Originally Posted: November 4, 2010
Last Updated: March 20, 2011
At first glance, the Sony Alpha SLT-A55 (priced from $749) may look like yet another digital SLR. But this cameras, as well as its cheaper sibling (the A33), is anything but. Normal D-SLRs have a mirror splits incoming light between the viewfinder and AF sensor. When you want to take a picture, the mirror flips out of the way, exposing the sensor to light. The same goes for live view -- a D-SLR has to get the mirror out of the way so the sensor can provide the image that you see on the LCD. Some manufacturers (Sony included) have cut out the mirror entirely, though these cameras have to rely on their CCD or CMOS sensors to do the focusing, which can be slow.
| The translucent mirror design of the SLT-A55
Illustration courtesy of Sony Electronics
The SLT-A33 and A55 have a unique translucent mirror that allows light to hit both its 16 Megapixel CMOS and autofocus sensors at the same time. That means that you get full-time live view and fast phase detect autofocus for both still and video shooting. And, since the mirror doesn't need to flip out of the way, you can also shoot continuously at up to 10 frames/second, with the camera refocusing between each shot. The design of the camera also allowed Sony to shrink the body, with the A55 coming in 23% smaller and 26% lighter than the DSLR-A550. Perhaps the one downside is that instead of having an optical viewfinder, you instead get an electronic one (though a very nice one).
Other features on the A55 include sensor-shift image stabilization, a widescreen, ultra high resolution 3-inch rotating LCD display, an electronic level, the best panorama creation tool on the market (now in 3D!), full HD video recording and, of course, the kind of performance and expandability that you'd expect from a digital SLR. The A55 is also the only D-SLR on the market with a built-in GPS, for seamless geotagging of photos. Naturally, it has full manual controls, plus a unique Auto+ mode that can goes beyond just scene detection. This mode can automatically put the camera into continuous shooting mode, take an HDR photo, or combine several exposures into one to avoid blur. In other words, the SLT-A55 does just about everything.
Is the Alpha SLT-A55 worth your hard-earned dollars? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The Alpha SLT-A55 (officially known as the SLT-A55V) will be available in two kits. You can buy just the body for $749, or throw in a F3.5-5.6, 18 - 55 mm lens for $100 more. Here's what you'll find in the box for each:
- The 16.2 effective Megapixel Alpha SLT-A55 camera body
- F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 55 mm Sony zoom lens [SLT-A55VL kit only]
- NP-FW50 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- CD-ROM featuring Picture Motion Browser, Image Data Converter, and Image Data Lightbox software
- 202 page camera manual (printed)
If you already own a Sony or Minolta-branded A-mount lens, then the SLT-A55 will be ready to go as soon as you take it out of the box. If you don't, then you'll probably be buying the SLT-A55VL kit, which includes an 18 - 55 mm lens. This mostly plastic lens offers decent edge-to-edge sharpness, though it does have show some purple fringing at times. I'm not a fan of lenses with the manual focus ring at the end of the lens barrel, either. Something to keep in mind is the crop factor, which is 1.5X, meaning that a 50 mm lens has a 75 mm field-of-view. And, since the A55 has sensor-shift image stabilization, every lens you attach to it will have shake reduction.
The SLT-A55 does not come with a memory card, which means that unless you already have one, you'll need to pick one up if you plan on actually saving any of your photos. The camera has a single slot that supports several memory card formats, including Sony's proprietary Memory Stick Pro Duo as well as the industry standard SD/SDHC/SDXC cards. If you'll be taking mostly still images, then a 4GB SDHC card is probably fine. If you think you'll be taking a lot of HD videos, then I'd be looking at a high speed (Class 6 or higher) 8GB or 16GB SDHC card.
The SLT-A55 uses the same NP-FW50 InfoLithium battery as the NEX-3 and NEX-5 interchangeable lens cameras. This battery packs 7.7 Wh of energy into its fairly compact shell. Here's how that translates into battery life:
That chart is a bit confusing, since I'm including battery life numbers for using both the viewfinder (optical or electronic) and LCD. In addition, many of the manufacturers of the D-SLRs on the list do not provide live view battery life numbers. Among those that do, the SLT-A55 is about average (and that's with the GPS on, by the way).
