Sony DSLR-A560 Review
|Full model name:||Sony Alpha DSLR-A560|
(23.7mm x 15.6mm)
|Viewfinder:||Optical / LCD|
|Native ISO:||100 - 12,800|
|Extended ISO:||100 - 25,600|
|Shutter:||1/4000 - 30 sec|
|Max Aperture:||3.5 (kit lens)|
5.4 x 4.1 x 3.3 in.
(137 x 104 x 84 mm)
includes batteries, kit lens
|Full specs:||Sony DSLR-A560 specifications|
4.5 out of 5.0
by Carl Garrard, Mike Tomkins, Shawn Barnett
and Zig Weidelich
Hands-on Preview: 08/24/10
Full Review: 03/03/11
Announced alongside Sony's attention-grabbing Translucent Mirror cameras, the A33 and A55, the launch of the Sony A560 perhaps was robbed of some attention -- and that's maybe a little unfair, because when compared to its predecessor, the A560 sports some genuinely useful changes.
The Sony A560, like the A550 before it, is based around a 14.2 megapixel, APS-C sized image sensor, although it now carries Exmor APS HD branding. Perhaps the most significant change in the A560 is a brand new autofocus system, based around a 15-point AF sensor, of which three are cross-type points. From the fifteen total points, eleven can be addressed directly, and four serve as assist points.
Also new to the Sony A560 is its high-definition movie recording capability, which is fast becoming a common function even among entry-level DSLRs, and an absolute must-have feature for enthusiast cameras. The Sony A560 can record movies at up to 1,920 x 1,080 pixel (Full HD) resolution, with stereo audio -- either from a built in microphone, or an external mic with 3.5mm jack. The A550's Smart Teleconverter button, which simply cropped the image when shooting at lower resolutions, has been abandoned in favor of a new dedicated Movie button.
Sony has also made some useful tweaks to the A560's body design. The Drive Mode and ISO buttons have both been moved nearer to the Shutter release button, making them easier to reach without having to change your grip on the camera. There's also a new Depth of Field Preview button just beneath the right side of the lens mount. The Mode dial is also a little larger, easier to grip, and clicks more firmly between positions so as to prevent accidental adjustment. The various scene modes on the Mode dial have been consolidated into a single Scene position, simultaneously reducing clutter and freeing up room for a new Sweep Panorama position.
Sweep Panorama has appeared in Sony's Cyber-shot and NEX-series cameras previously, and is now making its debut in an Alpha DSLR. The function, which offers 2D and 3D modes, automatically captures numerous images as the A560 is panned across the scene, and then stitches the result in-camera to create a single seamless image. The Sony A560 retains its predecessor's Auto HDR function, where the camera captures multiple images and merges them into one High Dynamic Range image, but now increases the number of images from two to three, as well as the possible strength of the effect, by doubling the step size to create a total range of up to 6 EV in 1 EV steps. High ISO Noise Reduction has also been adjusted, and now offers a choice of Auto or Weak modes, in place of the previous High or Normal positions. A new Multi-Frame NR function overlays six sequential images in-camera, to create one final exposure with about a two stop improvement in signal to noise ratio.
The A560 retains the articulating display screen from the A550 design, as well as the unusual Live View mode that uses a secondary, low-resolution sensor inside the pentamirror, so that phase detection autofocus can be offered during live view. The AF550's alternative MF Check LV mode -- which raises the mirror and exposes the imaging sensor like the live view modes on most other DSLRs -- has been renamed and greatly improved. It's now called Focus Check LV, and offers not only manual focusing or phase detection AF with a brief interruption to the live view stream, but now also offers contrast detection autofocusing.
A few other notable changes include slight updates to the Help Guide function and menu system, a change to Sony's new playback mode, which segregates still and video content, support for the latest generation SDXC cards, and the removal of PictBridge support.
Shipment of the Sony Alpha A560 in the US market, originally expected in October 2010, was postponed until the first quarter of 2011 due to component supply issues, but they seem to be shipping now. Pricing is set at US$650 body-only or US$750 with an 18-55mm kit lens.
Sony A560 User Report
by Shawn Barnett and Mike Tomkins
Look and feel. At first glance, the Sony A560's body is very close in design to that of its predecessor, the A550. Size and weight are unchanged, but on closer inspection, there are a number of relatively subtle changes made to accommodate new features, or improve accessibility of existing ones.
The duo-tone body of the previous design has been replaced with a more professional-looking all-black body, and a slightly more noticeable texture applied all over. It's a change that you'll only notice if you look really closely, and yet somehow it makes less obvious the fact that the A560's body panels are plastic. The shiny black accent strip on the front of the grip, which conceals the infrared sensor and self-timer lamp, has also been given a matte finish along the lower half of its length. Incidentally, the self-timer locks up the mirror first, to avoid mirror-slap induced blur. Just beneath and to the left of the lens mount in the picture above, you can see the new Depth of Field Preview button.
