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Bigger Isn't Always Better
on 24 August 2012
The SLT-A37 is Sony's new entry-level DSLR camera for beginners. Technically it isn't a DSLR, it's an SLT (Single-Lens Translucent); Sony's award-winning innovation that uses a translucent mirror. But, for the purposes of this review, I'll refer to it as a DSLR. Also, because I don't have another DSLR to compare it to, I'll be comparing it to my Sony DSC-RX100 (the world's best compact camera).
My SLT-A37 arrived with the battery almost empty. A lot of Sony cameras these days can actually be charged via USB, but the SLT-A37 isn't one of them. So to charge the 1080 mAh NP-FW50 battery pack, you'll need to take it out of the camera and put it in the supplied BC-VW1 battery charger. Charging time is approximately 4 hours.
If you're "stepping up" from a compact camera to a DSLR, you'll immediately notice how solid and professional the SLT-A37 feels in your hand. This is a serious piece of equipment. The ergonomic rubber grip is a pleasure to hold and makes the camera relatively difficult to drop. On the back of the SLT-A37 there's an angle-adjustable LCD, which can be tilted through 135˚, enabling you to take photos from otherwise challenging positions. This is an incredibly useful feature. Sony call the 2.7" LCD "high quality" but it isn't. It's a QVGA display with a resolution of just 320 x 240 pixels; a quarter of what the DSC-RX100 has! Plus it flickers slightly and solarises easily.
Fortunately there's an electronic viewfinder (aka Tru-Finder) which, with its SVGA resolution of 800 x 600 pixels, is much higher quality than the rear LCD. There's a diopter-adjustment dial, which changes the focus of the viewfinder to better suit your eyesight. There's also a Viewfinder Magnification setting, which shrinks the image down so that it's easier to see in its entirety. But even with these settings, if you wear glasses you'll find that you can't get your eye close enough to the viewfinder to see the whole thing. It's just too small.
My SLT-A37 came with the Standard Zoom Lens (a Sony DT 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 SAM). With the lens attached to the camera body, the whole thing weighs 725g (3x the weight of the DSC-RX100) and measures 15.3 cm from front to back (4.4x the thickness of the DSC-RX100). If you're new to DSLRs, you might look at the SLT-A37 with its big lens and assume it has a big optical zoom. Unfortunately that's a common misconception. The 18-55mm lens only gives you a 3.1x optical zoom, which is actually less than the DSC-RX100's 3.6x. The good news is, because this is an interchangeable-lens camera, you can take the lens off and replace it with an even bigger one! The SLT-A37 is compatible with all Sony A-mount (aka α mount) lenses, such as the 55-200mm lens which extends the camera's telephoto range. SteadyShot technology is built into the camera body meaning you don't have to worry about your lenses having it.
So what's the SLT-A37 like to shoot with? Fast. Very fast. Assuming the lens cap is off, you can turn it on and take a photo in about 1.6 seconds! Try doing that with a compact camera. In Single-shot AF (AF-S) mode, holding down the shutter button halfway causes the SLT-A37 to lock focus almost instantly with amazing accuracy. In Continuous AF (AF-C) mode, holding down the shutter button halfway causes the SLT-A37 to continually adjust its focus as the camera and your subjects move. Changing the Drive Mode from Single Shooting to Continuous Shooting Hi enables you to take seven photos per second; invaluable for shooting fast-moving subjects such as kids and pets.
What about image quality? I put the SLT-A37 head-to-head with the DSC-RX100 and shot 26 test photos with both cameras in Intelligent Auto mode. The results surprised me. Outdoors in daylight, photos taken with the SLT-A37 exhibited shallower depth of field (DOF) and slightly more accurate auto white balance (AWB). However, photos taken with DSC-RX100 were dramatically clearer, showing razor-sharp detail and textures that the SLT-A37 rendered as a blur. Obviously, with a better lens, the results would be different. But if you're buying the SLT-A37 with the 18-55mm lens, don't expect any of your photos to be sharp. Indoors, things got worse. Despite having an APS-C image sensor, the SLT-A37 struggled in low-light, repeatedly choosing f/4 ISO 1250 and getting soft splotchy photos full of chroma noise. The DSC-RX100, on the other hand, was in its element, choosing f/1.8 ISO 320 and getting incredibly clean photos with very little noise.
The SLT-A37 has all of Sony's current software tricks, such as Clear Image Zoom, Sweep Panorama, Auto HDR, Face Recognition, Smile Shutter, Auto Portrait Framing and 11 Picture Effects. Switching the focus mode to manual (MF) activates Peaking; a sophisticated feature that highlights what's in-focus with a colour of your choice. Pressing the dedicated MOVIE button allows you to immediately start recording AVCHD video at 1920x1080 25fps; a format that iMovie '11 actually understands and allows you to import! On top of the SLT-A37 there's a built-in stereo microphone, but you can also connect an external one via the jack input if you'd prefer.
Overall, I think the SLT-A37 is a good camera. Its ultra-fast focusing, continuous shooting and shallow depth of field are perfect for shooting attractive portraits of kids and pets outdoors. However, its LCD screen is very poor quality, it struggles in low-light situations, and the 18-55mm lens is inherently soft. So, just because a camera is big and looks professional, don't expect it to automatically take better quality photos than a compact. I much prefer my DSC-RX100.