Sony A58 Field Test
Sony A58 Field Test
by Jason Schneider, with Dave Pardue | Posted: 08/16/2013
The new Sony Alpha A58 is something of a 'tweener. It is, by default, the company's entry-level APS-C DSLR. At the same time, it offers a ton of photographic capabilities that would also appeal to enthusiast shooters. As such, it sits in a unique position in a fiercely competitive sector of the camera marketplace, replete with formidable rivals from the likes of Canon, Nikon and Pentax.
With the A58, Sony devised a camera that delivers virtually all of the high-tech features built into the enthusiast-targeted, 16.1-megapixel Sony SLT-A57 and the consumer-friendly, entry-level SLT-A37 -- plus a number of significant technological upgrades -- at an enticing price. What they came up with is an ingenious strategy, and a remarkably adept camera that delivers impressive value for both beginners and serious photographers alike. The Sony A58 is a lot more than a so-called "price point" camera.
Full disclosure: I own a Sony A57, so going into the review I was both excited by the new model, but also skeptical of what it might leave out. Let's take a look at how the Sony A58 stood up to such expectations.
Design. The A58 is nearly identical in size, weight and form to the recently discontinued A57, and its control array is quite similar except that the positions of two control buttons have been reversed -- the Digital Zoom button is now more conveniently located atop the camera behind the shutter button collar and the Exposure Compensation button is on the sloping rear deck, next to the AEL button. The Exposure Compensation button also magnifies the displayed image in Playback mode, while the AEL button reduces the magnification.
|In comparison: Sony A57 vs. Sony A58|
|Sony A57 top deck|
|Sony A58 top deck|
The mode dial to the left of the hot shoe has dropped the 3D setting which is no longer supported, in favor of Picture Effects which gives you access to the A58's eleven creative effect modes: Toy Camera, Pop Color, Posterization (Color or B&W), Retro Photo, Soft High-key, Partial Color (Red, Blue, Green or Yellow), High Contrast Monochrome, Soft Focus, HDR Painting, Rich-tone Monochrome, and Miniature.
The Tele-zoom Continuous Advance Priority mode now has a small "8" inscribed in the multi-frame icon, rather than a "12", denoting its reduced maximum framing rate. It also has a stronger 2x crop and a reduced resolution, compared to the equivalent mode on the A57.
Note that the 2x crop must be combined with the 1.5x crop of the image sensor. Hence, when shooting in Tele-zoom mode you have a 3x crop. The bundled DT 18-55mm lens is, effectively, a 54-165mm lens in this mode.
Other external differences worth noting: The A58 has a 2.7-inch 460k-dot LCD which tilts down 55 degrees and up 135 degrees, in place of the A57's 3-inch, 921k-dot tilt/swivel LCD. There's also a single contact standard metal hot shoe, in place of the narrower dedicated Sony/Minolta multi-contact hot shoe on the A57, and the A58's lens mount is fabricated of industrial plastic instead of stainless steel.
Sensor, processor and other key tech changes. It's clear that Sony had to shave a few bucks in production costs here and there to be able to offer the A58 at a street price of about $600, complete with an updated DT 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM II lens. By way of comparison, the A57 sold for about $800 when it was first introduced. Nevertheless, for most users, the technological upgrades in the A58 should more than make up for any deletions. These include a new 20.1-megapixel Exmor HD APS-C sensor (up from 16.1 megapixels on the A57 and A37) and an SVGA (1,440k-dot) OLED Tru-Finder EVF that -- based on my observations -- displays a wider color gamut and more subtle and accurate color gradations than the non-OLED Tru-Finder in the A57, along with the same impressive detail.
On the downside, since the A58 has the same BIONZ image processor as the A57 but upgraded resolution -- and thus, larger files sizes -- it delivers a reduced burst shooting rate of 5 frames per second. That's not terrible for an entry-level camera, though it is a compromise. Many savvy buyers may be turned off by the plastic lens mount, but it doesn't worry me that much. After all, many manufacturers have been using industrial-strength plastic mounts on lenses for years, and they're pretty sturdy and reliable in my opinion. Still, it's something to consider.
Perhaps the biggest sacrifice in terms of performance is the loss of Full HD movie recording at a 60p frame rate. But considering the A58 is bridging the gap between entry-level and mid-level models, it's not surprising, and the DSLR does still deliver 1080p video at 60i and 24p. Good video, at that. It's more important to me (and likely most still photography shooters) that the camera retained the 15-point continuous AF with three cross-type AF sensors from the mid-level A57. And that it still has multi-frame noise reduction, Handheld Twilight mode and other key features.
Handling. The Sony A58 handles very well. The fairly light, moderately-sized polycarbonate body is nicely contoured, and fits comfortably even in my smallish hands. The camera feels very solid and well balanced with the standard 18-55mm zoom, and also with the 18-135mm and 200mm lenses I mounted for comparison.
The handgrip is ideally shaped to wrap your fingers around for a secure grip. It's enhanced by an index-finger notch, a soft-textured leather-like covering, and a nicely contoured thumb rest on the back. The smooth light-touch shutter release, surrounding on-off collar, and various control buttons are sensibly positioned and clearly labeled so operation is generally intuitive and doesn't require a steep learning curve.
