You might also wonder where the excellent Horizon Level and Inclinometer display was to be found, as it’s not mentioned in menus like the Grid Screen which is activated and chosen that way. No, it is one of the rotated options accessed via the DISP top button press of the rear controller, only available when an image is being displayed from the live view.
But then you consider how that Horizon Level and Inclinometer works. It’s brilliant. If you get the two end-bars and the two central marks to turn green, your camera is perfectly level and aiming dead flat – as you would need to copy a picture held vertically on a wall. The end marks show the horizon (spirit level) and the centre ones with gradations above and below show the tilt (up or down). The sensitivity is reasonable and if you hold the camera at arm’s length, and get the marks to go green as required, your shot will be straight. It also works through the EVF of course, and this helps to overcome some of the reservations I have about using an EVF. So does the true 100% view shown by either the EVF or the rear screen.
OK, anyone can line up a shot like this without a horizon level aid. But this was taken with the camera held in one hand, above my head, to get it above a construction company fence and allow me to stand dead centre to the building. Composing accurately on a screen like that with a 16mm lens (16-80mm) is not so easy, but the ‘green for go’ of the A55 display made it quick and reliable.
As a result of this, the A55 has given me the tightest and most accurate compositions I have had from any camera of this size and price. It takes the Alpha 900 with grid screen and a lot of care to match a quick composition with the A55.
Despite the small body, the position of the rear controller is such that my thumb does not constantly operate it. The only control I found hard to reach was the movie button, which is a bit far over to the left and needs a thumb stretch. But that’s sensible as you really do not want to start movie filming by mistake.
Is this all? Well, no. This camera needs no mirror lock-up or pre-lift mode because it has no moving mirror. Every picture you take is in ‘mirror up’ mode as far as vibration goes. I can only say that over a period, I have found the SSS (sensor stabilisation) or independent stabilised lenses (Sigma) to work with this low-shock, slick shutter action for the ultimate in sharp shots. If you want detail, there are few better cameras made.
OK, it can do yoga, but it can’t flip out sideways and say hello to the photographer facing his or her own camera. To do that, it has to hang out down below, where the tripod lives. Like the Nikon D5000, this doesn’t work. It’s simply not the best place to put the hinge point.
Then there is the rear screen, which matches the Nikon D5000 bottom hinged articulated design and falls short of the superior design used by Canon for their 60D – side hinged, allowing clear viewing from the front. This matters for self-video work now widely used to make internet video clips. If you can not see the screen hanging in its position below the camera (and behind the tripod) as on the A55 or D5000, the feature is wasted. A side hinge position is far better. But the design used is a step ahead of the mere tilting of the NEX-5 or A350 (etc) models, which does not permit vertical composition.
Folded away – safe from scratches, and speeding up life by avoiding ‘chimping’ urges.
This camera does have a stop-down preview (missing from many recent models) and the EVF shows depth of field precisely, something which is not possible with optical viewfinders, as I said earlier. The A553/33 design can show it perfectly, and it can also show deep focus at apertures like f/22 at ful brightness – no dark screen. Nothing could have been more logical than restoring this button to the SLT models.
For me, the inclusion of GPS outweighed the use of a small battery not compatible with my Alpha 900 or our Alpha 550 and 700, and the restriction to SD or MemoryStick Pro Duo cards. I’ve had GPS before, from Sony too. Their SDK GPS-CS1 simply didn’t work very well, and required a clunky PC-only program to embed the data retrospectively into JPEG-only files, the accuracy depending partly on how precisely the camera clock was set.
The A55 GPS is not only much faster to lock on than the CS-1, it finds its location in very surprising places including the inside of buildings. It then embeds that location, along with the height above sea level (a bit of wildcard, and clearly wrong on far too many shots), in each picture you take in any format – RAW, JPEG, Panorama, 3D Pan, movie. Because it’s embedded at the same time that the file is saved, there is no issue with time-stamp synchronisation. If it fails to get a satellite fix, the previous shot’s location (and GPS timestamp, but not Capture timestamp) is used; a small symbol displays the status of the GPS so you can wait for a fix if you want, though it is far from easy to see or interpret.
To see a full size screen shot, click this image. It shows Expression Media 2 with the GPS data displayed, and the Virtual Earth window opened to pin the image (accurately) on a map of Fuerteventura. I don’t know why the aloe vera plantation is greyed over in the satellite aerial image.
GPS transformed the one-week shoot I did covering most of the island of Fuerteventura; many stops at unknown locations off-road were identified, on return, by pinning themselves on to map and satellite aerial views using Lightroom or my management program of choice, Media Pro from Phase One. The camera didn’t just save time in keywording and captioning images, GPS gave me named locations I could not find on any tourist map. Remember, this is a function which costs you £250 to add to a comparable Nikon DSLR!
Sony’s Picture Motion Browser on Windows PCs has a function to download GPS Assist data which improves lockon speed and accuracy. They have omitted to bother with a Mac application to do this. Fortunately, there is a freeware project app which works well for Mac: //code.google.com/p/gpsassist-update/ – you just pop your camera’s memory card in a Mac running this tiny background app, and it will update the 300KB file which resides on the card and can give the camera this info. The Assist data is updated daily.
Like the NEX, the 55/33 has a single cover for the battery and card slot, which is a dual format accepting either SD or Memory Stick Pro Duo.
Fortunately, the Alpha 55 shares the card formats and battery used by the NEX-5. Therefore it made an excellent companion for the NEX. Both are also capable of exactly the same video formats, which is no bad thing if you plan to make videos. Two camera positions can make a video look much more professional, and the 29 minute filming time (with SSS turned off on the A55) means you can set one running even if your second position is some distance away.
Battery life depends on how you use the camera. The EVF only gives 380 shots compared to the LCD screen sat 430, and turning on GPS loses you 20 or so shots overall in these counts. I bought a couple of spare low cost clone batteries for my NEX and A55. They seem fine.