Like that of the A550, the Sony A560's grip is a little odd. It's rather slim left-to-right, and not really deep enough. This impression is increased by the unusual thickness of the body front-to-back. We really didn't find it very comfortable for long hand-holding. Here you see the switch for Live View, in the same location as past models. The Alpha a550's MF Check LV button, which puts the camera in Live View mode from the main imaging sensor, has been renamed Focus Check LV for the Sony A560. The name change hints at the fact that autofocus is now possible in this mode.
Dynamic Range, Drive mode, and ISO settings can also be adjusted on the top deck, and the latter two buttons have been moved closer to the shutter release, making them easier to reach when a quick adjustment is called for. Note the sloped area between the top and back, making operation a little easier from more angles. Also visible is the reworked Mode dial, which adds a Sweep Panorama position, and consolidates all of the Scene modes into a single shared position. The dial itself is a little taller and easier to grip, has a much stiffer detent, preventing accidental mode changes. The top of the dial has been changed from a smooth, screen-printed metal badge to a plastic one with raised, painted lettering. Also visible from this angle are the two four-hole grilles for the left and right channels of the new stereo microphone, located directly in front of the flash hot shoe.
The back view is nearly identical to the A350, except that the Smart Teleconverter function has been removed, and its button -- now silver with a central red dot -- acts as a Movie shutter button. This allows the movie function to be accessed in any operating mode, although ISO sensitivity, shutter speed and aperture for movie shooting remain under automatic control regardless of the mode currently selected.
As in the A550, the Function (Fn) button calls up the A560's Function menu, allowing quick settings changes for common exposure variables. When comparing the Sony A560 to the A550 from this angle, you can just notice the slight increase to the height of the mode dial. The only other visible change that would tip you off as to which camera you're looking at is the new Movie shutter button. Adopting the traditional design, in silver with a red dot, this button replaces the previous Smart Teleconverter button, and has the same shape and positioning.
The tilting LCD mechanism has the same generous angular mobility as that in the A550, able to tilt a full 90 degrees downward, and a little beyond 90 degrees upward. While it doesn't allow for framing of self portraits, it's very helpful when shooting overhead, or low to the ground. A small sensor on the lower right of the Sony A560's LCD can be set to dim or brighten the LCD's backlight automatically when needed.
Looking at the left of the A560's body, you can see the newly added three-hole speaker grille, directly above the forward most rubber compartment door. Behind the compartment door is the other notable change from this side of the camera -- a new 3.5mm stereo mic jack, allowing use of external microphones with the A560. Connectivity options behind the other compartment door include high definition video output, and USB 2.0 High Speed data. The Sony A560, like its predecessor, conspicuously lacks any provision for standard definition video output.
Image Sensor. At the heart of the Sony A560 is a Sony Exmor APS HD CMOS image sensor with dimensions of 23.4 x 15.6mm, roughly equivalent to a frame of APS-C film. The Sony A560's sensor has an effective resolution of 14.2 megapixels, and yields 3:2 aspect ratio images with dimensions of up to 4,592 x 3,056 pixels. In addition to two lower-resolution 3:2 modes of 3,344 x 2,224 and 2,288 x 1,520 pixels, the Sony A560 offers three modes that crop the sensor's output to a 16:9 aspect ratio, suitable for viewing on wide-screen HDTVs. The Sony A560's 16:9 image modes are 4,592 x 2,576, 3,344 x 1,872, and 2,288 x 1,280 pixels respectively.
The imager is mounted on a movable platter, allowing for Sony's SteadyShot INSIDE image stabilization with all compatible lenses. The system is unchanged since the A550, and is said to offer 2.5 to 4 stops of correction. The sensor-shift mechanism is also used to shake dust from the sensor, as part of Sony's Anti-Dust system which also includes a charge protection coating on the low-pass filter. Output from the image sensor is handled by Sony's proprietary BIONZ image processor.
Noise Reduction. The Sony A560 uses a combination of on-sensor noise reduction at each photocell location, plus a two-step noise reduction procedure which operates both before and after analog-to-digital conversion, processing chrominance and luminance noise separately. The result is an unusually wide sensitivity range, from a minimum of ISO 100 to a maximum of ISO 12,800 equivalents, in 1 EV steps. Settings from ISO 200 to 1,600 are available under automatic control.
High ISO noise reduction is applied at sensitivities of ISO 1,600 or above, with auto or weak strength options available, rather than the A550's high or normal strength options. Long exposure noise reduction is also available at shutter speeds longer than one second, and can be disabled at the photographer's option.
Multi-Frame NR. The Sony A560 also includes a new Multi-frame NR function, which captures six images in sequence, and then combines them in-camera into a single image with reduced noise levels. When enabled, sensitivities from ISO 100 to 25,600 equivalents, plus an Auto ISO function, can be selected. The function is similar to Sony's Handheld Twilight mode -- which the A560 also offers -- but differs in allowing the desired ISO sensitivity to be selected manually, so it can function even at lower sensitivities. Of course, since it involves multiple exposures, it's only of use with relatively static scenes.
