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Sony Alpha A500 Digital SLR Review

Sony Alpha A500 Digital SLR Review - Sony's latest mid-range DSLR contender offers a 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor, in-body image stabilisation and live view at a competitive price point. In this test we'll see if it's as good in use as it appears on paper.

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Category : Digital SLRs
Product : Sony Alpha A500
Price : £535
Rating :
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Features
Handling
Performance
Verdict and ratings
Specification

Sony Alpha A500: Click on the thumbnail for the larger image.
Sony Alpha 500

Since their takeover of Minolta's camera business a few years ago, Sony have carved a niche for themselves creating well-specified digital SLRs, with some interesting features, normally offered for a very tempting price. The Alpha 500 is no exception with its 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor, Quick AF Live View, Articulating Screen and in-body image stabilisation on offer for around £530 with the standard 18-55mm lens, or for a shade under £480 for just the body. Here we'll take a look whether the features are enough to tempt users away from other manufacturers?

Sony Alpha A500: Features
On paper at least, the Alpha 500 looks quite reasonably priced. A 12.3Mp CMOS APS-C sized sensor lies at the heart of the camera, giving enough resolution for large prints, while promising to produce images with low noise at high sensitivities.

Sony's in-body SteadyShot is also included, which will reduce camera shake with pretty much any Sony, Minolta or appropriate third party AF lens attached to the camera. This works by moving the sensor around inside the camera body to counteract the movements of the photographer and the system promises to allow shots to be taken at shutter speeds up to 2.5 to four stops slower than would normally be required to achieve a sharp shot. A camera shake meter is visible in the bottom right corner of the viewfinder display to help gauge just how much you are moving. I found keeping an eye on this when taking pictures at longer shutter speeds helps to make the most of the image stabilisation system and it's positioning is not too distracting either. A pentamirror type viewfinder offering 95% field of view is used in the Alpha 500, which is about standard for a camera of this level.

The old proprietary Minolta Dynax flash hotshoe is still present on this model, which may pose issues if you wish to use flash accessories that use a standard hotshoe fitting. Adapters are available though, although this still isn't an ideal solution. Sony do have their own wireless flash system, which can be triggered using the built-in flash on the camera. The system only offers TTL flash metering, but may still be useful to many. Continuous shooting at speeds of up to five frames per second is a feature not often found at this price point and will be welcome for those wishing to shoot sports or any other fast action with the camera.

The three inch articulating screen is a joy to use with the Live View system, doubling as a waist finder when you don't want to risk dirty knees for a low-angle shot, or it can be tilted downwards for shooting above head height. It would be nice if it could be swivelled as well as tilted to make shooting portrait orientated images a little easier. An anti-reflective coating has been applied to the surface making it easier to see than most when outdoors in bright light. The screen is made of 230,400 dots, which isn't the highest resolution screen I've had the pleasure of using, but still images appear bright and contrasty.

Sony Alpha A500 Key features: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Sony Alpha 500 Articulating Screen
The articulating screen is great for use with the Live View feature as it can double as a waist finder, or be tilted downwards for shooting images above head height.
Sony Alpha 500 Rear
The controls are laid out well with most features easily accessable with finger or thumb.

Images can be recorded to either SDHC or Memory Stick Pro Duo memory cards, which means people changing from other cameras don't have to ditch all their memory cards, while users of Sony compact cameras and devices are still catered for. A small switch inside the memory card bay allows the user to switch between the two card slots, so a Memory Stick could be kept in the second slot just in case you run out of space on the SD card and vice versa.

Sony Alpha A500: Handling
The overall fit and finish of the Alpha A500 is good, with soft rubber placed around the finger grip, the side of the camera body and where your thumb lies on the rear of the body. The materials used are of high quality and the was no sign of the plastics creaking or flexing under strain.

Weighing only 597grams this camera is quite lightweight, especially with the standard 18-55mm lens attached. Most of the controls lie within easy reach of finger or thumb with the D-Range control being the only one I had to perform serious finger gymnastics to reach. A very simple and straightforward menu system is quite easy to navigate, with photographic adjustments accessible under the 'Fn' menu including features like White Balance, ISO and Metering. The most commonly adjusted have their own dedicated buttons on top of the camera body also.

Connections for USB, HDMI and the optional remote commander are located on the side of the body under rubber flaps which close firmly and stay in place well during use. Overall I was quite pleased with the way the camera handles and the build quality in general.

Sony Alpha A500: Performance

Exposure
A 40-segment metering system takes care of judging exposure and the shutter has a range of speeds from 30secs to 1/4000sec and bulb exposures are also possible in manual exposure mode. Occasionally in high contrast situations, I found the metering system would over expose, but this could only be replicated in quite harsh conditions. Much of the time the metering system copes well, producing balanced exposures. The automatic scene modes also appear to cope well when used appropriately.

