The Sony a550 is the newest mid-level of Sony's recent releases, with an array of top features including high sensitivity to ISO 12800. We test out if the a550 is a true performer or more a gap-filler in the What Digital Camera Sony Alpha a550 review...
Sony Alpha a550 review – Features
The Alpha a550 certainly isn’t thin on the features front. At its core there’s a new 14.2 Megapixel CMOS sensor – a notable change over the CCD sensors found in the more entry-level Alpha cameras. As per the top-end Sony a900, the a550’s sensor borrows advanced processing algorithms handled by its BIONZ engine to deliver images up to a staggering ISO 12,800. This is clearly new ground for Sony, with the company pitching themselves as contenders against the best of the low-light performers out there.
With its Speed Priority mode, the a550 can shoot an impressive seven frames per second, or up to four frames per second when using live view. Speaking of which, there have been improvements to make Sony’s already acclaimed Quick AF live view even faster than before, plus a Face Detection mode which can now focus on up to eight faces. There’s even a smile detection mode which will add additional appeal to those looking for an easy to use, comprehensive DSLR camera instead of a compact purchase. Outside of live view mode the viewfinder offers 95% coverage, which does mean a small edge of the final image will not be visible in frame during composition – though this is a fairly common standard for DSLR cameras at this level.
Sony Alpha a550 review, full size sample image – click for full size gallery
Whilst there’s still no sign of a video mode from Sony in any of its DSLRs, there is an HDMI output. Sony is very keen to push its other electronics products, with the ‘Bravia Sync’ allowing for high definition playback of images on your Sony HDTV.
On the rear there’s a high-resolution 921K-dot, two-way tilt LCD screen, which can tilt at any angle up to 90 degrees vertically to face up or down. Ideal for those unusual waist-level or over-the-head type of shots. It’s all about getting that little bit more creative, and there are even subtle ‘Creative Styles’ – from ‘standard’ through to ‘vivid’, ‘black and white’ as well as ‘sunset’, ‘portrait’ and ‘landscape’ to emphasise this approach even further.
Some extras features like the Quick Teleconverter – which sounds great on paper – make a 1.4x and 2x crop into frame, to allow for a perceived magnification. However, this only works in live view mode when shooting Jpeg only (no Raw files for this one). The D-Range Optimiser – which optimises for both shadow and highlight exposure – gets a rework too, now with five levels of prowess over the previous three. Stepping beyond that there’s even an in-camera HDR (high dynamic range) mode, which takes two shots sequentially and combines them into one all in camera and without the need for a tripod. This clever mode is the first of its type to be effective handheld.
Despite the Sony brand name, the a550 is one in a line of many cameras picked up from its previous Konica-Minolta incarnation. Shrewdly, the Sony a-mount is the same fitting as those lenses of old, so any Konica, Minolta or, indeed, Konica-Minolta lenses lying around still maintain excellent value, especially with the SteadyShot Inside sensor-based image stabilisation too.
Sony Alpha a550 review – Design
Unlike the lower-end Sony models with smaller, sunken grips – such as the a380 – the Alpha a550 has a solid, protruding rubberised grip that fits comfortably to the hand. This gives the immediate feel of control and its finish ensures it holds well to the hand. The rest of the camera body, however, feels rather ‘plasticy’ in finish. Furthermore the manual focus element of the kit lens is directly at the front, meaning grabbing fingers are in danger of touching the front lens element or getting in the way of shot should you work in this way.
Menu-wise, the a550 is well equipped with a series of one-touch buttons to get you to the various controls fast. As well as the usual mode dial to the left, D-range, Drive mode and ISO buttons sit to the right behind the shutter release. Live view is controlled via a switch to the side of these, with a further Manual Focus Check Live View button to raise the mirror for an ultra-bright screen that’s perfect for still life setups or similar. Exposure lock and Exposure Compensation of +/-2EV each have their own buttons on the camera’s rear too.
The main menu offers the standard, slower way of getting to those more ‘behind the scenes’ details, such as colour spaces, noise reduction and aspect ratios. It’s good to see so many easy access routes into controls, as to not bog down the user with excessive menu digging. The bulk of controls are reached via the Function (Fn) button, and once things are set up the new user interface introduced by Sony shows your settings in an easy-to-understand display on the LCD. Change a setting and corresponding exposure controls will change respectively, as a visual means to demonstrate to more entry-level users what’s happening to each aspect. It’s easy to understand and not overburdening in any way – and certainly looks a lot better than Sony menus of old.