Sub-menu settings in the Menu or Function menus can easily be navigated and set using either the four-way toggle control and central AF/Enter button on the back, or by sliding your index finger forward to the Control Dial directly in front of the shutter release at the top of the grip. Press the ISO button and you can select manual ISO settings from ISO 100 to ISO 16,000 using either method, and lock in your setting by pressing the AF/Enter button.
I found Auto ISO a very convenient setting for shooting active subjects in rapidly changing light, and there's a second Auto ISO setting that provides multi-frame noise reduction when shooting at high ISOs. I found it to be quite effective in capturing crisp, low-noise images of stationary subjects in low light, but NR is obviously not what you want for shooting action.
EVF and LCD. The viewing system is one of the A58's most appealing features. The 100% view, high-res Organic LED electronic viewfinder is superb; I think it's the closest thing to a first-class optical viewfinder you're likely to experience in a camera of this class. Of course, it also delivers the EVF's advantages of being able to display a brighter viewing image in low light, and to preview exposure and effects changes.
The EVF's fast refresh rate means no smearing when following action subjects, and it's adjustable for individual eyesight over a wider-than-normal +/- 4 diopter range by turning a conveniently placed knurled dial at the right of the eyepiece. By turning the Finder/LCD setting to Auto, the viewing image will automatically appear on the EVF when you raise the camera to your eye and move down to the LCD when you lower the camera to observe the LCD monitor. You can also switch it manually by pressing the Finder/LCD button atop the camera.
While the 2.7-inch LCD isn't quite as large or as hi-res as the one in the A57 -- and it doesn't swivel -- for me, these things are relatively insignificant in actual use, unless you like to take "selfies" or habitually use the LCD to assess magnified images on the fly. I found that it's actually easier and more effective to do the latter using the EVF because of its higher resolution and superior color accuracy. In any case, the LCD monitor is decent; it was usually viewable and usable in bright, sunlit conditions.
The 15-point AF system with three cross-type sensors helps make the Sony A58 fast and decisive for real-world street shooting, even at higher ISOs.
Performance. I found the Sony A58 to be a very responsive photographic tool in almost all respects. Startup and mode switching times were sluggish, but these aren't as important measures as autofocusing speed in my opinion. The camera autofocuses and fires very rapidly even in low light, and with most low-contrast subjects, its shutter lag is practically non-existent. I mostly used Spot AF, which is the way I normally shoot, but I also tried Wide AF mode and found it to be very effective in focusing accurately and swiftly on my intended subject.
Sony claims the new 18-55mm SAM II kit lens focuses faster and more quietly than its predecessor, and in my field testing I indeed found it slightly quicker and definitely quieter to use, the latter a real plus when I shot a few Full HD 1080p video clips at 60i. Our lab testing, however, showed that the lens was soft in the corners, and exhibited significant barrel distortion at wide angle. Overall, I guess, the 18-55mm is just a run-of-the-mill kit lens. It automatically comes with the camera -- you can't buy the A58 body-only -- but your photography is going to be better served by purchasing a better Sony Alpha mount lens or two. The bundled lens simply doesn't extract the potential of the image sensor.
In combination with its excellent EVF, shooting action subjects with the A58 gives you the uncanny sensation of grabbing images out of the air, and part of this is no doubt due to the camera's impressive AF tracking ability and its three central cross-type AF sensor. I found these cross-type sensors focused accurately and swiftly with subjects having vertical, horizontal, or oblique line patterns. No AF system is perfect of course, but when manual focus was required or desired, I simply moved the switch on the side of the lens from AF to MF and turned the front lens ring, which has a soft rubberized surface to provide a good grip. With its exquisite detail and brightness, manual focusing via the EVF was easy and satisfying.
Although it's a characteristic common to all current Sony Alpha cameras which use Translucent Mirror Technology, it's worth noting that the A58 provides full-time phase-detection AF before, during and after the actual exposure. This results in faster, more decisive AF that's particularly noticeable when shooting HD video and bursts of stills in continuous mode. This not only results in sharper images of moving subjects at the camera's top full-res burst rate of 5 fps, but also at the 8 fps burst rate in Tele-Zoom Continuous Priority, albeit with a 2X crop factor (3x, once the sensor crop is taken into account), and at just five megapixel resolution.
Another performance improvement is the Sony A58's battery life. It lasts about 690 shots per charge, which I can tell you first-hand is much better than the A57. (About 140 shots per charge, according to the CIPA ratings.) That's a huge life saver when you're on an extended shoot, or are on a trip and you can't pay much attention to such things.
Overall, I was very satisfied with the performance of the A58. It delivers very good image quality in JPEG mode, with very low noise at ISOs ranging from 100 to 800 and reasonably good image quality at higher ISOs. Most of the images I shot at ISO 3200 and 6400 showed good detail, a slight decrease in color saturation, and moderate noise depending on lighting and subject contrast. With a few low-contrast, backlit subjects I shot in low light at ISO 3200 and 6400, digital grain was fairly high although the pattern was tight enough not to be objectionable for most uses. And if you shoot raw files, there's even more to be extracted from the A58's image sensor, although the step between raw and JPEG isn't as dramatic as with some cameras.
