Sony Alpha SLT-a35 DSLR offers solid assortment of options
The 16 megapixel Sony Alpha SLT-a35 is part of Sony’s second-generation SLT (single lens translucent) DSLR line, using the company’s unique Translucent Mirror Technology. There are a few differences between the new model and its predecessor, the a33, with most changes happening under the hood.
In addition to a redesigned sensor with a slight increase in resolution from 14 to 16 megapixels, the camera also sports an updated BIONZ processor that specializes in suppressing color and luminance noise. Perhaps two of the most obvious changes include the addition of Picture Effects (toy camera, pop color) to the camera’s scene modes and the loss of a tiltable LCD. Eliminating the tilt/swivel LCD of the a33 and the higher end a55 (which also has GPS), while a disappointment, probably helped bring the a35’s price down.
But this entry-level camera is relatively small, fast and offers a solid assortment of DSLR options—including manual and semimanual exposure modes—that serve as tools for those familiar with apertures and shutter speeds as well as a learning tool for newcomers who want to step up to more advanced features. At the same time, the a35 is beginner friendly and capable of taking really nice photos using the camera’s automatic settings.
With manual, semimanual, and a couple of automatic exposure modes, the Sony Alpha SLT-a35 is equipped with the core features expected in an entry level DSLR. The camera can record full HD video with stereo sound but is also equipped with a jack for an external microphone—a feature rarely seen on a camera in this price range.
Sensor-shift image stabilization, Sony’s DRO (dynamic range optimizer), and HDR (high dynamic range) extend the a35’s feature set, along with the ability to shoot RAW, color temperature controls for fine tuning white balance, and two noise reduction settings. Creative Style mode offers a number of presets such as standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset, and black and white. Each can be customized to individual aesthetics such as +/-3 step adjustments for contrast, saturation, and sharpness. Sony is known for its panorama sweep modes and the a35 offers this easy-to-use feature in both 2D and 3D. Multiple face detection options and smile shutter are also part of the a35’s feature set. Add these—and its other features—together and it’s clear that this entry-level camera goes beyond the basics. At the same time, a built-in help guide is available to explain most features.
Although not as small or light as mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX-5N or NEX-C3, the a35 comes in a relatively compact body compared to other DSLRs. It measures 4 7/8-by-3 5/8-by-3 1/3 inches (excluding the grip and lens mount) and weighs about 23 ounces with battery and media installed. A single slot in the battery compartment accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC and Memory Stick PRO DUO/PRO-HG DUO cards. But because the camera is compact, longer lenses feel a little unwieldy.
For the most part, the a35 looks and feels like a compact DSLR. A small grip, which may be uncomfortable for photographers with larger hands, provides a sturdy handhold. There are plenty of external controls and most are positioned for easy access, but the mode dial is positioned to the left of the viewfinder, which may take a little getting used to.
Perhaps the biggest usability difference between a standard DSLR and an SLT is that the a35 uses an electronic viewfinder. As EVFs (electronic viewfinder) go, this one isn’t bad. It’s pretty clear and bright, although fast movement sometimes produces ghosting or smearing. The high resolution LCD, however, is always available (an electronic sensor switches between the LCD and EVF when you put the camera up to your eye). What’s impressive for photographers who normally wear glasses is the +/-4 dioptric adjustment, allowing some (if not most) of us to ditch the eyewear when shooting.
New and notable
Although the Sony SLT-a35 is more of a refresh of its SLT-a33 sibling than a revolutionary update, this model offers a number of intriguing variations.
Sensor: The camera is built around a new Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor that, in combination with its new BIONZ processor, is designed to improve low light/high ISO performance, continuous capture speed, and video recording time.
Battery life: Battery life has been improved and a single charge will last for 440 shots using the LCD versus the a33’s 340 shots.
Picture Effects: Most digital cameras now come with a set of special effects and Sony has included seven types, including the now-ubiquitous toy camera (for a simulated tilt/shift lens look), pop color, retro, posterization (black and white or color), partial color (red, green, blue or yellow), high key, and high contrast monochrome. They’re easy to use and add a bit of creativity to standard photographs. The partial color option is a little tricky since it depends on the colors available in the shot, but the rest are pretty straightforward. Sony has issued a firmware update to add Picture Effects to a33 and a55 model cameras.
