Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Sony Alpha A850 Notes (Part I)

Sony Alpha A850 Notes (Part I)
February 2013, Carl Garrard

Hello all. I wanted to share a few notes and thoughts about the A850 while I sit here sipping my morning coffee contemplating my day. I've recently acquired this full frame beauty after a long 4 year hiatus away from it. I've been desiring a full frame camera of late for landscape images (mainly) and have ran the gamut of them from manufacturers out there. Some were purchased, and some were loaned to me from manufacturers. My personal needs of equipment for landscape photography are kept simple- bring along a camera system that can remain as compact as possible, no matter what kind of camera I'm using (compact, DSLR, etc.). I do a lot of extended hikes, locally, and into mountains and back country which requires me keeping weight down a bit for long hauls. And for full frame, the Alpha Mount offers quite a few older but excellent lens options for the Alpha A850. So when I want to go out shooting landscapes, for my needs,  the A850 is not only familiar, but has the most resolution, best handling, best viewfinder, and best lens options for the dollar.

Sony Alpha A850 Availability and Price Check

This article can sort of be referred too as an extension of my Alpha A850 review I published a few years back on (for all intents and purposes). That said I've only had the camera back for a couple of days now and I can tell you that I'm elated. I'm excited to get back out and shoot some landscapes again. But first, I have to set up the A850 to my preferences and thus I think the way I've gone about doing so may be of interest to readers.

Configuring the Alpha A850

First of all I think the Intelligent Preview option of the A850 is excellent, with a caveat. It must be easy to access, just as live view is. So my first quest (if you will) was to set up my A850 so that I could quickly accesss intelligent preview without sacrificing the way I normally set up my DSLRS. That means, my exposure lock, depth of field preview, ISO, quick navi, and other functions must not be sacrificed from their normal locations. Often I'm a creature of habit in regards to camera controls, I know what I want and where it ought to be. This comes from years of shooting in many demanding conditions both for commercial and personal photography.

The Alpha 850 (and a couple other Sony/Minolta DSLRS) are the best DSLR's for my personal external control configuration that I've used from any manufacturer. Minolta (subsequently Sony) really do know what photographers use most and where to place the controls more often than not. So with that said, here's how I configured my controls on the A850, and why.

Sony Alpha A850 Availability and Price Check

  • AF/MF Button- Set to toggle so I can quickly set the A850 to manual focus without moving my eye from the viewfinder (and who wants to take their eye away from that finder anyways?)
  • AF drive speed- Set to fast.  
  • AF Type- I use AF-A almost always on the A850 so that I can use the direct manual focus function (DMF) of the A850 at any time. This gives me a fast auto focus, and the ability to fine tune focus manually  if I please without having to move my eye or my hands.
  • Preview Function- Optical Preview, this button on the front is where I'm used to using an optical preview so moving that would only confuse the wiring in my head.
  • AEL button- Set to AEL toggle (and sometimes I use spot AEL toggle so that I don't have to change my metering setting to get a quick spot exposure lock. This enables me to use two types of metering at all times).
  • Control Dials- Front for shutter speed, rear for Aperture. I almost exclusively use Aperture Priority or Manual in about 99.99% of my photography. If I use Manual, my shooting finger can make the fastest change of shutter speed to compensate for lighting changes. This means since I normally have a set aperture for indoor or outdoor photography (depending on the needs of the scene), I won't have to reposition my hand to make a quick exposure adjustment in Manual shooting. Works like a charm. For Aperture priority, I have the rear dial configured to give me an additional quick exposure compensation choice.
  • Exposure step-  I prefer to have this setting set to .5ev steps of exposure compensation vs. the standard .3ev steps. The main reason is because multi segement metering almost always seems to under exposure .3-.7ev when the scene is an equal amount of highlights and shadows. Kicking it up to .5ev almost always ensures a proper exposure without over exposing too much (as .7ev can) or under exposing (as .3ev isn't always enough).
  • Custom Button-  Here is the kicker and why I saved it for last. I have this button set to intelligent preview, as opposed to the more popular depth of field preview button (which is also a choice you can make). Setting "IP" to this button means I can get a lightning quick preview of my exposure, white balance, DRO setting, etc, and a 3 channel histogram without sacrificing my normal DOF preview location. Moving this function to the custom button makes all the difference in the world for a convenient pre-exposure. I used to have it set to the DOF preview button and what a pain to find that button in some circumstances- usually means its a two handed operation instead of one hand and I had to sacrifice my normal DOF preview (I know you can hold it down and view optically, but its just not the same). So I just use my thumb. Fast and quick, try it. Just be careful not to bump it when you have the camera on. It's almost like having live view this way.
Now, what is important about what I shared (at least I think so) is that these settings never change. They allow the most comfortable and quick shooting experience for most circumstances than any other configuration I've tried. What this configuration does is allow the A850 to become a literal extension of my eye. Since the controls are  set up to be easy, quick, and efficient to use all of the time- I don't have to take my mind, eye, or hand away from important things like - preconception (mind), scene (eye), or hand (camera).

Let me repeat. The above settings NEVER CHANGE. Nor, do they need to be.

This is why the A850,900/700, Maxxum 9/7D are so valuable to me. Placement of controls and customization of those controls are both equally crucial when you are trying to be efficient with a camera. Efficency helps you photograph with less distractions from the tool you are using. Less distractions equal more keeper shots. Period. I find that when I'm shooting there are plenty of distractions around me already, I don't want a camera to add to them.

