Sony's latest Single Lens Transparent ('SLT') camera - the Alpha A55 - adds GPS and a super-fast 10fps burst rate. Is the Sony A55 the dawn of a new digital camera revolution?
Design & Performance
Sony Alpha A55 review – Design
Because the A55’s construction differs from a traditional DSLR it is slightly smaller in size, though not drastically so. Although this may be a draw for some prospective users, there’s still plenty of body to grip hold of.
Apart from this, the A55’s overall external appearance doesn’t wildly differ from a regular DSLR – a mode dial to the top left can be quickly accessed and adjusted, while the Fn (Function) button on the rear of the camera is used for quick access to the majority of the most used settings. The back of the camera also offers a standard d-pad arrangement for menu navigation purposes, with a variety of one-touch buttons dotted about elsewhere to control movie, exposure compensation, exposure lock, D-Range Optimiser and depth-of-field preview.
The menu system is easy to understand, and with no need to scroll through pages of sub-menus locating various options is relatively easy.
Sony Alpha A55 review – Performance
Despite being the first-generation of a new breed of camera the A55 clearly takes on board Sony’s ongoing experience in the DSLR sector. As such it works remarkably well and is by and large the very same as using a DSLR camera for the most part.
If an electronic viewfinder really isn’t for you then the A55 may fall at the last hurdle. However, to dismiss the A55’s EVF out of hand could be a naïve mistake as it offers a whole host of functionality. At 1.15-million dots the resolution equates to 800×480 pixels which, although not dramatically resolute, is up there with the best available at the time of writing. Add the benefit of light-up AF points that can be completely turned on or off as desired, a dual-axis level that can be shown when lining up shots to avoid converging lines, a grid overlay and an active histogram and there’s lots to shout about. Its field of view is a true 100% too, meaning what you compose is what you get. However, pushing the scales back the other way a little, the EVF’s one major flaw is low-light performance: image preview can blur and lag, be noticeably noisy and will often lack the crispness and detail that an optical viewfinder would otherwise be able to deliver. Without seeing the EVF in action it’s hard to decide whether it’s right for you or not, so getting down to a photo store and giving it a go is certainly advisable. Should you choose to use the rear LCD screen instead of the EVF to compose your images with, the 3in, 920k-dot screen is set in a 16:9 widescreen ratio. As such the usual 3:2 stills ratio won’t fill the entirety of the screen.
The new 15-point AF system has three cross-type sensors towards the centre arranged for added sensitivity in both portrait and landscape orientation. Focus is quick off the mark, though the arrangement of the AF-points favours the centre of the frame, which leaves a lot of space towards the edges that aren’t catered for. Also, shooting objects of low contrast caused issues, while the lack of an AF-assist lamp means no additional continuous light for use in darker conditions (only the flash can be used for pre-flash).
Where the A55’s strengths really lie are with its phenomenal speed. The 10fps burst mode only operates in Speed Priority mode, which is like an Auto mode for super-fast shooting. If you want to take full control of the camera then all other modes offer a continuous burst of a still-impressive 6fps by adjusting the drive mode accordingly. The clear benefit of this burst is just how good the camera is at tracking a moving subject while maintaining focus – regardless of whether a subject is moving away or towards the camera at speed, the A55 delivers the goods. The fact that this can be achieved through the viewfinder or by utilising the same autofocus system in live view opens up a variety of different possibilities in use, the likes of which a regular DSLR’s live view system wouldn’t even begin to match.
Continuous shooting is matched with a relatively generous buffer size too. This test recorded 18 Raw + JPEG shots taken in a row at 10fps with no letup in speed whatsoever. Compare this to the 10 frames the A55’s younger sibling, the Alpha A33, can take at 7fps and this is one of the notable differences between the two cameras. However, once the buffer is writing it can take rather a long time to clear, with those 18 Raw + JPEG shots taking some 45 seconds before the SD-write lamp switched off. Fortunately the camera is still operable during this time period, so it’s of little consequence for most shooting scenarios.