Sitting in the middle of Sony's somewhat overcrowded digital SLR line-up, the Alpha DSLR-A550 is available without a lens (£550), with an 18-55mm lens (£620), and with both an 18-55mm and 55-200mm lens (£760). The A550 has a slightly different and less-expensive sibling, the Alpha DSLR-A500. As well as a resolution of 14.2 megapixels, rather than 12.3, the A550 has a higher resolution LCD -- the same one used on the Alpha DSLR-A700 and Alpha DSLR-A900 -- and a faster burst option.
The A550 is heavier and bulkier than its lower-end siblings, although it's still lighter than the competition. It also has a much better grip design than its stablemates. Its brethren are about three-quarters height, which feels much less secure than the A550's full-height grip.
While the A550 feels solidly built, its plastic housing gives you a cheaper impression than similarly priced models like the 50D did. Sony doesn't make good use of the extra space either, with too many buttons and labels unnecessarily crowding the body. For instance, the 'smart teleconverter' -- digital zoom -- doesn't belong on a mid-range camera like this, and the 'D-range optimizer' doesn't really require a dedicated button. They just get in the way when you're trying to identify the drive-mode, ISO-sensitivity, exposure-compensation and exposure-lock buttons, which all feel identical.
Usually, more buttons make for a more streamlined shooting experience, but the A550 seems designed for LCD-based shooting, rather than viewfinder shooting. On one hand, the viewfinder displays the image-stabilisation status -- bars show how close to steady the camera is -- and will indicate if the lens is in manual-focus mode. But it fits that information in by trading off more traditional elements, such as ISO sensitivity. That means you have to look at the back display to change it.
The viewfinder prompts mixed reactions as well. On one hand, it displays the focus indicators as large boxes, which is a welcome switch from the tiny dots favoured by viewfinders on cameras that are a step down in price. But the viewfinder is small with a low magnification factor. And, since the LCD extends out slightly past the eye cup, you actually have to cram your face up against the camera to see through it. We've left cheek prints all over it. No, not that kind of cheek -- behave yourself.
Usually on dSLRs with buttons on the top right, they're placed sufficiently far forwards to be easily reached with your forefinger. On the A550, they're set closer to the camera's back, where you can't comfortably reach them with either your thumb or forefinger, unless you lower the camera. On its cheaper models, Sony puts controls for the ISO sensitivity and drive modes on the navigation switch on the back of the camera. We think that placement works better than the three hard-to-reach buttons on the top of this one.
The 'Fn' button on the back pulls up drive mode, flash settings, autofocus mode, autofocus area, ISO sensitivity, metering, flash compensation, white balance and other settings. But the switch you use to navigate them feels slightly too flat, and lacking in tactile feedback. We frequently ended up pressing the autofocus button while moving around the options.
While not as flexible a design as a flip-and-twist articulated LCD, Sony's tiltable displays are good for shooting at odd angles. The A550's display is otherwise pretty comparable with those of the competition. If you frequently use live view, you'll appreciate the A550's fast live-view autofocus, as well as the 'MF check LV' mode, which not only magnifies the focus area but also adjusts the displayed exposure so that you can actually see what you're doing. While live view displays only 90 per cent of the scene -- that's even less than the optical viewfinder -- the MF check LV mode displays 100 per cent.
Shoot to impress
While not bursting with novel features, the A550 does have a couple of interesting capabilities. 'Auto high dynamic range' is a variation on the company's 'hand-held twilight' mode, one of the few things we liked in the company's Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 superzoom. Auto HDR snaps two sequential shots at different exposures and combines them into a single shot with 'optimal' highlight and shadow detail.
Auto HDR doesn't offer quite as much control as we'd like, though. You can manually select the amount of the bracket at up to 3 stops in 1.5-stop increments, or leave it in auto, but the feature's limited to two shots and doesn't save the individual frames -- just the combined result and only as a JPEG. But it does seem to work better for extending the dynamic range than Sony's D-range optimizer, and the fully automatic setting doesn't override your ISO sensitivity setting, as we'd expected it would. It adds a couple of seconds onto the shot-to-shot time, however, as it processes and saves the image.
The camera also includes a 'speed priority continuous advance' mode, which forgoes continuous focus and exposure adjustments -- they're fixed on the first shot -- to boost the frame rate to 7 frames per second, up from the rated 5fps. While it makes the camera sound like it outclasses the competition on a features chart, this mode has pretty limited usefulness. To stay in focus, the subject needs to either be moving in such a way that it always remains the same distance from you, or always be beyond the lens' infinity-focus distance, and the lighting on the subject needs to be consistent as well.
The shortcomings of the special speed mode don't seem very important, though, because the A550 does pretty well without it. It powers on and shoots in 0.4 seconds. To focus and shoot in good lighting takes about 0.3 seconds, and it's still a pretty zippy 0.7 seconds in dim light. Two sequential shots run at about 0.7 seconds -- a hair slower for raw--which rises to about 0.9 seconds with flash enabled. Burst shooting runs at about 4.3 frames per second.
Although the A550 has the same 14.2-megapixel resolution as the cheaper Alpha DSLR-A380, the A550's Exmor CMOS sensor delivers much cleaner images at all ISO sensitivities than the CCD used by its sibling. They're sharp with solid exposures, at least until ISO 400. ISO 800 looks very good on our high-end, colour-calibrated monitor but slightly noisy on our cheap, standard-issue display.
At ISO 1,600, detail starts to mush up, but, for the most part, detailed photos can remain usable up to ISO 3,200. As is typical for this camera's class, ISO 6,400 and higher are more emergency modes than for everyday shooting, but the A550 displays better noise suppression at these mid-range ISO sensitivities than we usually see from Sony cameras. Its ISO 6,400 shot, for example, is much cleaner than our equivalent shot with the full-frame but older A900 and A850 models. While not a complete mess, ISO 12,800 is definitely best for small image sizes.
As we've seen repeatedly with Sony dSLRs, the 'creative style' defaults yield poor colour accuracy and oversaturation, and you can't tell that's what's happening because there's no 'natural' style or its equivalent. Nor does Sony tell you what the contrast, saturation and sharpness settings are for each style -- they're all listed as '0', from which you increase or decrease. With the A380, at least, the raw versions were more accurate, but the A550's raw files look as bad as the JPEGs. At first, we thought it was the Adobe Camera Raw settings, but the images looked the same in Sony's mediocre Image Data Converter SR raw-processing software. Nor does that software give you a way to strip the creative-style settings from the image. You can rectify this to a certain extent by shooting in Adobe RGB rather than sRGB, but that's not practical for many people.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Given its excellent mid-range noise profile and above-average performance -- two of the most important considerations when buying a dSLR -- it's frustrating that the Sony Alpha DSLR-A550's awkward design and poor colour rendering keep us from being able to recommend it without numerous caveats.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet