A DSLR with an impressive 7fps burst rate, the Sony Alpha a580 looks to offer the aspiring photographer a well-featured alternative to Nikon and Canon
Sony Alpha A580 Review – Features
The A55, thanks to its translucent mirror, gained the likes of a constant AF in Movie mode and during its 10fps burst rate, but the a580’s construction means autofocus is less swift when recording video and during its 7fps burst mode. Although this may be a step down from it’s attention-grabbing sibling the comparison to the majority of the competition is more favourable. Even the likes of the Canon EOS 600D offers only a 3.7fps rate, making the jump somewhat enticing. This isn’t the only major benefit the a580 has over its similarly priced rivals, however, as a tilt-angle screen is also on offer. Although the amount of movement is restricted to that of the vertical axis it’s still a helpful extra for shooting at a low or high angle. The LCD is 3inches in size and offers 921k-dots ofresolution, which results in an impressively detailed preview when utilising the Quick AF Live View mode.
The A580’s viewfinder offers a 95% field of view, which is about the norm for the price range, and a 3D Sweep Panorama mode that can display on compatible 3DTVs. Also included is a Focus Check Live View, which allows the LCD screen to be used for a quick preview prior to taking the image. This addition is a slightly strange one, as a full Live View mode can be accessed via a switch on the top of the body, but the focus mode being restricted to Spot or Selectable Spot means it has little use outside checking the sharpness. ISO can be bumped up to 12800 at full resolution, and the AF system has an impressive 15 selectable points with 3 cross sensors.
The A580’s movie mode has two distinct options: the Full HD 1080i AVCHD format (which needs to be decoded to edit on a computer), or a lower-resolution MP4 format that can be read straight from camera. Making both quality settings available is a huge bonus, as the often laborious process of converting the footage can be bypassed at the user’s decision.
Another fairly significant feature is the decision of Sony to include both their own Memory Stick Duo format and SD in separate slots, selectable by a switch. This gives any photographer stepping up from a compact a fairly reasonable chance of having at least one usable memory card, though it’s not possible to use both simultaneously.
As per most current DSLR cameras, the A580 also offers a D-Range mode that brightens shadowed areas, plus there’s an in-camera HDR mode that can capture two shots and fuse them together in-camera.
Sony A580 Review – Performance
Undoubtedly the most significant feature when comparing the A580 to another beginner DSLR is the 7fps burst rate. When testing the system in the highest JPEG quality the rate only started to falter around the 20 shot mark and yet still happily filled up a card hereafter. The Raw + JPEG mode was very similar, happily firing off the same 20 shots before a more severe drop off in pace. Although the buffer filled the camera was ready for use again fairly swiftly, and images could also be reviewed without a huge delay. The mirror slap was fairly audible throughout use of the burst mode, bringing about slight concerns over whether it would attribute to camera motion or hand shake, although there were few serious indications of this during testing.
The A580’s movie mode is, in fact, an interlaced rather than progressive capture. This means that the end product has frames comprised of two combined sets of horizontal lines, alternating at a rate of 50 frames per second. This is often considered a step down in quality compared to progressive scan due to possible ‘tearing’ in fast motion.
Although the A580 operates on a fundamentally different system to the A55, its phase-detection AF system is of a similar ilk for single focus purposes. The camera is able to adjust focus depth reasonably quickly, and thus reduce the amount of time the camera spends hunting for a subject. Although the system is rapid enough in differing light levels those lacking in more obvious contrast proved an issue at times. It was fortunate that the 75-300mm lens used in a number of the tests featured a focus limiting switch, or a number of images would have been entirely out of focus due to the camera failing to locate a focal point.
The A580 differs from a number of DSLRs in a similar price range by having a physical switch to change between the optical viewfinder and Quick AF Live View mode. Although there is a Focus Check Live View, which can be activated via button press, it’s not as fully-featured as the full live view mode. A shutter also obstructs the viewfinder, making it far more useful for long exposures than the Focus Check mode, which simply raises the mirror. The LCD screen itself offers an impressive level of detail, being useful in both direct sunlight and at low and high angles thanks to the vari-angle screen. Although there’s only vertical alterations possible the feature is still quite useful. The live view mode itself is streets ahead of competitors thanks to the additional sensor that Sony’s ‘Quick AF Live View’ mode offers. It means focusing speeds of a similar speed to when looking through the viewfinder, something that competitor models really can’t match up to.
