Finally, because the screen doesn’t black out while you’re shooting, the A300 is the first S.L.R. that lets you track a moving subject on the screen, shooting all the way. Too bad it manages fewer than two shots a second.
Sony’s perfection of Live View would be newsworthy even if it were the camera’s only notable twist. But ever since it bought Konica Minolta’s digital camera business two years ago, Sony has been tinkering in the halls of camera innovation, determined to catch up with Canon and Nikon.
All state-of-the-art S.L.R. features are present, including a system that shakes off any dust that may have drifted onto the sensor during a lens change; a battery gauge with actual percentage numbers ("74%") instead of four crude line segments; and an autofocus that begins to work the instant you hold the camera up to your eye, thanks to a proximity sensor.
Amazingly, Sony has finally quit trying to ram its proprietary, expensive Memory Stick cards down our throats; the A300 accepts CompactFlash memory cards instead — the least expensive, most rugged, most capacious type available.
The button layout and software design are a delight, too. Little things like a satisfying, clicky Off-On switch, dedicated self-timer and ISO (light-sensitivity) buttons, and scene-mode dial (presets for Portrait, Close-up, Sports and so on) let you operate this thing with a minimum of hunting through the sullen little manual. For an S.L.R., it’s quite small, and it feels terrific in your hand.
The big question, of course, is, how do the photos look?
In good light, they look sensational. Colors are vivid, contrast is excellent, subjects are razor-sharp. And since this is an S.L.R., there’s no shutter lag — that half-second delay after you press the shutter button, as there is on compact cameras.
Still, you’ll realize soon enough why this is a $760 camera, not a $1,500 one. In low light, the A300 simply doesn’t soak up enough light. Capturing subjects in motion indoors is just about hopeless without the flash, even at this camera’s maximum (and grainy) 3200 ISO setting. Blur is a huge problem in those situations.
At such times, you really see the difference between Sony’s in-body stabilization system and the in-lens systems on Nikon and Canon S.L.R.’s.
True, the in-body approach saves money, because it stabilizes every lens you attach; but the in-lens system, where the stabilization is tailored for each individual lens, just works better.
Note, too, that Live View depletes the battery a lot faster than using the eyepiece viewfinder. One charge can take 750 shots with the screen turned off, but only about 400 shots with it turned on. That’s not much better than what you’d get from a compact camera.
Other nits: There’s no top-mounted status screen. It would be nice if the screen swung out and rotated (for self-portraits, for example) and not just up and down. And if you’re used to using the A300’s rivals, the viewfinder feels a tad claustrophobic.
Even so, the A300 is a home run for its intended audience: first-time S.L.R. owners. It’s more camera for the money than its closest competitors from Canon or Nikon. It’s a pleasure to hold and to use; the pictures generally look superb; and the uncompromised Live View feature and tilting screen grant you shots you simply can’t get with other S.L.R.’s.
Until recently, S.L.R. stood for single-lens reflex. But on the A300, it has a whole new meaning: Sony’s Live-View Revolution.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.