Here you can see a generated GretagMacbeth ColorChecker chart, place your mouse over any of the labels below it to see the color reproduction in that mode. Select a camera/setting combination from the 'Compared to' drop-down to comparative boxes inside each patch.
Although noticeably more subdued than some recent Sony SLRs, the Alpha 550's output is still relatively 'punchy' compared to many of its competitors (slightly higher contrast, more saturated colors), which is, I guess, perfectly well suited to the stated target user (the compact camera upgrader) for Alpha SLRs. Of course the built-in (and highly customizable) Creative Styles mean that if you don't like the default output it's relatively easy to fine-tune the JPEGs to your own taste.
|Sony Alpha 550||Compare to:|
|Sunset||Black & White|
Artificial light White Balance
Like most SLRs the A550 rarely produces anything approaching a 'neutral' result when shooting under artificial light, whether using auto white balance or any of the presets (in fact for most Fluorescent shots AWB works better than the preset). Of course how much this matters depends a lot on what you're aiming for and personal taste: most people consider the slightly warm tone more atmospheric, but if you're doing studio or copy work under artificial light you'll be best shooting raw (because even setting the custom white balance manually using a grey card isn't guaranteed to produce perfectly white whites).
|Incandescent - Auto WB
Red: 6.7%, Blue: -10.7%, Average
|Incandescent - Incandescent preset WB
Red: 5.3%, Blue: -6.3%, Average
|Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red: 1.9%, Blue: -2.6%, Good
|Fluorescent - Fluorescent preset WB
Red: 5.3%, Blue: -5.0%, Average
The A550's built-in flash unit performed pretty well, delivering good exposure and color accuracy on both the test chart and the skin tones in the portrait shot. The A550 can also be used wirelessly with a compatible Sony flashgun.
Overall Image Quality / Specifics
The Alpha 550, like virtually every Sony we've tested, is obviously tuned to produce bright and cheerful print- and screen-friendly JPEGs that to our eyes look over saturated, over contrasty and, on occasion, simply over-exposed. And I guess given that Sony is trying to make owning and using an SLR less of an enormous leap for compact camera owners it makes sense to have a punchy default rendition.
The Alpha 550's default output is actually pretty well suited to the kind of dull drizzly days that fill the winter months here in the UK, but once the sun comes out and you get some dynamic range in the scene the results start to look overcooked. I would heartily recommend anyone shooting in bright sunlight to consider turning the saturation and contrast down - and watch the histogram - if they're using JPEGs. This is particularly true with reds - even quite subtle reds - which are boosted so much by default that they literally jump out of the frame at you (and not, usually, in a particularly nice way).
We also found the metering to be a little unreliable, often overexposing in bright conditions, which combined with the default tonal parameters means that channel clipping can occur (and it's not unusual to lose the highlights altogether, despite the sensor's excellent dynamic range). Even the auto white balance seems to have a mind of its own, often changing from shot to shot if there's any dominant color in the scene). After examining several thousand shots we now think that the problem is that the metering (and white balance) are too heavily weighted to the focus point in the default pattern metering mode, meaning AE lock is the only way to avoid minor recomposition causing major exposure shifts.
Overall then, for us at least, the only way to use the Alpha 500 to its full potential is to shoot raw (actually, Raw + JPEG - it's fast enough and the JPEGs are great for quick browsing/sharing). Not only does this rid you of all the white balance and 'in your face' color issues, it allows you to rescue highlights lost to the quirky metering and to produce output that, at lower ISO settings, is as good as anything you'll get from a competitor. The in-camera sharpening does the Alpha 550 no favors (and often seems to be fighting with the noise reduction even at ISO 200) - with raw you get to bypass the Bionz processing pretty much altogether (we're sure the raw files have a little noise reduction in them, but it's minimal).
Take a look at the example below: the same shot as an out of camera JPEG and one developed in ACR (manual white balance, exposure, low radius sharpening). Even if you like your shots ultra-punchy it's easy to see the advantage offered by the flexibility of the Alpha 550's excellent raw output.
|Out of camera JPEG (default settings)||ACR converted Raw, ISO 200, F4.5|
100% crop, ISO 200, F4.5
Overall, despite everything above, I was generally very happy with the Alpha 550's output, mainly I guess because I shot everything in raw + JPEG, so the shots that I considered failures in JPEG were easily rescued with 2 minutes work in Adobe Camera Raw.
The move from CCD (as seen in the A350 and A380) to CMOS brings the Alpha 550's high ISO / Low light performance much closer to other high resolution SLRs (such as the Canon EOS 500D), though it's still far from class-leading. The JPEG noise reduction is also still too high but you can shoot raw and do your own NR if you'd prefer slightly sharper - but grainier - results. Note that we also found the Alpha 550 occasionally produced results at base ISO (200) that showed a little luminance grain in shadows if you looked too closely.