Boasting the same Quick AF live view system of its predecessor, what else does the latest Alpha model provide for the entry-level consumer?
Sony’s four-year incursion into the DSLR market has been successful for many reasons. Aside from carrying Konica Minolta’s flame, it’s been its innovation and emphasis on value for money which has bought it a whole new audience. Whether it’s the budget A200 tempting users into the system, or the pro-grade A900 competing with more established lines, there seems to be little territory the company is afraid of entering.
But with the whole market now catered for, the company has started to refresh its range with the next generation of models. The Sony A380 is the better specified models from the trio of Alpha cameras announced earlier in the year, continuing where the Sony A350 left off. Externally, the focus with new models seems to be on creating a stronger brand identity over the previous Konica Minolta design, as well as cutting down on weight and simplifying operation. But what does the Sony A380 offer that’s new for the entry-level consumer?
Sony A380 – Features
While the A380’s sensor has been carried over from the A350, Sony is said to have made improvements to the Bionz processor for the benefit of image quality. The sensor itself is a APS-C sized CCD chip, with a total of 14.9MP providing an effective 14.2MP, with images output to both Raw and JPEG formats.
In contrast to the DT 18-70mm lens which shipped with previous Alpha models, the A380 comes with the new DT 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 SAM optic as standard. Aside from the slight reduction in focal range, the new lens features a new Smooth Autofocus Motor (SAM) for smooth and quiet operation, as well as both aspherical and extra low dispersion (ED) elements.
Along with every other optic mounted on the camera, the APS-C sized sensor applies a 1.5x magnification factor to the lens’s focal length. Sony continues to develop a range of lenses for its system, though it should be noted that the Alpha user is already well-catered for; in addition to Sony’s DT lenses designed for APS-C sensors, non-DT ‘full-frame’ lenses may be used, as well as the more premium range of Carl Zeiss-branded optics and older Minolta A-mount lenses.
As with every other Alpha DSLR, dust reduction and Super SteadyShot image stabilisation feature as standard, with the latter enabling sharp images when shooting between 2.5 and 3.5 exposure stops under what would usually be possible. Being camera-based this works with every mounted lens, and, unlike on previous models, is activated via the camera’s menu.
The same acclaimed live view system as on the A350 features on the new model, with a secondary sensor in the camera’s viewfinder chamber allowing uninterrupted phase detection autofocusing; essentially this makes live view focusing just as speedy as standard focusing. This is complemented with an 2.7in articulated LCD screen with a 230,400dot resolution, which may be pulled out and adjusted for shooting from awkward angles. It displays 90% coverage of the scene, with a refresh rate of 30fps providing a smooth feed.
Despite recent trends, the camera doesn’t support video recording of any sort. Whether this is due to the physical structure of its live view system or the use of CCD sensors is unclear, though the A380’s entry-level status may also have something to do with it. The camera does, however, debut a new self-timer feature which takes three or five consecutive shots after a 10-second countdown – ideal for group portrait shots.
The focusing system has retained the nine points of the A350’s system, with a central cross-type point and eight around it. The trio of AF area options allow the user to activate the central point or any one of the other eight points, or if set to the Auto Area mode the camera will decide for itself which combination is the most appropriate.
Sensitivity, meanwhile, runs from a base ISO of 100 up to the maximum of 3200, which again is the same as before, while noise reduction may also be activated for both long exposures and those taken at higher sensitivities. Elsewhere the camera’s 40-zone metering system offers multi-segment, centre-weighted and spot patterns, while the Dynamic Range Optimisation function (DRO) features Standard and Advanced settings for use when shadow and highlight detail would otherwise be lost.
Finally, the new battery is significantly smaller and lighter than those Sony has used previously, weighing just 50g and slightly larger than a standard 9V battery. This may have come as a result of its reduced performance, though; while the A350 could manage around 750 shots when using the viewfinder, the A380 is only quoted as having a 500-shot life. Using live view cuts this figure down to 230 shots (according to Sony), though these figures will vary from user to user depending on their shooting habits.
