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DCRP Review: Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

 
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: March 21, 2008
Last Updated: June 2, 2012

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The Alpha DSLR-A200 is Sony's new entry-level digital SLR, and the follow-up to their very first one, the DSLR-A100. As you may know, Sony purchased Konica Minolta's digital SLR business back in 2005, and nobody was surprised that the DSLR-A100 was more Minolta than Sony. The A200 has more of a Sony influence, but if you've used a Minolta D-SLR, you'll feel right at home.

Here's the short list of what's new on the DSLR-A200, compared to its predecessor

  • Faster autofocus performance
  • Improved noise control
  • Larger LCD display (2.7" vs 2.5")
  • Slightly more compact body; flash now pops up automatically
  • Support for a battery grip
  • Battery is now "InfoLithium" type, allowing camera to provide real-time battery life info

So what hasn't changed since the A100? The A200 still has a 10.2 Megapixel CCD, sensor-shift image stabilization, a dust reduction system, and support for the Alpha lens mount. Naturally, there's also full manual controls, support for tons of accessories, and the kind of performance that you'd expect from a digital SLR.

The entry-level D-SLR field is full of tough competition from the likes of Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax. Can the DSLR-A200 keep up? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The DSLR-A200 is sold in two kits. One has a 18 - 70 mm lens ($699), while the other ($899) has both the 18-70 and an additional 75 - 300 mm lens. There is currently no body-only kit available. That said, here's what you'll find inside the A200's box:

  • The 10.2 effective Megapixel DSLR-A200 camera body
  • F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 70 mm Sony lens
  • F4.5 - 5.6, 75 - 300 mm Sony lens [DSLR-A200W two lens kit only]
  • NP-FM500H lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Body cap
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Picture Motion Browser, Image Data Converter, and Image Data Lightbox software
  • Fold-out Quick Start Guide + 158 page camera manual (printed)

My A200 came with the venerable F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 70 mm kit lens. The lens is light (and on the "plasticky" side) and isn't terribly sharp, but it does cover a larger focal range than your typical kit lens. I have not had a chance to try out the 75 - 300 mm lens, which is also available separately for a little over $200. The A200 can use almost any Minolta/Sony A-mount lens, with a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio.

Digital SLRs never come with a memory card, so unless you have a CompactFlash card laying around, you'll need to buy one. The A200 supports both Type I and the thicker Type II CompactFlash cards, and I'd recommend 2GB as a good starter size. Spending the extra money on a "high speed" memory card is definitely a good idea on D-SLRs.

The DSLR-A200 uses a slightly different battery than the A100. Battery life hasn't improved (but that's okay, it was great already), but now you can get a real-time readout of how much juice the battery has left. The NP-FM500H battery packs a whopping 11.8 Wh of energy into its plastic shell. Here's how that translates into battery life:

Camera Battery life, live view off
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon EOS Rebel XSi 500 shots LP-E5
Nikon D60 500 shots EN-EL9
Olympus E-510 * 650 shots BLM-1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 * 450 shots DMW-BLA13
Pentax K200D * 550 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 * 750 shots NP-FM55H
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 * 750 shots NP-FM500H

* Has image stabilization

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

As you can see, the A200's battery life is best-in-class. And, if you want even better performance, you can pick up the battery grip that I'll show you in a second!

I should point out a few issues regarding the proprietary batteries used by the A200 and cameras like it. First, they're really expensive -- an extra one will set you back at least $50. Second, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery when the rechargeable dies, as you could with an AA-based camera (and the only one available is the Pentax K200D). Some cameras can use AA batteries via their optional battery grips, but the A200 isn't one of them.


Photo courtesy of Sony Electronics

Speaking of battery grips, above you can see the optional VG-B30AM grip. This grip, which is priced from $229, takes two NP-FM500H batteries, allow you to take 1500 shots before running out of juice. The grip also has extra buttons and dials for when you're shooting in the portrait orientation.

When it's time to charge the NP-FM500H battery, you can just pop it into the included charger. It takes a while to charge this powerful battery, with a typical charge requiring around 175 minutes. This isn't my favorite kind of charger (that plugs directly into the wall) -- you must use a power cable.

