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Sony A33, A55 and A55V
Pellicle-Mirror 10 FPS, 1.5x sensor (2010-)
Minolta Maxxum Lens Compatible

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Sony A55

Sony A55V (17.6 oz./500g with card and battery) with Sony 18-55mm lens. bigger. This free website's biggest source of support is when you use these links, especially these directly to it at Adorama or at Amazon, when you get anything, regardless of the country in which you live. See also all the kits with the A55V or A55, as well as the various kits with the A33. Thank you! Ken.

 

December 2010   More Sony Reviews   Minolta Reviews   Other Reviews

 

Introduction         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Recommendations

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This new Sony A55 is a taste of the future.

I'll usually mention the A55, however, the Sony A33, Sony A55 and Sony A55V are the same thing. The A55V adds a built-in GPS, just like the iPhone and iPod touch. The A33 is the same thing as the A55, with a few less pixels, and rated only at 7FPS instead of 10FPS. Otherwise, they all have the same viewfinder, the same features, the same menus, the same firmware and the same users's manual. When I say "A55," I mean all three models.

The A55 is an electronic viewfinder (EVF) camera, not an SLR. The A55 uses an additional fixed, half-silvered (pellicle) mirror to allow an optical (phase-detection) autofocus system to view through-the-lens at the same time as the image is hitting the live-view sensor. This allows the A55 to have the same fast autofocus as a real SLR, while everything you see through the viewfinder is coming from a tiny internal LCD fed from the image sensor.

In a real SLR, a mirror is used to view through-the-lens optically on a ground-glass screen to focus and compose. The mirror flips out of the way for each shot to expose the film, or the sensor in a DSLR (digital SLR).

The Sony A55 represents the future because the flipping mirrors of SLRs were only needed with film. With film, we had no other way to see the image before it was developed, so direct optical viewing with a reflex mirror was needed to see and shoot through the lens quickly.

With electronic cameras, we can see the image as seen by the sensor in close to real time electronically. Previous EVF cameras had finders that were delayed by a fraction of a second due to internal processing time, making them useless for sports or action. Likewise, previous EVF cameras had LCD finders with resolution too low to see focus. Worse still, all previous EVF cameras had to focus using the delayed, 2-dimensional image from the sensor, making autofocus way too s-l-o-w for action.

The Sony A55 brings the future to us today because it's the first EVF camera I've seen that has a viewfinder with little enough image delay to make it useful for action, it has enough resolution to see focus, and because it uses a half-silvered mirror to divert the live, 3-D optical image to a real-time AF system, the A55 autofocuses as fast as a real SLR.

Now that Sony has perfected the EVF camera, there are numerous advantages.

Since we're viewing an LCD, all menus come up in the finder as you set them. You can set anything without taking your eye from the finder.

As you're shooting, you're already seeing the effects of light, color, saturation and contrast settings as the camera will see them, before you take the picture!

With fast lenses, like Minolta's 50mm f/1.7 MAXXUM AF, you can see the real depth of field, unlike with real SLRs. Real SLR focus screens were redesigned in the 1980s to give more brightness with slow zoom lenses, but lost the ability to show the much narrower field with fast lenses. If you think I'm kidding, try your depth-of-field preview button and you won't see any difference between f/1.4 and f/2.5 on a real SLR today.

Since the finder is an LCD, you can see and focus in the dark just as well as in daylight. If the lighting is dark, no problem; the camera boosts its sensitivity, and that's what you see through your viewfinder.

There is a 2-axis virtual horizon which can be superimposed over the viewfinder image.

Playback? You can play back with your eye on the finder, and zoom, too!

The A55 has eye-control, meaning that the rear LCD and viewfinder LCDs switch on and off automatically as you hold the camera to your eye, or hold it at arm's length.

One weirdness is that immediate Image Review hijacks the viewfinder, but if you want Image Review, it pops up in your viewfinder after each shot.

