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It’s been a great year for the DSLR. Not only have we seen the top models capture stills of amazing quality, leading to many serious workers questioning the need for medium format digital capture … and then, to many an amazed onlooker, we’ve seen TV series and feature films shot with high end stills cameras. ‘Mazing!
So, in typical fashion, we now see Sony hit the Go! button and pack even more capability into these two new cameras.
Then, a few days ago, heavily disguised, I snuck into Sony HQ to get a top secret preview of the new cameras. And ‘mazed I was.
On leaving, I was given a review camera to bring you the good news. As it was early days, I had to be satisfied with the lesser of the two models — A33 (pictured above) — because there was only one A55 (pictured below) to hand, and this was in the Sony techo’s hands. Ne’r mind, you’ll still get the full whiff of excitement this pair generates as, aside from a few specs, the cameras are near-identical.
Initially I was surprised at the smallness and lightness of the A33, barely larger than some maxi zoom, fixed lens models. The Exmor CMOS sensor is APS-C size, with a 1.5x lens factor, when compared to 35 SLR glass.
The feature list would seem to satisfy even the most desperate photographer, anxious to bedeck him- or herself with the toppest end camera around.
Features like: 4592×3056 pixels maximum size (A55: 4912×3264), leading to a print size of 39x26cm (42x28cm); writing to SD/SDHC/SDXC and Memory Stick Pro Duo/Pro HG Duo cards (but not to CF); SteadyShot image stabiliser; RAW and JPEG capture in stills; MPEG4 and AVCHD at a maximum res of 1920×1080 pixels; Sweep Panorama shooting; 7.5cm LCD screen that swings 180 degrees vertically and 270 degrees laterally; exposure modes that include auto, auto+, Program AE, shutter and aperture priority, manual and scene selection; face and smile detection; flash compensation; ISO sett8ings to 25,600; GPS (A55 only); three exposure HDR.
The Sweep Panorama feature is to die for. Works quickly and accurately.
Then we get to the continuous shooting figures: with the A33 you can pull in shots at a rate of 7 per second — and, amazingly, 10 images per second with the A55!
So, how does it do this? Simply because there is no flipping mirror to slow it down! Instead, there is a semi-reflective mirror in the light path that transmits 66.66 per cent of the light to the CMOS sensor in the back of the camera — and 33.33 per cent of it to a tiny LCD built into the camera’s roof. When you move your eye from the large LCD at the camera’s rear to the eye level viewfinder you view the action via the smaller LCD.
Remove the lens and you can see how it works, with the mirror in place throughout the shooting cycle. Outside of shooting, the mirror can be tilted up in order to clean the sensor, but normally remains in place at a 45 degree angle.
For this neat trick you can thank a pioneering invention by Canon in their 1965 Pellix camera in which the traditional moving SLR mirror was replaced by a fixed, semi-transparent pellicle mirror splitting the light rays from the lens: two thirds of an f stop went to the film, with the rest passing to the viewfinder. The objects: simpler construction, quieter operation, no finder blackout, faster continuous shooting.
Of course, you can ask the question: why didn’t Sony build in a pentaprism to provide a full live optical experience — a la Pellix? The LCD view is a little murky and an optical view would have been far superior. Perhaps the third of an f stop loss for viewing is the reason: a dark finder view.
With even the occasional compact able to shoot High Def video these days you could expect this little DSLR duo to lead the band — and they do.
You have a choice: record in Full High Definition 1920x1080i AVCHD or MPEG4 1440×1080.
Kick off the dedicated record button adjacent to the viewfinder, pan around, zoom as you wish… and the system follows you, pulling focus firmly on everything you point the camera at and taking care of exposure right through the shot.
These four frames come from an AVCHD sequence: the AF and exposure working hard and well.
One caution: you may find the AF and stabilising functions leave some noise on the audio. A fix: turn off the stabiliser and place the camera on a tripod. There is an input for an external stereo microphone, which may help as you will find the wind noise from the camera mic excessive if shooting outdoors.
But overall, I absolutely loved the video feature!
These shots cover the ISO settings at 100, 800 and ISO 3200. All show excellent resolution, low noise, colour fidelity.
At ISO 12,800 the wagon falls over: definition is down, noise well up, along with colour artefacts. Not useable.
This shot was taken at ISO 6400 and cropped to a quarter its original size: as you can see, the right shot can take advantage of high ISO settings.
Quality: overall, excellent, good colour, high sharpness.
Why you would buy one of these: small size and light weight; superb video capture; rapid stills rate.
Why you wouldn’t: card compartment is in the base of the camera, so if using it tripod-mounted, it’s a hassle to remove and reload the card.
Part of the pleasure of the A33/55 is its compact size and light weight. Even with one or two more lenses, this outfit would make a painless traveling companion.
Image Sensor: 14.2 (16.2) million effective pixels.
Metering: Multi-segment, centre-weighted metering and spot.
Effective Sensor Size: 23.4×15.6 — APS-C sized — CMOS.
35 SLR Lens Factor: 1:5x.
Compatible lenses: Sony and Minolta A-mount, Konica Minolta Alpha/Maxxum/Dynax.
Exposure Modes: Auto, Program AE, shutter and aperture priority, manual, scene selection, sweep panorama.
Shutter Speed: 30 to 1/4000 second, Bulb. Flash sync: 1/160 sec.
Memory: SD/SDHC/SDXC/Memory Stick Pro Duo/Pro HG Duo cards.
Image Sizes (pixels): 4592×3056 to 2288×1280 (4912×3264 to 2448×1376).
Movies: 1920×1080 to 640×480 at 25/29.97 fps.
Continuous Drive: 7 frames (10 frames).
Viewfinders: Turret 1.1cm LCD; rear 7.5cm LCD (921,600 pixels).
File Formats: RAW, RAW+JPEG, MPEG4, AVCHD, Dolby Digital (AC-3).
Colour Space: Adobe RGB, sRGB.
ISO Sensitivity: Auto, 100 to 25,600.
Interface: USB 2.0, AV, HDMI, microphone, wireless remote, DC input.
Power: Rechargeable lithium ion battery, AC adaptor.
Dimensions: 124.4x92x84.7 WHDmm.
Weight: Approx. 492 g (with lithium battery and card).