Being a digital SLR, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the DSLR-A200 supports plenty of accessories. Here's a summary of what's available:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies The A200 supports all Konica Minolta and Sony lenses that use the Alpha mount
External flash

HVL-F36AM
HVL-F42AM
HVL-F56AM

From $169
From $299
From $295
You'll get more flash power and less chance of redeye with an external flash.
Sync terminal adapter FA-ST1AM From $179 Hot shoe to flash sync port adapter
Macro twin flash kit HVL-MT24AM From $475 For taking close-up flash photos
Angle finder FDA-A1AM From $156 For looking through the viewfinder from above
Wired remote control RM-S1AM
RM-L1AM

From $52
From $51

Basically a shutter release button on a cable. The S1 has a short cable, while the L1's is quite long (5 meters)
Battery grip VG-B30AM From $229 Get double the battery life and a comfortable vertical grip
AC adapter / Dual battery charger AC-VQ900AM From $101 Power your camera without draining your batteries; can also charge two batteries (though not simultaneously)
LCD protect cover PCK-LH2AM $12 A polycarbonate cover than snaps over the LCD to protect it from scratches and fingerprints
Soft carrying case LCS-AMA
LCS-AMLC3

From $35
From $80

Soft and leather cases for the camera and a lens
Accessory kit ACC-AMFM11 $100 Includes a canvas camera bag and extra battery
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

The nice thing about digital SLRs is that if you can think of an accessory, chances are that that it exists!


Picture Motion Browser for Windows

Sony includes several software products with the A200. The first one is Picture Motion Browser, and it's for Windows only. PMB can be used for acquiring photos from the camera, organizing them, and performing basic editing tasks.

Photos can be viewed in the traditional thumbnail view, or you can jump to photos taken on a certain day in calendar view. Whichever view you're using, you can print photos, e-mail them, or burn them to a CD or DVD. Photos can also be quickly rotated, and a slideshow features is also available.


Edit screen in Picture Motion Browser

Editing options are fairly limited in Picture Motion Browser. Tools include auto enhancement, brightness, saturation, and sharpness adjustment, redeye reduction, and cropping. You can also adjust the tone curve, or print the date on your photo.

While Picture Motion Browser can view RAW files, you can't actually do anything with them. For that, you'll want to fire up one of the following programs.


Image Data Converter SR

Image Data Converter SR 2.0 is your main RAW editing application. It works on both Mac and Windows, and it seemed relatively quick at performing edits. If you can imagine an image property to edit, chances are that IDC can do it. Some of the highlights include D-Range Optimizer adjustment, noise reduction, tone curves, and staples like white balance and exposure. A "version stack" option lets you go back in time through your various adjustments. Users can also save processing formulas, which can be applied to other images with the click of your mouse. Finally, there's a one-push "send to Photoshop" button, which exports the file to TIFF format and opens it up in Adobe's photo editor.

Speaking of Photoshop, you can open up the A200's RAW files if you're using version 4.4 or greater of the Camera Raw plug-in.


Image Data Lightbox SR

A related program is known as Image Data Lightbox SR. This is an image browser that lets you select up to four images and view them zoomed in and side-by-side so you can compare details. The "synchronous" option moves the images you're comparing at the same time, which can be quite handy.

Oh, and if you have no idea what the heck RAW is, I'll tell you. Basically, it's a file containing unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction, without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. The downsides to RAW include the larger file sizes (which means longer write times, and smaller bursts) and the post-processing requirement.

One feature not supported on the A200 is remote camera control. The more expensive DSLR-A700 can do it, but it's not an option here.

Sony includes a fold-out "read this first" leaflet, plus a full, printed manual with the DSLR-A200. The main manual is fairly easy to read, with a good layout and a minimal amount of fine print, though it doesn't go into much detail. The documentation for the software I just described is installed onto your computer's hard drive.

Look and Feel

The DSLR-A200 is a midsize digital SLR. Despite having a plastic shell, the inner frame of the A200 is clearly metal, giving it a solid, quality feel. The right hand grip is the perfect size -- not too small like on some other entry-level D-SLRs -- and the "sticky" rubber coating makes it comfortable to hold.

Sony has given the controls a facelift since the A100, and it's all for the better in my opinion. Sony didn't go overboard with buttons here, and they thankfully did away with that confusing second mode dial that was inherited from Minolta (the regular mode dial has moved into its spot). The one thing I would've liked to see are two control dials, instead of just the one on the top of the camera -- this would make adjusting manual settings a bit easier.

