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Sony Alpha 550 Review: highs and lows

My review of the Sony Alpha 550 was supposed to appear at the end of November, allowing one week abroad in good weather with plenty of subject-matter, in Tenerife. Sadly that trip had to be cancelled, and the Nikon D3S arrived for review on the day we were meant to have travelled. So, with far too much work to do on the D3S, I’m “going to press” here with my initial thoughts based on a fairly short time using the Alpha 550.

There are 11 pages in this review, please use the Next Page navigation at the end of each page to continue reading. A sponsor link appears before the end of each page – “Get camera lenses at Shopping.com’s affordable deals.” Our thanks to Shopping.com for spotting and sponsoring this review!

This review has been updated August 2010 – see the second to last page for new Adobe Camera Raw Process 2010 results, a massive improvement with Alpha 550 files.

sonyalpha550-2

The 500 was promised to me a week before writing this, but has not been sent by Sony. The Alpha 550 is mine; they have not been issued for reviews yet, and to get one, I had to buy one.
It’s both one of the best £600 purchases I’ve made and one of the worst. Find out why!

literatureCD

The literature and application CD included with the Alpha 550

accessories

The accessories included with the Alpha 550 – the neckstrap is slightly less sharp-edged than the very cheap version provided with the A200 to A380 models.

I have always valued the superb low ISO performance of the Alpha digital cameras – from Konica Minolta Dynax 7D onwards. The Alpha 100 remains unmatched for the crispness of its detail at ISO 100 when processed from raw, if you are lucky enough to get accurate focus.

The Alpha 350 had the same intensive test treatment that was planned for the 550. I left my Alpha 700 behind, and took only the 350 for a week shooting Gran Canaria. It didn’t disappoint; we knew the high ISO performance was a limitation, but shots at 400 and 800 were commercially usable. Those at 100-200 had a great colour quality and smooth, noise-free sky and neutral tones.

The 700 and 900 have both been a mixed experience. The base ISO 100 image in both cases lacks the finesse of either the Alpha 100/200/230 10 megapixel sensor, or the Alpha 350/380 14.2 megapixel CCD. However, both respond well to using settings or 160 or 320 (not 200 or 400) with Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom processing.

The Alpha 550 has a 14.2 megapixel CMOS sensor so might be expected to behave a little more like the 700 and 900, with strong anti-aliasing and heavy noise reduction applied to the raw file (in effect) by processes built in to the sensor itself, and the BIONZ processor.

Get camera lenses at Shopping.com’s affordable deals.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

21 comments to Sony Alpha 550 Review: highs and lows

  • aiiz2000

    I have Konica Minolta 5D with Minolta 24/105, Tokina 70/300,and Minolta Flash 5600 HSD. Now I’m planning to buy the new DSLR. I’m not sure whether I should buy Alpha 550 or another brand. Overall I loved my Minolta 5D. Only one weakness of Minolta 5D I found is the focus problem. I have to zoom in to get the sharp focus and then zoom out before taking one shot. I’m not sure Alpha 550 did solve this problem. I prefer DSLR with sharp focus.

    • admin

      The 550 is pretty good with focus – faster focus motor than the KM 5D, very accurate AF, and if in doubt, just use Manual Focus check and you can focus with absolute precision with any lens. Zooming in, by the way, is not a good idea as the 24-105mm is not perfectly parfocal. It actually does need small adjustments to the focus setting depending on the focal length set. However, at 24mm it will rarely focus accurately on the 7D/5D/A100. From the A700 onwards Sony improved this aspect but many A700 bodies needed manual adjustment. I am not aware of any A550 bodies needing adjustment. With the set up you have, especially with those lenses and the flash, I would definitely say the A550 was a perfect upgrade choice especially if you buy it with the 18-55mm SAM. It would cost you far more to change systems, and there’s nothing which is actually any better than the A550 for the money, unless you want HD video.

  • Portmixus

    As usual your articles are a joy to read!

    But yet I was wondering (and did not see you metioning this in your article)…I have a Minolta 5D and a Sony A700, I normally use “wide AF” and make quick changes in focus by pressing the “centre AF button”. This overrides the wide AF intantaneously, irrespective of the AF mode I’m using.

    Yesterday I tried this with a friend’s A550 and I was puzzled not to override wide AF by just pressing the centre AF button?

    Am I missing something?

  • Red Tar

    I like my A 500, it has the features I need, more megapixles than I’ll ever need, reasonable weight and size. Not that hard to use the various features. My one thing that makes me a little uncomfortable is that when I turn it off it vibrates a little and I don’t think it’s related to the sensor cleaning mechanism. I’m just not used to it. It takes great pictures and it’s easy to stop down and bracket.

  • I should have mentioned that the process of taking high resolution images involves lots and lots of pictures. On a tripod this can be over 100 frames (multiplied by three brackets) and handheld can be over 400 frames.

    I have tried everthing from auto through to manual, including manual focus. Whilst not a scientific approach I have a large enough “data” set to give some certainty to the results.

