Sony A390 Review

September 13, 2010 | Mark Goldstein |


The Sony A390 is a new 14 megapixel DSLR camera featuring a restyled design to make it easier to use. Sound familiar? That's exactly what we said about the the A390's predecessor, the A380, which had one of the most uncomfortable handgrips that we've ever used on a DSLR. Sony have gone back to the drawing board and released the A390, essentially exactly the same as the A380 with a larger more traditional handgrip. The A390 retains all of its predecessor's key features, with 14.2 megapixel sensor, a 2.7 inch tilting LCD screen, Live View, anti-dust system, ISO range of 100-3200, anti-shake system that's built into the body, eye-start auto-focus system and Dynamic Range Optimiser. The Sony A390 has a street price of around £450 / $600 / €500 with the 18-55mm kit lens.

Ease of Use

The Sony A390 is virtually identical to the previous A380 model, with the exception of its restyled handgrip and relocated shutter release and On/Off buttons. Therefore most of the comments that we made in our A380 review apply equally to the new A390.

In terms of DSLR sales, in the UK at least Sony - a relative latecomer to the party - claims to be snapping at the heels of the traditional 'big two' in Canon and Nikon. So it's worth asking if the 14.2 effective megapixel A390, coming so soon after the A380, has what it takes to consolidate its manufacturer's market position and possibly even leapfrog its closest compact DSLR competitors like the Canon EOS 550D and Nikon D5000?

Like its rivals, Sony's APS-C CCD sensor sporting A390 is targeted at both the hobbyist and family user, trying to entice those trading up from a compact or bridge camera with a promise of more professional looking images, ease of use and affordability. Although it feels surprisingly plastic in the hand, and lightweight too at just under 500g, the Sony A390 has a couple of neat and sophisticated features. These include an 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 A390 on its side to shoot portrait fashion. The LCD display itself eye-catching-ly resembles something from a school science textbook, complete with stick figures to illustrate the effects of shutter speed and aperture.

Size wise, when gripped in the palm the latest Sony A390 is almost a doppelganger for Nikon's D5000, and like that model, features an adjustable rear 2.7-inch LCD, still a relative rarity on a digital SLR. Since this can only tilt up or down to a limited degree, it's not quite as flexible as the Nikon's however, which can also flip around to face inward to the body and swivel to the left and right. By contrast the Sony's screen feels a bit stiff and awkward, even if overall the camera is reassuringly solid with rechargeable NP-FH50 lithium ion battery inserted and the 18-55mm kit lens we were supplied for our test attached.

The advantage of the Sony range over either Canon or Nikon is, of course, the fact that the A390 features built in sensor shift image stabilization - christened 'SteadyShot Inside' - hence no need to spend extra on specialist lenses to combat camera shake. As a belt to this brace, on the Sony light sensitivity stretches from ISO 100 up to ISO 3200, if a continuous shooting speed of 2.5 fps at full resolution (or 2fps in Live View mode) is less to get excited about (though again adequate for its target market). A useful on-board help is the reappearance of Sony's D-Range optimizer function to even out tricky exposures, for example where a bright background would normally throw the foreground into deep shadow.

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Front Rear

It has to be said that outwardly we think the A390's design looks a bit basic and seems to willingly suggest 'budget' model louder than most - even if its price tag says otherwise. A case in point: the sliding switch for alternating between optical viewfinder and Quick AF Live View up top (a bonus for access to that feature, granted), plus sliding door cover for ports to the side more closely resemble something you'd find on a boy's toy than a consumer range topping digital SLR. Plastic, yet not fantastic. More positively, you do get HDMI output in order to hook the Sony up to an HD TV (the cable once again an additional purchase), plus a choice of either SD or Memory Stick to save images to, alongside the expected USB connection.

From the front then, the Sony A390 certainly looks unthreatening to the novice DSLR user. Apart from the familiar ridge housing the pop up flash above the Alpha lens mount, its most distinguishing and only new feature is the bigger, more traditional handgrip, complete with leather-look rubberized covering. The A390's handgrip is a marked improvement on the A380, which was a squeeze to fit three fingers around and made it tricky 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 again.

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 twist 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.

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 thin line encircling the lens surround. As regular readers will be aware, the Alpha mount also offers 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.

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Front Tilting LCD Screen

The A390's equally unchallenging top plate features the aforementioned shutter release button encircled by an on/off switch that visually apes the zoom levers found on compact cameras; said button has a definite half way point, focus points (a choice of nine) rapidly illuminating red in the viewfinder and a confirmation bleep signaling focus and exposure has been determined and the user is free to go on and take the shot. Go on to take the shot and 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.

Interestingly, adjacent to this control we find an oddly placed 'smart teleconverter' or digital zoom button - which, if shooting with Live View and as JPEG only, zooms into (or rather crops) an image to an equivalent of 1.4x with the first press, or 2x with the second. Obviously accessing this function results in a drop in the images' overall pixel count - to 7.1MP or 3.8MP accordingly. The feature feels slightly pointless on a DSLR therefore - surely it was bought to deliver quality first and foremost? - but, on a more positive note, its inclusion contributes to the overall user friendly feel for those trading up from a point and shoot compact.

