Sony A850 compared to Sony A99: Novelty isn’t everything

My main camera these days is the Sony SLT-A99, which is the latest and greatest from Sony. My backup is the A850, a model that’s now a few years old and wasn’t terribly cutting edge when it was new. The A99 is a magnificent machine with a lot of whiz-bang features, including full-time live view phase detect autofocus, focus range limiting, focus peaking and focus magnification, sweep panorama, scene modes, burst-mode shooting so fast it’ll make your head spin, and, of course, video. The A850 (like its big brother the A900), on the other hand, has pretty much no whiz-bang features, in fact, not a lot of features at all. But it, too, is a magnificent camera. Herewith a few thoughts about the differences between the two cameras.

NOTE: An earlier version of these impressions appeared in the Sony DSLT/SLT forum over at dpreview.com—a great place to hang out if you use cameras like the A99, A850, A77, A57, etc.

Sony A850
Sony A850

Advantage: A850

Things I like better about the A850.

  • Price! I got the A850 used for almost one-third of what I paid for the A99, but it’s worth at least half of the cost of an A99. Best full-frame bargain available today—much better (in my opinion) than buying an original Canon 5D, at least if you don’t already have a bunch of Canon lenses.
  • The A850 is built like an old-fashioned bank safe. I mean, it’s heavy and I’m pretty sure it’s bulletproof. By comparison the A99 (which I thought was pretty solid) suddenly seems just a wee bit plasticky.
  • I rather like having the front dial pointing up (A850) rather than forward (A99). Up feels more natural for my right index finger. It’s far enough from the shutter button that I don’t think I’ll be changing the shutter speed by accident. I rather like having the on/off button on the left side, too, so that the shutter button is simple and all by itself.
  • I like having those four functions on the left side of the camera: menu, disp, trash and playback. Removes clutter from the right side of the camera. (I still like the way things work on the A57 even better: use the noon, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock spots around the joystick as buttons. Much easier to find the right button without having to look.)
  • Really like having a hardware on/off button on the back for Super SteadyShot. I guess these days Sony wants as many functions as possible to be software-based rather than hardware-based and I can see reasons for doing that. But even having a press button that toggles SSS would have been an improvement on the A99. Pros use tripods and need to turn SSS on/off fairly regularly.
  • Love the simple mode dial, one third of which is empty. I admit, the A99 has more modes because it’s got more options: video, sweep pano, the 49 fps thing [just kidding], and SCN. I would have been delighted to pay $500 less and get the A99 without video; and I’d have paid $25 more to buy an A99 without the SCN modes. But I guess that’s progress. A $3000 point and shoot camera with training wheels for the kiddies. Yes, that’s snark. Sue me.
  • The A850’s image quality is great. Me very happy. The A850’s image quality isn’t better than the A99’s, but if the light was good, I’m going to have to look at the EXIF to see which camera took the shot. May feel differently about this when I have to use the A850 at ISO 1600 or higher.
  • I like that I don’t have to use an adapter to attach a Sony flash unit to the A850.
Sony A99
Sony A99

Advantage: A99

Things I prefer about the A99.

  • Live view, on LCD and also on the big, bright, beautiful EVF. The WYSIWYG aspect of live view is particularly useful to those of us who shoot in M (full manual) exposure mode a lot. On the A850, I’m back to having to pay close attention to that darned exposure scale to see if my picture’s going to come out.
  • Focus peaking and focus magnification are two of the greatest advances in the history of photography, at least for those of us who focus manually. These features require live view (see previous item). So manual focusing on the A850 is much trickier. Me very sad. I’ve ordered the M focusing screen and hope it will help a little.
  • No “live view + articulated display screen”. Well, no big surprise here. Without live view, ain’t much point to an articulated screen. (See first item.)
  • Better support for storage cards. The A99 supports SD and Memory Stick cards, and it can write dynamically to both slots, where the A850 supports the larger “old-fashioned” compact flash cards and Memory Stick. The card formats supported isn’t a big deal; the ability to write to both slots dynamically kinda is.

