Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Review
Look and Feel
The DSLR-A550 is a midsize digital SLR with a body made mostly of plastic. While I don't think the camera is going to crack in half, it does feel a bit cheaper than I'd expect from a D-SLR costing $1000. In the hand, the A550 reminds me a lot of the Canon EOS Rebel models, in that the right hand grip is on the small side. This grip doesn't give me a lot of confidence when I'm holding the camera with just one hand. In other words, I'd definitely get your hands on the A550 (pun intended) before you buy one.
The camera has more than its share of buttons, though they are well-labeled and usually serve just one function. The camera has a single control dial on its front side (and it's a bit out of the way, too), so you will need to hold down a button if you want to switch between adjusting the aperture and shutter speed when in manual mode.
Alright, now let's see how the DSLR-A550 compares to other cameras in its class in terms of size and weight:
The A550 is easily the largest camera in the group, even if you ignore the two mirrorless interchangeable lens models from Panasonic and Samsung. It's not quite the heaviest model, with that honor going to the Pentax K-7, which has a much more solid body.
Ready to start the tour of the DSLR-A550? I know I am!
Here's the front of the A550, without a lens attached. Like its predecessors, the A550 supports all Alpha (α) mount lenses, whether they're new Sony models or classics from the Minolta era. Sony has a pretty impressive collection of lenses these days, including five made by Carl Zeiss. Whichever lens you use, there will be a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio, so a 50 mm lens has a 75 mm field-of-view. To release a lens, simply press the button located just to the right of the mount.
Right in the middle of the lens mount, behind the mirror, is the A550's newly designed 14.2 Megapixel CMOS sensor. Like all digital SLRs, Sony has a dust reduction system to keep annoying spots from ending up on your photos. The first part of this is an anti-static coating on the low-pass filter that sits in front of the CMOS sensor, to keep dust from landing there in the first place. Any dust that does end up on the filter will probably be removed when the camera "shakes" the sensor when the camera is turned on and off.
The same system that shakes the dust off of the sensor is also part of the A550's SteadyShot image stabilization system. Gyroscopic sensors inside the camera detect the tiny movements of your hands that cause the "camera shake" that can blur your photos -- especially in low light or when you're using a telephoto lens. The A550 then shifts the CMOS sensor itself to compensate for this motion, which makes a sharp photo a lot more likely. Sony says that their IS system gives you a four stop advantage over unstabilized cameras. And, since the IS system is built into the camera body, every lens you attach will have shake reduction. Keep in mind that no image stabilization system can freeze a moving subject, nor will they allow for multi-second handheld exposures. But they're way better than nothing at all!
Want to see the SteadyShot Inside system in action? Look at these?
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on
I took both of the above photos at a shutter speed of 1/4 second. As you can probably tell, the image taken with SteadyShot turned on is noticeably sharper. I will say that I miss having a dedicated on/off switch for the IS system on the camera -- now you have to go into the menu to change it.
Directly above the lens mount is the A550's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. The flash has a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, which is typical for a D-SLR in this class. The built-in flash also serves as the "master" for a wireless flash system, and you can use the HVL-F42AM or HVL-F58AM as slaves. If you just want more flash power, you can also attach an external flash to the hot shoe you'll see in a moment.
The A550's flash is also used as an AF-assist lamp. When the flash is raised, the camera will send out rapid pulses of light, which help the camera's autofocus sensor quickly and accurately lock focus. If you don't actually want to take a flash photo, you can lower the flash after focus is locked. While these flash-based systems are more effective than a dedicated AF-assist lamp, your subjects may find the strobe light effect to be a bit annoying.
Over on the grip is the receiver for the optional remote control, as well as the self-timer lamp. Above that is the A550's sole command dial, used for adjusting things like exposure compensation, shutter speed, and aperture.
One of the DSLR-A550's most unique features is its ultra high resolution, tiltable 3-inch LCD display. As you can see from the photo above, the screen can be pulled away from the back of the camera, and you can then articulate the screen a little over 180 degrees. Thus, you can have the screen pointed at the ceiling, the floor, or anywhere in-between. Tilting LCDs like this aren't quite as useful as those that flip out to the side and rotate, but they still add a lot of flexibility when it comes to taking pictures.