Tele Zoom High Speed Shooting: In full resolution, the a35 can reach continuous burst speeds of up to 5.5 frames per second. Switch into the new Tele Zoom mode (a separate option on the mode dial) and the camera will capture up to 7 frames per second. In order to reach such high speeds, a 1.4x crop is applied to the image resulting in an 8.4 megapixel file—which is still large enough to make good-sized prints. Unlike other cameras, which often lock in focus and exposure on the first frame in order to attain high speed shooting, the a35’s continuous autofocus and autoexposure are active while shooting.
Sweep Panorama: Sweep panorama mode, which locks in exposure at the first frame, captures multiple images and automatically stitches them together in camera. This is one of Sony’s signature modes and once you get the hang of it, it's easy to use and produces some really nice images. File sizes can reach up to 23 megapixels, so pick up some panorama paper for printing. Photographers with a 3D TV may want to try the 3D version during which the camera captures separate right and left images.
Other special features: Auto HDR captures and combines three images—one each for highlight, midtone, and shadow detail—to expand the dynamic range of a scene. Sony’s DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) is also designed to enhance dynamic range and is especially useful for backlit subjects or scenes with bright highlights and deep shadows. In addition to Auto, users can choose the DRO’s intensity level. Handheld Twilight and Multi-frame NR (noise reduction) both capture six images in a fraction of a second and combine them to reduce image noise and blur. Both options are actually pretty effective, too.
The Sony Alpha SLT-a35’s still image quality is, overall, better than average in the entry-level DSLR class of cameras. Color accuracy is quite good, with a natural but nicely saturated look but if your aesthetics lean towards punchier (or more subtle) renderings, Creative Style options provide the appropriate tools for tweaking.
Color earned an above average numerical score and a word score of Very Good in our lab tests. Exposures were accurate for the most part and also earned an above average numerical score and a word score of Very Good from Macworld's team of judges. Even without engaging Sony’s DRO (dynamic range optimizer), the a35 showed a better than average dynamic range. Using the kit lens, the a35 also scored well in terms of sharpness and [lack of] distortion, with word scores of Very Good for both categories. Of course, results may vary depending on the lens used.
Image noise levels didn’t quite meet my expectations but weren’t bad up to about ISO 800. Somewhat aggressive noise reduction softened details (there’s very limited user control over how much noise reduction is applied), so stick with smaller prints above ISO 800 and avoid anything above ISO 1600 unless absolutely necessary. With Steady Shot, flash, or a tripod, you shouldn’t need to bump the ISO that high. When in doubt, try out Sony’s handheld twilight or Multi-frame Noise reduction (selectable up to ISO 25,600). Both modes shoot and combine six images to help avoid image noise and, for the most part, work pretty well—possibly even better than the previous model.
Below is a sampling of shots and videos taken by the lab with this camera.
You can record video in full HD 1080/60i in AVCHD format. If you don’t want to fool with AVCHD, you can also record 1080/30p HD movies (1440-by-1080) and standard definition 480/30p movies in MP4. Video capture is actually quite good for an entry level camera, with clear footage, better than average exposure (in good light) and decent stereo sound which can be enhanced with an external microphone. Being able to shoot video using the EVF is a real bonus since bringing the viewfinder to your eye provides an additional stability point and video autofocus adds another positive to the video shooting experience. In numerical and word scoring, video and audio were slightly lower than all of this camera’s other attributes' scores, but not by much. The a35 still scored average or above numerically and Good in word scores for video and audio, but not as high as earlier testing with the Sony SLT-a55, for example.
Macworld’s buying advice
A full complement of features, compact body, speedy overall performance, and Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology make the SLT-a35 a good option for entry level users who want a highly functional, lightweight camera that offers some of the benefits of a megazoom (EVF that’s usable during video capture), but retains all the plusses of a DSLR.
[Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 19 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, how-to articles, and images have appeared in a wide variety of publications and websites.]