My new camera is pretty damn good. Not better than the ones I already have but really good for $599. It's called a Sony a58.

I bought a new Sony camera yesterday afternoon and I've been using it non-stop ever since. It's small, light, radically cheap to buy and it came with its own kit lens for a whoppingly small $599. I could have waited for Amazon to get them in stock, they're showing on their website that they'll have cameras to ship to people on their waiting list on April 21st. I thought I'd shorten the process and just drive up to Precision Camera, shoot the breeze with my sales guy, Ian, and pick one up while I was there. That's exactly what I did.

Lots and lots of photographers who use Sony cameras are lining up to buy this camera as a back up camera or a secondary camera. And, of course, there are the usual contingents of "Sony experts" who are throwing themselves into impassioned denouncements of the new model claiming that it's ten evolutionary steps backwards from one of the two cameras it's replacing. Are they right? In one or two regards, sure. In toto? NoNo.

Now that we're well over a decade into the digital age what exactly does $599 buy you in a camera? Let's start with the sensor. Sony is the sensor maker of the moment. What they've chosen to offer in their cameras is not necessarily the least noisy sensor but the result of a different outcome in the typical design compromise. Seems you can have detail, saturated color, accurate color, low noise and wide dynamic range but, like everything else in real life each engineering choice in sensor design tugs at some corner of this inventory of attributes. If you want the ultimate in high ISO low noise you may just have to give up color accuracy and wide DR. If you want the highest amount of detail in your files  you may have to put up with a bit more noise. Etc.

Sony seems to be designing the sensors in their camera line to maximize two attributes, color accuracy and dynamic range. The sensor in the a58 is a new one with 20 megapixels. I've shot two portrait sessions with it so far and can report that the image is very sharp which might point to a weaker AA filter, given that one would be less necessary as the number of pixels rises. There's none of the "rounding" effect that many cameras seemed to suffer from several years ago.

I'm not through shooting all my tests but I do know that this camera is one of the first cheap Sony's to use the adaptive noise reduction feature that debuted in the a99. I don't have any deep knowledge about adaptive noise reduction other than what I've read but it seems that the camera applies varying amounts of noise reduction based on the detail concentration in different parts of the image frame. Almost the way a Jpeg algorithm is programmed. The areas with lots and lots of fine detail work better with less noise reduction since the noise reduction also reduces the impression of fine detail while fine detail hides monochromatic noise. Large areas of low detail like skies and some renderings of human skin inherently have much less fine detail so when noise is present there is nothing to mask it. It stands out like a sore thumb. I don't know if that's what I'm seeing in the a58 but the rendering of fine detail is at 3200 and even 6400 while the noise treatment in flat areas is much improved over the a57 and even more so over the a77.

The camera follows the new Sony program of replacing moving mirrors and expensive, and heavy, glass pentaprisms with electronic view finders. People who've been in photograph for a long time seem to have a knee jerk reaction against changing viewing methods but among those with open minds it take about a week of using a full information viewfinder before they start saying things like, "I'll never go back to an optical viewfinder..."

The finder in this camera is better than the one in the a57; one of the cameras the a58 replaces. The a57 used an LCD screen with a resolution of 1.44 megapixels but the new camera uses an OLED screen that seems much more transparent and color rich.  Neither is as detailed as the EVF screen in the a99 or the screens in the Nex 6 and 7 but it's a clear improvement over the LCD design and one of the major reasons I bought one of these new models.

The main reason I wanted this camera was to have a third video camera at multi-camera shoots. I tend to use my a99 as the primary camera and I actively operate it for interview and content work but as I learn more about editing and programming I'm finding that it's always great to have alternate angles and alternate magnifications of the same scene so that I can cut away from the main shot in editing and make my programming less boring. The a57 and a58 can each be set up on their own tripods and all the cameras can run as we shoot a scene or an interview. We can generally sync up using the sound we capture on each camera's microphones while using the audio from the a99 (through external microphones) as our main sound source.

The Sony's look best to me at 1080p 24fps in mp4. If I'm editing that's what I normally shoot. I am much less interested in stuff like 60fps (although we have that in two of the three cameras mentioned if I want it...) than I am in getting good, sharp content. Since I've had the best luck so far with mp4 files I tend to set them all to the same settings and go with 24fps at my standard.

