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Sony a55 Digital Camera Review

sony20100930.jpgDigital Camera Review by: Katrina Putker


Ever heard of the term DSLT?
Neither had I up until this point.

Despite its remarkable resemblance to a DSLR in terms of appearance, handling and function it turns out that Sony’s 16.2-megapixel a55 is in fact a DSLT: a Digital Single Lens Translucent.

In layman’s terms this means the internal mirror is fixed in position and needn’t move to allow light to pass through to the sensor, as it would in a DSLR.

In the a55, the semi-translucent mirror remains stationery and reflects most of the light coming in to the imaging sensor and the rest of it onto a phase-detection 15-point AF array, which helps achieve the impressive 10 frames a second of continuous shooting (when in fast action mode, otherwise it’s 6fps.)

So, the optical pathway between the image and auto focus sensors is split. As a bi-product of using this technology as opposed to traditional DSLR pentaprism mechanics, the a55 (tested with the 18-55m F3.5-5.6 lens) is smaller in dimension and lighter (441g) than expected given its capabilities.

As a result of its fixed mirror the viewfinder display on the a55 shows a digital display rather than an optical one and consequently reveals exactly what the sensor is ‘seeing.’

Being able to view your images via the electronic viewfinder (EVF) is a huge advantage when shooting outdoors in bright sunlight as there is no need to contend with difficult-to-view images on the LCD. Simply look through the EVF and there is your image in all of its unaffected-by-glare-and-bright-light glory.

While true, the quality of the preview in the EVF is not as good as it would be in an optical viewfinder there certainly are a few pros to this system.

Of course if you don’t like using the EVF there is a dedicated button for switching between it and the LCD preview.

That said, there isn’t always need to rely on this button given the a55 has a sensor near the eyepiece that detects when you place your eye up against it and consequently automatically flicks between the two options, which proves both intuitive and quite convenient.

Speaking of convenience and intuitiveness, the a55’s 3-inch 912k dot LCD not only offers an attractive preview but tilts out from and underneath the unit a full 180 degrees vertically and then swivels around some 270 degrees on top of that.

As a result, shooting from almost any angle is a cinch. Images can be easily composed whilst holding the camera above your head, at your hip, by your feet and when lining up self-portraits.

Because of its semi-detachable design however, the LCD unit does protrude slightly from the back of the camera just enough for the nose to push up against it when using the viewfinder, which can be slightly uncomfortable at times.

In terms of overall hold the a55 has an ergonomic handgrip that rests very comfortably in hand and the textured rubber surface of the particularly well-molded thumb rest contributes to the overall comfort substantially.

As a whole the a55 has a somewhat plasticky feel to it and as a result is quite lightweight making it easy to handle and carry with you for long periods of time without suffering much, if any, discomfort or strain.

Capable of shooting in either JPEG or RAW formats (or both simultaneously) the a55 also offers eight scene modes including macro, sports action, portrait, night portrait, hand-held twilight, night view, sunset and landscape.

Sweep panorama mode is also available in either standard or 3D modes (the latter viewable only on a compatible 3D TV) and in practice works extraordinarily effectively.

You literally pan the camera either in a continuous horizontal or vertical action while keeping the shutter depressed and as you’re doing so the a55 captures multiple frames and stitches them together into a single image without any manual editing or assistance. It really is quite amazing and likely to be feature much loved and often used.

Auto dynamic range is an additional function available that simultaneous shoots, combines and aligns multiple images into a single final optimised result (in terms of best exposing both for the shadows and the highlights) but can do so only when shooting in JPEG format.

All buttons and dials – perhaps with the exclusion of the main menu button –  are clearly labeled and intuitively placed helping to extend the a55’s overall ease-of-use rating.

The decision to place the main menu button on the body’s left-hand side is questionable given the controlling hand’s instinct to locate it on the right-hand side along with all of the other function buttons. While this is something users are likely to adapt to over time, initially it can be the cause of some handling frustration.

There is a dedicated button for initiating the recording of full 1920x1080i AVC HD video (16:9 format) during which continuous AF tracking is possible – due to the SLT technology – as well as a real-time preview via the EVF, which no other manufacturer’s cameras currently support.

