by Shawn Barnett and Mike Tomkins
Performance results added: 06/17/2010
Earlier this year, Sony introduced three SLRs that were really minor upgrades to their predecessors, which were announced in 2008. In late August 2009, Sony is announcing two digital SLR cameras with more advanced features, aimed at enthusiast photographers.
The Sony A550 and A500 are very similar, so both Hands-on Previews will seem quite familiar. Indeed, the only major differences between the two cameras are that the A550 has a higher resolution sensor, a higher resolution LCD, a faster maximum frame rate, greater buffer depth, a shorter battery life, and weighs just 0.07 ounces (two grams) more.
Both offer some features that are unique in the market, and both include improvements in sensor and processor design that Sony says will deliver better high ISO image quality. One unique feature is Auto HDR, where the camera captures two images and merges them into one High Dynamic Range image.
Both also have articulating display screens and Live View mode. Sony's Live View mode is also unusual, because it uses a secondary sensor inside the pentamirror that doesn't interfere with the A550's autofocus system, unlike other digital SLR designs. However, because it's hard to confirm focus on Sony's usual Live View mode, they've now added a Manual Focus Check mode that raises the mirror and exposes the imaging sensor, allowing you to check and adjust focus at will in a more traditional live view style.
The Sony Alpha A550 will be available from October 2009, priced at US$950 body-only or US$1,050 inclusive of an 18-55mm kit lens.
Look and feel. Compared to this year's earlier cameras, the A230, A330, and A380, the A550 is bigger, thicker, and heavier. While the A380 weighs 17.2 ounces (489g) the A550 weighs in at 1 pound 5.1 ounces (599g). That's not bad as most SLRs go, but that plus its thicker body does make it feel a little chunky.
Like this year's consumer models, the Alpha 550 has a duo-tone body, with a gunmetal gray top deck and a black rubber and plastic body. The shiny black strip on the front of the grip is not a touch sensor, as has been seen on previous Alpha cameras, but it's just an accent that also conceals the infrared sensor.
The Sony A550's grip is a little odd. It's a little slim left to right, and not really deep enough. This impression is increased by the unusual thickness of the body front to back. We really didn't find it very comfortable for long hand-holding. Here you see the switch for Live View, in the same location as past models. New to the A500-series is the MF Check LV button, which puts the camera in Live View mode from the main imaging sensor, rather than the secondary sensor.
Dynamic Range, Drive mode, and ISO settings can also be adjusted on the top deck. Note the sloped area between the top and back, making operation a little easier from more angles.
The back view is similar to the A350, except that the four buttons that lined the left side of the LCD are now moved to the upper left and lower right of the Sony A550's back. The Super SteadyShot switch is no longer present, that mode relegated to a menu item.
A rubber thumbpad adds grip to the rear of the camera, and the Function (Fn) button is handy for quick settings changes.
The tilting LCD mechanism is gifted with a little more angular mobility than we've seen in other Alphas, now able to tilt a full 90 degrees downward, especially helpful when shooting overhead, or when shooting on a tripod in vertical mode. A small sensor on the lower right of the Sony A550's LCD can be set to dim or brighten the LCD's backlight automatically when needed.
Image Sensor. At the heart of the Sony A550 is a Sony Exmor CMOS image sensor with dimensions of 23.4 x 15.6mm, roughly equivalent to a frame of APS-C film. The Sony A550's sensor has an effective resolution of 14.2 megapixels, and yields 3:2 aspect ratio images with dimensions of up to 4,592 x 3,056 pixels. In addition to two lower-resolution 3:2 modes of 3,344 x 2,224 and 2,288 x 1,520 pixels, the Sony A550 offers three modes that crop the sensor's output to a 16:9 aspect ratio, suitable for viewing on wide-screen HDTVs. The Sony A550's 16:9 image modes are 4,592 x 2,576, 3,344 x 1,872, and 2,288 x 1,280 pixels respectively.
The imager is mounted on a movable platter, allowing for Sony's SteadyShot INSIDE image stabilization with all compatible lenses. The system is said to offer 2.5 to 4 stops of correction, improved from 2.5 to 3.5 stops in past models. The sensor-shift mechanism is also used to shake dust from the sensor, as part of Sony's Anti-Dust system which also includes a charge protection coating on the low-pass filter.
Working together. Both the Exmor image sensor and BIONZ image processor in the Sony A550 are said to feature new designs. The Sony A550 uses a combination of on-sensor noise reduction at each photocell location, plus a two-step noise reduction procedure which operates both before and after analog-to-digital conversion, processing chrominance and luminance noise separately. The result is an unusually wide sensitivity range for a camera at this price point, ranging from a minimum of ISO 200 to 12,800 equivalents in 1 EV steps, with settings from ISO 200 to 1,600 available under automatic control.