    Putting a camera on a tripod and stopping it down to get the “sweet” spot on the lens with good depth-of-field is mainstream photography. A camera which cannot do this consistantly and reliably can only be considered faulty, expecially in this price range.

    My personal opinion is that the Sony Alpha 550 has a bug in the operating software, probably relating to “Steady Shot” and is moving the sensor creating blur rather than removing it.

    • admin

      It’s not a bug. You must disable Steady Shot in the menu before using a tripod. Otherwise, you’ll never get anything worthwhile. For stitch-pan work you should disable all auto functions – no auto focus, no auto exposure. A polariser should not be used as the image covers an overall angle which will create dark zones and light zones – for the same reason, exactly, that a polariser must not be used on wide-angles over 24mm except in special circumstances. The zoom must be taped to focal lenth if you can’t find any other way to lock it, and the focus should also be taped to ensure it doesn’t shift. You should shoot RAW, and shoot as quickly as possible while moving between the positions on the Nodal Ninja head to build the pan. The raw images should be processed using one single consistent setting, saved after optimising the most typical frame. Do not bother to bracket and shoot JPEGs.

      Handheld you should have no problems. My A550 has produced pretty much perfect shots, as expected, from every shoot including hand-held sequences up to 14 frames for super-resolution stitching using PhotoAcute.

      David

  • David, a great review of the camera – I just wish I had read it before buying one! I specifically bought the Alpha 550 with the Sony 18-250mm lens to use as a travel camera. This was to take multi-shot panoramic images of building facades using a tripod and nodal-ninja pano head.

    I can truly say that after numerous attempts to use this camera its results are consistently inconsistent to the point where it is unusable/unreliable.

    If only I could identify what the source of the problem is then my comments might be more useful to your readers.

    The camera just appears to be unable to produce consistently sharp pictures in anything but bright sunlight. If I take 40 pictures of a facade at least several of them will be out of focus and others will have inconsistent exposure. With the zoom at about 180mm anything above f9 will produce unusable out-of-focus pictures. The main culprit appears to be camera shake but over-exposed images are often the worst and seem to imply that the sensor cannot handle too much light….. If you close up the aperture to increase lens sharpness/depth of field the results are unusable. On a bracket set one or all three images can be blurred. It really feels as if you are fighting the camera to get a out a good picture.

    I have shot the same project three times over the last few days to try and produce a consistent picture set. Only on the last set, with the weather overcast, was I able to get control of the camera and this was only after removing the polarising filter. Although not perfect they are in focus and sharp.

    I have tried SS on/off, in-built HDR, bracket sets but all of this makes no difference….

    Time for e-bay I think.

  • xenakis

    In Octobre 2005 I bought a Konica Minolta 5D with the following :
    Sigma 18/50 F2.8 DC EX Minolta D
    Konica Minolta Flash 5600 HSD
    ( I had still from my Minolta 7000i a Sigma 100/300 Apo Macro )

    My 5D is now broken ( Stabiliser is dead )

    Now I’ve got 2 solutions :

    buy a Sony Alpha

    buy another brand and sell all my equipment

    What would you do ?

    I had a look at the Sony Alpha 550 … can you recommend it ?

    thanks for your help …….

    • admin

      Yes, I can recommend the A550. You’ll see a big jump in high ISO quality, which will be very useful with the 100-300mm.

      David

  • TallPaul

    Hi David, thanks for all additional details, I assumed your usual scientific approach applied, I just mentioned it as I found that auto-iso and DRO had some strange noise for me (when I first got my A900) but as you note it could also be auto-ISO related. I find auto-ISO to behave strangely at times myself, just reading your new article on sky noise now…

  • paulstone

    Thanks for this great review! I sold my 300 and bought the 550 a couple of days ago and I’m still trying to find out what the best camerasetting are. What settings do you advise for daily use (landscape, family etc.). The factory settings or perhaps a bit more sharpness or Vivid saturation?
    Paul

  • OneGuyKS

    You wrote: “Manual Focus Check LV was of course dead accurate, but almost useless without a tripod.”

    But after checking the focus with Manual Focus Check LV, couldn’t you switch back to Quick AF before pressing the shutter button? That way you would get the stabilization back. Using Manual Focus Check LV that way won’t need the tripod! Just switch back to Quick AF before pressing the shutter!

  • OneGuyKS

    I hope you get the A500 soon. There is a minor debate whether IQ on A500 is better than A550. Even if the IQ is better on A500, is the difference significant enough that it’s worth getting A500 instead despite inferior LCD and smaller buffer (on the positive side, cheaper price and better battery life).

    Hopefully you will answer that question in unbiased rational way :)

    By the way, I am having trouble joining your forum.

  • plevyadophy

    WOW!!!!

    I have ZERO interest in purchasing this camera, but what an absolutely GREAT read.

    As usual, your reviews (here and in the BJP) are not only an education in the technical aspects of photography but also something of a broader historical look (whether recent or distant past)at photography/products too.

