Sony A550 Review

Sony A550

The Sony A550 is a 14.2-megapixel DSLR that boils down to a more expensive entry-level camera.  As with other Sony Alpha DSLRs, the A550 features a built-in stabilization system that uses sensor-shift functions rather than lens-based stabilization.  As a result, every lens you attach to the camera benefits from image stabilization – as opposed to Canon and Nikon, for which you must buy “stabilized lenses” that can be more expensive.

Another familiar feature on the Sony A550 is the articulating LCD screen.  Like the lower-level models, the A330 and A380, the A550′s LCD will tilt up and down, allowing you to hold the camera up high or down low and still be able to easily see the LCD screen.

A tilting LCD screen wouldn’t be much use without the ability to compose your scene on it.  Again, the A550 offers the same Live View system that I have loved since it was originally introduced on the A300 and A350.  In my opinion, no one does DSLR Live View better than Sony.  It just works intuitively and feels very natural for those moving from point and shoot cameras.

The A550 has most of the same components and build structure as the Sony A500.  The biggest differences come in the sensor (12.3-megapixels on the A500) and the LCD screen, which is a significantly lower resolution on the A500.  Otherwise, these two cameras are very much the same.

Sony A550 Size and Handling

Sony A550

The A550 is a larger camera than the Sony A230, A330 and A380 cameras, which occupy the entry-level lineup for the Alpha line.  The way a camera feels in the hand is a very subjective thing.  That said, I think some cameras are generally more comfortable and functional than others.  The A550 feels this way to me.

The A550 also feels a little bigger than other entry-level cameras like the Nikon D5000 and Canon Rebel T1i.  It’s a lot more like the old A300 and A350 in terms of the ergonomics.  I was a big fan of how the A300 and A350 handled.  Although, folks with smaller hands might prefer the A230, A330 and A380.  Check out my Sony A330 Review to see the differences.  It’s a great camera, just a few less features and better suited for smaller hands.

Anyway, back to the A550.  The button layout is pretty generous and, for the most part, easily accessible.  One button that I wish was on the exterior is a button for switching image stabilization on and off.  The A300 and A350 had this; however, in the latest generation Sony moved this function to the menu system.

It’s important to be able to turn this feature off if you’re putting the camera on a tripod.  I experienced a little blur in some images from the use of image stabilization when on a tripod on the A550 and the A330. I appreciate the placement of the on/off switch on the body of the A300, A350, A850 and A900.

Sony A550

Sony does a great job with the A550 of putting settings modes like ISO, drive type, dynamic range optimizer on dedicated buttons.  Other high-demand settings are available via a Function button on the back.  Hitting this button gives you quick access to additional stuff like white balance, focusing modes, flash modes, metering modes, and creative styles.  All these are adjusted with the 4-way navigation button on the rear panel.

The mode dial on the top-left of the A550 features the typical shooting modes like Auto, P, A, S and M, as well as scene-specific modes such as sports mode, portrait mode, etc.  All in all, the A550 offers intuitive controls and feels just as good or better than other entry-level DSLRs.

Sony A550 Performance

Sony A550

Not surprisingly, the A550 performs like a champ.  Good response from the shutter release and all the other input buttons.  It has quick startup and, as I previously mentioned, the Live View performance is second to none.

Wicked-Fast Autofocus in Live View

I’ve praised the Live View performance of Sony Alpha DSLRs ever since I first handled the A300 and A350.  Sony does something entirely different from what Nikon and Canon do with Live View.

In case you aren’t familiar with how this works, I’ll briefly explain the nuts and bolts of Sony’s Live View system for its Alpha DSLRs.  Starting with what doesn’t work, Canon and Nikon flip up the mirror on their DSLRs when in Live View mode and allow all the light from the lens to pass straight to the imaging sensor.  As a result, the sensor that captures the final image is also the one used to display Live View image on the rear LCD panel.  Seems pretty intuitive, right?  The problem lies in the ability to autofocus in Live View mode.

