Does Sony's latest DSLR offer anything new over the previous A380 model? The What Digital Camera Sony A390 review investigates...
Sony Alpha A390 review – Features
The entry-level DSLR market has been awash with many affordable cameras for some years now. The A390 has a number of attractive features to attempt to make it stand out from the crowd: it’s capable of capturing stills at a high-resolution 14.2 megapixels and the 2.7in, 230K-dot LCD on the back has a tilt-angle capability that allows for vertical angling to face upward or downward for waist-level or over-the-head shooting. Full time live preview, or live view, also features but has an extra sheen in the form of Sony’s Quick AF Live View system that adds an additional sensor compared to competitors’ models for much faster autofocus when in this mode.
The Bionz processor sees images shot at a sensitivity of up to ISO 3200 at full size and there’s even a sensor-shift based image stabilisation system – Sony’s SteadyShot INSIDE – that ensures sharper images whatever lens is attached to the camera’s front. Users of old Konica/Minolta DSLR models may be keen to know than the current Sony A-mount lens fitting is the very same and that old Minolta lenses can be used without the need for any adaptors (Sony bought out the company some years ago).
Sticking with its entry-level stance, the A390 is also geared towards making shooting for first timers less intimidating than it otherwise might be. An on-screen help guide can assist, and the visual display on the LCD’s rear (when shooting using the 95%-crop viewfinder) shows the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and other settings to pare shooting modes down to their most basic – ideal for the beginner learning the ropes.
Elsewhere features are relatively ‘normal’, with a lightweight plastic body housing all the technical gear and a standard Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens featuring as standard. All the above features were as standard in the A380 camera, with the only new features entirely cosmetic…
Sony DSLR-A390 review – Design
The A390 benefits from subtle redesign over the previous A380 model. Its top plate sits the shutter slightly further forward for a more natural press and the grip to the right hand side is now sizeable enough to grip firmly for long periods of use. The camera’s fairly small though and you may find a lack of space for your little finger, though not unlike other cameras of this level.
The layout is quick and easy to grasp, with the mode dial to the top left hand side, a Live View/Viewfinder switch to the right hand side, next to the Smart Teleconverter which digitally crops into an image at 1.4x magnification when in Live View mode.
On the rear the tilt-angle screen has a fair border around it; a shame that a bigger screen didn’t feature as there’s more than enough space for it. Also the d-pad to the right of the screen is very close and when thumbing the drive mode setting to its left you’ll find the raised screen restricts movement. It doesn’t make use difficult, but could have been ever so slightly repositioned.
On the far left is a slide-door that reveals the mini USB and HDMI ports, plus the SD and Memory Stick Duo card slots. Both card types cannot be used simultaneously, with an MS/SD switch to choose between the two – a shame that an auto-detect function couldn’t be employed and yet, realistically, most users will only ever have the switch set one way for the ongoing use of a single card or two of the same type.
Interior menus are relatively basic yet functional as per similar Alpha models, yet its with the variety of user interface displays (adjusted using the Display) button where things excel a step further. The shutter speed and aperture relationship is well illustrated and quick access to the most important settings via the Fn (Function) button is seamless.
Sony Alpha A390 review – Performance
The Sony A390 has a 9-point AF system, with the focus points covering a good portion of the frame, including points to the corners of the viewfinder’s central area. This means that picking off subjects outside of the centre area becomes easier, though sometimes the camera will opt to over-consider subject matter beyond where you’re intending to focus; it can be frustrating when unimportant contrast in the sky is opted for focus instead of the main subject. Adjusting the AF area helps to counter this, though many will use the Wide AF selection as standard and this won’t always prove entirely effective.
The viewfinder has a 95% angle of view, which is typical of all models at this level and adds a slight area to the edges that can’t be seen during composure. The 0.74x magnification does make the optical image feel a bit distant, and it less than some competitor cameras. An Eye-Start AF system also helps conserve battery by sensing when your face approaches the eye cup, only then activating the full AF capability.
Despite the relatively standard viewfinder, the live view mode is something much more special. Sony’s Quick AF Live View system utilised a second sensor for much faster contrast-detect autofocus – certainly a class-leading standard wherever it’s employed. The LCD screen used for preview is 2.7in however, which does feel slightly small when considering the 3in and larger screens currently on the market. Low-light live view previews can suffer from a low frame rate and considerable grain, but as the mode is only to be used as a guide for framing this isn’t a distinct issue, nor uncommon in any DSLR cameras.
When shooting in low light, despite sensitivity up to ISO 3200, the Sony A390 lacks an AF assist lamp, which is common in many competitor cameras. This can be a frustration as the only way to get an accurate distance read of subjects is by using the flash to rapidly preflash. However this is distracting, noisy and often less accurate then an AF lamp would otherwise be. This is one of the major omissions in many entry-level Sony DSLR cameras.
