Sony DSLR-A500 Review

 
Camera Reviews / Sony Cameras / Sony Alpha i Initial Test

Sony A500 Image Quality


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Very good overall accuracy and saturation, with only minor shifts in hue and intensity.

In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.
Saturation. The Sony A500 pushes strong reds, dark blues and some greens, browns and purples just a little, but actually undersaturates aqua and cyan tones slightly. Its overall color saturation (110.9% or 10.9% oversaturated) is a bit higher than the A380 and A330, but quite typical for a consumer oriented SLR. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. Here, with the color balanced properly for the light source, the Alpha A500's skin tones looked just about right. There were some slight red tints in places, but overall skin tone looked natural. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. The Alpha 500 showed only a few small color shifts relative to the mathematically precise translation of colors in its subjects, but had overall pretty good accuracy. Most noticeable were shifts in reds toward orange, cyan toward blue, as well as some shifts in yellows, blues and purples. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) Hue is "what color" the color is.

Saturation Adjustment
The Sony A500 has a total of seven saturation settings available, three above and three below the default saturation. This covers a pretty wide range of saturation levels, about as wide a range as you're likely to find photographically relevant, apart from special effects that are arguably better achieved in software. The fine steps between settings mean you can program the camera to just the level of saturation you prefer, a feature we look for in cameras. The saturation settings did not impact contrast, so Sony did a good job here.

Saturation Adjustment Examples
Click to see AA500OUTBSAT1.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBSAT3.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBSAT4D.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBSAT5.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBSAT7.JPG
-3 -1 0 +1 +3

The table above shows results with several saturation settings, see the Thumbnails index page for more (look for the files named A500OUTBSATx.JPG). Click on any thumbnail above to see the full-sized image.

Click to see AA500FARWTW.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBAP3.JPG Click to see AA500hSLI00200_NR_1D.JPG
See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Good color with Incandescent and Manual white balance settings, though warm results with Auto white balance, and cool results with 2,600 Kelvin. Slightly above average positive exposure compensation required.

Click to see AA500INBAP1.JPG Click to see AA500INBTP2.JPG
Auto White Balance
+0.7 EV
Incandescent White Balance
+0.7 EV
Click to see AA500INBMP1.JPG Click to see AA500INBMP1.JPG
Manual White Balance
+0.7 EV
2,600 Kelvin
+0.7 EV

Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, the Sony Alpha A500 produced overly warm color with its Auto white balance setting. Both the Incandescent and Manual settings produced more accurate results. It was a bit of a toss-up between them, as the Manual setting was the most accurate but the Incandescent option a little warmer; we suspect most users would prefer the slight warmth of the results with the Incandescent white balance setting as being more representative of the original lighting, without the very warm cast of the Auto setting. The 2,600 Kelvin setting, which matches the temperature of our lights numerically, resulted in a slightly cool, blue cast. At +0.7 EV, the exposure compensation required was slightly above the average for this shot. The average among cameras we've tested is +0.3 EV. Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.

 

Outdoors, daylight
Very good results under harsh lighting, with good handling of contrast, detail, and color.

Click to see AA500OUTBAP3.JPG Click to see AA500FARI0200.JPG
Auto White Balance,
+1.0 EV
Auto White Balance,
Auto Exposure

Outdoors, the Sony Alpha A500 performed well, but required slightly higher than average exposure compensation of +1.0 EV for our "sunlit" portrait shot to keep the face reasonably bright. The average among the cameras we've tested is +0.7 EV. Contrast is a little high, as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera does a very good job of holding onto detail in bright highlights. Despite the apparent brightness, there are actually very few clipped highlights in the model's face and shirt, with most of the clipping occurring in the pendant and flowers. Some shadows are quite deep but contain good detail. Only a few highlights were blown in the House shot at the default exposure, and shadow detail is pretty good. Color balance is good as well, with good white balance and saturation considering the bright lighting. Finally, the camera's contrast adjustment did a very nice job of toning down the exposure without creating any strong color variations in the skin (though skin tone did change slightly - See the Contrast series under the Extremes section below). Overall, very good performance.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
Very high resolution, 1,700 ~ 1,800 lines of strong detail.

