Sony Alpha SLT-A35 translucent mirror camera
Review Sony’s Alpha SLT-35 expands on its translucent mirror camera models that offer similar handling to a DSLR and compatibility with its A mount Alpha range of lenses. The catch with this magic mirror tech is that to keep things compact, you end up with an electronic viewfinder, rather than an optical one. The gains are fast AF and continuous shooting on more affordable and entry-level models.
Through the looking glass: Sony's SLT-A35 relies on a translucent mirror rather than a reflex mechanism
The Sony Alpha SLT-A35 features a 16.2Mp APS-C Exmor CMOS sensor with a sensitivity range up to ISO 12800, extendable to 25600. Its high-speed performance enables up to 7fps continuous shooting and uninterrupted AF in still and movie mode.
There are few variations, including body-only, but on review is the Sony Alpha SLT-A35 twin lens kit with the 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 SAM (standard kit lens) plus the 55-200mm f/4-5.6 SAM telephoto zoom lens. Shop around and you can find this twin set for under £600, but Sony's own site has it on sale at £700.
The idea of a translucent mirror is that stays in position during exposure, allowing light to reach both the focusing and the imaging sensor. The results are a smaller body compared to traditional DSLRs. Indeed, the A35 features a compact, rounded body that’s entirely plastic-made, yet is designed to look like magnesium alloy with its speckled matt finish.
Despite its diminutive dimensions, the camera feels as stable and safe in the hand as any bigger DSLR. The texturised grip provided at the front and the thumbrest at the back were a perfect fit for me but I reckon bigger hands might find it less comfortable. Considering the limited space available on such a small body, there are plenty of physical controls both on the top plate and on the back.
Controls are easy to reach but the small body might not suit all hands
These controls are all well designed and spaced for ergonomic and immediate access. Apart from the obvious inclusions, such as a direct movie button, I was very pleased to find that even some functions like exposure compensation and depth of field preview had their own direct access buttons. Such niceties typically only appear on more more expensive bodies.
Other often-used settings, such as ISO and White Balance, are accessed through the navigation pad. My main concern regarding the controls layout is the position of the playback button at the back of the camera. This appears on the bottom right and sits next to the delete button, which I found difficult to get used to. Another niggle is there's just one control dial to change shutter and aperture.
The 3in display viewing areas is reduced by icons in the margins
The Fn button next to the thumb rest gives access to a quick menu that is well organized and allows you to change common settings such as drive mode, flash, AF area, metering, dynamic range functions (DRO/HDR) and more. Selections are made with the shutter/aperture control dial at the front. The full menu is also well thought out with settings being divided into sections – it is quite extended though, with 12 different screens, so navigation can be lengthy.
The SLT-A35 features a 3in LCD screen with a 921k dot resolution which is sharp with good contrast. However, the actual viewing portion of the LCD is half an inch smaller than listed on the specs because the sides of the screen are permanently used to display menu options and settings. An optical viewfinder would require more light than the amount filtered through the translucent mirror, hence, the electronic equivalent. While this approach might not match the quality of an optical viewfinder, I found the performance from its 1.15m-dot resolution and 100 per cent frame coverage proved a very acceptable alternative.
One of the main attractions of the SLT option is the increased speed during capture. The A35 nicely obliges with the ability to continually shoot up to 5.5fps in standard mode or 7fps when the Telezoom mode is activated, which reduces the resolution to 8.4Mp. Start-up times and shutter lag are also impressive but where SLT really makes a difference is in the autofocus performance.
The A35 features a 15-point phase detection AF system with three cross sensors, which is one of the fastest and most responsive I've experienced with this class of camera. Both in still and video mode, the A35 locks onto the subject without any perceivable delay and constantly keeps the subject in focus, even in low light and with fast movement. The other by-product of this fast performance is a truly seamless Live View operation, which continues to be a sticky point even for far more expensive cameras.
The A-mount body accommodates Minolta, Konica and Sony Alpha lenses
If this lightweight, affordable camera had already pleasantly surprised me for its intelligent design, fast performance and innovative features, the best had yet to come. When I reviewed the images it produced I was blown away – the SLT-A35 delivered some stunning images with saturated, vivid yet natural colours and an unexpected level of fine detail.
18-55mm kit lens (35mm equivalent: 28-84mm)
55-200mm kit lens (35mm equivalent: 84-304mm)
The 1200-zone evaluative metering system is faultless resulting in sophisticated, pro-looking exposure revealing a broad tonal range and a great balance between shadows and highlights even in difficult lighting conditions. Dynamic range in very contrasty scenes can be further improved using one of the four Dynamic Range Optimiser options, which effectively help recover detail in shadow areas that would otherwise reproduce quite flatly.
Good low light performer
Low light images in particular are far better than anything I’ve seen in an entry-level model, and in many higher-end cameras. Available light shots show plenty of shadow detail, depth and good chromatic reproduction. I was also surprised to find quite a nice, smooth bokeh effect in shallow depth of field images, even though the optics in kit lenses are to be found wanting.
The A35 offers a sensitivity range of between ISO 100 and ISO 12800, with a Multi Frame Noise Reduction option that can extend sensitivity to ISO 25600. The ISO tests showed the A35 handles noise extremely well with virtually no noise up to ISO 800 and some slight increase in grain but without much chromatic noise from ISO 1600 onwards. At the higher end, images are still usable with only the fastest sensitivity suffering from excessive noise.
The A35 also offers a stand-alone Panoramic Sweep Mode and quite a comprehensive range of creative effects, such as Retro, High-Key, Toy Camera, Posterisation and Partial Colour, which can be applied to both stills and videos and can be previewed on screen before being applied.
Video performance is fast, smooth and detailed with just some processing delay in the writing of the file. Sound quality is generally good but some noise from the lens focusing operation is still picked up by the mic. The videos files are recorded in Full HD AVCHD 1920 x 1080, MP4 1440 x 1080 or VGA. In use with a Mac, I found the AVCHD files could be directly imported into iMovie but couldn't be directly dragged out from the card, which is bound to cause a few headaches.
An EVF isn't for everyone but reflex fans might be pleasantly surprised
The twin lens kit provides a decent option for a beginner with a versatile focal choice but they are no match for the quality of the camera’s sensor. Investing into better optics will eliminate the barrel distortion present at the wide-angle setting and the mild chromatic aberrations I observed in the telephoto zoom performance. As for battery life, it was very good with around 500 shots taken with one charge.
Given the current street price of the Sony SLT-A35, it's a real bargain and a camera suitable for both beginners and enthusiast photographers. If kitted out with better (and pricier) optics such as the Sony's Carl Zeiss options, then I daresy this little gem could easily become a back up, travelling choice for the pros. Indeed, it is a camera that is difficult to fault and one that really surprised me. ®
Catherine Monfils is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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