What, then, has been added to the A380 relative to the A350?
The first addition involves subtraction. They have removed the remote control socket entirely, and you can no longer fit a corded remote. Instead, the A230/330/380 all use the same RMT-DSLR1 wireless remote release and playback controller that is supplied with the Alpha 700 and 900. That’s good news for us, we have two already. It’s not such good news for others, as the control is not provided with the camera and must be purchased as an optional accessory. I was able to order a neat little Jianisi Remote Control for Alpha from Hong Kong for £6 including postage, and it works well.
If you use a tripod, the new models feature an extra 10 second self-timer multi shot mode which does away with the need for a remote release in self or group portrait shots. A three or five shot set (not bracketed, all the same exposure) is taken at the standard motor-drive speed which is a standard 2.5fps for all three cameras (this is an improvement over the 2fps of the A350). The five shot set gives more time for people in a group to make silly faces or change pose. Three shots can catch random expressions but by the time you realise the camera is operating, the last shot is taken. But there is a caution. Many such pictures are taken at parties, or gatherings indoors. If you enable the 3 or 5 shot self timer, you disable the built-in flash entirely. The tiny battery of the new cameras would never be able to recycle the flash fast enough, especially at group distances (the official recycling time is 4 seconds). To use flash with this mode, you must attach an accessory gun. The camera can not tell whether direct or bounce flash is being used, so there is still some risk of losing pictures if you discharge the gun fully.
Cards and connections
A wide-angle shot of the live view shooting itself – with a self-portrait in the TV cabinet…
The new models are much improved for HDTV playback. They have a standard HDMI mini socket, similar to the A700 and A900, and are controllable via Bravia Sync when connected to a compatible Sony TV. The television remote control can then browse pictures on the camera’s memory cards, run slide shows with the facility to zoom and pan individual shots. Not only that, the Live View feeds directly to your TV complete with the LCD screen overlay (settings, focus points etc) and you can shoot with your TV as the monitor in place of the LV screen. Just like the LCD, after each shot you get a review mode, but this is provided at something resembling 720p resolution – it’s an HD preview, not the same modest resolution as the rear screen.
USB connectivity is improved by switching from a special USB connector to the standard mini USB used by most portable hard disks, card readers and similar devices. A cable is supplied. The old USB to video function, for feeding images to traditional televisions using a bunch of phono plugs, is gone.
Finally, the card compatibility leaves CompactFlash behind and switches over to a dual Memory Stick Pro Duo HG and SecureDigital HC choice (both high capacity – no problem with 4, 9, 16, 32GB cards). The slots are very close together and the card contacts must face in towards each other so you have to remember that SD and MS cards face in opposite directions when inserted. There is a switch to change between the cards, instead of Quick Navi menu-diving as found on the Alpha 900 and 700. It takes a second or so for the camera to make the change, and there is no automatic overflow or simultaneous RAW/JPEG recording option.
Given the very low price of memory in both the Sony MemoryStick Pro Duo and more widely used SD format, the necessary 2GB minimum needed for a reasonable number of shots works out cheaper than film. You really don’t need a portable storage device, or a card reader, with the A230-380 series. The standard mini USB connection enables the camera to act as a fast card reader.
The neat sliding door which covers the interfaces is a good design, and the only interface cover on the camera apart from an anchored, push-fit plastic cover on the right hand end for the AC adaptor input.
The smaller NP-FH50 (right) compared to the NP-FM500H (left) as used by the Alpha 200, 300, 350, 700 and 900 (also compatible with the Alpha 100 though that officially uses a slightly different cell).
The small NP-FH50 battery is only 900mAh compared to 1650mAh for the A350’s NP-FM500H. There is no percentage charge display, just a three-step graphic indicator.
Sony supply comprehensive literature with the camera. There is a proper printed manual, a system brochure and a lens brochure, a quick start guide, and even the box packaging has a panel suggesting some accessory purchases.
In the manual, it is made very clear that the A230-380 models are not dustproof, moisture proof or splashproof.
There are small changes to both the optical viewfinder and the rear LCD, both to allow a slightly slimmer body. The viewfinder eye relief at the -1.0 dioptre standard is reduced to a modest 19.7mm from the A350’s better than average 20.8mm (eyepiece glass to eye distance), and from viewfinder frame the difference is A380 14.1mm, A350 16.7mm. That is a 2.6mm change in the distance from the rubber surround for viewing the entire screen for a typical user. Comparing this with the Nikon D5000 at a tighter 17.9mm standard eyepoint (glass to eye), I found that the D5000 eyepiece is not as recessed or the surround is not as thickly padded, and the rear screen does not stick out so far (nose contact issue), making the Nikon more comfortable to view through despite tighter limits on where you can position your eye.