Now, here's a look at how the A200 compares to other D-SLRs in its class:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel XSi 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 in. 46.5 cu in. 475 g
Nikon D60 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.5 in. 46.3 cu in. 495 g
Olympus EVOLT E-510 5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 in. 52.5 cu in. 470 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 5.3 x 3.8 x 3.1 in. 62.4 cu in. 480 g
Pentax K200D 5.2 x 3.7 x 2.9 in. 55.8 cu in. 630 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 5.3 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 58.4 cu in. 545 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 5.3 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 58.4 cu in. 545 g

The first thing to note is that the A200 has exactly the same dimensions and weight as its predecessor. That's not too surprising, as they look almost identical. In the group as a whole, it's the second largest/heaviest camera, with only the Panasonic L10 ahead of it.

Okay, enough jabbering, let's start our tour of the camera now, shall we?

Front of the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

Here's the front of the DSLR-A200, without a lens attached. The A200 uses the Alpha (α) lens mount, which was first developed by Minolta. That means that your old KM lenses will work, plus the 20+ Sony-branded lenses that are now available (many of which are just rebadged Minolta lenses). There's a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio, so a 50 mm lens has the field-of-view of 75 mm. To remove a lens from the camera, you simply press the button to the immediate right of the lens mount.

Two important camera features are hidden behind the mirror you see in the above photo. First is the A200's image stabilization system, which Sony calls Super SteadyShot. Sensors inside the camera detect the "camera shake" caused by the tiny movements of your hands, which can blur your photos (especially in low light, or when using a telephoto lens). The A200 moves the CCD sensor in the opposite direction, to compensate for this motion. Sony says that the A200's IS system can give you a 2.5 to 3.5 stop advantage over unstabilized cameras. Remember that image stabilization can't work miracles, though. It cannot freeze a moving subject, nor will it allow for multi-second exposures without the use of a tripod.

Want to see how the SteadyShot system performed? Have a look at this:


Image stabilization off


Image stabilization on

Both of the above photos were taken at a shutter speed of 1/4 sec (the aperture was F11). As you can easily see, the camera produced a noticeably sharper image with Super SteadyShot turned on. And, since image stabilization is built into the camera itself, every lens you attach will have blur reduction!

The same system that reduces blurry photos is also used to remove dust from the CCD sensor. Whenever you turn off the camera, the sensor is quickly shaken, which helps to knock dust off of the low pass filter. This same low pass filter is statically charged, to help dust from settling there in the first place. As someone who has had his share of dust problems, this is a feature that I really like to see on a D-SLR.

Directly above the lens mount is the A200's pop-up flash. While it was released manually on the A100, it is now electronic on the A200 (though you can still raise it yourself). The flash has a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, which is the same as it was on the A100. Checking the competition, the Canon Rebel XSi and Pentax K200D have a GN of 13, the Nikon D60 and Olympus E-510 have GN's of 12, and the Panasonic DMC-L10 scores an 11. If you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe that you'll see in a bit.

The A200's flash is also used as an AF-assist lamp. When the flash is raised, the camera will send out rapid pulses of light, which help the camera's autofocus sensor quickly and accurately lock focus. If you don't actually want to take a flash photo, you can lower the flash after focus is locked. While these flash-based systems are more effective than a dedicated AF-assist lamp, your subjects may find all that light to be a bit annoying.

The last thing to see on the front of the A200 is the self-timer lamp, which is located at the top of the grip.

Back of the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

The main event on the back of the A200 is its 2.7" LCD display. For those of you playing along at home, the old A100 had a 2.5" screen. While the screen has gotten larger, the resolution has remained the same, at 230,400 pixels. Still, the screen is sharp enough for what you'll be using the LCD for, namely reviewing photos, and navigating the menu system. The A200 does not support live view -- you'll have to step-up to the DSLR-A300 for that.

Basic version of info screen... ... and the detailed one

Since there's no LCD info panel on the top of the camera, the main LCD has to pick up the slack. As you can see above, plenty of data is available, and if that's too much, a simpler view is also available. If you have the camera in the vertical orientation, that the data on this screen will be rotated appropriately. Unlike on the A700, you cannot navigate through this info screen to quickly change settings. However, the function menu (described below) combined with the various direct buttons on the camera make changing commonly accessed settings fairly easy.

Directly above the LCD is the A200's optical viewfinder, which displays 95% of the frame. With a magnification of 0.83X, the viewfinder is on the small side, but that's typical of entry-level SLRs. I also found it to be a little hard to use in low light situations (too dark). Inside the viewfinder, under the field-of-view, is a line of shooting data, which displays things like shutter speed, aperture, shots remaining, and camera shake. You can turn the diopter correction knob (top-right of the viewfinder) to focus what you're looking at.