This camera is slightly dumbed down in video setting choices. Sony have eliminated the AVCHD 60p setting from this camera and left it with on 60i (interlaced). I'm sure we can see the difference on moving objects but I'm not so sure we'll see much difference on stuff that doesn't move very much.

When it comes to video one of the main advantages of the whole Sony line comes with the combination of full time, phase detection AF and the always on EVF. You don't need to mess with add-on finders to see what you are doing on bright days or reflect-y interiors. Look through the finder as the photo-gods intended and you're ready to shoot. Add in focus peaking and manual focus becomes joyful and fulfilling.

With all the mirrorless Sony cameras I have you might wonder why I felt like picking up another Alpha SLT camera. I guess part of the reason is that I've acquired so many good, cropped frame DT lenses (like the 35mm 1.8, the 50mm 1.8, the Sigma 10-20mm and the surprisingly good and cheap 55-200mm. I originally bought these to use on the two a77 bodies. I've since sold them and replaced them with two full frame bodies. When I go to use the DT lenses on either the a850 or the a99 the cameras automatically default to a setting in which they crop down and deliver an APS-C file with only about 10 megapixels on it. I wanted a companion camera for the a57 for the times when I want to travel light.

And let's be honest, when you're walking around outside, using a camera handheld, you'll probably find (as I have) that there's very little difference in image quality between a $600 camera and a $3000 camera. So why carry all the extra weight?

I decided to buy one of these when I found myself looking at cameras like the Sony RX-100 and the Fuji EX-2. I wanted small and light but at the same time I wanted a good  EVF and the use of lenses I already owned. The a58 seems to fit those parameters.

So, on the plus side:

-20 good, clean megapixels.
-A totally familiar and easy to navigate menu.
-A standard flash hot shoe.
-Loads of gimmicky programs that can be useful (one of my favorites is the "smile shutter." You can ask the camera to fire when it sees a smile. Many times these days I'm setting up portrait lighting in the studio or on location and I don't have an assistant or a handy stand in. I set the smile shutter, sit down and smile. The camera focuses and snaps a picture of me. I can use that to progressively dial in my upcoming shots. A big evolutionary jump forward from the ten second self timer.)
-5 full size frames per second.
-Same standard battery as all my other Sony DSLT cameras. Yippee!
-Multi-frame noise reduction.
-Small size and easy to master exterior control interface.
-Cheap as dirt to buy.
-Well done EVF.
-Inclusion of time tested Focus Peaking for manual focus.
-Continuous live view with fast and accurate focusing.
-Battery life, energy management improved by about 20%.
-3.5mm microphone plug.

On the down side:

-Smaller buffer than a57
-Slightly smaller viewfinder but still 100%
-Slower frame to frame drive. ( since when is five frames per second slow? The present "holy grail" camera, the Nikon D800 only does 4 fps; unless you add a bulky battery grip, then it goes to 6 fps. Big deal.)
-You lose one setting in video. 60p.
-Smaller rear screen at lower (461,000) resolution. )More than adequate for setting menus. And that's what those screens are really there for.....).

I like it. It's a good camera and works well. The whole interface is very familiar to me know and Sony doesn't seem to be changing it much from camera to camera. We're finally getting back to the time when we can say, to some extent, that the camera is just a box to hold the sensor and the lens together in parallel. The cameras all have good image quality. This one seems just right for a lot of stuff I do. For sports where I need a high frame rate I'll probably pull out the a57 and party with the 10fps. But in the studio and just walking around this one is perfectly sorted. And cheaper than a much less virtuous Fuji X-20 (yes, that was also on the list...).

It's been a busy week. The rest of the fluorescent lights finally came in and I've started shooting with them. Kind of a fun way to go. We've got more video to shoot tomorrow and again on Friday. I'll try to get some behind the scenes images to share. I know a lot of people are interested in the lighting...

If you shoot Canon and Nikon then thank you for wading through this Sony review. You needn't switch. The newest, modern cameras are all good now and I'm predicting that Nikon and Canon will have their EVF cameras ready to go to the next big trade show. Really.

Sony a58 "Glamor Shot."


Neal said...

Funny, one of the first digital cameras I owned was a Kodak DX6490 which had an electronic viewfinder with full information displayed. mind you it was hideously slow and the resolution wasn't great, but for some sorts of photography it worked well and I always liked the colours from that little kodak.

I've never had a preoccupation with a certain viewfinder style as I still use SLR's, TLRs, and View cameras. so I have all bases covered.

