The Sony A-range (or Alpha to give them their correct monicker), spans the entire gamut of digital cameras from entry-level models up to the higher end of the price spectrum. The A300 was aimed at the D-SLR (Digitial Single Lens Reflex) beginner, costing £420.00 at time of purchase (2009) from Jessops as part of a deal including a filter, a bag and a 4GB SD memory card.
The Alpha branding was previously used by Minolta but after that company's acquisition by Sony in 2006, the technology and brand-name was introduced by Sony as their own. This also means that Minolta's back catalogue of lenses also fit the Sony Alpha range. For the purpose of this review and lack of an extended character set on this iPad, it shall be known henceforth as an A300 but take this to mean as Alpha-300, if that makes sense?
The A300, upon it's release in 2008, came just before HD video started to make it's way onto D-SLR's but it did have a very interesting gimmick - the live-view LCD was tiltable and could be positioned so as to be seen from different angles. This allows, for example, the camera to be held high over the heads of a crowd to take a snap of the action while still viewing the display. While live-view LCD's had been on fixed-lens compact cameras since before the dawn of time, they had only just started to make an appearance on the lower-end market of D-SLR's.
Look and feel
The Sony A300 is very sturdy and chunky in the hands and is most definitely not a lightweight machine. I say hands, plural, as it's not a camera that can be operated with just one hand - it's just too heavy to hold with any kind of steadiness. The right-hand grips the ergonomically-designed front grip while the left is used to hold the camera steady and to zoom or focus. Using the viewfinder (as opposed to looking at the LCD) to frame shots also helps as the head provides an extra steady-point.
The right-hand grippage area is covered in a soft rubberised material meaning slippage is minimal. More grippage and less slippage is an important consideration with a camera of this size, weight and yes, cost. It weighs 582 grams (and the lens is extra) and measures 131mm x 99mm x 75mm. That's well over half a kilo of camera to lug around. The gold and silver trim is a little plasticky in places though and the entry-level price point means there are obvious corners to be cut *somewhere*.
The sturdiness I have had opportunity to test. A (mis)fortuitous sequence of events led to the camera being thrown out of my camera bag at high speed onto hard, unforgiving pavement stone. A heart-rending tinkling glass sound and a plethora of crunchy bits shaking behind the lens cover filled me with dread. By incredible luck, I had fitted a cheap glass filter that came with the camera and this took the brunt of the impact. The filter had smashed but the lens was undamaged, as was the body. I knelt down and gave praise to my lucky stars and the camera has given me no problems since. A lesson was learnt. Fitting a £5 filter saved an expensive lens and possibly body too.
Everything is where it's supposed to be and the buttons are suitably chunky to fit in with the rest of the camera. The shutter button is within easy reach of the index finger and while hand-sizes vary, I've found my much smaller wife can operate it with the same ease as I can. With the hand in a natural position, photographs are a doddle to take. There is a lip that allows the camera to rest on the middle finger while the index finger does the shooting. The thumb is then free to operate the buttons on the back.
There is a jog-wheel just to the side of the shutter button and this allows settings of the A300 to be rotated through depending on the mode of the camera. In picture playback mode for example, it flicks through the pictures. While looking through the viewfinder, there is a graphical display showing which setting is being changed.
There is a shooting-mode wheel on the left hand side and as its name would indicate, this allows different shooting modes to be instigated. As per compact cameras, there are modes for portraits, landscapes, night shooting etc but as this is a single-lens reflex camera, there are other options that allow for a much greater degree of control over the finished picture.
Shutter Priority mode for example, allows the shutter speed to be manually adjusted to a fine degree. For a fast moving subject, select a very fast speed such as 1/750th of a second or more. The fastest is 1/4000th of a second while the slowest speed is 30 seconds that can be used to photograph scenes with very low ambient light. There is also a 'bulb' mode where the shutter is continuously open allowing things such as star trails to be photographed. For this and for any slow shutter speed shot, it is imperative the camera is held steady such as on a tripod and an external control is used to 'hold' the shutter button in an open position. On the left side, you will find a small recess covered by a rubber clip housing the connector for an external control source.
