Sony A550 Review

4.5
August 20, 2010 | Mark Goldstein |

Image Quality


All of the sample images in this Review were taken using the 14 megapixel Fine JPEG setting, which gives an average image size of around 5.5Mb.

The Sony A550 produced images of excellent quality during the review period. The Sony A550's first impressive feature in terms of image quality is the extensive and very usable ISO range of 200-12800. ISO 200-800 is noise-free, whilst ISO 1600 and 3200 produce more than acceptable results, and even ISO 6400 is OK for emergency use (though we'd avoid the headline grabbing ISO 12800 setting).

The second one is the effective Dynamic Range Optimizer function, which extracts more detail from the shadow and highlight areas in an image, without introducing any unwanted noise or other artifacts. The High Dynamic Range mode combines two shots taken at different exposures to produce one image with greater dynamic range than a single image would produce. It only works for JPEGs and for still subjects, but does produce some very effective results.

The 14 megapixel images are soft straight out of the camera using the default creative style and ideally require some further sharpening in an application like Adobe Photoshop, or you can change the in-camera sharpening to one of six different levels. The built-in flash worked well indoors with no red-eye and good overall exposure. The night photograph was excellent, with the maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds and the Bulb mode offering lots of scope for creative night photography. The built-in SteadyShot anti-shake system works well when hand-holding the camera at slower shutter speeds.

Overall then an impressive performance - just make sure that you either increase the in-camera sharpening level for JPEGs, or you're happy to post-process the images in Photoshop later.

Noise

There are 7 ISO settings available on the Sony A550. Here are some 100% crops which show the noise levels for each ISO setting for both JPEG and RAW files.

JPEG RAW  

ISO 200 (100% Crop)

ISO 200 (100% Crop)

 
 

ISO 400 (100% Crop)

ISO 400 (100% Crop)

 
 

ISO 800 (100% Crop)

ISO 800 (100% Crop)

 
 

ISO 1600 (100% Crop)

ISO 1600 (100% Crop)

 
 

ISO 3200 (100% Crop)

ISO 3200 (100% Crop)

 
 
     

ISO 6400 (100% Crop)

ISO 6400 (100% Crop)

 
 
     

ISO 12800 (100% Crop)

ISO 12800 (100% Crop)

 
 

Sharpening

Here are two 100% crops which have been Saved as Web - Quality 50 in Photoshop. The right-hand image has had some sharpening applied in Photoshop. The out-of-the camera images are soft at the default sharpening setting and benefit from some further sharpening in a program like Adobe Photoshop. Unfortunately you can't change the in-camera sharpening level.

Original (100% Crop)

Sharpened (100% Crop)

   

File Quality

The file quality settings available on the Sony A550 are Standard and Fine for JPEGs, plus there is the option of shooting in RAW. Here are some 100% crops which show the quality of the various options, with the file size shown in brackets.

14M Fine (4.18Mb) (100% Crop) 14M Standard (2.93Mb) (100% Crop)
   
12M RAW (14.2Mb) (100% Crop)  
 

Flash

The flash settings on the Sony A550 are Off, Auto, Fill-flash, Slow Sync, Rear Sync and Wireless, with a Red-eye Reduction option in the main menu. These shots of a white coloured wall were taken at a distance of 1.5m.

Off - Wide Angle (28mm)

Fill-flash - Wide Angle (28mm)

ISO 64 ISO 64
   

Off - Telephoto (82mm)

Fill-flash - Telephoto (82mm)

ISO 64 ISO 64

And here are some portrait shots. As you can see, neither the Flash On or the Auto/Red-eye Reduction settings caused any red-eye.

Fill-flash

Fill-flash (100% Crop)
   

Red-eye Reduction

Red-eye Reduction (100% Crop)

Night

The Sony A550's maximum shutter speed is 30 seconds and there's also a Bulb mode for even longer exposures, which is excellent news if you're seriously interested in night photography. The shot below was taken using a shutter speed of 15 seconds at ISO 200.

Night Shot

100% Crop

Anti Shake

The A900 has a SteadyShot INSIDE function, which is an improved version of Minolta's Anti Shake technology; an image stabiliser that is built into the camera body itself rather than the lens, adjusting for external hand-shake by counter-moving the CCD in a compensating manner. Crucially, it works with any lens that you attach to the camera, removing the need to buy more expensive lenses with anti-shake. This allows you to take hand-held photos at shutter speeds that are critically slow for the focal length used. SteadyShot is activated with a sliding switch on the back of the camera, which requires a reassuringly firm flick of the thumb, meaning that accidental activation or deactivation isn't a problem. The crops below are from two photographs taken at 1/5 second at 28mm and 82mm. As you can see, anti-shake does make a difference at shutter speeds like this. Importantly though, it won't help when even longer exposure times are required – in those cases, switch off SteadyShot and use a sturdy mount such as a tripod.

Shutter Speed / Focal Length

Anti-Shake Off (100% Crop)

Anti-Shake On (100% Crop)
1/5th sec / 28mm
1/5th sec / 82mm

Dynamic Range Optimizer

D-Range Optimiser (DRO) is Sony's solution to improve shadow detail in photos taken in contrasty light. The selectable settings are Off, Auto and Advanced Level 1-5. Especially the last of these, the ability to set DRO to one of five levels, is very effective, as our examples show.

Off (100% Crop)

Advanced Level 1 (100% Crop)
   

Advanced Level 2 (100% Crop)

Advanced Level 2 (100% Crop)

   
Advanced Level 4 (100% Crop)

Advanced Level 5 (100% Crop)

High Dynamic Range

High Dynamic Range Optimiser (HDR) is Sony's solution for capturing more contrast than a single exposure can handle by combining two exposures into one image. The selectable settings are Off, Auto and 1-3 EV, as shown in the examples below.

Off (100% Crop)

1.0EV (100% Crop)

   

1.5EV (100% Crop)

2.0EV (100% Crop)
   

2.5EV (100% Crop)

3.0EV (100% Crop)

Creative Styles

Sony's Creative Styles are akin to Canon's Picture Controls in being preset combinations of different sharpness, contrast, saturation and brightness settings. The default Creative Styles include Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape and Black-and-White, and are accessed by pressing the 'C' button, unless another function has been assigned to it. They can also be changed on the interactive status screen. There are other "image styles" available, some of which – such as 'Sunset' and 'Autumn' – are almost like scene modes in that they override the white balance setting too. Within each Creative Style and "image style", the user can fine-tune the sharpness, saturation, contrast etc. settings. Shown here are the six default Creative Styles for illustration.

Standard

Vivid
   

Portrait

Landscape
   

Sunset

Black-and-White

Entry Tags

3 inch LCD, 14 megapixel, DSLR, tilting, alpha, 7fps, CMOS, HDR, Sony, DSLRA550, Live View, alpha a550, A550, Sony A550

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