And here you can see the LCD in a more traditional position. As I mentioned, this 3-inch display is very high resolution, with over 921,000 pixels available. Whether you're composing photos via live view (more on that in a sec), reviewing those you've taken, or just navigating the menus, everything looks fantastic. I found the screen quite easy to see in bright outdoor light.
Cutaway of the DSLR-A550's live view system
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
The DSLR-A550 has the latest version of Sony's live view system. Like the A300-series models before it, the camera has a secondary CCD located near the optical viewfinder to provide the live view in most situations. Olympus deserves credit for coming up with this concept several years ago, but Sony got it a lot closer to perfection. Here's how it works: When you flip the switch at the top of the camera to live view, you're actually changing the position of a mirror near the viewfinder. This sends the light coming through the lens to the secondary CCD, which then produces the live view you see on the LCD. Autofocus is still provided by the camera's main AF sensor, which allows for the exact same focus speeds that you'd get using the viewfinder. In fact, shooting with this live view feature feels just like it does on a compact camera: simply halfway-press the shutter release to lock focus, and then press it fully to take a photo.
Regular live view, complete with live histogram
The quality of the live view is excellent in good light, with good brightness and a high refresh rate. You can preview white balance and exposure, display a live histogram, detect faces, and even use the Smile Shutter feature that has been a staple on Sony's compact cameras for a few years now. So what's the bad news? The coverage in live view is only 90%, low light visibility is poor, and the design of this whole system makes the optical viewfinder smaller than some would like.
Zoomed in 7X using MF Check live view
All is not lost, though: Sony added a second live view mode to the A550, called MF Check LV. This uses the camera's CMOS sensor to produce the live view, and it shows 100% of the frame. As its name implies, this feature is really for manual focusing only (halfway-pressing the shutter release does nothing), though you can get help from the AF system by pressing the "AF" button on the back of the camera. You can enlarge the view on the LCD by 7X or 14X (and then move around using the four-way controller), to focus with absolute precision. I found that low light viewing was noticeably better when using this mode, instead of regular live view.
|Basic version of info screen (note how shutter speed and aperture are represented)||And the more detailed one. No, you can't easily change the settings on this screen like on some cameras.|
When you're shooting with the optical viewfinder, the LCD can display exposure information and current camera settings. As you can see, Sony has tried to make the effects of shutter speed and aperture a bit more obvious, since many beginners have little idea what those words actually mean in the real world. In the auto shooting modes you can't really do anything with it (since you can't adjust them), but when you switch into aperture or shutter priority mode, this feature becomes more useful.
Alright, enough talk about live view for now -- let's get back to the tour with a look at the optical viewfinder. While the magnification of the viewfinder has risen from 0.74X (on the DSLR-A350) to 0.80X, it's still one of the smallest on the market (only the Olympus E-620's is smaller). The viewfinder doesn't protrude very far back from the camera, either -- my nose and glasses usually ended up smashed against the LCD. The viewfinder shows 95% of the frame, which is typical for this class. Below the field-of-view is a line of shooting data that displays things such as focus lock, shots remaining, aperture, shutter speed, the amount of camera shake, and more. You can adjust the focus of the viewfinder by using the diopter correction knob on its right side.
Immediately below the viewfinder is what Sony calls the EyeStart sensor. This holdover from the Minolta era will activate the camera's autofocus system when you put your eye to the viewfinder. I've never been a fan of this, so I turn it off almost immediately.
To the left of the viewfinder are the Menu and Display buttons. The former does just as you'd expect, while the latter toggles the information shown on the LCD. On the opposite side of the viewfinder are the smart teleconverter, exposure compensation + aperture, and AE-lock buttons. I was surprised to see that the smart teleconverter button didn't get the ax on the A550, since I can't imagine that it's used very often. Press it once and the camera drops the resolution to medium (7.4 MP) and gives you a 1.4X focal range boost. Press the button again and the teleconverter goes up to 2X, though the resolution is now set to small (3.5 MP). Hitting the button one more time returns you to normal shooting. Do note that the smart teleconverter feature cannot be used when you're shooting RAW images.
