Sony Alpha DSLR-A390
Category: Mid Range Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Conclusion - Pros
- Good RAW resolution
- Reliable metering (most of the time - see 'cons')
- Fastest AF in live view among 'traditional' DSLRs (but see disadvantages below)
- Coherent ergonomics for live view operation
- Much improved handgrip over A380 (but still less comfortable than A350)
- 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
- Simple but decent RAW converter included in the package (Image Data Converter)
Conclusion - Cons
- Soft JPEGs at all ISO settings
- 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 95% 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
- Metering tends to overexpose on bright days with sun in the frame
- Poor battery life in Fast AF Live View mode
- 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
For this Quick review we ran some basic studio tests to confirm Sony's assurances that the A390's image quality is as good as identical to the A380. However, the images on the 'compared to' pages were shot 'fresh' with both cameras. To get all the in-depth information that you expect from a dpreview review on the Sony DSLR-A390 you'll have to read both this article and our in-depth review of the Sony DSLR-A380.
The Sony Alpha 390 is a minor upgrade to its predecessor, and ultimately, the new model can be safely summarised as 'the same camera with a new grip'. The ergonomic changes are meangingful, however, and the A390 is a considerably more comfortable camera to handle than the A380, which didn't seem to be designed with handling (using human hands, at least) in mind. Ergonomically, the A390 is still far from perfect (the exposure compensation button is still awkwardly placed, and the smart teleconverter button is still given undue prominance) but definitely an improvement over its predecessor. Like the A380 though, the new model only really comes to live in Fast AF Live View mode. The optical viewfinder is small and dim, and despite its 'TV at the end of a hallway' viewing experience, we found that when wearing glasses, the entire image area is still hard to see from a fixed eyepoint.
As far as its performance and image quality are concerned, the A390 is an exact match for its predecessors, which is to say that it was fairly respectable two years ago but now sits towards the bottom end of its large group of competitors. In essence, the A390 is a decent camera and with a bit of care and attention, it can produce excellent images. Where the A390 falls down is speed, high ISO image qualiity and the performance of some of its key systems, specifically metering in bright sunlight. Left to its own devices, in bright conditions the A390 consistantly overexposes to an extent that it is often impossible to recover highlight detail in the captured images. Whilst this ensures bright, punchy print-ready JPEGs, it can be frustrating if you want to capture a wider tonal range. A few clouds in the sky, or a slight change in composition to exclude a little sky from the frame is often enough to ensure a more accurate exposure. It isn't all bad news though. Sony's SteadyShot Inside is an effective image stabilization system and the A390's Advanced D-R+ mode does an excellent job of managing contrasty scenes (albeit at the expense of noise, which does visibly increase in shadow and midtone areas).
At high ISO settings the A390 gives adequate performance but it's nothing special, and it is roundly outperformed by competitive cameras like the Canon EOS 550D. As always, better images can be coaxed from RAW files, but in cameras at this level, JPEG performance is arguably a more important yardstick of image quality, and the A390's JPEGs are unusually disappointing. Detail resolution in JPEGs is acceptable, but masked by an overall softness that sells the sensor rather short. That said, image quality at low ISO sensitivity settings is certainly good enough to satisfy the demands of small prints or screen-sized web galleries. Things fall apart a bit above ISO 800 though, at which point images become very blotchy, even in small prints. The A390 uses the same imaging pipeline as the A350 (which was announced in January 2008), and it is clearly in need of a refresh.
The final word
If you're a Sony Alpha (or Konica Minolta) user that shoots mainly at base ISO, in live view and Auto mode the Sony DSLR-A390 is worth a look, and is definitely a more agreeable camera to use than its predecessor. However, Fast AF live view is less impressive in 2010 than it was when first introduced, and compared to a camera like the Panasonic Lumix DMC G2 (which at least matches and with some lens combinations beats the A390 in terms of live view AF speed) the Alpha 390 is bulky, slow and unrefined.
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Existing Sony Alpha users that want a second body, fast AF in live view mode and don't need to shoot in low light or make large prints.
Not so good for
Fast action, low light shooting, and any situation requiring the optical viewfinder.
The Sony Alpha 390 isn't a bad camera, but there are so many better options on the market that it is hard to recommend. Ultimately, so little has changed, compared to its predecessor, that its specifications and performance now look very out of date. The A390 has some cool tricks up its sleeve in the form of SteadyShot INSIDE and DR+, but they aren't enough to make it stand out from its DSLR and mirrorless competitors.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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