Autofocus. The Sony Alpha A560 offers an overhauled TTL phase detection autofocusing system, which now provides 15 AF points, six more than in the A550. Of these 15 points, three are cross-type points, sensitive to both horizontal and vertical detail. Only 11 of the 15 points are available for manual selection, with the remaining four points not directly addressable, and used only when the camera is set to automatically select the AF point. The new AF sensor has a slightly wider sensitivity range of -1 EV to +18 EV at ISO 100 equivalent, versus the 0 to +18 EV range of the A550.
Like its predecessor, the Sony A560 includes an AF-assist lamp to help with focusing in low-light conditions. Thanks to a secondary image sensor in the A560's prism assembly, Sony is able to continue using the standard phase-detection AF system while displaying a Live View image on the camera's LCD display. Dubbed Quick AF Live View mode by Sony, this is reminiscent of a system that was used in Olympus' EVOLT E-330 digital SLR, but with the addition of some current technologies.
For example, in Quick AF Live View mode, the Sony A560 is able to offer face detection when focusing with the phase-detection sensor. When a face is detected, the camera can automatically select the correct AF point, and adjust exposure, white balance, flash output, and other variables to ensure that your subject's face is correctly rendered. The extra information from the face detection system also allows an improved AF tracking function. The Sony A560's face detection system also allows a Smile Shutter function, which can automatically trigger the camera's shutter immediately when your subject smiles. The animation at right, courtesy of Sony Electronics, is from our A550 review. The function works similarly on the A560.
Focus Check LV. Alternatively, the Sony A560's Live View can function in Focus Check live view mode, accessed via a dedicated button on the camera's top panel. Previously called MF Check LV in the A550, the new name hints at a feature change. Unlike the equivalent mode in the A550, either contrast detection or phase detection autofocusing is now possible in this mode, as well as manual focusing. (The AF type is selected through screen 2 of the Record menu.) When activated, the camera displays a full-frame view of the scene on the LCD display, using information streamed from the main image sensor, and with the signal boosted if necessary to see the subject in poor lighting. Holding in the AF button, or keeping the Shutter button half-pressed, will trigger either a phase detection AF cycle (with a brief interruption to the live view stream), or a contrast detection cycle. The latter is rather slower, and hence only suited to static subjects but can be more accurate, depending on the subject type. The autofocus mode is locked to single whenever Focus Check live view is active. Pressing the Enlarge button then cycles through 7x or 14x magnified views, useful for confirming accuracy of or adjusting manual focus. Grid lines can also be overlaid on the display to help in precise alignment of the scene. The sensitivity range for contrast detection autofocusing is -2 EV to 16 EV at ISO 100 equivalent, using an F1.4 lens.
Movies. Also new to the Sony A560 is its movie recording capability, fast becoming a common function even among entry-level DSLRs, and an absolute must-have feature for an enthusiast camera. Sony has provided three choices for movie resolution, recorded in one of two formats. For high definition fans, there's a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel, interlaced AVCHD mode, saved at 59.97 fields per second with a bit rate of 17Mbps -- commonly known as Full HD or 1080i. Note, though, that the interlaced stream is actually constructed from sensor data clocked at 29.97 frames per second. There's also a 1,440 x 1,080 pixel, progressive scan, 12 Mbps MP4 mode recorded at 29.97 frames per second, which qualifies as high definition, although it uses a non-standard pixel size. Finally, there's a standard-def 640 x 480 pixel, 3Mbps MP4 mode which is also recorded at 29.97 frames per second. All these field/frame rates are applicable to cameras with NTSC video output. For PAL cameras, the 1080i mode uses 50 fields per second from sensor data clocked at 25 frames per second, and lower resolutions are also recorded at 25fps.
The A550's Smart Teleconverter button, which simply cropped the image when shooting at lower resolutions, has been abandoned in favor of a new dedicated Movie button, which starts and stops recording with consecutive presses. Like many video-capable DSLRs, the Sony A560 provides no direct manual control over video exposure, with the ISO sensitivity, shutter speed and aperture all selected automatically, regardless of the operating mode currently selected on the Mode dial. A degree of control is available during video capture through the auto exposure lock and exposure compensation functions, however, and variables such as white balance and creative styles can be set before video capture commences. It's also not possible to use autofocus during movie recording, so pulling focus manually is your only option.
Movie audio is recorded using a built-in stereo microphone, whose two tiny four-hole grilles can be found directly in front of the flash hot shoe, at the base of the popup flash. The A560 also accepts an external stereo microphone, thanks to a 3.5mm microphone input behind a rubber panel on the left side of the body. Directly above this is a three-hole grille for the A560's internal, monaural speaker. It's also possible to disable audio recording altogether, if desired.
Modes. The Sony A560 includes Auto, Program, Aperture- and Shutter-priority, and Manual shooting modes plus Sweep Panorama, Scene, and Flash Off modes. Unusually for a camera at this price point, the A560's Program mode lacks a Program Shift function, which would allows selection of different shutter speed / aperture combinations while maintaining the metered exposure -- an oversight shared with the previous A550 model.
