Sony SLT-A55 – first impressions

As I mentioned elsewhere, I decided to change my camera ‘strategy’, to get myself the latest digital camera from Sony, the SLT-A55 (picked it up on Friday) and to dispose of everything else I have, primarily Nikon stuff to offset the cost of the Sony and to empty cupboards full of unused camera equipment.

SLT stands for “Single Lens Translucent” and refers to the fact that the Sony uses a fixed translucent (pellicle type) mirror as opposed to the moving mirror that you’ll find in other SLR (single lens reflex) cameras. This is perhaps the biggest USP for this camera, what makes it stand out from the crowd and allows it to perform in ways you cannot realise with other SLR cameras or would have to spend thousands more to achieve the same result. In simple terms, the SLT mirror never moves but splits the light into two beams, one goes straight through and hits the sensor for recording the picture whilst the other is reflected upwards and onto the focusing, viewfinder and exposure gizmos. In an SLR camera all the light is bounced off the mirror and sent to the focusing & exposure gizmos until you click the shutter when the mirror physically moves out of the way to allow the light to pass and hit the sensor. Using the translucent mirror allows the camera to constantly adjust exposure and focus (phase detection type) while recording pictures at the same time, there is no break while the mirror moves and returns. This allows very fast and accurate autofocus and exposure metering with rapid shooting, this camera will take up to 10 frames per second. It also enables them to make the camera smaller and lighter. If you combine these benefits with some very clever software advances like sweep panorama, multi-frame noise reduction and auto HDR you have something that is a serious improvement over anything I’ve had before.

What this camera is doing is bringing all the advantages of a compact, an SLR and a video camera together in one device as well as breaking some new ground in the process whilst making it extremely easy to get the full advantage of it all in everyday life. To make it ridiculously easy there is an Auto+ mode that will bring into play all of the various features as and when the camera thinks they are needed. My limited time with it has shown that it does work but I’m sure it’s not foolproof.

Oh yes, it also has built-in GPS, so whenever you take a shot it records the precise location it was taken. Not a must-have feature but can be quite useful at times. There’s Super Steady Shot INSIDE the camera, so no need for vibrating lenses as any lens you attach will benefit. Also there’s a cleaning setting in the menu that will jiggle everything around a bit to remove any dust that settles on the sensor or mirror.

If you want to read a pretty comprehensive technical review you can try imaging resource or dp review, I’ll just give my personal initial thoughts and provide a few sample shots and videos.

I should mention the lens as well. The A55 is usually sold with a kit lens and like all kit lenses it is okay but not great so I opted to buy the A55 body only and then added a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 DT lens. It looks as though this lens will be great for most purposes but I think I’ll add the 70-300mm G lens when funds allow. Those two should cover everything I need and be plenty good enough quality for my purposes.

The only other thing I bought was a 32GB memory card. That’s a ludicrous amount of memory, more than in most of the computers I’ve owned, but I thought that if I’m taking videos it might be needed. They threw in a bag for free. If you’re wondering what all this costs – the camera with kit lens is 3,999 and the body alone is about 3,200. The lens is normally 3,500 but was on offer for 2,999. The memory card was 575. After some negotiation I managed to get the lot for 6,200 (all zlots of course). If you want to spend a little less money you can get the A33 instead. It has fewer pixels, no GPS and only 7 fps instead of 10 but otherwise it’s the same camera. Not a huge difference in spec and not a huge difference in price either.

So, let’s take a look at the output.

PHOTOS

All the photos are pretty much straight from the camera as large & fine JPEGs. I have reduced the image size for upload purposes, I have increased the colour saturation slightly and given a very light unsharp mask for sharpening. All the images can be seen here in larger sizes – gallery. I’ve not installed the software that came with the camera so I can’t comment on what that might add to the party. I’ve used photoshop to download and manage the pictures.

These first two show the lens at its widest and longest extremes – 16mm and 80mm.

Zeiss lens at widest - 16mm

Zeiss lens at longest - 80mm

This next one demonstrates the sweep panorama mode. Just press the shutter button and pan with the camera, either portrait or landscape (this one landscape). This would usually have taken an age in photoshop and looked nowhere near as good as this does, especially where the individual shots would be stitched together.

Sweep panorama

Now the Auto HDR mode. The general idea of this is to allow better capture of scenes with high contrast between darker and lighter parts of the scene. In this case we had the sun shining over the National Theatre making the palace, in full sun, very bright while the foreground was much darker. The other shot had dark tree and some of the building but bright sky and other part of the building. Usually very tricky to get with one shot and would again require a lot of buggering around with photoshop, quite possibly using multiple shots with bracketed exposures. The Auto HDR function does all that automatically, it takes three shots at different exposures and merges them into one. There is fine tuning available when I eventually RTFM.