An exposure compensation range of +/-2.0EV in 1/3stop steps could be a little limiting for some, especially those who like to indulge in HDR photography. Auto Exposure bracketing can also be performed, but again the range is limited to 3 frames in either 0.3EV or 0.7EV steps. A wider range of compensation and bracketing options would be welcomed by many I'm sure.

The flash sync speed is only 1/160sec, which may pose problems for those wishing to use flash in daylight for fill, or for off-camera lighting. This will make it more difficult to reduce the amount of ambient light in bright conditions without having to resort to high-speed synch with one of Sony's optional external flashguns.
Sony Alpha 500 Exposure: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Sony Alpha 500 Exposure Test
Highlights have been clipped on the white parts of the building due to slight overexposure of the scene.
Sony Alpha 500 Landscape
Under less contrasty conditions, the 40-segment meter produces well-balanced exposures.
 
Sony Alpha 500 DRO Auto
When set to Auto, Sony's Dynamic Range Optimiser produces natural lookiing images in high contrast situations.
Sony Alpha 500 DRO Max
The same scene taken with DRO set to maximum shows how it brightens up the shadows in the image.

Sony's Dynamic Range Optimiser works by increasing the amount of detail recorded in the final JPEG image and seem to do so by lifting the shadows. High contrast images taken with DRO switched off show clipped highlights and murky shadows. Setting the DRO to its maximum setting visibly lifts the shadows by quite an amount. I found using this feature with a little underexposure best for outdoor high contrast scenes.

Focusing
Nine AF points can either be user selected, or the camera can be left to choose the appropriate point. I found in use that the automatic system did a good job of choosing the correct AF points most of the time, which should make the camera easier to use for snapshots.

The AF points all seem to be placed quite close to the centre of the frame for a camera with an APS-C sensor. I would have preferred the points spread over a slightly wider area, but then that's my own personal preference. Of the nine points, only the centre one is a cross-type sensor, sensitive to both horizontal and vertical contrast. In low contrast and low light conditions it pays to use the centre point, lock focus and recompose.

I found the AF system to be accurate and quick enough for most subjects with the supplied 18-55mm lens, even in Live View, where there is no discernible difference in focusing speed when compared to using the viewfinder. This is excellent performance as Live View on many other manufacturer's cameras normally equals slow AF.

Resolution
The 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor fitted to the Sony Alpha 500 is more than capable of producing images with excellent clarity straight from the camera.
Sony Alpha 500 Sharpness Test Image

For this I shot RAW plus Fine JPEG so that I could easily compare the two formats. Every bit of detail has been rendered superbly crisp and sharp in the JPEG image, including every nick and scratch on the watch. The RAW file appears to show little difference to the JPEG, showing that the image processing engine in this camera is doing a sterling job of rendering detail recorded by the sensor.

ISO and noise performance
By keeping the pixel count fairly modest (although I believe 12 megapixels is plenty enough for most applications) Sony have been able to keep the noise levels produced at high ISOs well within acceptable levels.

Sony Alpha A500
Outdoor ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Sony Alpha 500 Outdoor ISO Test

 
Sony Alpha 500 Outdoot ISO200 Test
ISO200
Sony Alpha Ourdoor ISO400 Test
ISO400
Sony Outdoor ISO800 Test
ISO800
Sony Aplha 500 Outdoor ISO1600 Test
ISO1600
Sony Alpha Outdoor ISO3200 Test
ISO3200
Sony Alpha Outdoor ISO6400 Test
ISO6400
Sony Alpha 500 Outdoor ISO12800 Test
ISO12800
 

Sony Alpha A500
Test chart ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Sony Alpha 500 Indoor Test Chart ISO Test
Sony Alpha Indoor ISO200 Test
ISO200
Sony Alpha Indoor ISO400 Test
ISO400
Sony Alpha Indoor ISO800 Test
ISO800
Sony Alpha Indoor ISO1600 Test
ISO1600
Sony Alpha Indoor ISO3200 Test
ISO3200
Sony Alpha Indoor ISO6400 Test
ISO6400
Sony Alpha Indoor ISO12800 Test
ISO12800
 

As I've come to expect from the current crop of digital SLRs available today, noise is barely noticeable below ISO800. By ISO1600 a little colour and luminance noise has started to creep into the shadows, but the levels here are still very acceptable.

Ramping up the sensitivity to ISO3200 causes a little loss of detail around define edges and a little more colour noise, but again the results are surprisingly palatable. Even by ISO6400 and ISO12800, there is plenty of noise visible, but it isn't overly disturbing for such high sensitivities. Colour noise appears to be kept in check well by the in-camera noise reduction and the levels of luminance noise.

Colour reproduction
Colours are reproduced accurately when the standard colour mode is set. Reds tend to appear a little more saturated than other colours, but not overly so. Switching to the Vivid Creative Style increases contrast and colour saturation noticeably. Primary colours all receive a boost and appear very saturated.