The Sweep Panorama mode is has appeared in Sony's Cyber-shot and NEX-series cameras previously, and is now making its debut in an Alpha DSLR. The function, automatically captures numerous images as the A560 is panned across the scene, and then stitches the result in-camera to create a single seamless image. Both 2D and 3D modes are offered, with the latter mode separately considering the relative positions of subjects as they pass the left and right side of the frame, and then using this information to render separate images with left and right views. The result is saved as a multi picture object (MPO) file, containing both images with JPEG compression. This multi-picture file can be viewed in 3D displays such as Sony's latest Bravia 3D HDTVs. 2D Sweep Panoramas can be created at resolutions up to 12,416 x 1,856 pixels horizontally, or 2,160 x 5,536 pixels vertically. 3D Sweep Panoramas can only be captured horizontally, and with a maximum resolution of 7,152 x 1,080 pixels.
The selection of Scene modes, which help beginners get the results they desire with a minimum of effort, are now all accessed from a single position on the Mode dial. A total of eight Scene modes are available -- one more than in the previous A550 model -- and these include Portrait, Sports Action, Macro, Landscape, Sunset, Night View, Hand-held Twilight, and Night Portrait. Previously seen in Sony's NEX and Cyber-shot series cameras, the Hand-held Twilight mode captures multiple shots at high sensitivity, and then combines them in-camera to create a single image with reduced blur from camera shake. Available shutter speeds from the Sony A560's electronically controlled, vertical travel focal plane shutter range from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, plus a bulb mode, and flash sync is available at 1/160 second.
Metering. The Sony A560 uses a 40-segment honeycomb-patterned SPC sensor to determine exposures in all modes except for Quick AF Live View and Focus Check Live View modes, where the secondary image sensor can be used to provide for more accurate 1,200-zone evaluative metering.
Metering modes available in the Sony A560 include Multi-segment, Center-weighted, and Spot. 2.0 EV of exposure compensation is available in 1/3 EV steps, and the Sony A560 also allows for three-shot bracketed exposures in 0.3 or 0.7 EV steps. White balance modes include Auto, six presets (Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, or Flash), and manual white balance -- including the ability to specify a color temperature. Three-frame white balance bracketing is also available, with two strength levels possible.
User interface. The Sony A560 retains Sony's excellent menu system largely unchanged, except for the addition of two new tabs, covering storage and clock settings, respectively. The Sony A560 also retains the A550's Function menu, with simple icons that line the screen left and right. The A560's Playback mode adopts the newer design from Sony's NEX-series single-lens direct view cameras, which is peculiar in that you can't review both images and videos at the same time. Playback confines the list of available items to whatever you shot last. That is, if you've been shooting stills and movies, and the last thing you shot was a still, when you press the Playback button you'll only see still images. To see movies, you have to switch to Movie mode and shoot a quick movie. You can also hit the Menu button, select the Playback menu item, and scroll down to Still/Movie Select, press that menu item, then select between Still and Movie on a separate screen.
Sony's user-friendly Help Guide Display is active by default, and shows a brief explanation as the Mode dial is turned, or when the active menu selection is changed. To reinforce the message for operating modes, Sony has added vivid example pictures that appear in the background of the A560's operating mode Help Guide displays, indicating for example that Manual mode might be appropriate for fireworks photos, and shutter priority to blur motion in a waterfall. In menus, a short time after the current selection is changed, a brief explanation of the newly highlighted item fades into view. You press the center button to make your selection, and you're taken to a submenu where the same basic help menu helps you understand the meaning of each item in plain text. When you're sufficiently versed on the controls (or sufficiently annoyed with the Help Guide Display) you can turn it off in Settings menu 1.
Flash. The Sony A560's built-in popup flash has a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, and 18mm coverage. Flash modes include Auto, Fill, Slow-sync, and Rear-sync, and 2.0 EV of flash exposure compensation is available in 0.3 EV steps. An intelligent hot shoe is compatible with Sony's HVL-F36AM, HVL-F42AM, HVL-F56AM, and HVL-F58-AM strobes, and high-speed sync / wireless flash are available with these units. Flash metering modes include ADI (Advanced Distance Integration) and Pre-flash TTL, and the internal flash has a recycle time of under four seconds.
Auto HDR. Like the A550 before it, the Sony A560 includes an unusual HDR mode. High Dynamic Range photos are created by combining three shots of varying exposure (versus two for its predecessor), allowing a greater dynamic range than can be captured in a single exposure.
The interactive animation above, from our Sony A550 preview, shows how Auto HDR works on the A550. Just click on the link to open the animation, then work the controls. Animation courtesy of Sony Electronics USA.
Sony's HDR mode captures two shots with anywhere from 1 to 6 EV between the exposures, set in 1 EV increments -- double the overall range of the A550, but with half the granularity, plus a third image at nominal exposure. An Auto HDR mode selects the appropriate range and step size automatically, depending on the range of brightness detected within the scene. The Sony A560 can also micro-align the source images in-camera, which means handheld HDR shooting is possible, and the stitching process requires only two seconds of processing per HDR image.
DRO. The Sony A560 also includes Sony's optional D-Range Optimizer function, which works from a single shot and hence isn't limited to static subjects. A function of Sony's BIONZ processor, D-Range Optimizer can function automatically or in one of five manual strength levels, and adjusts the tone curve to avoid blown highlights and blocked shadows.
