a550 Mini-review

during my shopping trials for Christmas I stopped at the SonyStyle in Burlington, MA with an eye to try a 500 series camera. I was in luck, as they had an a550 on display. Pop in one battery and attach an 18-55 kit lens and we’re off.

The camera reminds me very much of my old KM 5D. Not surprising because they are of the same pedigree! The grip felt good in my hand, although I could immediately feel the height difference against my a700. The viewfinder looked similar to my KM 5D, even though I know the magnification is slightly smaller. I immediately noticed the transparent LCD used for the AF points, and it definitely helps isolate your active AF point. It also only shows the spot meter circle when you turn on the spot meter. The only downside is that if the camera is off, the viewfnider dims noticeably. It also has a slight red glow on the right hand side when focus confirms in very dark conditions. I didn’t notice it in bright light.

Overall, the viewfinder is a wash. The transparent LCD features are great, but it’s still a pentamirror and it’s smaller than the a700. THis is about the bare minimum viewfinder I would take. They also didn’t go 100% with the focus screen, either – you should be able to get grid lines and other symbols (like low battery, for instance) in this type of screen, and I expect an a700 replacement to have them.

I liked that most of the body was covered in rubber or some other substance. It certainly improved the grip compared to the smooth plastic of my old KM 5D. Most of the plastic that was there was similar to the a200’s plastic, except for the top plate, which used a smooth finish a la my 5D’s top plate. The camera certainly felt good, but I had a few gripes. Namely, the AF/MF switch on the lens sounds and feels great. On the body, though, it felt very cheap in its action. The popup flash feels robust, and the buttons have a nice feel to them. Some, like the AEL and MF Live View buttons, are countersunk into the body to give them a different tactile feel than the other buttons. Overall, they’re nice and large, and I could see myself using gloves with them, like the KM 5D.

The tilt screen is pretty nice. The screen itself is even better than the a700’s, which was already great. The tilting action has a lot of range and it feels pretty robust. It definitely feels better than the a350’s. Using the camera at waist level with tracking AF is an illuminating experience, and could be very useful. A lot of times people can get caught up in viewfinder tunnel vision when composing images, and getting the viewfinder out of the way and being able to follow action with a screen like the old days with action finders can allow for some neat shots.

MF check live view is very straightforward. I turned it on, focused, and tripped the shutter. The only thing that tripped me up is that if you zoom in (press the + button) and then change the lens to manual focus, it undoes the zoom. Aside from that minor quirk, it goes just as you expect it to. I only wish it left the mirror up. Hearing it go clack-clack twice is a bit disheartening.

The auto HDR is braindead simple. Set it as a DRO mode and blam – you’ve got an HDR image. The results are really very good. The average person would never touch photomatix again with this feature.

Speed Priority Advance seems useful for situations where you don’t need to change focus distance. The A550’s mirror has a distinctive clack and hearing it at 7 FPS sounds nearly machinegun-like. It certainly works in place of release priority.

The Fn button seems pretty straightforward to me – it’s clearly not quite up to being QuickNavi, but it’s no worse than what was in the KM 5D or a200. It has an internal logic that one would learn very quickly. Would the target user of this camera see the value in QuickNavi? I’m not quite sure. I certainly would, but a newbie wouldn’t. The 550 is clearly positioned as a top entry level as opposed to a bottom mid-level. Keep in mind that the KM 5D was $899 MSRP when it was released in 2005. The a500 and a550 currently straddle this price point, as I see it. The a500 is $799 with kit lens after $50 rebate at B&H, while the 550 is $999. The cheapest Nikon D90 kit is $1,199. That’s a not insignificant difference, but to be fair, that’s the cheapest kit, there’s no 18-55 kit which would probably be $1,099. Like the KM 5D and the a100, it’s best to compare these against the Rebel and the D5000 – where it wins on most points and loses on a few.

The camera has very nice help screens. They show sample photos and have clear, concise text describing what everything does. It’s a camera that truly doesn’t need a manual. Fortunately, if you don’t need these or you’re ready to graduate, you can turn them off.

What about face detection? I’d say it worked pretty well. I used the customers and staff in the Sony store as test subjects, and the camera with it on and off showed clearly different image quality between it being on and off. With matrix metering on, the faces seem to affect the overall matrix and the camera seems to bias hte exposure correctly to keep the faces exposed correctly. It also seems to tweak the white balance for flesh tone bias as well. Smile Shutter also seemed pretty consistent on the female subjects, but strangely not for the men. I only used it briefly. Overall I wouldn’t use the smile shutter that much, but for group portraits and general portraiture face detection can only help you.

