Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Review

How Does it Compare?

The Alpha DSLR-A550 -- one of five APS-C digital SLRs in Sony's current lineup -- offers impressive performance, a decent selection of both manual controls and point-and-shoot favorites, and most of the features that you come to expect on a digital SLR. It's not the best D-SLR for the money -- in fact, I think it's a little overpriced at $899 for the body only kit -- but it's still worth considering, especially if you're upgrading from a Minolta or earlier Sony D-SLR. While I'm not jumping up and down about it, the A550 is still good enough to earn my recommendation.

The DSLR-A550 is a fairly large digital SLR with a body made mostly of plastic. While I doubt it'll fall apart on you, the body does feel a bit cheap, especially given the price of the camera. The camera's grip was a bit too shallow for my large hands, and there are probably some buttons on the camera that could've been axed (DRO and digital teleconverter, especially). The A550 uses the good old Alpha mount, first developed by Minolta, and it supports all compatible lenses with a 1.5X crop factor. The camera has (sensor-shift) image stabilization built right in, so every lens you attach will have shake reduction. The camera's built-in flash is used as an AF-assist lamp, and it can also serve as a controller for wireless external flashes. The A550 still uses the proprietary Minolta hot shoe design, but at least Sony offers an adapter that allows you to use a standard flash with the camera. On the back of the A550 is a beautiful 3-inch LCD that you can pull away from the body and then tilt up or down. While not as nice as an LCD that flips out to the side and rotates, the tilting design is still handy. The LCD is super-sharp, with 921,000 pixels and good outdoor visibility. While the camera's optical viewfinder is an improvement over the one on the A3xx series, it's still quite small, and since it does not protrude very far from the camera, your nose ends up smashed against the LCD. While the A550 has the requisite HDMI port, it lacks any kind of composite video output.

If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot camera, you'll feel right at home with the DSLR-A550. Flip the switch into live view mode and you get super-fast autofocus (which uses the same AF sensor as if you were using the viewfinder), face detection, and even Sony's Smile Shutter feature. While the live view is bright and fluid, it's hard to see in low light, and it only shows 90% of the frame. Sony added an "MF Check live view" feature on the A550, which uses the CMOS sensor to produce an image with 100% coverage and the ability to enlarge the frame for precise manual focusing. The A550 has the usual set of manual exposure and white balance controls, though it's missing two common D-SLR features: Program Shift and a depth-of-field preview. Something else you won't find on the DSLR-A550 is a movie mode, which nearly all D-SLRs have these days, in one form or another. The A550 has a dynamic range optimizer (DRO) feature which brightens shadows (though it's most effective when adjusted manually), and a high dynamic range (HDR) feature which does just as it sounds.

Camera performance is one of the DSLR-A550's strong suits. The camera is ready to start taking pictures as soon as you flip the power switch. Focusing speeds are very good, regardless of whether you're using live view or the optical viewfinder. If you're in a low light situation and the flash is down, the camera will really struggle to lock focus. Pop up the flash and the camera will fire it rapidly as an AF illuminator, which keeps focus times at around one second in those situations. Shutter lag wasn't a problem, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal. The A550 has three continuous shooting speeds to choose from, and you'll be able to take quite a few shots in a row thanks to a healthy amount of buffer memory. At low speed you can shoot at 3.1 frames/second, high speed is 4.7 fps, while speed priority is a whopping 7.6 fps (better than advertised!). The catch with speed priority mode is that the live view goes dark when you start shooting, so you can't track a moving subject. The A550's battery life is excellent, even when using live view, and you can double it by picking up the optional battery grip.

Photo quality is very good, though there is room for improvement. Exposure was hit-or-miss for me: sometimes it was perfect, other times the camera missed it (in either direction) by 1/3 - 2/3 stop. I ended up just bracketing my sample photos just to cover my behind. I had some trouble with the wide area (9-point) autofocus as well, with the camera selecting undesirable focus points more often than I would've liked. I found colors to be quite vivid and sharpness to be pleasing most of the time. While the A550 doesn't have much in the line of grainy noise, Sony is applying quite a bit of noise reduction to JPEGs. You can see detail loss in low contrast areas and things such as grass, even at ISO 200. There's some shadow noise visible as well. The camera holds its own at high ISOs, though it's about a stop behind the best cameras in its class in that department (shooting RAW closes the gap a bit). The 18 - 55 mm kit lens is fairly sharp, though it has quite a bit of barrel distortion, and some purple fringing, as well. One problem I didn't encounter was redeye, which the camera prevents by firing the flash a few times before the photo is taken.

Two last things before I wrap up this conclusion. First, the DSLR-A550 doesn't have nearly as many custom functions as other D-SLRs in this class. That's good news for beginners, but may be disappointing for enthusiasts. Second, the manual that comes with the camera isn't very detailed, and it could be a lot more user-friendly, as well.

All things considered, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 is a competent but not spectacular digital SLR. It takes nice-looking photos (especially if you shoot RAW), performs well, and offers features that will be familiar to point-and-shoot users. That said, it's rather pricey for what it offers, and enthusiasts may frown on the lack of custom functions, the small viewfinder, and the fairly strong noise reduction. Regardless, the A550 is absolutely worth looking at, as is the A500, which offers most of the same features as its big brother.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality, especially when shooting RAW
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization reduces blur on every lens you attach
  • Tilting, ultra high resolution 3-inch LCD display
  • Excellent live view system with super-fast autofocus, face and smile detection; new MF Check live view offers 100% coverage and frame enlargement
  • Full manual controls
  • RAW image format supported; good editing software included (though it doesn't really like Mac OS X 10.6)
  • Robust performance in all areas
  • Can shoot continuously as fast as 7.6 fps
  • Redeye not a problem
  • DRO feature brightens shadows (manual mode is best); HDR feature noticeable improves dynamic range
  • Support for wireless flashes
  • Best-in-class battery life; optional battery grip
  • Dual memory card slots (though you have to flip a switch to move between the two)
  • HDMI port

What I didn't care for:

  • JPEGs are a little heavy on the noise reduction, even at ISO 200 (shooting RAW helps get around this); no way to turn down NR
  • Exposure, focus a little flaky sometimes
  • A bit pricey, and the body doesn't feel as solid as it should given that
  • Live view issues: only shows 90% of the frame, poor low light visibility, reduces burst mode frame rate a bit
  • Small optical viewfinder; your nose usually ends up against the LCD since the viewfinder does not protrude very far
  • No movie mode
  • No DOF preview button or Program Shift feature; very limited custom functions
  • No composite video output
  • Kit lens has a lot of barrel distortion and some purple fringing
  • Manual not terribly detailed or user-friendly

Some other D-SLRs in this class worth checking out include the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, Nikon D90, Olympus E-620, and the Pentax K-7. These next two aren't really D-SLRs, but they are definitely worth a look as well: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and upcoming Samsung NX10.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the DSLR-A550 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out the DSLR-A550's photo quality in our gallery!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.