One thing that Sony does better than any of the other DSLR manufacturers is its unique live monitor view system, which features full phase detection autofocus. Other manufacturers use the main imaging sensor for live monitor view, which means the reflex mirror has to be flipped up out of the way. Since the AF sensor is usually in the viewfinder lightpath this obviously means that the normal AF can't be used, and other manufacturers have to use slower and a less efficient contrast detection AF system in live view mode. Sony gets around this by having a separate live view imaging sensor in the viewfinder lightpath. This means that the mirror can stay down and the faster viewfinder phase detection AF system can be used. Taking pictures in live view mode is also quicker with the Sony system, because the mirror only has to flip up once when the shutter is pressed.
The monitor itself is a relatively low resolution three-inch 230k unit, but does have a very wide angle of view, and is articulated, folding out on a hinged frame that allows it to be tilted up or down by up to ninety degrees in either direction, ideal for studio use on a tripod or hand-held when shooting in a crowd. As with previous models the live view automatically previews the the exposure level in manual exposure mode, which is annoying when using an external flash in the studio, but the useful addition of the “MF Check LV” button allows the view to be checked at full brightness. This function flips the mirror up, which obviously deactivates the autofocus system, but by pre-focusing in normal live view mode the camera can be used effectively for studio photography.
The autofocus system is very good. It uses nine focus sensors, with a cross-type sensor at the centre point. It is extremely fast and accurate, and operates well in low light. Unlike its Nikon and Canon rivals the A500 has no AF assist lamp, instead using a very fast pulsed burst from the pop-up flash to illuminate the scene in very low light. The flash will pop up automatically in Auto mode, but must be raised manually in other modes.
One feature notable by its absence is any sort of video recording mode. When all of its rivals are incorporating HD video recording modes often with stereo audio into their digital SLRs, ommiting this feature might seem like an odd decision from Sony, but then the company did wait to implement live view on its DSLRs until it could get it right, so maybe it will surprise us with video quality to rival a Red One with 7.1 audio on its next generation of DSLR cameras, we'll just have to wait and see. Whatever the reason, the A500 has no video, so if you feel a pressing need for moving pictures you'll have to look elsewhere.