Sony Alpha A380 DSLR camera review

3.5 out of 5
£720 (18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens)

For

Lightweight, user friendly, intuitive, reliable performance, warm, colour rich images, adjustable LCD, less expensive than immediate rivals

Against

No HD video, hinges for adjusting LCD are stiff, obvious plastic elements of build, kit lens could be sharper, noisier than rivals at higher ISOs

In the new 14.2 effective megapixel A380 digital SLR, topping a new trio of consumer Alpha models also including the A230 and A330, manufacturer Sony is attempting to deliver its most lightweight and portable DSLR to date.

Aimed at both beginner and hobbyist, the APS-C model features a host of creative functions, yet intuitive, user-friendly operation that includes large, well-labelled controls, plus on-screen help guide for the uninitiated.

We were provided with a kit that included an 18-55mm zoom for our test, currently retailing for a total of £720 via UK Sony Centres.

While that’s the good news, upon picking the A380 up for the first time we were disappointed with the lack of effort made to hide a mainly plastic, if robust, construction and that only three fingers can be wrapped around the smaller than average grip.

While diminutive can indeed be beautiful in the world of digital technology, this seems an obvious compromise for size. A control dial is squeezed in directly above, where on a more positive note it’s only a short stretch for your forefinger from the springy shutter release button.

Users of the A380 get a choice of composing images using the optical viewfinder or 2.7-inch, 230,800-dot resolution adjustable LCD screen with Quick AF Live View situated below. A top-plate mounted switch is provided for self evidently and quickly swapping between them.

Unlike its rivals, when it comes to accessing Live View there’s no wait while the Sony’s mirror mechanism flips up and out of the way, as a feed is taken from a second sensor implemented for that very purpose. While this ensures it is quick and unfussy – the optical viewfinder automatically blacked out while the screen is in use – the image provided isn’t as sharp to our eyes as the likes of the more technologically conventional Nikon D5000.

Still, it’s perfectly adequate for the purpose – being clearer than the somewhat murky optical viewfinder – while being able to tilt the LCD up or down affords a greater variety of framing options than a fixed screen model. And, with a single press of the "AF" button at the rear, in Live View mode the camera will continue to automatically determine focus for the user if required.

If we’ve a gripe with the A380 in this regard, it’s that said monitor is a little stiff to adjust and only pivots about the one axis. So it can’t, for example, be angled left or right or faced screen inwards to the body for added protection.

Another raised eyebrow is prompted by the fact that Sony has not included a facility to capture HD video on its latest DSLR, when the most recent consumer releases from Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Olympus have done so. As it is, there is an HDMI port hiding behind a sliding door compartment at the camera’s left hand flank – if viewed from the back – for hooking the camera up to an HD TV set or monitor with optional cabling.

The above is not to say the Alpha is without innovation, or should be discounted. An eye sensor positioned below the viewfinder, as something of a throwback to the DSLR’s Konica Minolta heritage, causes the camera to immediately determine focus as an eyeball comes within reach, so in theory the user is immediately able to take the shot. At the same time it also switches off the information display that "lives" on the LCD beneath. Said display also flips through 90° if the DSLR is turned on its side to shoot portrait fashion. Each time the camera responds very promptly to the user’s actions, so no faults there.

Beginners are eased into the A380’s functionality by virtue of on-screen explanations, the default screen showing the effect for example of adjusting shutter speed and aperture. Twist your way through the options on the shooting mode dial and a "speech bubble" of text pops-up on-screen by way of explanation of what each setting does. More experienced users can disable this function if it becomes tiresome by delving into the neatly legible menu screens.

Of course, constant use of the back screen, and Live View, depletes battery power. Whereas the camera will deliver up to 500 shots if the viewfinder is utilised, switch to Live View in the main and this more than halves to just 230 images from a full charge.

Also worth mentioning – if only because it’s inclusion appears unusual – is a dedicated button for a "smart teleconverter". With subsequent presses, this digitally crops into an image when your own lens won’t stretch that far. Since this is utilising only a portion of the image, overall resolution suffers incrementally.

Verdict

Image wise, Sony’s A380 delivers evenly exposed pictures with naturalistic colours when left on its default settings. There are further pre-optimised Creative Style settings accessible for those who prefer the more vivid look. We weren’t convinced however that the supplied standard zoom made the best of the sensor’s high pixel count, since overall detail was softer than we expected.

However, lightweight enough at 460g, body only, to carry around all day with the aid of the provided shoulder strap, the A380 is a DSLR that won’t put you through pain for your photography – either physically or mentally.

The compromise is ignoring a more plastic feel construction than rivals in Canon’s 500D or Nikon’s D5000, and some quirky as well as innovative features. But, for now, Sony has price in its favour, being some £80 cheaper than its closest competitor at the time of writing – and that includes the lens we had for our test shots.

Though not an outright bargain, for those who are prepared to ignore the obvious lure of the "big two", Sony’s A380 tethers a high resolution, creative features, and innovative technologies to ease of use. The result is a reliable performer delivering richly detailed and colourful images, though you might want to trade up from the kit lens fairly quickly.