With the exception of the Pentax K-r, all of the cameras on the above list use proprietary lithium-ion batteries (the Pentax can use li-ion or AA). These batteries tend to be pricey, with an extra NP-FW50 battery setting you back at least $57. And, should that battery run out of juice, you can't pick something off the shelf at the corner store to get you through the rest of the day. Some cameras support AA's via their optional battery grips, but Sony does not offer one for the A55.
When it's time to charge the NP-FW50, just pop it into the included charger, which plugs directly into the wall. Sony seems to have the slowest battery chargers on the planet, with this one taking 250 minutes to fully charge the NP-FW50. Sony does not offer a faster charger for this battery.
Despite its novel design, the SLT-A55 still supports the same accessories as Sony's regular D-SLRs. Here are the most interesting:
There you have the most popular accessories available for the A55. There's more, too, including more flash-related stuff, LCD covers, HDMI cables, and tons of camera bags. One thing you cannot buy for the A55 is a battery grip.
Picture Motion Browser for Windows
Sony includes several software products with the SLT-A55. The first one is Picture Motion Browser 5.3, and it's for Windows only. PMB can be used for acquiring photos from the camera, organizing them, e-mailing or printing, and performing basic editing tasks. It can also be used to upload location data to the camera that helps to reduce GPS acquisition times (how, I do not know).
Photos can be viewed in the traditional thumbnail view, or you can jump to photos taken on a certain day in calendar view. With either view, you can rotate images, display a slide show, print or e-mail images, burn photos to a DVD, or upload stills and movies to photo sharing and social networking sites.
Editing photos in Picture Motion Browser
Editing tools in PMB include auto-correct, redeye reduction, brightness/color/sharpness adjustment, and the ability to play with the tone curve. While PMB can display RAW images, it can't actually edit them. More on that in a second.
Image Data Converter SR (in Mac OS X)
Sony's RAW editing product is known as Image Data Converter SR, and it's for both Mac and Windows. If you can think of a RAW 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.
And speaking of Photoshop, you can open the A55's RAW files in Photoshop or Lightroom if you've got Camera Raw 6.2 or higher.
Image Data Lightbox SR (in Mac OS X)
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 fewer shots in a row in burst mode) and the need to process each and every image on your computer in order to save them in more commonly used formats.
In terms of video editing, the only things you can do with PMB are trim unwanted footage from your clip, or grab a frame and turn it into a still picture. You can export videos to Windows Media format, but only at VGA or QVGA format. Since the camera uses the standard AVCHD format (instead of AVCHD Lite found on many Panasonic cameras, you should be able to edit these videos on your Mac or PC with a modern software suite. Do note that AVCHD files are buried deep inside your memory card: /AVCHD/BDMV/STREAM/ is the likely path, and the file names such as 00001.MTS aren't terribly helpful, either. If you're using the MP4 format, they'll be found somewhere beneath the MP_ROOT directory. If you just want to convert the videos without editing them, you might want to consider using VLC or Handbrake for Mac and Windows. Roxio's Toast Titanium 10 for the Mac works well, too.
My camera did not come in a retail box, but I'm pretty sure that Sony does include a full, printed manual with the SLT-A55. Sony's manuals have never been very user-friendly, and that's the case here, as well. I didn't find the manual to be as detailed as one would expect from a complex camera like this. Documentation for the bundled software is installed onto your Mac or PC.
Look and Feel
If you didn't know anything about the Alpha SLT-A55, you'd take a look at it and assume it was just another D-SLR. However, as I mentioned earlier, it's anything but, with its translucent mirror and electronic viewfinder. The A55 has an average-size body by D-SLR standards, and it's made almost entirely of high grade plastic. The camera's grip is on the smaller size, but it's not too small like on some of its competitors. The controls are fairly well laid out, though the dedicated movie recording button is a bit of a stretch from where your thumb normally rests.
|The translucent mirror design of the SLT-A55 allows for a much smaller footprint than traditional D-SLRs, like the Sony Alpha DSLR-A550
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
Above is a size comparison between the SLT-A55 and Sony's DSLR-A550, which is a traditional D-SLR. As you can see, the new design of the SLT models has allowed for a pretty substantial reduction in size! Now let's take a look at how the the A55 compares to the various D-SLR and ILC cameras out there:
The SLT-A55 may be a lot smaller and lighter than the DSLR-A550, but it's easily eclipsed by the mirrorless cameras from Panasonic and Samsung, as well as a few traditional D-SLRs.
