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Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Review

Using the Sony Alpha DSLR-A550

Record Mode

The Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 is ready to start taking photos as soon as you flip the power switch.

The A550 (and its siblings, the A330, A380, and A500) are unique in the D-SLR world in that they can autofocus in live view as they can with the optical viewfinder. The reason for that, as I explained earlier, is that the camera uses the same AF sensor regardless of how you're composing the shot. Focus times ranged from 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle to 0.5 - 0.8 seconds at telephoto, with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens. In low light situations you'll want to pop up the flash, so the camera can use it as an AF-assist lamp. Without the AF-assist lamp, the A550 struggles to lock focus, but with it, it'll lock in about a second. In my time with the A550 I noticed that I had a higher percentage of out-of-focus shots than I would've expected, probably due to the wide area AF selecting the wrong focus point. I ended up using center-point AF to resolve that issue.

Shutter lag wasn't an issue, nor would I expect it to be on a digital SLR.

Shot-to-shot delays were minimal. You can literally shoot as fast as you can compose your shots, or at least until you hit the buffer limit (which takes some work).

You can delete a photo after you've taken it by pressing -- get ready -- the delete photo button!

Now, let's take a look at the numerous image size and quality choices on the A550:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 2GB SD card (optional)
Large (14 MP, 3:2)
4592 x 3056
RAW+JPEG 21.1 MB 95
RAW 14.8 MB 135
Fine 6.1 MB 328
Standard 4.3 MB 462
Large (12 MP, 16:9)
4592 x 2576
RAW+JPEG 20.4 MB 98
RAW 15.0 MB 133
Fine 5.4 MB 371
Standard 3.9 MB 512
Medium (7.4 MP, 3:2)
3344 x 2224
Fine 3.8 MB 520
Standard 2.8 MB 712

Medium (6.3 MP, 16:9)
3334 x 1872

Fine 3.5 MB 574
Standard 2.6 MB 765
Small (3.5 MP, 3:2)
2288 x 1520
Fine 2.5 MB 815
Standard 2.0 MB 1016
Small (2.9 MP, 16:9)
2288 x 1280
Fine 2.3 MB 861
Standard 1.9 MB 1050

Those are some pretty large files, so be sure to use a memory card that can store a decent number of them! As I mentioned back in the software section of the review, the DSLR-A550 supports the RAW image format. You can take a RAW image by itself, or along with a Large/Fine JPEG.

The A550 has a stylish, easy-to-use menu system that looks fantastic on that high resolution LCD. The menu is divided into several tabs, covering record, custom, playback, and setup options. Here's what you'll find in each of those:

Recording Menu
  • Image size (Large, medium, small)
  • Aspect ratio (3:2, 16:9)
  • Quality (RAW, RAW+JPEG, fine, standard)
  • Flash control (ADI flash, pre-flash TTL) - how the flash metering works
  • AF illuminator (Auto, off)
  • SteadyShot (on/off) - turn the IS system on and off; you may want to turn it off when using a tripod
  • Color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB)
  • Long exposure NR (on/off) - reduces noise in long exposures
  • High ISO NR (Normal, high) - reduces noise when ISO is over 1600; where are the low or off options?
Custom Menu
  • EyeStart AF (on/off) - whether camera focuses when you put your eye against the viewfinder
  • AEL button (AEL hold, AEL toggle) - whether you need to hold the AE-Lock button to lock exposure
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Auto review (Off, 2, 5, 10 secs)
  • Auto off w/viewfinder (on/off) - whether the LCD info screen turns off when you put your eye to the viewfinder
  • Grid line (on/off) - whether grid lines are shown on the LCD when using MF check live view
Playback Menu
  • Delete (Marked images, all images)
  • Format
  • Slide show
    • Interval (1, 3, 5, 10, 30 sec)
    • Repeat (on/off)
  • Protect (Marked images, cancel all)
  • Specify printing
    • DPOF setup (Marked images, cancel all)
    • Date imprint (on/off)
  • Playback display (Auto rotate, manual rotate)
Setup Menu
  • LCD brightness
    • Brightness setup (Auto, manual)
    • Manual adjust (-2 to +2)
  • Date/time setup
  • Power save [live view] (10, 20 secs, 1, 5, 30 min)
  • Power save [viewfinder] (10, 20 sec, 1, 5, 30 min)
  • Control for HDMI (on/off) - turns on the HDMI-CEC feature, which lets you control the camera with your TV remote
  • Language
  • Help guide display (on/off) - whether a help secret is shown for certain menu items
  • File number (Series, reset)
  • Folder name (Standard form, date form)
  • Select folder
  • New folder
  • USB connection (Mass Storage, PTP)
  • Audio signals (on/off)
  • Cleaning mode - flips the mirror up for manual sensor cleaning with a blower
  • Pixel mapping - removes bad pixels that show up in photos
  • Version
  • Reset default

Believe it or not, I don't need to describe any of those menu items, since I hit all of the important ones earlier in this review. I will say that the A550 is pretty short on custom settings compared to other cameras in this price range, though to be fair, the typical user doesn't use most of those anyway.

Alright, let's move onto our photo tests now. All of the test photos -- except for the night scene -- were taken with the 18 - 55 mm kit lens. The night scene was taken with the Sony F4.0-5.6, 55 - 200 mm zoom lens.

The DSLR-A550 produced a nice photo of our standard macro test subject. The colors are nicely saturated, and the subject has very smooth appearance that may be a little soft for some folks. As you'd expect from a D-SLR, there's no noise visible in this shot.