Next on the Sony A390 we come to the aforementioned and well-labelled Live View/OVF slider switch, nudging against the pop-up flashgun. If choosing 'OVF' with camera set to AF, bringing your eye level with the viewfinder and sensor below will neatly prompt the camera to automatically focus on whatever it's aiming at. Quick it is too, and the optical viewfinder is reasonably large and bright if not   patch on Sony's own admittedly higher end A900 model. Switching to Live View automatically blanks out the viewfinder, with the rear screen bursting into life instead; again, so far so user friendly. As expected the Sony's top plate also features a shoe for accessory flash situated just above the optical viewfinder. Curiously though there's no dedicated button to manually release the pop up flash situated just in front.

Over at the far left of the camera's top plate is a shooting mode dial sunk into the bodywork - thus preventing the user accidentally slipping from one setting to another when placing into or retrieving this Sony from a camera bag. Arranged around this are 12 selectable options, running from full auto to the creative quartet of program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual, and including pre-optimised scene modes for common subjects such as portraits, landscapes, close ups (macro), sports, sunset and night view. Note that unlike the 'big two' Sony has yet to include video, high def or otherwise, in its Alpha DSLR series.

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Pop-up Flash Top

While that's it for the relatively uncluttered and unfussy top plate, at the rear we find the aforementioned tilting 230,400-dot resolution LCD screen, nestling centre, ranged left, to aid shooting from either high or low angles. With the impressive Quick AF Live View selected it's sufficiently bright and clear to do the job, and of course if harsh sunshine should obscure your view, it can be angled for a better one. While an adjustable screen is undoubtedly a helpful addition, to our minds it could do with being physically more flexible - being able to tilt or rotate it through more than one axis would be a definite boon. Still, perhaps we should be thankful for small mercies. Since the screen sticks out slightly proud of the back plate in its dormant state - and the viewfinder is recessed into the body work just above with the eye relief therefore blending into the body work - the user's nose inevitably butts up against the screen when using the optical viewfinder, smudging and smearing the LCD.

To the right of the viewfinder is a small wheel for dioptric adjustment that for once on a DSLR isn't stiff and rigid. Just below and to the right of this is a dedicated button for adjusting exposure compensation (+/- 2EV) in P,A,S,M modes, that doubles up as a means of zooming into images and magnifying detail when in playback mode. Using the cross keys/control pad at the rear in tandem, you can then pan around said enlarged picture.

Over at the opposite side of the viewfinder we find a fractionally larger button marked 'menu'. Press this and as expected a number of shooting and set up folders appear on screen, with clear black text on a clean white background aiding visibility. The two shooting folders allow users to select image quality and - if JPEG (RAW and RAW+JPEG also available) - compression rates too. Here users can also switch on SteadyShot, long exposure and high ISO noise reduction - all in fact seemingly activated as a default, as is the likes of the eye start feature. One playback and three 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 - all pretty run of the mill stuff.

Top right of the A390's screen we get a further Function ('Fn') button for those details we'd expected to find amidst the menus but didn't. Here for example we find the D-range optimiser, along with auto focus modes (a choice of single shot, auto or continuous), metering (multi segment, centre weighted or spot), white balance (including custom setting), AF area (wide, spot or local), plus Creative Style settings. These pre-optimised user selectable settings run from the default of 'standard' through the self-explanatory vivid, portrait, landscape, night view, sunset and black and white. For each of these creative options, contrast, saturation and sharpness can be individually adjusted.

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Battery Compartment Memory Card Slot

Beneath the Function button we find a familiar four-way control pad. Ranged around this are settings for switching on or off the on-screen display, selecting from the available flash settings (off, auto, fill in, slow sync, rear sync, or wireless settings), ISO (auto, ISO100-3200), and single shot/ burst capture, self timer or bracketing options (three shots at 0,3EV intervals). 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 self-evident trash can button for deleting duff images on the fly, and beneath that again a playback button for the review of images. As elsewhere, the A390 responds quickly and accurately to each button press letting the user concentrate fully on the business of taking great photographs.

At the right hand side of the camera - as viewed from the back - is an eyelet for attaching the provided shoulder strap, just beneath which is a plastic cover for a supplementary power port (power adaptor an optional extra). Over at the left side, we discover the aforementioned very plastic feel sliding door that protects four ports. These are a dedicated HDMI connection, USB connection, plus two card slots - for either SD/SDHC or Memory Stick. The camera doesn't automatically register which slot is in use - so a sliding switch is provided here too for the purpose of specifying recording to one or the other.

Flipping the camera over and examining its base we discover a screw thread for attaching a tripod plus a flip open battery compartment. Despite the supplied NP-FH50 battery for the A390 being physically small, it's mighty, delivering up to 500 images if shooting via the optical viewfinder, though a much less impressive 230 if using Live View - less than most compact snapshots in fact.

Giving the impression that the A390 is merely a beefed-up entry level model with a sensible new grip, it nevertheless has just about every box ticked for those who want to take better looking photographs on an amateur or occasional basis. But what of the photographs themselves? Do the results seem to make the most of the marriage between lens and sensor, does on-board noise reduction work satisfactorily, and can decent results truly be had with the minimum of user input - given the camera's intended audience.