The penalty for all this electronic fun is that the A55 is a battery-sucker. While Nikons and Canons work all day, or all month, on a single charge because you're viewing the optical image for free using natural light, the A55 always needs to have its LCD lit and all its internal signal processing active just to look though the lens. The A55 is not the camera to buy if you're concerned about conserving electricity. I sucked-down a large amount of charge in just a few hours of playing. I can get 4,000 shots on a charge of a Nikon D7000, since real SLRs don't need their LCDs at all to shoot, but this Sony will be sucking you dry for power very quickly.

 

Pellicle Mirror         top

Sony A55

Sony A55V and its pellicle mirror. bigger.

The Sony A55's pellicle mirror is mostly transparent, and only partially reflective. Most of the light hits the sensor, while some is diverted to the live optical AF system. The mirror never moves, except for cleaning.

You can see the sensor through it above, and also see the reflection of the optical AF system's lenses in the center, as well as the reflection of some of the gold lens contacts.

The A55 does not use a "translucent" mirror as mistakenly claimed by Sony. That's something some moron in Sony's marketing department cooked up, probably in their Rancho Bernardo office which is close to my condo in San Diego. If it really was translucent, the picture would be blank. You don't have to call it a pellicle mirror, but if you want to call it something different, make up something clever; don't call it something that it is not.

Canon and others invented the use of pellicle mirrors in the 1960s and 1970s to get ultra-high frame rates. The biggest frame rate limitation for real (35mm) cameras is getting the mirror to flap around fast enough, so if you can design a camera with a fixed mirror, you can run it much faster. Canon's EOS RT (real-time) was the world's first reasonably popular camera with a pellicle mirror.

 

Compatibility         top

The Sony A55 A55V and A33 are fully compatible with Minolta MAXXUM AF lenses and lens caps. Sony bought Konica, who had bought Minolta. The Sony Alpha series is simply the latest name for the MAXXUM system.

The A55 uses the unique Minolta MAXXUM flash shoe. It has NO HOT SHOE. You must use dedicated flashes.

Even though my MAXXUM flashes mounted and fired just fine, they always fired at full-power, leading to overexposure. This tells me that one needs newer flashes that can expose well with the digital cameras.

 

Sony A55

Top, Sony A55V. bigger.

 

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call         top

While all the whizzy features impress gadget hounds, the fundamental picture-taking ability of the Sony A55 is flawed in several very important ways. I wouldn't buy one of these things.

Among the big deficiencies for serious photographers, any one of which is a deal-breaker, are:

1.) On-screen junk. I was never able to get the exposure data numbers off of my image so I could compose. Instead of being below the image as on a real SLR, the EVF of this Sony always has some data written on top of your image as you're trying to compose.

2.) Sony is several years behind Nikon and Canon when it comes to basic settings. There is no way to set any green-magenta color trim on any setting except the manual-white-card setting. Worse, one cannot set warm/cool shift on the Auto White Balance setting, which is how I get great images out of my Nikons, and even my Canon point-and-shoots, but something that this Sony can't do. Because of this design defect, all the pictures I took with the A55 were too blue for my taste. Oops!

3.) I never could find how to shift the exposure program. Even Canon's first EOS 620 of 1987 had a shiftable program. Canon is a camera built for photographers, while Sony is better at making electronic baubles.

4.) The Sony A55 puts all sorts of junk files and folders all over the SD card. Not only does this make it a pain to have to hunt and peck for the only folder we need that has our images, half of my computers didn't recognize the card in my various card readers! I had to stick the SD card in my MacBook Pro, and use the MacBook Pro to copy the files to a USB stick, and then copy from the USB stick to my Power Mac. In the A55's defense, the A55 connects to all my computers just fine via USB and pops up as an external drive, which is something the Nikon D7000 can't do. Still, I'd rather the cards were legible!

5.) The images just don't look as good as I get from Canon and Nikon. The "look" of a digital camera, just like the look of a woman or the look of a film, is a very subtle and personal thing. In the case of Canon and Nikon, they've worked decades to fine-tune their image processing algorithms, transfer functions and color matrices to get images that simply look better, to me, than I get from this Sony. Sony makes the sensors for Nikon, but sensors are only a small part of a much larger equation in camera design.

