Introduced in late August 2009, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 slots into the Sony lineup at the top of their entry level/consumer DSLR fleet of five bodies (in addition to the three other Alpha models comprising the prosumer and up class). The camera features a new 14.2 megapixel Sony Exmor CMOS sensor in the APS-C size format that produces a 1.5X crop factor (35mm film equivalent), as well as the newest BIONZ image processing engine and an ISO sensitivity range of 200 to 12800.
There are two distinct Live View modes, smile and face detection technology, two separate dynamic range management modes, an articulating 3.0 inch LCD monitor with 921k dot composition, up to a 7 fps continuous shooting rate and in-body stabilization. Automatic sensor dust removal, 6 specific scene shooting modes in addition to the usual DSLR menu of manual and semi-automatic modes, and an on-screen help guide and graphic display to further explain settings on the fly round out this fairly feature-rich model.
Following current Sony practice with their DSLRs, the A550 has no video capture capability. There are dual memory media slots for Sony's Memory Stick PRO Duo media as well as SD/SDHC memory cards, but Sony recommends the PRO-HG Duo card and will not guarantee "proper operation for all Memory Stick PRO Duo media functions."
The A550 is available in body-only or kit form with the Sony f3.5/5.6 18-55 SAM zoom lens. Sony includes a power cord, battery charger and battery, shoulder strap, CD-ROM software, USB cable, body cap and printed instruction manual with each camera. In addition to Sony-branded lenses (some by Carl Zeiss), the camera is compatible with Minolta Maxxum A mount lenses. Here's the view offered by that kit lens:
When we shot the A550 briefly for a "first impressions" look at the camera, there didn't appear to be any areas of immediate concern save possibly some softness in image quality with the default settings. Did we discover anything during a more extensive shooting period to change our mind about this new Sony? Read on and find out.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The A550 features a two-tone composite body with rubberized material in strategic locations to facilitate a firmer grip. The composite might be a bit underwhelming for a camera body with an asking price north of $800, but the rubberized stuff feels about right and the overall build quality looks to be good.
Ergonomics and Controls
In typical DSLR fashion, the A550 features a deeply sculpted handgrip front and built-up thumb rest rear - the shooting finger falls naturally to the shutter button. The top and back of the body are covered with buttons and controls except for the thumb rest area, and the overall spacing and layout of the controls doesn't present any obvious conflicts that might encourage inadvertent activations. The most likely candidate for such a problem is the control dial which sits below the shutter button - in the manual or semi-auto shooting modes it only needs to be moved to change camera settings, but in practice it proved immune to accidental inputs.
The camera body has buttons providing quick access to ISO, shooting drive mode, dynamic range management options, auto exposure lock and exposure compensation. A "function" button takes you to a menu offering additional inputs: flash mode, autofocus (AF) mode, AF area, metering mode, flash compensation, white balance (WB) and creative style color options.
Live view fans can switch to the Quick Auto Focus live view mode by simply selecting the live view setting on the external live view/optical view finder (OVF) switch. From there, they can jump to the Manual Focus Check live view mode by merely pressing the MF Check button; in the alternative they may proceed directly to the manual mode by pressing the MF Check button without first switching to the auto focus mode. Here's a sample of a screen in both auto and manual live view - there are other overlays of information possible in both modes, including a histogram in auto that is not available with manual.
The Help Guide is activated with the "function" button and is on by default - it can provide guidance to folks unfamiliar with the controls, settings or potential impacts of changing settings on the camera. The shots that follow show the initial screen after pushing the function button and the subsequent screen after selecting "DRO AUTO"; the third screen is typical of the presentation when switching to a shooting mode, in this case shutter priority.
The Help Guide can be disabled by internal menu and will probably be the second feature shut off by experienced shooters. What's number 1? We'll get to that in the Performance section.
The Graphic Display presents information on camera settings and can illustrate the relationship between aperture and shutter speed depending on the particular display chosen. Here are two variations:
Help guide and graphic display information appear on the LCD monitor and are not available in the optical view finder, which displays only aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, stabilization status, and a flash ready light (if the flash is enabled).
Menus and Modes
While offering the usual DSLR manual and semi-automatic shooting modes, the A550 retains a fully auto mode and six specific scene modes that offer only the barest of user inputs.
Menus are simple and intuitive in the A550, running only about seven pages internally.
The A550's 3.0 inch LCD monitor has 921,000 dot composition and features automatic level adjustment as the default setting; five levels of brightness may be selected manually via an internal menu. The monitor is articulated and may be tilted up or down through 180 degrees as well as moved away from the camera body.
The monitor could be difficult to use in some instances in bright outdoor light, but the articulating feature was of some help in this regard. Coverage is 100% in playback, but only 90% in live view - framing and composition in live view will not show some parts of the final image. The shot below was composed in live view so the picture and its frame filled the monitor - the sections of wall at the sides were not visible when the shot was composed.
The camera's optical viewfinder features a diopter adjustment for varying levels of eyesight acuity and offers 95% coverage - image composition and final capture will be skewed again, but not to the degree of the monitor using live view to capture.
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