Handling and operation

From the point of view of ergonomics, the DSLR-A580 is nearly identical to its predecessor, the A550. The only significant differences are the addition of a depth of field preview button around the lensmount, the replacement of the A550's digital teleconverter button by a movie button and a slight change of location of the ISO and drive mode buttons which have moved a little forward, closer to the shutter button.

Both of the latter changes make perfect sense. With the inclusion of a video mode on the A580 a video button became necessary and the A550's frankly pretty superfluous digital teleconverter button was the obvious control to sacrifice. Nevertheless the button is ideally placed for operation with your thumb while holding the camera at chest-height to record video.

The ISO and drive mode buttons, although they've only been moved marginally, are now much better reachable with your eye to the viewfinder. Despite the couple of small changes, the interface is similar enough to other Alpha models to make anyone who is upgrading from another Sony DSLR Sony immediately feel at home. We're disappointed though, to note that one of the features which was glaringly absent from the A550 - program shift - has also been omitted from the A580. We simply cannot fathom why, in 2011, a camera positioned at this level should lack this, given that program shift, can be found in several modern sub-$200 compact cameras. To its credit though, Sony has added mirror lock-up (automatic when self-timer is selected) and a depth of field preview button to the A580 - both missing from its predecessor.

With the exception of a couple of niggles, the A580 handles fairly well but in our opinion it works better in live view mode than when using the optical finder. The latter is larger on the A580 than on older dual-live view models such as the A350 or 380, but the screen protrudes a little from the camera body which can make it, especially for photographers with glasses, a little difficult to get the eye close enough to the finder.

On the plus side the A580 is one of the few DSLRs that is genuinely usable in LV mode. For non-technically minded users the difference between the live view modes might not be immediately obvious but once you've worked it out - standard live view for quick focusing and operation, focus check LV for focus and framing critical applications such as macro photography - it's totally feasible to use the A580 exclusively as a live view camera and only use the viewfinder in emergencies, such as in very bright light (since the rear screen of the camera is a little prone to fingerprint smearing and reflections).

If this makes sense for you will entirely depend on your personal preferences and style of shooting. There are also a few inconsistencies you probably have to get used to. The AEL button for instance has different functions in the two live view modes (exposure lock in standard live view and image magnification in focus check LV) and the electronic horizon is only available in focus check live view but not in the standard mode.

In your hand

Holding a DSLR-A580 feels exactly like holding its predecessor, the A550. The camera's reassuring weight, the sizeable hand grip and the use of rubber-like materials on all grip surfaces make it comfortable to hold in any shooting situation. The drive mode and ISO buttons buttons on the top plate have been slightly moved forward and are now easier to operate with your eye to the viewfinder. As before, the exposure compensation and AEL buttons (which for the majority of users are likely to be two of the most frequently used), are well positioned with the thumb being able to easily shift between the two without having to abandon the standard shooting position.

The new movie button is, right next to the exposure compensation button, within easy reach as well. The only controls that are a little harder to reach are the D-Range and Focus Check LV buttons on the top plate which probably require the eye to be taken away from the viewfinder. That said, these settings aren't changed as frequently and, thanks to its extensive live-view options, the DSLR-A580 isn't a camera that will necessarily only be used with the optical viewfinder.

Thanks to its tilting screen we also found it easy to hold the A580 comfortably and stable when shooting video. This is most easily achieved by holding the camera at chest-height with the screen flipped up, framing the scene almost like you would do with a waist-level finder.

On-screen controls and menus

Like on the DSLR-A550 the A580 features two status screens, the settings and exposure displays, for viewing the camera settings. You can alternate between the two display modes by pressing the DISP button. In contrast to many other DSLRs these screens are not interactive (you can't scroll around the options to make changes). Instead you have to press the Fn-button to enter the Function menu where you can modify each setting. There are a number of direct access buttons on the camera but for settings such as white balance, AF point behavior, autofocus mode (continuous/single/auto) or metering mode the Fn-menu is your only option.

The traditional 'settings display' mode rotates to match the orientation of the camera but isn't interactive (you can't navigate around the screen to change settings) The attractive but slightly confusing 'exposure display' mode tries to show the relationships between apertures and shutter speeds but is, especially for beginners, not always easy to read.
Pressing the Fn button takes you into the Function menu. In here you can navigate using the four-way controller. Pressing the 'AF' button takes you to other screens to change each of the options (D-Range screen shown in this instance). These screens are identical to the ones you see when pressing the corresponding direct button instead. In both live view modes these screen are superimposed onto the live view image.

Live View displays and operation

Sony is the only manufacturer that is currently offering two separate live view modes on some of its DSLRs. The standard mode uses a tiny secondary sensor to give a (relatively low-resolution) preview of the scene in front of the camera on the rear LCD. This allows the use of the conventional DSLR phase-detection AF sensor to give rapid auto focusing (phase detection requires the main mirror to be down, so can't be used by other live view DSLRs unless the mirror is flipped down and up again before each shot).

In addition to that, the A580 offers, like the DSLR-A550, a more conventional system that lets you flip the mirror and use the main sensor for live view. This produces a higher quality preview (and one with less cropping of the frame). This mode is called Focus Check live view and when switched to this mode it is possible to focus using contrast detect AF, albeit painfully slowly.

The A580's Face Detection AF is worth mentioning as well. Surprisingly it is only available in phase detect, but not in contrast detect AF mode. The camera detects the face of a subject on the live view image and then uses, in contrast to all other current live view systems, the phase detect AF points to focus. This only works if the face in question is located in the more central parts of the frame that are covered by the camera's 15 point AF system.

In the basic screen you get information about the exposure settings (including a scale), shooting mode, memory card in use, remaining images on card, image and video quality and battery status. There's also a screen option without any overlaid information. The full shooting information screen adds a whole stack of settings including drive mode, flash, AF-mode, AF-area, ISO and White Balance. For minimalists there is also a screen that only shows the exposure settings in the black bar at the bottom.
If you press the Fn-button while in live view the menu is superimposed on the live view image but works the same way as in OVF mode.
When you switch to Focus Check live view the live view image is captured from the main imaging sensor which gives you a better quality preview, especially in low light. The overlay information is the same as in 'normal' live view mode but you get an additional 'electronic horizon' option.

Other shooting screens

The A580 offers the same standard and 3D sweep panorama modes that we've seen on the Sony NEX. They are accessed via the mode dial.
Set the mode dial to SCN to access the camera's eight scene modes - portrait, sports action, macro, landscape, sunset, night view, hand-held twilight and night portrait.