When shooting the A390 can be quite noisy – the autofocus system moves the lens in a fairly nondiscreet manner and once focus is attained an audible beep is heard (the beep can be turned off however). In usual surroundings this will pose no issue, but if you’re hoping for some near-silent use for discreet work where silence is a necessity then the A390 may not tick this box.
The sensor-based SteadyShot system can be turned on or off at will and is a very effective and functional image stabilisation to have, as proven by its integration in numerous Sony cameras.
Lastly there’s the 2.5fps burst rate which, when using a Class 6 card as per this test, can be maintained for 4-5 frames when shooting Raw (or Raw+JPEG) before it begins to slow down. Shooting JPEG only (Fine setting) maintained the burst rate for 30 frames before there was any sign of slow down.
Image Quality & Value
Sony A390 review – Image Quality
Sony DSLR-A390 review – Tone & Exposure
When set to the Wide AF area exposure can vary fairly wildly depending on the content of the frame. While photographing churches, even a dominance of around 80% in the frame left them slightly underexposed with overexposed sky – not the best of either world really. A -0.3-0.7EV adjustment was commonplace for such scenarios. However, when shooting single-shade subjects, such as the white pillars of an old building, there was the tendency for slight overall overexposure. Such response to shooting isn’t ideal and took some getting used to, plus isn’t helped by the screen’s reflective qualities which make assessing exposure by eye trickier. When images do come good the tonal range is good assuming an accurate exposure.
D-Range Optimiser, with Standard or Advanced settings, boosts the brightness of shadow areas (the advanced option selectively breaks the image up into areas for individual automated adjustment) to some success. This simplified system is preferred to the previous DRO 1-5 range as the higher end could often over-work an image.
Sony a390 DSLR review – RAW/JPEG
The difference between Raw and JPEG files is fairly negligible at first glance, with the JPEG files appearing more sharpened more than their Raw counterparts. Noise reduction is impressive too, though for those wanting the utmost control the flexibility of the unprocessed, i.e. noisier, Raw file allows for pin-point adjustment.
The provided Image Data Converter software deals with Raw conversion if you have no other appropriate software on your computer. Providing control over all the usual noise, white balance, exposure and similar settings, the software allows users with no prior Raw processing experience to successfully get to grips with it.
Sony a390 review – Colour & White Balance
Auto White Balance deals with most scenes well, though there can be a lean towards either cool blue or warm magenta tones depending on subject – on occasion a subtle sway towards both. Consistency between ISO settings is good and colours in general are a realistic interpretation that don’t push colour to unrealistic levels.
Should boosting or manipulating colour be your aim then six in-camera Creative Style options provide the ability to change contrast, saturation and sharpness, or select from the ‘Vivid’, ‘Portrait’, ‘Landscape’, ‘Night’, ‘Sunset’ and ‘Black & White’ presets.
a390 review – ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
The densely populated 14.2MP sensor copes relatively well in terms of image noise, though does show more grain and colour noise than some less-populated mid-level cameras. ISO settings are usable throughout the range which is a definite positive and overall results are good at any given setting. The higher the ISO the less definition of detail there is, but this is as anticipated due to image noise reduction.
Sony Alpha DSLR-A390 review – Sharpness & Detail
The A390’s standard lens provides good results, though its with the use of other lenses from the family that best results can be obtained. There is some chromatic aberration (purple fringing) where bright areas meet high contrast edges, though not dramatically so to affect the overall picture quality.
Sony Alpha a390 review – Value
The basic A390 kit can be picked up for around £400 which pits it ever so slightly above the asking price of similar competitor models. However, the A390 has a fairly hefty features list including live view and that tilt-angle screen that less expensive models often fail to carry. On balance it’s a well positioned price point to make the Sony a serious consideration against its rivals.
Sony a390 review – Verdict
Make no bones about it: the A390 is the previous A380 model wrapped up in a new – and, it must be said, better – body, with no other changes to speak of. It’s important to highlight this for any A380 users considering upgrading, though for brand new users bypassing the A380 will be of little consequence.
All in all, although the build quality is a little ‘plasticy’, the A390 has a lot to offer and for a fair price. The camera’s Quick AF Live View speed still remains to be beaten in this class, and the tilt-angle LCD screen is a great addition when compared to some competition. The A390 stands its ground well and produces decent pictures throughout its ISO 100-3200 range.
We’re very glad to see a more pronounced grip on the camera, which makes for better use than the A380 before it, though it’s perhaps a little disappointing to not see any other exciting new innovations in this new model.