Size, build, weight
If one thing really annoys me, it’s people who say ‘my hands are too big’ or ‘it’s uncomfortably small’. Sure. Can you write? Aren’t those pens a bit skinny? Do you find it difficult to handle your front door key? Does that mobile phone keep slipping out of your fist? Can you wind your watch? How about the buttons on the TV remote? OK, I admit it. I can’t wind my watch either. And I failed to mention actually USING the mobile phone keypad…
Seriously, even the smallest SLR-style camera made is not a miniaturised device. Big men documented Vietnam using Nikon S, Canon and Leica bodies without a hint of a mitt-grip. I know rugger players who can dash off a fast jig on a fiddle. Ever looked at the space between violin strings? One of the great goals of camera design has been to make things small, portable, unobtrusive yet highly functional. From Vest Pocket Kodak, to Ilford Sportsman, Canon Dial, Minox 35, Hasselblad SWC, Olympus OM-1, through countless variants of cameras.
AF made SLRs bulky and ugly. Compare a Nikon F801 with a Nikon F, or the Minolta 800si with the classic XD-7. Minolta and Pentax, through the 1990s, made some attempt to restore the great ergonomic designs of the past. The SLT design offers a chance to return more, in theory, to a body size like the XD-7 but there’s a very substantial lens throat to accommodate, and there are many buttons which either have to be small or become far too easy to operate by mistake.
I’ve removed the names from this photo. But you would still know it’s a Sony. That textured finish is neat, by the way; it feels good.
So, the result is not a classic design and it’s not elegant. It is not slim, in the way that a Leica III body is; it’s pretty chunky front to back. It offers very little left hand purchase, despite having room for the mode dial on the left top plate. The right hand body zone is almost a full L-shape, so deep is the grip. But it’s well balanced and there is room for pretty big fingers between the grip and the lens escutcheon. I hold the camera with my middle and ring finger, just two fingers on the grip, and thumb. The first finger does the on-off, shutter and control wheel; the little finger curls under the camera body, much as on a classic 1960s SLR.
For unobtrusive shooting, I still need the NEX-5. Where I was able to take my Konica Minolta A2 (in many ways like a miniature A55) into places where SLR cameras were not allowed, I don’t think the A55 would be admitted. It does still look like a full size SLR despite the compact body; the lenses are not shrunk in any way.
As for weight, with the GPS function making this an ideal travel camera and cabin baggage restrictions becoming increasingly difficult to cope with, even 25g or 50g weight saving helps. For recent shoots, I’ve used the Alpha 900 kit. Faced with Ryanair weight limits and baggage handling terms, I took the A55 instead and found that with the CZ 16-80mm lens the absolute detail level of the average shot matched the Alpha 900 with my favourite 24-85mm Minolta. Exported to 25 megapixel size from raw, it is difficult to tell the resulting ISO 100 file from a typical ISO 320 Alpha 900 file – and ISO 320 is my preferred rating on that camera, with no noise penalty and a fair ability to match depth of field to the smaller format camera. I know that the Alpha 900 with 24-70mm CZ would show its true abilities, but that lens is even more restricted in focal length range, bigger and heavier. Not to mention the cost!
The A55/33 makes a very poor studio flash camera. It is not easy to rig up anything which allows acceptable modelling lamp viewing and normal wireless or cable flash sync of AC mains heads. I’ve managed to use it, but only in a makeshift fashion and in this respect even that old KM A2 was better, with its coax sync socket and EVF options for auto gain or exposure simulation. The SLT design lacks this crucial over-ride which would allow more versatile flash options.
One small issue I have found with this, the NEX-5 and the Alpha 580. Beware card-handling software which downloads images! Some software will not ‘see’ your movie file folders, whether AVCHD or MPEG4. It will download all your raw and JPEG files, but not your movie clips. And even when transferring files manually, be sure to check your movie folders. You may forget, and reformat the card, losing your movies. Many DSLRs put their movie files into the same folder as their still images, which means that when you copy the folder, you get everything you have shot. On these Sony cameras the MPEG4 folder must be copied separately, as it is a different directory to your still shots. And, if you shoot AVCHD, you probably need to connect the camera and ‘import’ your ‘camera archive’ using a program like iMovie; if you just copy the contents of the AVCHD folder, it can be real hassle trying to get any program to open the movie clips. Be warned!
Here is an excellent slide show (run the slide show) from an Alpha 55 user who has done something I’ve done, the Luxor balloon flight – //albums.phanfare.com/slideshow.aspx?i=1&db=1&pw=DxfSlRza&a_id=4923750&s_id=5500551
If you need any better idea of how light sources can produce (or not produce) flare I can not think of one – and the imagery, benefiting from the high quality at high ISOs, exceeds what we were able to produce in pre-dawn light on the A100 and A700. The only issue I see is that sensor dust spots make a very unwelcome appearance, and I have not had those yet. But I know this place, and it is amazingly dusty…
A personal conclusion
I would not want to be left with only the A55 as a working camera. There are many things it does not do well, or even at all, including operation with studio flash modelling lights and wireless flash triggers or sync cable adaptors. This contrasts with the A580, which I could use for almost every type of work I do.
But I’m now thinking of our range of Sony Alpha cameras as a set of tools for different uses, which happen to share lenses as appropriate. The Alpha 900 does the same job for me now as my medium-format kit used to do in the 1990s. The Alpha 580 is my 35mm SLR equivalent. The NEX-5 is my Minolta CLE outfit, Contax T2, and Minolta TC-1 equivalent. At one time I used all those cameras side by side.
The Alpha 55 actually replaces something which overlapped with my film cameras – the Dimage 7/A series – and also the various video cameras I owned five, ten or more years ago. The video function is also there in the NEX and the 580, but the A55 would be my first choice. It genuinely can track focus during video even with fast-moving subjects or changes of distance, and do so with all the lenses I can fit to it. It removes any need to own a further compact digital.
Here’s a video (added a couple of weeks after writing this report – also posted as a separate article on the website):
Postscript: reading some comments/links to this article, I see that third party batteries have been proving a problem. I purchased a couple of EXpro Power Plus replacement cells which were from a UK vendor, not from Hong Kong, and were stated to be chipped to work reliably. They are a perfect fit in NEX and A55, and have caused no problems at all. To find this battery, click on the Amazon ad in our left hand sidebar, and do a search for ‘Ex-pro battery Sony’ – they are under £15 (UK). I also bought a Transcend 16GB SDHC Class 10 card for under £18, because Amazon neatly popped that up as a suggestion, and it’s about the best deal I have found for a Class 10 card of that size. So far no problems with that either.
– David Kilpatrick