Sony A550 Review
The Sony A550 is a mid-range 14.2 megapixel DSLR camera offering enhanced Live View, Auto HDR functionality and high-speed continuous shooting capabilities. Slotting in above the A3- series cameras and below the A700, the Sony Alpha A550 employs a new Exmor CMOS sensor for better low-light images with an increased ISO range of 200-12800. The A550 offers 7fps continuous shooting when using the optical viewfinder or 4fps in Live View mode using the 3 inch tilting LCD screen, while the new Auto HDR mode promises to capture a huge range of shadow and highlight detail in landscapes, interiors and other scenes. The Quick AF Live View of the A3x0 series has been carried over, and is joined by a new Manual Focus Check Live View mode which assists with fine-tuning your composition and focus. A 9-point AF Sensor with eye-start auto-focus, SteadyShot anti-shake system, built-in dust reduction, face detection, smile shutter, a pop-up flash and up to 950 shot battery life complete the A550’s headline specs. The Sony A550 costs £689 / €849 / $950.
Ease of Use
The Sony A550 is the highest model in the A5- series of Sony DSLR cameras, with the cheaper 12 megapixel A500 sitting below it, which offers slower 5fps continuous shooting, a lower-resolution LCD screen but slighty better 1,000 shot battery life. The two cameras are otherwise identical, so most of the comments that we made about the A500 apply equally to the A550.
The two A5- cameras are positioned above the entry level A330 and A380 models. Unlike those two cameras which featured a complete design overhaul with smaller, lighter plastic body and uncomfortable handgrip, the A550 is bigger, better built (although still made of plastic) and has a much more pronounced handgrip that markedly improves the handling, particularly if you have medium-to-large hands. I much preferred using the A550 compared to the A330/A380, predominantly because of the chunkier handgrip.
Another side-effect of utilising a slightly bigger body is that the A550 doesn't suffer from having too few controls, one of our other main criticisms of the A330/A380. Whereas Sony's designers had to re-think the control layout and philosophy of those cameras and reduce the number of external controls so much that they became less intuitive to use, the A550 reinstates some key controls, making it much easier to operate. The separate Drive Mode, ISO and Display buttons are back, no longer mapped onto the four-way controller, which can now function once again as the quick AF point selector in the Local AF area mode.
You can also choose Wide to let the camera choose the most appropriate AF point from the 9 choices, or use the central AF sensor and recompose if needed. This age-old focus-recompose technique is much faster than selecting an off-centre focus point on the Sony A330, and works every time except when dealing with extremely shallow depth of field. Alternatively, you can use the AF button in the centre of the four-way navigation pad to focus on whatever is in the centre of the frame, and hold it down not only while recomposing but also while releasing the shutter too (so that pressing the shutter button does not cause the camera to refocus).
The AEL (autoexposure lock) button is also back, logically positioned for operation with your right thumb. Of probably less importance is the omission of the SteadyShot switch - the A330 retains the sensor-shift image stabilisation feature, but now you need to enter the main shooting menu to activate or deactivate it. Given that about the only time you will want to deactivate it is when you mount the camera on a tripod, the omission of an external switch for this particular function seems a logical decision. The power switch is back in a logical place surrounding the shutter release button, and the control wheel falls naturally under your right forefinger. All of these small changes add up to make the A550 a much more enjoyable camera from a handling point of view than the cheaper A330 / A380 models.
One button which we'd rather have seen removed is the nearly useless 'Smart Teleconverter'. Only active when shooting JPEG in Live View, the 'Smart Teleconverter' button acts as a 1.4x / 2x digital zoom when shooting JPEGs in Live View mode, delivering a cropped image. When shooting RAW and / or outside Live View mode, the button is idle. Thankfully, pushing this button in these cases no longer prompts the camera to display the arrogant "Invalid operation" message we criticised the older A300 for. The A550 says, "Smart teleconverter not available when shooting with OVF. Select Live View." or, "Smart teleconverter not available when shooting RAW. Select any image quality other than RAW" instead. These messages are certainly more civilised than the old one, but the real solution would be to make this button reprogrammable to do something more useful than its current function.
The optical viewfinder (OVF) of the Sony A550 delivers 0.80x magnification and 95% frame coverage. The nine autofocus points are permanently marked on the focusing screen, and are therefore always visible in the viewfinder. The active AF point lights up in red when in use, and if focus is acquired, a green focus confirmation dot appears on the left side of the in-finder LCD; similarly to other manufacturers' models.
One of the main highlights of the Sony A550 is its Live View implementation. None of the currently manufactured competitor DSLR models - the 'non-SLR' Micro Four Thirds cameras aside - can auto-focus quickly in live view mode, and that's because competing DSLRs get the live view feed off the main imaging chip, which means their mirror must be raised while in this mode, blocking light from reaching their AF sensors. So they either have to temporarily lower their mirror for auto-focusing, which is loud and interrupts the live view, or resort to contrast-detect AF, which their lenses are not optimised for.
