Sony A55 Review
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The Sony A55 is an interchangeable lens camera that uses Translucent Mirror Technology to offer high-speed shooting and a smaller body size. Compared to a conventional DSLR camera, Translucent Mirror Technology utilises a fixed, translucent mirror that splits the optical pathway between the main image sensor and a separate phase-detection autofocus sensor, and offers a simplified mechanical design that enables the camera to be smaller. The 16.2 megapixel A55 features up to 10fps burst shooting, built-in GPS tracking, 1080i HD Movies with continuous autofocus during shooting, 15-point phase-detection autofocus system, Quick AF Live View, a 3-inch free-angle LCD, a Tru-Finder (Electronic Viewfinder) with 100% coverage, 3D Sweep Panoramas, Auto HDR and Multi-frame Noise Reduction. The Sony A55 costs $749.99 in the US and £599.99 in the UK for the body only, and about $849.99 / £699.99 for the body and 18-55mm zoom lens.
Ease of Use
In many ways the Sony A55 is very similar to the company's more conventional mid-range DSLR lineup, with models such as the A390 looking almost identical from an external point of view. The A55 is very different internally, though, dispensing with an optical viewfinder in favour of an electronic version, and using a fixed semi-translucent mirror instead of the moving non-translucent mirror of a DSLR. The translucency of the A55's mirror means that enough light can pass through it to the sensor to allow it to remain fixed in place at all times, with the ability to reflect some of the light onto a phase-detection auto-focus array that sits in the top of the A55 body. This combination means that the A55 can offer full-time DSLR-like focusing speeds, even during video recording, plus an excellent Live View system with 100% scene coverage and an amazingly fast continuous shooting rate of 10fps, whilst being physically smaller and lighter than a comparable DSLR.
Measuring 124.4 x 92 x 84.7mm and weighing 441 grams, the Sony A55 is more diminutive than most DSLRs and comparable Compact System Cameras like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2. This is ideal for the hobbyist and family user target market, with Sony trying to entice those trading up from a compact or bridge camera with a promise of more professional looking images, ease of use and affordability, all wrapped up in a small, lightweight package. The main drawback when comparing the A55 to Micro Four Thirds models like the GH2 are the bigger Alpha lenses, but as a tradeoff you do get the same APS-C sensor as the NEX-3 and NEX-5 cameras with all the associated image-quality benefits of using a larger sensor.
Although it feels a little plastic-y in hand, build quality is on a par with other DSLR and CSC cameras in the same price range, neither cheap enough to put you off or solid enough to contend with more pro-level models. The A55 features an adjustable rear 3-inch LCD, still a relative rarity on a digital SLR. This is bracketed at the bottom and can be tilted down and then swivelled to the left and right through 270 degrees, and can also be flipped around to face inward to help protect it from scratches. The A55 has a clever eye level sensor that switches off the rear screen's info display as you bring your eye close to the optical viewfinder, plus a facility that automatically flips the same display through 90° should you turn the camera on its side to shoot portrait fashion.
One advantage of the Sony range over either Canon or Nikon is that the A55 features built-in sensor shift image stabilization, hence no need to spend extra on specialist lenses to help combat camera shake. On the Sony A55 light sensitivity stretches from ISO 100 all the way up to ISO 12,800, with a quasi top speed of 25,600 achieved by taking and combining six frames at once. The continuous shooting speed of 10 fps at full resolution when using the EVF or in Live View mode is amazing for a mid-range camera, while Sony's long-standing D-Range optimizer function helps to even out tricky exposures, for example where a bright background would normally throw the foreground into deep shadow.
GPS tracking is turned on by default. The A55 has an integrated GPS receiver which records the location and time of every picture that you take. You can then view your images on a map with the supplied PMB software, or on a BRAVIA TV via the Photo Map function. In practice the A55's GPS works well, not taking too long to fix the signal and then consistently tagging your images, except indoors and in built-up areas with tall buildings. Otherwise it's a well-implemented and appealing feature that adds another way to share your photos, or simply to help you remember when and where they were taken.
The A55 can record 1080i HD 1920 x 1280 pixel movies at either 25fps (PAL) or 30fps (NTSC) in the AVCHD format, or 1440 x 1080 pixels at 25fps in the MPEG-4 format, useful as this format can currently be shared more easily. There's also a 640 x 480 VGA mode at 25fps. There's a limitation of up to 29 minutes, or 9 minutes if SteadyShot is turned on, for the AVCHD format, and a 2Gb file size for MP4 video. Stereo sound is recorded during video capture, and you can fit an optional external stereo microphone to further improve the quality. The HDMI port allows you to connect the A55 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.
