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.
First of all, thank you for a most detailed and informative reply. I very much appreciate the time and consideration you put into it. I am also impressed by your knowledge and respectfulness to your patrons — the level of which is not always shared by your peers when dealing with Joe public snapshot artists 😉
You make a good point about cost/price influencing the level of QC and reliability and of parts and production that is more intertwined and interdependent than can be observed from outside the industry.
I do still believe that there is a difference in the level of QC between mfr. branded lenses and third party alternatives (Sigma being the worst offender), although it becomes more understandable when i consider that the prices of the 3rd party lenses are significantly lower than the mfr. lenses (designing to a price point, as you put it). Afer all, if the 3rd party alternative is a couple hundred dollars cheaper and the optical performance is engineered to be relatively close, something has to give… and sometimes, it seems to be QC.
I’ve tested or owned all the lenses you mentione except the Tokina 12-24mm. You are right, of course the 70-200mm Tamron has a motor for Nikon. I tested this in Canon and Nikon fits (never in Sony) and it was equally slow in both. I thought the 17-50mm was screw drive for Nikon but maybe not, and must be updated now anyway as Nikon’s system demands micromotor lenses for the entry level models.
The Sony SAM lenses are not all Tamron, or made by Tamron. The 11-18mm is not SAM, it is screw drive (and definitely a Tamron). Konica Minolta made specific changes to Tamron lenses, such as reversing the direction of focus or zoom rings to match older Minolta standards where possible – Tamron always made their lenses to work the same way as Nikon, which is the reverse to Minolta. It was not always possible and the 28-75mm (pre-SAM) for example works exactly the same as the Tamron.
The 18-200mm and 18-250mm lenses are also Tamron in origin, and not SAM, just screw drive. The 17-35mm (discontinued) was Tamron. The original 55-200mm was definitely Tamron, I am not sure about the SAM variant.
Tamron, Tokina, Cosina and Sigma should never be thought of as second-tier lens companies. They certainly all make, or have made, budget priced lenses; that’s where the market lies. All have also made lenses which everyone thinks of as being from the camera manufacturer; in some cases they held the patents, and developed the design. Hoya-Tokina, for example, created the Minolta APO 100-400mm and 100-300mm APO designs. Sigma produced the Leica R 24mm which replaced the Leitz-Minolta period 24mm.
Minolta used to sell most ‘end of life’ lens plant to Shanghai Optical (Seagull) in China. Shortly before the Sony takeover of the Alpha line, KM set up a joint venture for a new optical plant with Shanghai. That plant produced the Sony 50mm f/1.4. Sony was also involved in setting up yet another plant in China, with Carl Zeiss help; in the meantime, Tamron was contracting some lens production to a Chinese plant, or was/is a partner in one.
Sony/Zeiss established a plant in Japan. Sony took over the Sakai (Minolta G) plant and initially closed it down, moving the equipment and engineers. It seems that unit has now been relocated to a single Japanese facility which combines the Sony/Zeiss and Sony/Minolta G teams. The SAM lenses are not made there (so far) but come from Tamron (Japan or China) and one of the various Chinese units – looking at the design and construction of the 30mm f/2.8 macro and 50mm f/1.8 SAM, I don’t think it’s Shanghai Optical, but probably the same plant which made the pilot run of the 16-80mm Carl Zeiss which was a failure (and was transferred permanently to Japan).
In every case, no single plant makes everything. The optical units of the Carl Zeiss lenses are produced in the Sony/CZ factory and subjected to benchtest quality control. They are then shipped to the Sony (non-CZ) assembly plant where they are mated with barrels to produce the complete lens. This is why Sony/CZ lenses have two serial numbers, one of the optical assembly and one for the barrel.
This is not an unusual process. Tamron specialises in the production of hybrid aspheric (glass/plastic sandwich) elements, a technology originally developed by Minolta and licensed by Tamron. It’s likely that Tamron actually makes most, possibly all, of the hybrid aspheric elements used by all makers. Sigma developed moulded glass aspheric technology after a period of working with Carl Zeiss. As far as I know, they are the source for most moulded/pressed glass aspheric elements and supply Zeiss and others (the original glass comes from yet another source).
In short – you can’t untangle all this and class the third party makers as inferior, because a lot of the time, they are also making for the big names. As for QC, or design down to a price, that’s another matter. You get what you pay for. I don’t know who made my Nikon 18-105mm VR for example, but it’s no better than any Tamron or Sigma and also didn’t cost any more!
From what i have heard, Sony SAM lenses are just Tamron lenses with a built-in motor (the same micro-motor that Tamron uses for the lenses that they have updated to include built-in motors). Besides the 28-75, i consider the 55-200 SAM as being a rebadged Tamron 55-200, and the Tamron/Sony/KM 11-18 to be identical as well. Do i have proof for these claims? No, unfortunately not. But if you look at the optical design and specs for those lenses, they sure *look* identical.