On the bottom of the viewfinder are the sensors that make up the camera's EyeStart AF system (another feature inherited from Minolta). When the camera detects that your eye is again the viewfinder, it activates the autofocus system. I have always found this feature to be a bit annoying, and turn it off right away.

Immediately to the left of the viewfinder is the power switch. On the opposite side, we find buttons for adjusting exposure compensation / aperture (depending on the shooting mode) as well as for AE lock. The A200's exposure compensation range is the usual -2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments.


Function menu

Moving downward, we find the Function button, which opens... the function menu! Here you can adjust these commonly used options:

  • Flash mode (Flash off, auto flash, fill flash, slow sync, rear sync, wireless)
  • Autofocus mode (AF-S, AF-A, AF-C)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, flash, color temperature, color filter, custom)
  • Metering mode (Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot)
  • AF area (Wide, spot, local) - this last option lets you select one of nine points on which to focus
  • D-Range Optimizer (Off, standard, advanced)

The first thing to mention here is that the DSLR-A200 supports wireless flashes, with the three Sony external flashes listed earlier being fully compatible. I'm not sure how many wireless flashes can be used -- the manual barely mentions this feature in the first place.

What are those autofocus modes? AF-S will lock the focus when you halfway-press the shutter release. AF-C keeps focusing, even when the shutter release is halfway-pressed -- great for action shots. AF-A is automatic: it switches between the two modes based on subject movement.


Setting white balance by color temperature

There are numerous white balance options to choose from on the DSLR-A200. First, there are the usual presets (e.g. daylight, cloudy, tungsten), and each of those can be fine-tuned from -3 to +3 (except for fluorescent, which is -2 to +4). Sony doesn't say what those increments translate to. But wait, there's more. You can set the color temperature, with a range of 2500K - 9900K. Or, if you wish, you can use a white or gray card with the "custom" option. Finally, a color filter option (attached to color temperature) lets you tweak the color in either the green or magenta direction.


Selecting the D-Range Optimizer option

Advanced DRO is more interesting: the camera separates the image into smaller parts, and adjusts the brightness and contrast for each one. Here's how it works in the real world:

DRO Off Standard DRO Advanced DRO

If you went to Cal, then you probably know where the above photo was taken. While there is a noticeable difference between Standard DRO or no DRO, the Standard vs. Advanced photos are almost identical. I took quite a few comparison shots, and rarely did Advanced DRO look any different than Standard DRO. That goes along with my experiences with the DSLR-A700, too: you really didn't see a change until you manually bumped the DRO up a notch or two. The A200 doesn't let manually adjust DRO, though if you shoot RAW, you can manipulate this property with the Image Data Converter SR software.

Below the Function button is the four-way controller, used for menu navigation, selecting a focus point, and more. Underneath that is a switch for turning image stabilization on and off. You may want to turn it off when the camera is on a tripod.

Moving now to the left side of the LCD, we find these four buttons:

  • Menu
  • Display - toggles info shown on LCD
  • Delete photo
  • Playback mode

Those shouldn't need any explanation, so let's move on!

Top of the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

The first thing to see on the top of the DSLR-A200 is its mode dial, located at the left side of the photo. It has these options:

Option Function
Auto mode Point-and-shoot
Program mode Still point-and-shoot, but a Program Shift option lets you select various shutter speed/aperture combinations
Aperture priority mode You choose aperture, camera picks appropriate shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. The 18 - 70 mm kit lens goes from F3.5 - F36.
Shutter priority mode You choose shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Manual mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself (same ranges as above). The manual shift feature lets you adjust the shutter speed and aperture, while keeping the exposure you just set. A bulb mode will keep the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is pressed.
NIght view / portrait These are all scene modes
Sunset
Sports action
Macro
Landscape
Portrait
Flash off

As you can see, there are fully manual controls on the DSLR-A200. One thing you won't find (that many other D-SLRs offer) is the ability to save your favorite settings to a spot on the mode dial.

Next up, we have the A200's hot shoe. If it looks a bit unusual, that's because this is a proprietary Konica Minolta shoe. The A200 works best with the three Sony flashes I described in the accessories section: you'll get TTL metering, high speed flash sync, and wireless support. Other flashes will probably have to be set manually (after you find a way to connect them with the camera). If you're using one of the Sony flashes, then you can use any shutter speed on the camera. If you're not, then the fastest sync speed is 1/160 sec.