But enough about that -- let's start our tour of the SLT-A55 now!
Here's the front of the SLT-A55, without a lens attached. The camera uses the same Alpha mount as Sony's other D-SLRs, and it'll work with classic Minolta lenses, as well. Whichever lens you end up using, you'll have a 1.5X crop factor to keep in the back of your mind. To release an attached lens, simply press the button located to the right of the mount.
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
Before we continue the tour, I want to quickly give you a closer look at the A55's transparent mirror. You're actually seeing the the camera's 16 Megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor there -- right through the mirror glass. The light that is reflected is sent upward to the camera's 15-point autofocus sensor.
Despite the fact that the mirror doesn't flip up and out of the way when a photo is taken, dust is still a concern. Thus, Sony uses both a anti-static coating on the low-pass filter, as well as a dust "shake-off" when the camera is powered off. You can also manually clean dust off of the sensor by pressing that tab below the mirror, which lifts the whole thing out of your way.
Another feature of the A55 (and all Sony D-SLRs) is sensor-shift image stabilization. The camera detects the tiny movements of your hands that can blur your photos, especially in low light, or when using a telephoto lens. The A55 is able to shift the CMOS sensor itself to compensate for this movement, allowing you to use shutter speeds that are 2.5 - 4 stops slower than you normally could. Image stabilization won't freeze a moving subject, nor will it allow for multi-second handheld exposure (though Sony has some tricks up their sleeves for that), but it's way better than nothing at all. And, since the IS system is built into the camera, nearly every lens you attach will have shake reduction. Want to see the A55's image stabilization feature in action? Have a look at these:
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on
Both of the above photos were taken at a shutter speed of 1/2 of a second -- definitely tripod or flash territory. Nevertheless, I was able to get a sharp photo out of the SLT-A55, thanks to its SteadyShot system. You can also use this system to help smooth out your video recordings, as you can see in this brief video clip. Do note that using the image stabilizer in movie mode will dramatically reduce the maximum recording time, presumably due to heat issues.
Getting back to the tour now, the next thing to see is the SLT-A55's flash, which is released manually. The flash is relatively weak by D-SLR standards, with a guide number of 10 meters at ISO 100 (most cameras in this class have a GN of at least 12). If you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe on the top of the camera, or cut the cord entirely and go wireless, which the A55 supports right out of the box. The flash is also used as an AF-assist lamp, helping the camera lock focus in low light situations. If you want to use it for focusing but don't want to take a flash photo, you can simply close the flash after focus is locked.
To the lower-left of the lens mount is the camera's depth-of-field preview button. Over on the grip you'll find the self-timer lamp as well as the receiver for the optional wireless remote control. Above that is the camera's sole control dial -- I wish it had another.
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
On the back of the SLT-A55 is a flip-down, rotating LCD 3-inch display. The screen can flip down 180 degrees, and then rotate 270 degrees, allowing you to take ground level or over-the-head photos with ease. The screen can also be put in a more traditional position (shown below) or closed entirely. While a rotating LCD is always nicer than a fixed one, I personally prefer screens that flip out to the side.
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
Here's the LCD in a more traditional position. The screen has 921,600 pixels, so everything is super sharp. The display uses a technology that Sony calls TruBlack, which improves contrast and reduces reflections and glare. The TruBlack system delivers on its promises, offering excellent outdoor visibility, with the auto brightness adjustment feature helping considerably. In low light, the screen "gains up" quite a bit, so you still see your subject, though the view may be a bit grainy. I should point out that since this is a widescreen LCD, the image you're composing does not fill the screen (there will be a black margin on the sides), unless you're using a 16:9 aspect ratio. The wide LCD is great for recording movies, though all that space feels wasted when you're taking stills. The LCD also seemed to be a magnet for fingerprints, for some reason.
The "view" in live view
The translucent mirror design of the SLT-A55 means that you'll be using live view for composing all of your photos. Thankfully, Sony did an excellent job implementing this feature. You'll find a super-fast 15-point autofocus system, a live histogram, grid lines, face and smile detection, and frame enlargement for manual focus. The camera also shows a "shake meter" on the LCD/EVF, which helps you reduce the risk of blurry photos.