Everybody knows what’s missing on this camera. Of all of the missing things, mirror lockup is the one that directly affects image quality and has no real workaround… other than to not use the “trouble zone” range of shutter speeds.

I never use program shift (I never use program mode), so its loss would not affect me. This one could probably go either way for people. I don’t care.

DOF preview wasn’t particularly useful on my KM 5D and I don’t see it as being useful on this camera, mainly because it is not accurate. This one is probably the most defensible EXCEPT that manual focus check live view suddenly makes it relevant again. In fact, the live screen should show live DOF calculations with D lenses like on the Maxxum 7, but it doesn’t. To be honest, digital’s DOF preview for most is the shutter. You don’t have to worry about wasting film anymore, and the issues with timing that you’d have are still there regardless of film or digital. You spend time messing around with DOF preview in the dim finder, or you spend time looking at a test shot.

ISO 100 on our cameras has been a “fake” ISO for quite some time. It might not actually give you the best image quality! You can achieve the same thing by overexposing one stop and then pulling it back in post. If you really need slower shutter speeds, with any of our cameras you need ND filters, unfortunately, otherwise you will compromise high end dynamic range.

Like the 5D/a2x0/3×0 cameras, you can’t select intermediary ISOs, but auto ISO can. Just something to be aware of.

The SteadyShot switch being deleted is an OK move in my book. I do not turn it off except when necessary. On an a550 it’s more of a cost saving delete. However, on the a700, this could be more powerful because 1. it could be changed via QuickNavi, and 2. it opens up to SSS being a setting you can change via memory. Having a tripod memory mode having SSS off would be a great thing, because I can’t remember how many times I’ve forgotten to turn off SSS (and I do have a dedicated tripod settings memory on my a700). Given that it’s changed so rarely, moving it to a QuickNavi setting means it can now be preset while keeping the logic of the controls consistent (e.g. no conflicts).

How about the autofocus? It was snappy and accurate. It seemed at least as good as the a700, if not snappier to actually acquire focus. Tracking seemed good, but admittedly I was not shooting darting birds, but rather walking people. They certainly didn’t just put the a200’s module in there. It’s a clear improvement.

Metering in LV mode does seem better than metering in viewfinder mode. It really seemed to nail the exposures. Using this seems fairly foolproof, especially in backlighting conditions. Face detection just improves it even further.

The only real, truly honest complaint I have is the damn shutter power switch. This isn’t limited to the a550, they’ve all tripped me up because the switch on any camera with these types of switches I naturally rest my finger on the switch. The reason is that I’m used to the Minolta way of putting the command dial in front of the shutter button. I am sure that, with time, I would adjust to this. It would be no different if I picked up a Nikon D90 or D300. It simply takes some adjustment time. That being said, the command dial on the a500 seems to function best when using a middle finger. IMO this was something that didn’t need to be fixed, and seems to be Sony caving once again to the mass market. Regardless, If I did own this camera, I could get used to it.

What are some things that I think should be added to an a550 upgrade? One, put the mirror lockup back in. This is unlikely, but worthy to ask. Next, add more features to the transparent LCD finder. Lastly, everybody wants video. I personally don’t need/care/whatever for video, but if it’s implemented well, I might use it once in a while. To me, an SLR is not a great ergonomic way to take videos – there’s a lot of issues with it, and we’ve all seen the kits made to make Canon 5DMk2s more flexible for filming. In terms of ergo these things won’t ever be able to match a Handycam, let alone a real movie camera. But for digicam type videos? They’re certainly doable, as the GH1 shows. Ultimately, it will be just another feature list checkbox, and the real advances will be in an interchangeable lens camera that is truly designed for video first. Ultimately, the market demands it, so we will see what Sony pulls out of its hat on the a700 replacement.

Anyway, if you liked the KM 5D, a100/a200/300/350, odds are you’ll like this camera, unless you do so much work with mirror lockup that it would adversely affect you. I’d have no problem buying it for a second body, but it wouldn’t be my primary, as I prefer having an a700 level camera. Since it’s not an a700 replacement, I’m totally OK with that.

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