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Sony A550 First Impressions

With the introduction of the A500, A550 and A850 in late August, '09 Sony now has more DSLRs in its line up than Baskin & Robbins has flavours – we'll, almost; there are in fact now seven models, the A230, A330, A380, A500, A550, A850 and A900.

As regular readers know I have been a big fan of the A900 and Sony's G and Zeiss Lenses. The just announced A850 puts the icing on the Sony product line cake by dropping the price of 25MP Full Frame 35mm to around $2,000, without compromising the robust build quality and excellent image quality of its predecessor, (high ISO limitations notwithstanding).

It's been quite a while since I have reviewed or even commented on a consumer grade DSLR (at least one without special capabilities). But, along with the introduction of the A850 Sony has announced the A500 and A550. At a press briefing a few weeks prior to introduction the A550 caught my eye and so I decided to have a look.

Be aware that this is not a review; simply a first look after a chance to spend a few days with the 550. I am only looking at those features that the camera has that are stand-outs, either positive or negative. For a full product review you'll have to look elsewhere.

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The Basics

The Sony A550 is Sony's new top-tier consumer camera. Only the A850 and A900 are more expensive. Priced at around $800 the A550 is right in the thick of the battle, with fierce competition from just about every other camera maker.

The sensor is a newly introduced 14.2 Megapixel APS-C CMOS. The camera has a 921K 3" LCD, similar to the ones on the A850 and A900. This is one of the best LCD in the business, with great resolution and readability in direct sunlight.

The camera features a partially articulated LCD and Live View, but no video. It accepts SD cards as well as Sony's proprietary Memorysticks and can take both card types at the same time. But, unlike other cameras that take two cards at once, it can not write raws to one and JPGs to the other, or write to them sequentially. Card switching is accomplished with a mechanical switch inside the card door.

The ISO range offered is from 200 to 12,800 and it can shoot at 5 FPS when the optical viewfinder is active and 4 FPS when using Live View. There is a speed priority mode which allows up to 7 FPS with reduced AF capability.

Just about all of the expected bells and whistles that amateur cameras have to have these days are present – face detection AF, a plethora of scene modes on the main dial, dynamic range enhancement, and a multi-frame HDR mode, which I'll have more to write about shortly.

Sony's Steadyshot Inside sensor-based image stabilization is used, and it does a very good job of providing stabilization to all lenses, so long as one keeps ones eye on the in-viewfinder (or LCD) display that shows when maximum stabilization has been achieved. Sensor shake dust removal is also included.

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Fit and Finish

The move during the past 10 years or so has been from cameras being precision mechanical devices to molded polycarbonate containers for electronic components. This has meant a lowering of overall physical quality. What one gets in terms of features, functions and image quality is higher than ever before, but the satisfaction of owning and using a high quality mechanical and optical device has for the most part evaporated. Only the top models within any brand produce a tactile satisfaction and please ones esthetic sense.

Unfortunately the lower cost Sonys, as exemplified by the A550 at least, are among the flag bearers of this trend. I was singularly unimpressed with the camera's fit and finish. Maybe it's the gray plastic look of the top panel – a colour which was ugly on the otherwise excellent Sony 70-400mm f/2.8 G lens, and is ugly here as well.

I was even less impressed with the 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 DT kit lens, which has the most basic plastic mount, an almost nonexistent manual focusing ring, and no distance markings. The new 50mm f/1.8 DT lens is similarly finished, but at least has distance markings. The camera's shutter release and its surround are again metal-looking plastic, which rarely manages to look anything but cheap.

This is not a critique of the camera's ergonomics or robustness. The former are generally fine, in the vein of current mid-tier models, and I have no reason to doubt that the camera will be as robust as similarly priced models from other makers. It's just the "look" and "feel" of the A550 that I am less than excited about. This level of fit and finish may be acceptable at the very bottom of the product line, but this is intended to be the top of the consumer range.

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HDR

HDR is a current hot topic. This is the ability to shoot multiple exposures and to then stack them in Photoshop (or other software) and then use the shadow areas from one image and the mid-tones and highlights from another, using two or more images.

This is the first time I've seen this capability in-camera (though Pentax has it in the K7 ). One can set the range of exposure bracketing one wants, from automatic to up to three stops in half-stop increments, and the camera will then take two frames in rapid succession when the shutter is pressed, merging them in-camera.

This only works with JPGs, and only two images are used. But, it does quite a nice job, as can be seen in the examples below, and for someone without Photoshop skills, or access to specialized HDR software, it's a cool capability.

Normal Auto-Exposure

HDR- 3 Stop Spread

No adjustments were made to either of these shots. They were done in Program mode.

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Live View

Sony's implementation of Live View on the A550 is among the best in the industry. As with the A350 and A380 there is a dedicated switch to the left of the prism that switches between Live View and the optical viewfinder. Unlike most other systems that use contrast detection autofocus, which can be very slow, the A550 uses a separate sensor located inside the viewfinder housing to provide both Live View and phase detection autofocus.

This is very well implemented, with the exception that as a consequence it causes the optical viewfinder to become very small and dim because of space constraints. It also means that the main mirror doesn't have to do a dance, as other cameras do, when viewing, focusing, and shooting. The mirror only goes up when taking a photograph, just as when taking a photo with SLR viewing.