Creative Styles. The Sony A560's Creative Style function offers six pre-defined creative image styles, which adjust image tonality, saturation, and contrast. Creative Style modes include Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, and B&W, and these can be fine-tuned to the user's preferences.
Continuous shooting. Burst shooting is possible at five frames per second when using the optical viewfinder. When in Live View mode, this is reduced to three frames per second -- a full frame per second slower than in the A550. A Speed Priority burst mode locks exposure and focus from the first frame, which allows an impressive seven frames per second when using either the viewfinder or Live View mode.
Burst depth is also significantly reduced since the A550. The Sony A560 is limited to approximately seven Raw frames in a burst, half as many as the A550. The decrease isn't as severe when shooting in Large / Fine JPEG mode, where the buffer depth falls from 32 to 27 frames. Hardest hit is the Large / Standard JPEG mode, where burst depth is slashed from 116 images to just 47. Interestingly, when shooting in Raw+JPEG mode, burst depth is unchanged at seven frames.
Storage. The Sony A560 can store images as Sony ARW 2.2-format Raw or EXIF 2.3-compliant JPEG files, with both formats using newer versions of their respective specification than in the A550. The A560 is also able to save each image in both formats simultaneously. Both sRGB and Adobe RGB color spaces are available. Images are stored on Secure Digital cards including the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types, or on Sony's own Memory Stick PRO Duo or PRO-HG Duo cards. A small switch is used to select the active card.
Ports. The Sony A560 includes an HDMI Type-C mini connector which allows display of images on high-definition displays (though no cable is included), as well as USB 2.0 High-Speed computer connectivity. One slight change here is that Sony seems to have dropped PictBridge support, which enabled earlier Alpha cameras to be connected directly to a PictBridge-compliant printer, allowing creation of prints without removing the memory card or using a computer. Composite video output is also not provided. There's also a remote port for the optional RM-S1AM or RM-L1AM Remote Commanders, a 3.5mm jack for an external stereo microphone, and a DC input jack for use with an optional AC adapter.
Sony Alpha A560 Field Test
by Carl Garrard
Overview. Sony's Alpha A560 represents their second traditional DSLR model to receive an incremental upgrade treatment, and also the second to sport any kind of video. The Sony A560 is effectively replacing the Alpha A500 DSLR in Sony's lineup and comes with it a host of improvements of the body's exterior handing and a list of cool extra features.
Features like Multi-Frame Noise Reduction, Sweep Panorama, Hand Held Twilight, a Dual Axis Digital Level Gauge, and Focus Check Live View (which replaces Manual Focus Check Live View) are fun and useful. With the following additions, such as a Depth Of Field Preview button, The Two Second Timer Mirror Lock Up, Release w/out Lens menu option, and upgraded 15 point Auto Focus system w/three double cross sensors, the Sony A560 gave me the impression of a much more aggressive and refined mid-range DSLR offering.
Note: There are a couple of items worth mentioning about the units that Sony provided for review. Both cameras were focusing soft when using phase detection autofocus at wide-angle. I confirmed by switching to contrast detect autofocus during focus check live view with each camera and got sharper results. My personal retail purchased A580 doesn't have this issue, however. Overall the problem proved intermittent and inconsistent with both bodies, so it's hard to say if this is an isolated case or not. It's doubtful the autofocus issue will be a production unit issue but it's worth mentioning all the same.
Handling. Weighing in at about 24.5 ounces (695g) with a battery and two memory cards installed, the Sony A560 is by no means a heavy DSLR, but its no featherweight either. Weight seems to fall right where it should be considering where the A560 is placed in Sony's line up: a mid-range DSLR with a mid-range heft. It's very nice actually. My hand never tired holding the Sony A560 with a small to decent sized lens for extended periods of time while shooting with it. Volume wise, the Sony A560 is a chunky DSLR, but about the same size as competitors. I don't find the Sony A560's size too objectionably large at all, though other IR staff found it a little thick. For Alpha users who own any of the Sony A100/200/300 series DSLRs, the A560 is just slightly larger than these models, but you'll hardly notice it.
Attention was mainly given to redesigning the Power switch and Shutter release button, the Control dial, and the size and position of additional buttons on the top/and top right rear side of the camera. Because of these changes the Sony A560 operates in a much more fluid and functional manner. Handling is very important to me, controls ought to be placed in areas of the utmost priority based on the frequency of their use, and Sony has done an excellent job improving the handling interface of the A560 compared to its predecessor. The noticeably larger and slightly more angled front Control dial of the Sony A560 is easier to find and operate and is far enough away from the Power switch for almost no accidental tripping. Kudos, Sony.
Top left of the A560, the Mode dial improvements also help handling. The dial is higher off the body, has a springier action, and has a bit more tension to resist accidental mode changes. It is better organized for the enthusiast photographer, too: All of the Scene modes but Sweep Panorama have been organized under the SCN setting. Quick and easy.
