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Camera Test: Sony Alpha A-580
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Camera Test: Sony Alpha A-580

A mid-range DSLR with a starter DSLR price tag

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It’s impressive in terms of features per dollar and ease of use, but how well does the Sony Alpha A-580 perform in the real world?


 

In designing the A-580 it is clear that Sony’s main objective was to deliver a DSLR that provides enthusiast-level performance at a competitive price that’s 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 and offer a higher-tech alternative to first-time DSLR buyers. To find out whether it’s up to its assigned tasks I gave it an exhaustive two-week field-test.

In terms of features per dollar, the A-580 is an impressive machine indeed. It’s an open secret that its 16.2-megapixel Sony APS-C-format Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor is a dead ringer for the one in the middle-tier Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D7000 that sell for $400-600 more, and it uses the latest version o0f Sony’s BIONZ image processor for optimum responsiveness and improved performance at high ISOs. It also has built-in Steadyshot Inside image stabilization that works with all lenses, a tilting 3-inch 921,000-dot LCD, a tops-in-class maximum continuous burst rate of 5 fps (up to 7 fps without continuous AF and AE!), very fast-focusing Live View that uses phase-detection AF, Auto HDR for low-noise exposures at slow shutter speeds and in low-light, standard ISO settings to ISO 12,800 (up to ISO 25,600 in Multi-Frame NR mode), full HD 1080p/60i video capability compatible with broadcast and cable HDTV, and 15-point AF.


Office still life: High ISO Performance Test

Before we get into the camera's features, let's go straight to a quick glance at the A580's high-ISO image quality because for this camera, image quality is big news. Here are some sample shots:

 

Above: ISO 400, full frame. Below: ISO 400, 100% detail. (Any blurriness was due to shake caused by handheld exposure at 1/20 sec. Even with anti-shake, some camera movement will be evident at full enlargement, but no digital noise is visible.)

 

Above: ISO 1600, full-frame. Below: ISO 1600, 100% detail

 

Above: ISO 6400, full frame. Below: ISO 6400, 100% detail.

At ISO 400 image shot at 1/20 sec and f/5.6 handheld shows excellent definition. It also demonstrates the  effectiveness of Sony’s SteadyShot Inside image stabilization system. Image shot at ISO 1600 exhibits excellent image quality with very low noise, and some loss of color saturation compared to ISO 400 image. Image shot at ISO 6400 shows virtually no loss in image quality compared to ISO 1600 image except for a very slight increase in “digital grain.” Note also that there is very little change in color depth from ISO 400-6400! All images taken with Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G SSM lens at 50mm (77mm equivalent). See DxOMark lab test results further down in this article for more on image quality.

 

Packed with High-Tech Goodies

 

Naturally, the A-580 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, 8 scene modes, 6 creative style settings, and slots for Sony Memory Stick Pro or SDHC/SDXC cards.

 

Close-up of a photographer shooting tulips in the park exhibits superb sharpness (flower and filter ring on camera lens), excellent color saturation and color accuracy: Exposure data: Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G SSM lens at 250mm (387mm equivalent), f/11 and 1/500 sec, ISO 400, P mode.

What the A-580 doesn’t have that its middle-tier rivals do is a cast-metal-chassis body. It’s mostly polycarbonate with some sheet metal and a stainless steel lens mount. It also lacks comprehensive weather sealing, and a solid glass pentaprism viewfinder; It has a lighter, less-expensive penta-mirror). The only other notable omission is contrast AF capability when shooting HD video, a feature that’s included in the competitive-set Nikon D5100. Like most DSLRs in this class, you have a choice of either one-time AF or manual focus options when shooting HD video.


Dutiful dad: Cute picture of a father putting a shoe on his toddler son shows superb definition (see shoe and sock)  high contrast, and excellent color saturation: Exposure data: Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G SSM lens at 100mm (155mm equivalent), f/13 and 1/1000 sec, ISO 400. P mode.