Sony have circumvented this problem by using a secondary imager. While the solution is not new - secondary-sensor Live View debuted in the Olympus E-330 of 2006, where it was called Live View Mode A - Sony took a fresh look at it and came up with their own version. Given that no other manufacturer - not even Olympus - offers this in any of its current models, it was logical of Sony to continue using it in the A550. The benefit of secondary-sensor Live View is that autofocus is just as fast, and shutter lag is just as short as when using the OVF, unlike in the case of competing models that offer main-sensor Live View. The main downside of Sony's solution is a much lower Live View frame coverage (90%). We suspect that the properties of the secondary sensor might also be behind the fact that the Sony A550 does not offer a video mode.
One big improvement to Sony's Live View mode is the new ability to magnify into the live image for accurate manual focusing in macro and tripod shooting. Simply press the MF Check LV button when in Live View mode to allow critical assessment of focus and fine detail. The live image in this mode offers an improved 100% field coverage, assisted by framing grid lines for precise composition, and you can also select the 7x/14x zoom function for close-up confirmation of focus by using the AEL button. Also new to the A550 is the addition of Face Detection technology, which as on most compact cameras recognises faces and applies the proper focus, exposure and white balance, and Smile Shutter mode, another compact camera feature which automatically takes the shot when your subject smiles.
The LCD on which Live View is delivered has also been improved on the A550, now featuring a 3-inch, high-resolution 921,600-dot affair that tilts up and down. A tilting LCD is always a better choice for a Live View capable DSLR than a fixed one, though some competing models from Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic go even further by offering full LCD articulation. The brightness of the screen can be set manually, but it can also adapt to ambient light levels automatically. Outdoors visibility is average - we've seen much worse (more reflective) LCDs on some competitors, but would still like to see some improvement to the antiglare coating. Switching between Live View and the optical viewfinder is done by way of a mechanical switch to the right of the pentamirror housing, a simple and elegant solution.
The Sony A550 has a pop-up flash with a guide number of 12 (in metres at ISO 100). There is a mechanical button to raise the flash or you can raise it manually by hand. The pop-up flash can also act as a TTL controller for wirelessly slaved external flash units. External flashguns can of course also be mounted to the camera itself via the hot shoe. Be reminded that it is not of the standard variety - non-dedicated flashguns and other hotshoe-mounted accessories such as PocketWizards physically cannot be mounted without a separately sold hot shoe adapter.
The Sony A550 offers the sensor-shift image stabilisation system we already touched upon (which Sony now calls SteadyShot Inside). This works very well for providing camera stabilisation at relatively slow shutter speeds - see a demonstration in the Image Quality section of this review - but it's less effective at the other function Sony has tasked it with; namely, shaking off any dust particles that may have settled on the sensor during a lens change. Apparently the anti-shake system was simply not designed to move the sensor fast enough to shake off the dust - Sony really need to make some improvements here.
Other long-standing Sony DSLR technologies present on the A550 include a pair of eye proximity sensors beneath the viewfinder that automatically shut down the LCD when raising the camera to your eye (provided you are not in Live View mode), and Minolta's legacy Eye-start AF technology. In the field, I found the eye-start autofocus system to be somewhat useful, though not necessarily faster than the more traditional solutions.
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The innovative help guide display is a useful tool which teaches beginners about the effects of aperture and shutter speed, both by way of a text guide and via icons such as stick figures. This approach is certainly better than simply throwing in an auto mode and a host of scene modes (which is not to say the A550 lacks any of these, but the inclusion of the help guide does mean it goes a step further).
The Sony A550 has slots for SD/SDHC and Memory Stick PRO Duo memory cards. Dual card slots are always welcome, though the A550 unfortunately has one of the least useful implementations of the concept I have seen to date. The camera cannot record simultaneously on both cards, cannot copy images from one to the other, and cannot even switch automatically to the second card when the first one fills up. To do that, you need to open the sliding cover that hides the memory card compartment and manually move a small mechanical switch to the desired position. The USB and HDMI OUT ports are located on the left side of the camera along with a port for the optional Remote Cable for hands-free operation of the shutter release. Battery life is around 950 shots if exclusively using the optical view finder, or 475 shots for the Live View mode, both very impressive for this class of camera.
In use, the Sony A550 proved to be pleasingly quick. Start-up was nearly instant, autofocus with the kit lens was fairly speedy if not quite as quiet as with an SSM lens. Thanks to the secondary-sensor approach, there was no noticeable AF speed penalty when shooting in Live View. The camera's burst mode is a pretty impressive 7 frames per second (fps) in the speed-priority continuous mode, 5fps with the optical viewfinder, or 4fps in Live View. The latter value is actually much better than anything the competition's DSLRs can produce in Live View. Image playback speeds were also acceptable. Magnifying into an already captured image does take a couple of seconds though. Maximum image magnification is 12x, but there is little point in going beyond the default 6.1x setting as the image progressively falls apart at higher values.
The A550 is a pleasingly easy-to-use DSLR camera for both beginners and more experienced photographers alike - now let's take a look at the Image Quality.