Operation and controls

From the point of view of ergonomics, the SLT Alpha A55 isn't radically different to its more conventional DSLR cousins. The major differences are the electronic viewfinder and articulated screen, but there are some other changes too - some quite significant.

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The A55 (and A33) have a video shooting mode, and like the NEX interchangeable lens compacts, both cameras have a direct video shooting button on the top-right of the body, on the slope between the camera's rear and top plates. The ISO button which we feel is rather awkwardly placed on many Alpha SLRs has been moved to the lowest of the four cardinal points on the 4-way controller on the rear of the camera. In its old location, on the right-hand side of the top plate is a new EVF/LCD switch, and a dedicated button for 'dynamic range' which provides access to the A55'S DRO+ and Auto HDR modes.

Despite these changes, the positioning of the A33/A55's on-body controls are similar enough that anyone with an investment in the Sony Alpha system will feel immediately at home with the new models.

A summary of the major physical control changes over previous Sony Alpha models follows below:

  • New, fully articulated (not just fold down/out) LCD screen
  • ISO button moved from top plate to rear
  • Electronic viewfinder (with switch on right of top plate)
  • New movie button to the right of EVF

Rear of camera controls

The A55's rear panel is a mixture of old and new control points. The 4-way controller is a familiar feature of the Alpha series but in the new camera its cardinal points activate often-used shooting parameters - ISO, white balance, shooting mode and display options for the EVF and LCD. The central button serves as a generic 'OK' input, activates AF point selection in Local AF Area mode or initiate autofocus (which, by default, doubles up with a half-press of the shutter release).

The 'Fn' button to the left of the rubber thumb rest serves the same function as it does in the Alpha 500/550, and provides control over a selected (but quite comprehensive) number of shooting settings, such as AF, metering and flash modes, creative styles, and so on. Once selected these can be scrolled through using the control dial, reducing the need for button pressing. Some options, like ISO and white balance, are duplicated on the 4-way controller to the right of the LCD.

Top of camera controls

The A55 isn't quite as loaded with buttons and switches as other Sony Alpha cameras in its class (notably the A500 and A550) but it should have enough physical control points to satisfy anyone except the most menu-allergic of users. The design changes compared to other Alpha DSLRs have taken the form of consolidation, rather than wholesale alteration, but the A33 and A55 are different enough as products to make some fairly major changes necessary.

In the view of the top right of the A55 you see the new movie shooting button, alongside the exposure compensation and AE lock buttons on the slope between the A55's rear and top plates. These latter two control points double as magnification controls in image review mode. We find the position of the exposure compensation button a little awkward when shooting with the EVF, but its tactile feel is different enough to distinguish it from the slightly indented movie shooting button.

On the left shoulder is the A55's exposure mode dial, which provides access to the standard PASM shooting modes as well as the high-speed 10fps AE setting and Sweep Panorama - a feature adopted from Sony's Cyber-Shot range of compacts and also found in the NEX-3 and NEX-5.

  • Program Auto
  • Aperture Priority Auto
  • Shutter Priority Auto
  • Manual
  • 10fps AE shooting
  • Sweep Panorama
  • SCN
  • Flash off (full auto)
  • Auto
  • Auto+ (which automatically uses the A55's various 'scene' and continuous shooting modes - Auto HDR, multi-shot NR etc. where necessary)

On-screen controls and menus

Like most current DSLRs and interchangeable lens cameras the Sony SLT-A55 offers various ways of changing parameters and settings. 12 of the most used parameters can be modified through the Fn-menu on-screen. There are also a number of direct access buttons and last but not least, some settings can also be altered in the menu. Below you'll see a selection of the screens and menus you'll encounter while working with the A55. Since the camera has an electronic viewfinder in most cases you can see these screens in either the viewfinder or on the rear LCD. The only exception are the two status panel views that are designed to be displayed on the rear LCD while you use the electronic viewfinder to frame your shots.

Record mode display options (Viewfinder and LCD)

The A55 offers three display options in record mode that can be viewed on both the EVF and the rear LCD. The first shows only basic exposure settings, along with SteadyShot and AF indicators. The seconds adds the A55's 'jet-fighter style' virtual horizon to the display. It indicates both pitch and roll and is a useful tool for adjusting the camera angle...
...the third option adds a shutter speed/aperture scale, information on image quality and size, remaining images on the card and battery power. If the GPS function is activated you'll also see an icon indicating the status of the GPS module. In the custom menu you'll also find an option for changing the display grid. In addition to the diagonal and square design pictured in the screen shots above you can choose from squares only...
...or a rule of thirds grid. There's also an optional histogram that remains available when setting exposure compensation.

Record mode display options (LCD only)

There are also two screen options that can only be displayed on the rear LCD. You can choose between the two in the 'display rec data' option in the custom menu. The first option is a status panel which gives an overview of a large number of shooting parameters. The second one shows a similar amount of information but arranges it around the live view image. Both display types are pretty useful if you want a 'clear' view in the viewfinder but be able to see most current settings at a glance on the back of the camera.

Quick Menu

Pressing the Fn-button brings up the Fn-menu on the rear LCD. It's a slightly an extended version of the menu that we've seen on previous Alphas such as the A550 or A500 and allows you to change 12 of the most used shooting parameters including ISO, drive mode and AF area settings. You navigate the menu with the four-way controller and either press the OK button to select an option or just roll the control dial for fast selection.
Selecting an option using 'Ok' takes you through to another screen where the shooting parameters can be adjusted... ...alternatively you can just spin the control dial, which cycles through the options for faster access.

Direct access buttons

In addition to the Fn-menu the SLT-A55 offers a good number of direct access buttons on the camera body. This includes, buttons for ISO, white balance, drive mode, exposure compensation and HDR/DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) settings. The screens that open after pressing one of the buttons are identical to the ones you get in the Fn-menu.

Setting ISO after pressing the ISO button. White balance settings can be fine-adjusted. There are also custom WB and Kelvin options.

Other shooting screens

The GPS is new on the Alpha A55. The function can be activated in the menu and if satellites are found and the camera is positioned geo-data is written in to the images EXIF-data and displayed with the image in review mode.
The A55 offers the same standard and 3D sweep panorama modes that we've seen on the Sony NEX. They are accessed via the mode dial.
Set the mode dial to SCN to access the camera's eight scene modes - portrait, sports action, macro, landscape, sunset, night view, hand-held twilight and night portrait.

Record review & play displays

The Sony A55 provides three different display modes in playback, press the DISPLAY button to cycle through them. Unlike most cameras, though, the A55 separates the movie and stills playback options. To switch between the views you either have to select the correct mode from the menu or you have can zoom out to thumbnail view and navigate across to the stills or movie tab on the left-hand side.

1. Full screen image with no information 2. Full screen image with information overlaid.
3: Small image, full shooting information, blinking highlight and shadow areas Pressing the magnify button zooms in on an image, rolling the control dial jumps between images.
Pressing the zoom-out (exposure comp.) button jumps you to the thumbnail index view. In the play menu you can choose between a 6 or 12 thumbnails view. It also provides a way of switching from stills to movie playback mode.