Sony A580 Review

4.5
January 18, 2011 | Mark Goldstein |

Introduction

The Sony A580 is a new mid-range DSLR camera that somewhat strangely faces some stiff competition not just from the usual suspects of Canon and Nikon, but also Sony's own A55 and A33 cameras with their innovative and headline grabbing technologies. Read our Sony A580 review to find out if there's still a place for Sony's latest take on the venerable DSLR camera.

The Sony A580 is a new mid-range DSLR camera that was launched alongside the headline-grabbing A55. Unlike that smaller camera, which uses Translucent Mirror Technology to offer high-speed shooting and a smaller body size, the A580 is a traditional DSLR with an optical viewfinder. The 16.2 megapixel A580 features up to 7fps burst shooting, 1080i HD movie recording, 15-point phase-detection autofocus system, Quick AF Live View, optical viewfinder with 95% frame coverage, in-body sensor shift image stabilisation, a 3-inch free-angle LCD, 3D Sweep Panoramas, Auto HDR and Multi-frame Noise Reduction. The Sony A580 costs $800 in the US and £599.99 in the UK for the body only, and about $900 / £659.99 for the body and 18-55mm zoom lens.

Ease of Use

The Sony A580 replaces the A550 as the new flagship model in the A5- series of Sony DSLR cameras, with the cheaper 14 megapixel A560 sitting below it, which offers a lower-resolution 14 megapixel sensor. The two cameras are otherwise identical, so most of the comments that we make about the A580 apply equally to the A560.

The A580 is quite a big camera, with a pronounced handgrip that markedly improves the handling, particularly if you have medium-to-large hands. Instead of the A550's two-tone black and grey colour, the A580 has a more professional-looking textured all-black finish. Although it feels a little plastic-y in hand, build quality is on a par with other DSLR cameras in the same price range, neither cheap enough to put you off or solid enough to contend with more pro-level models.

The A580 features an adjustable rear 3-inch LCD that tilts up and down, still a relative rarity on a digital SLR. A tilting LCD is always a better choice for a Live View capable DSLR than a fixed one, though some competing models from Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic go even further by offering full LCD articulation, as do Sony's own A55 and A33. The A580 also has a clever eye level sensor that switches off the rear screen's info display as you bring your eye close to the optical viewfinder, plus a facility that automatically flips the same display through 90° should you turn the camera on its side to shoot portrait fashion.

One advantage of the Sony range over either Canon or Nikon is that the A580 features built-in sensor shift image stabilization, hence no need to spend extra on specialist lenses to help combat camera shake. On the Sony A580 light sensitivity stretches from ISO 100 all the way up to ISO 12,800, with a quasi top speed of 25,600 achieved by taking and combining six frames at once. Sony's long-standing D-Range optimizer function helps to even out tricky exposures, for example where a bright background would normally throw the foreground into deep shadow, and the High Dynamic Range Optimiser (HDR) is Sony's solution for capturing more contrast than a single exposure can handle by combining two exposures into one image, with 6 different EV settings and an Auto option.

The fastest continuous shooting speed of 7 fps at full resolution when using the OVF or in Live View mode is excellent for a mid-range camera, although the focus and exposure are fixed at the first frame. If you don't use this Speed Priority burst mode, then the A580 can shoot at 5fps using the OVF or 3fps in Live View mode with the ability to refocus and set the exposure for each individual frame. Also the A580 can't maintain Live View during burst shooting, instead displaying the frame that you've just taken, making panning with the subject virtually impossible and rather going against the grain of the otherwise excellent Live View system.

In use, the Sony A580 proved to be pleasingly quick. Start-up was nearly instant, autofocus with the kit lens was fairly speedy if not quite as quiet as with an SSM lens. Thanks to the secondary-sensor approach, there was no noticeable AF speed penalty when shooting in Live View. The camera's burst mode is a pretty impressive 7 frames per second (fps) in the speed-priority continuous mode, 5fps with the optical viewfinder, or 3fps in Live View (1fps slower then the A55). Image playback speeds were also acceptable. Magnifying into an already captured image does take a couple of seconds though. Maximum image magnification is 12x, but there is little point in going beyond the default 6.1x setting as the image progressively falls apart at higher values.

