The Sony a850 is a camera living in two different generations.

I recently picked up a Sony a850 camera because I'd always been intrigued by the idea that the $2000 Sony used the same basic sensor as the $8000 Nikon D3X and I wanted to see just how good it could be. I also wanted a point of reference for just how far Sony had come in camera and sensor chip design since 2009. I've been using the Sony a99 and I do love the EVF but I was wondering if I could have a good back-up camera at an absurdly low price (used = 800) which would give me the same angle of view with the same lenses.

First, the good: The body is almost perfect for my hands and for my need for a camera with personality and gravitas. It feels heavy duty and stout. Everything fits my average hand very well. The next thing I noticed was how stripped down (mercifully) and easy the menu and the interface is. So far I've looked one thing up in the owner's manual and everything else has been apparent even to a slow user like me. If you take off video, live view and all the bells and whistles from a camera and its menu you end up with a camera that's extra easy to understand and to use in the real world. And yes, the optical finder is nicely done.

This is a camera that screams at me to pick it up and make some art. Any art. Anywhere and at any time. Oh, and the battery goes on forever compared to its SLT cousins. So when you are out making art you can forego the extra battery in the pocket.

The exposure metering seems unflappable. The focus, with appropriate lenses, is fast and accurate. So, what's not to like? Well, let's circle back to that sensor for a second. Once you claw your way past ISO 800 you enter a world of noise that high end users haven't seen since......2009.
At ISO 200 everything is smooth sailing. Sharp and pretty much noise free (unless you're peeking at the shadows at 100%...). Once you head north of 800 you need to use some sort of noise reduction plug in to even get near today's sensor ball park.

The second flaw in the ointment is that the raw files from the a850 don't work well with Lightroom. I'm much happier now that I've found Aperture to be a good Sony RAW converter but in this day and age it seems a bit quaint to find a raw file that doesn't at least play in a satisfactory way with one of the flagship Adobe products. Not so great in PhotoShop either.

The flaw that renders this camera my art camera (and quells my thirst for the a900 I just saw at an enticing price) is the thing that most "old schoolers" love about it. It has an OVF. An optical viewfinder. I kept looking through that OVF and assuming that whatever I saw would be rendered pretty much the same way on the files, but it was not so. The finder only shows you the here and now of your own optical reality, through glass, not the future. The EVF on the a99 shows you the future. It shows you how your image will look with the current exposure settings and creative settings. How it will look when you get it on your big machine. That may not sound like much but it's hard to wrap your head, simultaneously, around two different philosophical implementations of time. The present and the near future. The objective and the already nuanced.

I like the a850's personality. I'll keep it around for the same reason I keep the Kodak SLR/n and the Kodak DCS 760 around. They are quirky and eccentric but on their best days they each do files that look and feel different than the cameras of the current day. And they all feel interesting in one's hands. The a850 is modern enough to operate without glitches and to give me wonderful and highly competitive files at the lower ISO's. The SLR/n does a sharpness thing that's incredible when it's shot correctly. And the DCS 760 has a wonderful color palette that no other camera seems to have.

But for all my professional work it looks like the right back up for the a99 is.....another a99. Ah well. Nice experiment.


Keith I. said...

I ended up with DxO due to how Lightroom handled the A900 files.

Anonymous said...

Just checking... is ISO 200, the minimum setting on your A850?
If so, please consider upgrading the firmware to Ver 2.0
Among other enhancements, this will extend the ISO range from 100 - 6400.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks for this note. I was going on what I read in the contemporaneous reviews. You are correct. The new firmware does extend the normal, lower range. I was delighted to find this. And delighted that the previous owner had already upgraded the camera. I spent yesterday shooting portraits in the studio at ISO 100 and was delighted. Thanks again, Anonymous Commentor

HQR said...

Thanks for calling attention to an outstanding camera. I have had mine for over two years and have been very pleased with the results even at ISO 1600 (with some post-processing of course). What I like most about the RAW files captured by this camera is the depth of information that allows for serious processing. I have always used Aperture (first 2, now 3) and for the past year have used the NIK plug-ins. I also love the simplicity of the camera; no video; no live view. Just a wonderful bright viewfinder and easy access to all controls. Nice ergonomics as well.