The images from this Sony do have better color than what I get from the LEICA M9, but that's not saying much. Image quality depends more on these subtle factors that aren't familiar to anyone other than camera designers than all the marketing fluff in the world. Nikon and Canon have thrown more resources to this problem for more decades than Sony has. Sony has been a world leader in professional video and electronic imaging since the 1960s, but not in still photography.

 

Sony A55

Sony A55V. bigger.

 

Specifications         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Recommendations

 

Sensor

All: 15.6 x 23.5mm (sub-APS).

ISO: 100 - 12,800, and AUTO.

A55 and A55V: 16MP: 4,912 × 3,264 pixels.

A33: 14MP.

 

AF         top

15 points, only 3 of which are sensitive in both axes.

 

Finder

Electronic sequential-color LCD.

0.62x magnification with standard 28mm lens (1.1x with 50mm telephoto).

 

Shutter

1/4,000 ~ 30s, bulb.

 

Flash         top

NO HOT SHOE, only a Minolta MAXXUM-compatible dedicated flash shoe.

1/160 sync.

 

Storage

SD card or memory stick.

 

Data

Photos: JPG images or raw data.

Video: AVCHD or AVC/H.264.

 

Power         top

Battery: NP-FW50.

Charger: BC-VW1 with folding plug, 100-240 VAC, 50 cps/ 60 cps, 4.2 W.

 

Size

Using thoroughly American convention, it's rated at 4 7/8 × 3 5/8 ×
3 1/3 inches (124.4 × 92 × 84.7mm) WHD, excluding protrusions.

 

Weight

A55V

Rated 17.6 oz. (500g) with card and battery.

 

A33 and A55

Rated 17.3 oz. (492g) with card and battery.

 

Fluff         top

HDMI output.

GPS (A55V only).

 

Quality

Made in Thailand.

 

Sony A55

Sony A55V and 18-55mm. bigger.

 

Performance         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Recommendations

 

Image Quality

Image quality is poor, because the A55 lacks some very important image adjustments.

There is no color trim for the Auto WB setting. (page 112, US manual). Because of this, all the photos look too cool (blue) for my taste.

On the other WB settings, there are only basic warm/cool WB trims that go to ±3, with no green/magenta adjustments. The only setting with a green/magenta trim is the Kelvin setting.

Custom WB is unique in sharing the Kelvin and magenta/green values with us in-camera, thus we could reset them manually.

AUTO WB is the only WB setting available on AUTO, AUTO+ and SCENE modes.

The 16:9 setting is cropped from the 3:2 sensor.

Exposure is quite good, most likely because the camera is always analyzing the off-sensor data directly, another advantage over a real SLR.

Another big limitation is the lack of automatic lateral chromatic aberration (color fringe) correction. All current Nikons fix corner color fringes automatically, while Canons and this Sony don't. This means you can look forward to color fringes at large magnification with all but the very finest professional lenses.

At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the pictures, and images out of this A55 don't look as good as what I get out of my Canons and Nikons. This Sony lacks the image-adjustment finesse of the serious camera brands, as well as Canon and Nikon's very secret image-processing recipes which is how they get images from their cameras to look so much better than the images that come out of this Sony. There are reasons professional still photographers shoot Nikon and Canon instead of Sony.

There's no point in measuring resolution or high-ISO noise if the pictures aren't right. It doesn't matter how many pixels you have, or how clean they are, if they aren't the right color in the first place. Be forewarned that 16MP in a 1.5x sensor demands superior lenses and technique to make good use of all that resolution.

 

Noise and Vibration         top

Sony could have been brilliant, and made this camera silent.

Nope, even without a flipping mirror, the Sony A55 is at least as noisy, and has at least as much sharpness-robbing mechanical vibration as a conventional SLR.

