More that I expected
Here's what I wanted in a good new digital camera along with a load of information that I wish I could have found all in one place when I was doing my research. I know my way around cameras, but I am not a professional photographer and I am not receiving compensation for this review!
I wanted a large sensor for superior photo quality (and freedom to crop) and I wanted the option of full manual control. I wanted an optical viewfinder, which left out the NEX models for me and also kept me away from some otherwise great models by other makers. Did I get quality photos? Yes! I sprung for the a580 over the translucent-mirror concept but may have been as happy with that as well. I might have been happy enough with a four-thirds sensor (e.g., Panasonic), but I'm relieved that I made myself hold out for the APS-C instead.
First impression of the a580? Huge! But that's OK, since I was not looking for something concealable. My previous favorite SLR was a Ricoh XR-P film camera from the 1980s, and the Sony is substantially larger. It balances well in my hands and has not left me tired after a long day of shooting. (I'm a 60-year-old man in better-than-average physical condition.)
Never mind the technical stuff; it turns on instantly and is a fast shooter. It only occasionally gets confused by focus or exposure, but it's so easy to take another shot right away that I don't fret. It's also tough. On the first day, I dropped it a mere inch onto the table and nearly cried. A week later, while it lay loose and unprotected on the front seat of my pickup as I drove, it flew from the seat, hit the center dash panel, and landed at my feet during a hard brake to avoid an accident. This was with the 18-250 lens on it. I expected I'd have to replace the whole system, but there is not a trace of effect from the tumble.
I've had it out during a light rain and I carry it three miles daily in a backpack as I walk to and from work. Naturally, I protect it from the sun and will not leave it in a vehicle overnight during a Maine winter.
I've had a few instances when I was sure the camera was failing in its duty, chiefly with bad exposures, then discovered that it was my error in settings that I'd forgotten I'd made.
My favorite feature: the mode dial lets you cancel the flash in full-auto mode. (There's a green AUTO setting on the mode dial and next to it a flash-cancel symbol, which should be green too, because it's full-auto too, minus flash.) My greatest complaint about auto mode on most cameras is that it insists on using flash when I absolutely want ambient light. This option on the a580 is very convenient.
My advice (which I followed myself after much research):
Buy the body separately and get both the 18-250mm f/3.5-5.6 lens - SO1825035 (best-rated by most reviewers for sharp pictures throughout the zoom and aperture range) and the 35mm f/1.8 lens - SO3518 (50mm film camera equivalent, mainly for low light situations). Add a spare battery; you'll NEED it! I'm glad I bought two Sony 8GB Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo HX - SOMSPDHX8GQ because a few minutes of video will use one up fast.
I'm pleased with the soft carrying case f/DSLR-A100 (black) - SOLCSAMAB. I also made sure I had a sky A1 filter and a polarizer for each lens. (The front of the lens does NOT rotate on either of my lenses during focus or zoom, so you WON'T need a circular polarizer, although if you have one already, as I did, it will do just fine.)
All of the above I ordered from a reliable on-line camera store whose name starts with BH.
Finally, (and I ordered these direct from Sony) I added a mini- high-speed HDMI cable - DLCHEM15, an LCD protective cover - PCKLH6AM, and a wireless Remote Commander - RMTDSLR1. You will be glad you have all three of these.
Cost of the entire outfit above from the two suppliers, with shipping, was about 1870 dollars.
As additional advice, I would say give yourself time to go through the book and practice using each feature. It all makes sense in a short while. Set up a separate disk or folder on your computer to store your Sony pictures. I use iPhoto on a Mac for everything else and I use Aperture exclusively for the a580 photos, but that may change in time.
Some reviewers are troubled that there is so much plastic in the feel and construction of the camera and the 35mm fixed focal-length lens that I bought, but some of that plastic may be partly what saved my camera during its flight in the truck. What I cared about in the lenses was the glass itself, and they are all I hoped they would be.
To get a camera like this and set of quality glass plus all the rest of the above for under two grand is a very good value in today's market.
As for some truly good interchangeable lens cameras by Panasonic (which I really liked) and others, I figured that if I am going to put this much money down, I may as well carry a true SLR. The others may pack as much into a smaller camera body, but a satisfactory zoom lens is going to negate any advantage of that compactness. And I made myself go for good glass instead of the so-called kit zooms because I feared the loss of photo quality. Why buy a great camera and pair it with a mediocre lens?
I could say a lot more, but maybe this is enough to help others make a wise choice.
I've actually had a couple instances where it would not shoot a picture in manual exposure/manual focus mode - as if it was objecting to the low light maybe? But that's what manual is for! It's for when I KNOW what I'm doing and the camera is supposed to be my servant. But these hesitations have been few and I have quickly been able to persuade it to take the shot anyway.