Wow, for those who know me, it’s a little less literary or imaginative title than I usually do, right ? There’s a reason for that. This post is a little different from my usual writing, as, being a gear review, it will probably draw about ten (100 ??) times as much traffic as my little blog routinely does.
So, my faithful readers (the handful that exists anyway, I have you in mind, Tracy, Laurent, Bek and a few others), please bear with me as I give this broader audience a little background on myself, though you guys are totally familiar with my ectic, compulsive and so far totally out of control camera bodies consumption.
Ok, you still want to know what I think of my just delivered Sony SLT A-58, but before I spill the beans, you have to understand what kind of gear I used before, to get a fair idea of my standards, both of build quality, responsiveness, user friendliness and ultimately, image quality. Well, the answer is very simple : of all digital SLRs released from 2002 (all makers considered) I believe there are fewer models that I did NOT own, borrowed or at least played with, than those I have. Particularly from Nikon and Canon only a few models escaped my scrutiny. Sony, however, was the exception. Aside from a Minolta DSLR (can’t remember whether it was the 5 or 7D) I never held anything resembling a Sony reflex camera until… about three weeks ago. Note that I had a BUNCH of NEX before that (so there is a definite knowledge of Sony here) and that I made up for the lost time pretty thoroughly by owning successively the A37, A57, and now A58, in that pretty short window of time. If you want my opinion on the 37 and 57 SLT cameras, please report to my previous posts of late June and early July.
So, briefly, what brought me to the A-58 camera ? Since going mirrorless in early 2012 (after shooting the fantastic Nikon D700 for over a year), I got totally addicted to the magic of full time Live View, on both the LCD screen and in th electronic viewfinder. Being able to see the impact of all your chosen parameters *before* you press the shutter is just amazingly useful to me. Since discovering that I’ve become an adept of Manual mode, which I shoot 90% of the time, and I’ve had very few ill exposed shots to cry over. Keep in mind I’m a very strongly convinced jpeg shooter. I don’t even want to start touching that subject now, or argue with anyone (that poor dead horse has been beaten way too long already), so just take it for granted. I shoot jpeg (and sometimes +RAW for safety if needed) and process my jpeg files in Photoshop. If you don’t like it, or think it’s dumb or I’m not doing myself a favor or whatever, tough shit.
So despite still owning an EXCELLENT (capital letters fully deserved) Nikon D90, I wanted something that could offer my NEX bodies usability and IQ (namely dynamic range), yet fast operation and AF, for when I want to shoot moving subjects (including some kids riding, and horse jumping). The D90 is perfectly good at it, but of course it lacks Live View and has 5 yrs old DR…
So let’s cut to the chase and get going with my SLT A-58 first impressions. There will be a second part to the review, coming tomorrow, after I have put the camera through the horse jumping test, and paired it with more desirable lenses, the Tamron 28-75/2.8 XR Di, and the Sigma EX 50-150/2.8 DC, both delivering superior image quality, despite a well controlled price tag.
I bought the A58, as I almost always do, as a refurb from Amazon.fr. I got a nice discount for it this way, and should I decide to keep it for good (evaluation pending) I should also get 100€ cashback from Sony. That would put the kit at 407-100=307€, which is just insanely cheap for any capable, and brand new, DSLR. I’m mentioning this because I will be comparing the A58 to all the cameras that make my mental database, including models 7 times the price, so we all need to keep the price point in mind.
The camera showed up this morning, in its Sony box with all appropriates stickers. Whoever had it before was able to reset it factory condition, as it showed file 001 on my first frame. The Toy camera creative thingy was activated though, and the golden sticker on the flash unit had been put back in place slightly sideaways, so it’s been pre-owned, as its warehouse status should indicate. That’s fine by me, that’s how I got the discount in the first place. However, I thought the camera to be defective upon powering it on, because both the LCD screen and the EVF showed a mostly greyed out area (like a computer menu or option that’s disabled) and only a thin, horizontal band, showed normal brightness and contrast. It remained like this for a few frames, during which I thought I’d shoot it as such a bit then pack back and return as defective tonight, but surprisingly enough out of nowhere it disappeared, and behaved quite normally (WTF ?!).