Sony stepped outside of the box when it introduced the A300 and A350 with a very fast Live View autofocus system.  Sony left the mirror in place, which allows the traditional autofocus sensor to perform its function and sends the light from the lens up to the optical viewfinder.  When you flip the switch over to the Live View, the optical viewfinder is blacked out and a small mirror in the prism near the optical viewfinder is shifted to capture the light from the lens and direct it toward a secondary image sensor.

The sole function of this secondary sensor is to transfer this live image to the rear LCD panel.  So, the camera actually has 2 image sensors.  One sensor is used for image capture, and one sensor is used for the Live View display.  The fast autofocus that you’re accustomed to when looking through a viewfinder is still fully functional because the light from the lens is still directed to the primary autofocus sensor.  Brilliant.

In-Camera HDR

There are plenty of folks who dislike high dynamic range (HDR) imaging.  Personally, I’m enamored with HDR images when they are done right.  Perhaps “right” is more of my subjective taste, but there’s a lot of subjectivity in overall tastes in photography anyway.

One thing is for sure though, there’s a demand for HDR tools and solutions among the photography community.  Sony has responded to this demand by putting an HDR feature in the A550, along with its little sibling, the A500.

Personally, I think the in-camera HDR is very well executed in the Sony A550.  I’ve spent some time looking at a lot of different scenes with the A550, and I’m very impressed with how well the A550′s HDR images turned out.

For the HDR function to work, you have to shoot in JPEG mode.  Set the A550 to HDR mode via the D-Range button atop the camera and it will capture 3 images.  It takes these three image when you press the shutter button a single time by capturing a normal exposure, an over-exposed and an under-exposed image.  The rest is done in camera.

The A550 processes the 3 images together with a final result of a single image file.  It was one of those features that gave me a “wow” moment the first time I used it.  A lot of folks are going to have fun with this feature.

Granted, you don’t have the flexibility of using 3 or more RAW images in your post processing; however, some folks don’t want to do that.  A good portion of future A550 owners will probably be shooting in the JPEG file setting and will import their photos to iPhoto, Picasa or some other simple editor, make some quick tweaks (or, dare I say it, just pop the memory card out of the camera) and have them printed at a local drug store or department store.  And, you know what?  That’s ok.  That’s exactly who will get the most “wow” out of this HDR feature.

To give you an idea of what the HDR mode will do, I shot the following images in the dead of night.

Here’s a 100% crop of the Sun Sphere from the above in-camera HDR image.

Next, we’ve got a long exposure at ISO 200 from the A550.  Big difference, eh?

And the A550 ISO 200 close-in crop:

Finally, here’s another long exposure from the A900 at ISO 100.

Here’s the 100% crop from the A900:

The image from the A900 shows you a number of things, not the least of which is the difference between a $3000 camera and a $1000 camera.  As and aside, I want to touch on a couple of other points that deal with color balance and crop factor.  The images from the A550 and A900 were both shot in auto white balance (what most people use most of the time).

While the A550 is not the greatest at figuring out the right white balance setting, the additions to the scene of lots of white lights cools down the white balance of the entire image.  Since the A550 isn’t factoring in those portions of the scene (because they aren’t in the A550′s scene), it’s looking primarily at glow from tungsten street lights, which it just can’t get right with auto white balance.  However, most cameras stink at getting the right white balance under tungsten light and the auto WB setting.

The next thing I wanted to point out is the effect of “crop factor.”  The same Sony 50mm f/1.4 lens was used for all of the above images.  However, because the Sony A550 has a smaller sensor than the A900, the camera’s field of view is restricted to what is commonly referred to as a 1.5x “crop factor.”  In this case the A550 produces a field of view that is equivalent to roughly a 75mm lens on a full frame camera like the A900.

Stated another way, the A900 could reproduce an image framed in the same manner as the A550 image above if a 75mm lens were attached to the A900.

I didn’t necessarily have this comparison in mind when shooting these images; however, when looking through my files from this night, I found these points worth noting along with a comparison to the A900 image.

