Sony Alpha SLT-A55 Review

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor

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:

Camera Battery life (LCD/viewfinder)
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon EOS Rebel T2i 180 / 470 shots LP-8E
Nikon D5000 Unknown / 510 shots EN-EL9a
Olympus E-620 Unknown / 500 shots BLS-1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 * 330 / 340 shots DMW-BLB13
Pentax K-r Unknown / 470 shots D-LI109, AA
Samsung NX10 * 400 shots BP1310
Sony Alpha SLT-A55 * 380 / 330 shots NP-FW50

* Has an electronic, rather than optical, viewfinder
** Full HD video recording

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

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:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies The A55 supports all A-mount lenses with a 1.5X crop factor.
External flash HVL-F20AM

From $129
From $263
From $499

Increase your flash power while reducing the risk of redeye with an external flash. The two high end models can be wireless slaves and also support high speed flash sync.
Hot shoe adapter FA-HS1AM $99 Converts the proprietary Sony/Minolta hot shoe into an ISO 518 standard mount.
Sync terminal adapter FA-ST1AM $179 Attaches to the proprietary hot shoe and provides a standard flash sync port.
Stereo microphone ECM-ALST1 $149 Attaches to the hot shoe and connects to the mic input port on the side of the camera. Includes a windscreen.
Wired remote control RM-S1AM
From $70
Basically a shutter release button on a cable. The S1 has a 0.5 m cable, while the L1's is 5.0 m.
Wireless remote control RMT-DSLR1 From $27 Wirelessly operate the camera in record and playback mode.
AC adapter AC-PW20 From $120 Power the camera without using your battery. Price is insane for what this actually is.
System carrying case LCS-SC20 $63 One of many Sony cases, this one holds the A55 body, three lenses, and an external flash.
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

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.