To the right of the hot shoe is the "drive" button. The options here include single-shot, continuous, self-timer (2 or 10 sec), two types of exposure bracketing (single and continuous), and white balance bracketing. Let's start with the continuous shooting mode. The A200 tends to start off quick, and then slow down as it tries to clear the buffer. In RAW mode, I was able to take six shots in a row at 2.8 frames/second, before things slowed to 2.2 fps for eight shots, ending up at 1.7 fps (presumably until the memory card fills up). In RAW+JPEG mode, the A200 took three shots in a row at 2.8 fps, before slowing to 1 frame/second. The frame rate was more consistent when shooting JPEGs -- you can keep firing away at 2.8 frames/second until the memory card fills up. By the way, that frame rate is less than the advertised 3 frame/second number.

The two exposure bracketing modes take three shots in a row, each with a different exposure. The interval between shots can be 0.3 or 0.7 EV, and you can take them one at a time, or in a burst. The white balance bracketing feature works in a similar way, though only one exposure is actually taken. You can select "lo" for a 10 mired interval, or "hi" for 20 mired.

The next button over is for setting the ISO. You can select from Auto (100-400), 100. 200, 400, 800, 1600, and 3200. We'll see how the A200 performs at those settings later in the review.

The last items of note on the top of the camera are the shutter release button and command dial. You'll use the latter for adjusting things like shutter speed and aperture.

Side of the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

On this side of the A200 you'll find the focus mode switch (auto or manual) and two of its I/O ports. The ports, which are protected by a plastic cover, are for the optional wired remote control and AC adapter.

Side of the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

On the other side of the camera you'll find the memory card slot and the USB+video out port. Both of these are protected by a plastic door of decent quality. That slot can hold both Type I and Type II CompactFlash cards, which includes the Microdrive (does anyone even use those anymore?).

I can't say I'm a fan of having to open the CF door to get at the USB/video out port. I don't know why they couldn't put it on the other side of the camera, with the rest of the I/O ports.

On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery compartment. The plastic door over the battery compartment could be a little sturdier, though I appreciate the locking mechanism.

The included NP-FM500H InfoLithium battery is shown at right.

Using the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200

Record Mode

The DSLR-A200 is ready to shoot a fraction of second after it's been turned on.

While autofocus speeds will vary somewhat depending on what lens you're using, I found the A200 to be quite responsive overall. Focus speeds were between 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at the wide end of the 18 - 70 mm kit lens, and maybe twice that at full telephoto. Low light focusing wasn't great if the flash was closed, which disables the AF-assist feature. With the flash popped up, the camera focused accurately, though not all that quickly.

Shutter lag wasn't an issue, nor would I expect it to be on a digital SLR.

Shot-to-shot delays were minimal. You can literally shoot as fast as you can compose your shots, or at least until you hit the buffer limit (which takes some work).

You can delete a photo after you've taken it by pressing -- get ready -- the delete photo button!

Now, let's take a look at the numerous image size and quality choices on the A200:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 2GB CF card (optional)
Large (10 MP, 3:2)
3872 x 2592
RAW+JPEG 19.8 MB 101
RAW 15.7 MB 127
Fine 4.0 MB 495
Standard 3.0 MB 667
Large (8.4 MP, 16:9)
3872 x 2176
RAW+JPEG 19.4 MB 103
RAW 15.7 MB 127
Fine 3.5 MB 569
Standard 2.6 MB 758
Medium (5.6 MP, 3:2)
2896 x 1936
Fine 2.7 MB 743
Standard 2.1 MB 966

Medium (4.7 MP, 16:9)
2896 x 1632

Fine 2.4 MB 838
Standard 1.9 MB 1072
Small (2.5 MP, 3:2)
1920 x 1280
Fine 1.9 MB 1077
Standard 1.5 MB 1319
Small (2.1 MP, 16:9)
1920 x 1088
Fine 1.7 MB 1181
Standard 1.4 MB 1425

As I mentioned back in the software section of the review, the DSLR-A200 supports the RAW image format. You can take a RAW image by itself, or along with a Large/Fine JPEG. Two aspect ratios are available on the camera: standard 3:2, and widescreen 16:9.

The DSLR-A200 names its files DSC0####.JPG where # = 0001 - 9999. As you'd expect, the numbering is maintained until you choose to reset it.