The first three plusses for the A99 boil down to a minus against the A850: the A99 has live view, and the A850 doesn’t. Now, to be honest, I could live without live view on either the viewfinder or the rear display. But I really want it somewhere. I use the EVF on the A99 about 95% of the time now, but I could live with the A850’s lovely OVF if I had live view on the LCD, along with an articulated screen and the manual focus assist features.  It’s these latter that I miss the most working with the A850.

And I suspect I will also soon discover that the A850’s images are pretty noisy if I shoot above ISO 1600.

Arthur Maxwell, shot with the A850
Arthur Maxwell, shot with the A850

Tie

Finally, some differences that are, for me, neither pros nor cons for either camera.

  • For the sake of future photographers, I hope that one day, the camera makers finally decide that there’s one best and right way to place the buttons and then do that, from then on. I wonder how long I’m going to keep mashing the A850’s Fn button in order to review my recent shots, or hitting the A850’s Drive button to change the ISO. I wish that the A850’s buttons were capable of being reprogrammed.
  • Using the A850’s OVF, especially without any live view at all, makes me feel like I’m back using a film camera. It feels really retro. I mean, the camera even looks retro, with that big hump on top where it stores water for long trips. This isn’t what I’d call an advantage. The A850 doesn’t have a retro look, like the the Olympus OM-D. The A850 actually is old.
  • OVF vs EVF. I’ve always said that the EVF isn’t better or worse than the OVF, just different. Well, the EVF has some terrific advantages and I feel pretty sure I’ll be using the A99 more than the A850 because of them. (Have I mentioned focus peaking and focus magnification?) But I admit, the A850’s OVF is pretty sweet, if the light’s good enough for me to see what I’m pointing the camera at. If the A850 had live view on the LCD like the A580, and if it sold for, like, $1000 less than the A900, I’d buy two.
  • Shutter sound. The A99’s shutter sounds like a squirrel sneezed. The A850’s sounds like somebody took the squirrel’s nut and crushed it with a hammer. Now as a wedding photographer who tries to be unobtrusive, I am happy that the A99 is quiet. I did a wedding a couple months ago where the groom, during the rehearsal, expressed concern about shutter noise. Seriously. He’d been at a wedding not long before where, as a guest, he was distracted by the sound of the photographer’s shutter. My guess is that photographer was machine-gunning, that is, shooting constantly in three or four shot bursts, something I never do. Anyway, I would like to be even quieter at the wedding; but I have to confess, the A850’s shutter has a more manly sound that I rather like. Being a manly man and all that.
Shot with the A850
Shot with the A850

Bottom line

In sum, if you don’t have a full-frame body and you’re thinking you’d like one, and you wonder if you should get the A99 (and live on bread and water for the next two years) or get a (lightly) used A850, my recommendation would be:

  • If you have to have video, well, I simply don’t understand what’s wrong with you. But your choice will be obvious.
  • If you can’t live without focus peaking, focus magnification, or an articulated screen, or if you can’t sleep at night unless you are comforted by the thought that you own the latest gear, then you’re a pathetic wimp but you should get the A99. (This is the group I fall into, by the way.)
  • Otherwise, get the A850. It’s a helluva camera. Seriously.

More photos coming as I take ’em.

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12 comments on “Sony A850 compared to Sony A99: Novelty isn’t everything

    • Vic, I’m liking the A850 very much myself, indeed, that was more than half the point of my post, hence my subtitle “novelty isn’t everything.” Visited your website and loved your images. We lived in Boston for seven years and our favorite thing was to go out to western Massachusetts, to Tanglewood, or Williamstown, or a variety of other places. Beautiful country! Cheers, Will

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  2. I’ve been thinking of going FF… I’m currently shooting with an a77 & a580. I really like the EFV of the a77, mostly because I tend to shoot in manual. Noise wise, how much beter is the a99 over the a850? we talking 2 full stops?