Built-In Image Stabilization

One of the great things about Sony DSLRs is the use of a sensor-based image stabilization system.  By shifting the sensor to compensate for camera shake, Sony takes away some of the lens buying confusion.

Nikon and Canon use a lens-based stabilization system.  As a result, if you want to take advantage of image stabilization’s benefits, you have to purchase stabilized lenses.

With Sony Alpha DSLRs, every lens is stabilized because the camera has the stabilization system.  When you go shopping for new lenses, there’s no need to worry about which lens is stabilized.  I used the A550 with a 50mm f/1.4 lens, which was a rather new experience for a lens like this.

I don’t have a quantifiable chart that shows the difference between sensor-based stabilization systems and lens-based stabilization systems.  Based on reports from other testers, the lens-based stabilization systems seem to have the slight edge.  But, I think we’re splitting hairs at that point.

Does the A550 stabilization system work?  Yes. Will it stop the motion of your subject? No.  Will it stop any and all camera shake?  No.  You still must use proper technique.

You are your best stabilization system.  You can improve your own technique to shoot with slower shutter speeds.  You can use a tripod or a monopod as well.

Image stabilization is an awesome technological advancement.  Just don’t use it as a crutch.

Lightning-Fast Frame Rate

The A550 delivers big time with a frame rate a 7 frames per second, although focus and exposure is locked at this speed on the first frame. This mode is called “Speed Priority.”  Still yet, you can back down to only 5 fps and get continuous AF and metering as you capture multiple frames.  Note, this is still faster than other entry-level cameras and is begging to be used by a sports shooter.

If you’ve got a fast SD card like a SanDisk Extreme series, then you can capture JPEG files at 5 fps until the card fills up.  If you’re shooting RAW format, then you can get up to 14 fps with a speedy SD card. Thanks to the A550′s speediness, you’ll have no excuse for missing those in-between moments on your kid’s soccer or baseball game.

Missing in Action?

One of the big missing features that experienced shooters will notice quickly is a mirror lockup.  The ability to lock the mirror up helps reduce blur from mirror slap – that’s vibration from the movement of the mirror inside the camera when capturing a frame at a longer shutter speed. For those who are planning on using the camera handheld all of the time anyway, the absence of mirror lockup will go unnoticed.

I’ve read a lot of complaining about the absence of mirror lockup on the A550.  Personally, I don’t use the feature a lot in my day to day shooting, so it’s not a big deal to me.  The solution to this is pretty straightforward – if you need mirror lockup in your camera, don’t buy this camera.  The A550 strikes me as a consumer-oriented camera, targeted toward consumers who have a bigger budget but still need something that’s simple to operate.

Other notable features that are absent are Program-shift and depth of field preview.  Program-shift on other cameras lets you tell the camera to shift to equivalent aperture and shutter settings when in P-mode.  Depth of field preview does just what the name implies – lets you see what the depth of field will look like in the final image by stopping the aperture down.  These are pretty basic features that should probably be included in a camera in the A550′s price range.  However, you can choose your own shutter speed or aperture simply by shooting in S- or A-modes.

The final missing piece to the A550 is a video recording mode.  The A550′s nearest competitors, the Nikon D5000 and Canon Rebel T1i, offer HD video recording modes.  The A550 has got nothing to offer in this regard.  Maybe you want video in your DSLR, maybe you don’t.  I would venture to say that most D5000 and T1i owners use the video recording capabilities seldom, if ever.

If you want a DSLR that can record video, make sure you know what you are getting into.  I have yet to see a single consumer-oriented DSLR offer an user-friendly video recording feature.  As a result, I don’t count this “missing” feature against the A550.  If you want a video camera for family video snippets, get a Flip video camera.  If you know what you’re getting into and still want/need a video-capable DSLR, then the A550 is obviously not for you.

