by Jason Schneider
July 01, 2011 — The Sony Alpha A580 scores on high-tech features per dollar and ease-of-use, but does its real world performance live up to its promise?
The instant you peruse the specs of the A580 and take a glance at its selling price, it becomes clear that Sony’s main objective was to deliver a DSLR that provides enthusiast-level performance at a price equal to or only slightly higher than that of many entry-level models. In other words, this feature-laden camera is designed to go head-to-head with the likes of such stalwarts as the Canon EOS Rebel T2i/T3i and the Nikon D5100, whom offer a high-value alternative for serious shooters, and a higher-tech alternative to first time DSLR buyers. To find out how well it performs in this demanding role, we gave it an exhaustive two-week field test.
In terms of features per dollar, the A580 is an impressive machine indeed. It’s been widely asserted on the Internet that its 16.2-megapixel Sony APS-C size Exmor HD CMOS sensor is the same as the one found in the middle-tier Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D7000 that sell for $400-$600 more, but Sony is mum on the subject.
It uses the latest version of Sony’s BIONZ image processor and the sensor/software combo is said to provide optimum responsiveness and improved performance at higher ISOs. It also has built-in SteadyShot Inside image stabilization that works with all lenses; a tilting 3-inch 921,000-dot LCD; a top-in-class maximum continuous burst rate of 5fps (up to 7fps without continuous AF and AE); very fast focusing Live View based on phase-detection AF; Auto HDR for low-noise exposures at slow shutter speeds and in low light; standard ISO settings up to ISO 12,800 (up to ISO 25,600 in Multi-Frame Noise Reduction mode); full HD 1080p/60i video capability compatible with broadcast and cable HDTV and 15-point AF.
As you’d expect, it includes Sony’s latest goodies such as Face and Smile Detection (complete with smile-level readout and three different smile-level settings), Auto D-Range Optimizer button, Sweep Panorama mode, Auto+ mode (Sony’s version of auto mode selection), Hand-Held Twilight mode (it merges six frames) Eye-Start AF, eight scene modes, six creative style settings and slots for Sony Memory Stick Pro or SDHC/SDXC cards.
What the A580 does not have that it’s middle tier rivals do, is a cast metal chassis body. Its body is mostly polycarbonate with some sheet metal components and a stainless steel lens mount, comprehensive weather sealing and a solid glass pentaprism viewfinder. Like its rivals, the A580 has a lighter, less expensive pentamirror finder). The only other notable omission is AF capability when shooting HD video, a feature that’s included in the competitive Nikon D5100. Like most DSLRs in this class you have a choice of one-time AF or manual focus options when shooting HD video.
With body only measuring 5 1/4 x 3 1/4 x 3 3/4-inches and weighing in at 1 1/2 lbs. the camera is on the low end of medium size. It feels quite solid and is reasonably light with standard 18–55mm zoom. Its body is comfortably contoured with a grip that really lets you get your fingertips all the way around it for added security, and on the back is a comfy thumb rest.
All controls are ergonomically placed and clearly labeled. We especially liked the convenient control dial on the front of the grip and the simple sliding switch on top that lets you choose between Live View and OVF (optical viewfinder). The red-dot Movie button on the rear deck is also very well placed—just make sure you don’t press it accidentally while setting the eyepiece diopter control under the rubber eyepiece bezel or you’ll start shooting video instantaneously. Another plus point is the big, bright 3-inch tilting LCD that automatically switches the display when you’re shooting vertically. It delivers a highly detailed image that’s easy to access when using the magnifier feature, and its frame is double hinged so you can swing it all the way up or down to cover a wide range of high- and low-angle shooting options.
For example, it’s great for shooting over crowds or taking pictures of little kids, flowers and collectibles.
Shooting with the A580 is a very pleasant experience for the most part, and the results are certainly outstanding for a camera in this price class. On the positive side, the AF system is very fast and there is virtually no shutter lag unless you’re at the tail end of a long burst sequence—more about that later. The optical viewfinder is good, but not outstanding. It does show 95% of the captured image, which is definitely better than average for a pentamirror finder, but it has the typical deficiencies of the breed—its magnification is 80% of life-size (with 50mm lens at –1 diopter) and it definitely isn’t as bright as a solid glass pentaprism finder. Many who purchase this camera will never notice this difference and for general use the viewfinder is more than satisfactory.
