Sony gave DCR a chance to test the new a55 last week in Jackson Hole, and we grabbed the opportunity by the horns. From fast-paced shooting at the rodeo to panorama sweeps in Yellowstone, we gave the a55 a trial run in some of the country's most spectacular scenery.
There's some interesting new technology going on inside the a55, but from the outside it looks very similar to any other alpha DSLR. The mode dial sits on one shoulder with the shutter button angled slightly forward on the other. There's a dedicated LCD/EVF button behind it and a D-Range button for quick access to the camera's Auto HDR shooting options.
The control layout on the back panel is simple and very intuitive. Pressing the Fn button calls up an array of exposure options on screen. Using the directional pad, changes can be made to ISO, white balance, Creative Style, and a number of other controls depending on which shooting mode you're in. I found it easy to use.
The a55 is noticeably compact, though it doesn't rival the size of the Samsung NX10 and doesn't come close to touching the diminutive NEX cameras. If it's a small interchangeable lens camera you want, Sony already has that covered. The a55 seems to hold the middle ground between a CILC (Compact Interchangeable Lens Camera) and your typical alpha DSLR.
The weight of the camera body has also been reduced, though the Sony G series lenses I used with the camera are by no means light. With a smaller prime lens, I noticed that the whole system was a bit lighter than a DSLR, but with a 70-300mm lens attached, it handled much like a full-sized DSLR to me. Take a look at our hands on preview video below.
Sony would prefer us not to post full-res sample images from the pre-production models we used, so we've resized the images for web-friendly viewing. They were captured as fine JPEGs haven't undergone any processing other than resizing.
It seems to me that speed is going to be the key attraction of the a55. I put the camera's continuous shooting mode to work at Jackson Hole's rodeo and it performed admirably. In just about every frame I shot of a rider on a bucking bull, my subject was in focus. All I needed to do was keep my finger on the shutter and keep my lens pointed in the right direction.
Sony's press materials refer to the camera's ability to capture "the decisive moment." After a few days shooting with the a55, I would tend to agree. The a55's ability to maintain focus during high-speed capture will give a photographer a lot of usable images, before, after and during the decisive moment, whenever that might be.
One of the drawbacks of the system's speed and focusing efficiency seems to be quicker battery drain. Sony claims 380 shots with the EVF per fully charged battery and 330 with use of the LCD. Our batteries lasted us a day or so (Sony wisely packed an extra fully-charged battery for each journalist on our trip) before it needed to be recharged. A serious shooter will definitely want an extra battery for day-long excursions since recharging the battery to full capacity took about eight hours.
Let's face it - some of us just aren't EVF fans. I found the a55's viewfinder to be bright and clear, but that feature will be a turn off for some customers. The tilting LCD came in handy whenever a situation called for ground or waist-level composition. Like any other LCD though, it was difficult to use in direct sunlight. In addition to the dedicated controls, the viewfinder has a sensor that will automatically turn it on and switch from LCD mode when you bring the camera up to your eye.
The camera's metering system did a nice job of preserving detail in shadow areas without losing the highlight detail in the horse's mane.
In terms of color reproduction, reds were often vivid and greens loooked slightly saturated. In good light with fast shutter speeds, I was very happy with image sharpness. The Sony G lenses I used with the a55 supported the fast AF system with good sharpness at the center of the frame.
I also used the Sweep Panorama mode (in two dimensions) and was impressed with the results, as always. It's a truly seamless function and the results are stunning.
There's only so much analysis that can be done based on our preliminary shooting experiences. I am, however, convinced that the Sony alpha a55 is an exceptionally fast camera. Shutter lag seemed non-existant, and aside from waiting for the buffer to clear, the camera was ready to focus and shoot whenever I was. There's a lot more testing and field work we'll need to do to reach a conclusion about the a55, but for now it seems to be a straight shooter.
Take a look at the image gallery for additional sample images.