In the Hands

 

With body only measuring 5-1/4 x 3-1/4 x 3-3/4 inches and weighing in at 1-1/2 pounds, the camera is on the low end of medium sized. It feels quite solid and is reasonably light with the standard 18-55mm zoom. It’s comfortably contoured with a grip that really lets you get ymy fingers around it for added security, and on the back there is a comfy thumb rest. All controls are ergonomically placed and clearly labeled.

I 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 movies 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 asses 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—it’s great for taking pictures of little kids and flowers.

 

Planting flowers: Tableau of dad and his two young kids planting flowers shows outstanding definition (see bag of topsoil, garden implement, flowers) and overall image quality. Exposure data: Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G SSM lens at 100mm (155mm equivalent), f/6.3 and 1/700 sec, ISO 400, A mode.


In the Field


Shooting with the A-580 is a very pleasant experience for the most part and the results are certainly outstanding. 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% or the captured image, which is definitely better than average for a penta-mirror 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.

Reponsiveness

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.

Image Quality

Fortunately, the very best thing about the Sony Alpha A-580 is the thing that matters most: image quality. When it comes to beautiful files in RAW or Fine JPEG this camera flat out delivers, with superb detail, commendable color accuracy and saturation, and very low noise even at ISOs from 100 up to 6400—and 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 I used in my 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 12800 and even 25600, but “digital grain” will be visible in enlargements larger than 8x10.


Lab test results (Provided by DxOMark)

Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality (digital noise): 1600
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: 1600
Color depth: Outstanding (23.8 bits on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Excellent (80 on a scale of 1-100)
Dynamic range: Up to 13.3 stops

The Sony A580 is one of the top 3 APS sensor cameras currently available, and is superior to all other APS cameras (as of this writing) in color depth. Dynamic range is among best in class, and it even edges out its full-sensor sibling, the A800, in overall image quality. On purely image quality, it is clear that this camera gives you the most bang for the buck.


 

Speed Demon

I was also very impressed with the camera’s sheer firepower. When using the optical viewfinder it would happily blast along at 5 fps, and when I set the capture mode to Speed Priority I got up to 7 fps (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: I was not able to achieve 44 Fine JPEGs, the maximum number of continuous shots specified in the manual—I could only get 31, which is still pretty darn good. The upside: the camera’s AF, AE, and focus tracking worked splendidly, producing crisp, well-exposed pictures every time.

7 Frames per Second!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excellent definition and crisp contrast in all images in the 7-shot sequence taken at 5 fps with AF and focus tracking enabled demonstrates excellent high-speed performance of the system—a great achievement in this DSLR price class. Exposure data for all images: Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G SSM lens at 120mm (185mm equivalent), f/11 and 1/2000 sec ISO 1600, P mode.


I didn't shoot extensive video with the A-580, but the half dozen clips I did record verified the excellence of the capture system when I viewed my little AVCHD movies shot at 60 fps on a big screen TV. The visual quality is spectacular and the sound quality is surprisingly good (I didn’t use an accessory stereo mike). At that time I also tried Live View shooting and can confirm that the phase detection AF is unquestionably a lot faster than the contrast AF used in other cameras. It really takes Live View still picture shooting to a whole new level—even for this confirmed eye-level optical viewfinder fan.

I 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, I was amazed that the camera  still had some battery power left after taking over 700 shots and often “chimping” my results on the LCD. I therefore conclude that the A-580 is definitely above average in the battery capacity department.


Conclusion and Recommendation

Undoubtedly the Sony Alpha A-580 lives in a pretty tough neighborhood when it comes to competitors, 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 approximately $850 complete with 18-55mm standard zoom lens, it is worthy of serious consideration by any experienced shooter and, with its verbal readout screens that explain its modes and functions in simple language, its auto scene mode selection, and other automated features aimed at novices, it also makes a great starter camera you won't soon grow out of.

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