Andreas Kusstatscher said...

Nice Cam. What Lenses are you using? I love my little a37 ;-)


Anonymous said...

I don't see it like Kirk does. In the EU the A58 isn't cheaper than the A57 right now, I expect the price to fall over time, but now it's not super cheap. Who knows what price it will end up as if it went to £250 odd it might be worth a look.

As for users queuing up to get their hands on one, that's not really happening either. A57 users won't look twice at this the improvements are ok, but there are too many downsides that come with that. A genuine update would retain all the A57 had and improve on that. Sensor wise the 20mp CMOS is not showing any low light improvement on the well liked 16mp CMOS, and 4mp isn't even worth talking about it's tiny.

So A58 brings a few nice bits, auto ISO in M mode, OLED VF (though these tend to crush blacks more than the LCD ones), improved battery life, better bracketing (at last)

At the price of
A much smaller buffer, 5fps v 10fps full sized images (one pushed pro point of SLT design), smaller lower res less articulating screen, plastic mount, cut down video mode (as Kirk mentions)

So in my view I recommend folks grab an A57 while you can, I hope Sony produce a genuine A57 update or A65 update to tempt A57 users. A58 I don't see a place for this kind of cheaping out esp the plastic mount bar ultra cheap prices. And I'm not sure the A58 is particularly competitive v it's Canikon rivals (all of which have proper full metal mounts too)

Just my thoughts on this

Corwin said...

Kodak colors are unfortunately still unmatched by anything. If you want those colors "back", try Kodak SLR/n or SLR/c (n is better). Its hard to use camera, but with colors to die for.. That or Kodak 645D digital back.

Corwin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Corwin said...

Hm, thats our little EU problem. Sony always think we should pay more than US. In my little corner of EU, Sony actually hates us and we have even higher prices than lets say in Germany.

In US, its a steal for that price..

About "proper full metal mount". Heh today ABS plastic is bit different than before and plastic mount is actually advantage. When accident happen, you have better odds with plastic mount. Plus its way cheaper to replace.

Corwin said...

I disagree only with one thing. I think neither Canon or Nikon have EVF based cameras developed. If they "catch up" it will take a lot of time..

Sure Canon could do one easily, they actually did SLT before everyone else (Canon RT). It just seems they dont think its viable way..

Time will show..

Btw. color/DR as most important quality is why I like Sony. Same reason why I like my Fuji S5 Pro and KM-7D.

Anonymous said...

I too am a bit disappointed with the A58 I have an A57 and wanted to see a step up in terms of what is offered on this model. The 5 series has always been a decent compromise for many shooters even in the Minolta days they were mostly well featured cameras that has 95% of what you probably needed/wanted.

I don't think I'd buy an A58 even to compliment the A57 I have. Bit disappointed with Sony this is more like a 3 series camera overall

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. I have not seen the new camera yet, but I remember thinking that there were a bunch of differences between the Sony A37 and the A57. It seemed to me at the time that when Sony updated the A37 they were going to step on the toes of people who just bought the A57.

Camera hardware nuts think about this more than most people, but everyone does it. If Burger King cuts the price of the Whopper, the first thing most people think is; "Wow, you must have been overcharging me all these years."

Sony must have sensed the same thing. It is unfortunate to see camera manufacturers intentionally downgrading certain features in order to maintain distinction between the low-end and the high-end, but it sure seems like that is what they decided to do. Why else would you make the buffer smaller?

Sony must have to do it more often than most, since they seem to release new models every few months. Still, the technology is changing rapidly, and it would be silly to continue to make the NEX-5 once the technology exists to make the NEX5n or 5r at roughly the same price.

Eventually, Sony will give up and just start making cameras with removable sensors, and you will be able to send it back and have them swap out the sensor for you. Or maybe they will offer an "a la carte" camera where you can just order the features you want. ("You want 24mp in a pocket APSC? We can do that, as long as you are OK shooting a fixed 35mm lens in full sunlight.") Do you want fries with that?

There is a marketing psychology to cameras. If you offer too many choices, people will never be able to make up their mind, and will not buy anything. If you go to a website with only three choices, people are much more confident in their purchase than if you have 20 different models to choose from. Once you get to 50 different models, even if the camera features are clearly distinct, your total sales will plummet.

