market for Sony's 14.2-megapixel Alpha SLT-A33 digital SLR-style camera is
anyone trading up from a snapshot camera who would like a more professional
performance, but not a steep learning curve. In that respect, this new concept
model goes into combat with its own company's smaller-format interchangeable-lens
cameras in the NEX-3 and NEX-5. Its menu systems and overall handling are less
convoluted, thanks to a decent, well-labelled smattering of dedicated
buttons and chunky controls, so it's
easier to use. The camera alone costs around £570.
Sling a regular dSLR and kit lens over your shoulder and you'll feel its nagging presence. The A33, on the other hand, feels lighter than most starter dSLRs at 433g (body only) and, even with standard 18-55mm kit lens attached, is not a great deal bulkier than a bridge or superzoom camera. Dimensions are a chunky yet manageable 124 by 92 by 84.7mm, with the camera sitting well in the hand.
In fact, its look, feel and handling fall somewhere between bridge model and dSLR. In that respect, the A33's closest external competition is Panasonic's dSLR-styled Lumix DMC-G2 and G10 Micro Four Thirds models. If, in common with most Sony Alpha models, it's a little plasticky looking, the A33 is nevertheless solid. It's held via a decent-sized hand-moulded grip that puts other bottom-of-the-range Alpha models to shame.
The A33 and A55's most notable point of difference from other cameras in the Alpha range is that they're the first to feature translucent mirror technology, a simplification of the mirror mechanism usually found in dSLRs.
The upshot is a high-resolution live preview plus, according to Sony, accurate phase-detection autofocus at all times. The mirror splits the optical pathway between the main APS-C (dSLR-sized) CMOS image sensor and a separate one for the 15-point phase-detection AF.
This translates into quicker response times, so, theoretically, you're more likely to get the shot your saw in your mind's eye before you pressed the shutter release button. That's if you're shooting with autofocus, of course. There's the option to switch to manual if the camera defers its focus onto the closest subjects in busy scenes. This translucent mirror set-up also enables the A33 to offer a continuous burst speed of 7 frames per second.
Video made this Sony a star
This camera's power-up performance is near instantaneous. Coupled with a half press of the shutter release button, which prompts the camera to determine focus and exposure, photographers can be firing off the first shot in just over a second in auto mode.
Both Panasonic's opponents feature video capture, yet Sony has waited a good year longer than its immediate rivals -- what feels like a decade in the fast-moving world of digital cameras -- to introduce video to its Alpha digital SLR range, and 1080i-resolution video at that.
The reason for the delay was that Sony really wanted to do justice to its movie-making heritage before it made such an introduction. With the A33 and its 16.2-megapixel A55 sibling (which adds GPS), video functionality is finally here. There's a dedicated movie button on the top plate to prove it, a press of which kick-starts recording in whichever mode is selected on the top plate-shooting dial.
The advantage of shooting video with a camera such as the A33 is access to an expanding range of interchangeable lenses, for more professional-looking, creative effects. Sony offers SteadyShot -- an anti-shake technology that means any of the 30 compatible lenses automatically become image-stabilised when attached. You will need an up-to-date computer for it to recognise the AVCHD compression format Sony shoots in, but the good news is that MPEG-4 is also selectable, and Sony's autofocus system automatically adjusts as you're filming. There's no manual intervention required as you pan through a scene and hone in on a fresh subject. The camera simply adjusts as you go.
Swivel on it
Like Panasonic's G2 competitor, the A33 comes with a tilting 3-inch, 16:9 widescreen-format LCD screen with 'quick AF live view' for easier framing of low and high-angle shots. This is very useful when it isn't possible to get an eye up to the viewfinder.
Capable of swivelling through 270°, Sony's back-plate LCD can be flipped to face either outwards, or inwards for added protection when the camera is inactive, which is a distinct improvement over the rather stiff screen of the NEX-5. Visibility is impressive, too, and so it should be with a 921k-dot resolution.
The A33 takes another tip from bridge and hybrid models in that its viewfinder is of the electronic variety, as opposed to digital. This is a sensible move and means the viewfinder can be used just like the LCD screen for shooting video and stills. It offers a 100-per-cent field of view and supremely clear 1.15 million-dot resolution. An eye sensor below it switches the viewfinder on and the LCD off when you bring an eyeball up to it. This is a neat trick and a throwback to the days of Konica Minolta, whose camera expertise Sony brought into wholesale. We enjoyed the spirit level that appears in the viewfinder when you're lining up a shot, flashing red when you're a little skewiff, and green when the camera is held flat and level.
As with Sony's NEX-series models and premium Cyber-shots, the A33 features the company's '3D sweep panorama' function. This is a souped-up version of the standard '2D sweep panorama', whereby you move the camera in an arc and a single elongated image is produced. Understandably, a 3D TV is required to view the results.
High on dynamic range
Like a lot of camera manufacturers, Sony has been looking to improve its camera performance when it comes to dynamic range. An 'auto HDR' function is offered here, as with previous Alpha models, to maintain shadow and highlight within the same image. Sony achieves this by taking three sequential images bracketed at different exposures, then automatically combining them in camera to form a single, uniformly exposed shot. You need to hold the camera steady while it's doing this to avoid slightly off-kilter framing from one shot to the next. Better still, use a tripod -- a screw thread for its attachment is provided beneath the lens mount at the camera's base.
A noise-reduction feature works similarly by taking information from different frames. The camera shoots a high-speed burst and then combines the shots into a single, low-noise image. You can also select from a broad ISO range that tops out at a mid-range dSLR level of ISO12800.
Colours straight out of the camera err on the slightly warm side. The level of sharpness delivered by the combination of sensor and 18-55mm kit lens is impressive when viewed up close, though we quickly found the focal range narrow and restrictive. A bigger, broader lens should be a purchase consideration alongside the A33.
A spare battery could be another sensible purchase, particularly if travelling with the camera, as its battery life leaves room for improvement. Sony says you'll get 270 shots from a full charge. That's comparable with the performance of a £199 compact, not a mid-priced model like the A33.
The Alpha SLT-A33 from Sony makes it easier to take better pictures, which is what most of us want from an interchangeable lens camera at amateur level, anyway. You'll soon get bored of the supplied kit lens' limited focal range, but it's not a bad snapper straight out of the box. Coupled with the sensor, we were able to get some decent results over our test period, with a minimal amount of editing required. Fast, responsive, and a good fit for the fist, the A33 is a capable tool for the amateur wanting a more professional look and, as such, comes recommended.
Edited by Emma Bayly