Sony A380 – Design
With the A380, Sony has taken quite a departure from the design of the previous models. The more traditional arrangement on the rear of the camera, with a column of buttons on the left hand side and the rest around the top and right of the LCD, has been simplified so that there are just five buttons and a menu pad. The menu and exposure compensation buttons sit almost at a right angle to the back of the camera, on a slanted ledge leading towards the top-plate of the camera, on which there is a switch for alternating between the live view and viewfinder together with a standard mode dial, shutter release and Sony’s Smart Teleconverter. The Function button (Fn) has remained from previous models, while each direction of the menu pad accesses a different function such as ISO or flash mode.
Some of these changes are welcome. Powering up the camera, which was previously done via a separate switch on the rear, is now done via the collar around the shutter release; not only is this a more economical use of space, but it makes powering up the camera slightly easier and therefore faster. The disappearance or reassignment of certain controls has made the camera less intimidating and easier on the eye, too, though accessing the menu and exposure compensation buttons is made more difficult due to their awkward positioning on the camera. Also, while the Smart Teleconverter button has remained on the camera’s top-plate from the A350, the flash and AE lock buttons have disappeared. I imagine keeping these two buttons and sacrificing the Smart Teleconverter button would have been the prefereable option for most users.
Handling is problematic given the changes Sony has made to the grip. I assumed after prolonged use this would be something I would get used to, but sadly I found this not to be the case. Essentially the top quarter or so has been sliced off, making it harder to hold the smaller grip adequately, and every time I wanted to turn the command dial around the front I would find my middle finger in the way. Furthermore, when using a heavier lens it was harder to support the camera properly, meaning I would have to carry it around by its lens rather than its body, if I was to be sure it wouldn’t drop while carrying it. Clearly the entry-level market isn’t the prime target for heavy, wide-apreture lenses, but it would still be nice for a little extra ‘growing room’. If you only intend to use the kit lens or a small prime lens, for example, this won’t be as great an issue, but, ultimately, these inconveniences outweigh the minor gains over previous models for the sake of having a slightly smaller and lighter camera.
The menu system is much the same as on previous Alpha models, with recording, custom, playback and setup settings arranged over four tabs. The interface may be set to one of four colour palettes, while the aforementioned Fn button now brings up its six options each with a coloured icon, making it easier to find what it is you need. As before, theste settings access AF Mode, AF area, metering, white balance, Dynamic Range Optimiser and Creative Style options, with no option to customise these, nor to create a personalised menu with your own commonly-used settings.
Opening the smart sliding door around the side of the camera reveals USB and mini HDMI ports, together with slots for both Sony’s proprietary MemoryStick and SD/SDHC media, and a switch to alternate between the two. Sony dropping the CompactFlash support of previous models is in line with other manufacturers who have recently done the same, given the better performance, higher capacity and lower price of SD media which has made CompactFlash almost redundant on models of this sort.
Sony A380 – Performance
The nine points of the A380’s AF system not only cover a good proportion of the frame, but in contrast to the more standard diamond formation there is one in each corner of the viewfinder’s central area; this makes it easier for the camera to pick up subjects located towards the edges and corners of the frame, and saturates the central area more effectively. And, rather than the thin lines which featured on previous models, each point is an actual ‘point’ and more clearly defined by a small box around each one. Not only is this an improvement visually, but it also makes it easier to work with.
While the 95% viewfinder coverage is fairly typical on such a model, the 0.74x magnification factor is not. This is due to?the secondary sensor in the viewfinder chamber, which restricts how large this can be, though it does make viewing the image slightly trickier. For those more likely to be using the viewfinder than the live view ?system with which to compose images I’d suggest this is something to bear in mind. Such users may be interested in the ?yet-to-be-reviewed A230, which increases viewfinder magnification to 0.83x and retains many of the same features, with the notable exception of a live view system.
For those, however, who will be primarily using the live view system, the news is much better. The same combination of fast autofocusing and the articulated LCD screen make shooting this way effortless, with each AF point highlighted by a clear green box when activated. The screen shows a little more saturation than that of the A380, and at default settings is about as bright too. In darker conditions the feed is more affected by noise in order for the camera to display the scene, but this isn’t likely to be obtrusive and isn’t a representation of how much noise will appear in the final image.