The A200 has a stylish, fairly easy-to-navigate menu system. It's divided into four tabs, covering record, custom, playback, and setup options. Here's what you'll find in each of those:

Recording Menu
  • Image size (Large, medium, small)
  • Aspect ratio (3:2, 16:9)
  • Quality (RAW, RAW+JPEG, fine, standard)
  • Creative Style (Standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, night view, sunset, black & white, Adobe RGB) - see below
  • Flash control (ADI flash, pre-flash,) - how the flash metering works
  • Flash compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3-step increments)
  • Priority setup (AF, release) - whether the shutter will release if focus isn't locked
  • AF illuminator (Auto, off)
  • Long exposure noise reduction (on/off)
  • High ISO noise reduction (on/off)
  • Record mode reset
Custom Menu
  • EyeStart AF (on/off) - whether camera focuses when you put your eye against the viewfinder
  • AEL button (AEL hold, AEL toggle) - whether you need to hold the AE-Lock button to lock exposure
  • Control dial setup (Shutter speed, aperture) - what the control dial, well, controls
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Auto review (Off, 2, 5, 10 secs)
  • Auto off w/viewfinder (on/off) - whether the LCD info screen turns off when you use the viewfinder
Playback Menu
  • Delete (Marked images, all images)
  • Format
  • Protect (Marked images, all images, cancel all)
  • DPOF setup (Marked images, all images, cancel all)
    • Date imprint (on/off)
    • Index print (Create, delete)
  • Playback display (Auto rotate, manual rotate) - whether portraits are automatically rotated)
  • Slideshow
    • Interval (1, 3, 5, 10, 30 secs)
Setup Menu
  • LCD brightness (-2 to +2, in 1-step increments)
  • Info display time (5, 10, 30 secs, 1 min) - how long the rec info display is shown
  • Power save (1, 3, 5, 10, 30 mins)
  • Video output (NTSC, PAL)
  • Language
  • Date/time setup
  • File number (Series, reset)
  • Folder name (Standard form, date form)
  • Select folder
    • New folder
  • USB connection (Mass Storage, PTP)
  • Audio signals (on/off)
  • Cleaning mode - flips up the mirror so you can use a blower to clean off any leftover dust
  • Reset default


Creative Styles menu

The only feature above I want to describe is called Creative Styles, which is similar to "Picture Styles" on Canon SLRs, and "Picture Control" on Nikon SLRs. There are eight presets to choose from, ranging from standard (default) to vivid to black and white. There's also an AdobeRGB option, if you want to shoot with that color space. For each of those presets you can adjust contrast, saturation, and sharpness.

And that's all I really want to say about the menu options! Let's move on to the test photos now!

The A200 and the 18 - 70 mm kit lens did a great job with our macro subject. The figurine is quite sharp, with plenty of detail captured (see the dust on the ears?). Colors are very saturated, but not over-the-top. There's no noise to be found, as you'd expect from a D-SLR.

How close you'll be able to get to your subject depends on your choice of lens. If you plan on doing a lot of close-up photography, then you may want to consider getting a dedicated macro lens. Sony makes two of them, with focal ranges of 50 and 100 mm.

I took the usual night photo with the optional Sony F3.5 - 5.6, 16 - 105 mm lens. Aside from being a bit soft, it looks very nice. Bringing in enough light was a piece of cake, thanks to the A200's manual shutter speed controls. There's no noise or noise reduction artifacting to be found here, and the A200 would be in big trouble if that wasn't the case. Purple fringing levels are relatively low.

I have two ISO tests for you in this review, and the first one uses the night scene you see above. Each of the photos below were taken at a different ISO sensitivity. Both high ISO (which kicks in at ISO 1600 and above) and long exposure noise reduction was turned on. While the crops below give you a brief idea of the A200's noise levels at each setting, viewing the full-size images is a good idea. Here we go:


ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

It doesn't take long for noise reduction to start kicking in on the DSLR-A200. As soon as you hit ISO 200, you can start to see details softening. Still, the results are usable for a midsize or maybe a large print (if shot in RAW mode). The detail loss continues at ISO 400, bringing your print size down to around 4 x 6. It's all downhill from there, with lots of smudged details and noise as the sensitivity continues to rise.

All-in-all, the A200 is noticeably worse than the competition when shooting JPEGs in low light. However, shooting in RAW mode disables noise reduction, which is why I strongly encourage you to use it if you're shooting in low light. I unfortunately do not have RAW versions of the night scene, but I will have a RAW vs. JPEG comparison for you in a moment that will illustrate my point.