Strong detail to
1,800 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,800 lines horizontal
ACR processed RAW
Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical
ACR processed RAW

Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,800 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and about 1,700 in the vertical direction. Complete extinction didn't occur until just past 2,400 lines in both directions. Unusually, we weren't able to do much better with Adobe Camera Raw processed RAW files, which says that the camera is doing a pretty good job here. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Slightly soft images, but with few signs of edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Moderate noise suppression visible at base ISO.

Soft definition of
high-contrast elements,
with only minor evidence of
edge enhancement.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast,
though detail remains strong in
the darker parts of the model's hair here.

Sharpness. The Sony A500 produced good detail, but images were slightly soft despite using the very sharp 24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss zoom, a really excellent optic. Only very minor edge enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects such as the crop above left, so images are somewhat undersharpened at default settings. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows moderate levels noise suppression, as individual strands of hair merge together when local contrast is low, and as shadows deepen. All in all, an average performance here. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Sony A500 produces somewhat soft camera JPEGs. More detail can be obtained from carefully processing RAW files with a good converter, without introducing additional artifacts. Take a look below, to see what we mean:

In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking the link will load the full resolution image. Examples include in-camera Fine JPEG, RAW file processed through Sony's Image Data Converter SR version 3.2 software with maximum sharpening applied, and RAW file processed through Adobe Camera Raw version 5.7, then sharpened in Photoshop. For the Sony A500's images shot with sharp primes or high-end zooms, I found best results with strong but tight 400% unsharp masking with an 0.3 pixel radius. (As above, this shot of the house & trees was captured with the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss lens, to show the camera's detail rendering when not limited by the kit lens.)

ACR renders colors somewhat differently than either the A500 or the Sony software, so the greens in the trees and blues in the sky are a bit different. However, there's no mistaking the increase in detail, regardless of changes in color or tone. The ACR conversion does show quite a bit more noise than the in-camera JPEG or Sony IDC conversion. You can always turn up the noise reduction in ACR, or apply noise reduction after the conversion.

ISO & Noise Performance
Better high ISO noise performance than previous Sony APS-C SLRs, with very good results up to ISO 800.

Default High ISO Noise Reduction
ISO 200 ISO 400 ISO 800
ISO 1,600 ISO 3,200 ISO 6,400
ISO 12,800

The Sony A500's images are quite clean at ISO 200, and ISO 400 is almost as clean. Some noise "grain" is noticeable at ISO 800, and there's a bit of chroma noise in the shadows, but the camera doesn't smudge away as much fine detail as previous Alpha generations, except in low-contrast reds (see below). There's stronger smudging caused by noise reduction at ISO 1,600, but a surprising amount of detail is left. At ISO 3,200, fine detail suffers from more aggressive noise reduction and there's more chroma in the shadows, but performance is still pretty good. Detail takes larger hit at ISO 6,400 and especially 12,800, with much stronger blurring of fine detail as well as blotchy chroma noise. Overall though, these are good results for its class, and the handling of noise versus detail is much better than previous Alpha models. As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.

A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, usually using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. We know this; if you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us. :-) The focus target position will have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.

ISO 1,600
High ISO NR = Normal
ISO 1,600
High ISO NR = High

Noise Reduction Oddity. We noticed (along with a few readers) a peculiar behavior for the high ISO noise reduction settings in the Sony A500 (and A550). The Normal setting smudges the red leave pattern in our Still Life target setting more than the High setting. The High setting does reduce chroma noise compared to the Normal setting though (lower crops), and we confirmed the filenames are correct. You may want to leave the A500 high ISO NR setting at High for this reason, but be aware that continuous mode burst speed may be impacted.

Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
Very high resolution with excellent highlight and shadow detail. Good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness, however manual exposure was required and autofocus struggled at lower light levels.