|Function menu||Help screen on a Function sub-menu|
Moving downward, we find the Function (Fn) button, which opens up a "quick menu" in record mode and rotates photos in playback mode. If you have the help guide turned on, a description of each option will be shown on the menu and sub-menu screens. The function menu will vary a bit depending on what shooting mode you're using, but here's the full list:
- Drive mode (Single-shot, low/high speed continuous, speed priority continuous, 2/10 sec self-timer, 0.3/0.7 EV continuous AE bracketing, low/high WB bracketing, remote commander)
- Flash mode (Flash off, auto, flash on, slow sync, rear sync, wireless)
- Autofocus mode (Single-shot, automatic, continuous)
- AF area (Wide, spot, local)
- Face detection (on/off)
- Smile Shutter (Off, low, normal, big smile)
- ISO sensitivity (Auto, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800)
- Metering mode (Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot)
- Flash compensation (-2EV to +2EV)
- White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, flash, color temperature, color filter, custom)
- DRO/Auto HDR (DRO Off, DRO Auto, DRO 1-5, Auto HDR, HDR 1.0 - 3.0 EV)
- Creative Style (Standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset, black and white)
As you can see, there's a whole lot to talk about before we can continue the tour. I'll start with the drive modes, specifically the three continuous shooting options. You can select from low speed, high speed, or speed priority. Here's what kind of performance you can expect for each of those:
Overall, the A550 turned in some impressive numbers in the continuous shooting department. Everything in that table is with live view turned off -- if you turn on live view, expect burst rates to drop by just under 1 frame per second. In addition, the live view goes dark after the first shot when in speed priority mode (but not the other two), which makes tracking a moving subject nearly impossible. Finally, the camera doesn't stop shooting when it hits those numbers in the table -- the burst rate just drops considerably.
The other items of note in the drive mode menu related to bracketing. The DSLR-A550 can bracket for exposure or white balance by taking three shots in a row, each with a different exposure or white balance value. For exposure, the interval between each shot can be 0.3 or 0.7 EV, while for white balance it can be low (10 mired) or high (20 mired).
What are those three autofocus modes all about? Single AF locks the focus when you halfway-press the shutter release button. Continuous AF keeps focusing, even with the shutter release halfway-pressed, which comes in handy when your subject is in motion. Automatic AF selects between one of those two options, depending on what's going on in the frame.
The AF area option is how you pick what part of the frame the camera focuses on. WIth the wide option, the camera will automatically select one of nine focus points for you. The spot option selects only the center point, while the "local" option lets you select one of the nine focus points using the four-way controller.
|The A550 found five of the six faces in our test scene||When the smile meter gets past that marker (set to "big smile" here), the camera will take a photo|
The face detection feature will find up to eight faces in the frame, making sure they are properly focused and exposed. This feature works just as it does on a compact camera, and just as well, too. The A550 had no trouble detecting five of the six faces in our test scene. A related feature is Smile Shutter, which has been on Sony's compact cameras for a few years now. When you turn on this feature the camera will start looking for faces, and once it finds someone who is smiling, it'll take a picture (and continue to do so until they stop smiling). You can set how sensitive this feature is, with slight, normal, and big smile as options.
The A550 has a fairly standard set of white balance controls (for a D-SLR). You've got the usual presets, a custom mode (which lets you use a white or gray card as a reference), and the ability to set the color temperature. Most of those can be fine-tuned in the red or blue direction, and there's a "color filter" option that lets you adjust the WB in the green or magenta directions, as well. If that's still not enough, you can also bracket for white balance, as discussed above.
The Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) feature has been on Sony's digital SLRs for a few years now. It works to improve the dynamic range of an image by breaking it into smaller parts, and adjusting the contrast for each of them individually. You can have it run automatically, or you can manually set how much DRO is applied, on a scale of 1 to 5 (there's no bracketing for DRO, unfortunately). You can also turn the whole thing off, if you'd like. Here's an example of DRO in action:
|DRO Lvl 1
|DRO Lvl 2
|DRO Lvl 3
|DRO Lvl 4
|DRO Lvl 5
You can see why I like using this scene to test out shadow brightening features on cameras! With DRO turned off, the whole scene is pretty dark. Things get a bit brighter with DRO at its default Auto setting, though I still think the shadows need a little boost. In my opinion, the image looks about right when you get to DRO level 2, with anything above that being too much. Do note that noise levels will increase as more DRO is applied.