    • Matt: I am not much of a measurer of these things so I really can’t say with any confidence that the A99 is less noisy than the A850 by N stops. There is a noticeable difference. To me, it seems that the noise in the A99 is finer (smaller noise “spots”), while the A850’s noise is, um, grosser (in the German sense: bigger). My general feeling is that, at ISO 1600 and below, there’s virtually no difference.

      Here’s a quick example. I did this in a hurry and don’t know if this is a fair test (probably not). Two shots with same lens, same position, same settings, and same dim lighting in a hallway in my house. Both shots at ISO 3200.

      Don’t make too much of this — and remember (as I keep saying) that picking a camera for how it performs at ISO 3200 is kind of like buying a car based strictly on how well it does in a head-on collision. Might be worth considering, but you might want to consider other things as well!

      A850

      A99

  3. Thank you for posting these sample images. The a99 is definitely cleaner, but I try and stay below iso 1600 as much as possible. Question now is do I want to spend $1000-$1200 for an a850 or $2800 for the a99. My primary focus is web & graphic design so it’s hard for me to justify the price of the a99.

    • Matt, I understand your thought process and it seems reasonable to me. The A99 is a more powerful — and more complicated — tool. As I said in the article I’m especially fond of focus magnification and the WYSIWYG EVF. But I don’t care for the A99’s new hot shoe and I especially dislike the flash delay problem; for these reasons I think I’m going to start doing most of my flash work with the A850 instead of the A99. Over at dpreview.com today, responding to somebody (might have been you!), I confessed that, if I’d gotten the A850 first, I might never have purchased the A99. The A850 + A77 that I had previously would have been a nice pair. And saving the money would have been nice, too. If you can find a “previously loved” A850 for a good price, go for it!

      • B&H has a few a850s in the $1200 range, I keep checking their used sections for deals 🙂

        I haven’t heard about the flash delay problem, that has got to be very frustrating. How does the a850 compare to the a77 (image quality and high iso noise)?

  4. Well, the A99 is in many ways a full-frame A77. So most of what I say about the A99 in the main post above applies to the A77 as well. But “full frame” is important, to me. If I had to choose between an A99 and the A850, it would be tough. But between the A850 and the A77, I’d pick the A850 without hesitation. But that is just my preference and is based on the work I do with the cameras, for which the full-frame advantage is significant. There are of course advantages to the APS-C. So it’s not as simple as saying A850 > A77.

    • I used my a77 this past Friday on a food photography shoot. The EVF was definitely a plus for sure. Also, being able to use the HDMI out with a monitor or tv for staging was nice too. It would be hard to give that up…

      I have a Canon 5D Mark II coming this Thursday for another shoot [Borrowlens.com]. I would have rented the a850, but it was out until May. The rental for the 5D was close to $100 less then that of the a900. I figured the a850 and 5D would be a close comparison.

  5. I operate an a850 as well as a backup to my Leica M. It is a fab camera in studio, where the shutter noise (it is LOUD) and the incredibly poor high-ISO performance doesn’t matter.

    The CCD sensor on the 850 is incredibly dated though. Which is why it is so absolute crap at higher ISO. I personally switched away from Sony/Minolta because I didn’t like the lack of OVF (amongst other reasons) so I still consider the 850 the last true Minolta mount SLR. Which it is. SLT isn’t the same thing.

    The nonstandard Sony/Minolta hotshoe is infuriating, actually (rough use has caused me to break the shoe hooks on two Sony flashes and my Sony to regular hotshoe adapter)

    I still prefer it to the Canons and Nikon’s of the same era. I’ve put hundreds of thousands of shutter actuations through it (I bought it new. When it came out) and I haven’t had to send it for maintenance even once. I’ve had to clean the sensor a few times myself…. And that is the extent of the maintenance I’ve done. It is, as you say, a tank. Metal is showing through the paint on mine in some places. It’s pretty distinctly mine. And I won’t be selling it ever, I think. Unless I decide to get rid if all my old Maxxum gear.

    Most of the shots on my site were shot with the 850. Haven’t had he Leica long enough to have a significant library with it yet. 🙂

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