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...

Product Overview

Overall rating:

86%

Sony Alpha a550

Overall score:86%
Features:90%
Value:85%
Performance:85%
Image Quality:85%
Design:85%

Pros:

  • Tilt-LCD, improved image quality, excellent live view

Cons:

  • Build quality a bit ‘plasticy’, noisy AF with kit lens, no video mode

Product:

Sony Alpha a550 Review

Manufacturer:

Price as reviewed:

£650.00

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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.

Sonya550sampleimage-citybynight.jpg

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.

Sony Alpha a550 product shot title screen left sideMenu-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.

 

More info:

Sony Alpha a550 performance

Sony Alpha a550 image quality and value for money

Sony Alpha a550 review verdict

Use our compare tool to compare the Sony Alpha a450 with other DSR’s

Performance

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.

Sonya550sampleimage-skiier.jpg

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.

Sony Alpha a550 reviewAnother 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. <!–

Sony Alpha a550 review pages:

Sony Alpha a550 review links from What Digital Camera.com

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Image Quality & Value for Money

Sony Alpha a550 review – Tone & Exposure

Exposure is generally good when using Multi-Segment metering (except for the odd over-exposure when metering lighter subjects). However, the Spot meter is a little less refined, it feels as though the spot-area is relatively large and may underexpose in some circumstances. Tonally images are a little on the flat side, though in-camera Creative Styles such as Vivid mode can spruce this up where needed, or a bit of software post-production or Raw processing can help out.

Sony Alpha a550 review – RAW/JPEG

Sony’s ARW Raw files allow output in Jpeg or Tiff when using the Image Data Converter SR V. 3.1 software. As unprocessed files, the Raw versions are similar to the Jpeg, though severity of noise differs depending on the level of processing.

Sony Alpha a550 review – Colour & White Balance

Colour is a little on the flat side, with ‘Standard’ mode seeming to lack high contrast, though shooting in ‘Vivid’ mode will push this to be punchier and more vibrant.

As with many Sony cameras, the Auto White Balance still sides a little towards the cooler blue feel. It’s not an overwhelming issue, but portraits and similar shots may need an injection of warmth to spruce them back up.

Sony Alpha a550 review – ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise

Obviously Sony’s newly configured CMOS sensor set out to make low-noise images, especially with number-grabbing ‘ISO 12,800′ headline. However, above ISO 800 there’s a gradual increase in prominence of colour noise that, at the highest ISO 12,800 sensitivity, can even be seen when previewing on the rear LCD, making it notable when viewed at full size or as a print. However, image quality overall is an improvement over the Alphas of old, which is the key thing here – it’s a step in the right direction.

PentaxK7-sampleimage-checks ISO.jpg

Sony Alpha a550 review – Sharpness & Detail

The provided 18-55mm kit lens is a little soft, and there is notable chromatic aberration to the corners, particlarly when shooting wideangle. It’s not unexpected, given kit lenses on the majority of DSLR releases tend to be reasonable at best. There’s a lot of detail present, and the 14.2 megapixel sensor does a good job, but is probably better paired with a sharper lens.

Sony Alpha a550 review – Value for money

The a550 was released in tandem with the a500. The ultimate confusion of the a550’s £640 street price is the a500’s nigh-on identical £630 street price. In one very swift swoop the a550 trounces much of the need for the a500 in the market, and all for the sake of a tenner. In broader market terms of course, the a550 is pitching itself directly against the likes of the Canon 500D, Olympus E620 and Nikon D5000, and, with its high performance live view, in-camera stabilisation and now ultra-high ISO, decent image quality, it’s got a firm chance of offering buyers unique advantage points in all those areas – except for its lacking of a video mode. If you’re willing to pay around an extra £150, then even a Nikon D90 would also be in your grasp. <!–

Sony Alpha a550 review pages:

Sony Alpha a550 review links from What Digital Camera.com

–>

Verdict

Sony Alpha a550 product shot frontThe a550 is quite the live view photographer’s camera – it ousts competitors at a similar level with class-leading, super-fast live view autofocus and quirky modes such as Quick Tele 1.4x or 2x crop factors. However, when lined up against competitors such as the Canon 500D, the build quality feels a little plasticy, which is a let down.

Thankfully the a550 adopts a proper DSLR-like grip, unlike the poor a380 and a230’s lack of any surmountable grip, so it feels good in the hand.

