Sony Alpha SLT-A55 Review
How Does it Compare?
The Sony Alpha SLT-A55 is a camera that is more than it first appears to be. While its looks scream "oh great, another Sony D-SLR", it uses a radically different translucent mirror design allows for super-fast autofocus in live view (and in movie mode) and a continuous shooting mode whose speeds are normally reserved for cameras costing thousands more. Add in very good photo quality, sensor-shift image stabilization, a rotating LCD, Full HD video recording, and a built-in GPS, and you've got a camera that's anything but "just another Sony D-SLR". No camera is perfect, though, and the A55 does have some issues. It tends to overexpose, its movie mode could be better, photos and movies can't be played back simultaneously, and the camera's widescreen LCD isn't terribly useful when you're taking 3:2 photos. Some folks may also be turned off by the camera's use of an electronic viewfinder, rather than the optical one they may be used to. If you can live with these things, then you'll find the SLT-A55 to be an impressive camera that won't require taking out a second mortgage -- you can pick one up for around $850 (with a lens).
As I mentioned, the SLT-A55 looks like every other Sony D-SLR on the market. While it's smaller than most of them, it's still quite a bit bigger than mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. The body is made mostly of plastic, though it feels quite solid in your hands. I'm not entirely thrilled with the control layout of the A55, but for the most part, it works. If it were up to me, I'd put the menu and movie recording buttons closer to where your fingers rest, and lose the unnecessary D-Range button. If you look at the guts of the camera, you'll find a fixed, translucent mirror, in place of the more traditional mirror that's been on SLRs for decades. The whole point of the translucent mirror design is that light is allowed to hit its CMOS and AF sensors at the same time, which is how the A55 gets away with its high speed tricks. The lens situation is the same as Sony's other D-SLRs, meaning that the A55 supports all Minolta and Sony Alpha-mount lenses, with a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio. And, since the camera has image stabilization built into the body, every lens you attach will have shake reduction. On the back of the camera you'll find a 3-inch, widescreen LCD display that can flip downward and rotate. The screen has 921,000 pixels, so everything is super-sharp. It has good outdoor and low light visibility, as well. Something else that's worth a mention is that while the screen is 16:9, you're (usually) taking photos at 3:2, which means that there will be black bars on the side of the photo you're composing. You can also compose your photos on what Sony calls a TruFinder, which is an electronic viewfinder sporting 1.44M total pixels (480,000 in reality), 100% coverage, and a large magnification of 1.1X. While those specs are nice, EVFs are never as sharp or clear as a regular optical viewfinder. I found this one to be a little washed out, and it had a rather pronounced "rainbow effect" when you pan the camera around, as well. Two other features to note are the built-in GPS, which quietly geotags your photos for you, and support for wireless flashes right out of the box.
The SLT-A55 is slanted toward beginners, though enthusiasts will still find some features to get excited about. Point-and-shooters will like the Auto+ mode, which goes beyond the typical "intelligent auto" mode found on most cameras these days. Have a subject in motion? The camera will take a burst of photos. In low light? The A55 takes a series of exposures and combines them into one, reducing blur and noise. And those are just two quick examples. There are plenty of other scene modes to choose from, should you want to do the picking yourself. I do think that Sony takes a bit too much control away from the user in the auto modes, locking down things like ISO, white balance, and even exposure compensation. There are several other features on the A55 that beginners can use and enthusiasts will appreciate. They include Auto HDR (which reduces highlight clipping while brightening shadows), D-Range Optimizer (which brightens shadows), and multi-frame noise reduction (which reduces noise levels at high ISOs). And let's not forget Sweep Panorama, which allows you to create huge panoramic images simply by panning the camera -- and the A55 can even do it in 3D! Naturally, the A55 has a full suite of manual controls, though serious photographers may be put off by its lack of custom buttons/menus and features like Program Shift.
The A55's movie mode is pretty impressive as well, with the ability to record up to 29 minutes of 1080/60i video with digital stereo sound. The camera can focus continuously while you're recording, and it does so quickly. Recording at lower resolutions is also available, using the MPEG-4 codec. The downsides? If you plan on using the image stabilizer, your recording time drops dramatically, down to around 9 minutes, according to Sony. There are no manual controls or editing functions for movies, either. Even so, the A55's movie mode is better than what you'll find on most inexpensive D-SLRs.