Click to see AA500OUTBAP3.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBAP3.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBAP4.JPG
+0.7 EV +1.0 EV +1.3 EV

Sunlight:
The Sony Alpha 500 handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above very well. Though contrast is a little high, shadow and highlight detail are both very good. The camera's contrast adjustment also did a good job of decreasing overall contrast without producing strong color variations; see the section below. The +1.0 EV exposure did the best job here, as the model's face was too dim at +0.7 EV and we felt that too many highlights were lost at +1.3 EV. Though +1.0 EV was the best exposure overall, the model's face was still a touch dark, so some may prefer the +1.3 EV exposure. These shots were captured with the Sony A500's DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) control set to "Off". The default "Auto" setting (see below) helped both exposure accuracy and shadow preservation on this difficult shot. Be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)

Contrast Adjustment
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Sony A500's contrast setting meets both challenges.

Minimum Contrast, default D-R setting
Click to see AA500OUTBCON1.JPG Click to see AA500FARCON1.JPG
Contrast set to lowest,
+1.0 EV
Contrast set to lowest,
Auto Exposure

At its lowest contrast setting, the A500 did a really excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. The A500 captures good color outdoors, though just slightly on the warm side. Overall, very good results here, especially when the contrast setting is tweaked. (This is a really tough shot; the Sony A500 does a much better than average job handling it.)

Contrast Adjustment Examples
Click to see AA500OUTBCON1.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBCON3.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBCON4D.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBCON5.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBCON7.JPG
-3 -1 0 +1 +3

The series of shots above shows results with several different contrast adjustment settings, showing the minimum step size around the default, as well as both extremes. While you can see the extremes, it's hard to really evaluate contrast on small thumbnails like these, click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.

One very nice feature of Sony's contrast adjustment is that it has very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. As with saturation, Sony did a good job here.

DRO Examples
Click to see AA500OUTBDR0.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBDRAD.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBDR1.JPG Click to see AA500OUTBDR5.JPG
DRO Off
+1.0 EV
DRO Auto
+1.0 EV
DRO Level 1
+1.0 EV
DRO Level 5
+1.0 EV
Highlight Retention
Shadow Detail / Noise
(Levels adjusted equally in Photoshop on the right-hand side to show noise)

Dynamic Range Optimization is Sony's name for their dynamic range enhancement technology. DRO divides the image into small areas, analyzes the range of brightness of each area, and adjusts the camera's image processing parameters accordingly to make the best use of the available dynamic range. Auto DRO is enabled by default on the Sony A500. You can also set the level manually, from 1 ("weak") to 5 ("strong").

The above images and crops show the effects of DRO disabled, set to Auto (the default), Level 1 ("weak") and Level 5 ("strong") for our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with +1.0 EV exposure compensation. As you can from the crops, Auto DRO had only a slight effect on the highlights in this shot, with higher levels clipping just slightly more highlights. The bulk of the difference between different levels of DRO is found in the shadow and midtone areas. The stronger the level, the more boost is applied to the darker areas of the image. Along with that boost is an increase in shadow noise, though noise is not as much of an issue as we expected.

HDR Examples
Click to see AA500FARHDRA.JPG Click to see AA500FARHDR1EV.JPG
Auto 1 EV
Click to seeAA500FARHDR2EV.JPG Click to see AA500FARHDR3EV.JPG
2 EV 3 EV

High Dynamic Range. The Sony A500's HDR mode takes two images in rapid succession, one underexposed, and one overexposed, then combines them into one high dynamic range image automatically. Highlight areas from the underexposed image and shadow areas of the overexposed image are combined in-camera to produce an image with increased dynamic range. The camera then saves the composite JPEG image. (You cannot use the function on RAW images.) The overlaid images are micro-aligned by the camera, but it can only correct for so much movement. If it can't micro-align successfully or if the scene has low contrast or if subject motion has been detected, an icon indicating HDR capture failed will appear. The user manual warns that for best results, the subject should not move or blink, so it's not really intended for portraits. There is also a manual mode where you can select the level from 1 EV ("weak") to 3 EV ("strong") in 1 EV steps. As you can see, the Auto setting produced a natural looking image with results somewhere between the 1 and 2 EV settings, maintaining highlights and boosting shadows without additional noise. In fact, shadow noise is lower since the overexposed image would have less noise in the shadows than the nominally exposed image. There may also be some blending going on, which would also average out random noise. The 3 EV setting produced a very flat looking result here, though would likely work well in strongly backlit situations.