There's very very slight redeye in the flash photo, but not enough to cause concern for me. The A200's flash doesn't pop up quite as high as most D-SLRs, so that may explain the result.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 18 - 70 mm kit lens. While I didn't find vignetting to be a problem, the kit lens definitely has issues with corner softness.

Here's that second ISO test I promised you. This one is taken in the studio, and the results can be compared to those from other cameras I've reviewed. Let's begin:


ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

The first thing I want to mention is that the A200 performs a lot better than its predecessor at high ISOs. Just compare the ISO 1600 shot above with this one from the A100 and you'll see what I mean.

As for the individual crops, everything is as smooth as butter through ISO 400. At ISO 800 we start to see some detail loss from noise reduction, which reduces your maximum print size a bit. ISO 1600 is a bit worse, but still usable for small or midsize prints. The only sensitivity I'd try to avoid is ISO 3200, which has quite a bit of detail loss due to noise reduction.

Comparing the ISO 1600 shot above to those from the Canon Rebel XTi, Nikon D40X, and the Olympus E-510, you can see that the A200 retains the least amount of detail (at least when shooting JPEGs).

To squeeze the most detail out of the A200, then you'll want to shoot in RAW mode. Have a look at the ISO 1600 shot from above, taken in both RAW and JPEG mode:


JPEG, ISO 1600

RAW -> JPEG (using Adobe Camera Raw), ISO 1600

RAW -> JPEG (with ACR) with NeatImage noise reduction, ISO 1600

The JPEG image isn't terribly impressive. It's soft, and loaded with both noise and noise reduction artifacting. The first RAW conversion is remarkably different: it's tack sharp, with minimal NR artifacting. There's noise here, but that's better than all that lost detail. I ran that image through NeatImage (my noise reduction software of choice) and it cleaned things up pretty well. This example shows you what the DSLR-A200 is capable of -- it's too bad that it can't deliver RAW quality in JPEG mode.

The DSLR-A200 is capable of taking very good quality photos, especially when shooting RAW (as I just illustrated). Photos were well-exposed, with pleasing, vivid color. I do think that the A200's photos are on the soft side, and if you agree you can either bump up the in-camera sharpening (using Creative Styles) or shoot in RAW. Noise isn't a problem until the highest ISO settings, but that's because the camera is applying so much noise reduction artifacting. Noise reduction eats away at fine details such as hair, grass, and leaves. I think NR has a lot to do with the overall softness of JPEGs, as well. Purple fringing was well controlled, at least on the two lenses I tested with the A200.

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at the twenty-one photos in our gallery first -- maybe even print a few. Then and only then can you decide if the DSLR-A200's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

Digital SLRs do not have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The DSLR-A200 has a pretty basic playback mode. You get slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, image rotation, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge the image by as much as 12X, and then move around in the enlarged area -- perfect for verifying focus or sharpness. You can also move from image to image -- keeping the same zoom and location -- by using the command dial.

The camera doesn't have any photo retouching or editing functions, unlike SLRs from Nikon and Olympus. The only thing you can do to photos is rotate them.

One feature that I do like is the ability to delete a bunch of photos at a time, instead of one or all of them.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press the Display button and you'll get a lot more, including a fancy histogram.

The DSLR-A200 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode.

How Does it Compare?

The Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 is a very capable entry-level D-SLR that needs improvement in one important area: JPEG photo quality. The A200 offers a lot of bang for the buck, with its 10 Megapixel CCD, built-in image stabilization, snappy performance, and great battery life. If you keep the ISO sensitivity low, the photo quality is very good. However, increasing the sensitivity (especially in low light) kicks the camera's noise reduction system in high gear, giving photos a soft appearance, with smudged details. Sure, you can get much better results by shooting in RAW mode, but my belief is that JPEGs should look just as good. If you're into post-processing your photos, then I can highly recommend the DSLR-A200. If you don't want to fuss with your computer to get the most out of the camera, then you might want to consider something else.

