Sony's A33 uses new translucent mirror technology in a digital camera for the first time. Is this the beginning of the end for DSLR cameras as we know them? That What Digital Camera Sony Alpha A33 review...
Sony Alpha SLT-A33 review – Performance
As the first of its type the SLT-A33 does a good job of avoiding too many teething problems. It’s comparable to the current Sony Alpha A560 DSLR also just released to market – meaning that, if the A33’s Electronic Viewfinder puts you off, a similarly-specced Sony DSLR offering is also available.
The A33’s 1.15 million-dot viewfinder may sound incredibly resolute but it’s worth noting that this is actually an 800×480 pixel resolution and, although detail is resolved at what’s among the best level available to market, there’s still a long way to go before any EVF reaches the detail we associate with high definition. A 2.76 million-dot version would equate to what a 720p HD TV screen is, whereas 6.22 million-dots would match 1080p. Admittedly, even camera LCD screens haven’t reached this level as yet, but consider how close the eye is to the finder and the level of detail becomes even more critical. Saying that, detail is one thing but it’s other factors that add both positive and negative points in use: Low light is very much the EVF’s enemy as the preview readily shows image noise and suffers from image lag and blur when panning or framing. In good light this is far less a problem, but there can be a subtle delay in the metering catching up with changes in light. On the upside, if more traditional expectations are brushed to one side for the moment, the new EVF does really benefit from the ability to overlay framing devices such as the dual axis level or grid pattern and a full time histogram preview and real time autofocus information can be relayed back. The EVF will be the one major ‘should I, shouldn’t I?’ moment when considering the A33’s purchase – and it’s likely that more new generation gadget-minded buyers will love its future-thinking, yet those with more experience with photographic kit may still take more convincing.
When not using the EVF, the 3in, 920k-dot LCD on the rear has the ability to rotate through a variety of angles to improve framing possibilities. The screen is of a standard high resolution and the only major qualm is its 16:9 ratio – ideal for shooting cinematic movies, but not so good for 3:2 stills images as black borders to the left and right make the preview a little smaller overall.
The A33’s movie mode is a positive step-up beyond what most DSLR cameras can achieve. The 1080i quality is good but it’s really with the new full-time phase detection autofocus that a true difference is made. When set into AF the camera can continuously and seamlessly focus with great accuracy during recording and it’s far faster than anything before it on this front. However, the autofocus is either on or set to manual with no half-way house for more complex control such as fixing focus mid-recording. For example, an interrupting subject walking through the frame will cause the camera to rapidly compensate and draw focus closer for that particular incident. The lens isn’t especially fluid in the zoom department either which can make for rather ‘clunky’ zooming if recording using the manual mode. And despite the rear LCD screen’s widescreen ratio it’s not possible to accurately pre-frame prior to recording as the 3:2 ratio is a different crop to the 16:9 movie one (it gives the appearance of having slightly ‘zoomed in’) when hitting the one-touch movie button which, upon being pressed, causes a brief half second blackout and delay prior to recording. However, despite the 18-55mm kit lens being audibly noisy there is an external microphone port available for more professional recording possibilities. On the one hand this is the best automated movie mode you could hope to buy, but in its initial state there’s plenty of room for improvement – something the forthcoming a700 replacement camera will more than likely take command of.
The all-new 15-point autofocus system has three cross-type sensors towards the centre for faster and more accurate use in both portrait and landscape orientation. Focus is steady and relatively quick, though the arrangement of the AF points is generally quite centralised on the sensor, so don’t expect more detailed edge-to-edge focusing. Objects with limited colour or contrast can also throw a spanner in the works with focus struggling to find a final point. An issue with many Sony DSLR cameras, as well as the A33, is the lack of an AF assist lamp. Instead the flash can pop up and pre-flash the scene to attempt to gain a read, but this is more distracting and less proficient than an AF lamp would be. With the 18-55mm kit lens on the front some impressively close-up macro shots were possible, whether shooting at the wide 18mm or longer 55mm end it was possible to focus on a subject as close as approximately 12cms from the lens.
Despite all the tech-wizardry on the inside, the A33 is caimed at both the newcomer as well as the more familiar enthusiast. In the menus a brief pause over a specific mode or option will bring up a simple explanation in English of what that mode does to make everything that bit more accessible. Leave the camera sat it playback mode unattended for about, though, and it’ll auto-play through your videos without so much as pressing a button.