And rounding things out, the addition of the Depth of Field Preview button on the front right side of the Sony A560, dedicated movie button, larger and raised EV (-/+) and AEL buttons, and smoother sliding AF/MF and Live View/OVF switches round out the improvements and handling changes to the exterior of the A560. All of these changes do make a quantifiable difference.
Sometimes it's the little things in life that make us most happy and I am pleased with how the A560 handles, all of the small improvements come together in concert with one another. In a way operating a camera is like using a musical instrument: you play better with it if everything you need is within easy reach and is second nature to control. I give the A560 a high score in this department.
Look and Feel. Although the exterior finish of a DSLR has little impact on the overall handling, the more durable finish of the Sony A560 means less worry about fine scratches plaguing your investment and lets you think more about shooting instead; plus it just looks a lot nicer. I prefer the all-black, more durable/professional looking finish of the Sony A560 and worried much less about scratching this model while shooting than I did with the camera it replaces.
The Sony A560's grip is mid-sized with a slight bias towards smaller hands. No doubt this is to appeal to a wider range of buyers. Supple and curvaceous are words that describe the A560's grip best yet there's a nice large indentation for the middle finger to keep the camera extra secure. In fact, only two digits are really needed to hold the A560 securely- the thumb and middle finger. This frees the forefinger to actuate main control wheel/on/off switch/drive/iso/focus-check live view without having to reposition your grip during the process. A nice layout, easy to use.
Build Quality. The Sony A560 is very similar in build to the A500/550 with the main difference being the finish, yet there are some small refinements in other areas worth noting as well. For example, the doors that house the Mic/Remote/USB and HDMI ports are a bit easy to open and close and seem to snap shut nicer. Buttons and switches seem to operate smoother and with more refined tolerances (no wiggling etc.) and are a bit snappier as well. There is less rattling inside the camera that I experienced with the A500/550 DSLRs that undoubtedly was caused by Sony's Quick Auto Focus Live View mechanisms.
Overall the Sony A560 is improved in build compared to the model it replaces, but I did find one small issue worth mentioning that has to do with the grip. The slim sensor cover on the front of the grip causes some creaking when you squeeze the grip. It took me some time to isolate where the creak was coming from, but indeed this is the cause. I don't recall hearing any creaking in the grip with the A500/550 DSLRs so I don't know what Sony changed, but nevertheless it is worth reporting.
Optical Viewfinder. The Sony A560's viewfinder is similar to the size of viewfinder that we saw in the A100 DSLR, and falls slightly behind a couple of its competitors on the market in terms of magnification. The viewing area is 95% accurate and has a 0.8x magnification ratio. The LCD overlay that highlights each individual autofocus point was a nice touch. When set to the wide AF setting, often a cluster of autofocus points will light up inside letting the photographer know where the Sony A560 is focusing. If you set the Sony A560 to Spot or Local autofocusing, the center or autofocus point you select will light up red when focus is achieved. If you choose AF area focusing, only one of the 11 autofocus points shows at all, that being the one you select manually. It's a nice little system to use once you get the hang of it, mainly because you can remove many of the autofocus points with a setting change.
Keep in mind, though, that as soon as you remove the battery, the LCD overlay system requires power, and the viewfinder will go dim, and details will go soft. This is normal, and part of the tradeoff of having the LCD overlay. So if you want to practice framing without having the camera on, be sure to keep a charged battery loaded, preferably with a spare onhand.
Autofocus. Sony's A560 has a peppy and eager autofocus system. I find the in-body autofocus motor to be slightly quicker to focus than the SAM system on the kit lens, and it's also slightly quieter, depending on the lens you use. Continuous AF mode in good light does pretty well at keeping up with the action, very similar to the A700's performance in speed, tracking, and hit rates when using the more sensitive three center double cross sensors. The outer autofocus sensors aren't as reliable.
Focus Check Live View. This mode replaces Manual Focus Check Live view and now allows two focusing options: Contrast-detect autofocus with SAM and SSM branded lenses (that includes third party makers such as Sigma and Tamron), and phase-detection autofocus. A live luminescence histogram has also been added to the party, and makes "FCLV" a much much better tool than "MFCLV" as a result. This is a huge addition to the Sony A560's functionality. The Sony A560 is now a very powerful photographic live view tool that exceeds any of the competition's live view experience.
Image magnification is the same as the A500/550: 7x and 14x magnification for hyper accurate manual focusing. Getting accurate exposure, framing, and focus is quite easy with the A560's layout. Macro shooting is a blast in this mode. I found contrast-detect autofocus to be a tad slow, but it's very accurate.
HD Video. The Alpha A560 is Sony's first traditional DSLR to have full HD video capture. Granted, this comes without autofocus capability, but I still find it very useful. I've never been a big video guy--I'm more of a family-designated videographer; however, I find the ability to get big, high quality video files in my DSLR a nice touch. In use I wasn't bothered much by the lack of real-time autofocus. I guess I just don't miss the loud distracting sounds other DSLRs make during autofocusing.
I found the Sony A560's video implementation in Playback mode simple to operate and navigate. The built-in speaker doesn't really turn up loud enough during playback but this is pretty much par for the course on DSLRs I've used in the past. I didn't have to read the manual to figure out how to fast forward/rewind, turn up or down the volume or change folders back to still images after I was through watching the video. Pretty simple stuff. Note, though, that there are no in-camera editing tools for video.