Noise in its audible sense, however, has been characteristic of previous Alpha models, and this has continued with the A380. The combined sound of the mirror, shutter and autofocusing system means that it perhaps isn’t best suited for discreet use, and even with the new kit lens with its Smooth Autofocus Motor, the camera can’t quite match the quiet operation of similar systems. A comparison with the older DT 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 also shows the new lens to be a touch louder when trying to focus. However, although the lens shows little if any improvement in focusing speed over that optic, it’s about as fast as would be expected for a kit lens.
The camera’s maximum burst rate of 2.5fps should make it obvious that it’s not exactly designed for burst shooting. Using a Sandisk Extreme III Class 6 SDHC card – one of the fastest types of SD card available – the camera happily processed high-quality JPEGs at a consistent speed, but Raw files slowed down after about eight shots and a combination of the two after about three to four shots.
Sony A380 – Image Quality
During this test I was consistently impressed by the accuracy of the A380’s metering system. The only time it tended to err was when I would have expected it to (such as when shooting against backlighting) but even then the Dynamic Range Optimisation is keen to bring out shadow detail. Shooting a predominantly light subject gave it no problems, with no need for manual intervention to get the exposure right.
Colour and tone
The camera’s white balance system fares about as well as would be expected, with accurate results in daylight and slight difficulties under artificial light. Even so, I found that while shooting under tungsten light gave images a slight cast, there are cameras that do a far worse job at maintaining a neutrality in such circumstances. Colour is generally good on the Standard setting, though the six further Creative Style options and the ability to change contrast, saturation and sharpness of each makes the camera as customisable as it needs to be.
Raw and JPEG
The differences between Raw and JPEG files depends largely on what settings you use in-camera, but there are still differences even when settings like Dynamic Range Optimisation, noise reduction and so on are deactivated. On the whole, JPEGs are sharpened a little more compared to their Raw equivalents, but there is still room for improvement as they are quite soft. Noise reduction is impressive; Raw files shot in good light at even ISO 100 can show a very slight texture, but in JPEGs this is successfully removed without overall sharpness suffering.
The Image Data Lightbox and Image Data Converter software supplied with the A380 give you comprehensive control over viewing and editing your images. The former package allows you to group images in Collections, rate them and view their metadata, with the interface customisable to your tastes. It can even sort all your images by which lens was used to take them, should you want to bring them all up at once. You can also use this in conjunction with the latter program, where more intensive Raw processing is possible. Despite being quite simple to use, it offers all the standard Raw tools such as white balance, noise reduction and sharpness, but even goes so far as to offer control over things like Peripheral Illumination, for example. Considering the limited software options still being provided with some DSLRs, it’s very encouraging that Sony provides this for entry-level users as standard.
That the Sony A380 is only a minor upgrade indicates one of two things. Either the entry-level user is already well-catered for, with everything they need to take the kind of images they would require, or a better-specified model which would sit a little higher up is in the pipeline. After all, a replacement for the Sony A700 is long overdue, and the video recording and high-resolution LCD screens tend to be seen as niceties geared towards the mid-range market than necessities to this one.
It’s when using live view that the camera shines, and while other manufacturers have made their own advances in this area Sony still remains on top. It’s only really the design of the body which may be problematic, though of course, this won’t bother everyone. Even so, the usual advice of handling a camera before you buy it is something we’d strongly suggest here.
That the Sony A380 is only a minor upgrade indicates one of two things. Either the entry-level user is already well-catered for, with everything they need to take the kind of images they would require, or a better-specified model which would sit a little higher up is in the pipeline. After all, a replacement for the A700 is long overdue, and the video recording and high-resolution LCD screens tend to be seen as niceties geared towards the mid-range market than limitations to this one. It’s when using live view that the camera shines, and while other manufacturers have made their own advances in this area Sony still remains on top. It’s only really the design of the body which may be problematic, though of course, this won’t bother everyone. Even so, the usual advice of handling a camera before you buy it is something we’d strongly suggest here.