I took a few odd shots that we all do upon receiving a new camera, then set out for the door with my kid and dog, for the latter’s morning walk. Except it was way past morning by then and the contrast was killing me. I set DRO to 1, as I do on all my Sony cameras, and shot a few more frames :
I made a conscious effort to use the new 18-55 SAM II kit lens for those, then packed it back in the box, likely never to see the light of day again, until I either return the camera, or much later when I sell it, if I decide to keep it now. I’m not a fan of kit lenses, because they’re both too wide and way to slow for my style of shooting.
It’s not SO obvious to get properly metered shots in such intense summer contrast, but the DRO thingy did its magic. No need for flash to lift up shadows here, it’s doing pretty well. That’s one area where it probably stomps the D90 and all its similar era counterparts.
Again, although looking totally trivial and boring, this impresses me quite well for DR. Not a hint of blown skies, yet very decent detail in the dog’s black satin coat. I know few cameras capable of pulling this so graciously, and in jpeg.
As I stated before, DR is a huge concern when I chose a camera, and the A58 performs admirably in this regard. Quite similarly to my various NEX bodies, in fact, so the Sony signature is clearly visible here. I find color accuracy to be also quite satisfying, as long as you nail White Balance.
It’s stated as slightly smaller and lighter than the A57, and though many early reviewers said they truly couldn’t see the difference, I certainly do. It’s not so much a huge real difference, as a well perceived one. I can just say that the A58 is a joy to hold for me, and that my hand just wraps around its deep and comfortable grip perfectly. It actually fits me like the proverbial glove. Weight wise I read somewhere it was “hollow”. I beg to disagree. It’s indeed quite light, not much heavier than my NEX 7, but in a nice and comfortable kind of way, and nowhere “hollow” in my perception. The overall slightly lacking and plasticky build quality is made up for by the very nice feeling of the well shaped grip, and, to a lesser extent, textured plastic thumb rest. So if the build materials do feel like the weakest link in th A58’s DNA, it nonetheless never feels weak of fragile, just somewhat cheap (not really know if I’m making sense here, lol).
Let’s talk about a few key differences with its two sibling models it sits between and both replaces, the A37 and A57. The A58’s screen has the same 2.7″ size and tilt only mechanism, but doubles the resolution at 460K. Memory serving me well, it’s the same specs as the LCD unit on my “old” Panasonic GX-1, which I never had any major complaint with. The one thing I’m unhappy about though, is the hinge mechanism. Not that I don’t like it, it’s actually the very best possible proposition for me as I love to shoot “from the waist”, and find fully articulated screens totally useless in that regard. I love the tilt screens on my NEX bodies, they have gotten me numerous excellent perspective shots I would have had trouble taking otherwise. However, what I’m wailing about is the quality of the screen assembly on the A58. It’s simply the cheapest feeling part of the camera, and just awful in use. It’s both very hard to operate (plastic parts seem to be grinding together) and has the worst cheapo feeling. I did drop a hint of oil on various articulations, no little avail. I suspect time and repeated operation might loosen the whole thing a bit. If loser it’d actually be a perfect proposition for me. Larger and more defined, à la NEX, would have been fine, but I can totally live with this screen. The A37’s unit was just unacceptable for me, and the main reason I didn’t stay with this otherwise absolutely fine camera, so that’s a definite improvement over it here. And for the large, high res screen on the 57, the articulating assembly was annoying for how I like to shoot and just frustrated the hell out of me. Magnification during playback is faster on the 58 vs. the 57, which is also a big improvement, as it was a really weak point of the latter.
The EVF has the same resolution as the one in the A57, but a different technology (OLED vs LCD). I’m slightly worried regarding the EVF in my unit, as sometimes it looks great, and sometimes I can see like a very, very fine mesh of textured lines in it (?!?). I have no idea whether this is normal, and have to check if it happens again (it seems to behave this way in very bright light). Otherwise it is more subtle in its contrast than the LCD based EVF in the A57, and I like it better.
