Since they entered the big leagues a few years back, Sony’s Alpha dSLRs have been second-string players. The few Alpha fans out there are quick to point out that they often use the same sensors as any late-model Canon, Nikon, or Pentax dSLR -- sensors made by Sony, at that.
True enough, but the sensor is only one part of a great camera. Users need to feel comfortable using the thing; what makes a good interface is up to the individual photographer, but the first few generations of Alphas were generally knocked for clunky navigation and feel. They didn’t have an identity or much of a dedicated user base. As a new name in high-end photography, Sony’s “me too” dSLRs did do little to sway potential buyers away from the bigger, more established names in the genre.
Then late last year, Sony dropped a bombshell with the A55. This camera is designed around a translucent, stationary pellicle mirror rather than the typical a transparent, reflexive one. Light simultaneously reflects off the mirror into the autofocus mechanism and passes through the mirror to the sensor. That means it can focus and shoot at the same time, so it’s the fastest camera ever seen at this price. Sony calls this a single-lens translucent (SLT) design.
But of course, speed is also only one piece of the puzzle, one that is incomplete without a great sensor and user experience. Thankfully, Sony rounded out the A55 remarkably well. We’ll spill the beans early: The A55 is excellent all around and comes highly recommended. Read on to see why.
Note: Before we get started, we know that the A55 is not a true single-lens reflex since the mirror doesn’t move -- no reflex, in other words -- but just for the sake of consistency when we compare it to other interchangeable-lens cameras with mirrors, we often call it a dSLR in this review. Argue semantics in the comments below.
Body and Design
The A55 looks like a standard consumer-class dSLR built around an APS-C sensor (16.2 megapixels in this case), just a bit smaller. Its translucent pellicle mirror is fixed in place, so Sony engineers didn’t need to leave room for the mirror to flip in and out of the way of the sensor during exposures. It’s not so much smaller as to make a fundamental difference in the user experience, but it is compact by dSLR standards.
The 3-inch, 921,000-pixel articulating LCD is arguably the most dominant feature here. This is a live-view camera -- light goes right to the sensor, not to an optical viewfinder -- so it makes sense that Sony would put such a versatile screen on the back. It’s certainly not the first affordable dSLR with an articulating LCD. The Nikon D5000 had one, and now the Canon 60D and T3i do too. But it’s an especially useful feature on the A55, since this camera can focus and shoot at its top speed while using the LCD. With the hinge, it’s possible to view scenes from about any angle imaginable. Self-portraits, overhead shots, low-to-the-ground shots, around-the-corner shots -- all are easy to frame and easy to shoot.
Though there’s no optical viewfinder, there is a high-res electronic viewfinder (EVF) with a diopter for traditional eye-level composing, or when the sun is just too bright to see the LCD. The EVF is absolutely useful. It covers 100 percent of the field-of-view, whereas optical viewfinders usually cover more like 95 percent. Most users will find it to be totally suitable. That said, there’s no substitute for the feel of a real, honest-to-goodness optical viewfinder (OVF). The image in the EVF isn’t a real scene -- it’s a digital reproduction of the scene, and sometimes the nuances are smudged. Audiophiles make the same argument about vinyl records versus CDs and MP3s. Without a computer decoding the 1s and 0s, there’s nothing there. Vinyl records and SLR cameras are still machines, but the relevant bits are mechanical rather than electronic. In that sense, purists should probably look at a camera with a traditional OVF.
The A55 sports a wealth of direct-access keys, which are always welcome on a dSLR for the nimble control they allow. On the top panel to the right, there’s a power toggle, D-Range selector, LCD/viewfinder toggle, dedicated video button, exposure compensation and autoexposure lock (the last two double as zoom controls in playback mode). Sitting to the left of the hot shoe, stereo mic, and pop-up flash are the mode dial (10 settings) and menu key. On the front-right, there’s a control dial conveniently located for index fingers. On the front-left, there’s a button to unlatch the flash.
To the right of the LCD on the back panel sit a “Fn” button, which brings up a quick menu; a four-way pad with drive mode/shutter, ISO, white balance, display, and autofocus hot-keys; and at the bottom, playback and trash buttons.
Performance and User Experience
This is where the A55 is built to shine. Simply put, the A55 is the fastest consumer dSLR out there. The only other dSLRs that match the 10 frames-per-second burst rate are the pro-level Nikon D3s and Canon 1D Mk. IV, both of which cost a smooth $5,000 or more. (There are some fixed-lens cameras with CMOS sensors that can churn out 11 frames per second -- nothing to scoff at -- but their tiny sensors put them in a totally different category, so it's not fair to compare the A55 with, for example, superzooms like the Panasonic FZ100.)