Auto HDR 1

Auto HDR 2

Multishot NR. I’m going to call this one the ‘museum’ mode. What it allows you to do is to take shots where it is impossibly dark, without flash. It does this by taking 6 shots in rapid succession and then merging them into one shot. It does this at ISO levels up to 25,600. The ISO for this shot is shown as 6,400, I don’t know if that’s an average of the 6 shots or if they were all taken at that ISO. I think the idea is that noise is random so if you have 6 shots to play with you can eliminate a lot of noise by using a lot of clever maths and stuff. This poster was hanging in the ballet school in a corner so dark that you wouldn’t even have bothered trying. No artificial light, no nearby daylight, nothing. When you consider that most cameras start having difficulty at anything above ISO 400, this is an amazing performance. With my Nikon D80 I would have taken this shot at ISO 800 and then messed around with noise reducing software in photoshop, which, given the inevitable amount of noise, would have resulted in a smudged, overly smooth look and probably still had more noise than this.

Multishot NR

These two of Zosia just give an idea of the detail. Same picture, one shown at full frame and one that has the face cropped from the same shot. I still had to considerably reduce the size of the face to upload here – 16.2MP gets you a very big picture and a lot of detail to play with!

Zosia full frame

Zosia detail

Some more general shots.

General shot 1

General shot 2

General shot 3

VIDEO

There are two quality setting for the video the best being full 1080p HD and the lower quality of VGA, MP4 at 640×480. These were all taken at lower VGA quality for ease of putting on the blog. In most reviews they RAVE about being able to take 1080p AVCHD movies with continuous auto focus. Apparently this is a first.

The camera works perfectly with iMovie on the Mac so downloading and then managing them couldn’t be easier. It also has an HDMI connection so you can plug it straight into your 50″ HD TV and watch the videos. I need to practice with the best way to grip the thing for steady shooting.

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11 thoughts on “Sony SLT-A55 – first impressions

  1. I thought the video clip’s opening card said ‘sorry ass’ at first glance ;) Looks and sounds a dandy all in all. Maybe some more video blogs as a result. Can I look forward to some more audio-visual comments from ‘our man on the scene’ – hope so:)
    Pozdrowienia dla całej rodziny,
    a
    p.s.
    Any lenses left after all your other ‘ochotnicy’ have had their fill?

  2. Great video (and shots) I also thought the oepning card said Sony Ass and had to double back for a second look. Also hoping to see more videos. Does Zosia dress herself cause she always has a great sence of style and fashion sense ..like a fashion ad from the beginning.

  3. The “Sorry Ass” is done automatically by iMovie so no opportunity to make it clearer.

    Zosia does have a surprising amount to say about what she wants to wear, considering she’s only 7. I fear my wallet may feel the pinch in years to come. Bring back child labour I say!

    And yes, I’m pretty sure you will see more videos here.

  4. Very interesting, Scatts. Never thought I’d see you kiss Nikon goodbye. Sony look increasingly likely to be the one to break the Nikon-Canon duopoly. The A33 and A55 (Austin Cambridge, to some of us!) are briefly previewed in the current issue of ‘What Digital Camera’ magazine, favourably. Your review adds a lot. Thanks.

  5. I thought similarly, Stephen, but their lack of innovation and inspiring products over a good period of time now has gradually eroded any brand loyalty I had. I’m sure they will follow suit in their own time but too late for me. Over the same period as Nikon have been losing ground with me I’ve been quietly watching what Sony were up to and reading reviews of their other products. It’s been obvious for a while that they know what they are doing and are serious about taking market share.

    I bet there are people huddled in ‘brainstorming rooms’ in Canon and Nikon HQ right now wondering what the hell to do about this.

  6. now makes quite clear to me the reason u selling all the Nikon stuff and seems u are absolutely right, I’ll re-think staying with Nikon thx to you :-)

  7. Have just got an A55 and a Sony 18-250 lens (plus the 18-55 for when inside or when I know I will not need any extreme zoom) and am very pleased with the camera. Sold my 550D to fund it and do not regret it one bit. The Auto+ function is excellent and if anything I prefer the jpeg look to the RAW, although I am still taking RAW + jpeg just in case. It really does seem like a dSLR but with the parts of a P&S that I always wanted such as EVF, contstant focus while videoing, and less weight. Still to play with all the manual setting but to me this is the camera I have been waiting for having spent years swapping between P&S and dSLR. Sony may have broken the hold Canon, Nikon, etc have had on the dSLR market. I know there is resistance to the idea of a dSLR (or is it a dSLT) with an EVF but when I see through the viewfinder what the photo will actually look like rather than taking it then checking on the LCD I could not go back to a standard optical viewfinder. It is the best camera related purchase I have ever made (and in the past I have made a lot!).

    Regards
    Fred (Essex, UK)

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