Electronic level in action
Another handy feature is an electronic level, which works for both tilt and pitch. When everything turns green, you're level! This feature is great for people like me who can't get a level horizon to save their life.
Just above the LCD is the A55's electronic viewfinder, which Sony calls a TruFinder. The TruFinder shows the same things as the main LCD, including menus. This large electronic viewfinder is 0.46" in size, with a magnification of 1.1X and 100% frame coverage. It packs a whopping 1.44 million total dots (480,000 pixels), so it's very sharp. Being a sequential field display, you may notice a "rainbow effect" when you blink or rapidly pan the camera. The TruFinder also seemed a bit washed out to me, which may make outdoor viewing a bit difficult. The A55 will automatically switch over to the TruFinder when you put your eye up to it, courtesy of a sensor just below it. This same sensor is used for the EyeStart AF feature, which activates the camera's autofocus system when you place your eye against the viewfinder. You can focus the image on the screen by using the diopter correction knob on its right side.
Now let's talk about buttons, starting with the four that surround the TruFinder. From left-to-right, we've got the Menu, movie recording, exposure compensation, and AE-Lock buttons. Those last two items can also be used for zooming in and out of an image (or display thumbnails) while in playback mode.
Just to the right of the LCD is the Function button, which opens up a shortcut menu (whose icons are found on the black borders on the sides of the LCD). The items in the function menu include:
- Scene Selection (Portrait, sports/action, macro, landscape, sunset, night view, handheld twilight, night portrait)
- Sweep Shooting (Sweep Panorama, 3D Sweep Panorama) - choose whether you're taking 3D or regular panoramas
- Drive mode (Single-shot, continuous lo/hi, 2 or 10 sec self-timer, 0.3/0.7 EV bracketing, lo/hi WB bracketing, remote commander)
- Flash mode (Off, auto, fill flash, slow sync, rear sync, wireless) - the last option requires a compatible Sony external flash
- Autofocus mode (Single-shot, automatic, continuous) - single AF locks the focus when the shutter release is halfway-pressed; continuous AF keeps focusing; automatic selects between the two based on the scene
- AF area (Wide, spot, local) - first is 15-point auto, second is center-point, third is manual focus point selection
- Face detection (on/off)
- Smile Shutter (on/off)
- ISO sensitivity (Multi-frame NR, Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800)
- Metering mode (Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot)
- Flash compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
- White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, flash, color temp, color filter, custom)
- DRO / Auto HDR (DRO Off, DRO Level 1-5, HDR Auto/Manual)
- Creative Style (Standard, vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset, black & white)
The very attractive scene selection menu
There's a lot to talk about before we can continue the tour. While the SLT-A55 is perfectly content to automatically pick a scene mode for you in its two auto modes, you can also select one manually in Scene mode. The only notable option in the Function menu is handheld twilight, which combines a series of six exposures into a single image, to reduce blur in low light situations. Here are two examples of the handheld twilight feature:
The handheld twilight mode cranked the ISO all the way to 6400 for the two photos you see above. While you probably won't be making 20 x 30 inch prints of either, these photos (handheld with the Sony 70-400 lens) are blur-free and are good enough for small prints or sharing online. Note all the orange in the top photo -- congrats Giants!
The Sweep Panorama feature, a Sony original, is one of my favorite features on the A55. Point the camera at your starting point, and then "sweep" it in the direction of the arrow on the screen, and the camera will instantly stitch together a beautiful panorama (see above). You can select from regular or "wide" sizes, with the latter having a whopping resolution of 12416 x 1856 when panning horizontally. The A55 can also record 3D panoramas, and it does so by taking photos for the left and right eye as you pan across the scene, and saves everything into an MPO file. Naturally, you'll need one of those pricey new 3D televisions in order to view these. The examples I've seen were quite impressive.
In the drive submenu you'll find some of the A55's continuous shooting options. Here you can shoot at low (3 fps) or high speed (6 fps) -- and the A55 is capable of going even faster. But more on that later. Other options here include bracketing for exposure (in 0.3 or 0.7 EV increments) and white balance (in 10 or 20 mired increments). For both of those options, the camera takes three photos in a row, each with a different exposure or white balance value.
