The a550 conundrum

Sony just released a new pair of SLR cameras about a month ago – the a500/550 series. For this particular blog post, we’re considering them equal, even though the a550 has three or so features to separate it from the 500. Overall, they’re about the same. Carl, the owner of AlphaMountWorld, released his a550 review the other day. It does give a solid overview of the camera from an avid a700/a900 user, but I think he spends the majority of the review criticizing the camera on a few minor points that are probably of personal opinion. Some of them I would agree with, others I don’t, but I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts on the a550 myself.

He spends nearly a page complaining about moving the power switch to the shutter position. Now, this is something I agree with him on – the power switch should be in a place that’s not near the shutter for a few reasons. One, it makes the shutter “unclean;” your finger has to sit on the switch ring while you actuate the shutter. It’s also possible to switch the camera off accidentally when positioning your fingers – you might mistake it for the control dial, for instance.  It also necessitates moving the control dial further down on the grip than where Minolta has traditionally placed it. On the other hand, it has the benefit of being similar to other makes, Sony has done it in the past, and it does let you turn the camera on and off with one hand or at the viewfinder.

At this point, this is mostly a personal preference thing. The new control dial is actuated by the middle finger, which means you don’t even need to move your finger from the shutter to make the change. Carl’s used to the way cameras have been, so change. This isn’t a change for better or worse in my opinion – it’s a sidestep. How many people familiar with their other cameras will you bring in versus alienating the faithful?

The next diatribe is on the placement of the top panel buttons, particularly the ISO button. I couldn’t understand this, given that the ISO button is in the same place it was on the Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D. It’s a little further to the right than on the a200/300/350, but not by much. The AEL and EV buttons are also in the same place as the KM 5D too. The Drive button is in the relative position that ISO was on the 200/300/350, and there are two new buttons now – a dedicated Dynamic Range button and the new MF Check Live View button. In my handling of the camera, it felt very similar to my old KM 5D – but with two new buttons. Anyone who looks at the two cameras should clearly be able to see the evolution from one to the other.

I’m also not quite sure where the complaints about the UI are coming from either, except that “it’s different from the a700/900.” The interface is more similar to the KM 5D/newer entry Alphas than the a700 because that’s how they’re segmenting the cameras. The UI seems to be much improved over the a2/3x0s, in fact, because instead of being a crippled kind of quicknavi, they went back to something more akin to the 5D but with better looks. I was a fan of the KM 5D, it was my first digital SLR, and I believe it did a lot of things right. I see a lot of similarities in the 500 series. This is not an accident because they’re made by the same guys and they’re aimed at the same target audience.

This brings me to my next point – it’s perhaps a bridge too far to ask the 500 series to have the same UI as the 700/900, because they’re not aimed at the same type of photographer. I love QuickNavi. It’s one of my favorite reasons for owning an a700. It does make the KM 5D way of operation look a little antiquated, but you have to remember – at the time QuickNavi was introduced, nobody else did it that way. Olympus’ Super Control Panel was clunky and disorganized and required too many button presses. They’ve since refined it to be more like Sony’s approach. Canon, Nikon, and Pentax have all aped QuickNavi in some way. It’s a system that advanced users clearly value, but may prove to be confusing to the entry level/advanced entry level market. These customers are more familiar with their point-and-shoots. As long as the menu system is quick and concise (which it has been), these users should be OK with it. It also needs to work in ways similar for upgraders as well.

It’s also a marketing/segmentation reason. The advanced/pro features require you to buy an advanced/pro camera. It’s the same reason Photoshop Elements doesn’t do CMYK. Artificial segmentation is a way of life. They see this as one of their differentiating features for their upper level cameras. Better control has always been something in higher end cameras, but that doesn’t make the lower end cameras unserviceable. Indeed, an advanced user would feel limited by these cameras and rightly so. They should buy a camera that fits their needs. A newer user or an upgrader from a P&S, though, would feel a ton of freedom with a new tool like an a550. Until they hit the wall again (if they ever do), they may not feel the need to move to something more complex.

In my particular case, I moved from the KM 5D to the a700 for a few reasons. Namely, I had advanced to the point where I wanted more flexibility and controllability. The KM 5D is a fine camera, but having two wheels over one makes a big difference when shooting, especially in manual mode. It’s also much easier to change flash exposure compensation on the a700 (quicknavi set to the C button). It’s also built to a higher standard than the KM 5D, which is a consumer class camera in terms of build. The a700 is more akin to the KM 7D and other cameras in its class with a magnesium body, weather sealing, etc. It’s a more demanding camera for a more demanding user.

On the subject of certain customizability features, their lack is only a big deal if you cared about one of them. You may not care about Direct Manual Focus (DMF), but if that spot meter AEL toggle is missing, stop the presses! Exchange that with Mirror Lockup, Depth of Field preview, or Program Shift for your personal outrage. Are these features key to the cameras’ target demographics? If the camera is improved in such a way that MLU is very rarely necessary, why bother with it? DOF preview is mostly useless on APS cameras with mirror viewfinders and supermatte screens – but on the a550 it would have been more useful due to MF Check live view. You can even prove this by putting a full manual lens on and stopping it down – you get an accurate preview of depth of field. It was probably left out because users at that level don’t care. It doesn’t affect their day to day shooting – and the great thing about digital is that the back screen is the best preview there is.

The a550 does have several new features that I hope appear on the new higher level Sonys. The Auto HDR feature is easy and fast to use (unlike Pentax’s) and it produces realistic results that aim at reducing noise and not making bizarro painter-like effects. The Face Detection is also useful too – it adjusts white balance and exposure to match the portraiture. In my short use of the feature, it really does work pretty well. The 7 FPS mode is useful in a few situations, because it locks exposure and focus on the first frame. I think it’s a fine tradeoff for a super high speed mode for catching sports or other situations where you have a fixed point of focus and absolutely need to get the shot. A baseball player trying to hit a ball, for instance.

In the end, Carl’s entitled to his opinion, but I think his opinion’s mostly not relevant to the class of people the camera’s targeted for. Expecting a mini/cheap a700 is perhaps too much, especially when the formula of a KM 5D-like camera has worked well so far. Plus, it appears that Sony has finally solved their High ISO problems with this camera, so it bodes well for the future.

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