Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Review
Originally Posted: February 8, 2010
Last Updated: February 17, 2010
The Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 (from $899) is a midrange digital SLR that features a 14 Megapixel CMOS sensor, built-in image stabilization, live view, a tilting LCD display, full manual controls, and the kind of expandability that you'd expect from this type of camera.
The A550 is one of five APS-C digital SLRs that Sony has introduced in the last nine months. To help you figure out the differences between the various models, I've put together this chart (you may need to widen your browser window a bit):
Hopefully that cleared up a few questions that you may have had. The main thing that separates the A500 and A550 from its cheaper siblings (the A330/A380) are the use of a CMOS sensor, a larger LCD and viewfinder, improved image stabilization, a wider ISO range, faster continuous shooting, and nearly double the battery life.
Is the A550 worth the price premium over the DSLR-A380 and A500? And how does it compare to other digital SLRs in this class? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 is sold in two different kits. You can buy the body alone ($899), or get the body plus an 18- 55 mm lens ($999). Here's what you'll find in the box for both of those kits:
- The 14.2 effective Megapixel DSLR-A550 camera body
- F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 55 mm Sony DT zoom lens [DSLR-A550L kit only]
- NP-FM500H lithium-ion rechargeable battery
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Eyepiece cover
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- CD-ROM featuring Picture Motion Browser, Image Data Converter, and Image Data Lightbox software
- 176 page camera manual (printed)
If you buy the body + lens kit, then you'll be ready to start taking photos as soon as you take everything out of the box. The F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm Sony lens is pretty average by kit lens standards. It's almost entirely made of plastic, so it's light, but not terribly sturdy. I'm not a fan of having the focus ring at the end of the lens, but at least the one here is wide and easy to hold on to. The lens does have some issues with barrel distortion and purple fringing, but overall, photos are pretty sharp. If you want to use other lenses, there are plenty to choose from. You can use all Alpha-mount lenses, whether they're newer Sony models, or classics from the Minolta days. Whichever lens you use, there will be a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio to keep in the back of your mind.
As with all digital SLRs, the A550 does not include a memory card. The camera has two memory cards slots: one for Memory Stick Duo media, and the other for SD/SDHC cards. Only one slot can be used at a time, so you can't have two cards going at once (for backup or overflow purposes). I'd probably stick with SDHC cards, as they're generally cheaper, faster, and non-proprietary. Whichever type of memory card you select, I'd go for a 4GB one. It's worth spending a little extra for a high speed model, as well.
The DSLR-A550 uses the powerful NP-FM500H InfoLithium rechargeable battery. With a whopping 11.8 Wh of energy inside, you should expect great battery life from the camera And that's just what you get:
As you can see, the A550 has the best better life in this group, by a long shot. Of course, those numbers are when you're shooting with the optical viewfinder. If you're using live view only, expect to get 480 shots per charge, which still beats the numbers put up by the live view-only Panasonic and Samsung cameras, as well as those from the Canon Rebel T1i (170 shots). The other manufacturers don't publish live view battery life numbers, so I can't tell you how those compare.
All of the cameras on the above list use proprietary lithium-ion batteries, instead of conventional AAs. These batteries tend to be expensive (a spare will cost you at least $62), and you can't use an off-the-shelf battery to get you through the day when your rechargeable runs out of juice. Some cameras let you use AA batteries via their optional battery grips, though the A550 isn't one of them.
The A550's optional battery grip; photo courtesy of Sony Electronics
That's not to say the you can't get a battery grip for the A550, though. Sony offers the VG-B50AM ($250), which holds two NP-FM500H batteries, giving you double the battery life (that's nearly 2000 shots with the viewfinder!). And, as you'd expect, you also get extra controls that enable easier portrait shooting.
When it's time to charge the NP-FM500H battery, you can just pop it into the included charger. This isn't the fastest charger in the world, with a typical charge taking 175 minutes, and a full charge taking 225. This charger doesn't plug directly into the wall -- you must use the included power cable.
Being a digital SLR, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the DSLR-A550 supports plenty of accessories. Here's a list of what I think are the most important accessories:
These are just a handful of the accessories that Sony offers. Other items include macro ring lights and flashes, various viewfinder accessories, a GPS unit (which I own and really like), and more camera bags and straps that I'd like to count.
I should add that the only way to connect your camera to a television is via the optional HDMI cable. The A550 does NOT support composite video output (unlike nearly every camera I've ever tested), so keep this in mind if you don't have a TV with HDMI.
Picture Motion Browser for Windows
Sony includes several software products with the A550. The first one is Picture Motion Browser, and it's for Windows only. PMB can be used for acquiring photos from the camera, organizing them, and performing basic editing tasks.
Photos can be viewed in the traditional thumbnail view, or you can jump to photos taken on a certain day in calendar view. Whichever view you're using, you can print photos, e-mail them, or burn them to a CD or DVD. Photos can also be quickly rotated, and a slideshow features is also available.
Edit screen in Picture Motion Browser
Editing options are fairly limited in Picture Motion Browser. Tools include auto enhancement, brightness, saturation, and sharpness adjustment, redeye reduction, and cropping. You can also adjust the tone curve, or print the date on your photo.
While Picture Motion Browser can view RAW files, you can't actually do anything with them. For that, you'll want to fire up one of the following programs.
Image Data Converter SR in Mac OS X
Image Data Converter SR is Sony's main RAW editing application. It works on both Mac (though not well under Snow Leopard) and Windows systems, and it seemed relatively quick at performing edits. If you can imagine an image property to edit, chances are that IDC can do it. Some of the highlights include D-Range Optimizer adjustment, noise reduction, tone curves, peripheral illumination (vignetting), and staples like white balance and exposure. A "version stack" option lets you go back in time through your various adjustments. Users can also save processing formulas, which can be applied to other images with the click of your mouse. Finally, there's a one-push "send to Photoshop" button, which exports the file to TIFF format and opens it up in Adobe's photo editor.
Speaking of Photoshop, you can open up the A550's RAW files if you're using version 5.6 or newer of the Camera Raw plug-in.
Image Data Lightbox SR
A related program is known as Image Data Lightbox SR. This application that lets you select up to four images (RAW or JPEG) and view them zoomed in and side-by-side so you can compare details. The "synchronous" option moves the images you're comparing at the same time, which can be quite handy.
Oh, and if you have no idea what RAW is, I'll tell you. In a nutshell, RAW files contain unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process them on your computer before you can do anything else with them, but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction, without reducing the quality of the original image. In other words, it's almost like taking the photo again. The downsides to RAW include the much larger file sizes (which means longer write times, and smaller bursts) and the need to process each and every image on your computer in order to save them in more commonly used formats.
Sony includes a 176 page manual with the DSLR-A550. It's not the most user-friendly manual out there, with some confusing charts and fine print. It's not as detailed as one would expect for a complex camera such as this, either. Documentation for the software bundle is installed directly onto your Mac or PC.