The SLT-A55 locked onto all six faces
The SLT-A55 shares the same face and smile detection features as Sony's compact cameras. The face detection feature can find up to eight faces in the frame, making sure they're properly focused and exposed. Sony has done a great job implementing this feature -- the A55 locked onto all six faces in our test scene with ease. The Smile Shutter feature goes on step further -- once it's turned on, it will wait until one of the people in the frame smiles, and then it'll start taking photos until you tell it to stop. You can adjust the sensitivity of this feature, from slight to normal to big smiles.
The ISO sensitivity menu is fairly self-explanatory, but I do want to tell you about the multi-frame noise reduction feature. In this mode, the camera will quickly capture a number of exposures, and then do some magic to combine them into a single photo with less noise than you'd normally get. You can set it to Auto (which I believe tops out at ISO 1600), or manually crank things all the way up to ISO 25,600. Does it actually work? See for yourself:
ISO 6400, standard JPEG
ISO 6400 via Multi-frame NR
ISO 6400 via RAW->JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
All three of the above photos were taken at ISO 6400. The first was just a regular shot, the second used the multi-frame NR feature, and the third is a RAW-> JPEG conversion. The multi-frame NR feature does reduce the noise level in the image, though it's pretty soft. The RAW conversion has more visible noise, but more detail, as you'd expect. If you don't want to deal with RAW, I'd say that it's worth using the multi-frame NR feature at high ISOs. Just keep in mind that you can't use it with RAW files, or if the D-Range Optimizer or HDR features are turned on.
Next up are the A55's numerous white balance controls. You have the usual presets, each of white can be fine-tuned to your heart's content. The custom option lets you use a white or gray card for accurate color in unusual lighting. You can also set the color temperature (2500K - 10000K), and that too can be fine-tuned in the green or magenta direction. And, as I mentioned earlier, the A55 also allows you to bracket for white balance.
The SLT-A55 also has a pair of dynamic range enhancement functions. The first is the D-Range Optimizer, which has been around for several years now. Simply put, this breaks the image down into smaller segments, and adjusts the contrast for each of them individually. You can set it to automatic, or adjust it manually, from level 1 to 5. Here's an example:
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There's almost no difference between the Auto and Off settings, at least in this example. Throw things into manual mode, however, and the shadows begin to brighten quickly. The DRO feature has little-to-no effect on highlight clipping, though. For that, you'll want to try out this next feature!
The Auto HDR feature can be quite handy when you have a lot of contrast in an image. This will take three photos in rapid succession -- one normally exposed, one underexposed, and another overexposed -- and then combine them into a single image. This allows for brighter shadows and less highlight clipping. As with the DRO feature, you can set it to auto, or manually adjust the exposure interval from 1EV to 6EV. Do note that you cannot use the HDR feature in the Auto modes, or when the RAW image format is selected. In addition to the HDR image, the A55 also saves a JPEG with everything (read: DRO) turned off. Here's an example:
|Regular photo (DRO/HDR off)
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The differences here are quite obvious. The regular photo has highlight clipping in several places, and the sky is not as blue as it was in reality. The HDR photo dramatically cuts down on the blown highlights, while returning the sky to a more natural blue. The whole HDR process is quick and painless, so it's certainly worth doing in situations where highlight clipping is likely.
Adjusting the sharpness parameter of a Creative Style
The last thing to mention in the Function menu is Creative Styles. The A55 has six preset Creative Styles (and strangely, no custom options), such as vivid, portrait, and black & white. You can adjust the sharpness, saturation, and contrast for each of these (a noise reduction setting would've been nice). One thing I don't care for is how each of the presets has their parameters set to zero, so you can't really compare the difference between each of them.
Okay, back to the tour! Below that Function button is the four-way controller, used mainly for menu navigation and reviewing photos you've taken. The controller is also used the following:
- Up - Display (toggles info shown on LCD/EVF)
- Down - ISO sensitivity (described above)
- Left - Drive (described above)
- Right - White balance (described above)
- Center - Activate AF / Select AF point + Set/OK
The last buttons to see on the back of the camera are for entering playback mode and deleting a photo. In record mode, the delete photo button is also what you'll press to activate the manual focus frame enlargement feature, as well.
You'll find plenty of additional buttons and dials on the top of the camera. Let's start with the mode dial on the far left of the photo, which has these options:
The SLT-A55 has two auto modes: one vanilla, and the other fully loaded. The Auto+ mode not only has automatic scene selection -- it'll do things like Auto HDR, handheld twilight, and continuous shooting, if it thinks they're necessary. Something I don't like about the two auto modes is that you cannot adjust basic settings like white balance, ISO sensitivity, or exposure compensation.