The experience you have with a camera when shooting is vital from my perspective. And thus, it's equally vital for a manufacturer to put the most commonly used controls in the most logical place for photographers. The Alpha A850 does just that. Sony did a brillant job setting up this camera for the most part in terms of ergonomics and handling. The Alpha A850 is no nonsense from lens mount, to viewfinder, to menu system.

New shooters may not agree with me when I say the A850 is also fun to shoot with. That's primarily because the A850 takes some initial thought, and experience to set up to the point where it becomes fun. Instant gratification is just that, its instant, not long term. Cameras like the A850 that give the user choice and excellent logical design allow for long term gratification- a term our society should embrace much more often than it does now. But I digress, happily.

My next segment (Part II) on the Alpha A850 will be about it's image quality, and how to configure your A850 so as to get the most out of the A850 from it's Jpegs and raw files. But first, I need to go out and make some worthy example images with the Alpha A850 so that I can share them with you in that article. Don't stay tuned, just come back and check in a while, I'll have that article up for ya soon enough.

Thanks for reading,

Carl Garrard

Sony Alpha A850 Availability and Price Check


  1. Thanks for this post. Many people have to tendency to only post info for the very latest cameras. I appreciate you sharing your setup for this 'older' model. I am primarily a film shooter (maxxum 7/9) and I'm considering the a850. I look forward to your part II.

  2. Thanks Carl!

    Looking forward to Part II...

    Have a nice day,


  3. Hi.
    I've been shooting with an a900 since it first cam out... before the an a700 before ... that a Dynax 7D ... Before that a Dynax 7... Before that a 9xi and I still have my old Dynax 7000.

    Around about May this year I will "upgrade" to an A99. So far the migration from camera to camera has been an easy pleasurable task. My 900 now looks like a war correspondent has used it but it still hits the exposure and focus.

    The biggest feature for me was always the ergonomics and logical button lay out

  4. As I sit here cleaning my a900, I come across this post.
    Surely these old ponies have many fun rides ahead of them.

    Thanks Carl.

  5. Glad this article is well received and that, I didn't bore ya! ;) Thanks to all of you for your comments. Starting this weekend out with the A850 for some "serious" shots. Tripod and everything. Good weather coming too.

  6. Look at the storm started on SAR about this article, and the slightest rumor of an OVF return. I don't think folks realize that Sony has NEVER designed a FF OVF before. The a850/900 are obviously designs purchased from Mino in the buyout. My confidence is shaky for Sony to pull it off without The Mind of Minolta influencing the alchemy necessary for such a task.

  7. You forgot about excellent implementation of Memory Recall function.

    Also, not so many A700|A900|A850 users knows about Exposure meter fine-tuning via Zone Matching setting
    (DRO also affects exposure meter).
    Smart using of ZM can prevent you of constant EV-tuning in 90% cases (10% AE-errors came due focus-and-recompose technique).

  8. Thanks Carl! I'm curious too for part 2. I love my A850.

    best regards

  9. This is interesting, and a good recollection as to why the a900/a850 still contain significant value. I have an a850, and still love its feel.

    Having said that, I find what isn't said a bit curious. Given your described needs in the first paragraph, and your focus in at least Part 1 of the "review" on "Intelligent Preview," why not an a99? Granted, you are talking landscapes, so the "kludge" factor of Intelligent Preview on the a850 (a flapping mirror and all the rest) isn't as much an issue. But the EVF of an a99 gives you all of what you like about the a850's intelligent preview (or so it seems to me) in real time. [I have an a77, not an a99--which is one of the reasons I haven't departed from my a850.] And every one of the other settings you note I believe are possible to set on the a99 in an identical fashion--and they can all be left "as is," which is a high priority based on what you've written. Is there something, specifically, you don't like about the placement of the buttons on the a99 (which are considerably different than the a850), or the EVF vs. the OVF, that makes you prefer (which I take to be the point of your first paragraph) the a850's FF solution to the a99's? Or is it just the cost differential? Again, I'm trying to equate your description of your needs in your first paragraph, plus your obvious pleasure with the a850's intelligent preview, with what the a99 misses versus your description of what the a850 delivers. It may be obvious, but I'm speculating (at best) at this point....

  10. This makes me regret selling my a850 for an a77. I miss how simple the a850 was, and how much fun it was to use.

  11. @ Photosopher; Sony SLR team IS the Mino team.

  12. The A850 is still a very decent Fullframe DSLR, too bad Sony doesn't make things like this
    these days..can't stand EVFs, prefer the optical Viewfinders like the A850 here.
    Apart from that, the A99 looks kinda very weird to me, let alone from the Body Look - compared
    to a classical Nikon DSLR, or -here the A850. I would not sell it Carl, if i would be you. :)
    Just keep it, and take good photographs.


  13. Love my A850 and looking forward to Part II.
    I'm not a EVF-men and maybe (if my a850 stops working,sell all my minolta and sony stuff)change to.............

  14. Hi Carl. Enjoyed this insight into the A850. Have a A900 myself and agree its one of the best cameras I have ever used. Thanks for the tips on setting it up will be looking forward to reading part two. Whats the time scale likely to be?


  15. Dear Carl: In what month was Part II of the 850 review posted?