Sony is only gradually learning this lesson. In the mean time, if they offered one of those "a la carte" cameras, I would most likely choose something similar to the current A58 or NEX6. I might spend the extra bucks for a touchscreen and a big buffer, but why quibble over stale croutons if the rest of the salad bar is exactly what you want?

Anonymous said...

Since it is basically a camera review, your page views will skyrocket. I hope some of these people stay around to learn more about your philosophy, or at least buy your books.

Incidentally, the portrait of the A58 makes it look desireable and thin. It was a bold choice to have her looking down and to the right. It makes her look pensive and mysterious.

Robert Roaldi said...

Since you're discussing what $600 buys you in 2013, is the EVF refresh quick enough in these lower priced models these days that shooting at at a sports venue won't be annoying. What I mean is that if I have to shoot a stream of 5 or 10 shots at a critical spot, will I still be able to see something useful in the viewfinder? I'm thinking car or bicycle racing, for example. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I don't see what all the fussy is about, in contrast very few users (be they Sony or not) are talking about the A58 at all. Seems like a misfire from Sony, not enough here to appeal to their own usrs, and few Canon or Nikon shooters even mention it. Just not that interesting.

20mp wow..Nikon have a cheap entry body with 24mp. There are lots of deals on other makers bodies too, nothing to see here folks move on.

Kirk Tuck said...

All of them.

Kirk Tuck said...

We have different perspectives. You like the heavy metal. I know the new plastics are as good or better (they don't bend out of spec). 5fps is cool. The EVF is much better and if there's black crushing going on I'm not seeing it. Nor are any of the other reviewers. No one has done exhaustive tests on the sensor but I'm willing to bet it's much better than the one in the older cameras. If you live in the EU and the camera isn't the equivalent of $450 + 150 for an improved lens then you your perception of the bargain price I referenced will, of course, be different.

I own both cameras we're talking about and I'd take the a58 over the a57 any day. Caveat: Unless all I did was fast moving sports. That's the advantage of the a57...

Kirk Tuck said...

It's not my job to sell you one. I suggest everyone interested in the Sony models go to a store and try one. If you like something else better, buy that.

Kirk Tuck said...

Well, we'll just have to disagree. The camera is good to shoot. The sensor seems very good. The EVF is a big improvement over anything nikon and canon will give you at the same price point. The full time AF in video and live view is a big usability feature. The video implementation is much better than canon or nikon. I guess people just want huge, imponderable changes for their money. Not just a nice, functional camera...

texascbx said...

The main things that make the SLT range of cameras great are there. I had an A33 and now have an A77. Focus peaking that lets you move around your focus point when using a long lens like a Tamron 200-500 is like Columbus discovering America. Canon and Nikon folks will never get that because they will never look through a EVF and try it. I was showing a friend the other day how you can push that little button on the front and see the lens correction before you ever shoot. He thought it was some kind of trick.

Being able to see what you are getting before you push that button. It's almost like cheating.

I can't wait to see how that new sensor stacks up against the old 24Mp sensor in the A77. I suspect it will stack up pretty good.

Kirk Tuck said...

I'm going to bet that the sensor is amazing, and worth the buy in price, and you get the rest of the camera for free. Just did my first video job with it today as a "B" roll camera and it was flawless. It did everything I want and the video looks good. Some people just don't get that there are differences that go beyond one dimensional spread sheets...

Paul said...

Canikon are stuck in a mindset from the 1990's all there has been from them in terms of progression has been small evolutionary changes that are aimed at protecting their business model. It is the smaller second tier players such as Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and Fuji who are innovating and getting comsumers to rethink their photographic practice. Although Nikon and Canon were the first to put video into a DSLR they have really done nothing with it since the D90 and 5dII. It is Sony and Panasonic who are driving the development here. Want a view finder that really tells you what is happening with exposure, white balance and all that other stuff Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and Fuki give that to. Who's leading sensor development? Well Sony is, but Fuji is also adding some interesting twists of its own. I no longer want to carry around a boat anchor of a bag that is full of camera where I have to fit in with their operating foibles. I want lighter, feature packed cameras that allow me to make exhibition quality prints one minute and HD movies the next. In evolutionary terms Canikon may well be the equivalnet of the brontosarus and be unable to adapt to the changes that are coming in the photographic climate.

Adventsam said...

The UK price is £400.00 incl tax & delivery and kit lens, that's 600 dollars exactly.