Naturally, the A55 has a full set of manual controls, though I was surprised to see that it lacks a Program Shift function. There's no custom spot on the mode dial, either, which would've been a nice touch.
The Continuous Advance Priority mode is where the A55 can really strut its stuff. In this mode you can shoot at a whopping 10 frames/second, with the camera adjusting the focus and exposure between each shot. No other D-SLR in the world can do that at these speeds, as far as I know. Below is a table that summarizes all three of the burst modes on the SLT-A55:
Well those are some very impressive numbers! I do have a couple of notes for you about these modes. First, I found that the image on the LCD and EVF keep up quite well with the action, so tracking a moving subject should be easy. If you're shooting RAW or RAW+JPEG, you can expect the LCD/EVF to black out for about 20 seconds after you take a burst, during which time you can't do anything. When the screen comes back on you can start taking photos again, though the camera will be sluggish until it finishes flushing the buffer memory (which takes close to a minute). In Continuous Advance Priority mode you cannot adjust the ISO, shutter speed, or aperture while the AF mode is set to continuous. However, if you set it to single AF, the ISO can be adjusted, and a Program Shift feature allows you to flip through various aperture/shutter speed combinations (why this isn't in the regular Program mode is beyond me).
The next stop on the tour is the camera's hot shoe, right at the center of the above photo. Sony is still using the same, somewhat proprietary hot shoe connector that was developed by Minolta. While it works just great with Sony and Minolta flashes, you'll have to buy a pricey adapter if you want to use a "standard" external flash. Speaking of Sony flashes, they'll work best with the A55, as they'll be able to "talk" to the camera's metering system. With a non-Sony flash, you'll probably have to adjust everything manually. if you're using the HVL-F42AM or HVL-F58AM flash, you'll be able to use them at any shutter speed that you wish. Otherwise, the limit is 1/160 sec.
Straddling that hot shoe (and hard to see in my photo) are the A55's small stereo microphones. If you want better sound recording, then you'll almost certainly want to pick up an external microphone.
Continuing to the right, you can see the camera's speaker, which has a button for switching between the EVF and LCD (if you're not using the eye sensor). Next to that is a button for the D-Range Optimizer that I told you about earlier. I would gladly trade that button for a second command dial.
The last thing to see on the top of the SLT-A55 is the shutter release button, which has the power switch wrapped around it.
Here's one side of the SLT-A55, which is mostly where you'll find the camera's I/O ports. But first, I should point out the two AF/MF switches (one on the body, the other on the lens) and the release for the built-in flash.
The I/O ports can be found at the far right of the photo, and are divided into three compartments -- all protected by plastic covers. The ports include:
- Remote control
The HDMI port is your only way to output video on the A55, as it does not support traditional composite video output.
The 18 - 55 mm kit lens is at the full wide-angle position here.
There's nothing to see on the opposite side of the camera, unless you count the strap mount. The kit lens is at its full telephoto position here.
On the bottom of the camera you'll find the battery/memory card compartment and a metal tripod mount. The door that covers this compartment is of average quality, and features a locking mechanism. Accessing the compartment while the camera is on a tripod is not an issue.
The included NP-FW50 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.
Using the Sony Alpha SLT-A55
The Alpha SLT-A55 is ready to start taking photos a fraction of a second after you flip the power switch.
A live histogram is one of many things that can be displayed on the LCD or EVF
One of the promises of the SLT-A55's translucent mirror design is super-fast autofocus in live view, and Sony has certainly delivered the goods in that department. The A55 feels like it focus instantly in most situations. Expect focus lock in 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle and about twice that at telephoto (depending on the lens, of course). The only time the camera struggled a bit was when there wasn't a lot of contrast in the scene, but it still managed to focus. Low light focusing is very good, even without the flash popped up for some AF assistance. What I'm getting at is that focus times will rarely exceed one second, in any situation.
Shutter lag isn't an issue, nor would I expect it to be.
Shot-to-shot speeds were around a second, regardless of the image quality setting, or whether you're using the flash. Nice!
To delete a photo you just took by pressing the (get ready) delete photo button!