Sony’s user-friendly background defocusing effects are also available during the recording of movies, which means the degree to which the background is in focus can be altered as users see fit. In essence this is an aperture control feature that determines depth of field but does so in a quick and easy way without confusing amateurs with F-numbers.

The 10-mode option dial is appropriately clicky and offers a full menu of functions including manual, program and two variations of auto mode along with shutter and aperture priority, no flash, scene, panorama and burst modes.

The a55’s spring-loaded pop-up flash has a prompt and slightly aggressive action that gives the unit a little jolt as it releases out from the body. Exposure overall is well balanced and the bulb appears to work well both as a primary light source and a more subtle fill flash.

A built-in GPS feature records elevation and orientation data to tag onto images for future reference and an electronic on-screen level with both pitch and roll indicators helps to ensure horizon lines etc. are kept straight at all times - at least assuming that’s what the photographer desires.

Image quality for the most part is great. When in prime conditions i.e. outdoors or indoors where there is ample light or when flash is being utilised, the a55 produces clear, pin sharp images with true to life colours and high levels of visual appeal.
As with nearly all cameras however, quality degrades somewhat when in low light or backlit conditions where noise and some minor smudging can begin to appear. Overall though, the a55 is likely to produce quite beautiful images – regardless of whether an amateur or a professional is behind the lens – and certainly for those who enjoy high speed action photography the appeal of shooting at 10fps is hard to go by particularly at this price range.

Equally appealing is full HD video mode that allows for auto focusing during capture unlike all other DSLRs (at the time of writing) that require manual focusing if and/or when a subject moves within the frame.

For its price and given its ability the a55 is, in short, a winner. It’s bringing some features and functions previously only available to those with a bigger wallet to consumers who want more from their cameras. Invest in Sony’s a55 and the reality is you’re unlikely to be disappointed. Quite the opposite in fact.

Appearance rating 4 stars
Functionality rating 4 stars
Image quality
4 stars
Lens quality
3.5 stars
View finder / LCD screen 4 stars
Value for money 4 stars
RRP (AUD) $1399
Effective Pixels 16.2 Megapixels
Sensor Type
(APS-C type), Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor with RGB primary colour 
Image Sizes 14 Sizes
Lenses n/a
Resolution Settings JPEG (DCF2.0, Exif 2.3), RAW (ARW 2.2 format), RAW + JPEG. 4,912 x 3,264 - 2,448 x 1,624 pixels
Shooting Modes 7 Scene options
Face Detection No
Manual Focus Yes
Auto Focus Yes
Aperture Priority Yes
Shutter Speeds Electronically-controlled, vertical-traverse, focal-plane shutter. 1/4000 sec. -30 sec., bulb. Flash sync: 1/160 sec.
Shutter Priority Yes
ISO Auto, ISO 100 to 12800 (in 1-stop increments, Recommended Exposure Index)
LCD Monitor Yes
LCD Size 3.0-inch (100% field of view), 921,600-dot TFT, Xtra Fine LCD with TruBlack technology
Viewfinder No
Flash Built-in Auto Pop-up
Hot Shoe Yes
White balance Auto, Preset (Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Flash), Colour Temperature (2500 – 9900K with 19-step Magenta / Green compensation)
Self Timer Yes, 10 sec., 2 sec. 
Movie Options

Image Size (AVCHD) 1,920 x 1,080 (50i recording, 25 fps image sensor output / Average
Image Size (MP4) 1,440 x 1,080 (25 fps / Average bit rate 12 Mbps), 640 x 480 (25 fps / Average bit rate 3 Mbps)

Video Out Yes
Storage Type Memory Stick Pro Duo, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo, SD Memory card, SDHC Memory card, SDXC memory card
Image / Audio Formats JPEG (DCF2.0, Exif 2.3), RAW (ARW 2.2 format), RAW + JPEG, AVCHD / MP4
Connectivity USB2.0 Hi-Speed (mass storage mode / PTP mode)
Power Source AC adaptor - AV-PW20 (optional)
Battery Options NP-FW50
Dimensions 124.4 mm (W) x 92mm (H) x 84.7mm (D)
Weight 441g (not including battery, memory card or accessories)
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