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Front Rear

The A580 can record 1080i HD 1920 x 1280 pixel movies at either 25fps (PAL) or 30fps (NTSC) in the AVCHD format, or 1440 x 1080 pixels at 25fps in the MPEG-4 format, useful as this format can currently be shared more easily. There's also a 640 x 480 VGA mode at 25fps. There's a limitation of up to 29 minutes, or 9 minutes if SteadyShot is turned on, for the AVCHD format, and a 2Gb file size for MP4 video. Stereo sound is recorded during video capture, and you can fit an optional external stereo microphone to further improve the quality. The HDMI port allows you to connect the A580 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable. Unlike the Sony A55 / A33 models, auto-focusing is not possible during movie recording, and just like those cameras, you can't change the shutter speed or aperture during recording either. On the plus side, exposure compensation, creative styles, white balance, AF area and metering mode all apply equally to stills and moving images.

From the front the Sony A580 looks unthreatening to the novice DSLR user. Apart from a familiar ridge housing the pop up flash above the Alpha lens mount, its most distinguishing feature is the traditional handgrip complete with leather-look rubberized covering that extends around the side and rear of the camera. It's easy to fit three fingers around and makes it straight-forward to hold the camera completely steady for shooting handheld. Built into the grip itself is a narrow sliver of a window for the remote sensor, should use of one be required as an optional extra.

At the top of this grip, but still at the front, is the camera's one and only control/command dial, situated beneath the main shutter release button and on/off switch, where it falls readily under the forefinger. In the absence of any top-mounted LCD window, users can spin this to rapidly scroll through screen menu options and folders, a task also achieved in slower, steadier fashion by tabbing through the same using the familiar four-way control pad at the rear, as well as adjust apertures and shutter speeds.

Over at the other side of the lens mount we find a comfortably large button to release the lens, adjacent to which is a self-explanatory slider switch for alternating between auto and manual focus. Sony has subtly incorporated instances of its Alpha trademark 'cinnibar' (orange to the rest of us) colour on the camera, here only visible in the Greek symbol for Alpha that makes up the logo and a thin line encircling the lens surround. The Alpha mount also offers backwards compatibility with A mount lenses from the Minolta and Konica Minolta range, Sony having bought up that company's expertise wholesale in 2005 to launch its own range. Completing the front of the A580 is a new and very handy Depth of Field Preview button located just below the lens mount.

The A580's top plate features a tactile shutter release button encircled by an on/off switch that visually apes the zoom levers found on some compact cameras. The shutter-release has a definite half-way point, with the focus points (an increased choice of 15 with 3 cross-type points) rapidly illuminating in the viewfinder and a confirmation bleep signaling that focus and exposure has been determined and the user is free to go on and take the shot. With imperceptible shutter delay, a full resolution JPEG is committed to memory in just over a second in single shot mode, a RAW file in three.

The Self-timer/ Drive Mode and ISO and buttons are more logically positioned nearer the shutter release button than on the A550, and they are aren't mapped onto the four-way controller as on the A55/33, which is free to function as the quick AF point selector in the Local AF area mode. You can also choose Wide to let the camera choose the most appropriate AF point from the 15 choices, or use the central AF sensor and recompose if needed. This age-old focus-recompose technique is much faster than selecting an off-centre focus point, and works every time except when dealing with extremely shallow depth of field. Alternatively, you can use the AF button in the centre of the four-way navigation pad to focus on whatever is in the centre of the frame, and hold it down not only while recomposing but also while releasing the shutter too (so that pressing the shutter button does not cause the camera to refocus).

The new Focus Check LV function improves further on the A550's innovative MF Check LV option. As the name suggests, the A580 can now autofocus in this mode, using either contrast detection or phase detection, as well as manual focusing as before. This feature provides the ability to magnify into the live image for accurate manual focusing in macro and tripod shooting. Simply press the Focus Check LV button when in Live View mode to allow critical assessment of focus and fine detail. The live image in this mode offers an improved 100% field coverage, assisted by framing grid lines for precise composition, and you can also select the 7x/14x zoom function for close-up confirmation of focus by using the AEL button.

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Front Tilting LCD Screen

The D-Range button provides one touch access to the A580's extensive number of Dynamic Range options. D-Range Optimiser (DRO) is Sony's solution to improve shadow detail in photos taken in contrasty light, while the High Dynamic Range Optimiser (HDR) captures more contrast than a single exposure can handle by combining two exposures into one image. Also retained by the A580 is Face Detection technology, which as on most compact cameras recognises faces and applies the proper focus, exposure and white balance, and Smile Shutter mode, another compact camera feature which automatically takes the shot when your subject smiles.