The A580’s Full HD 1080i50 movie mode doesn’t allow for continuous autofocus while shooting, instead switching by to the AF-S mode regardless of the prior settings. Only the Exposure Compensation can be altered from the available manual settings, alongside the likes of white balance and D-Range are also available. This does mean all of the major alterations are in the hands of the camera’s processing engine and automatic exposure control, so switching between lighting conditions leads to a visible graduation in exposure during recording.
As with the Sony compacts a Sweep Panorama mode is available, working in an extremely similar manner by requiring a singular motion to create a stitched image. A 3D mode is also available, saved as an MPO file that can be output to 3DTVs and similar devices, rather than viewed back on the camera itself. When shooting a panorama it’s worth bearing in mind any major changes in exposure, as the camera is essentially locked into a fixed setting until the panorama ends.
The A580’s battery life readout was accurate thanks to a percentage display and we shot some 1050 shots before it was fully depleted.
All in all the A580 can be a bit of a mixed bag. When shooting at a set distance the burst rate fared well enough, but the autofocus system wasn’t always quite up to pace – it can’t match the fast-moving action that a pro-spec camera can, for example. On a number of occasions the focal distance traveled throughout the full available range, hunting for a subject before finally settling – again, not ideal for fast-moving action.
Sony A580 Review – Design
Sony’s purchase of Minolta has meant the Alpha range has grown out of the previous company’s traditions. This means the hotshoe isn’t a standard fitting, instead the standalone Minolta fit (though other standard hotshoe flashguns can fit via an adaptor).
The A580’s vari-angle screen takes up the majority of the rear of the camera, with the frame forcing it to sit slightly away from the camera. The d-pad, which is recessed into the body, sits next to the screen alongside the playback and delete buttons below, and Fn button just above. All three are in close proximity to the pad but still offer enough of a surrounding area to be straightforward to operate.
Unlike a number of similar models the A580 doesn’t beset the buttons with numerous secondary functions, instead opting to place the lesser-used controls within the menu system.
The A580’s top panel offers a large finger space to allow for a comfortable grip without accidentally hitting a button to accompany the thumb space at the rear. The top panel offers the drive mode and ISO controls alongside the D-range and Focus Check LV buttons.
Changing between the optical viewfinder and LCD display is performed via a rather industrial feeling switch which blocks the viewfinder when the live view is in operation. A button would certainly be more convenient, and allow for faster switching between the two modes. Since the viewfinder and screen are given such different degrees of potential use it seems more logical to have the ability to change between modes in a faster manner, which is the functionality provided by the Focus Check LV button.
The A580’s LCD screen requires a fair amount of effort to manoeuver, and locks into position without being overly affected by gravity. This seems, in the most part, to be due to the spring-loaded panel sitting behind the LCD screen and preventing it from moving a huge amount.
Both the memory card slots sit under a protective flap to the A580’s side. The cards can’t be used simultaneously, instead there’s a physical switch to change between the two. This may seem a touch archaic when a menu-based incarnation is present in a number of other models.
Weight-wise the A580 comes in at a sensible 600g, the majority of which is aimed toward the rear of the camera. In spite of this the balance is perfect for a larger lens, and the body feels sturdy without being overly bulky. The textured metal shell is simple to hold in all weather conditions, including when moisture lands on it, and the rubberized grip especially helpful in damper climates. It’s also worth noting that the body-based AF/MF switch is overridden by the attached lens, so even if the A580 is left in manual focus a change of lens could negate the setting.
Sony A580 Review – Image quality
Unlike the A55’s translucent shutter, the Sony Alpha A580 has a standard shutter that lifts out of the way when shooting. As there’s no material ‘in the way’ of the sensor, there should be more available light that reaches it which, theoretically, could mean image quality is even better. In reality the differences between the two models are quite minor, especially when ISO sensitivity is taken into account.
Sony A580 – ISO & Image Noise
The A580 seemed reluctant to jump over the ISO 800 mark in Auto ISO mode, and the results when pushed beyond that comfort zone displayed why; the amount of image noise on display is fairly visible. Fortunately it’s less heavy handed than purely turning the tones on display into cartoon-like representations, leaving enough of the grain to make it visible without too much magnification.