Modes such as in-camera HDR and expanded D-Range Optimiser will afford creative photographers more possibilities, as will the addition of higher-sensitivity to ISO 12,800. However, whilst the brand has been touting this high-ISO to be groundbreaking, it’s more an improvement over Alphas of old, the upper echelons of ISO sensitivity actually proving to be too noisy for most people’s use.

The tilt-angle LCD adds a new dimension to creative framing, though the continued lack of a video mode may isolate some new buyers looking for a stills and video hybrid.

Give it a couple of months and the price should drop to be a touch more competitive, and then the a550 will be quite the competitor to consider.

Verdict

The a550 is quite the live view photographer’s camera – it ousts competitors at a similar level with class-leading, super-fast live view autofocus and quirky modes such as Quick Tele 1.4x or 2x crop factors. However, when lined up against competitors such as the Canon 500D, the build quality feels a little plasticy, which is a let down. Thankfully the a550 adopts a proper DSLR-like grip, unlike the poor a380 and a230’s lack of any surmountable grip, so it feels good in the hand. Modes such as in-camera HDR and expanded D-Range Optimiser will afford creative photographers more possibilities, as will the addition of higher-sensitivity to ISO 12,800. However, whilst the brand has been touting this high-ISO to be groundbreaking, it’s more an improvement over Alphas of old, the upper echelons of ISO sensitivity actually proving to be too noisy for most people’s use. The tilt-angle LCD adds a new dimension to creative framing, though the continued lack of a video mode may isolate some new buyers looking for a stills and video hybrid. Give it a couple of months and the price should drop to be a touch more competitive, and then the a550’ll be quite the competitor to consider.

Full Specification

AF Points:
9 points with cross sensor
Max Flash Sync:
1/160th sec

Built-in Flash:
Yes, GN 12
DoF Prview:
No

Colour Temp Control:
2500 – 9900 Kelvin
White Balance Bracket:
Yes, 3 frames, selectable 2 steps

Exposure Comp:
1/3EV Step ±2EV
Colour Space:
sRGB, Adobe RGB

Shutter Type:
Electronically-controlled, vertical-traverse, focal-plane type
Other:
Tilt-angle LCD, no movie mode, in-camera HDR mode, D-range Optimiser (+1-+5), Face Detection, Smile Shutter, 6 selectable Creative Styles, Smart Teleconverter (1.4x or 2x crop factor),

Focusing Modes:
Single shot AF, Automatic AF, Continuous AF, Manual Focus
Dust Reduction:
Yes, antistatic coating and sensor shift mechanism

Built-in Image Stabilisation:
Yes, SteadyShot Inside sensor-shift
Weight:
Approx. 599g

Live Mode:
Yes
Dimensions:
137 x 104 x 84mm

Power:
NP-FM500H rechargeable li-ion battery
Connectivity:
HDMI, USB 2.0

Memory Card:
SD / SDHC / Memory Stick Pro (1 slot for each type, not possible to use simultaneously however)
Field of View:
95% approx, 0.8x magnification

Metering System:
40-segment honeycomb-pattern SPC
Drive Mode:
Single, Continuous to 5fps (4fps via live view), Speed-priority Continuous (allows 7fps), Self-timer, Continuous-advance AE bracketing, White Balance Bracketing, Remote commander

White Balance:
Auto / Daylight / Cloudy / Shade / Incandescent / Flash / Manual (K), Natural Color Filter, Custom,
ISO:
200-12800

File Format:
JPEG, Raw (ARW), Raw+JPEG
Exposure Modes:
P, A, S, M, Night Portrait, Sunset, Sports Action, Macro, Landscape, Portrait, Flash Off, Auto

Viewfinder Type:
Fixed eye-level, penta-Dach-mirror
Compression:
Fine / Standard JPEG

Shutter Speeds:
30 – 1/4000th second, plus Bulb
Focal Length Mag:
1.5x

Lens Mount:
Sony a mount, Compatible with A-Mount Minolta/Konica Minolta lenses
Sensor:
14.2MP CMOS

Output Size:
4592 x 3056
LCD:
3in 921K-dot tilt screen

  1. 1. Sony Alpha a550 review - Features
  2. 2. Performance
  3. 3. Image Quality & Value for Money
  4. 4. Verdict
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