As with Live View, continuous phase-detection AF is possible whilst shooting movies on the A55, a distinct advantage over DSLR cameras and fast enough to rival Compact System Cameras like the Panasonic Lumix GH1/2. It allows you to track fast-moving subjects without having to resort to manual focusing, ideal for the beginner target audience who are used to compacts that can auto-focus for both still and moving images. There are a couple of caveats - the focusing can be heard on the soundtrack, although using an external microphone gets around this, it sometimes struggles to keep up with the subject, and more notably the shallow depth of field that's inherent to a large-sensor camera produces noticeable and often unwanted "jumps" as the AF system locks onto different subjects in the frame.
In addition to continuous AF and manual, the selected AF Area can be changed within the frame to easily create the professional "rack focus" effect, where the focus moves between the background and foreground subjects. Less pleasing is the inability to change the shutter speed or aperture during recording - you can only set the aperture if you shoot with manual focus and only then before you start recording. On the plus side, exposure compensation, creative styles, white balance, AF area and metering mode all apply equally to stills and moving images.
The Sony A55 can shoot full-resolution 16.2 megapixel pictures at up to 10fps whilst maintaining continuous auto focus and auto exposure, an impressively fast rate for such an inexpensive camera. To achieve the full 10fps you need to set the exposure mode dial to the dedicated burst mode, which locks the exposure at the start of the sequence. You can set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO by changing to Single focus mode, but you then lose the ability to refocus between frames. Also the A55 can't maintain Live View during burst shooting, instead displaying the frame that you've just taken, making panning with the subject virtually impossible and rather going against the grain of the otherwise excellent Live View system.
From the front the Sony A55 looks unthreatening to the novice DSLR user. Apart from a familiar ridge housing the pop up flash above the Alpha lens mount, its most distinguishing feature is the traditional handgrip complete with leather-look rubberized covering that extends around the side and rear of the camera. Naturally smaller than the grip on the A390, its a squeeze to fit three fingers around and makes it tricky to hold the camera completely steady for shooting handheld. Built into the grip itself is a narrow sliver of a window for the remote sensor, should use of one be required as an optional extra.
|Front||Tilting LCD Screen|
At the top of this grip, but still at the front, is the camera's one and only control/command dial, situated beneath the main shutter release button and on/off switch, where it falls readily under the forefinger. In the absence of any top-mounted LCD window, users can twist this to rapidly scroll through screen menu options and folders, a task also achieved in slower, steadier fashion by tabbing through the same using the familiar four-way control pad at the rear, as well as adjust apertures and shutter speeds.
Over at the other side of the lens mount we find a comfortably large button to release the lens, adjacent to which is a self-explanatory slider switch for alternating between auto and manual focus. Sony has subtly incorporated instances of its Alpha trademark 'cinnibar' (orange to the rest of us) colour on the camera, here only visible in the Greek symbol for Alpha that makes up the logo and a thin line encircling the lens surround. The Alpha mount also offers compatibility with A mount lenses from the Minolta and Konica Minolta range, Sony having bought up that company's expertise wholesale in 2005 to launch its own range.
The A55's top plate features the aforementioned shutter release button encircled by an on/off switch that visually apes the zoom levers found on some compact cameras. The shutter-release has a definite half-way point, with the focus points (a choice of 15) rapidly illuminating green in the viewfinder and a confirmation bleep signaling that focus and exposure has been determined and the user is free to go on and take the shot. With imperceptible shutter delay, a full resolution JPEG is committed to memory in just over a second in single shot mode, a RAW file in three. The D-Range provides one touch access to the A55's extensive number of Dynamic Range options. D-Range Optimiser (DRO) is Sony's solution to improve shadow detail in photos taken in contrasty light, while the High Dynamic Range Optimiser (HDR) captures more contrast than a single exposure can handle by combining two exposures into one image.
Next on the Sony A55 we come to the Finder/LCD button alongside the pop-up flashgun and three small holes for the built-in speaker. If choosing 'Finder' with the camera set to auto-focus, bringing your eye level with the viewfinder and sensor below will neatly prompt the camera to automatically focus on whatever it's aiming at (you can turn this feature off by disabling the Eye-Start AF menu option). Pressing the same button again switches to the LCD, automatically blanking out the viewfinder with the rear screen bursting into life instead. As expected the Sony's top plate also features a shoe for an optional accessory flash situated just above the electronic viewfinder, with a dedicated button to manually release the pop up flash situated just in front. The built-in flash can also trigger an optional wireless accessory flash.
Over at the far left of the A55's top plate is a shooting mode dial that's slightly sunk into the bodywork, thus helping to prevent the dial accidentally slipping from one setting to another when placing into or retrieving the camera from a bag. Arranged around this are 10 selectable options, running from full Auto and Auto+ to the creative quartet of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter priority and Manual, plus dedicated modes for the 10fps continuous shooting, Panorama (normal or 3D), Flash Off and a Scene option which includes pre-optimised scene modes for common subjects such as portraits, landscapes, close ups (macro), sports, sunset, night, night portraits and handheld twilight.