The rear LCD is claimed to be brighter, but I still found it difficult to use in sunshine. The new accessory hood might be advisable:
The articulated screen mechanism is tighter, packing the screen closer to the body, requiring a little more force to operate because it hinges from the screen centre. It allows a slightly better overhead view, but less angle range as a ‘waist level finder’, and keeps the screen closer to the body all the time. I immediately fitted my screen with a Fujifilm adhesive (slightly soft, not relying on firm glue) protector – pack of three for a small sum, seemed worthwhile.
Having used the Nikon D5000 with its rotate and tilt mechanism, I realise the A300/350/330/380 design is flawed – it offers no provision for vertical composition. You can view with the camera above your head but only for landscape compositions, and the same goes for waist or ground level use. I’ve used many cameras with live view, and with articulated screens – the Sony Cyber-shot DSC R-1 was one of the best ever designed. The A3xx series is one of the most basic solutions, it is not even possible to protect the screen by reversing it against the camera body. I regularly shoot with the D5000 and keep the screen folded away if I feel no need to ‘chimp’ or use live view. I don’t need a screen protector as it is always stored reversed.
My A380 kit body and lens was made in Japan. Latest deliveries worldwide are being made in Thailand.
The big question remains – is the image from the A380 a step up from the A350, with lower noise (easy), better dynamic range (difficult), better sharpness (difficult)?
There may be some very small differences present between my A350 and the A380, but they are not fundamental. They are the kind of differences you can also find between two identical DSLRs with different serial numbers. The A380 is a little more generous with exposure and also has a more realistic preview on the camera LCD in terms of colour balance. It’s a bit bright and I ended up reducing exposures when no compensation was needed.
A standard ISO 400 shot here – exposure 1/1600th at f/8 – can be viewed as processed from raw with no NR at all, and no sharpening. Normally I would use colour NR 50, luminance NR 25, and sharpening 25 in Adobe Camera Raw for this same setting. The SAL 70-300mm SSM G has focused very accurately at 200mm and the quality is visibly superior to the kit lens. The 2.5fps sequence shooting of the A380 is in no way suitable for sports shots. I timed most shots manually, single frame, for a whole set of tests on cricket using A380, A900 and A700. The A380 was not bad, but the much faster reaction time (delay) of the other cameras generally got the ball on the bat, just off it, or in-frame. Here the batsman deliberately missed the ball, seeing it was high and not heading for the wicket, and the wicket-keeper caught it.
As far as I can see, the output across the ISO range with and without NR (high ISO and long exposure) and with various DRO settings and JPEG adjustments is identical. There is no visible improvement and the A380 (at least) appears to use exactly the same sensor and in-camera processing as the A350. It is also certainly not worse. What I am pretty certain about is that Sony has not made any revision of the sensor, firmware or processing. Had they done so, no doubt claims would have been made for improved performance.
I mentioned the price at the start of this review. You can get a Canon EOS 500D or a Nikon D5000 with a more solidly built 18-55mm image stabilised lens for exactly the same £600 as the A380 with lightweight SAM 18-55mm. Those cameras both offer off-sensor live view, both have HD video filming, and the Nikon has a better articulated rear screen (Canon’s is just a normal plain fixed screen). They also both feel far more substantial and have more visible control functions. Added August 9th: I forgot, here, to say that if you are working with a good lens at ISO 100 the Alpha 380 is the best of these three for image quality, and the Alpha 350 is equal to it. Last week I was processing a stack of our daughter’s Alpha 350 shots for Alamy, and accidentally forgot to switch back from 25 megapixel upscaling after doing a tight crop/panorama which needed the larger size. The results were looking so sharp on-screen at 100% I did not notice I was creating files larger than the Alpha 900!
Maybe matching the video function of the Nikon and Canon is something Sony wanted to avoid, and the new models will capture technophobe upgraders. Even so, I feel I have just bought a £399 kit for £599 and it’s not a good feeling. I bought an A350 body for £300 in March and that was a real bargain. I bought a Nikon D5000 kit for £630 in May and felt it was good value for the new experience of HD video. Added August 9th: I’m not feeling quite as negative about the price after a bit more shooting. It’s rock solid on exposure and focus, at least with all lenses except my 500mm f/8 RF which it consistently back focuses.
Perhaps the price will fall rapidly but right now the A200, A300 and A350 are better buys for anyone already owning Alpha gear (same CF cards, same battery, charger etc). That’s the bottom line from the enthusiast/owner point of view. No doubt Sony’s market research tells them the real potential lies with those new to DSLRs. The 18-55mm lens is only weak towards the edges at 18-28mm, wide open. The reduction of colour fringing in JPEGs makes up for that. SAM is neither better nor worse than in-body drive.
We look forward to seeing what the full-frame Alpha 850 offers – whether it will have unchanged image quality from the 900 (same way the A380 is the same as the A350). Then there will be APS-C Alpha 500 and 550 models, with features not yet known. Many are hoping they don’t take the Alpha 700 and move it in the same direction the Alpha 380 (and 230, 330) have gone.
- David Kilpatrick