Worse, it's worse than the best current real SLRs like the Nikon D7000, which is much quieter and smoother than this A55.

 

Autofocus         top

AF is good. It is far better than any other non-SLR, but still not as good as a state-of-the-art DSLR like the Nikon D7000.

The A55's AF does a reasonable job of tracking linear movement at 10 FPS, so long as the subject doesn't move around in the frame. This is good!

The A55's AF system has too few points compared to the "sea of sensors" in good DSLRs today, like the Nikon D7000. This A55 is about 5 years out of date compared to Canon and Nikon.

 

Ergonomics         top

Good

Just about weightless.

Real depth-of-field preview button on front.

AUTO ISO is on by default.

Fairly well shaped.

AF lenses are reset to infinity at power off!

 

Bad

Distracting number displays never come off the viewfinder LCD to allow careful composition.

Sloppy menu system for everything. It handles like a point and shoot.

Only one control knob.

Dinky kid-sized grip. Not big enough for a man's hands. My fingers can't wrap-around it without hitting something, but my kids love its tiny grip.

Cheap-feeling grip materials.

Playback is sluggish while the A55 takes a long time to write a stream of still images to the card.

Beeps are on by default, typical for a hobby camera.

Too many ugly stickers and tags to have to peel off before use, as if this is just another piece of disposable consumer electronics.

No program exposure shift!

Small rear LCD, only 2.6" effective.

Indexed rear lens caps only attach one way, not several ways as do Canon and Nikon's rear caps.

Playback zoom is horrible: when zoomed, only a fraction of the screen is used.

The FORMAT CARD command is hidden in its own menu. There are no FORMAT buttons as there are on Nikons.

Look out: there is no hot shoe, only a terminal for Minolta or Sony's dedicated flashes.

 

Viewfinder         top

The Sony A55 has the best electronic viewfinder I've ever used. Real (optical) viewfinders are better, but as LCD finders go, this one is sharp enough to focus manually, and it updates fast enough that it might be good enough for shooting action.

The bad news is that it's a sequential-color display. This means that the red image is drawn, then the green image, then the blue image, and then the process repeats itself continuously in very fast succession. This means that any time you move your eye to look at one part of the screen or another, especially with menus or sharp edges displayed, that you'll see R-G-B-R-G-B fringes (or rainbow) artifacts as you slew your eyes. This could drive some people crazy; DLP TVs have had this same problem for the same reason.

Sorry to let any trade secrets out of Sony's bag, but Sony pulls this trick because it lets them get better battery life with more efficient use of backlight, and more importantly it lets Sony get a much sharper image and use a less-expensive monochrome LCD because every LCD dot becomes red and green and blue, sequentially. Most LCDs use a white backlight, and paint R, G or B over each fixed LCD dot, so they waste brightness from all the colored filters, and need to use three dots for each pixel. Sony very cleverly uses a monochrome LCD with no R, G or B filters over it, and instead uses a backlight which flickers R, G and B sequentially, and their LCD controller sends only the R, G or B data to the monochrome LCD at any instant. Clever!

I love the sharp finder display, but I hate that it is always overwritten with crap so I never can see my image clearly to compose. The aperture and shutter speed indication never go away, and always are superimposed over your image as you're tying to compose. I'd love to know if you know how to clear this, however all four of the DISP modes leave this crap on the screen.

When pointed at TVs and computer monitors, it's quite likely that the finder will show nasty color bars. These bars probably won't appear in the final images, depending on shutter speed.

 

Steady Shot (a.k.a. VR or IS)         top

Sony's version of Image Stabilization (IS, or Vibration Reduction, VR) is called Steady Shot.

Unlike Canon and Nikon's professional systems which correct image motion before it leaves the lens, Sony's system tries to move the sensor around to try to compensate for image motion after it leaves the lens.

Steady Shot doesn't work as well as VR or IS.

