Don't be fooled by the Sony SLT-A35's diminutive dimensions. A true photographic powerhouse, it boasts a 16.5-megapixel sensor and, for £486 all in, a great 18-55mm kit lens.
It faces stiff competition from the long-established dSLR brand leaders, but on the evidence of our tests, it's well-equipped to take them head on.
Shooting and test shots
The A35 feels great in your hand. It's smaller than you'd expect, and very well balanced with the kit lens attached. The relevant switches and buttons are perfectly placed, with notches at the front and back of the grip for greater support.
The focusing ring on the front of the kit lens is fat and coated in rubber, which greatly eases the process of getting a quick fix on your subject.
However, in common with many mid-range rivals, it's a fixed part of the barrel, rather than a cuff that sits around it, so it also rotates any attached filters, and thus change the orientation of a polariser of gradated filter. If you're using one, you'll need to set the focus first and then, if you're using manual focus, be careful when correcting the filter not to knock the focus out of line.
In use, the lens is sharp and the A35 itself hugely versatile. We performed the majority of our tests with the camera set to Aperture Priority, in which the front-mounted wheel that sits just above your index finger lets you quickly dial in your chosen settings. For the first of the images below we set it to f22; for the second, f3.5. The results speak for themselves, with a nice tight focal point in the latter, throwing the rest of the scene into soft focus.
Sensitivity tops out at ISO 12800, which you would imagine to be pretty unusable. To put this to the test, we used the A35 at twilight, after the sun had sunk below the horizon but before all of the light disappeared from the sky, and shot a series of frames between ISO 100 and ISO 12800.
While there's no denying that the image quality degraded with each increase in sensitivity, introducing a greater degree of noise, it was still very easy to tell what was going on in the ISO 12800 shot, which had a slightly pointillist feel to it.
Optimum results in this test were achieved at ISO 400, where noise was minimal and colours remained vivid. The overall result looked as though it had been shot in overcast conditions, rather than after sundown. At ISO 100, we were unable to hold the camera still enough for a sharp result without exposure compensation.
However, the A35 also has a clever auto ISO setting that shoots 10 frames in quick succession, combining the results for the best possible outcome -- a feature we found particularly useful in early evening when light levels were starting to fail.
Chromatic aberration was almost entirely absent, but did appear as a pink fringe in very small measure on some shots where narrow branches passed across an otherwise white sky, or the light appeared through narrow openings in dense foliage. We had to really search for this, so it certainly wasn't something that would put us off spending money on an A35.
The sensor's rendering power impressed us greatly throughout our tests, easily differentiating between very similar tones, such as a largely green scene involving conifers, grass and creamy flowers, producing a result with both high detail and great subtlety.
The A35 shoots movies in AVCHD or MP4 format, with a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080 (1440 x 1080 when shooting MP4). We used the former in our tests and were very impressed by the results.
Colours were as good in movies as they were in stills, and the focus just as sharp. The mics did an excellent job of picking up subtle background noise, and the auto exposure provided super-smooth compensation as we changed the level of light entering the lens by tilting the camera within the filmed scene.
Naturally all zoom adjustments are manual, so unless you have very steady hands you'd be advised to settle for a single composition at the start of your shot and restrict any changes to panning if at all possible. You should also switch to manual focus, as we found that auto focus introduced occasional ticks on our movie soundtracks as it made adjustments while we were filming.
The viewfinder is electronic, rather than optical. However, where we criticised the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 for shunning a true through-the-lens alternative, we have no similar complaints here. The A35's eyepiece screen is finer than the one featured in the Panasonic, cramming an impressive 1.4 megapixels -- around 1.5 times the number present on the rear LCD screen - into a 1.1cm display.
A proximity sensor just below the viewfinder switches between the eyepiece and the LCD as you bring your eye close, and can also be set to start hunting for focus within the frame when it senses you moving closer.
It's rarely necessary to trawl the menus for the most common shooting functions. The scene selection dial sits on the left of the body to make space behind the shutter release for a set of well-spaced controls. Among these are what Sony calls DRO and AEL.
The first, DRO - D-Range Optimiser, balances the levels within the image to bring out the best possible detail in both highlights and shadows. The second, AEL -- Auto Exposure Lock -- works like focus lock. Any camera worthy of the name lets you half-press the shutter release to fix the focus and then move within the frame to put that focal point to one side. AEL does the same for exposure, using the prevailing view at the time it was invoked as its reference point so that you can then change position and shoot without the camera resampling the exposure.
When used with care, the results of AEL can make a subtle but significant difference to the overall tone of your frame. In the first example below we framed the scene as you see it and shot it without any adjustments. In the second, we framed the area we wanted to sample, positioning the horizon two thirds of the way up the composition, held the AEL button and then re-framed the scene to match the first before taking the shot. The result is a better exposed sky, a more vivid horizon and slightly lifted shades on the field behind the subject, without any sacrifice to the tone of the car.
Most of those functions that don't have a button of their own are clustered on the unified Fn button, which opens up drive mode, ISO settings, face detection and smile shutter, among others. Shutter speeds run from 1/4000 to 30 seconds, plus a bulb option for capturing night skies and particularly dark scenes.
When you do get to the menus, though, you'll find them both extensive and well thought-out. Leave one of their options highlighted but unselected for too long, and up pops an explanation, so even if you don't know quite what you're looking for you should find it before too long.
In common with the HX7V and W570 reviewed this month, the A35 takes both Sony's proprietary Memory Stick Pro Duo and Pro Duo-HG, and SD, SDHC and SDXC media; news that will no doubt be welcome to brand switchers who want to bring a stock of existing cards with them. Memory Stick Pro, Memory Stick Duo and vanilla Memory Stick are incompatible with this camera.
Media slots in beside the battery, the cover for which is well offset from the tripod mount point, making it easy to replace a spent battery or full card without removing the tripod adaptor. This point is itself aligned with the centre of the lens, allowing for more accurate panoramas as you swivel the camera body around the focal point.
The A35's results speak for themselves. Colours are true and focus is sharp, while the carefully positioned controls make it easy to achieve some great results in very short order.
If you don't already have a stock of lenses for a rival manufacturer, take a serious look at the A35 when you're next consider an upgrade. When bought with the kit lens, it is extraordinary value for money.