While the sheer speed and effectiveness of the burst mode is absolutely impressive, there's still room for some overall burst-mode improvement on the next generation of SLTs. The main gripe I had was that there's no live-view during burst shooting, so if I tried to walk around a subject with the shutter firing rapidly, I had to rely on hand-eye coordination to keep it in the frame. The autofocus system -- supposedly working at all times -- is not always accurate, as moving subjects would fall out of focus during prolonged bursts. The buffer also takes quite some time to clear after prolonged burst shooting -- I could churn out about 30 Fine JPEGs without a hiccup, followed by a pause, some stuttered bursting again, another pause, so on and so forth. So with these shortcomings in mind, the A55 falls short of being a flawless tool for action photography, but neither issue should be dealbreakers. Even if they are, Sony will probably fix them in their next crack at a pellicle dSLR (coming later this year, we’re told).
Even aside from the burst-mode marquee feature, the A55 is a speedy camera. It starts up in about a second. The 15-point autofocus is faster than any other live-view camera (I'm mostly thinking of mirrorless shooters) and feels at least as fast if not a smidge faster than competing dSLRs. Shot-to-shot times are barely noticeable, half of a second at most.
Menus are pretty easy to navigate -- maybe a bit denser than Nikon's or Canon's menus but mostly straightforward -- and inputs are responsive. To save even more time, there's an eye-level sensor that automatically swtiches from LCD to EVF view if it detects a presence close to the eyepiece. The standard shooting modes (Auto/PASM, etc.) are straightforward for anyone who's ever used a camera with manual control (check out a photography primer otherwise).
Auto+, however, might throw some users for a loop, but it's an interesting touch. It functions mainly like Auto mode -- the A55 pre-selects almost all of the settings -- but takes advantage of the A55’s speedy burst-shooting capabilities so it can pick the best shot out of a handful of exposures, or even create “better” exposures with in-camera high-dynamic range (HDR) photography. HDR mode combines multiple frames taken at different exposures into one richly colored photo (this feature is increasingly popular these days). It's odd, at first, when the A55 fires off 3 to 6 shots with a single press of the shutter, but the results can be striking. Sometimes they're a little soft (the result of combining three handheld shots with very slight differences due to hand-shake) and sometimes the “hyper-real” shots can look cartoonish or gimmicky. If that's the case, just switch to a different mode. It's also worth noting that multi-frame combo settings are only available in JPEG format, not RAW.
And finally, Sony also included their popular iSweep panorama feature, which first became available on some low-end Cyber-shot compacts in 2010. Users press the shutter button, pan the camera, and the A55’s software stitches the shots together into a long, thin, panorama image. The resulting shots are fairly low-res, but that might be a worthy trade-off for some users.
In the context of all interchangeable lens cameras, the A55 in handles more like a mirrorless camera than a conventional dSLR. Live-view mode slows conventional dSLRs down to a crawl, whereas mirrorless cameras -- and the A55 -- are at their peak performance in live view (not that there’s a choice). And so, since the A55 is equally as fast whether users choose to use the LCD or EVF, users can choose to mainly use the LCD, like a mirrorless shooter or even a superzoom. As mentioned in the Body & Design section above, it opens up new possibilities for framing and composition, especially in concert with the articulating LCD.
So with the live view-centric performance in mind, image review could use a tweak. By default, image review is not turned on. That makes sense for viewfinder-centric cameras: It's tough to see a review image when your eye is eye is pressed up against the viewfinder. But it felt odd to me -- as somebody who tests dozens of live view-only cameras per year -- to not get a quick, automatic review while I was shooting predominantly through an LCD. It's perfectly easy to turn on automatic image review on, but then the review won't go away fast enough. There's a two-second minimum, with no way to cancel review and get back to shooting mode in the interim. It was a little bit frustrating, though I got used to it after a few days of testing.
Something like “user experience” is always subjective, and the folks who’ve never used a dSLR won’t have anything to compare the A55 against, but take my word for it: All told, the A55 felt just a bit slicker, a bit fresher, and a bit more fun to use than any of the consumer dSLRs I’ve tried out in the past year or so.
Image and Video Quality
Though the A55 is a new format in some respects, it's still based around an APS-C sensor, and still takes pictures like a consumer-level dSLR should. Without considering the rest of the mid-range dSLR field, shots are very good without much effort from the user. JPEGs look noise-free past ISO 800 and sharp enough for big prints at ISO 3200. Even shots at ISO 12800, the top native sensitivity, are still pretty good. On very close inspection, the default in-camera noise reduction smears some details, but it’s adjustable ("auto" or "weak" settings). And if pixel-perfect detail is of the utmost concern, just shoot in RAW mode.