The all-important (nowadays anyway) menus are easy enough to navigate with usually clear instructions on which button to press. A couple of the buttons are in awkward places such as the ISO selector. These are located on the top cluster, shoe-horned in between the flash and shooting button and I find I have to move my whole hand to access the controls in that area. These buttons also double-up in picture-playback mode as image manipulation controls such as zooming and panning. Most of the controls I can operate with gloved hands but some of those such as those in the top cluster, my hands have to be au naturelle.
The supplied 18-70mm lens is considered to be practical for everyday use and is a manual zoom, that is, you have to twist it round to make objects appear closer. The lens is interchangeable and there is a wide range of other lenses that can be used but make sure you pick one with the correct mountings. Only Sony or older Minolta lenses will fit. It's a shame there isn't some kind of universal lens attachment but there you go. It's easy enough to clean and a small lens cloth is essential. The official Sony lens cap that came with the kit fits well but disappointingly there is no lug to fit a cord meaning it is easy to misplace. I know this from bitter experience.
Filters (as far as I know) ARE a universal fit and these will screw onto the very finely engineered screw fitting on the front of the lens without having to remove anything (except the lens cap of course). As mentioned, fitting a filter as standard is a cheap way to protect that lens, as well as enhancing your photos.
It has auto and manual focus modes, with a switch on the side of the lens mount to alternate. Manual focussing is achieved by twisting the focus ring on the end of the lens. Auto-focus is still highly configurable with 12 separate focus points to choose from. It can be a bit fiddly to make it focus on the actual part you want it to focus on. Half-pressing the shutter button rotates around the focus points (as seen through the viewfinder) and it's a case of clicking until it's highlighted the one you want. Most of the time it works fine but sometimes it focusses on things it shouldn't.
One thing that really niggles me is if the camera is switched on with the focus mode set to 'Manual', it reverts back to 'Auto' regardless of the switch position. Flicking it back and forth resolves the issue; until it's turned off and back on again of course.
The Tilting LCD
The tilting LCD is lovely, I have to say. It's clear enough and while not the largest in the camera market, it's certainly adequate to see photos in reasonable detail, enough to determine if the photo is good for later use. The only problem here, and one not exclusive to the A300, is that of slightly out of focus photos. Often they look fine on the low resolution LCD, but when viewed on a much higher resolution computer monitor, the fault is much more apparent.
It tilts downwards at nearly 45 degrees and it will point upwards completely horizontally - 90 degrees from it's starting position. It's more than just a gimmick as on a tripod it allows for shot-finding so much easier but please note, it doesn't tilt far enough for self-portraits to be taken.
In live-view, the LCD not only shows what the lens is seeing (a major achievement for SLR cameras) but also what the finished photo is like after any adjustments have been made, such as focus, aperture and shutter speed. A real boon. In other live-view systems, there is a noticeable lag between pressing the shutter button and the actual picture being taken. This is because those cameras have to flip an internal mirror back down to redirect light onto the photographic sensor. Here, Sony have utilised a clever double mirror arrangement and there is no lag at all when taking a photo. Very nice indeed and not a feature that is normally found on a base-level model.
Flash, ah ha, saviour of the universe
The A300's flash in auto-flash mode will pop up automatically if the light sensor deems it necessary. It's very sensitive and I've found it will do it on cloudy days when I would have preferred it not to. The men option to turn it off is relatively straight-forward with only 3 button presses of the joypad to do so.
In its open position, the flash is not too far away from the body meaning the light it gives out is very close to eye-level of the picture subject so red-eye can be a problem. Shadowing often occurs too and many a time I've had to retake a photo from a slightly different angle so the flash is not encumbered. The fastest speed with which the A300 supports flash sync is 1/160th of a second. This compares well with other models in this price range (apparently).
The A300 is very fast to turn on and is photo-ready in under a second. As fast as I can put it up to my eye in actual fact. The speed doesn't stop there. Using a fast shutter, quite dramatic action shots can be taken of fast-moving subjects. It will take up to 3 frames a second and will keep that burst going for as long as there is enough space on the SD memory card. This speed comes at a price; there must be good light or the images will be dark. Playing around with the ISO setting can remedy this but noise then becomes an issue.
There is an anti-shake system, dubbed the Super-Steady Shot system by Sony that evens out any small shakes or tremors especially noticeable on slower shutter speeds (the shutter is open for longer meaning the camera has to stay steady for a longer period of time). This is built into the camera and works independently of the lens attached. Some lenses, particularly those at the costlier end of the market, have this built in but there is a switch to turn off the camera-built one. The offset to this is the stabilising effect can't be seen through the viewfinder as it's a post-production effect. Reading reports, it appears Super-Steady Shot is good up to 1/12th of second which sounds fast but is quite slow in shutter speed terms.