As far as handling go the camera is very fast. Power up takes way under a second, wake up from sleep is a hair shy of instant. All buttons and dials seems very sturdy and positive in their action, with little to no risk of being accidentally turned/pushed. Compartiment doors seem solid enough. Overall there is nothing flaky about the camera. Yes it’s obviously not higher end in build, but never feels fragile. Menus will be instantly familiar to Alpha users, and NEX users will be able to operate the camera intuitively pretty fast. The Fn screen allows fast access to a lot of essential functions, and it’s super handy. WB has direct access via the right click on the 4 way controler, drive mode via the left click. The creative modes gets its own direct access (bottom click) plus its own mark on the mode dial AND can also be turned on and selected in the Fn menu. That’s totally overkill for such a gimmicky feature IMO, but somehow Sony wanted to make sure you had instant access to it (?!).
The zoom feature get its own button. I’m a little unsure about that. I’ll try it tomorrow and report to you, since I’ll be using my Sigma 50-150/2.8 zoom, which is just brilliant for indoor horseriding, but could use a little extra reach outdoors. I’ll make sure to test the zoom function and share samples as well. I wish the zoom button could have been reconfigured for those users who won’t want to try it, but hopefuly that might come later in a firwmare update ?? The exposure compensation button moves to the back of the top plate, and falls right under my thumb, which I find a better and more useful location than where it was on the A37 and A57. So good point here. It also doesn’t need to be held down to operate. Just press it once with your thumb if the metering offered by the camera is not spot on where you want it, turn the front dial with your index and voilà ! you’ve altered exposure. Autofocus points are selected by pressing the AF marked button which sits at the center of the four way controller. Press it to access AF point selection, and then move between points (or group of points, I personally use the “zone” setting) by clicking left or right. The zone setting offers only three clusters of AF points, so switching between them is very fast.
I haven’t tried the new flash hotshoe yet, but will tonight, as it will natively accomodate my Nikon SB-600 unit. I know not all of you shoot manual flash, but for those you do, you’ll be immediately at home using any unit you’re accustomed to, here.
Metering seems decently reliable, although in my view the WHOLE point of getting an SLT camera (and hence putting up with the 1/3 stop light loss due to the fixed translucent mirror, with the noise consequences attached) is to have full time exposure preview and shoot Manual. As explained before, if you chose to let the camera meter for you in any mode (center weighted would be my choice), you can easily compensate.
So overall I’m pleased with the camera and hopeful to keep it upon further testing. If Canon always had the edge in IQ for me, and Nikon offered the best handling and features, Sony holds a pretty special position with its full time Live View. Once you’ve tried this feature, and if it fits your shooting, it’s very hard to go back…
Shot pros & cons list for tonight :
*PROS : value for money : outstanding. Excellent and comfortable handling thanks to great shaped grip, at least for my size of hands. Smallish enough to be taken along, light but not hollow feeling. Good-looking, I forgot to mention it’s a handsomely designed camera. Good, detailed EVF, less constrasty than previous generation. Fast power on, AF and overall operation. Good, traditional Alpha user interface. Tilt screen with decent resolution, perfect for shooting “from the waist”. Very good IQ for 20mp, noise well controlled at high ISO, and finely grained.
*CONS : aside from the nice feeling grip aread, build material looks plasticky and cheap. Worst part being the screen assembly, which is very rough and overly tight in operation. Hopefully will losen with time/repetition. Smallish screen at 2.7.
EDIT : I realized what was going on with the greyed out area at initial power on ! The camera was set to “Miniature” with Horizontal setting. Phew, I’m relieved, lol !
Disclaimer : I never claimed to be a great photographer or to produce art. I’m a hobbyist mostly aiming to make pleasurable memories for my own use. The pictures illustrating this article have been shot fast, in order to provide samples.
To be continued tomorrow !