On the negative side, using the small sensor used for Live View, as opposed to the main sensor, means that in low light the image on-screen becomes quite noisy. This is, of course, only seen on-screen and doesn't affect ones final images.

There is a solution though, and that's the Manual Focus Check Live View, actuated by a separate button on the camera's top panel. This raises the mirror and provides viewing through the camera's primary sensor, offering none of the compromises of the secondary sensor, but also not offering any form of automated focusing – thus this function's name.

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The Viewfinder

I'm not going to pull any punches. The A550's viewfinder is the smallest and dimmest that I've ever seen. Other Sony consumer models with Live view are similar.

It is appallingly bad. Think of looking into a dark room though a hole with a small window visible on a distant wall. That's what the viewfinder looks like. And this is from the company that makes the industry's undisputedly largest and brightest viewfinder, as found on the A900 and new A850.

The reason for this is that the prism area (actually a pentamirror) has to have room for the second sensor used in the camera's excellent Live View implementation, and this has necessitated a reduction in the pentamirror's size.

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The LCD

As mentioned, the rear LCD is high resolution and bright. It is also articulated, which in my books is a very good thing, because once one adds Live View to a camera, being able to adjust the screen for viewing from above or below becomes almost a necessity. Regretably Canon and Nikon haven't gotten the memo on this one yet, I'm afraid.

The mechanism for tilting the LCD appears to be very robust. It doesn't allow for the LCD to tilt sideways and then face forward, the way the Panasonic GH1 does, but then without video capability this isn't as necessary. This also means that the LCD isn't usable when shooting vertically.

My other complaint is that the LCD protrudes somewhat from the main body panel, and when combined with the recessed, small, and dim viewfinder, makes viewing through the eyepiece a bit of a challenge, especially with glasses on. Just not my idea of a good time.

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What's Missing?

Video, of course. Unlike its primary competitors the A550 (nor any Sony DSLR for that matter) does not have any video capability. Though not every still photographer wants or needs video it's definately a "nice to have" for many people, and since more than a few low and intermediate end DSLR customers are stepping up from digicams that mostly do have video capabilities, its lack on the A550 will be an issue.

The lack of video on Sony DSLRs is hard to figure. Maybe it is due to a technical issue which we are not aware of (possibly the use of sensor-based stabilization – though the Pentax K7 also has this, and yet still has video). Or maybe it's simply that Sony has misread the demands of the marketplace.

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The Bottom Line

This is by no means a full review. Not even close. All I've hoped to do here is touch on a few of the A550's features that separate it from the pack – for better or worse. The many fine sites that do full reviews of consumer-grade cameras will no doubt have much more comprehensive reviews in the days ahead.

But, looked at through the lens (no pun intended) of a working photographer it's hard for me to fell much love for the A550. Not that it's a bad camera, or an underfeatured camera. It's neither. Indeed I haven't even commented on or tested its image quality, though superficially it seems comparable to what I've seen from similarly priced and speced cameras.

My impression is that the A550 and its less expensive Sony brethren seem to be from a different design and build group from the A850 and A900. Those camera's are designed with an almost minimalist esthetic, focusing on form following function and a very high build quality. The lesser models though are clearly targeted at the consumer rather that the serious photographer market, and that's as it should be. But anyone buying one of these models will have little idea of how different (and how good) the A900 and the new A850 are by comparison.

The A550 will appeal to beginners and Sunday photographers who value automatic operation and programmed Scene Modes, as well as lots of gizmos. It will also appeal to photographers who, coming from digicams, are mostly used to using Live View on an LCD rather than an SLR viewfinder. But when at their dealer they'd better not look through the viewfinder of an A850, or they'll wonder what on earth is going on.

For not a whole lot more money the new Sony A850 is such an incredible photographic tool, with build quality and image quality vastly superior to the A550, that I would urge prospective buyers with a passion for photography rather than gadgets to eat peanut butter sandwiches at lunch for a few months, and save up for an A850 instead. Oh yes – and buy a couple of inexpensive used Minolta lenses with real focusing rings and distance scales until you can afford some Sony G or Zeiss glass. Your photography will be the better for it.

But for someone looking to move up from a digicam to a DSLR, who is accustomed to using Live View, as well as someone who wants hand-holding shooting modes and gizmos, they won't go far wrong with the Sony A550.

August, 2009


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Concepts: Single-lens reflex camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Digital camera, Photography equipment, Viewfinder, Leica Camera, Digital cameras

Entities: Sony, Pentax, Canon, Panasonic, Nikon, optical viewfinder, DSLR, HDR, Michael Reichmann, Robbins

Tags: camera, Live View, sony, viewfinder, image, image quality, sensor, optical viewfinder, video, Sony A550, sony dslrs, card, scene modes, Sony product line, focusing rings, distance markings, new sony a850, reviews, detection autofocus, expensive sony brethren, video capability, consumer grade dslr, Sensor shake dust, consumer camera, Check Live View, Live View implementation, overall physical quality, ones esthetic sense, Megapixel APS-C CMOS, camera maker, multi-frame hdr mode, sensor-based image stabilization, excellent image quality, DT kit lens, SLR viewfinder, intermediate end dslr, speed priority mode, brightest viewfinder, high iso limitations, underfeatured camera