I don’t have an Alpha 500 or 550 here yet, even though Photoclubalpha has been second in the Google search results for ‘Sony Alpha 550’ for some time and remains so as I write (the New York Times is first). That’s not bad for a WordPress blog website which does NOT employ the services of the dozen or so ‘search engine optimisation’ experts who contact us each week! Hopefully we’ll have a review camera very soon, preferably the 550.
In the meantime, a few samples have been posted on various sites which show the raw conversion engine of the camera/s (not necessarily the JPEG compression stage, as always seems to be assumed) has been radically revised. Sony call this ‘enhanced BIONZ’ and I think there’s a clue to how it has been enhanced in the relationship of Sony Europe and DxO Labs, the French company which specialises in in-camera process analysis and development.
It is revealed that in some European countries, the new Alpha 850 will be sold with DxO Optics Pro Elite bundled for raw processing. The difference made by DxO Optics Pro software to the output from high ISO images, in particular, is considerable. The Alpha raw format has been plagued by Adobe Camera Raw‘s terrible performance from day one, despite the compelling ease of use which makes owners return to using this flawed utility – including me. The in-camera JPEGs and Sony Image Data Converter results have come a close second to ACR for poor detail/sharpness/noise handling though no-one doubts the excellence of their matched colour reproduction.
DxO is also very unsatisfactory software in many ways. It has the most obtuse browser design, which is incapable of handling simple directory heirarchy in a single pane (something Lightroom, Aperture and the operating system GUIs of Mac and Windows alike do much better). It will not display thumbnails from a list view, forcing the user to jump from folder to folder looking at disorganised lightbox-style thumbnail icons of files, or to know exactly what photos are hiding behind all of the hundreds of sequential filenames for their raws. Here is where Bridge scores, you can navigate to a folder and view a choice of preview or file listings all of which allow you to select images by actually seeing them. DxO, even when used as a Photoshop plug-in, presumes you know in advance which folder and files you want to add to your ‘project’.
But DxO is worth the tedium and frustration because of the quality of raw conversion. Even this is slow, and some things just don’t work well – using the Photoshop plug-in merely opens the entire DxO Optics Pro package anyway, but forces it to pass image data to Photoshop in 16-bit TIFF form with all EXIF metadata stripped out. To make the JPEGs for this article, DxO had to be used separately. I would have preferred the quality of a 16-bit TIFF transfer later saved to JPEG, but it was important to retain the EXIF data.
Here, anyway, are some results of a quick comparison based on the first test image I showed in September 2008, when Firmware v4 was issued for the Alpha 700:
Clicking on this image will open the FULL SIZE 12 megapixel, Level 10 saved, sRGB JPEG – the same applies to the further samples. Click to open full size in a separate window, then use your magnifier cursor to view at 100%.
This is the ACR 5.5RC version, no sharpening, default values but Black Point set to 3, Luminance 25, Chroma 50 NR.
This is the DxO Optics Pro Elite 5.3.5 conversion at automatic default settings. This includes Lens Softness compensation (capture sharpening), DxO Lighting (adaptive local gamma compensation), Luminance NR 54 and Chroma NR 50. Like ACR, DxO Optics Pro uses two NR sliders scaled 0 to 100.
This conversion removes the DxO Lighting, the sharpening, and the heavy Luminance NR which is reduced to 25. Dead pixel removal is enabled, as this removes some ugly black pixel specks which appear in the default conversion.
Conclusion and quick view of 100 per cent clip samples (1000 x 700 pixels) from ACR and Optics Pro: see next page.