One of the main highlights of the Sony A580 is its Live View implementation. None of the currently manufactured competitor DSLR models can auto-focus quickly in live view mode, and that's because competing DSLRs get the live view feed off the main imaging chip, which means their mirror must be raised while in this mode, blocking light from reaching their AF sensors. So they either have to temporarily lower their mirror for auto-focusing, which is loud and interrupts the live view, or resort to contrast-detect AF, which their lenses are not optimised for.

Sony have circumvented this problem by using a secondary imager. While the solution is not new - secondary-sensor Live View debuted in the Olympus E-330 of 2006, where it was called Live View Mode A - Sony took a fresh look at it and came up with their own version. Given that no other manufacturer - not even Olympus - offers this in any of its current models, it was logical of Sony to continue using it in the A580. The benefit of secondary-sensor Live View is that autofocus is just as fast, and shutter lag is just as short as when using the OVF, unlike in the case of competing models that offer main-sensor Live View. The main downside of Sony's solution is a much lower Live View frame coverage (90%).

The Live View / OVF slider switch alongside the pop-up flashgun alternates between the A580's clever Live View shooting mode and the more traditional optical viewfinder. If choosing 'OVF' with the camera set to auto-focus, bringing your eye level with the viewfinder and sensor below will neatly prompt the camera to automatically focus on whatever it's aiming at (you can turn this feature off by disabling the Eye-Start AF menu option). Moving the switch to Live View changes to the LCD screen, automatically blanking out the viewfinder with the rear screen bursting into life instead.

The A580's top plate also features a hotshoe for an optional accessory flash situated just above the optical viewfinder, with a dedicated button to manually release the pop up flash situated to the left. The built-in flash can also trigger an optional wireless accessory flash. Two sets of four small holes for the built-in stereo speakers are located just in front of the hotshoe.

Over at the far left of the A580's top plate is a prominent shooting mode dial. Arranged around this are 8 selectable options, running from full Auto to the creative quartet of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter priority and Manual, plus dedicated modes for the Sweep Panorama (normal or 3D), Flash Off and a Scene option which includes pre-optimised scene modes for common subjects such as portraits, landscapes, close ups (macro), sports, sunset, night, night portraits and handheld twilight.

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Pop-up Flash Top

The Sony A580 allows you to take both 2D and 3D panoramic images very easily, by 'sweeping' with the camera while keeping the shutter release depressed. The camera does all the processing and stitching and even successfully compensates for moving subjects. The main catch is that the resulting image is of fairly low resolution. Also new is the Multi-Frame Noise Reduction mode, which combines six frames together into one image, offers a two-stop advantage over the regular ISO mode - you can see the results on the Image Quality page.

The optical viewfinder (OVF) of the Sony A580 delivers 0.80x magnification and 95% frame coverage. The 15 autofocus points are permanently marked on the focusing screen, and are therefore always visible in the viewfinder. The active AF point lights are isolated on-screen when in use, and if focus is acquired, a green focus confirmation dot appears on the left side of the in-finder LCD, similar to other manufacturers' models.

To the left of the viewfinder is a button marked Menu. Press this and a number of shooting and set up folders appear on screen, with white text on a black background aiding visibility. The three shooting folders allow users to select image quality and - if JPEG (RAW and RAW+JPEG also available) - compression rates too. Here users can also set the Movie quality and audio options, switch on SteadyShot, long exposure and high ISO noise reduction - all in fact activated as a default, as is the likes of the eye start feature. Settings, playback, memory card, time and two further set up folders allow the likes of LCD brightness to be adjusted, the help guide to be turned on or off, plus user languages, folders and file numbering to be specified.

To the right of the viewfinder is a small wheel for dioptric adjustment that isn't too stiff and rigid. Just below and to the right of this is a welcome dedicated button for one-touch movie recording, which thankfully replaces the A550's nearly useless 'Smart Teleconverter' button, which acted as a 1.4x / 2x digital zoom when shooting JPEGs in Live View mode, delivering a cropped image. Alongside is another button for adjusting exposure compensation (+/- 2EV) in P,A,S,M modes, which also doubles up as a means of zooming out of images when in playback mode, and a handily-placed third marked AEL for locking the exposure, which logically zooms into images during playback.