Sony A550 Image Quality

I’ve mostly raved about ergonomics and performance of the A550; however, all is for naught if the camera doesn’t produce solid image quality.  I’m not about to crown the A550 the image quality king of the entry-level class.  If you are a pixel peeper, I think you’ll find that the Canon Rebel T1i and Nikon D5000 produce better overall image quality.

A key spec on the Sony A550 is the ISO range.  The A550 covers ISO 200-12800, which is pretty impressive for a consumer-oriented camera.  I never expected the A550 to really do that great with noise control at higher ISOs, and I wasn’t really surprised.  I would characterize the A550′s noise performance about average at the highest ISOs.

Up to ISO 3200, the images are certainly usable.  When you creep up to ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 though, the noise gets a little out of control.  It’s nice to know that these settings are available; however, they should only be used as a last resort.

The A550 won’t let you turn noise reduction off for JPEG files, so it’s either a “Normal” or “High” setting.  The noise reduction is pretty agressive at either setting.  Below is a 100% crop of a portion of the same scene taken with an A500 and A550 at ISO 3200.

The blurring isn’t all that bad at ISO 1600 or below.  When you hit ISO 3200 the rich colors really start to smudge some, and at ISO 6400 and up the blurring gets out of control. You can take a full look at the 100% crops and download original files on the Sony A500 and A550 ISO Comparison.

Sony A550 Accessories

SanDisk Exteme SD Card – Since the A550 is such a fast shooter, coupling it with a fast memory card will help you get the most out of it.  My recommendation is to stick with SD cards.  They are much faster and cheaper than comparable Sony Memory Sticks.

Sony DSLR1 Remote – I love having a wireless remote.  Sony makes a great one too.  It’s got instant shutter release and a 2-sec timer that helps you to get your hand down and out of the way when you are in the photos.

Sony DT 50mm f/1.8 lens -  This is a solid and affordable “portait” length lens that is great for available light shots.

The Lowepro Fastback bags are pretty nice if you are looking for a backpack style bag.  If I am just going somewhere casually, I will often times just take one lens and a camera in a Lowepro Topload Zoom 1 bag.

If you are new to DSLRs, I think the camera’s manual can get you a long way to learning the Sony A550.  However, to the extent you need further guidance on your photographic journey, I highly recommend Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure. At around $17, it’ll be the best bang for your buck that you ever spend on photography.

Conclusion

Sony A550

Sure, the A550 is more expensive that the baseline entry-level cameras; however, it offers some features that other cameras in the same price range and below just can’t match.  Up to 7 fps shooting speed and even 5 fps with autofocus and auto exposure engaged.  The Live View and HDR features simply cannot be ignored when comparing the A550 to other cameras in the entry-level range either.

When I say “more expensive” though, you must consider that the current entry-level crop of cameras are flirting with a price point just above $500 or so.  As a result, the A550 seems to really out-price them – but considering where entry-level cameras were priced a couple of years back and the feature set packed into the A550, it doesn’t sound like too bad of a deal at around $1000.

The A550 is not a camera for everyone.  It is missing a handful of manual control features that will cause some experienced shooters to pass it by.  It out prices the very capable A330 and A380.  However, there is a group whose budget and curiosity will allow them to explore the A550 and make use of the creative and convenience aspects found in the A550.

If you can live without some of those manual controls, you want a functional Live View display on your DSLR and your budget allows you to look above the A3xx series, I can easily recommend the A550 as a solid camera to grow with.

The Sony A550 is available from B&H Photo at the following link:

Sony A550 at B&H Photo

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Comments

  1. Sky says

    Nice review :) Very good HDR test, nice work with explaining some things.
    Only I always thought that A550 isn’t entry-level camera – it’s more like ‘photography enthusiast’, something in between the entry level (A2xx / A3xx)and midrange (A700), the people who know well how to make photos and who find entry-level cameras bit too basic.

  2. JK says

    Well done.

    A nice review.

    Regarding prices, they change. In 6 months this camera would be down to $800 or even $700, especially if there is a new Sony model that replaces A700.