As a mid-range model the A500 does provide a reasonable level of creative custom control, although obviously not as much as a high-end semi-pro camera. In this respect it is about the same as the EOS 500D and D5000. Colour control consists of a range of pre-sets, which can be customised for saturation, contrast and sharpness. As well as this long-exposure noise reduction can be turned on or off and high-ISO noise reduction can be adjusted. Adjustments are made either via the main menu or a live function menu.
The A500 is equipped with Sony's Exmor CMOS sensor and high-speed BIONZ processor, and takes full advantage of these to produce exceptionally fast performance. It can start up, focus, and shoot a picture in about half a second from a cold start, although the same is true of all current mid-range DSLRs. In single shot mode and JPEG-fine image quality it can maintain well over a frame a second even when focusing on moving subjects. In Raw+JPEG mode this slows down slightly to a shot-to-shot time of approximately 1.3 seconds with a class 6 SD card, although using a faster class 10 card speeds this up to 1.1 seconds. In continuous shooting mode at JPEG fine quality and using the viewfinder it can shoot at an impressive 5fps, faster than either the EOS 500D or D5000. Switching to Raw+JPEG mode it can shoot a three-frame burst in about a second, but then settles into a steady 1fps which it appears to be able to maintain indefinitely.
The A500 features Sony's very effective Dynamic Range Optimiser system which we've seen before on other models, but takes it one step further, adding in-camera HDR imaging. Pentax introduced this technology in the superb K-7, and the results that it can produce were obviously enough for Sony to sit up and take notice. The A500 takes three shots in rapid succession then combines them into one image, adding at least a couple of stops of extra dynamic range to both shadow and highlight detail. It's best used with discretion, but can make a big difference to high contrast shots.
The A500 is available in a bundle with Sony's recently introduced 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom lens. This is a much better kit lens than the old 18-70mm, and produces excellent corner-to-corner sharpness, good contrast and plenty of sharp detail. It does suffer from a tiny amount of chromatic aberration toward the edges of the frame, but this is easily tidied up in Raw mode. Other aspects of image quality are also impressive. The A500 has much better high-ISO noise control than some previous models, producing good clean shots at 800 ISO and an acceptable level of noise at 1600 ISO. Colour rendition in standard mode is very natural, exposure metering and white balance are accurate and consistent, and the overall appearance of images is very pleasing. It is capable of producing picture quality as good as anything else in its price bracket.
The Sony Alpha A500 is a well-designed mid-range camera ideal for anyone upgrading from an entry-level model. It is rather bulky compared to its main rivals, but it is solidly made and handles well. It has a good range of features, excellent performance and reliably good image quality. If the lack of a video mode is no handicap then it's certainly worth looking at.