The LCD screen on which Live View is delivered on the A580 is a 3-inch, high-resolution 921,600-dot affair that tilts up and down. The fixed nature of the screen's bracket does make it impossible to attain the video-friendly side-on position that some other rival models offer, a real shame considering the A580's video capabilities. The brightness of the screen can be set manually, but it can also adapt to ambient light levels automatically. Outdoors visibility is average - we've seen much worse (more reflective) LCDs on some competitors, but would still like to see some improvement to the antiglare coating. As previously mentioned, switching between Live View and the optical viewfinder is done by way of a mechanical switch to the right of the pentamirror housing, a simple and elegant solution.

To the right of the A580's screen is a Function ('Fn') button for those details that we'd expected to find amidst the menus but didn't. Here for example we find the Drive modes, Flash modes, along with Autofocus modes (a choice of single shot, auto or continuous), AF area (wide, spot or local), Face Detection, Smile Shutter, ISO speed, Metering (multi segment, centre weighted or spot), Flash Compensation, White Balance (including a custom setting), DRO/Auto HDR, plus Creative Style settings. These pre-optimised user selectable settings run from the default of 'standard' through the self-explanatory vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset and black and white. For each of these creative options, contrast, saturation and sharpness can be individually adjusted.

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Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

Beneath the Function button we find a familiar four-way control pad. At the centre is a 'AF' button that comes in particularly handy when scrutinizing the screen in Live View mode. Press this and, as with a press of the shutter release button, the camera will automatically and rapidly determine a point of focus for you. Underneath these options is a playback button for the review of images and a self-evident trash can button for deleting images on the fly.

The Sony A80 has a pop-up flash with a guide number of 12 (in metres at ISO 100). There is a mechanical button to raise the flash or you can raise it manually by hand. The pop-up flash can also act as a TTL controller for wirelessly slaved external flash units. External flashguns can of course also be mounted to the camera itself via the hot shoe. Be reminded that it is not of the standard variety - non-dedicated flashguns and other hotshoe-mounted accessories such as PocketWizards physically cannot be mounted without a separately sold hot shoe adapter.

The A580 offers Sony's proven SteadyShot Inside sensor-shift image stabilisation system. This works very well for providing camera stabilisation at relatively slow shutter speeds, but it's less effective at the other function Sony has tasked it with; namely, shaking off any dust particles that may have settled on the sensor during a lens change. Apparently the anti-shake system was simply not designed to move the sensor fast enough to shake off the dust - Sony (still) really need to make some improvements here.

The innovative help guide display is a useful tool which teaches beginners about the effects of aperture and shutter speed, both by way of a text guide and via icons such as stick figures. This approach is certainly better than simply throwing in an auto mode and a host of scene modes (which is not to say the A580 lacks any of these, but the inclusion of the help guide does mean it goes a step further).

The Sony A580 has slots for both SD/SDHC/SDXC and Memory Stick PRO Duo memory cards on the right side. Dual card slots are always welcome, though the A580 unfortunately has one of the least useful implementations of the concept. The camera cannot record simultaneously on both cards, cannot copy images from one to the other, and cannot even switch automatically to the second card when the first one fills up. To do that, you need to open the sliding cover that hides the memory card compartment and manually move a small mechanical switch to the desired position.

The USB and HDMI OUT ports are located on the left side of the camera, just below the newly added three-hole speaker grille. There's also a port for the optional Remote Cable for hands-free operation of the shutter release and a new 3.5mm port for an optional microphone, the latter potentially allowing better sound quality to be recorded than via the camera's built-in stereo microphones. Battery life is around 1050 shots if exclusively using the optical view finder, or 550 shots for the Live View mode, both very impressive for this class of camera and a significant improvement on the A550. Two partially recessed metal eyelets on either side of the body allow the supplied camera strap to be attached, and there's a metal tripod socket that's in-line with the centre of the lens mount.

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hd video, hd, 3 inch LCD, review, 16 megapixel, sony, full hd, DSLR, tilting, 1080i, digital SLR, 7fps, SLR, optical viewfinder, Sony A580, Sony A580 Review, a580

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