Live View

Like the A350 but unlike every other current DSLR, the A380's live view system does not show the output from the main imaging sensor. Instead there is a second, smaller sensor placed up in the viewfinder tunnel.

The advantage of this layout is that, unlike any other current Live View system, the camera can offer live view with the reflex mirror down. This means it behaves just like a conventional DSLR when in Live view mode, only flipping the mirror out of the way when you press the shutter button to take the photograph. The result is a more responsive Live View mode that essentially offers the convenience of a compact camera with the speed of focus of a conventional DSLR.

Of course there are a few disadvantages as well. Using a dedicated live view sensor does not allow the use of the potentially more accurate and flexible contrast-detection autofocus system. Also the Sony system does not offer live view magnification or depth-of-field preview and only covers 90% of the frame which renders it virtually useless for some of the 'typical' live view applications such as macro or some types of studio photography.

Live view display modes

Pressing the DISP button while in Live View toggles between the three available display modes, each with differing levels of overlaid information.

1: Live view with basic shooting information 2: Live view with detailed shooting information
3: Live view with basic shooting information and live histogram  

Live view AF video clip

You can see the camera auto-focusing (from infinity) in live view. Unlike every other DSLR currently on the market, the Sony A350 and A380 are able to perform this without flipping the reflex mirror down (because it's not had to flip it up to display live view). The first time the mirror has to move is when you press the shutter button. After the image has been taken you see the review image appear, this is also where the video ends.

Also, after the image has been recorded the camera jumps briefly back to the live view image, then the screen blacks out for a moment before the review image appears.

Overall handling and operation comments

The Sony DSLR-A380 has clearly been designed with those users in mind who want to upgrade from a digital compact camera and would like to use their DSLR in almost the same fashion as they used their compact. Therefore it makes sense to distinguish between 'traditional' viewfinder and live-view use when speaking about the A380's operation and handling.

The camera is smaller and lighter than its predecessor which is certainly good from a portability point of view but the camera's ergonomics seem to have suffered somehow. The hand grip is very small and almost everyone in the office, no matter the size of their hands, found it difficult to hold the camera in a comfortable way, especially with longer and/or heavier lenses. 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. All in all changing the settings is usually just slightly more time-consuming than on most of its direct competitors.

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 that you should keep in mind. 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.

All in all the A380's design is most suited for a live-view point-and-shoot style of photography. For photographers who change settings frequently and like to frame and focus their shots with precision there are better alternatives available.