The A300 is not quite the entry-level model in Sony's dSLR line-up — in order of rank there's the baby A200, then the A300, and at the top of this particular family tree, the A350. The A300 and A350 are identical, apart from megapixel count (the A300 has 10.2 rather than 14.2) which results in the A350 taking fewer frames per second than the A300.
With three models in the entry-level alpha range to choose from, competition amongst them is stiff enough without even considering other competitors like the Canon 450D and the Olympus E-520. We thought the A200 was a good basic dSLR, and the A350 was a bit too expensive for what it was, so does the A300 strike the perfect middle ground?
The Sony A300's trump card is the tilting LCD screen.
Certainly, the A300 is not an unattractive model to look at; a black curved body, streamlined buttons flush with the surrounds, and a smooth finish all contribute to this aura of simplicity. Everything is within easy reach — the playback and menu buttons flank the left side of the 2.7-inch LCD screen, and the control wheel sits on the right.
Really, the only noticeable difference between the Sony and many other entry-level dSLRs is the tilting LCD screen at the back of the unit. Popping out from the body on a plastic hinge, the screen can tilt up and down, 130 degrees and 40 degrees respectively. It's an incredibly useful feature for those photographers who shoot in tricky situations, such as overhead or down low, and need to be able to compose their shots without being on the same level as the camera.
There are effectively two sensors on the A300 — one "normal" imaging sensor, for processing the image, and a dedicated live view sensor. Though this is very useful for making the live view system incredibly fast, especially when auto focusing, it's also a problem because the LCD screen in live view will only see around 90 per cent of the final frame.
As seems to be the way with a lot of entry-level dSLRs, kit lenses come in spades. Sony has chosen to package the A300 with two — a more everyday 18-70mm f3.5/5.6 and a telephoto 55-200mm f4/5.6. The 18-70mm is the pick of the two because it delivers clearer photos than its zoomier cousin, but it's still not as fast as we would have liked. The 55-200mm, well the less said the better. It's clunky, clumsy and feels cheap, we say stay away!
Sony's Super Steadyshot technology (which is just a fancy way of saying image stabilisation) is built into the camera, as opposed to the lens, which is one key advantage that the Sony range has over the dSLR competition, with the exception of the Olympus range.
Battery meter usage is displayed on the screen as a percentage — much more useful than the regular three- or four-bar meter that shows up on other models.
Performance and Image Quality
As the A300 is similar to the A350 in terms of performance and image quality, see our review of the A350 for full indicators and graphs comparing it to other cameras in its class. Below are particular points that are specific to the A300.
In standard shooting conditions, the camera coped well, choosing good exposures on automatic settings. Noise at ISO 1600 and 3200 is very noticeable, with the camera struggling to implement its noise reduction algorithm at these high levels. For a camera of this class it seems to be a standard issue, but given that the A300 does so many other things well, we were disappointed with its performance in this respect.
White balance errs towards the conservative, and saturation is also relatively low compared to other entry-level dSLRs on the market. The 55-200mm kit lens is also troublesome. Though it's not ideal for low light shooting because of the relatively small aperture, it still struggled immensely in determining focus and sometimes point-blank refused to take any shots whatsoever.
The in-built flash of the A300 was also a little over-zealous in automatic mode, popping up even when it was clearly not needed.
Seeming to buck the trend of middle child syndrome, the A300 is the pick of the bunch from Sony's entry-level dSLR range unless you need resolution greater than 10.2 megapixels. There are a couple of quirks with the model, but nothing untoward that would pose a problem in day-to-day use for a beginner photographer. That said, other models in a similar price range do offer a better combination of performance and image quality, like the Canon 450D and Nikon D60. Unless you are particularly faithful to the Sony brand or value the ability to use older Konica Minolta lenses, there are plenty of comparable options to the A300 out there.