If the lens is removed, the interior of the camera is susceptible to minute dust particles. Following on the lead of most other D-SLR camera manufacturers, Sony have provided an anti-dust mechanism that literally shakes dust particles off the sensor. I've never had it off, the lens that is, but reading around on the 'net would indicate it works as well as any other. I'll have to take their word for it.
It's worth pointing out I'm no photography expert nor do I have a vast range of different cameras to compare the output to. I can say that I've been incredibly impressed with the photographs from the A300. Colours are vivid and reproduction is as true to the original subject as I can remember them being. Those 10.2 megapixels are sharp and clear and night-time pictures, particularly using a long shutter speed, appear with very little noise - a common complaint amongst compact camera owners.
ISO-affected noise doesn't become noticeable until around the 1600 Mark and everyday shooting below that level is perfectly adequate. It takes some serious zooming-in to find any discernible defects or for that matter, an end to the fine detail.
On the highest resolution, the image size can go up to around 4.5mb.
The A300, like its other Sony counterparts, uses a proprietary Sony battery so replacements are likely to be expensive. Expect to pay around the £30 - £40 mark. Mine is still going strong after three years of use though. A full battery charge will last for 2 'rolls' of film on a 4gb SD memory card. That's roughly 800 photos. This decreases considerably, by about half, if using the live-view finder.
The battery is underneath via a fiddly locking mechanism and located quite closely to the tripod connector. It would have to be taken off the tripod to change the battery. Using a quick-release tripod obviously makes this easier.
The manual is reasonable I guess. It does assume a reasonable level of technical knowledge and for a camera aimed at someone wanting to take up photography as a hobby, I would have expected something a little less .. esoteric and more straightforward. Of course, that could be just me.
On full auto mode, the A300 works just like a normal compact camera and this is the mode I've had the most use out of. It's more than adequate for everyday pictures. I'm very much an inexperienced but enthusiastic hobbyist when it comes to photography and I tend to use the more advanced features only when necessary. It's easy to use and providing you know what some of the terminology means, using those advanced features will be a doddle.
Messing around with shutter priority has been a lot of fun. I've had spectacular results from a fireworks display I attended and action shots with the kids are a delight. Being able to pick it up and take photos straight away is fantastic and it's easy to capture that perfect moment. Using the bulb function means we've been to able to participate in a little light-drawing too.
On a tripod, that live display makes perfect sense. No longer do I have to crouch down and look through the viewfinder, I don't even have to crouch to see the LCD - I can tilt it upwards to see it.
It IS heavy, there's no getting round it. Pointing it back at oneself for a self-portrait is precarious at best and carrying it around all day becomes tiresome. The supplied strap is reasonable though chafing can occur if you're not careful. It's just a shame there's nothing screams 'Tourist' more than a sheep-skin lined camera strap so I've denied myself that little luxury, for now at least. Walking with it around the neck necessitates a hand to steady it's swaying inclination or else one's ribs become broken.
As a step-up from a compact camera, the Sony A300 more than fulfils its aims and it has enough features to satisfy a more-hardened photographer as well as being within reach of an interested beginner like myself. The 10.2 megapixel count is admittedly lacking somewhat and even on its release it was never at the fore-front. But then, at that price point, it was never intended to be. However, the smaller pixel size does allow a slightly faster continuous burst of shooting than its more expensive sibling, the A350.
The tilting LCD is more than just a gimmick and has genuinely proven useful. As for the build quality, it passed my unintentional sturdiness test with flying colours.
I am really impressed by the A300 and after nearly two years of ownership, I'm not ready to upgrade it any time soon. It has taken pictures worthy enough of being put onto canvas and even with a potentially damaging drop onto concrete, it has never skipped a beat. The pictures are as good as I can expect and it has got some really useful features. £420.00 is a major investment and my initial reason for purchasing this model was it had to have a lot of bang for the bucks. I can safely say it's delivered plenty of bangs for the price and it's one I'm glad I made.
Unfortunately, the A300 is now discontinued but it can still be found with a little digging around. Second-hand prices remain strong and expect to pay anything over £250.00 for a decent pre-owned one.