Sony A850 and A900 Review

Sony A850 and A900

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

Sony A850 and A900

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

Sony A850 and A900

Autofocus

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.

Image Quality

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.

Sony A850, A900, Canon 5D Mark II and 7D

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 HVL-F58AM

Like Nikon and Canon, Sony has it’s own speedlights and wireless flash system.  The two main hot shoe flashes for the prosumer DSLR models are the HVL-F58AM and the HVL-F42AM.

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.

Sony HVL-F58AM

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

Sony A850 and A900

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.

Sony A850 and A900

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.

Conclusion

Sony A850 and A900

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:

Sony A850 at B&H Photo

Sony A900 at B&H Photo

By making your photography purchases at B&H Photo through these links, you are helping Photography Bay to continue bring quality camera tests, news and reviews. Thanks for your continued support.

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Comments

  1. Bill O'Connor says

    Pretty nice review with some omissions that surprised me. First, the lenses available, while not too numerous, are stellar. The Zeiss 16-35 and 24-70, both constant 2.8′s make buying this camera quite tempting, especially since the Canon
    24-70 version is out of date and clearly outclassed by the Zeiss. Even the 70-400 Sony outclasses the Canon 100-400 pretty badly.
    Then, the flash, the swiveling head is unique. If a photographer uses flash on the camera a lot, then vertical shots are suddenly much more pleasing.
    My beef with Nikon–and I used to be a loyal user–are that they are usually drug kicking and screaming into innovation by other brands. Now, even Canon has seen another maker show them a few things about bringing much needed innovations to their lines.
    The lack of video would not be missed if we’d never had it. But, again, with Canon’s 5D video so good it used for shooting professional video, one wonders
    when Sony will wake up.

  2. says

    I own the a850. I don’t believe you would see any difference between the noise performance of the a850 and the Canon 5Dmk2 until the prints were very very big and even then wouldn’t until at least above 1600 when color noise reduction was used. The Sony is much better made, see Luminous Landscape’s report on their Antarctica expedition of about a year ago. In body sensor stabilization is a deal breaker for me as I have a tremor and need it for every lens. It makes it possible for me to shoot 3 stops slower than otherwise. I shopped for several months and I believe that the Sony was the best choice for me. If I didn’t have a tremor and was a sports photographer, I abhor sports, and had a large income then a top of the line Nikon would have been more appropriate especially for capture speed. I think one of the things that makes the Sony look bad is its poor JPEG quality. I don’t believe that anyone with a $2000 camera should be shooting anything but RAW but reviewers almost always compare JPEG quality. External noise processing programs, especially DXO, pretty much gets rid of noise with no perceptible loss of sharpness with ISO 1600 and below.

  3. PS Digital says

    I just recently bought a Sony a700 and love it so far. I can’t wait to buy a FF camera soon. The thing I love about both of these cameras (850 & 900) is the large viewfinder. I tried the 850 with a 50mm Sony lens and it was amazing. I have also tried the Canon and although I liked it, the Sony’s view through the OVF was way more impressive. I wear glasses and the Sony just works out better for me. I also tried the live view and video on the Canon models and was not so impressed. I think when Sony does put it on their cameras, it will be done right and will be a very useful feature. I just hope it doesn’t mess with the large viewfinder. Right now I would be happy with the 850 model to go with my 700. As for the reason people would use JPEG’s on a $2000.00 camera, there are many reasons. If you are shooting fine art, the RAW feature on these cameras can enhance the detail and works very well. There are also many situations where you would want to use JPEG though. Sometimes you need to get a job done quickly and don’t have time to process RAW. I think the quality of Sony’s JPEG’s is as good as the others. I would put either of these cameras up against the competition for their price range.
    The BIGGEST selling point for Sony for me is the IN CAMERA Anti-Shake function or Super Steady Shot as it is called. EVERY lens is stabilized, not just the ones you pay a Huge price for like the competition offers. Wide angle, Macro, Telephoto, Zoom….all are covered! It saves you money and a larger number of “keeper” shots in the long run. I noticed that right away from trying the 850 in the store. The shots were very sharp and handheld under store lighting.
    The other great thing is the UNIQUE flash. It rotates for vertical shots! Why didn’t someone think of this sooner? It can be rotated and swiveled for almost any angle you can imagine for bouncing the light.
    I used to be a Nikon user for years but not any more!

  4. john walker says

    i own a sony Alpha 700 i use the sony reflex 500Af for wildlife and its perfect camera images are brilliant

  5. Blackriver Images says

    Two other little known differences between the 900 and 850.

    One simply cosmetic difference is that the main dial has raised lettering on the A900. Just a little touch of class.

    Two the A900 has the ability to use the much cheaper and lighter HVL-F20AM to trigger other off camera flashes wirelessly. Oddly enough the A850 does not have this ability (which I’ve tested myself).

  6. says

    More of a hobby / holiday camera than a serious pro camera. Come on Sony. Produce a full frame camera that has Nikon Canon pro quality. I will buy one if you can produce it.