In the future, everything will be televised, so you sure don’t want to be caught carrying an SLR that can only shoot still images. For this reason, Sony has joined the ranks of other major camera manufacturers and added video capability to its new Sony Alpha 580 DSLR.
The successor to the Alpha 550, the $900 a580 offers a new APS-sized 16.2 megapixel sensor, some interface re-design, a few new still features, and the ability to shoot full HD video. The result is a high-quality, full-featured camera that’s well worth considering if you’re shopping for a mid-range DSLR.
Handling and design
The a580 is about the same size as the mid-size offerings from Nikon and Canon, such as the Canon Rebel T2i ($900) and the Nikon D60 ($700). It feels good in the hand, has a comfortable grip, and a nice control layout. Sony has been thoughtful about the controls you need quick access to, and you should find that you can easily adjust ISO and exposure compensation without taking your eye away from the optical viewfinder.
In an otherwise feature-packed camera, the 580’s lack of a Program Shift feature is conspicuous, and a real drawback for more experienced shooters who are used to being able to switch between reciprocal exposure combinations in Program mode.
The camera’s 3-inch LCD screen is bright, clear, and beautiful, and the Alpha’s menu system is intuitive and easy-to-navigate. The LCD screen can tilt out and away from the camera, making for great flexibility when shooting overhead, or at waist level. However, there’s no 180-degree rotation, so you can’t use it for self-portraits.
Autofocus is very quick, thanks to a new 15-point autofocus system that performs very well in low light. A single switch on the top of the camera activates Live View mode, but unlike the Live View features on Canon and Nikon cameras, the 580’s Live View can focus when the camera’s mirror is up thanks to a smaller secondary sensor, making for speedier autofocus without a viewfinder blackout during focusing. The 580 uses a stabilized sensor, which does a good job of smoothing out hand shake. However, as with most sensor stabilization schemes, you won’t see the effects of the stabilization in the viewfinder, meaning it won’t help you when framing at very narrow fields of view.
The camera offers a very impressive 7 frame-per-second burst rate, and while the 580 accepts MemorySticks, Sony has also gotten wise and added support for SD cards.
Features and modes
The a580 includes all of the standard controls that serious photographers will want, as well as some fun and helpful features that will appeal to all levels of photographer. Changing modes on the a580 is very easy with the large, top-mounted mode dial, and Sony has wisely added a depth of field preview button beneath the lens—a feature missing from previous Alpha DSLRs.
Amongst the new features are multi-frame noise reduction and Sweep Panorama. While the 580 offers very good noise response, for extremely low-light conditions—the types of situations that can yield very noisy images—multi-frame noise reduction can deliver clean images by shooting six frames and then combining them in-camera. The results are impressive, though this feature only works with subject matter that doesn’t move. Fortunately, the camera’s fast burst rate makes it easy to get your six shots quickly.
For shooting wide panoramas, the a580 includes a Sweep Panorama mode that automatically captures a range of frames, and stitches them together. To use the feature you place the camera in Sweep Panorama mode, then hold down the button while panning from left to right. This is an astonishingly easy way to produce high-quality panoramic images, and the stitching is nearly instantaneous. Note, though, that Sweep Panorama is limited to JPEG mode. The Sweep Panorama mode and a Handheld Twilight mode were first introduced on Sony point-and-shoot cameras and its NEX series.
The a580 provides the same built-in HDR mode as seen on the a550, which automatically captures and merges frames to record a wider dynamic range than what you can capture in a single shot.
The a580 has a dedicated Movie button and can capture 1080i video into AVCHD format, or 1440 x 1080 or 640 x 480 video into MP4 files. The built-in stereo microphone is typical of SLR mics—that is, it picks up lots of camera handling noises—but the a580 also includes a 3.5mm microphone jack for using an external microphone.
Autofocus while shooting video is a new feature for DSLRs, and only a few cameras have it, such as the the translucent-lens Sony a55 and the Nikon D3100. Unfortunately, there’s no autofocus when shooting video on the a580. That means you’ll need to think careful about your focus and camera movement, or get proficient with manual focus. For the casual video shooter, it’s important to understand that SLR video shooting is much more complicated than shooting video with a point-and-shoot still camera or video camera.
Image and video quality
Continuing a streak of impressive image quality in Sony cameras, the a580 captures great photographs in all file formats. The photo image quality level is right in line with other DSLR cameras at the same price point.
In our subjective lab tests, the a580 received a word score of Very Good for Exposure, Color, Sharpness, and Distortion.You can view large versions of our lab’s test photos by clicking on the thumbnails below.
The video quality on the a580 was also impressive. It received a word score of Very Good for video quality and Good for audio quality, which was tested using the built-in microphone. Here are sample clips that we shot in bright indoor lighting and in low light with the Sony a580. For the highest-quality clips, select 1080p from the drop-down menu in the lower-right corner of each player.
Macworld buying advice
The Alpha 580 is a very impressive camera that’s comfortable to shoot with, and well-designed. Supported by a robust collection of high-quality lenses, the camera is capable of delivering excellent image quality. What’s more, Sony is doing a good job of automating post-production processes like HDR and panoramic stitching directly in camera, turning these “high-end” features into usable, everyday consumer techniques.
If you want video capability, the 580 has it, but as with all SLRs, you should be aware of its limitations before you commit to this camera for its video capability. First and foremost, the Alpha 580 is a great still camera.
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