The Alpha 55 is a very small and light camera. It lends itself to single-handed carrying, the sort of camera body and grip (fairly deep) which feels secure that way, though a strap looped round your wrist would be a good idea. I found I had the camera in my right hand more often than hanging over a shoulder or round my neck.
The position of the on-off switch round the shutter button, with the lever to the front, allows single-handed on/off which helps conserve the battery, though the camera should be switched on before lifting it to the eye as there is a delay before it comes to life. The only problem I found was that the control wheel is very close to the switch, and it was all to easy to operate one instead of the other even after getting used to the camera. Of course, that leads to the viewfinder blacking out and the delay when you immediately turn back on.
When using the NEX-5, some of the shooting options are greyed out if RAW is set as the file format. This is possible because the mode dial is virtual. On the A55, the mode dial is physical, and that means you can set Sweep Panorama regardless of having the camera in RAW only mode – it will simply shoot JPEG instead and return to RAW when you move back to another mode. Also, when you switch to the Panorama symbol, you get a choice displayed between normal and 3D. After selecting this, returning to the main menus allows the format to be chosen and remembered for the next time you use either Panorama mode.
To test the 10fps setting on the mode dial, I set continuous AF on the camera and used my Sony G 70-300mm SSM lens to shoot a local football match. Every shot was taken using the burst mode, even if only two or three frames were fired – this worked very well, catching the action every time. Hardly any shots were anything but perfectly focused on the players. I used JPEG for these sequences, but RAW does work at 10fps too.
*ADDED INFO: in my review of the A55 for ‘f2 Freelance Photographer’ Dec-Jan issue (UK major WHSmith branches, not too widely available) they’ve used a football JPEG I submitted which is a crop from HALF the A55 16 megapixels – and they have reproduced it double A4 page spread, bleed. I am amazed at the result. I can’t do anything to show it here but it just looks like a perfectly sharp magazine repro.
There have been misconceptions about A55 shooting modes – Popular Photography, in designating it their camera of the year, nevertheless said that the AF/AE lock on the first frame of 10fps sequence shooting and you can only do 10fps as JPEGs. This isn’t the case; with AF-C set as the focus mode, the 55 will track action during 10fps bursts (rather better than the Nikon D3S does) and it can shoot at this speed in RAW only, and even in RAW+JPEG format, up to the 19 frame burst maximum with a Class 10 SDHC card.
The mode dial is continuously rotating, without a ‘stop here and reverse’ position like the Canon 60D, and the camera has a Movie record button which does not require a special mode dial position à la 60D. Movies can be shot at any time, regardless of the recording format or mode in use; it automatically switches the phase-detect AF to continuous, operating with any type of Alpha mount lens (screw drive, SAM, SSM or any independent motorized design).
The same simple principles of wrap-round control found on the mode dial apply to other settings. Visible either in the EVF or on-screen, Menu lists do not require horizontal arrow control on the rear four-way controller to move through the entire series, though that enables a quick jump through each menu. Either the up-down on the four-way, or scrolling the front control wheel, take you entry by entry through all the menus in sequence forwards or backwards. Using the ISO setting, which has a dedicated button but can also be accessed through the Function button bringing up a screen with six pictogram symbols down each side, also scrolls through Auto through 100 to 12800 and back to Auto – whether you use the rear controller or the front wheel.
The menu screens do not have an option to return to the last one used, as on the NEX, and every time you press Menu you start with the shooting setup Menu 1. There is a new Card symbol for card operations, with Format as the top item of the first menu under this; this does make Format fairly easy to get to, but nothing like as easy as such an important command should be.
The overall interface is complex and rich, and if you need a detailed explanation of screens in a review, try dPreview’s test which shows screen after screen in exhaustive detail. What it may not show as clearly is how versatile the access to the settings is made, in a tradition which goes back to Minolta. Some camera makes limit you to a single controller operating a given menu change, so that if you turn a front wheel it may do nothing because ‘that setting belongs to the rear controller’. With the A55, the controllers either have different but logically related functions or both do the same thing, so whichever you use – working from the rear of a tripod mounted camera, or holding it to your eye – you get the expected response.
Nothing is more annoying than an unresponsive button on a camera, as Sony found out with the famous ‘you can’t use this button in this mode’ Smart Teleconverter of the A350 and siblings. The greyed out or inactive options are kept to an absolute minimum on the A55. There are some minor issues; for example, the Function button is needed to change some essential settings, but it only works if the camera is ‘active’. Being switched on is not enough. There must be an image displayed from the live view, so before using Function you must lightly press the shutter to wake the camera up. This also applies to the direct access buttons on the rear controller. It does not apply to the Menu button, even though it accesses less frequently used settings; it works whenever the camera is switched on, active or not.
Which buttons work this way, and which ones need that first shutter press? Er, only the Menu button does its own wake-up. All the button presses on the right hand side of the camera are dead unless shutter or Movie is first pressed to activate the viewing system. These buttons are – D-Range, Finder/LCD, +/- over-ride, AEL, Fn, AF (centre button of the four-way controller), Drive Mode (left), Display (top), WB (right) and ISO (bottom).
The D-Range dedicated button is by far the oddest feature of the A55. Situated in a key location right behind the shutter release. This would have been a much better location for the +/- over-ride, or maybe the ISO direct access with D-Range located on the rear control. You also have to ask whether a WB button is needed, when there is no Flash mode button. Getting to important features like flash off, wireless flash and rear-curtain sync requires Fn button plus navigation. Flash Compensation exists, it can be controlled independently of ambient, but to reach it requires Fn button again and there is no provision for switching quickly between flash and ambient +/- to adjust both and fine tune.