Camera performance is definitely one of the SLT-A55's strong points. It powers up quickly, and its focus times are among some of the best I've seen on a live view D-SLR. Even in low light, the A55 still managed to lock focus quickly (especially if you use the flash as an AF illuminator). Shutter lag was not an issue, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal. Where the camera really shines is when you use its burst mode. There are three modes to choose from: low speed, high speed, and continuous advance priority, which record at 3, 6, and 10 frames/second, respectively. That's right, 10 frames/second and for a decent number of shots, too! Tracking a moving subject is easy, since the LCD and EVF keep up with the action very well. After you've taken a burst of RAW or RAW+JPEG images, the camera will lock up for about twenty seconds, and won't return to full speed for at least twenty more. Battery life is average for a live view camera, with an official number of 380 shots per charge when using the LCD. Sony does not offer a battery grip for the SLT-A55.
Photo quality was very good for the most part. The A55's weak spot is in the metering department, where it frequently overexposed. I found myself bracketing every shot once I discovered that, so you might want to do the same, or just dial down the exposure compensation a bit. The camera does clip highlights here and there, though it wasn't a huge issue. Colors were accurate, and the A55 did not struggle with my studio lamps. In terms of sharpness, photos have the "smooth" look that you'll find on most digital SLRs. While not class-leading, the A55 keeps noise levels low through ISO 400 in low light, and ISO 1600 in good light. Shooting RAW helps you get around some of the detail smudging that comes from the strong noise reduction that Sony is using. While purple fringing was an issue at times, redeye was not.
I have just a few other things to mention before I wrap up this review. First, the camera's built-in flash is slightly weaker than your typical D-SLR (GN 10 vs 12), though the average person probably will never notice. If you want to add an external flash, keep in mind that the A55 uses the same proprietary mount that's been around since the Minolta days. If you want to use a standard mount, you'll need to buy a pricey converter. As with Sony's two NEX models, you cannot view still images and movies at the same time when in playback mode -- you have to change a menu option to go from one to the other. The A55's playback mode is really bare bones in general, which is surprising given the consumer-friendly feel of the rest of the camera. Finally, the battery charger included with the SLT-A55 is very slow, and Sony does not offer a faster one.
Despite a few annoyances (which every camera will have, in one form or another), it's hard not to like the Sony Alpha SLT-A55. It's a great choice for those who want to capture fast action, instantly create panoramas, or just take great pictures without having to take a class first. Whether you're thinking of buying your first D-SLR, or already have a collection of A-mount lenses, the SLT-A55 is definitely worth your consideration. Oh, and if you want to save a few bucks and don't mind a small drop in resolution, the loss of the GPS, and a "slower" 7 fps burst rate, then you might want to check out the SLT-A33 for $100 less!
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality
- Incredible continuous shooting performance
- Sensor-shift image stabilization
- Flip-down, rotating 3-inch LCD with excellent sharpness, very good outdoor/low light visibility
- Large, sharp electronic viewfinder
- Great live view implementation with very fast autofocus, face and smile detection, and an electronic level
- Auto+ mode not only picks scene modes, it can also use HDR, continuous shooting, or multiple exposures to get the right shot
- Decent set of manual controls, with RAW support, WB tuning/bracketing
- Built-in GPS for easy geotagging
- Handy Auto HDR feature dramatically improves dynamic range; D-Range Optimizer brightens shadows
- Sweep Panorama creates huge panoramic images quickly and easily, works in 3D
- Supports wireless flashes right out of the box
- Records Full HD video (1080/60i) with digital stereo sound, continuous AF, and image stabilization
- Redeye not a problem
- External mic input and HDMI output
- Memory card slot supports SD/SDHC/SDXC and Memory Stick Pro Duo media
What I didn't care for:
- Tends to overexpose; some highlight clipping and purple fringing
- Widescreen LCD not suited for 3:2 still shooting (you'll see black bars on other side of the scene when you're composing a shot)
- Electronic viewfinder has a strong "rainbow effect", also seems a bit washed out
- Camera locks up for 20 seconds after taking a burst that includes RAW images
- Movie mode recording time drops considerably when using image stabilization; no manual controls or wind filter, either
- Some basic features (ISO, white balance, exposure compensation) locked up in auto modes
- Lacks the custom buttons/dials/menus, Program Shift, battery grip that enthusiasts may be looking for
- Flash a bit weaker than competition; uses proprietary hot shoe
- Bare bones playback mode; no redeye correction tool; photos and movies cannot be viewed at the same time
- Slow battery charger included
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the SLT-A55 and its competitors before you buy.
Check out the SLT-A55's photo quality in our gallery!