The Sony Alpha A55 is a top of the range 'SLT' camera that boasts a myriad of bits and bobs which make it easier to shoot videos than with a DSLR
The 16.2 effective megapixel resolution Sony Alpha A55 camera is interesting. That's because, like the A33 model announced alongside it last year, recently upgraded in the A35, the internal mirror mechanism of the digital SLR has been made translucent. Hence Sony describes both A55 and entry level A35 as 'SLT' (Single Lens Translucent) cameras, rather than SLRs per se.
In practical terms, when using the camera's rear screen in live view mode to compose and shoot photos and, particularly, video, there's no brief wait for the mirror to flip out of the way before this feature can be implemented and recording can begin.
This not only makes the A55 faster to respond, but we found shooting video with it was a lot more fluid and intuitive, compared to that of say the rival Canon 600D or Nikon D5100 digital SLRs.
Simply hit the red record button on the Sony, as you would on a camcorder, and away you go. The A55 is further notable for being Sony's first Alpha to feature built-in GPS for geo-tagging images, which is simply set to always on or off via the main menu.
Plus of course as on a regular DSLR the lens in use can be swapped via its Alpha/Konica 'A' mount. It costs around £759 when bundled with 18-55mm zoom lens, which is the better deal.
Sony Alpha A55: Controls
With an instant movie recording button falling under the thumb as forefinger hovers over the shutter release button and on/off switch, buttons and controls on the Sony Alpha A55 fall readily to hand.
The grip is large and comfortable without adding too much extra bulk. Overall the body is chunky and a little plastic-y, but nevertheless feels solid and better built with 18-55mm test zoom screwed into place.
Apart from shooting video, all the other modes are selected via the familiar top plate dial, which features a manageable 10 options. Further adjustments are made via the usual backplate control pad, tabbing left and right or up and down through menu screens.
Sony Alpha A55: Screen
At the back the ability to move the 3:2 aspect ratio 3-inch, 921,600 dot resolution LCD screen up or down through a 270° arc to achieve more flexible framing when using the camera's live view facility is a huge bonus.
That said, we would have preferred it to be more adjustable still. Rivals have the option to flip the screen outwards and through 180° so it's usable parallel to the body, like your typical camcorder; the Sony does not.
Still, screen visibility is crystal clear, plus there's the option to alternatively use the electronic viewfinder (or 'EVF') just above, unusually appearing here rather than the more common optical variety.
Though much smaller, the EVF has a higher resolution of a 1.15-million dots, so the image viewed through it appears very life-like. It also means that the EVF can be used to relay an image when recording AVCHD or MPEG4 format video.
It offers a useful 100% field of view and we particularly enjoyed the flight simulator style spirit level that pops up in the viewfinder when lining up a shot, preventing wonky horizons when photographing handheld.
Sony Alpha A55: Speed
A knock-on effect of the first-of-its-kind see through mirror mechanism is that not only is shooting video more straightforward here than on a DSLR proper, but the camera powers up from cold in a second and the 15-point auto focus is faster still to lock on to target.
Generally the camera is as swift to respond as you'd expect a semi pro DSLR to be; bring an eye level with the viewfinder and sensors below instantly register this and turn the main LCD off, plus there is a separate button for then switching back to using the larger screen if wished.
Action photographers will also reap the benefit of up to 10 frames per second shooting - the equivalent of a professional DSLR costing nearly twice as much.
Sony Alpha A55: Battery
The Sony Alpha A55 is powered by a NP-FW50 rechargeable lithium ion pack, which slots into the base of the SLT camera's handgrip, where we also find a joint Memory Stick or SD media card slot.
Interestingly, if using primarily the EVF to compose and review shots, then the camera will last around 330 images from a full charge, whereas using the larger screen will allow up to 380 shots to be squeezed out. Either way, the battery performance is respectable if unremarkable.
Sony Alpha A55: Pictures and video
As we expect from Sony Alphas, processed JPEGs straight out of the camera are colourful and warm, so anyone trading up from a humble point and shot camera won't have an issue.
Built-in sensor vibrating body stabilisation also means that with the attached 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 aperture zoom we were able to achieve pin sharp results even when shooting handheld at maximum zoom.
As well as the ability to shoot in the creative quartet of program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual modes, there are two auto settings on the Sony: regular auto and Auto+, the second of which we selected for trickier exposures, such as a contrast-y scene with a bright background and dark foreground.
This mode evens up said exposures to maintain detail in both shadows and highlights, and without the result looking typically wishy-washy.
Sweep Panorama mode adds the ability to shoot 3D stereoscopic still images, created here with a software fix rather than special lens, but only viewable on an actual 3D TV set.
When shooting video the LCD screen view narrows from 3:2 to 16:9 format, but the built-in microphone inevitably picks up sounds of the lens auto adjusting and your fingers moving around the camera body as you film.
The video quality is however as visually impressive as the stills, and a cut above your average camcorder.
Sony Alpha A55 Verdict
If you've considered owning a digital SLR principally for shooting video, then the Sony Alpha A55 offers a viable alternative to the Canon EOS range, and is rather easier to get to grips with.
Consider also Panasonic's DSLR-styled Lumix DMC-GH2 however, which is almost identically priced to the Sony and is another very good option for amateur photographers-come-videographers.
Sony A55 availabilty: out now:
Sony price: £759