Sony Alpha DSLR-A550
Category: Mid Range Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Conclusion - Pros
- Capable of excellent results (especially in raw)
- Good JPEG dynamic range
- Far better high ISO performance than most other recent Alpha models
- Fast and responsive operation - and up to 7 fps burst shooting
- Excellent screen and improved viewfinder (though it still works better in Live View)
- Class-leading live-view autofocus system and new high quality main sensor live view option
- Improved user interface (though still no interactive control panel screen)
- Effective in-camera image stabilization
- Clever automatic HDR feature and DRO shadow adjustment
- Improved handling and external controls over A3XX models
- Probably the easiest 'high end' camera for the compact camera upgrader to use
- Excellent battery life
- Wireless flash capability built-in and optional remote control
- Well-featured and usable software included
- Decent 18-55mm kit lens
Conclusion - Cons
- JPEG output doesn't really do the sensor justice - shoot raw for the best results
- Default output over processed: too much contrast, saturation (reds in particular often end up overdone) and noise reduction for our taste
- Metering not reliable enough, easily fooled by unusual subjects and large skies (often over exposing)
- More auto white balance errors than we'd expect at this level
- Not enough control of noise reduction for JPEGs (high or really high)
- No Program Shift or Depth of Field Preview
- Very Limited customization options compared to competitors
- Some shadow noise visible even at base ISO in certain shooting conditions
- Despite improvements the viewfinder still not that great - hard to get your eye near enough
- Button placement is less than optimal
- In today's market, at this price, lack of video has to be mentioned
There are essentially two completely different ways to look at the Sony Alpha 550. The glass half empty view is that it lacks the serious photographic toolset offered by any similarly-priced model from the likes of Canon, Nikon, Pentax et al. A more positive view - and the one I'm sure Sony wants you to take - is that it brings high end features such as high speed continuous shooting and automatic HDR processing to those looking to step up from an entry-level SLR or high end compact.
And whilst I completely understand Sony's thinking, and agree that it's nice to have the option of a high end camera without all the complexity, the problem is that I don't agree that this means key features like Program Shift, Mirror Lock-up, depth of field preview and customizable controls need to be left out. You just need to make sure the user interface is designed to keep the less experienced away from such things until they're ready to use them. The Alpha 550's menus are almost comically brief compared to any other SLR at a similar price point, and despite complaining in the past about some manufacturers going too far the other way, the 550 is one of the least flexible cameras I've ever seen in this class.
Of course this might mean nothing to you, and you may simply want an easy to use SLR with fast continuous shooting, built-in stabilization and neat features like Auto HDR. Like the other cameras in the range, the 550's Quick AF live view (now with face detection) means it can be used like a big, powerful 'point and shoot' camera, and the improved user interface - though still nowhere near as good as the Alpha 700 - makes changing basic settings easy, even if it does sometimes seem to be designed to protect novice users from themselves by making things just that little bit more awkward than they need to be.
The Alpha 550's identity crisis is compounded by the fact that it doesn't actually deliver anything like its full potential when used in precisely the way it appears to be designed for (as a big fast P&S camera). The metering and auto white balance are too inconsistent and the JPEG processing (contrast, saturation, sharpness) far from optimal. The irony of the Alpha 550 is that it really needs someone who knows what they're doing behind it to get the benefits of what appears to be an excellent new sensor and fast shooting capabilities. At the very least means playing around with the JPEG parameters and taking control of the white balance and metering when necessary, but for the most part it really means you need to shoot raw (and process each file manually) to really see the Alpha 550 shine.
But shine it can: the raw files, when processed sympathetically, can easily compete with pretty much any other camera in this price range, and (in stark contrast to the smeary JPEGs) the Alpha 550's raw output is competitive - and usable - right up to ISO 3200 (above that noise is an issue for all cameras in this class). The resolution isn't class-leading (though I suspect we've yet to find a raw converter that can really pull every last bit of res out of the A550's files), but it's not far off, and at normal magnifications the output is impressive (dynamic range is excellent, for example).
A massive improvement over the Alpha 230/330/380, the Alpha 550 sits in the hand nicely and feels well-balanced and stable, and has a much improved layout and interface. We're still not convinced by the placement of controls and buttons, and found - despite a body covered in buttons and switches - it still works a lot better as a point and shoot camera in live view mode than when you're using the viewfinder and trying to set a lot of things manually. Ultimately, it might be better than the A380, but it's still not a patch on the cameras higher up the range (the Alpha 700-900).
The final word
Existing Sony users hoping for a more up to date replacement for the Alpha 700 (which pre-announcement this was rumored to be) will be disappointed by the Alpha 550, and - unless you really want high speed burst shooting or the clever (but limited) auto HDR function - it doesn't really provide enough justification for upgraders with Alpha 2XX/3XX models either. For those users the Alpha 700 (which is the same price) is probably still the best step up until when and if Sony finally retires it.
For anyone looking at their first SLR ( the best part of a thousand dollars burning a hole in their wallet) the Alpha 550 offers an interesting alternative to the more conventional enthusiast models from Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Olympus. It bests all of them for continuous shooting speed, has the only usable live view autofocus system (complete with tilting screen and face detection) and the Auto HDR is a clever trick, but it lacks photographic features considered standard on this class of camera.
This also means the value for money aspect will be totally skewed by your own priorities. For $900 you're getting a lot of cool features (SteadyShot, great screen, 7fps, Auto HDR, dual live view systems), but Sony has decided that you can't be trusted with equally useful, if slightly less headline-grabbing things like depth of field preview and Program Shift. If you already know you need those things this ain't the camera for you.
Ultimately the Alpha 550 is the best APS-C camera Sony has produced since the Alpha 700, and is a significantly more interesting proposition than the rather dumbed-down models currently populating the 200 and 300 ranges. And at the end of the day I actually really enjoyed using it for everyday snaps (where the live view system really shines), and got some great results out of it.
It's almost impossible to make a blanket recommendation regarding this camera: serious photographers will be put off by the paucity of high end features and controls, beginners will be frustrated by the rather uninspiring results you often get when everything is left on auto. If the standout features (SteadyShot, Live View, HDR etc) do appeal and you want the speed the A550 offers - and you're prepared to put some work into getting the best results - it's worth putting on your shortlist.
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Sports shooters on a budget, gadget lovers, upgraders wanting the SLR experience without a steep learning curve.
Not so good for
The Alpha 550 might be the most impressive Sony SLR for a long time, but for all its fancy gadgetry you can't help feeling the whole isn't as great as the sum of the parts, and it's hard to see who it's aimed at. There's not many faster cameras in this class, but there are undoubtedly better ones.
Original Rating (December 2009): Recommended
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