Sony A55 – Hands on Review
There is a lot of buzz about the new SLT and NEX camera bodies being released this fall. The A77, the A65 and the NEX 7 cameras all offer what sound to be pretty competitive specs. With no other leading manufacturers of camera bodies making any major announcements, Sony stepped up to the plate with a remarkably high spec, relatively low priced, mid-range body with the A77. While the A65 will be the obvious successor to the A55, the A55 is expected to stay available for sometime allowing more pricepoints in the market.
With my A900 in for repair, and the A77 still unavailable at the time, I decided to try the A55 for 2 weeks, with hopes that it would step in as a backup in the future. The big promising points for me were that the high frame rate of 10 frames per second, and the video mode and crop sensor would expand some of my creative options. On the other hand I am very sceptical about electronic viewfinders. Having used several over the years, I have experienced a lot of eye strain that can result from extended use of electronic screens.
The camera body is much smaller than I am accustomed. This can be good for people like my wife, and is also a plus when fitting it into compact packing for a hike or just for travel in general. Though small, it is reasonably robust, with tight fitting buttons and smooth operation. Importantly it doesn’t creak and groan in my hands, but with the longer lenses, the body does become badly unbalanced and especially when using the video function, I tended to hold the lens rather than the body. Also new to me is the menu system which has so quickly moved away from the quick nav screen present in the A700, A900 and A850 bodies. It took a while to get used to not seeing my settings brilliantly displayed on the rear lcd screen. You could set it as a display option, but it kept getting overridden by the camera, so even if there is a work around, it shouldn’t be so difficult. I anticipate that the A77 will actually address this and will be much appreciated for someone like me. I think it would be a non-issue if this was your first camera from Sony.
When using a camera, often times cameras will sacrifice something to do something else really well. In this case, what this camera did really well for me was available light. The camera is fast, responsive and when you figure out how to adjust focal points and access the menus, you can work at a reasonable rate. Shooting RAW at 800 iso, I was able to catch the chipmunk below at 300 mm, at 1/200th of a second. Typically, you will use the length in mm=shutter rule to determine your minimum shutter speed, in this case I could blatantly break the rule and even had acceptably sharp photos at 1/60th of a second. Not only was the high iso clean of chroma noise, but preserved detail. The real shock to me was how well the image stabilization performed since with the crop factor, that means I could shoot 1/60th of a second at an effective 450mm.
Falling short of expectations:
There are some shortfalls to the A55 that ultimately lead to it not being suitable for my work. These were deal-breakers for me, but would probably not be an issue to the majority of people.
The electronic viewfinder. I am hesitant to say that this fell short of expectations so I’ve written more about this below. The odd thing is that since the viewfinder displays a predicted exposure, when you want to shoot with manual lighting, viewfinder does not know you will introduce light. This makes the viewfinder go very dark and in some cases totally black. There are workarounds, none of them work well when doing portraits. On the flip side, when not using manual lighting equipment, in a dark room the viewfinder will brighten up your view making it easier to frame your shot.
Flashes. If you never want to use a flash, or flashes, then this camera is fast. Once you put a flash on it, there is a noticeable delay before the shutter actuates. For those looking for a 10 fps freezing of action, the timing becomes unusable. You have to spray and pray, starting the burst early and hoping one of those shots is at the right time.
Aperture consistency. I’m sure there might be other cameras out there that do this, but when shooting in the studio I noticed an inconsistency to the background in the pictures. Examining the exif data on the files, the histogram moved slightly in each shot, despite being on a fully manual exposure. At worst it fluctuated almost a half stop in exposure. I then tested 5 bodies in the store and found that every one did the same thing, regardless of what lens was attached, so I think that this is a design issue. Some discussion with other A55 owners determined that the histogram was only consistent when the f-stop was maxed out in either direction. This leads me to believe that the A55 struggles to consistently put the aperture blades in the same place. What this translates to is a minor fluctuation in the exposures that is only noticeable when taking several images in the same environment, like in a studio. Since the viewfinder issue above limits the camera from studio work, I doubt this will be an issue for anybody but me. This was my biggest deal-breaker since I shoot a lot of studio work that needs to be consistent.
I am an optical viewfinder lover. I simply love my full frame glorious viewfinder on the A900. Inversely I hate the smaller APS-C viewfinders. The electronic viewfinder, while crudely implemented on the A55, is really good. It gives a bigger view than other APS-C cameras. It allows the camera to focus on faces, measure smiles (very cool), see in a dark place, composition overlays, horizon display, focus assist for the manual focusers. All sorts of good and useful things have been implemented into the viewfinder. So as much as there is an issue described above, I would pick this viewfinder over just about any APS-C viewfinder. If you’re a skeptic, don’t judge the viewfinder from a couple of minutes with the camera in a store, it will grow on you when you start to see the benefits. I admit, I’m becoming a believer, and the OLED displays of the A65 and A77 will offer a lot more.
Available light is where this camera shines. As mentioned above, shooting with flash is pretty slow or encumbersome with the A55. The good news is that when shooting high iso, the images are very good. I had to tweak colour a bit here and there but otherwise the RAW file integrity was clean for the most part. With the SLT design, 30% of the light goes to the viewfinder, meaning less light reaches the sensor. Some reviewers have made this out to be a very bad thing. I haven’t seen it to be a noticeable problem. Sony’s sensor design has been stellar. In some cases, when pixel peeping at 100% views, you can see some luminance noise in the out of focus areas of an image. This is common to any high iso camera. Where you often see high iso suffer is in the in focus areas losing detail. In this case at high iso, I would say that there was an acceptable amount of noise, but I would have no problem printing images at 1600 – 3200 iso.
One thing I noticed was how in some instances, purple fringing was a problem. In general the red channel would come through a little high. In the tweaking, I would often put a manual white balance adjustment in, with a green filter.
The video function allows you to shoot in 3 file types, AVCHD 1080i, MP4 HD and MP4 SD. I didn’t get to fully experiment with the video modes much since on my mac, I could only use imovie to open the AVCHD folders. The output then was 720 since I’m using an old version of imovie 8. It was tremendously accessible, but the audio was pretty “clicky” and picked up a lot of body sounds. Also, since the camera did not balance well with my lenses, it shook around a lot in my hands. One real annoyance is how Sony implemented the record button as a body button. So while I was shooting stills, I would often bump the video record button and it would launch into recording. There should have been a video mode implemented to avoid this.
Sony users already in the system will see the A35 and A55 as experimental bodies. They are loaded with innovative technology and new features. For the available light photographers, the A55 offers a lot. Prime shooters will love how compact the camera is, and while the auto focus is very good, they can do the manual focusing with focus confirmation from the camera, or with the zoom assist to fine tune their adjustment.
I think that the best use of the A55 is as a vacation camera. It is compact, responsive, video capable and has plenty of jpeg modes like panorama and HDR or my favorite gimmic – the smile shutter. The smile shutter detects when a smile reaches its peak and takes the picture for you, how cool is that! You could set the camera in the corner at a party and it will take pictures when people smile for you. The camera is just plain fun. I look forward to when the ideas that the A55 brings to the table are refined.