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Product Review: Sony Alpha 550
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Product Review: Sony Alpha 550

A mid-range DSLR designed for serious shooters

After nearly five years in the DSLR biz, has Sony finally found the sweet spot for Minolta-centric photography enthusiasts? I put the a550 through its paces to find out.


 

Sony Alpha a-550 Key Features

  • 14MP APS-C Sensor
  • ISO sensitivity to 12,800
  • 7fps burst rate
  • Dual card slot for SDHC, Memory Stick
  • Eye-Start
  • Dynamic Range modes
  • Face Detection
  • 3-inch, articulated 940K dot resolution LCD
  • Image Styles
  • RAW or JPEG image file formats


Positives

  • Outstanding image quality at high ISO
  • Burst rate fastest in its class
  • Effective noise-supression


Negatives

  • Thick body can be hard to hold
  • Lots of surface buttons
  • Built-in HDR is limited


Price: Approx. $850, body only (current as of May 4, 2010)

 

Back of Sony a550 showing articulated LCD monitor.

Ever since it took over Minolta's camera manufacturing business, Sony has been trying mightily to lure the serious DSLR photographer with compelling new cameras that are packed with features and value. Many of the early cameras were relatively basic affairs, and in the last couple of years Sony has practically flooded the low-end DSLR market with a wide range of models (some would say, too many choices). They also started to go after the pro market, with mixed results so far, with the a900 and a850, both full-frame DSLRs that offer significant bang for the buck.

But what about the middle, the enthusiast market? Sony has made a few tries, but the a550 (and its stripped-down sibling, the a500) represent their most serious attempt so far to lure Minolta traditionalists and even (gasp!) owners of other brand DSLRs into the Sony fold. Can the a550 capture the hearts and minds of serious shooters? Let's take a look.




Many buttons on the top right of the camera give it an unorthodox look and feel, but it works.

 

In the hands

The a550 has a substantial feel, and is a bit thicker than the average mid-range DSLR. The grip is big and comfortable, but the camera's overall thickness may make it less comfortable for small-handed users to operate. Controls are generally logically placed and reachable with your thumb, although the top buttons require minor contortions when using in conjunction with the front control dial. The camera is noticeably larger and heavier than its entry-level a200- and 300-series siblings, and looks and feels like a more “serious” machine.


The articulated LCD  displays good sharp images, thanks to the 920,000 pixel resolution, and can be rotated for straight up or straight down viewing, or any step in between. The camera's Minolta DNA shows when you view the information screen, which is bright and informative, and switches from horizontal to vertical orientation when you turn the camera from landscape to portrait. This is a very intelligently designed holdover feature from Minolta's last film SLRs and first DSLRs that has been improved graphically by Sony. There are two possible display modes; I prefer the one that shows aperture and shutter speed in a sliding scale that dominates the screen.



Open the right-side door and there is a dual memory card slot (right), one for Sony's proprietary HG Duo memory sticks, the other for the more widely-used SD format. A switch on the left side toggles between the two slots. Flip-out doors on the left side of the camera reveal remote control, USB and HDMI ports, while the large Infolithium FM500H battery is house underneath the grip.



The usual P/A/S/M exposure controls, found on the exposure control dial on the left side of the camera's top plate, are easily attained via the left-side control knob, which also accesses night portrait, sunset, sports action, macro (see sample shot in Macro mode, below), landscape, portrait, and flash-off shooting modes. Menus are reasonably laid out and don't go too deep, which is good. While it's a challenge for camera designers to decide how many external buttons a camera should have (too many can be confusing, but too few means the user has to burrow through menu structure to find their preferred mode) I was glad to see that D-Range has been assigned a button all its own; it shows how important Sony considers this feature

 

D-Range lets you choose to stretch the a550's dynamic range either by boosting shadow detail or by combining two images for a true high dynamic range image. I wish there were an additional control that would give users the option of combining 3 or more images for even finder dynamic range control, but maybe that could be a future firmware update.

I found the differences between the different D-Range options to be subtle, but the version that combines two images does add a bit more shadow detail while keeping the highlights saturated and not blown out.

 


Without dynamic range, shooting in P, image shows good highlight and midtones, but blocked up shadows.

 

In D-range 1, which works on one exposure, the overall image appears to have been lightened with more shadow detail.