The Auto+ mode goes even further than the standard Auto, automatically recognizing the correct scene mode and then taking advantage of the camera's high-speed shooting capabilities to shoot and combine up to six shots to produce images with greater dynamic range and lower image noise.
At the rear of the A55 we find the free-angle 3-inch LCD screen, which has an impressively high resolution of 921,600-dots, 16:9 wideangle ratio and can be adjusted for brightness. While the ability to both tilt and rotate the screen is very welcome, placing the bracket at the bottom does make it impossible to attain the video-friendly side-on position that some other rival models offer, a real shame considering the A55's video capabilities.
Instead of the bulky optical viewfinder of a conventional DSLR, the Sony A55 has a smaller electronic viewfinder. The mere mention of an EVF is usually enough to elicit loud groans from any serious photographer, as they have traditionally been poorly implemented in the past, with low-res, grainy displays that were only really suitable for still subjects. Thankfully the electronic viewfinder on the A55 is far better than any previous system. It has a large 1.1x magnification, 100% field of view, and a 1,440,000 dot equivalent resolution, resulting in a very usable display that won't leave you cursing.
As the EVF is reading the same signal from the image sensor as the rear LCD screen, it can also display similar information - for example, you can view and operate the A55's Function Menu, giving quick access to all the key camera settings while it's held up to your eye. The various icons used to represent the camera settings are clear and legible. The icing on the viewing cake is the clever built-in eye sensor, which automatically switches on the viewfinder when you look into it, then switches it off and turns on the LCD monitor when you look away.
The main downside of the A55's EVF system occurs indoors in low light, as it has to "gain-up" to produce a usable picture, resulting in a noticeably grainier picture. In all other situations, however, the electronic viewfinder on the A55 is the equal of and in many areas better than a DSLR's optical viewfinder, particularly those found on entry-level models which are typically dim and offer limited scene coverage. The truest testament to the A55 is that I mostly used it by holding it up to eye-level, something that I wouldn't do unless the EVF was of sufficient quality.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
To the left of the viewfinder is a button marked Menu. Press this and a number of shooting and set up folders appear on screen, with white text on a black background aiding visibility. The three shooting folders allow users to select image quality and - if JPEG (RAW and RAW+JPEG also available) - compression rates too. Here users can also set the Movie quality and audio options, switch on SteadyShot, long exposure and high ISO noise reduction - all in fact activated as a default, as is the likes of the eye start feature. Playback, memory card, time and two further set up folders allow the likes of LCD brightness to be adjusted, the help guide to be turned on or off, plus user languages, folders and file numbering to be specified.
To the right of the viewfinder is a small wheel for dioptric adjustment that isn't too stiff and rigid. Just below and to the right of this is a welcome dedicated button for one-touch movie recording, another for adjusting exposure compensation (+/- 2EV) in P,A,S,M modes, which also doubles up as a means of zooming into images and magnifying detail when in playback mode, and a handily-placed third marked AEL for locking the exposure.
To the right of the A55's screen is a Function ('Fn') button for those details that we'd expected to find amidst the menus but didn't. Here for example we find the Drive modes, Flash modes, along with Autofocus modes (a choice of single shot, auto or continuous), AF area (wide, spot or local), Face Detection, Smile Shutter, ISO speed, Metering (multi segment, centre weighted or spot), Flash compensation, White Balance (including a custom setting), DRO/Auto HDR, plus Creative Style settings. These pre-optimised user selectable settings run from the default of 'standard' through the self-explanatory vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset and black and white. For each of these creative options, contrast, saturation and sharpness can be individually adjusted.
Beneath the Function button we find a familiar four-way control pad. Ranged around this are settings for switching on or off the on-screen display, selecting from the white balance settings, ISO (auto, ISO100-12,800), and single shot/ burst capture, self timer or bracketing options (three shots at 0.3EV intervals). At the centre is a 'AF' button that comes in particularly handy when scrutinizing the screen in Live View mode. Press this and, as with a press of the shutter release button, the camera will automatically and rapidly determine a point of focus for you. Underneath these options is a playback button for the review of images and a self-evident trash can button for deleting images on the fly.
On the left of the A55 is a HDMI output in order to hook the camera up to an HD TV (the cable is once again an additional purchase) alongside the expected USB connection, both protected by the same rubber flap. Underneath are ports for a remote control and an external microphone, the latter potentially allowing better sound quality to be recorded than via the camera's built-in stereo microphones. There's also a GPS logo to indicate that this camera has built-in GPS. Two partially recessed metal eyelets on either side of the body allow the supplied camera strap to be attached. On the bottom of the camera is a shared compartment for a choice of either SD or Memory Stick to save images to, lithium-ion battery that supplies a life-span of 330 images with the viewfinder or 380 images in Live View mode, plus a metal tripod socket that's in-line with the centre of the lens mount.