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Sony Alpha A390 Digital SLR Review

Sony Alpha A390 Digital SLR Review - A light, compact digital SLR sporting a 14.2 meagpixel sensor, in-body image stabilisation and quick AF live view with an articulated screen.

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Category : Digital SLRs
Product : Sony A390
Price : £49
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Features
Handling

Performance
Verdict and ratings
Specification

Sony Alpha A390: Click on the thumbnail for the larger image.
Sony Alpha A390
Sony's A390 sits at the top of their entry level SLR range boasting a 14.2 megapixel CCD sensor. In this review Gary Wolstenholme takes a look at whether those megapixels have been put to good use.

Sony's latest line of entry-level SLRS have proved popular due to their excellent on-paper specification and the inclusion of useful features, such as an articulating screen and Quick-AF Live-View. The A390 sits at the top of this entry level line of cameras, offering a higher pixel count than many other similarly priced cameras in a lightweight and compact body. Being aimed at beginners, the A390 isn't currently available without a lens and comes bundled with their 18-55mm SAM lens as standard for a shade under £400, which isn't a bad price for the specification. Is it good value enough to tempt new SLR buyers from other brands? Let's take a closer look and see.

Sony Alpha A390: Features
As with Sony's other entry-level SLRs, they have chosen to implement a CCD sensor, rather than use CMOS, which may have an effect on the camera's performance at higher sensitivities. However, in good light the 14.2 megapixel resolution should be plenty enough for large reproductions of your favourite images.

Sony's Super Steady Shot system is built into the body, which means you will be able to take advantage of the benefits of image stabilisation with whatever compatible lens you mount on the camera. Whether that be an old Minolta Dynax lens, one of Sony's latest offerings, or even a lens produced by a third party manufacturer, such as Sigma or Tamron. This should allow the user to keep the weight and cost of their camera system to a minimum. A camera shake meter is visible in the bottom right corner of the viewfinder to help you make the most of the system as the steadier you are, the more it can help.

The viewfinder is a roof-mirror type providing 95% coverage of the image area. Although I found the viewfinder appears a little smaller than with some rival cameras, it does the job well enough. A total of nine focusing points are visible, which can be selected automatically by the camera, or manually if you wish to take control.

The proprietary hotshoe fitting, which is a legacy from Sony's takeover of Minolta's camera business is present on this model. Although this may not be an immediate concern for many beginners, it may mean you will need to purchase an adapter to give you a standard hotshoe for the attachment of many useful flash accessories. Third party adapters are available for a few pounds, or Sony produce their own which can cost around £100!

The 2.7inch LCD screen is a joy to use with the Live View feature, which gives very fast autofocus performance indeed for such a system. The screen can be tilted through 90degrees, allowing it to be used as a kind of waist-finder, or it can be tilted the other way for shooting above head height. I would have been nice to see a swivel feature added so that the camera could be used in portrait format more easily in these conditions, but the screen is still a useful tool all the same, saving many a dirty knee when you need to get the camera close to the ground. Although not the highest resolution screen I have ever seen, 230,400 dots is plenty enough for comfortable use along with the screen's excellent viewing angle, brightness and anti-reflection coating.

Sony Alpha A390: Key features: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
 
The A390 is compact, lightweight and comes bundled with Sony's 18-55mm SAM lens. The articulating screen is a bonus for photographers who like to use the live view feature of the camera.
Connections for USB and HDMI are provided alongside support for Sony Memory Stick Duo cards and SDHC memory cards. Power is provided by a standard Sony H-type battery, which is the same used on many of their digital camcorders, which is great if you already have plenty of Sony kit.

A recent development for Sony is to start providing support for popular SD and SDHC card formats alongside their established Memory Stick memory cards. Having both slots gives users the best of both worlds, as users of existing Sony equipment such as their TVs, or portable gaming devices may already have an abundance of this type of memory, whilst other users will be able to take advantage of SD's wide support and generally lower prices. A switch is provided in the memory bay to change between the two slots. You will also find a HDMI and USB connector in there, which can be protected from damage by the sliding plastic cover.

Sony Alpha A390: Handling
Weighing only 497g, the A390 is certainly lightweight for an SLR and will definitely suit those who wish to travel light. The body is about as compact as entry-level SLRs from Canon and Nikon, although the body itself feels a little chunkier, probably due to the articulating screen.

The overall fit and finish of the A390 is good, with high-quality plastics being used throughout. The finger grip and a small section on the rear of the body have rubberised grips attached, which helps to provide a good purchase. Being an entry level SLR the control layout is quite uncluttered, with only essential options having dedicated controls on the pouter surface of the camera. For anything else, you'll need to dip into the menu system, which thankfully is very clearly laid out, especially for functions such as white balance and autofocus options.