The A550's minimum focus distance will depend on what lens you have attached. The 18 - 55 mm kit lens can get as close as 25 cm. If you plan on doing a lot of close-up photography, then you may want to consider getting a dedicated macro lens. Sony makes three of them, with focal ranges of 30, 50 and 100 mm.

The night shot looks lovely from a distance, with some really nice reflections on the Bay that night. Bringing in enough light was fairly easy, though I had to use full manual mode instead of the usual shutter priority mode, as the latter was using apertures that were way too small. The photo is nice and sharp, though there's some slight softening as you near the edges of the frame. While there is some highlight clipping to be found in this photo, it's not too bad. One thing that is a big problem is purple fringing, which you can reduce or eliminate by either closing down the aperture a bit, or using a higher quality lens than the $179 zoom that I used. Noise levels are low here.

Now let's use that same scene to see how the DSLR-A550 performs at high ISOs in low light situations:


ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12,800

You can see slight increases in noise as you go from ISO 200 to 400, and again at ISO 800. Despite that, you should be able to make large prints at any of those sensitivities. Detail loss becomes a lot more noticeable at ISO 1600, so that's probably a good time to consider shooting RAW, or at least reducing your print size. Details are quite smudged at ISO 3200 (note how the buildings no longer have defined corners), and things go downhill rapidly after that, so I'd pass on the two highest sensitivities.

So how do things look at the higher ISO sensitivities if you shoot RAW and do some basic post-processing? Let's have a look:

ISO 1600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (ACR)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

I don't think there's any question that shooting RAW and doing a little noise reduction and sharpening with Photoshop improves the A550's high ISO images, at least at the middle sensitivities. I tried cleaning up the ISO 6400 shot, but there's still so much detail loss that I don't think you can use the image for much, if anything.

We'll see how the A550 does in normal lighting in a moment.

The 18 - 55 mm kit lens has quite a bit of barrel distortion, as you can see by looking at the chart above. You can see what this does to your photos in the real world by looking at the flagpole in this photo, and the white building in this one. While I didn't find vignetting (dark corners) to be a problem with the lens, I did spot some very minor corner blurriness in a few photos.

Those eyes may look sleepy (they were), but at least there's no red in them. When redeye reduction is turned on, the flash fires several times before it actually takes the photo, which helps shrink the pupils of your subject, which reduces the likelihood of redeye. There's no redeye removal in playback mode, so you'll have to rely on the flash to prevent this annoyance.

Now it's time for our studio ISO test. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare these test photos with those I've taken with other cameras over the years. So now's probably a good time to open up the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, Nikon D90, Olympus E-620, Pentax K-7, or whatever camera you're considering, so you can see how their high ISO performance compares! Remember that the crops below only show a portion of the whole test scene, so be sure to view the full size images too!


ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12,800

Everything is very clean from ISO 200 through 800, with just some slight softening as the sensitivity increases. You start to see the effects of noise reduction at ISO 1600, with low contrast areas appearing mottled, and overall sharpness dropping. The A550 definitely lags behind the best-in-class models (such as the Nikon D90) at this point. ISO 3200 isn't much worse than ISO 1600, with a bit more noise and detail loss. You'll probably want to shoot RAW at this point (and at higher sensitivities) for best results. While ISO 6400 is still usable for smaller prints, I'd probably pass on ISO 12800, unless you're really desperate.

Now let's see what a little post-processing can do to improve the quality of those high ISO shots. Here are the same ISO 3200 and 6400 test photos from above, this time with some quick Photoshop work:

ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

There's no question that shooting RAW and post-processing produces much better-looking photos at high ISOs. Sony is applying quite a bit of noise reduction to their photos, which softens them up considerably. Since there's no "low" or "off" setting for noise reduction (why, I do not know), you may want to just go the RAW route for best results.

Where there's definitely room for improvement, overall, the DSLR-A550 produces very good photos. High points include color, which is accurate and vivid, and sharpness, which is right about where I like it (except for fine details). The best word to describe exposure is "inconsistent" -- sometimes it was spot-on, but more often than not the camera over or underexposed by 1/3 to 2/3 stop. I ended up bracketing all my test photos just to be safe. Sony does apply more noise reduction to their photos that I'd like, and you can see the results by looking in the shadows (for noise) or fine details (which appear smudged). It's not as bad as on their compact cameras, but it would be nice if they eased off on the NR a bit. You can, of course, get around noise reduction by shooting RAW and post-processing, as I illustrated above. I would say that the A550 is about a stop behind the best cameras in this class when it comes to high ISO image quality. Purple fringing will depend on your lens, and it was pretty strong for both of the lenses I tested with the camera, which isn't entirely surprising, given their sub-$200 price tag.

Now, I invite you to have a look at our photo gallery for the DSLR-A550. View the full size images, print a few of them if you can, and then you should be able to decide if the A550's photo quality meets your needs.

Movie Mode

The DSLR-A550 -- and all Sony D-SLRs for that matter -- does not have a movie mode. A few years ago, I wouldn't care, but now that nearly all of the competition does, it's a big surprising to see this feature missing.

Playback Mode

The DSLR-A550 has a very basic playback mode. You get slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, image rotation, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge the image by as much as 14X, and then move around in the enlarged area -- perfect for verifying focus or sharpness. You can also move from image to image -- keeping the same zoom and location -- by using the command dial.

The camera doesn't have any photo retouching or editing functions, unlike SLRs from Nikon and Olympus. The only thing you can do to photos is rotate them.

One feature that I do like is the ability to delete a bunch of photos at a time, instead of one or all of them. You do have to back out to thumbnail view manually when using this feature -- it would be nice if the camera jumped to that view automatically.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press the Display button and you'll get a lot more, including multiple histograms.

The DSLR-A550 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode.

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