Sony Alpha DSLR-A380
Category: Mid Range Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Conclusion - Pros
- Good JPEG output at base ISO (but sometimes poor low contrast detail, improves visibly when shooting in RAW)
- Good JPEG resolution
- Reliable metering
- Fastest AF in live view (but see disadvantages below)
- Coherent ergonomics for live view operation
- Probably the easiest DSLR to use for a compact camera user
- Tilting screen useful for over-head or waist-level shooting (not in portrait orientation though)
- Effective image stabilization system (SteadyShot inside)
- Wireless flash capability
- Help guides useful for new users of the camera and beginners
- Decent 18-55m kit lens
- Simple but decent RAW converter included in the package (Image Data Converter)
Conclusion - Cons
- Visible blurring of fine detail in JPEGs from ISO 200 upwards
- High ISO performance not on the same level as direct competitors
- Smallest viewfinder of any APS-C DSLR
- Protruding screen obstructs use of viewfinder, especially if you're wearing glasses
- Limited external controls
- No on-screen user interface for changing of shooting parameters
- Sometimes convoluted operation (AF-point selection, index-view)
- No magnification and only 90% frame coverage in live view make precise framing and selective focusing very difficult
- Sometimes less responsive than the competition (record review)
- Poor continuous shooting rate
- Poor battery life
- No video-out jack means images cannot be displayed on older TVs
- Small, relatively low-power flash
- Noise reduction is not adjustable
- Unreliable white balance under artificial light
- Custom white-balance not 100% reliable and not fine-tunable
When Sony launched the A380's predecessor, the DSLR-A350, in January 2008 it was arguably one of the best specified cameras in the entry-level segment sporting the highest resolution sensor and an impressive set of features. However, while today, approximately 18 months later, the A380 comes with a specification that is very similar to the A350 (and in some areas even slightly downgraded) all of the competitors in the entry-level segment have inevitably moved on and not only caught up with the Sony but overtaken it quite clearly.
Unlike two of its arguably most direct competitors, the Canon EOS 500D and the Nikon D5000, the Sony A380 does not offer video capture nor does it come with an on-screen 'Quick control' type user interface, something that has pretty much become a standard on all recently introduced SLRs. The rest of the feature set and specification is, next to the competition, not particularly impressive either. While the 14.2 megapixel resolution is still more than competitive and the output at base ISO is generally good, the frame rate in continuous shooting is pretty slow, the high ISO performance isn't quite on the same level as the rivals and the battery capacity is poor.
Where the camera shines though is in live view operation where, due to the dedicated live view sensor, it delivers significantly faster live view AF speeds than the competition which allows you to use the camera in a 'compact camera' style and benefit from DSLR AF speeds at the same time. There are drawbacks to the system though. There is no live view magnification and the live preview only covers 90 percent of the frame which disqualifies the A380 from most photographic applications that require very precise framing and/or focusing.
The Sony DSLR-A380 is clearly targeted at beginners and users who want to move up from a compact camera without having to learn all the quirks of a digital SLR. For this type of user and everyone else who is intending to use their SLR mainly in live view and Auto mode the A380 is worth a closer look. For everyone else there are better alternatives available, especially when considering the Sony's current price point.
The A380 is smaller and lighter than its predecessor which is certainly good from a portability point of view but as a consequence the camera's ergonomics seem to somehow have suffered a little. The hand grip is very small which makes it difficult to find a comfortable holding position, no matter the size of your hands. The viewfinder is the smallest one on any APS-C DSLR on the market and is simply not suitable for anything that requires manual focusing or precise framing. The protruding screen also makes it difficult to get your eye close to the viewfinder, especially if you wear glasses.
Presumably as a result of the reduced dimensions there are now also fewer external controls and their location is, at least in some cases, questionable. It's quite difficult to use the exposure compensation button for example while you've got your eye to the viewfinder. The A380 is now also the only camera in the current crop of entry-level cameras that does not come with an on-screen interface that let's you change settings on the LCD like on many compact cameras. This is not helped by sometimes rather 'unconventional' design decisions in the user interface. Changing the AF-point or browsing your images in index view is quite a convoluted process indeed. All in all changing the settings is usually just slightly more time-consuming on the A380 than on most of its rivals.
However, If you mainly use the A380 in Auto mode and live-view, the camera's ergonomics work much better. The Sony's live-view AF is fast and holding the camera away from your eye in live-view mode is more comfortable, especially when you tilt the screen up and hold the camera in a lower position, almost like a waist-level viewfinder on a medium-format camera. There are some limitations to this kind of use though. The screen can only be tilted on one axis and therefore waist-level or overhead framing does not work if you intend to take a photograph in portrait orientation. The screen is also quite prone to reflections which makes live-view shooting more difficult in sunny conditions. Most importantly the live image on the LCD only shows approximately 90 percent of the frame and cannot be magnified which makes very precise framing and focusing almost impossible.
At base ISO the A380 performs very well and delivers good detail and natural if slightly vivid colors. Default output is a little soft. Shooting in RAW can definitely gain you some extra detail, especially in low contrast areas of the frame where some careful sharpening in RAW conversion will get you a good amount of additional detail. The Sony's dynamic range is in line with the competition in this class. It delivers a decent amount of highlight range and blown highlights weren't more of a problem on the A380 than on other cameras in the upper entry-level segment during our sample shoots.
Where the camera starts to struggle is at higher sensitivities. It's not horrible in low light but it's not on the same level as its current direct competitors. That's not really a surprise as the A380's sensor and imaging pipeline are virtually identical with the A350's which was launched in January 2008 - an eternity in digital imaging terms. The sensor is noisier than the competition to start with and this is exacerbated by the A380's heavy-handed approach to noise reduction which blurs a lot of detail but also results in unsightly chroma noise blobs. You can get better results by shooting RAW and optimizing your own noise reduction but the outcome will generally still be inferior to a camera that generates less noise in the first place.
The final word
If you shoot mainly at base ISO, in live view and Auto mode the Sony DSLR-A380 is worth a closer look. For everyone else the camera can only become a consideration if its price drops significantly. At the Sony's price point there are currently several better alternatives available.
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Compact camera upgraders looking for a simple DSLR
Not so good for
More serious photographers or for use in low light
Aside from its unique high-speed live view mode the Alpha 380 simply can't compete with the best of its peers in this fiercely competitive sector. Handling isn't great, nor is low light performance, and unless you find one very cheap indeed, it's best avoided.
Original Rating (August 2009): Recommended (with reservations)
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