Now let's take a look at the image size and quality options on the SLT-A55. This is the abridged version, covering only the default 3:2 aspect ratio.
As you can see, you can take a RAW image alone, or along with a large-sized JPEG. I suppose I should also remind you that the RAW format cannot be used in sweep panorama or handheld twilight mode.
A very brief description of each option can be displayed
If you've used the menu systems from Minolta cameras of yesteryear, then you'll feel right at home on the Alpha SLT-A55. The menus aren't flashy, but they're still attractive and fairly easy-to-navigate (though they went a bit overboard with tabs, in my opinion). If you hover over any menu option for a few seconds, a little help bubble pops up with a description -- always a nice thing to have. As I mentioned, the menu is divided up into tabs (and lots of them), covering recording, custom, playback, memory card, clock, and setup options. Here's the full list of what you'll find in the A55's menu system:
Memory Card Tool menu
Clock setup menu
Believe it or not, there's just one thing from the menu that I want to talk about, and that's the SLT-A55's GPS feature. As with Sony's compact cameras, the A55's GPS feature runs quietly in the background. There's no real interface to it -- just on or off. You can't see your current location and, no, there's no built-in database of landmarks. But the system works well, with acquisition times of roughly 10 seconds with the assist data loaded. In addition to tagging your location, the GPS can be used to set the date and time on your camera automatically.
And that's it for menus -- let's talk photo quality now! I used the 18 - 55 mm kit lens for all of these, except for the night shot.
I've got no complaints about how the SLT-A55 handled our usual macro test subject. The colors are nice and saturated, with the camera handling my studio lamps without any trouble. The figurine has the "smooth" look that is typical of D-SLRs, though plenty of detail is still captured. I don't see any evidence of noise, and I sure as heck wouldn't expect to.
Obviously, the minimum focus distance will depend on what lens you're using. For the 18 - 55 mm kit lens, that distance is 25 cm. Serious close-up photographers may want to consider one of the three dedicated macro lenses that Sony sells.
I busted out the monstrous F4.0-5.6, 70 - 400 mm Sony lens for the night test shots. This turned out to be a pretty nice lens, as it helped produce a nice and sharp photo of the San Francisco skyline. The buildings all have clearly defined edges, and noise levels are low. There's some highlight clipping here, but it's not too bad. Noise levels are very low, as you'd expect. One thing I do see here is purple fringing, which is usually related to the lens, rather than the camera itself.
Now let's use that same scene to see how the A55 performed at higher sensitivities!
You'd be hard-pressed to spot the difference between the first three crops, though there's a slight increase in noise at ISO 400. Things start to get a little blotchy at ISO 800, but it shouldn't reduce your output sizes by too much. That changes at ISO 1600, so that might be a good time to start thinking about shooting RAW (see below for examples). There's a fair amount of detail loss at ISO 3200, and even more at the two sensitivities above that (which you'll probably want to avoid altogether in low light).
Let's take the ISO 1600 and 3200 images and see if we can't clean them up a bit with some easy post-processing!
I should preface this by saying that I don't consider myself an expert in RAW processing. Even with my skill set, I was able to pull back a lot of the detail that noise reduction smudged away by spending maybe 30 seconds running each image through Photoshop. I think the highlights look a bit better in the RAW conversions, as well.
I'll give you another example of "RAW in action" in a moment.
There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 18 - 55 mm Sony kit lens. You can see this in the real world by looking at the flagpole on the left side of this photo. I didn't find vignetting (dark corners) or corner blurring to be issues with this lens.
The SLT-A55 can fire its built-in flash to shrink the pupils of your subject(s), reducing the risk of redeye. As you can see, redeye was not a problem in our test. If you do encounter some, you'll have to fix it on your computer, as there's no digital removal system to be found on the A55.
Now it's time for our studio ISO comparison. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare these photos with those taken with other cameras I've reviewed over the years. The very high resolution of the SLT-A55 means that you're only seeing a small portion of the test scene below, so be sure to view the full size images too! And with that, let's take a look at how the A55 performed at various sensitivities in normal lighting:
First off, I have no idea why the lower part of the test image looks soft. I didn't notice this in my real world photos, so I'm going to assume that it's some kind of fluke. As for noise, you won't see any through ISO 800. Noise does make an appearance at ISO 1600, though it's not bad enough to keep you from making midsize or large prints. Even the ISO 3200 and 6400 photos are usable for small prints, especially if you're shooting RAW. As for ISO 12,800, you're losing a fair amount of detail, and there's a drop in color saturation, as well. I'd pass on that one unless you're really desperate.
