Sony Alpha DSLR-A500 review: Sony Alpha DSLR-A500

Usually more buttons mean a more streamlined shooting experience, but the A500 seems designed for LCD-based shooting rather than viewfinder shooting. On one hand, the viewfinder displays image stabilization status--bars show how close to steady it is--and will indicate if the lens is in manual focus mode. However, it fits those in by trading off for more traditional information, such as ISO sensitivity. That means you have to look at the back display to change it. The viewfinder prompts mixed reactions as well. It displays the focus indicators as large, persistent boxes, which is a nice switch from the tiny dots favored by competitors' viewfinders. However, the viewfinder is small with a low magnification factor. Since the LCD extends out a bit past the eyecup, you actually have to cram your face against the camera to see through it. I've left cheekprints all over it.

Usually on dSLRs with buttons on the top right, manufacturers place them forward enough to easily reach with your forefinger. On the A500, they're set closer to the camera back where you can't comfortably reach them with either your thumb or forefinger unless you lower the camera. On the cheaper models, Sony puts controls for the ISO sensitivity and drive modes on the navigation switch on the back of the camera. I think that placement works better than the three hard-to-reach buttons on the top of this one.

The Fn button on the back pulls up drive mode, flash settings, autofocus mode, autofocus area, ISO sensitivity, metering, flash compensation, white balance, DRO/Auto HDR, and Creative Styles. But the switch you use to navigate them feels a bit too flat, without enough tactile feedback; I frequently ended up pressing the AF button while moving around the options. (I discuss the settings interface further here.)

  Canon EOS T1i Nikon D5000 Pentax K-x Sony Alpha DSLR-A500
Sensor (effective resolution) 15.1-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS 12.4-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel Exmor CMOS
22.3 mm x 14.9mm 23.6 mm x 15.8mm 23.6 mm x 14.8mm 23.5 mm x 15.6mm
Color depth 14 bit 12 bit 12 bit n/a
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6,400/12,800 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Continuous shooting 3.4fps
9 raw/170 JPEG
4fps
7 raw/25 JPEG (medium/fine)
4.7fps
5 raw/17 JPEG
5fps
6 raw/12 JPEG
Viewfinder
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
0.87x/0.54x
95% coverage
0.78x/0.52x
96% coverage
0.85x/0.57x
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
9 cross-type
9-pt AF
center cross-type
Shutter speed 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/6,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering 35 zone 420-pixel 3D color matrix 16 segment 40 segment
Image Stabilization Optical Optical Sensor shift Sensor shift
Live View Yes Yes Yes Yes
Video 1080/20p; 720/30p H.264 QuickTime MOV 720/24p Motion JPEG AVI 720/24p Motion JPEG AVI No
LCD size 3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
2.7 inches articulated
230,000 dots
2.7 inches fixed
230,000 dots
3 inches tiltable
921,600 dots
Wireless flash No No Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 400 shots 510 shots 1,100 shots (lithium batteries) 1,000 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.1x3.8x2.4 5.0x4.1x3.1 4.8x3.6x2.7 5.4x4.1x3.3
Body operating weight (ounces) 18.6 21.6 20.4 24.0
Mfr. Price $649 (body only, est) $629.95 (body only) $599 (body only, est) $549.99 (body only)
$799 (with 18-55mm lens) $700 (with 18-55mm lens, est) $649.95 (with 18-55mm lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
Ship date April 2009 April 2009 October 2009 November 2009

While not as flexible of a design as a flip-and-twist articulated LCD is, Sony's tiltable displays are nice for shooting at odd angles. The A500's display is otherwise pretty comparable with the competitions'. If you use Live View a lot, you'll appreciate the A500's fast Live View autofocus, as well as the MF Check LV mode that not only magnifies the focus area but also adjusts the displayed exposure so that you can see what you're doing. While Live View displays only 90 percent of the scene--that's even less than the optical viewfinder--the MF Check LV mode displays 100 percent.

It doesn't burst with novel features, but the A500 has a couple of interesting capabilities. It has an Auto HDR mode that snaps two sequential shots at different exposures and combines them into a single shot with "optimal" highlight and shadow detail. It doesn't have quite as much control as I'd like--you can manually select the amount of the bracket at up to 3 stops in 1.5-stop increments or leave it in auto, but it's limited to two shots and it doesn't save the individual frames, just the combined result and only as a JPEG. But it does seem to work better for extended the dynamic range over Sony's DRO, and the fully automatic setting doesn't override your ISO sensitivity setting as I'd expected. There's a couple seconds performance overhead on shot-to-shot time as it processes and saves the image.

(You can get a complete description of the A500's features, controls and operation by downloading a PDF of the manual.)

The camera stands out from its line mates as the best overall value, but the Sony DSLR-A500's quirky design and interface leave the otherwise nice mid-to-entry-level dSLR lagging just a little behind the rest of the pack.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim light)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Pentax K-x
0.7 
0.6 
0.5 
0.3 
Sony Alpha DSLR-A500
0.3 
0.9 
0.6 
0.3 
Canon EOS Rebel T1i
0.2 
0.4 
0.6 
0.3 
Nikon D5000
0.2 
0.5 
0.7 
0.3 
Sony Alpha DSLR-A550
0.4 
0.8 
0.7 
0.3 

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Sony Alpha DSLR-A500
4.8 
Pentax K-x
4.2 

What you'll pay

Pricing is currently unavailable.

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Where to Buy

Sony a (Alpha) DSLR-A500H - digital camera DT 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses - with Sony LCS-BDF Case

Part Number: DSLRA500H Released: Nov. 1, 2009

MSRP: $799.99

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Nov. 1, 2009
  • Optical Zoom 3 x
  • Optical Sensor Type Exmor CMOS
  • Sensor Resolution 12.3 Megapixel
  • Image Stabilizer optical (SteadyShot INSIDE)
  • Optical Sensor Size 15.6 x 23.5mm