 can only shoot JPEGs at 3 frames per second (fps), it can do this until the card is full; there is no limit. However, RAW shooting does have a limit. You can shoot 14 RAW+JPEG or 17 RAW only per sequence. You will want to use the fastest Compact Flash (CF) memory card you can buy, and the biggest. There is also no ‘live’ mode on the A850. Because of this there is also no ‘movie’ mode. If you were looking to shoot HD video, get the A900, or better yet, maybe the 5D mark II.


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Sony Alpha A850