Responsiveness is generally outstanding, the action of the angled shutter release is excellent, and the SteadyShot Inside image stabilization performs as advertised, delivering a 2.5-to-4-stop advantage when shooting handheld at slower shutter speeds and/or with longer lenses. In terms of sound output, the shutter/mirror noise is on the high side of average for a camera of this type—not whisper quiet but seldom objectionable.
Happily, the most impressive thing about the Sony Alpha A580 is the thing that matters most—image quality. When it comes to beautiful files in RAW or JPEG fine this camera really delivers, with superb detail, commendable color accuracy and saturation, and very low noise even at ISOs up to 6400. Even without Multi Frame Noise Reduction that shoots six images at varying sensitivities to create a single low-noise image.
Part of this is attributable to the fine performance of the Sony lenses we used in our test—the standard 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 SAM, the 85mm f/2.8 SAM and the 70–300mm f/4.5–5.6 G SSM—all of which acquitted themselves admirably, delivering high-resolution, low-flare images even under challenging lighting conditions. By the way, you can still shoot usable images at ISO 12,800 and even 25,600, but “digital grain” will be visible in enlargements larger than 8 x 10.
We were equally impressed with the camera’s sheer firepower. When using the optical viewfinder it would happily blast along at 5fps, and when we set the capture mode to Speed Priority we got up to 7fps (albeit with AF and AE locked on the values set for the first frame), an amazing performance for a camera in this class. The only downside is that we were not able to achieve 44 JPEG fine images, the maximum number of continuous shots specified in the manual. We could only get 31 before the camera’s buffer was full and we had to wait a few seconds before resuming our merry blast. If you often shoot extended high-speed sequence, we definitely recommend using a Class 10 or better SDHC or SDXC card. The upside is that the camera’s AF, AE, and focus tracking worked splendidly, giving us crisp well exposed pictures every time.
Although we didn’t shoot extensive video with the A580, the half dozen clips we did record verified the excellence of the capture system when we viewed our little AVCHD movies shot at 60fps on a big screen TV. The visual quality is spectacular and the sound quality is surprisingly good (we didn’t use an accessory stereo mic). At that time we also tried Live View shooting and can confirm that the phase detection AF is unquestionably a lot faster than the contrast AF system used in most other cameras. It really takes Live View still picture shooting to a whole new level—even for this confirmed eye-level optical viewfinder fan. We also took a few dozen flash exposures, mostly in the “Green Auto everything” mode and can confirm that the flash does a good job in terms of exposure accuracy and provides adequate coverage even at the 18mm wide-angle setting on the normal zoom. Finally, we were amazed that we still had some battery power left after taking over 700 shots and often “chimping” our results on the LCD. We therefore conclude that the A580 is definitely above average in the battery capacity department.
Undoubtedly, the Sony Alpha A580 lives in a fiercely competitive neighborhood—as Canon, Nikon and Pentax can attest—but it most assuredly accomplishes its mission of providing an outstanding level of performance and features that will delight serious enthusiasts at a price that makes it an exceptional value. At a street price of $849.99 (with $50 rebate) complete with a very good quality 18–55mm standard zoom lens, it is worthy of serious consideration by any experienced shooter. And, with its simplified “green mode,” verbal readout screens that explain its modes and functions in simple language, auto scene mode selection and other automated features aimed at novices, it also makes a great starter camera beginners won’t soon grow out of.
Jason Schneider is best known as a prolific writer and editor on all aspects of photography. He began his career at Modern Photography in the late ‘60s and in 1987 signed on as editor-in-chief of Popular Photography, a position he held for nearly 16 years. Considered an authority on the history of camera design and technology, he has written three books on camera collecting, is an active contributor to leading photo magazines and Web sites, and is Senior Editor of Photo Industry Reporter, the industry’s authoritative trade magazine.
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