The Sony A200 is the camera that made photography real for me. Since it’s no longer for sale, I have no problem professing my love for this camera and informing you that I have an extremely biased opinion of it. The A200 was my first real camera. I had a decent Canon A570IS before it, which had a few manual controls. The problem was – as I quickly learned – on a tiny sensor camera with a slow zoom lens and no RAW output, the settings just don’t make that much difference. It was such a pain to traverse the menus and change the aperture, even though you’d have to zoom in to 100% just to see any difference between that and auto mode. Most of the time, full auto mode seemed to work better anyway. That’s when I made the mistake of doing some online shopping and reading camera reviews. This of course led to spending lots of money.
I settled on the A200 because of its compatibility with Minolta lenses (which I didn’t understand the significance of until much later), its in-body image stabilization, and its great image quality for the price. The DSLR market was very different just 2 years ago and there were far fewer choices in the entry-level arena. If I had to pick an inexpensive first DSLR today, it’d be the Pentax K-x. Sony’s recent entry-level offerings (all 37 of them…) are just a joke for photographers who actually want some control over their cameras. To me, the A200 was the last decent entry-level Sony and it is by far better than the most recent A290. The biggest reason? Buttons!
From the moment I tried out the A200 at the now-defunct Ritz Camera store I could tell it was the camera for me. Every control was exactly where it should be. It took me no time at all to become comfortable using the camera and it fit my hands like a glove. After using the camera for over 2 years, it is now completely second nature for me to find any button or menu item that I need. As I’ve probably made clear in previous posts, I love analog controls. The pinnacle of analog controls on a digital camera was probably the Konica-Minolta 7D, reviewed here. As a first camera, I think I’d find that one intimidating. As I think about what I want for my next camera, however, I’d drool all over a camera that had as many analog controls as the KM-7D. The A200 has a nice blend of buttons and well-organized menus. The function menu (accessed by pressing the “Fn” button) is nicely implemented and it has become just as second nature to navigate as the analog controls.
I never appreciated just how small the A200 was. As my first DSLR, all I had to compare it too was my A570IS, which fit in a pocket. Until fairly recently, I always felt like the A200 was a hulking beast. Two things helped me put the size of the A200 in proportion. First, I have now tried a lot more cameras and the A200 is smaller than most of them. Second, I bought a couple of Minolta primes which gave me outstanding images in a smaller package. With the 50mm f/1.4 attached, the A200 just isn’t very big. In fact, it’s just right. (Note to Sony: sell a compact, affordable 25mm f/2 prime for APS-C and I’ll stick around for a lot longer).
The handling of my A200 has become so second nature to me that I struggle to find controls on newer cameras from other manufacturers (and Sony, who changed their layout after the A200). Whenever it gets replaced, I’ll miss my A200.
I’m not going to talk too much about image quality, because I’m a firm believer that any DSLR released in the past 2 years is good enough for 95% of applications. The worst DSLR available today can still produce fantastic results. When shooting RAW and using Lightroom 3, the A200 can produce beautiful results up to and including ISO1600. That’s a stop or two below today’s best offerings, but don’t forget that over two years have passed. Using Lightroom 2, I usually stopped at ISO800, but Lightroom 3 (beta) has opened up the option of ISO1600 and made IS800 a no-brainer. At high ISO’s, setting the chroma noise reduction to 20-50 and leaving the luminance setting at 15 or less (I usually go with “0”) gives some nice film-like results. When combined with a quality lens, there is nothing I can complain about regarding the A200’s image quality.
This is where my bias comes in. As my first DSLR, I was blown away by everything from the lack of shutter-lag to the quick on-off times and the battery life. There are lots of DSLR’s out there today that can outperform my A200, but to me it was perfect. The sensor-based image stabilization has won me over and I will never be able to buy a camera without it. I’ve gotten usable images at ridiculous shutter speeds down to 1/2 second. When I started using film cameras for the first time, I was surprised at how much more careful I had to be to keep my images sharp. I know that lens-based stabilization can be theoretically better, but I’ve got stabilization on every lens from any decade without paying extra. The only thing I could ask for is a more obvious indication if it is turned off. Almost every time I turn it off for tripod use I forget to turn it back on until I get my first blurry shot.
I know at the time I made the right choice by buying the A200. I will always remember it as the camera that taught me and got me hooked on photography. This was the perfect first camera and I have no regrets for purchasing it. I’m not too excited about Sony’s latest offerings, but I can’t blame the A200 for the crimes of its younger siblings. Any time that I think about upgrading, all I have to do is put the A200 back into my hands or look at some of the pictures I’ve taken with it and those thoughts almost vanish. It has served me well. All of my A200 Flickr pictures can be found here.