    You seem to suggest that this review was something of a rush job. Well, if this is a rush job, I would dearly love to see your output when you have as much time as you would like with a product.

    Great stuff, keep up the good work.

    Regards,

    plevyadophy

  • admin

    I don’t think that what I have observed with ISO 200 quality perhaps deserved to be made the first point in the review, but in a way it was deserved because it would have put me off taking the 550 as a sole camera. Also, I have not really identified a cause. Just to throw in another variable, I realise that some of my ISO 200 samples have been manually set ISO 200 while others have been ISO 200 generated by the Auto ISO function. This could make a difference.

    David

  • Photorer

    David – another great real life review. I am rather perturbed over the veriability in the noise outputs… it would be better to be able to have a predictable result, but the high ISO results are very promising.

    You have highlighted the good and the bad points for everyone to consider – thanks for putting this review together!

  • admin

    I’ll also make a point about some irrelevant comments appearing on dPreview about macro shots and mirror lockup, mainly as a vehicle for someone to post some nice macro insect pix. I just happen to have tested macro; long tele, photomicrography or astrophotography have exactly the same problem. Anything where a shutter speed of around 1/30th (give or take a bit) is likely at the optimum working aperture in typical ambient light conditions. This has nothing whatsoever to do with macro field shots of insects taken hand-held, where MLU is irrelevant and optimum shutter speeds are in the region of 1/125 minimum to an ideal 1/500th-1/1000th, or with flash.

    What I have found is that within the ‘danger zone’ of shutter speeds (well enough known to anyone who has had to photograph resolution test charts, which I did for a couple of decades) MLU makes a critical difference. In fact it’s almost impossible to conduct a lens test without it no matter how good you think your tripod is. For that reason many lens tests are shot using flash; it eliminates the camera vibration variable.

    As commented in the report, for hand-held work SS does such a good job that I would have been better off shooting some macro tests at 1/30th hand-held with SS, rather than on a tripod without SS (and tripod+SS=disaster – that was clear).

    David

  • admin

    OK, I’ve found something. It’s not DRO of any kind because that has not been used, and it’s not WB (reporting 5300 +3 or +2 on nearly all sunny day shots). You can get a similar shade of blue sky, or grey, from a wide range of exposure values at ISO 200 depending on the sky brightness. Where the sky should have been a deep blue but the exposure for the scene is generous (like 1/80th at f/11) noise is less than when the sky was a pale blue which has been deepened by a minimal exposure (like 1/400th at f/11). I’m quoting these settings because they are two cases I have found.

    The answer may be that it’s nearly winter, the sun is low, and the skies here in Scotland have a great range in blueness and brightness through 360 degrees of possible views. Combined with different foregrounds, a wide range of exposures ends up being used to take very similar looking pictures.

    Here I’m referring to images which don’t get any raw processing adjustment. If I look at other examples of known under or over exposure, which do get raw adjustment, the difference is even greater – as it is with all DSLRs. By picking a seriously overexposed A550 image and setting -1EV in the raw conversion, I can get an ‘ISO 100′ result with the expected finer noise and smoother tones.

    The underlying issue, that ISO 200 is fairly noisy, does not go away – but ISO 200 is also noisy with the Canon 50D, 500D and 7D. As dPreview comment, sky blue noise can be an issue even with the D300S. I’m maybe being too harsh on the camera, but you can be fairly sure others like dPreview will be even harsher.

    David

  • admin

    I should comment that sky noise can be affected by Auto White Balance, or by WB adjustments generally. Again this is not the issue. I’ll see if I can add an image showing optimum performance.

    David

  • admin

    DRO was not used in any of the samples shown except where DRO is mentioned. Please be assured, I have revisited this several times and been extremely careful to check settings, check in-camera JPEGs and use four different raw conversion methods (LR3 direct, LR3 to DNG then ACR, RawDeveloper and Sony IDC). I see some comments on dPreview which doubt the mirror lock/macro issue; let me say that I was going to write that it was not an issue, that the mirror action had solved the problem. That was based on hand-held SS enabled macro pix like the toadstools (I did some at speeds which were marginal). Then I decided to test with a tripod, initially leaving SS on to see what happened. Those shots were all ‘jerked’- clear visible movement with two outlines. So I followed up without SS – less blur, actually, but still exactly the same type and direction of blur. Finally, I made tests at longer exposures where mirror jar could not account for a significant component of the image, in order to ensure no other problem was caused the blur.

    When making these tests I may not use test charts and stuff like that, but I work to as high a degree of consistency and elimination of variables as I can with genuine shooting situations. For the record, I also checked the noise issue with different colour profiles/picture styles. sRGB Standard showed least and therefore was used for all tests subsequently.

    David

  • TallPaul

    Interesting review, regarding the random noise covered on page 2, did you have DR set to Auto by any chance?

    I find I have to leave DR off to avoid some noise issues on occasion on my A900, my experience was as yours that it was random until I moved to DR off at all times unless explicitly needed.