Sony A580 – Tone and Exposure
Exposure proved to be impressively even when tested across number of different environments, although there was a slight tendency to favour the darker areas and lose an amount of detail in the highlights, although only marginal, the result were generally balanced.
Tone was again extremely even, although at times a touch too reserved to allow the more eye-catching images to dominate. As a result the flesh tones, although varied and well-represented, were a touch too pale.
Sony A580 – Raw vs JPEG
At close inspection the difference between the Raw and JPEG images is minimal, with the benefits of minimal processing being the major incentive for opting for the larger file type. The tonal range is more subtle and colour cast less aggressive when using Raw, but otherwise you won’t lose a huge amount by opting for more file space.
Sony A580 – Sharpness and Detail
The detail levels produced by the A580 is impressive under the ISO 800 mark, but above and beyond that seems to suffer. Although the 18-55mm kit lens may be limited in focal length it performs admirably, but the best of the 16MP sensor can only truly be seen with the likes of a prime lens attached.
Sony A580 Review – Movie/Video Mode
A580 review – Movie/Video Formats
Being able to chose between MP4 and AVCHD has pros and cons beyond the processing of the files, in that the MP4 option is smaller in both resolution and bitrate. The results are a narrower colour gamut and more obvious compression, although in practice the difference between the two file formats is minimal.
A580 review – Movie/Video Focusing
Unlike the A55 the A580 doesn’t continually focus during recording, instead needing manual adjustment as soon as the record button is pressed. Although this is something of an annoyance when moving the camera between subjects the kit lens is relatively easy to adjust and the LCD of decent enough quality to make finding a decent level of sharpness very straightforward.
A580 review – Movie/Video Manual Control
The only real control possible is over focus and exposure compensation. Fortunately the auto controls do an excellent job of keep the light levels and white balance under control, although it’s obviously a touch difficult when going from indoor to outdoor. Thankfully metering can also be altered between spot and multi-zone modes to prevent too many mid-shot exposure issues.
A580 Review – Movie/Video Sound
With a standard omni-directional stereo mic the A580 often picks up the sound of the lens moving and the operator as well as the subject. A directional mic can be attached via the 3.5mm connection under the HDMI socket, although the Sony hotshoe would require an adapter to place any standard microphone on it.
Value and Verdict
Sony A580 Review – Value
For the spec and feature list on offer, including the 7fps burst rate, the A580 is priced in the right area. Canon’s EOS 600D is priced at around the same level with a marginally differing feature list, making the system employed more of a consideration.
The A580’s supplied 18-55mm kit lens is fairly basic in order to keep the price down, but there’s plenty of scope to replace it.
The issue with the A580 is how much more the A55’s performance supercedes this camera. Of course the image quality is virtually identical but the addition of constant focusing in movie mode and a faster burst rate is worth an extra few pounds. The only real reason to buy the A580 over the A55 is personal preference for a traditional mirrored assembly and thus an optical viewfinder.
Sony A580 Review – Verdict
In an age of making minor adjustments to cameras between generations and repackaging the results as a new model Sony has made the A580 a perfect example of choice for choice’s sake. The differences between this model and the A55 are as minor as the change in mirror type would allow, although it’s understandable that a number of consumers wouldn’t immediately trust the technology.
The most important element of the Sony A580, the image quality, is impressively consistent if not quite as eye-catching as it should be. Results are of an equivalent level to the chasing pack and the camera performs reasonably well in low light, although above ISO 800 image noise becomes apparent. The burst rate, although impressive at 7fps, can be difficult to utilise in anything but the best lighting conditions and longest depth of field settings due to the inability of the camera’s focus to quite match up to the burst rate ability
The A580’s LCD screen is excellent from a detail and colour point of view, making it extremely useful in combination with the tilt-angle hinge. Similarly the optical viewfinder is perfectly serviceable for framing images, although the substantial manner in which the two are switched between seems a little unnecessary.
In all the Sony A580 ticks a number of boxes for the mid-range DSLR genre, but doesn’t differentiate itself enough from the A55 or other similarly-specced models to make it anything more than another solid DSLR in a crowded market.