I already showed you how using the RAW image format can improve your high ISO sensitivity night shots. Let's do it all over again for the ISO 6400 and 12,800 images from above:
Two words: huge improvement. If you're shooting at high ISOs, then I'd highly recommend using the RAW format, as the A55's noise reduction system is clearly heavy-handed at those sensitivities. Naturally, you get more grain-style noise, but I'd say it's worth the trade-off, wouldn't you?
Overall, I was quite impressed with the photo quality on the SLT-A55. The one real negative is related to the camera's metering system which, more often than not, overexposed by 1/3 to 1/2 a stop. I ended up having to reshoot most of my Stanford photos because of this. My advice: bracket! The A55 is a bit of a highlight clipper, as well. Colors were pleasing, and photos have the "smooth" look that is a common trait of digital SLRs. The A55 does a good job of keeping noise levels low until you reach the midrange sensitivities (ISO 800 or so), and even then, things don't get really smudged until the very highest settings. As the previous example illustrated, you'll almost certainly want to shoot RAW when you get to ISO 3200 and above. The A55 did have some issues with purple fringing with both lenses I tested. I blame the lenses more than the camera, but it's still worth noting.
Now, I invite you to have a look at our SLT-A55 photo gallery. View the full size images, print a few if you can, and then decide if the photo quality meets your expectations!
One of the big features on the SLT-A55 is its ability to record Full HD movies. That means that you can record video at 1920 x 1080 at 60 interlaced fields/second (though the sensor output is 30p) with Dolby Digital Stereo sound. The camera uses the AVCHD format (common on HD camcorders), and since it's outputting video at a standard frame rate, it should be fairly easy to edit. In theory, the camera can keep recording video at that setting until 29 minutes have elapsed. However, that's with SteadyShot turned OFF, at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. With SteadyShot turned on (or at higher ambient temperatures), the recording time drops precipitously, down to as little as 9 minutes. That's a bit disappointing. As you might imagine, Sony recommends a high speed memory card for HD movie recording.
|Added comment about 30p sensor output on 3/20/11|
Don't need Full HD video? Then you can downsize to 1440 x 1080 or 1280 x 720 (both at 30 fps). When you do that, you're also switching from the AVCHD codec to MPEG-4, which is a easier to both edit and share on your PC. Both of those will stop recording when the file size hits 2GB or the recording time reaches 29 minutes (again, dependent on whether you're using the IS system).
Obviously, you can zoom in and out all you want while the camera is recording video (though the kit lens is very jerky when you adjust it). When using continuous AF, the camera is able to refocus very quickly as you pan around, or if you subject moves. After taking a lot of test videos, I found that the camera isn't responsive enough to keep up with fast-moving subjects. However, if you're panning the camera from one thing to another, the camera does indeed refocus quickly (see this example). With wide AF, the camera will change focus points automatically -- to do so manually, use local AF. The image stabilizer is available, but as I mentioned, using it reduces your recording time considerably.
|Preceding paragraph updated with example on 11/28/10|
The SLT-A55 does not offer any manual controls in movie mode. You can adjust the exposure compensation, but that's it. A wind cut filter or manual audio level adjustment feature would've been nice, as well.
I have two sample movies for you, which I took at the Full HD setting. I converted the movies from AVCHD to H.264 format using Toast Titanium 10. If you want, you can download the original MTS files and view those instead.
For being a camera targeted toward consumers, the SLT-A55's playback mode feels a bit too stripped-down. The basics are all here, including slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail view, and playback zoom.
Photos can be viewed one at a time, or on thumbnail pages containing either six or twelve pictures. One incredibly dumb thing on the SLT-A55 is that you can't view stills and movies at the same time -- you either have to go to the menu to switch, or zoom out to thumbnail view and change the "tab" from one to the other.
There are no editing features on the camera, unless you count image rotation. There are no tools for trimming or grabbing frames from movies you've recorded, either.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press "up" on the four-way controller and you'll get a lot more, including multiple histograms.
The SLT-A55 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode. The only time I noticed a slowdown was when the camera was still saving a burst of images to the memory card.
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!