The Sony A850 and A900 are full frame cameras that pack in 24.6-megapixels on that big sensor. The cameras appear at the top-end of the Alpha system line up. At first blush, the A850 appears almost identical to the pricier Sony A900. After delving deeper into the A850, you’ll discover that there’s really not a whole lot of difference between it and the A900.
Because of the similarities between these two cameras and the fact that I reviewed them simultaneous, I decided to publish one review for both cameras rather than than two separate reviews with only minor changes in the text.
Sony A850 and A900 Key Differences
The differences between the A850 and A900 are so minor that it seems hard to justify the purchase of an A900 over the A850, given the $700 price discrepancy. The A850’s frame rate covers 3 fps, compared to 5 fps on the A900. Additionally, the A850 viewfinder coverage is 98% of the frame, compared to 100% coverage from the A900. Finally, the A900 includes a wireless remote, which is an excellent option; however, those who opt for the A850 can take some of that $700 they save to purchase the same remote for $30.
Sony A850 and A900 Ergonomics and Handling
Both bodies are identical, and you couldn’t tell the difference between them if you held them side by side without looking at the model number. The A850 and A900 are larger than previous Sony Alpha cameras.
I think Sony has done a great job with the body design. The grip is very comfortable like other Sony DSLRs that I’ve used. If you’ve used the Sony A700 before, you’ll feel the similarities in the A850 and A900. The rounded grip has an indention at the top for your ring finger and your forefinger fits comfortably in the groove where the shutter release is placed.
Controls are liberally scattered about on the cameras, giving you quick access to things like ISO, white balance, drive modes, metering modes and other settings. Notably absent, however, is a button or switch to change the autofocus area. In order to do so, you need to hit the Fn button and get to the quick menu where you can make your changes. However, if you are using the single-point local AF-mode, you can move the focus point around with the joystick on the back of the camera without any further menu navigation.
One of the complaints that I had about the lower-end A500 and A550 is that you had to jump into the menu to turn the sensor stabilization on and off. Not so with the prosumer A850 and A900 models. Thankfully, Sony put an on/off switch on the back of the cameras for SteadyShot image stabilization.
With big and bright viewfinders, these cameras work well even for those of us wearing glasses. I usually go with the contacts when shooting for any significant periods of time, but the A850 and A900 play well with glasses too.
All in all, the A850 and A900 handle very well. I like the larger body size and the comfortable grip. These cameras may even be more comfortable to hold than the Canon 5D Mark II and Nikon D700. Sony has done very well in the ergonomics department.
Sony A850 Performance
The A850 and A900 have a great autofocus system inside. You get 9 AF points, which can be selected by the user. The center AF point is center dual cross type for extra sensitivity. There are also 10 assist AF points.
The focus speed is quick and accurate on both cameras – even in low light. If you’ve read Photography Bay for a while, then you know that I like to use a single focus point, selecting individual points as necessary depending on the composition. Adjusting focus points is straightforward and easy with the joystick. As noted earlier though, if you like to change focus areas (e.g., Wide AF area, Spot AF area, etc.), then you’ll have to jump back to the quick menu.
My main gripe with the AF system is frame coverage. Nothing in this class of cameras stacks up to the frame coverage on the Nikon D700. While I’ll equate the speed of the AF system of the Sony cameras to the D700, the frame coverage and focus point options just don’t stack up for the A850 and A900. As a result, I end up with a lot of “focus and recompose” shooting.
With 24.6-megapixels, the A850 and A900 deliver in the resolution department. Files from the Alpha cameras are 6048 x 4032 pixels in size. With resolution like that, you can take advantage of the cropping space.
The color reproduction is solid straight out of the camera. I really like the results from the A850 and A900 – in good light.
In lower light, if you bump the ISO speed, then you can get in trouble pretty quick. The 5D Mark II and D700 easily have a stop or two advantage over the A900 and A850. Shooting over ISO 1600 would be ill-advised for the Sony DSLRs.
Previously, I published an ISO comparison for the A850 and A900, along with the 5D Mark II and 7D. Below is a short sample taken from a 100% crop of the test scene.
You can find the full comparison via the following link: Sony A850, A900 & Canon 5D Mark II ISO Comparisons
While these are JPEG samples, roughly the same differences hold true for RAW files.
At ISO 3200, the A850 and A900 start getting pretty messy with noise. That said, if you’re shooting at lower ISO settings, you get some really clean and crisp images. This makes the A850 and A900 great cameras for the studio or other well lit shooting environments.
Sony Flash System
Sony’s hotshoe is entirely different from Canon and Nikon. On the Canon and Nikon, some wireless triggers and other hotshoe devices are interchangeable across the brands. Not so with the A850 and A900. Sony Alpha DSLRs have a proprietary mount, and the flashes are equipped with a locking snap that you just push a button to release instead of the traditional twist lock that you find on Nikon and Canon DSLRs.
While both the A850 and A900 have a flash sync speed of 1/250s (it’s 1/200s if SteadyShot is enabled), the HVL-F42AM and HVL-F58AM offer a high speed sync mode that allows the use of flash throughout the entire shutter speed range.
The wireless flash operation works much like the Canon and Nikon systems. You can shoot wireless in up to 3 groups while using the HVL-F58AM as a controller and either the F58AM or F42AM as remotes. You can also adjust ratios for the respective groups. There’s a lot of power in this lighting system from Sony for those of you considering or committed to Alpha DSLRs. Note that you can use a popup flash on other Sony DSLRs to serve as the controller in the wireless system as well.
Sony A850 & A900 Accessories
I tested the A850 and A900 with the Sony 50mm f/1.4 lens, which is a great performer and one that I would heartily recommend. Sony also introduced a more affordable version of a “fast zoom” in the SAM 28-75mm f/2.8 lens along with the A850. Sony also has a number of Zeiss-branded lenses for exceptional quality glass to match the resolving power of the A850 and A900’s sensors.
If you go with the A850, I do recommend spending that $30 that I mentioned earlier on a wireless remote. Sony’s remote does a grand job and it’s a shame that it’s not included with the A850 since it was included with the A700.
Both cameras have dual card slots, one for a CF card and one for a Memory Stick. Frankly, I’m not a fan of the Memory Stick format due to its cost and the sluggish performance. I would say pass on the Memory Stick unless you really have a need for a backup card in your camera. Pick up some fast and big CF cards like the Lexar 300x or SanDisk Extreme Pro cards and you should be good to go. Note that the file sizes for the A850 and A900 can crest 30MB, so you really can’t have too much memory in your CF card pouch.
With overall solid performances from both the A900 and A850, Sony has made a powerful entrance into the full frame realm. I think the A850 and its $2000 price tag would have been a better entry point for Sony to come into the full frame semi-pro realm. Given the A900’s price point and the fact that the image quality and feature set is virtually identical between the two cameras (save for frame rate, viewfinder coverage, and a remote), I can’t really give a recommendation for the A900 over the A850.
As for the A850, it’s a great choice for those looking to get into the full frame realm but can’t quite come up with the extra dough for a Nikon D700 or Canon 5D Mark II – both of which I would put above these Sony cameras in overall performance. Also note that you can find older Canon 5D models well under $2000 in good condition at the time of this review.
Where to Buy the Sony A850 and A900
The Sony A850 and A900 are available from B&H Photo at the following link:
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