High ISO noise reduction is applied at sensitivities of ISO 1,600 or above, with normal or high strength options available. Long exposure noise reduction is also available at shutter speeds longer than one second, and can be disabled at the photographer's option.
Autofocus. The Sony Alpha A550 offers a nine-point TTL phase detection autofocusing system, and includes an AF-assist lamp to help with focusing in low-light conditions. Thanks to a secondary image sensor in the A550's prism assembly, Sony is able to continue using the standard phase-detection AF system while displaying a Live View image on the camera's LCD display. Dubbed Quick AF Live View mode by Sony, this is reminiscent of a system that was used in Olympus' EVOLT E-330 digital SLR, but with the addition of some current technologies.
For example, in Quick AF Live View mode, the Sony A550 is able to offer face detection when focusing with the phase-detection sensor. When a face is detected, the camera can automatically select the correct AF point, and adjust exposure, white balance, flash output, and other variables to ensure that your subject's face is correctly rendered. The extra information from the face detection system also allows an improved AF tracking function. The Sony A550's face detection system also allows a Smile Shutter function, which can automatically trigger the camera's shutter immediately when your subject smiles. Animation courtesy of Sony Electronics.
Manual Focus Check. Alternatively, the Sony A550's Live View can function in Manual Focus Check live view mode, accessed via a dedicated button on the camera's top panel. When activated, the camera displays a full-frame view of the scene on the LCD display, using information streamed from the main image sensor, and with the signal boosted if necessary to see the subject in poor lighting. Pressing the Enlarge button then cycles through 7x or 14x magnified views, useful for confirming accuracy of or adjusting manual focus. Grid lines can also be overlaid on the display to help in precise alignment of the scene. As the name implies, autofocusing isn't possible in this mode.
Modes. The Sony A550 includes Auto, Program, Aperture- and Shutter-priority, and Manual shooting modes plus a selection of scene modes that help beginners get the results they desire with a minimum of effort. Scene modes on offer include Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Sunset, and Night Portrait / Night View. Available shutter speeds from the Sony A550's electronically controlled, vertical travel focal plane shutter range from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, plus a bulb mode, and flash sync is available at 1/160 second.
Metering. The Sony A550 uses a 40-segment honeycomb-patterned SPC sensor to determine exposures in all modes except for Quick AF Live View mode, where the secondary image sensor can be used to provide for more accurate 1,200-zone evaluative metering.
Metering modes available in the Sony A550 include Multi-segment, Center-weighted, and Spot. 2.0 EV of exposure compensation is available in 1/3 EV steps, and the Sony A550 also allows for three-shot bracketed exposures in 0.3 or 0.7 EV steps. White balance modes include Auto, six presets (Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, or Flash), and manual white balance -- including the ability to specify a color temperature. Three-frame white balance bracketing is also available, with two strength levels possible.
Menus. Sony's excellent main menu system remains largely the same, but the Sony A550's Function menu gets a much-needed revamp. Rather than a few large boxes that cover the entire screen, simple icons line the screen left and right. By default, the Help Guide Display is active. As you roll over each function item with the controller, a brief explanation of the highlighted item fades into view. You press the center button to make your selection, and you're taken to a submenu where the same basic help menu helps you understand the meaning of each item in plain text. When you're sufficiently versed on the controls (or sufficiently annoyed with the Help Guide Display) you can turn it off in Settings menu 1.
Flash. The Sony A550's built-in popup flash has a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, and 18mm coverage. Flash modes include Auto, Fill, Slow-sync, and Rear-sync, and 2.0 EV of flash exposure compensation is available in 0.3 EV steps. An intelligent hot shoe is compatible with Sony's HVL-F36AM, HVL-F42AM, HVL-F56AM, and HVL-F58-AM strobes, and high-speed sync / wireless flash are available with these units. Flash metering modes include ADI (Advanced Distance Integration) and Pre-flash TTL, and the internal flash has a recycle time of four seconds.
Auto HDR. One of the most surprising functions available on the Sony A550 is its Auto HDR mode. High Dynamic Range photos are created by combining two shots of varying exposure, allowing a greater dynamic range than can be captured in a single exposure.
The interactive animation above shows how the Sony A550's Auto HDR works. Just click on the link to open the animation, then work the controls. Animation courtesy of Sony Electronics USA.
Sony isn't the first to include in-camera HDR capability in a digital SLR: It was included in Pentax's K-7, a camera we've just reviewed. Pentax's implementation needs not only a static subject, but also requires the camera to be placed on a tripod, as the camera can't micro-align the three shots required to assemble a high dynamic range image. It's also rather slow, taking around 12 seconds of processing to create a single HDR image. Sony's HDR mode can micro-align the source images in-camera, which will result in a little cropping of the final image, but means handheld HDR shooting is possible. The Sony A550 is also significantly faster, requiring only two seconds of processing per HDR image. As with Pentax's HDR mode, the Sony A550 can only save HDR images as JPEG files, and doesn't save the separate source images used to create the final HDR shot. Sony's HDR mode captures two shots with anywhere from 1 to 3 EV between the exposures, set in 0.5 EV increments.