Sweep Panorama. Here's a mode I had particular difficulty with. I find that it takes practice if you intend to get a clean image free of stitching or auto-aligning errors. Some scenes were just impossible to get with a perfectly clean final image and I gave up entirely. Either the camera cut off the last portion of the image leaving a section entirely black, or portions of the scene had stitching errors. Other scenes I could manage a clean shot eventually. I found that doing a practice sweep of my scene keeping the camera level and at a proper speed prior to making the final exposure helped matters greatly.
Multi-Frame Noise Reduction. Multi-Frame Noise Reduction is an ISO setting (it's not a Scene mode). The camera will automatically micro-align 6 simultaneous exposures accounting for some small hand shake movement. It is beneficial for static subjects only as a result. This is the trade-off relative to the rather wonderful advantage of low noise images you gain at every single ISO setting (yes even ISO 100 benefits as you'll soon see). I'm simply enamored by it. The fact that it also allows for some amount of handshake (due to auto-aligning of all six images during processing) means that I can handhold the camera and capture low noise high ISO images that would be throwaway images otherwise.
Sony claims a two stop advantage in lower noise at any given ISO setting. Getting keeper photographs up to ISO 12,800 is indeed quite possible. ISO 3,200 images look as nice as ISO 400 single exposure images in my opinion, noise and detail wise.
Handheld Twilight. Although this Scene mode is largely automatic, I find it does exactly as its name advertises, and does quite a good job at that. My only quibble with it is that it defaults to selecting a very low aperture value (as low as it can go) to compensate for low light, instead of raising ISO values higher to compensate for light loss. It only seems to raise the ISO value if it needs too.
Niggles aside, the mode works quite well and is great for a quickie capture when you don't have time to think or adjust settings that much. I actually ended up liking it the more I used it--it's convenient for a quick grab. If I have time to make adjustments, it's time to use the superior (in just about every way) Multi-Frame Noise Reduction ISO setting. The samples clearly show the benefits.
Advanced DRO. Sony's Advanced DRO calculates about 4,000 different areas of the scene in order to make single exposure images look as natural as possible. As the name implies it is adjustable in 5 steps. This is a mode best used at lower ISOs because shadow areas end up suffering more noise as you raise the ISO value and strength setting of DRO+. Auto DRO is much like the A100's version, nearly useless in comparison, but it does make some slight noticeable differences to the scene with a bias towards preserving highlight detail. Its main advantage is that it can be used with moving subjects, unlike the two previous modes I just discussed. It's a handy tool.
Auto HDR. This is your tool for extreme lighting circumstances, and quite a powerful tool it is. Considerably more powerful than Advanced DRO. I found it best used when you use multi-segment metering to avoid biasing toward highlights or shadows when making an exposure reading.
Instead try to lock your exposure with fairly even metering of highlights and shadows (a centered histogram reading in other words). Rarely have I found a scene that requires the full six-stop setting to compensate for lighting extremes. Its like having six graduated ND filters built right into the camera. Pretty cool and nearly flawless, except that anything moving in the frame will have odd edges and ghost-like patterns as a result of the stacking. Lowered noise is another benefit of Auto HDR.
Speed Priority Shooting. With the A560's buffer and 7 frames per second Speed Priority shooting, it's quite the sports shooting camera as long as you aren't tracking a single object at high speeds and shoot JPEGs only.
I find its buffer will handle only a few RAW files before the camera stops to write. After trying some actual real-life photography in this mode, I'm convinced it certainly has its place. If you want constant focusing and metering, the Sony A560 will still do 5 frames per second, which is still just as fast as Sony's highest-end DSLR, the A900, and plenty for most circumstances.
Exposure. Sony's 40 Segment Metering (in OVF mode) has gone unchanged since it first appeared in the A100 back in 2006. It has been used every DSLR since then (less the SLT models of course), and therefore I am intimately familiar with it. The A560 exhibits the same tendencies as all the other Alpha cameras do. You can count on Multi-Segment metering to slightly underexpose with evenly divided lighting by about -0.3EV, slightly over expose when a scene is dominated by shadows by about 0.3-0.6EV, and under expose scenes dominated by highlights by about 0.7-1.0 EV. Overall it is a pretty accurate and consistent metering system in my experience.
White Balance. Auto White Balance on Sony DSLRs first received refined treatment on the A230/330 and A380 DSLRs. In my experience with the A560 I found it will do a pretty accurate color job overall outdoors with a slight bias towards cooler temperatures. While indoors the Sony A560's performance has more trouble, emphasizing a much warmer temperature than it should. As long as you use the presets in the correct conditions, these settings are more reliable than Auto White Balance. In this aspect Sony has done a good job here. Use Focus Check Live View to dial in your white balance instead of Quick Auto Focus Live View and you'll get a more accurate color reading as you change your white balance settings to match your scene.