The DSLR-A200 is a midsize digital SLR with a sturdy plastic shell over a metal frame. While its price may be entry-level, the A200's construction is not. The right hand grip is just the right size, with other controls within easy reach of your fingers. Like all of Sony's digital SLRs, the A200 uses the Alpha lens mount that was created by Minolta many years ago. That gives the A200 backward compatibility with scores of lenses, plus all the new ones being developed by Sony. And, with built-in sensor-shift image stabilization, almost every one of those lenses will have shake reduction as soon as you attach it. The sensor-shift system does double duty on the A200, also acting as a dust reduction system when the camera is turned off. On the back of the camera you'll find a 2.7" LCD display, up from 2.5" on the DSLR-A100. The screen is used only for menus and reviewing photos you've taken -- there's no live view here. The optical viewfinder is on the small side (0.83X magnification) and is pretty hard to see through in low light. One old Minolta feature that I wish would go away is the proprietary hot shoe found on the A200 and its cousins. While Sony offers several flashes, you won't be able to use a "standard" external flash with the A200.

The A200 has features for both beginners and enthusiasts alike. If you want point-and-shoot, you've got it, with an auto mode, plus six scene modes. If you want "control", then the A200 offers a lot of that as well, ranging from aperture and shutter speed to white balance (which can be fine-tuned). The A200's Creative Styles feature lets you tweak the contrast, saturation, and sharpness for various situations (e.g. portrait, night scene). While the A200 offers the same D-Range Optimizer feature as many other Sony cameras, I didn't find the "advanced" option to be any better than the "standard" one (it works a lot better on the A700, where you can manually adjust it). As you'd expect, the DSLR-A200 supports the RAW image format, and Sony gives you some good software to work with those photos. One popular D-SLR feature that's not supported is remote capture -- you'll need to pony up for the A700 if you want that feature.

The DSLR-A200's performance was very good in most respects. The camera is ready to start taking photos as soon as you slide the power switch. Focusing speeds were excellent, with the only exception being in low light, where they were on the slow side of things (even with the flash-based AF-assist lamp). Shutter lag wasn't a problem, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal. While not quite as fast as advertised, the A200's burst mode keeps up with the other entry-level digital SLRs out there. I was able to take three RAW+JPEG, six RAW, and an unlimited number of JPEGs at 2.8 frames/second before the burst rate slowed down. The area in which the A200 really shines is battery life: it's the best of any entry-level digital SLR. And, if you want more power, you can purchase the optional battery grip, which gives you a whopping 1500 shots per charge. As you'd expect, the A200 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

Overall, the A200's photo quality was very good, but the difference between RAW and JPEG images is disconcerting. JPEG images are considerably softer than those taken in RAW format, with noticeable noise reduction artifacting starting at ISO 200 in low light, and ISO 800 in good light. The soft-in-the-corners kit lens doesn't help matters, either. The good news is that you can avoid these issues by shooting in RAW, and the bad news is that you then have to post-process each image. The A200 is capable of great things, but the Bionz image processor is smudging them away. The rest of the photo quality news is all good. The A200 takes photos with accurate exposure, and pleasing, vivid colors. Noise isn't really a problem until the highest ISO settings, due to all that noise reduction. Redeye is minimal, as is purple fringing (though this will vary with the lens you're using).

In many ways, reviewing the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 reminded me a lot of my experiences with the Pentax K10D. Both are great cameras, but they don't deliver the kind of JPEG photo quality you know they can produce. If you'll be shooting at low ISOs, or don't mind shooting RAW, then I can recommend the DSLR-A200. If you want great high ISO shots straight out of the box, then you'll probably want to consider another camera.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality at lower ISO settings or in RAW mode
  • Well built, easy-to-hold body
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization reduces blur on most legacy Minolta and all forthcoming Sony lenses
  • Dust reduction system
  • Full manual controls
  • RAW image format supported; good editing software included
  • Snappy performance in most areas
  • Support for wireless flashes
  • Best-in-class battery life
  • Optional battery grip
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • Soft JPEG photos, with too much noise reduction above ISO 200 (in low light) and ISO 800 (in normal light)
  • Great RAW photo quality shots that camera is capable of producing much better looking JPEGs
  • Sluggish low light focusing
  • Small viewfinder can be hard to see in low light
  • No live view support (only mentioning this since most of the competition has it now)
  • Legacy hot shoe limits third party flash options
  • 18 - 70 mm kit lens isn't the greatest (lots of corner blurring)
  • No remote capture support
  • Manual not terribly detailed

Some other midrange D-SLRs to consider include the Canon EOS Rebel XSi, Nikon D60, Olympus E-510, Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, and the Pentax K200D.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the A200 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out the DSLR-A200's photo quality in our gallery!

Feedback & Discussion

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

If you have questions about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or technical support.

Want another opinion?

You'll find additional reviews of the A200 at Steve's Digicams and Imaging Resource.