PROS / A translucent mirror allows for continuous focusing on moving targets.
CONS / The plastic lens mount is less durable than metal.
VERDICT / The Sony Alpha a58 offers a good combination of image quality and battery life. Its innovative translucent-mirror technology makes it a unique entry-level DSLR.
Sony is a newcomer to the entry-level DSLR scene, but since its market entry in 2005, it has managed to produce some of the best ones available. Sony's latest offering, the Alpha a58, has excellent image quality, a robust feature set and an attractive price point for budding photographers.
The most notable difference between the Sony a58 and other entry-level DSLRs is a translucent mirror that remains in place, even when capturing a photograph. Typical DSLRs utilize a viewfinder with a series of mirrors so when you look through the lens, you see almost exactly what the sensor sees. When capturing a photograph, the mirror moves and the sensor is instead exposed to the image.
With the Alpha a58's technique however, it directs light to the autofocus sensor and the image sensor simultaneously. Since the AF sensor is constantly receiving information, it affords excellent continuous autofocusing for quick, consecutive shots of moving subjects.
The a58 features a 20.1 megapixel APS-C sensor that produces high-quality images with good dynamic range and color depth. Dynamic range refers to the camera's ability to capture a wide array of information across an image's exposure range. Dynamic range is measured in EVs (exposure values) with anything above 12 being considered excellent. According to DxOMark, the a58 comes in at an impressive 12.5 EVs.
Color depth in the Alpha a58's images is also quite good. Anything over 22 bits is considered good color depth, and the a58 ranks among the best beginner DSLRs with a DxOMark score of 23.3 bits. A high color-depth score means that your camera can discern subtle changes in color and accurately replicate them.
One area in which this camera lags behind the competition is low-light performance. ISO settings determine how sensitive the sensor is to light. The higher the sensitivity, the brighter your images will be, which is helpful when shooting in low light or at high shutter speeds.
However, as you increase the sensitivity of your sensor, the amount of noise in your images will also increase. The a58 is a little noisier at high ISOs than some competing cameras. This means you'll have a little more trouble producing clear images in less-than-ideal lighting.
The Sony a58 offers the basic features you'd expect from an entry-level DSLR and a couple of extras that beginners can appreciate. There are nine scene modes to choose from that help to optimize image composition for a variety of circumstances like portraits, landscapes, nights or sunsets. Learning to shoot manually grants you access to the camera's full potential, but these settings are helpful for getting the best results in auto-shooting modes.
Other helpful features include Lock-on AF and Auto Object Framing. Using the translucent mirror, the a58 locks onto subjects and autofocuses intelligently as the target moves. This makes it a lot easier to get crisp action shots. Also, by taking advantage of face recognition and tracking focus, the a58 can intelligently frame your photos to draw attention to the most important aspects of the image.
Aside from these auxiliary features, this Sony is also capable of shooting in a wide variety of video formats. For smaller files, you can shoot at resolutions as low as 480p. At its highest settings, you can produce high-quality 1080i video at 60 frames per second, or 1080p at 30 fps. Although this resolution falls short of true HD for 60 fps, this is truly impressive video quality for its price.
The Sony a58 is well designed with easy-to-use dials and buttons. Although it only has one adjustment dial, that means you can quickly adjust exposure settings. It's also worth noting that this camera uses an electronic, rather than an optical viewfinder. While some people prefer optical viewfinders, electronic ones allow you to see exposure setting changes in real time while peering through the viewfinder.
Like many beginner DSLRs, the a58 features a tilting 2.5-inch LCD screen that you can use as a viewfinder for framing shots. This is convenient when shooting over a crowd, or getting a shot from a low angle. It also allows you to review images from a comfortable position.
Battery life in entry-level DSLRs typically ranges from 400 to 700 shots per charge. Sony's a58 is at the high end of this spectrum, and superior to the vast majority of entry-level DSLRs at 690 shots per charge.
On the downside, the lens mount on the a58 is plastic. While this won't likely cause many issues, it's certainly less durable than the steel mounts found on competitors and may wear more over time.
The a58 has a one-year manufacturer's warranty, which is standard for the industry. Sony offers the most extensive product support of any DLSR manufacturer that we reviewed though. On the Sony website, you can find tutorials, downloadable manuals and an extensive FAQs section. You can contact Sony representatives for further information via phone, email or live chat.
It's difficult for entry-level DSLRs to balance the price point with advanced features and excellent image quality. Sony's Alpha a58 represents one of the best combinations of these qualities, offering solid photo and video quality. Although it lags behind in low-light performance, it remains one of the best entry-level DSLR values available.