With a higher pixel density than the A57, the 20.1-megapixel A58 might be expected to exhibit lower image quality at ISO settings of 1600 and higher, but the difference is not very pronounced based on my observations, and the increase in image detail at lower ISOs was gratifying. Perhaps this is attributable to the magic of imaging software. I would rate the camera's high ISO performance as good, if not outstanding. It is certainly equal or superior to many of its entry-level competitors, but I wouldn't rate it in the same class as enthusiast-level DSLRs or full-frame prosumer models.
Exposure and metering. I found exposure accuracy of the A58 to be commendable, and decidedly better than average for its class. I mostly used the multi-segment metering pattern that's easily selectable via the Function button, and occasionally used the spot pattern with high-contrast subjects or when correct exposure of a particular detail was important. Both modes worked flawlessly, and I was impressed with the camera's ability to deliver accurate overall exposures even with severely backlit subjects in multi-segment metering mode.
I tried the Smile/Face Detection mode with children and adults, both alone and in pairs, and it too worked very well. Face Registration also works as advertised based on my limited field experience. The latter provides a convenient way to get consistently sharp images of a particular person in a group, especially if they're all moving around.
Features. Other features which may not be unique to the A58 but were nonetheless appreciated included White Balance bracketing, which is great for shooting active subjects under mixed light sources, as well as a full range of creative Picture Effect modes. I particularly liked HDR Painting, which yields painterly effects, Pop Color (which makes colors pop), and Posterization. This last is very cool but, in my opinion, a little over the top for most people pictures. I didn't have a suitably-scenic vista to show off the auto Panorama stitching mode, but I can confirm that it works and it does let you choose the panning direction.
Note that none of these in-camera effects will work when the camera is set for RAW or RAW+JPEG image quality; you have to shoot them at the Fine JPEG setting.
Sony A58 Picture Effect Modes
Partial Color (red)
One feature that did not work as well as I expected is Auto Object Framing, which is supposed to provide two images; the one you composed and a better-composed alternative image based on in-camera rule-of-thirds algorithms. In most cases, when this feature was turned on, the alternative rectangle did not appear and only one image was recorded. Occasionally when I attempted a really lousy composition (e.g. putting the subject smack in the center of a horizontal frame) the larger green frame did appear on the screen and two shots were captured. The Auto Portrait Framing feature in the A57 seemed to work more predictably, but I'm not sure why. (Note as I did, though, that this feature does not work in either manual or auto NR mode.)
On the plus side, the excellent performance in Handheld Twilight mode more than made up for any of these deficiencies. It combines multiple images to capture a sharper, more vivid -- but still realistic image -- of the scene, and it performed better than expected when a car with its lights on moved into the frame. I expected a blur, but instead the camera chose one image of the moving car from the sequence and sharpened it.
The Sony A58's Handheld Twilight mode performs remarkably well, even with moving subjects.
DRO and HDR. The Sony A58 offers several ways to maximize dynamic range. The Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) works in single shot mode, and can be configured to Auto or set to individual levels (1-5) depending on your individual shooting preference. Below are examples of Auto and Level 5 and, as you can see, level 5 really works hard to try and achieve a well-balanced image, rendering good exposure to different areas. This comes at the expense of higher contrast in the image of course, but it's nice to know it's there when you need it for certain shots. Meanwhile, HDR mode shoots 3 images at differing exposures and combines them into one image, and below you can see an example of HDR mode in the auto setting.
|Sony A58 - HDR / DRO modes|
|DRO and HDR modes off||HDR (auto)|
|DRO (auto)||DRO (level 5)|
Video. While I talked earlier about how the Sony A58 sacrificed some video capabilities -- not being able to record at 60p frame rate as the A57 could -- it's still a very good movie-making machine.
Paired with the updated 18-55mm kit lens, it delivers relatively smooth and quiet video. And the A58's full-time continuous phase-detection AF works better in video than most competing cameras in its class. What's more, you can use full Program, Aperture- and Shutter-priority, or Manual controls to set movie exposure just how you want it.
1,920 x 1.080
Progressive, 24 fps, AVCHD, MTS format
Download Original (63.6 MB)
1,920 x 1.080
Progressive, 24 fps, AVCHD, MTS format
Download Original (50.2 MB)
Summary. Where the Sony A58 really shines is in delivering an impressive value in terms of features and performance per dollar. It's a great choice for beginners and enthusiasts alike who want a camera that provides a satisfying level of responsiveness, high image quality plus plenty of room to grow. When you consider that the A58 is offered at around $600 with Sony's latest 18-55mm SAM II zoom -- albeit not a lens that will derive nearly what the camera body is capable of -- you begin to realize how far we've come in the last few years with the quality of so-called entry-level models.
Despite some of the sacrifices Sony had to make to lower the cost, I'm thoroughly impressed with the A58 and its improved resolution, electronic viewfinder, and overall performance. In fact, I have to admit it's time to trade in my trusty A57!
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