DRO. The Sony A550 also includes Sony's optional D-Range Optimizer function, which works from a single shot and hence isn't limited to static subjects. A function of Sony's BIONZ processor, D-Range Optimizer can function automatically or in one of five manual strength levels, and adjusts the tone curve to avoid blown highlights and blocked shadows.
Creative Styles. The Sony A550's Creative Style function offers six pre-defined creative image styles, which adjust image tonality, saturation, and contrast. Creative Style modes include Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, and B&W, and these can be fine-tuned to the user's preferences.
Help. The Sony A550 also includes Sony's in-camera Help Guide function, which helps less experienced photographers understand the complexities of controlling and setting up their camera.
Formats. The Sony A550 can store images as Sony ARW 2.1-format Raw or EXIF 2.2-compliant JPEG files, and is able to save each image in both formats simultaneously. Both sRGB and Adobe RGB color spaces are available.
Ports. The Sony A550 includes an HDMI Type-C mini connector which allows display of images on high-definition displays (though no cable is included), as well as USB 2.0 High-Speed computer connectivity. Composite video output is not provided. There's also a DC input jack, for use with an optional AC adapter.
Images are stored on Secure Digital cards including the higher-capacity SDHC types, or on Sony's own Memory Stick PRO Duo, or PRO-HG Duo cards. A small switch is used to select the active card.
Power is supplied by a proprietary Sony InfoLithium NP-FM500H lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Battery life to CIPA testing standards is rated as 950 shots when using the optical viewfinder, or 480 shots in Live View mode. A battery grip is also available for both the A500 and A550, pictured at right.
Variable top speeds. Burst shooting is possible at five frames per second when using the optical viewfinder, or four frames per second when in Live View mode. A Speed Priority burst mode locks exposure and focus from the first frame, which allows an impressive seven frames per second when using either the viewfinder or Live View mode. Burst depth is limited to approximately 14 Raw, 32 Fine JPEG, or 116 Standard JPEG images, or seven images when simultaneously shooting in Raw+JPEG mode.
Brief Shooter's Report
Sony's new A550 and A500 have a few impressive features, and a more imposing presence. Though they're technically not that big, they're thick front to back, and as a result feel rather bulky. Like the smaller A230, A300, and A350, the A550 and A500 feel less substantial as well, rather than the solid feel I'm used to from higher-end digital SLRs.
The grips on the Sony A550 and A500 are better than the consumer line, but still a little small left to right, making for a less comfortable hold. If you're shooting from a camera strap, you won't notice, but if you carry your camera more often by the grip, it can get a little uncomfortable to carry so much weight with such a small grip.
Sony's Eye-start AF ensures that the view is nearly in focus by the time you get your eye to the A550's viewfinder, and the Live View mode is as fast as your finger on the shutter button. While the Live View AF indicator boxes light up a bright green, their optical viewfinder counterparts don't shine red very brightly, and the borders of each box are so thin that they're tough to distinguish against a complicated background. AF seems very fast in either mode. It is indeed nice to have a live view without any difference in autofocus speed, and Sony SLRs are the only place you can find this kind of system.
The LCD on the A550 is noticeably better than the Sony A500's. It's easy to see why 921,600 dots would resolve better than 230,400. The Sony A500's screen is by no means unusable, just not as gorgeous, and it's a lot easier to judge focus on the A550's VGA screen. Both LCDs are reasonably usable in bright sunlight; good enough for composing images.
Both cameras have an optional animated display mode that gives a unique view of the currently available apertures and shutter speeds on two sliding scales. As you zoom a lens, the available apertures change; and as lighting changes, the relative relationships between shutter speed and aperture change as well, depending on what mode you're in. It's relatively educational, too, for those unfamiliar with metering and exposure systems, and could be the best way to bring some analog understanding back into these digital wonders.
We can't comment much on image quality yet, so I'll refrain from discussion of the Sony A550 and A500's special shooting modes at this point, since we can't be sure what the image quality of final production units will be like. (The in-camera hand-held HDR is very intriguing, though: I don't have a need for it in the shooting I do personally, but avid hiker and website owner Dave says he's often wished for a feature like this to tame difficult lighting in landscape shots.) My main impression of the new Alphas is that while the bodies are a bit chunky, the user interface has been noticeably improved, and the shooting is quick and easy. The focus is a little noisy, and the shutter sound is louder than average, but at least it's quick and sure. Viewfinder blackout time is also very short, another important consideration.
Overall, the Sony A550 and A500 look like good camera designs with some interesting innovations that take advantage of the serious CPU power of Sony's processing chips. Stay tuned for further comments once we've had a chance to test their image quality!