Sony Alpha A390: Performance

Exposure
The same 40-segment honeycomb metering system found in Sony's other APS-C SLRs does the job of judging exposure on the A390. The meter does an excellent job in a wide range of conditions, only faltering in scenes with very high contrast, where I found the camera would occasionally over or under expose, which is typical of most evaluative metering systems. The automatic scene modes, selectable from the main command dial also seem to cope well when used appropriately.

Shutter speeds between 1/4000sec and 30 seconds are selectable, providing ample control for a wide range of conditions. The flash sync speed is only 1/160sec though, which may pose problems if attempting to use flash for fill in bright daylight. Exposure compensation of two stops either way is available if the meter need overriding. Many other cameras offer a much wider range than this, with some offering up to five stops of compensation either way. Although this may be an issue for more advanced photographers, or those who prefer to use exposure compensation when bracketing for HDR images, but it is not something that should effect your average beginner, that is until they start to experiment more with the camera.

Sony Alpha A390 Exposure: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
The metering system has clipped the highlights in this predominantly bright scene. Scenes with more even contrast result in well-balanced exposures.
The exposure system has coped well here, keeping detail in both highlight and shadow areas of the image. The Dynamic Range optimiser has helped to boost the amount of detail in the shadows.

A Dynamic Range Optimiser feature is included which helps to boost the amount of detail in highlight and shadow areas of your images, although I find it has it's greatest effect on images with large areas of shadow. Three settings are available, Off, Standard and Plus, allowing you to customise the effect.

Focusing
A nine-point AF sensor does the work of making sure your images are sharp. The centre point is a cross type sensor, sensitive to both horizontal and vertical contrast, whilst each of the others are linear type sensors. As the camera comes out of the box, the AF system automatically detects which AF points to use for each shots, which is quick and easy for snapshots. The AF points cover a good amount of the image area, allowing for creative composition when overriding the AF system yourself.

I found the AF adequately quick when using the viewfinder and when using Live View, locking onto most subjects swiftly and accurately. As the centre point is the only cross-type sensor, I find it pays dividends to use this sensor in low light and low contrast situations.

Resolution
The 14.2 megapixel sensor fitted to the Sony A390 is certainly capable of recording a lot of information, with excellent clarity suitable for large prints.


For this shot I selected the RAW plus JPEG quality option so that I could easily compare the two formats. Although the RAW file does look a little sharper, the JPEG image still records plenty of details. Every nick, scratch and rub mark has been rendered superbly by the camera.

ISO and noise performance
As manufacturers squeeze more and more pixels into the same space, this reduces each pixels surface area to react with the light forming each image, which in turn generally results in more noise in the final image at high sensitivities. Great advances have been made in the past few years in terms of noise performance, although most of the class leaders in this respect utilise CMOS sensor technology, rather than CCD as used in the A390.

Saying that, Sony's noise reduction and image processing engine does a fair job of keeping the dreaded coloured speckles at bay. A little noise is present between ISO400 and ISO800, but not so much that it will be at all disturbing when printed. The noise levels begin to increase to more noticeable levels at ISO1600, although it still isn't too bad when compared to older generations of cameras. ISO3200 has obvious noise present in images, especially in shadow areas which take on a multicoloured speckled effect. Quite a bit of detail is lost at higher sensitivities too, leaving images take at ISO1600 and above looking a little soft.

Sony Alpha A390 Outdoor ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
ISO100 ISO200 ISO400 ISO800
   
ISO1600 ISO3200    


Sony Alpha A390 Test chart ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
ISO100 ISO200 ISO400 ISO800
   
ISO1600 ISO3200    

Colour reproduction
With standard colour settings chosen, the A390 reproduces natural colours accurately, whilst giving primary colours a bit of a boost. Colour styles for a variety of different scenes are provided, including Landcape, Night and Portrait, which all effect the colour reproduction differently. The landscape mode tend to increase contrast and colour saturation, whilst the portrait mode produces more subdued results.

Sony Alpha A390 Colour test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Even in the standard colour mode, primary colours are quite punchy. The landscape colour mode has increased colour saturation and contrast a little, without making the scene look unnatural.
The vivid colour mode boosts primary colours and contrast. Here the standard colour mode has reproduced colours accurately.

White-balance
In general the A390's Auto White Balance performs very well in a range of conditions, just leaving a little bit of an amber cast in images taken under incandescent light. Under the warm white fluorescent lights in our studio, the AWB setting performed very well indeed, in fact the result was a little more accurate than with the fluorescent preset. Using the incandescent preset under incandescent light actually resulted in a slight cool cast. Luckily each preset can be fine tuned easily to provide more accurate results.