A new option found in the DRO submenu is Auto HDR (high dynamic range). This feature combines takes two photos in rapid succession (one overexposed, the other underexposed), and combines them to create a photo with wide dynamic range. As with DRO, you can set it to Auto mode, or tweak the exposure differential manually, from 1.0 to 3.0 EV. Here's an example of this feature:
|HDR +1 EV
|HDR +2 EV
|HDR +3 EV
You may have to view the full size images to really see what's going on here, but if you compare the DRO Auto and HDR Auto photos, you'll see a very noticeable difference in highlight detail on the building. The shadows in the foreground are brighter with the HDR shot, as well. I also threw in the three manual settings, and you can see that the HDR Auto mode selected an exposure interval somewhere between 2 and 3 EV.
Adjusting the landscape Creative Style
The last item in the Function menu that I want to mention is Creative Styles. A style contains image parameters for contrast, saturation, and sharpness, and each of those preset choices (vivid, landscape, etc) is pre-tuned for ideal results in those situations. Naturally, you can tweak of those to your liking. Surprisingly, there's no custom spot on the A550, which you'll find on other cameras with features like this.
Getting back to the tour (finally), the next thing to see is the camera's four-way controller. You'll use this for navigating menus, setting the focus point, and reviewing photos you've taken. The center button can be used to activate the autofocus system, in addition to its "OK button" duties when in the menu system.
The final items on the back of the camera are the playback and delete photo buttons, which do exactly as you'd expect.
The first thing to see on the top of the DSLR-A550 is its very plasticky mode dial, which has these options:
The DSLR-A550 has a full set of manual controls, though it strangely lacks a Program Shift feature. There is a "manual shift" option in M mode which lets you move through various aperture/shutter speed combos, but you need to set the proper exposure yourself first. If you want a more point-and-shoot experience, there's an auto mode plus six scene modes to choose from.
At the center of the photo is the A550's hot shoe, which has the same proprietary connections as Minolta's old SLRs. The good news is that Sony now offers an adapter that converts the proprietary hot shoe into a standard one. As you'd expect, the camera works best when mated with one of Sony's latest flashes. The flash will take advantage of the camera's metering system and AF-assist lamp and, if you're using one of the high end models, you can use the whole shutter speed range on the camera courtesy of a high-speed sync option. You can also cut the cord entirely and have your flashes off the camera, using the built-in flash as a wireless transmitter.
Just to the right of the hot shoe is the switch which toggles between the optical viewfinder and live view. This switch physically moves the mirror that directs the light to either the secondary CCD or the viewfinder. The button right next door turns on the MF check live view feature, which (as I mentioned earlier) uses the camera's main CMOS sensor to give you 100% coverage.
Under that button are three more:
- D-Range Optimizer / Auto HDR
- Drive mode
I told you about the first two earlier, and you'll see examples of the A550's ISO performance later in the review.
The last thing to see on the top of the DSLR-A550 is the shutter release button, which has the power switch wrapped around it.
On this side of the camera you'll find the AF/MF switch (on both the lens and camera body), and several of its I/O ports. The ports, which are protected by plastic covers, include:
- Wired remote control
I said it before and I'll mention it again here: the A550 does not support composite or component video output. It's HDMI or nothing, so those of you without HDTVs have been warned.
On the opposite side of the camera is the DC-in port (for the optional AC adapter) plus the camera's dual memory card slots. The memory card on the left accepts Memory Stick Duo cards, while the one on the right supports SD and SDHC media. As I said earlier, you can only use one slot at a time. To change from one slot to the other, simply slide the switch located just above the two slots (why they couldn't make this a menu option is beyond me). The door over the memory card slots is of decent quality.
On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery compartment. The plastic door over the battery compartment feels a bit flimsy.
The included NP-FM500H InfoLithium battery is shown at right.