Face Detection
Off at 0 EV On at 0 EV

Face Detection
Just like most Point & Shoot cameras these days, the Sony A500 has the ability to detect faces in Live View mode, and adjust exposure and focus accordingly. Up to eight faces can be detected at once. As you can see from the examples above, it really works, as the image with face detection enabled is much better exposed for the face, even though both images were shot without any exposure compensation.



  1 fc
11 lux
1/2 fc
5.5 lux
1/4 fc
2.7 lux
1/8 fc
1.3 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16fc
No NR
ISO
200
Click to see AA500LL002003.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL002004.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL002005.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL002006.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL002007.JPG
15 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL002007XNR.JPG
15 sec
f2.8
ISO
400
Click to see AA500LL004003.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL004004.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL004005.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL004006.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL004007.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL004007XNR.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
ISO
800
Click to see AA500LL008003.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL008004.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL008005.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL008006.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL008007.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL008007XNR.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
ISO
1600
Click to see AA500LL016003.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL016004.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL016005.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL016006.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL016007.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL016007XNR.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
ISO
3200
Click to see AA500LL032003.JPG
1/15 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL032004.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL032005.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL032006.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL032007.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL032007XNR.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
ISO
6400
Click to see AA500LL064003.JPG
1/30 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL064004.JPG
1/15 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL064005.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL064006.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL064007.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL064007XNR.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
ISO
12800
Click to see AA500LL128003.JPG
1/60 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL128004.JPG
1/30 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL128005.JPG
1/15 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL128006.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL128007.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see AA500LL128007XNR.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8

Low light. The Sony A500 was able to capture bright images at the lowest light level with the lowest sensitivity setting (ISO 200), but required the use of manual exposure mode. The A500's auto exposure (metering) did not work well at all at lower light levels, resulting in very underexposed images. Noise is quite low up to ISO 800, and at higher ISOs noise grain is pretty fine, but chroma noise gets a little blotchy. There's no sign of any banding issues or uncorrected hot pixels. Color balance looked good with the Auto white balance setting, just slightly on the cool side.

The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject down to about the 1/3 foot-candle light level unassisted. This is a rather poor performance for an SLR, though the A500 was able to focus in complete darkness with the AF assist enabled. Since the Sony A500 doesn't use contrast detection for Live View, low-light AF performance was identical in Live View mode. Keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement, Sony's Super SteadyShot not withstanding. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Sony A500 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Excellent 16x24-inch prints at ISO 200; ISO 800 shots are still good at 13x19 inches; and ISO 12,800 images produce usable 5x7-inch prints.

Though the Sony A500 has the lower-resolution sensor, its 12-megapixel prints look better than the prints from the Sony A550's 14-megapixel sensor. The difference is slight, but enough that the Sony A500 turns out a sharper 16x24-inch print from its ISO 200 files.

ISO 400 shots look better at 13x19 inches, but are certainly still usable at 16x24.

ISO 800 shots still look quite good at 13x19; if you squint you can see a difference, but it's not noticeable otherwise.

ISO 1,600 shots are a little too soft at 13x19 inches, though, but look better at 11x14, with just a little softening here and there, and a lot of softness in our red swatch.

ISO 3,200 images start to look a little grainy, but we'd still call 11x14-inch prints quite usable.

ISO 6,400 files are better printed at 8x12, and have a little grain in the shadows, but otherwise color and detail look good.

ISO 12,800 shots are slightly soft but usable at 5x7, and sharpen right up at 4x6 inches.

Overall a very good performance from the Sony Alpha A500, and a slight upset over the Sony A550 at the lowest ISO settings. Color and detail are maintained quite well across the ISO range. The Sony A500 bests the A550 at ISO 200, 800, and 3,200 in print size quality.

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and on the Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)

 

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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