The Sony Alpha 380 – review
My Sony Alpha 380 was supposed to arrive before July 13th according to SimplyElectronics.net – via Amazon – claiming UK despatch of 2-10 days delivery after debiting my card on July 6th from a July 3rd order. Well, it didn’t arrive by July 21st, and after some email exchanges I have apparently obtained a refund for the charge they made for an item they did not have (though this was still showing as ‘processing’ in August). Warehouseexpress.com had got the A380 plus 18-55mm kits by that time, for £10 less, and delivered in 24 hours. Update August 9th: under a month later, the warehouseexpress kit price has fallen by 10% (£50) to £548 inc VAT.
Sony is causing me problems because I prefer to buy products to test – it removes the ridiculous one or two week windows allowed for loan review kit, which often coincide with some very busy period making it impossible to give the gear adequate attention, and in Sony’s case would be many weeks after first availability as the consumer magazines take priority. There is a threat that three more Alpha models will appear this year (the Alpha 500, 550 and 850). I’m running out of cash to keep up with this!
The Alpha 380 is a replacement for the 350, a 14.2 megapixel compact DSLR with Live View. I already own a 350 and find it useful because the excellent resolution is combined with an impressive dynamic range and unusual colour palette. The pictures from the 350 have a unique appeal, and in some ways the CCD sensor is better than the CMOS of the Alpha 700 for landscape and pictorial work with fine detail, assuming you are able to shoot at ISO 100.
I had to hand over just under £600 for my 380 with 18-55mm SAM kit lens. SAM stands for Smooth Autofocus Motor, and what it appears to mean is electric motor not sonic wave-type drive. Instead of being focused via the body motor and drive coupling – which the 380 retains – the lens is operated electronically for all functions apart from aperture closure.
There was an expectation that the SAM 18-55mm ƒ3.5-5.6 would equal the latest Nikon and Canon lenses of the same specification and leave behind the reputation of the 18-70mm Konica Minolta/Sony kit lens. It does not feel as good as its rivals; it is a plain, lightweight item. Optically, the corners are soft at 18mm unless stopped down; the SAM focus motor is nearly as noisy as a screw drive lens when it starts up. The front rim rotates during focusing; there is no focusing scale; the mount is plastic. Redeeming qualities include very good performance from 35 to 55mm. Within this range, it’s sharp wide open and has good coverage corner to corner, together with virtually no chromatic aberration. At 18mm it is poor wide open because of corner fall off, and around 24mm it’s if anything slightly worse.
Good points include the closest minimum focus around, 25cm or a 0.34X subject scale, and class leading flare resistance. Click the 18mm, f/16 image below to view it full size (processed from raw and without sharpening of any kind, or any CA correction or de-fringeing). You can just find the flare if you look had, and the sun was immediately out of picture top left with no lens hood.
Light sources included in-frame throw up no reflections, and the rear of the lens is extremely well blackened with some kind of matt coating on the plastic. A lot of attention has been paid to killing internal reflections and boosting contrast. You can probably tell from the studio shot below how dense the matt paint applied to the plastic round the rear element assembly is. Note added Aug 9th – looking at one other review of this lens, it does not appear to have the same matt finish applied to the plastic as in my sample.
The close-up ability makes it the closest focusing lens in the entire Alpha system except for the Macro 100 and 50mm designs.
Above, you see the Sony SAM 18-55mm at 55mm and closest focus, used with the pop-up flash, to the left; and to the right, the Nikon 18-55mm VR at its closest focus. The coin is a GB pound coin, and is gold in colour – the Sony colour rendering is more correct. They have made the flash pop up higher on the A380. Combine this with the smaller 18-55mm lens, and no hood supplied – result, one third life size macro shots with full flash illumination and no shadow cast by the lens/hood.
The end result is a lens which will produce very good looking snapshots and really does not need the lens hood which is no longer supplied. Sony has cut costs; you don’t get a proper rear lens cap, just a ‘milk bottle top’ as it has been dubbed, and you don’t get a lens hood any more. I bet it’s all down to market research – they went out and observed users, only to discover that over 50% of users leave the lens hood on, backwards.
Here’s an 18mm wide angle close up in the field (literally). Click the image for pBase full size (again, please note, NO sharpening or corrections have been applied – you see exactly what the lens and camera produces).
And here is a 55mm version. Basically, this little lens is pretty good to use. This shot is wide open at f/5.6 too. All the example pictures in this article reproduced this size can be clicked to visit the full size original and view the EXIF data.
Why so much focus on the lens?
Well, the camera body was already known before delivery to be a cut-down version of the A350 in terms of size and dedicated controls. The 18-55mm lens is the first of a new line of SAM optics, a brand new design. It is supposedly more a Sony product than earlier kit lenses (just as the 16-105mm is). While the lens is definitely a better performer you certainly don’t need to replace a proven 18-70mm with it (they vary, and so it appears do the new ones, as other reviewers have not found the same edge-of-field softness from 18-28mm as I have on this sample). The new SAM 30mm ƒ2.8 macro and 50mm ƒ1.8 portrait lenses look more interesting, and they may well have quieter motors. Note added Aug 9th – apparently they don’t, just as basic.
18mm, good geometry, hand-held 1/80th with SSS – it’s not stunningly sharp and even at f/8 some fall off can be seen. But CA is very well controlled (bright sky edge to arch shows a trace) and distortion on this subject is acceptable.
18mm at f/8 again, here you can judge the uncorrected CA a bit better and also see how well the Alpha 380 has handled the grass texture (something which many popular DSLRs turn into mush). The trees against the sky are also a good test, here the new lens is doing better than a typical 18-70mm Sony under the same conditions.
Here you can see where the lens falls down at 18mm – that curved horizon and the curved base of the interpretation sign. But the sharpness (at f/10 in this case) is really pretty good and stopped this far down the corners are as good as the centre.
Here, the 55mm performance at f/8 shows up pretty well. Bear in mind if you go to view this full size that it’s focused on the seated people and re-composed. There is some loss of sharpness to the corners mostly at the top, indicating a slight field curvature which benefits the tub of flowers in the bottom right.
If this lens was significantly better from 18-28mm wide open, felt better built and the SAM motor was not so noisy when starting up and parking it would be a closer match to the competitors’ designs.
My experience with the lens was influenced by the A380 finder. The Nikon D5000 finder is similar in size, but whether it’s down to eyepoint or brightness, is slightly better to use with the identically specified Nikon 18-5mm lens. The A380 finder should be similar to the A350 but it seems to react to small apertures by getting very much dimmer. As you zoom the 18-55mm from 18mm to 55mm, on a sunny day, it looks as if the sun has gone in suddenly. This has had me checking to see whether the sun really had gone behind a cloud. The dimming effect is more noticeable than on any other DSLR finder I’ve used.