When it first came out last year, the Sony Alpha a58 was aimed at the middle ground between newcomers to DSLRs and more advanced enthusiasts. It replaced two previous models from Sony, and its healthy selection of features reflected the range of its intended audience. More importantly, more than a year on, the a58 continues to stand out on the basis of its specs, features, and image handling. And it delivers all of this at a compelling, budget price: $450 with an 18-55mm lens. If you aren't already tied to Canon or Nikon--and don't need any of the specific lenses that those systems offer--the Sony Alpha a58 is a great choice.
The a58 is solidly built. Its weight and size are about the same as that of the Canon EOS Rebel T5i, but it has two distinct physical traits that I liked: A cutout in the comfortably deep hand grip for my middle finger to rest on and a thumb rest at back, similar to the Nikon D3300. Both of these subtle design elements made the camera easy to grasp. I wouldn't say it was easier to hold, though: Despite being 0.1 of pound lighter than the Canon T5i, the a58 with its lens and battery felt heavier and less balanced to handle than other models I tested.
The a58's display articulates, but doesn't have the same range of movement as the T5i's. The a58's 2.7-inch LCD slides down, pivoting flat if pulled out, and it's adjustable on a tilt for overhead shots. While it's not quite as versatile as a full swing-out display like the Canon T5i's, the a58's display does allow for overhead and low-angle shots that you can't achieve with a normal, static display.
If you're left-handed, you might appreciate the unusual layout. The camera's 360-degree control dial sits on the top, to the left of the flash unit. This is counter-intuitive for those of us used to cameras typically having such controls to the right of the flash, and depending upon your dexterity, that may inhibit quick settings-changes--it certainly did for me.
The dial has clean, self-explanatory graphics that show on the screen as you switch among the options. The usual settings are here: program aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual; plus options for continuous exposure priority, movie, picture effect (which includes toy camera and miniaturization among the 11 choices), sweep panorama, scene mode (for nine presets, including the annoyingly buried macro for close-up shooting).
Beneath the clearly labeled dial sits the menu button for accessing a tabbed settings menu. Once again, the menu presentation is clean, and text is clear and simple to read on the high-resolution display. You navigate through the menu options using the four-way rocker to the right of the display, with a center button that doubles as select and auto-focus tracking.
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