 

In D-Range 2, which combines two different exposures, there is a little more detail in the shadow areas (look in the trees), while mid-tones and highlights are unchanged from the original. Sony claims this mode increases the dynamic range by up to three stops but in the case of this image, it is probably more like one stop.


There is also a choice of Live View options. One is a traditional live view, which basically makes the a550 work much like a point-and-shoot (while at the same time disabling the optical finder). A second version, called MF Check LV (Manual Focus Check Live View), which enlarges the center of the frame (when you press the AEL button) so you can fine-focus, a useful feature when shooting with a long lens or macro. The downside? This feature disables autofocus.



A fn (Function) menu quickly accesses pre-set modes and settings that you may find yourself using often. One of the less useful function is called “Smart teleconverter” (looks like a screen with arrows pointing out at all four corners) which is actually just a digital zoom; ie, it enlarges a portion of the frame (and the pixels with it) digitally, not optically. I suggest leaving this control alone. The four-way controller on the back of the camera navigates smoothly through the menu items, with the central “OK” button there to approve settings.

The menus are bright and easy to read, and the submenu items do not require lots of burrowing down into sub-sub menus. In almost all cases, any menu item is within two button presses.

 

Menu structure is simple, with picture-taking, custom, preview and setup menus, above. There is only one level down from the main one below, where you select non-default settings. There are no further menu levels, which is good.

 

 

The a550 has two info screens—the standard version, a hold-over from the Minolta era, above, and an animated, more graphical one, below, which I prefer. Both versions automatically re-orient to portrait mode when camera is held vertically.

 

The menus are clean and legible. Sub-menus are just one level down, and that's the most button pushes you'll need.

Performance

At its default settings, the a550 turned in a decent performance, reacting  very quickly but not instantly when focus and exposure are not pre-set. With manual focus and manual exposure, there is no lag time.  The camera did a good job on fast-moving subjects with its super-fast rapid fire mode, which squeezed off  5-7 frames per second, depending on which burst mode is chosen. Either way, that outpaces most of the cameras in its category.

Image quality


The a550 uses a new CMOS sensor that is designed with noise reduction at each pixel, plus further noise reduction applied via the updated on-board BIONZ image processor. All of this attention to noise reduction paid off: Images were remarkably clean through ISO 400, with very little noise at ISO 800 and moderate noise at ISO 1600 and 3200 that still lets you produce usable images. By ISO 6400, noise becomes more noticeable, but you may still be able to get reasonable prints. Remarkably, despite the graininess, detail held up surprisingly well even at the top speed, ISO 12,800. While the color is splotchy by the time you hit the top speeds and the anti-noise efforts aren't very effective, you could probably coax a decent black-and-white print at this speed. Overall, that's a pretty spectacular result.

DxOMark Lab Test results


The Sony Alpha 550 scored a 65.8 overall image sensor rating based on raw image file data, putting it on even footing with the Canon T2i and above most APS sensors. Lab results also showed that it produced acceptable image quality up to ISO 800, putting it right between the Canon T2i and Nikon D5000 (which tested as the best in its category). It also scored very well in dynamic range (this is without D-range applied, with an almost 12-stop range; its only relative downfall is in color depth, where its results were measurably just a tad off those of competing models.

ISO sensitivity was consistently around 1/3 of a stop underexposed at all speeds, which is within tolerable parameters. Tonal range remains acceptable until you go above ISO 800, which is a good result. Overall, the Sony a550 had the fourth highest high-ISO image quality rating for cameras with APS-sized sensors, an impressive performance.

Did Sony hit a home run with the a550? Let's just say it turned in impressive image quality and a very good performance overall.

Conclusion and recommendation

A key disadvantage of the a550 is that it lacks HD Video, something that each of its competitors has. This puts them at a disadvantage when competing in the current world of digital cameras. However, this disadvantage goes away if video is not a deciding factor in your hunt for a mid-range DSLR.

Small-handed photographers my find the camera's extra thickness a bit inconvenient, but the control placement and simplified menu structure is quite user-friendly. Sports shooters may consider this camera for its zippy burst rate, and any outdoor shooters will appreciate the generous-sized, bright and readable articulated LCD monitor. But the key here is image quality, which is among the best in any APS-sensor DSLRs on the market. Especially if you already are invested in the Minolta/Sony system of flash and lenses, this is worth very serious consideration. But if you aren't a loyal Minolta shooter, the Sony a550 is a very worthwhile camera that's capable of bringing home the goods for serious photographers.

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