Here are the percentage of perfectly sharp shots I get with Steady Shot ON or OFF with a 50mm lens:

% Sharp Shots, 50mm lens
1/4
1/8
1/15
1/30
1/60
1/125
1/250
Steady-Shot OFF
0
0
20
45
100
100
100
Steady-Shot ON
5
50
70
77
100
100
100

 

Lowest speeds for perfectly sharp shots 50% of the time

SS OFF
SS ON
Real Stops Improvement
Marketing Stops Improvement
1/30
1/8
2
2 2/3

"Real Stops" are how many extra stops I get over shooting without VR. "Marketing stops" is improvement over the old-wives' tale of 1/focal length as a lower speed limit.

Nikon's VR system is superior; with the VR system of Nikon's 28-300mm lens, I get three real stops of improvement at 50mm.

 

Hint: The manual suggests turing off Steady Shot while on a tripod. It's not smart enough to detect this by itself.

Hint: Steady Shot or VR improves your hit ratio. It doesn't guarantee that any particular shot at any particular speed will be sharp or not. I always shoot at least three-shot bursts at slow speeds so I can pick the sharp shot out of several when shooting handheld at really slow speeds.

 

LCDs         top

Viewfinder

I covered the viewfinder LCD above under Viewfinder.

 

Rear LCD

The rear LCD pivots, making this camera great for people who like to shoot from odd positions.

The rear LCD is sharp, but too small. It has only a small 2.6" (effective) diagonal.

 

Data         top

SD cards written by the A55 are not readable in all computers. I needed to copy from the camera instead in some cases.

Luckily, the camera pops right up as a drive by default on my computer.

There are five folders of crap on the SD card, only one which has any pictures in it. The other four are loaded with even more folders with more irrelevant garbage.

The ISO chosen by Auto ISO reads properly in iView.

LARGE NORMAL JPGS vary from at least 1.9 to 8.6MB, depending on image complexity.

Vertical images are not rotated, only the flag is set for (hopefully) correct interpretation by software later. All digital cameras still have this limitation.

 

Video         top

Video AF works much better than on any real SLR, however there is still very little depth of field, so it's difficult to keep moving subjects in perfect focus. It's still better than a Nikon D7000 for video, which is pretty much useless for casual family video use.

Video files are hidden on the SD card. AVCHD files are hidden in PRIVATE > AVCHD > BDMV > STREAM > nnnnn.MTS.

 

Battery and Power         top

The A55 is a battery-sucker.

It's only rated for about 400 shots.

I get about 800 shots on a charge, not 2,000 as I do with my Nikons.

The good multi-voltage charger has a folding plug. All you need for international travel is a plug adapter, not any adapters for voltage.

 

Fluff         top

Sweep Panoramas

The A55 only shoots for a fixed angular width.

Stitching is imperfect, but hey, this is just a gimmick.

Complete images are 8,192 x 1,856 pixels. A wider mode is just as tall, but about 12,000 pixels wide instead.

 

GPS

I don't see that the A55V's GPS records elevation; just latitude and longitude.

I was impressed at how well it worked indoors, and it's on by default and latitude and longitude pops right up in playback.

 

Recommendations         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Recommendations

I wouldn't buy one of these, but that's just me. If you want something similar to a DSLR, but with better video, 10 frames per second and great GPS tagging, check this out. I'm all about photography, not gimmicks like crummy video or GPS tagging for intelligence gathering.

The A55 is a nice taste of what cameras might become in a few years when Nikon and Canon offer professional models with pellicle mirrors.

If you need to shoot videos with this camera, it's probably better than any Nikon or Canon DSLR today, but I still prefer video shot with a camcorder, or my iPod Touch.

Maybe technology-based websites written by computer people love the A55. Maybe websites and magazines that accept money from Sony in exchange for advertising love the A55. Gadgetophiles love this thing, but those people aren't photographers. I see things differently, and I'm honest enough to share my opppinons, as you should yours.

For still photography, the ergonomics and the pictures are much better from Nikon or Canon cameras, at least to my taste.

 

 

More Information         top

Sony's A55 User's Guide.

 

Help me help you         top

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