Compared to other mid-level dSLRs, picture quality is competitive, though I’d say it’s not the A55’s main selling point. IQ is still a solid step up from Micro Four Thirds shooters and entry-level dSLRs. In most instances, its output is similar to the Canon T2i (and now the T3i, which we expect to be almost the same as the T2i). The graphs and charts I've seen, for what they’re worth, seem to give the edge to the Canon, but I don't see much of a difference in real-world output. The in-body (sensor-shift) SteadyShot image stabilization is in a certain sense an advantage over Canon and Nikon products, as it opens up a wider selection of lenses to the shaky-handed folk out there, though most shooter, most of the time, use IS-compatible lenses with their Nikons and Canons, so this is not such an important point. The A55’s low-light performance feels pretty average by current standards, especially when a low-light crusher like the Pentax K-r exists, but it's really nothing to complain about -- most situations don't require anything above ISO 3200 anyhow.
But thanks to its pellicle mirror setup, the A55 does hold a distinct advantage in one key area: action shots. The clearest path to great action shots is speed, and of course the A55 has it in spades. Even though, as mentioned, the continuous autofocus system doesn't quite live up to the grand expectations bestowed upon it, as far as I've seen it's the most capable action shooter for under $1,000.
There's the simple reality that the A55 can't quite compete with the next-level dSLRs -- the K-5 and D7000, for starters. But it is a few hundred bucks cheaper than any of those cameras, and they still don't have anything quite like the A55's pellicle setup. So in short, image quality is not the reason to buy the A55, but it should not be a reason to ignore it either.
Video mode on the A55 is workmanlike and effective by contemporary standards, though it's not designed to be a standout feature. It can shoot 1080p video at 30 frames per second in both Motion JPEG and AVCHD formats. It's a perfectly fine video mode, though no better than that of the Canon T2i or Nikon D3100, although the articulating LCD is quite helpful. For a more video-oriented camera, the Canon 60D or 7D, or especially the Panasonic GH2 are better bets overall.
The A55 is an excellent camera all around, and absolutely worth buying. It's the speediest consumer dSLR out there and doesn't compromise on image quality, either. The handling is unique within the dSLR realm, and incredibly versatile out in the field: Nothing else at this price combines a dSLR's speed with such a useful live-view -- the tilt-and-swivel LCD becomes a huge asset in this case, rather than a somewhat useful one like it is on cameras like the Canon 60D, Canon T3i, or the now-departed Nikon D5000.
The excellent performance far outweighs the minor flaws, like the autofocus system's shortcomings at full burst mode, clunky image review, and slight grittiness up at high ISOs. In future versions -- not that we would necessarily suggest waiting for them -- these issues will most likely be worked out.
Users who are already invested in the Alpha system (or even have older Konica-Minolta A-mount lenses kicking around -- check on compatibility first) and are looking to upgrade to a newer, more exciting Sony dSLR, the A55 is a no-brainer.
For first-time dSLR buyers, the A55 is worth the extra cost over a cheaper entry-level model like the Canon T3 or Nikon D3100, for example (though those cameras have built-in guide modes to help total novices get comfortable with the camera more quickly). It's slightly more intimidating to use at first, but dSLRs always have an acclimation period. Novices who start with an A55 might be able to put off an upgrade for longer than if they start with an entry-level model.
The Sony A33 might be a better option for new users; it's a bit cheaper, still features the pellicle mirror for speedy performance (though it tops out at 6fps -- still fast by most standards), and 14 megapixel sensor appears to be quite strong as well.
There are plenty of worthwhile options out there -- I haven’t even touched on the myriad mirrorless shooters that are worth a look, especially for folks for whom compactness is a top concern -- but I can only think of two compelling reasons why anyone would completely ignore the A55. The first is the lack of an optical viewfinder, which is certainly a valid concern, but I urge anybody on edge about that to at least try out the EVF. The second and more obvious one is if somebody is already heavily invested in another sytem -- Canon, Nikon, and Pentax all make great dSLRs in this category, too, and it's probably not worth re-buying a whole set of lenses to switch to a camera that, while especially fast, doesn't truly blow any of them out of the water.
Aside from those considerations, the A55 is a heck of a camera. It’s a first-gen product that Sony basically nailed; they’ve also stated publicly that all of their future dSLRs will be based around pellicle mirrors, so while the A55 is the top dog in the SLT lineup at the moment, there will be a clear upgrade path in the future, probably even up to a full-frame shooter. As we said at the top of the review, we whole-heartedly recommend the A55, the first time we’ve ever done so with a Sony dSLR.