Sony Alpha A390 White-balance test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Auto white-balance in incandescent lighting Incandescent White Balance in Incadescent Light
Auto White Balance in Fluorescent lighting Fluorescent Preset in Fluorescent lighting

Battery life
We did not have the camera for a long enough period of time to complete any formal battery life tests, but during use, taking 246 shots in a mixture of JPEG and RAW quality and using Live View for about a quarter of those images, the camera still showed full charge on the battery. Sony rate the camera as being able to take approximately 500 shots with the viewfinder or 230 shots using Live View, which may be a slightly conservative estimate, depending on how much image reviewing and use of the built in flash is done.

Lens performance
Although quite a basic lens, Sony's standard 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM lens that comes bundled with this camera has proved itself capable of producing very good results. We did a full test on the lens here where the lens showed itself capable of producing images with excellent resolution.


DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.

Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Sony Alpha A390 DSLR.

Sony Alpha A390: Verdict
Sony's A390 is certainly a very capable camera and the results this camera is capable of producing should please many who want an easy to use introduction to shooting with a digital SLR. It's only weakness appears to be with noise at high ISO settings, but even then the results are more than acceptable for most uses up to ISO800 and even maybe ISO1600.

There are no fancy video features unfortunately, but if you don't think you'll miss that the in-body image stabilisation and Quick AF Live View should more than make up for it. It is priced reasonably competitively as well for its specification, although whether all those extra pixels will be truly beneficial to most is debatable.

Overall Sony's Alpha A390 is a solid enough performer at an attractive price with some quite interesting features.

Sony Alpha A390: Pros
In body image stabilisation
Quick AF during Live View
Articulating screen
Compact, lightweight design
Support for SDHC and Sony's own Memory Stick Duo cards

Sony Alpha A390: Cons
Noise at higher sensitivities
No video
Limited exposure compensation range

FEATURES
HANDLING
PERFORMANCE
VALUE
OVERALL

Sony Alpha A390: Specification
Price £400.00
Contact www.sony.co.uk
Lens mount Sony/Minolta A mount
Resolution 14.2Mp
Sensor size APS-C
Sensor type CCD
Max. Image size 4592x3056
Aspect ratio 3:2
Crop factor 1.5x
Viewfinder Fixed eye-level system with roof mirror type
Focusing system 9 points with centre cross sensor
Focus types Continuous, Single Shot, Automatic, Manual Focus
File types JPEG, RAW
ISO sensitivity 100-3200
Metering system 40-segment honeycomb-pattern SPC
Metering types Multi Segment, Centre Weighted, Spot
Exposure compensation +/- 2EV
Shutter speed range 1/4000 - 30seconds
Continuous shooting Max. 2.5 fps with viewfinder, max. 2 fps in live view mode
Image stabilisation Yes, In Body
Movie mode No
Monitor 2.7inch Clear Photo LCD
Media type SD, SDHC, Sony Memory Stick Duo Pro
Live View Yes
Interface USB, HDMI
Power NP-FH50 Li-Ion rechargeable battery
Size (wxdxl) 128.1 x 97.1 x 83.5mm
Weight (with battery) 497g

The Sony Alpha A390 costs £400 and is available from Warehouse Express here:

Sony Alpha A390

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Photographs taken using the Sony A390

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Comments


JJGEE 9 6.3k 18 England
9 Aug 2010 7:39PM

Quote: taking 246 shots in a mixture of JPEG and RAW quality and using Live View for about a quarter of those images, the camera still showed full charge on the battery.

Wow !
That sounds great... may be cheaper getting the A390 for holidays instead of buying loads of spare batteries for the A900.

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theorderingone 10 2.4k United Kingdom
10 Aug 2010 10:10AM
I have to say I was impressed too, as CCD based cameras normally suck the life out of batteries.

However it may be that the camera reports a full charge for longer than others, but as I said in the review, I didn't have the camera long enough to complete formal battery testing. It's a very time consuming process.
16 Aug 2010 12:04AM
I have this camera and i have to say i am very impressed with it's IQ and very good build quality for a plastic camera.It feels very solid unlike Canon's entry level models.
Townee 6 2 United Kingdom
15 Sep 2012 1:17AM
I have been half-heartedly looking to possible upgrade to dSLR for about 4 years, to no avail, until today, maybe. Having shot with a fuji s100fs for the last 200,000 frames, I am loathed to spend many hundreds of pounds on a system that seems to have a pretty poor life expectency. It would appear, from what I have read about the "sony alpha A 390", I will not need to take thousands of shots to learn how to use the camera.
I think I might have found the next camera to take me to the next level of photography, so that I may enjoy my retirement.

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