My impression of Tamron is that they are a second tier lens company like Sigma and Tokina. Their lenses all have some good designs and good characteristics, but they also seem to fall short on one aspect or another whether it be QC, reliability, or AF performance / accuracy. This is mostly due to my experience with 3rd party lenses on the Nikon mount*, so it would be in comparison to Nikon lenses.
* – which includes the Sigma 10-20, 15-30, 24-60, 24/1.8, 30/1.4, 50/2.8, and 50-150, Tamron 17-50 (with & without AF motor), 28-75, and 70-200, and Tokina 12-24.
[I understand that listing 12 third-party lenses doesn’t necessarily establish my credibility (especially as I am basically seen popping in out of nowhere and commenting on one of your reviews (which was excellent, btw)), so i will enlist the help of a more objective and credible source:
Regarding my specific experience with the two Tamrons with built-in motor, the two i tried were the 17-50 and 70-200 — both about a year and a half ago.
In the case of the 17-50, my friend had just purchased a new D300 and asked me to check out the AF calibration with the 17-50. The thing backfocused all the time on both his body and mine, where my original version 17-50 w/o the built-in motor did not. The AF motor was also noticeably slower than the screw drive.
Regarding the 70-200, i was trying out all the 70-200/2.8 zooms to help me decide which one to get. Went to B+H with my D300 body and spent about 20-30 minutes specifically testing the AF behaviour of the Nikon 80-200, Sigma 70-200, and Tamron 70-200. The Tamron stood out for having by far the slowest AF. By far. While Sigma’s HSM was very fast, it wasn’t quite as reliable as either Nikon. It basically came down to the Nikon being the most reliable when it came to acquiring AF lock, so it was the “winner” of that test. However, in the end, i got the Nikon 70-200 over the 80-200 for the VR.
I don’t think the SAM motor will be more accurate, just that in the process of redesigning aspects of the AF system, including adaptation for better SSM/SAM performance, Sony has improved over older models.
Tamron does not make any SAM lens, or SSM, yet; they OEM the Sony 28-75mm and that’s all. All official SAM lenses apart from this are made in China, and the 28-75mm may be, as Tamron also uses the same plant. You can’t distinguish Tamron QC from Sony, as they are identical if the lens is identical (the 28-75mm Sony for example is not identical to any existing Tamron but may be to a future one). Tamron has made lenses for all the major camera brands over the years and is highly respected for professional video camera lenses; don’t know why you should think them poor.
Which Tamron lens with a built-in motor for Nikon mount have you tried? They only introduced the first this year, I think. All Tamrons for Nikon have been screw drive previously, causing them quite a problem with compatibility right now. I have used Tamrons with built-in motors for Canon; nothing special, but OK.
Interesting… So you suspect the SAM motor helps with the accuracy? Do you think it is just the Sony SAM lenses or would that extend to the Tamron branded versions of the same lens too? I have to say that I don’t have much faith in Tamrons with built-in Af motors from my experienc with them on Nikon mount. Slower and less accurate than screw drive from my limited experience.
I wonder if Sony specifies a higher level of QC or focus calibration with reference bodies before Tamron is allowed to ship Sony SAM lenses?
In your A550 review, you mentioned that it had a vastly improved AF system compared to all of the older models up to the A350, and that all the newer Alphas, including the A380 had usably accurate AF.
However, you didn’t mention specifically if the A380’s AF system was just as good as the one in the A550 that you were so impressed with. Are there significant differences, and if so, how would you characterise them?
The AF system on basic level Alphas was improved or changed in algorithms (I suspect it is mainly software based improvement) with introduction of the A230, A330 and A380 along with the new SAM lenses. It is I guess partly down to individual experience, but from the A380 onwards I have experienced far more reliable accurate AF from these models and the A550 is no exception. I don’t think there is any real speed difference, if anything the newer 2/3 models could have a slower AF motor than the earlier 200-350 range. Accuracy, or calibration matching to lenses, is improved even over the Alpha 700.
So far I have not heard of anyone with major front or back focus problems with the A230-380 series or the A450-550 series. All my own lenses, old and new, work well. Conclusion: they got a lot of hassle from the A100 to the A700, maybe it is slightly better with the A350 but I am not sure of that since I did get some focus errors with that camera and my 18-250mm; they have managed to fix things well enough to avoid the hassle continuing. I still have the A350, and like it, but it shows front focus sometimes (worst with wide angles). The A550 doesn’t and nor did the A380 – especially with the SAM lenses, they are a bit crude but seem to hit the mark.
I have made some major updates to this review on August 5th, following a few enquiries about whether or not the flash operated in wireless mode, whether Live View could be connected to TV via HDMI – etc. The good news is that it all works, the Flash modes are actually a big all-round improvement on the A200-350 series (very clever firmware remembering your settings as you change modes and intelligently accepting or over-riding), the HDMI connection allows Live View tethered shooting. Had Sony been bright enough to include a wired remote socket, the A380 would have become the world’s best camera for aerial mast photography – 50 or 100ft is nothing to an HDMI cable (they are designed for long connections), and LV on a portable HDTV monitor with focus point confirmation would work well. A super-power infra red trigger would be needed to fire the shutter though!