Sony Alpha A500 Colour test: Click on the thumbnail for the larger image.
Sony Alpha Standard Colour

Sony Alpha A500 Colour test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Sony Alpha Vivid Creative Style
The Vivid colour style boosts saturation and contrast, especially with primary colours.
Sony Alpha 500 Landscape Colour Style
The Landscape colour style is only subtly different to the Vivid setting, boosting the midtones slightly.
Sony Alpha 500 Portrait Auto
Skin tones are reproduced well in the standard colour mode.
Sony Apl
Highlights are held back a little in the Portrait mode when compared to the standard colour style.

White-balance
Auto white balance performs well outdoors in daylight, occasionally adding a bit of warmth, but in a pleasant way. Each of the camera's white balance presets can be altered towards amber or blue, so allowing you to get the exact look you're after in camera.

Under incandescent lighting, AWB tends to leave a warm hue in the image. The Tungsten preset appears to be bang on, neutralising the cast. Under fluorescent light AWB left a pinkish tinge under the lights in our studio. In this case the Flourescent preset could be customised to neutralise the cast quite easily. As the cast produced by fluorescent lights can vary quite wildly, having this control is certainly welcome.

Sony Alpha 500 White-balance test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Sony Alpha 500 AWB
Auto white-balance in incandescent lighting
Sony Alpha 500 AWB
Auto white-balance in fluorecent lighting

Battery life
The M series Sony battery supplied with the Alpha 500 provides plenty of power. I took over 500 shots, many with Live View and the built in flash during testing and the battery was still going strong off the same charge.

Lens performance
The 18-55m lens bundled as a kit with the Alpha 500 seems to perform well, especially stopped down a couple of stops and is certainly capable of good results. We will be running an in-depth test of the lens soon. Please visit here to view our latest lens reviews.

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 A500.

Sony Alpha A500: Verdict
During testing this camera has proven itself to be a very capable piece of equipment, easily holding its own in many areas against the competition.

It may not have some of the latest video features that many cameras at this level have included, but it makes up for that with a very useful Live View feature, articulating screen, image stabiliser and excellent performance at high sensitivities. Overall it is a solid performer that is more than capable of yielding excellent results.

Sony Alpha A500: Pros
Good value for money.
In-body image stabilisation.
Articulating screen
AF performance during live view
Support for SDHC cards and Sony's own Memory Stick Duo format
Noise performance

Sony Alpha A500: Cons
Proprietary hot shoe fitting
Limited exposure compensation and bracketing range
Low flash sync speed

FEATURES
HANDLING
PERFORMANCE
VALUE
OVERALL

Sony Alpha A500: Specification
Price £535 (c/w 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens)
Contact www.sony.co.uk
Lens mount Sony α mount
Resolution 12.3Mp
Sensor size APS-C
Sensor type CMOS
Max. Image size 4272x2848
Aspect ratio 3:2
Crop factor 1.5x
Viewfinder Pentamirror type, 95% field of view
Focusing system 9 points with centre cross sensor
Focus types Single, Auto, Continuous AF
File types JPEG, RAW
ISO sensitivity ISO200-12800
Metering system 40-segment honeycomb-pattern SPC
Metering types Multi-segment, Centre Weigted and Spot
White-balance Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Flash
Exposure compensation +/-2.0 EV, 0.3 EV step
Shutter speed range 1/4000 - 30 and bulb
Continuous shooting 5 frames-per-second
Image stabilisation Yes
Movie mode No
Monitor 3inch Clear Photo LCD
Media type SDHC, Sony Memory Stick Duo Pro
Live View Yes
Interface USB Mass Storage, PTP
Power Li-Ion Battery NP-FM500H
Size (wxdxl) 137x84x104mm
Weight (with battery) 597g

The Sony Alpha A500 costs £534 and is available from Warehouse Express here:

Sony Alpha A500

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Comments


Chaitanya 4 14 1 India
4 Jun 2010 5:18AM
How is the viewfinder of this camera? I have been reading that the viewfinder on Sony SLR are the worst in the class.

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OneGuy 4
4 Jun 2010 7:12AM
Viewfinder is about same as Canon 500D
JJGEE 9 6.3k 18 England
5 Jun 2010 10:43PM

Quote: I took over 500 shots,

But what does this mean ?

Quote: the battery was still going strong off the same charge.

Perhaps you could give the % figures e.g.. 100% to 20%
theorderingone 10 2.4k United Kingdom
6 Jun 2010 1:46PM

Quote: But what does this mean ?
Perhaps you could give the % figures e.g.. 100% to 20%

If you're after specifics, then I took 524 shots, (which is just over 500 Wink) I have no way of telling how many of those were with live view or flash without going through each individual image, but I used both features extensively. After this use the battery info still showed 39%

As I didn't test the battery under controlled conditions (the amount of time taken to do that would be prohibitive) I see no need for such specifics in the review, as everyone's use of the camera will differ.

I hope this helps

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