Battery Life. Does it ever die? That's a question I've yet to answer practically. Seriously though, the Sony A560 and A580 are hands down the most efficient DSLRs that Sony has made yet. Even without restricting my use of Live View, the A560 seemed to keep on going like the Energizer Bunny. If you are the type to strictly use only the optical viewfinder you'll get even longer life out of the battery. CIPA's rating of 1,050 shots seems conservative when using the camera in real life. One good charge should last for a full weekend of shooting with minimal power management.
Sony A560 Image Quality
Most digital SLRs will produce a great ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do at ISO 1,600 and 3,200. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. Both 1,600 and 3,200 are great for indoor and other low light shooting, but it's how much noise and noise suppression affect image color and detail that we're most concerned with, and why we make the crops we do.
Sony A560 versus Canon T2i at ISO 1,600
Sony A560 at ISO 1,600
Canon T2i at ISO 1,600
Sony A560 versus Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600
Sony A560 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600
Sony A560 versus Pentax K-r at ISO 1,600
Sony A560 at ISO 1,600
Pentax K-r at ISO 1,600
Sony A560 versus Sony A33 at ISO 1,600
Sony A560 at ISO 1,600
Sony A33 at ISO 1,600
Sony A560 versus Sony NEX-5 at ISO 1,600
Sony A560 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-5 at ISO 1,600
Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.
Sony A560 versus Canon T2i at ISO 3,200
Sony A560 at ISO 3,200
Canon T2i at ISO 3,200
Sony A560 versus Nikon D5000 at ISO 3,200
Sony A560 at ISO 3,200
Nikon D5000 at ISO 3,200
Sony A560 versus Pentax K-r at ISO 3,200
Sony A560 at ISO 3,200
Pentax K-r at ISO 3,200
Sony A560 versus Sony A33 at ISO 3,200
Sony A560 at ISO 3,200
Sony A33 at ISO 3,200
Sony A560 versus Sony NEX-5 at ISO 3,200
Sony A560 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-5 at ISO 3,200
Detail: Sony A560 vs Canon T2i, Nikon D5000, Pentax K-r, Sony A33 and Sony NEX-5
Sony A560 Print Quality
ISO 200 shots soften a bit at 20x30, looking better at 16x24 inches.
ISO 400 images look quite good at 16x24 inches, though detail in our red leaf swatch starts to soften.
ISO 800 gets a little softer at 16x24 inches, but maintains good detail, with only slight luminance noise in the shadows.
ISO 1,600 is a little too soft for 16x24, but looks quite good at 13x19 inches.
ISO 3,200 images look a little smudgy at 13x19, with a slight yellow tinge around the shadows. Printing at 11x14 improves the detail and noise, but that yellow tinge remains.
ISO 6,400 looks poor at 11x14, but comes back together at 8x12, with some noise in the shadows, but the chroma noise is reduced and saturation pumped just a bit.
ISO 12,800 are way too noisy and blotchy at 8x12, looking more like a sand painting; reduce resolution to 5x7 and they look like a different image, with very usable detail and good color.
Overall, the Sony A560 looks quite good at every ISO, starting out at 20x30, but requiring a size reduction sooner than the A580 did. In the end, though, their highest ISO setting still produced an impressive quality 5x7-inch print. Quite usable at every ISO setting, which is as good an outcome as one could desire.
In the Box
- Sony Alpha A560 body
- NP-FM500H battery pack
- BC-VM10 charger
- AC cord
- USB cord
- Camera strap
- Eyepiece cover
- Body cap
- Extra battery pack for extended outings
- Large capacity Memory Stick Duo PRO or SDHC/SD memory card. These days, 4-8GB cards are inexpensive.
- Camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection
Sony A560 Conclusion
Sony has taken the steps necessary to make a compelling digital SLR for the enthusiast in the continued absence of a replacement for the A700. Though some of us thought it was a little thick front to back, there's no denying that the Sony A560 is a formidable camera, with a faster live view autofocus mode than anything else on the market.
The Depth of Field Preview button is also an important inclusion, heretofore conspicuously absent from the A200, A300, and A500 Alpha models, and its return is welcome. Slick tricks like Sweep Panorama and Handheld Twilight are quite useful modes that have worked their way up from Sony's pocket cameras, then into the NEX series, and are now found in the new SLT line and both the A560 and A580. The Sony A560 looks like a good choice for the intermediate photographer who wants to try some of Sony's helpful features with the improved image quality we first saw in the Sony NEX cameras.
We've broken down the test results on the Image Quality and Optics pages, where we also show conversions from RAW, white balance performance, color, flash, and how the various special modes like HDR and DRO perform. Be sure to check those out. Auto white balance is a little warm in tungsten lighting, but that's not uncommon among SLRs, unfortunately.
The Sony A560's image quality is quite good, using the same sensor used in the NEX cameras, which frankly blew us away with their high ISO performance. Its JPEG images are capable of outputting excellent 20x30-inch prints from ISO 100 to 400, and ISO 800 and 1,600 shots look good at 16x24, which is really remarkable.
All told, the Sony A560 impressed us as a quality digital SLR camera with plenty of speed and very high image quality, making it a Dave's Pick.
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