Sony Alpha a550 review
The a550 sure has some clever ideas under its belt. The 1.4x or 2x Quick Tele button will crop into the frame, producing respectively less resolute files - but with a full 14.2MP to play with in the first instance, this is generally of little consequence to quality. However, it's not possible to shoot Raw in this mode and, obviously due to the viewfinder being optical, is only available when using in live view. Whilst this partly limits its appeal, it also tags yet another trophy to Sony's class-leading live view mode. Unlike most other contrast detect AF systems, the a550 makes benefit of an additional sensor located inside the viewfinder housing for super-quick live view AF that's certainly in another league. However, for those that will have less use for live view, this additional sensor is at the expense of the viewfinder - it feels a little dim and small and, as per pretty much all DSLRs in this class, only has a 95% field of view coverage.
The 9-point autofocus system is relatively nippy, though will struggle to quickly respond to extremely fast changes. For example, panning birds across the sky was relatively successful assuming little other objects came in to frame to interrupt, though shooting skiers launching from a big ramp was less successful - over-focusing would ultimately miss the moment, prompting for a manual focus on a fixed point to take over. There are three AF options - the usual AF-S for a single focus, AF-C for continuously adjusting focus when half-depressing the shutter and the AF-A option providing a combination of the two for initial single focus and re-focus only if your subject should move.
The bundled 18-55mm kit lens is standard at best. Not particularly sharp, the lens also isn't too well designed for manual focusing - with the focusing ring right up next to the front element, it's easy for fingers to get in the way, or grab too far forward and touch the front glass itself. For optimum results there are plenty of other (admittedly more expensive) Sony-compatible lenses out there. The real qualm with the lens above all else is how unusually loud and noisy it is when in auto focus. It whirrs with some volume, and this isn't an isolated occurrence with one lens - swapping over to yet another 18-55mm kit was equally as loud; only attaching a Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 brought elegant silence.
At the time of writing the A550's ARW Raw format isn't supported by Adobe - though this should change with a future release of Adobe Camera Raw. For the time being you'll have to make do with Sony's own Image Data Converter SR 3.1 which is actually a real good performer. It certainly plods along when processing when compared to Adobe's ACR, but it's the list of camera-specific inherent in the Sony software that make for quite the treat. From D-Range Optimiser post adjustment to a variety of complex curve adjustments, all the data is at your fingertips to successfully manipulate.
Another really useful feature - and something used much more than I'd expected to - is the in-camera HDR (High Dynamic Range). It's the only current system that can be used handheld (Pentax's K-7 offers a similar option, though exposures need to be produced with a camera on some form of fixed support, like a tripod) and yet still merges two quickly snapped frames into one single frame to expose for both highlights and shadows simultaneously. The results are subtle, far from the often over-worked results you may have seen from overzealous post-production bods. The only downside is its incompatibility with Raw files and that there are no detailed fine-tuning controls beyond the +0.5-3EV exposure differentiation. The HDR mode feels like the next logical phase on from the current Handheld Twilight mode found in Sony's TX1 and WX1 compact cameras, which can only be a good thing. Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO or D-Range Optimiser) also gets an expansion from the previous +1-3 stops to a new top-end of up to +5. This amps up the shadow detail to match highlights, a little like HDR, albeit only using the information from a single frame, rather than the larger amount of information available from multiple exposures. It's a great rescue option for tricky shooting scenarios, and can be used when shooting Raw files too then later removed/adjusted if you feel the need (Jpegs are final though).
Somehow Sony's crammed a lot of juice into the battery too. You expect a DSLR battery to last a day's shooting, and the a550 had no qualms here. Shooting 500 frames with various amounts of playback and menu twiddling still had a battery with 12% left on the meter. This percentage display is also another subtle pleaser - much more accurate than some manufacturers ‘three bar' displays that fail to indicate quite when it's going to finally fully deplete.
There's still no movie mode to be found however. Sony claim that the company doesn't wish to release a sub-par video function, effectively suggesting current DSLRs out there aren't quite up to the high standard some may expect. But for it to not be present at all is a notable omission compared to competitors' DSLRs at a similar level.