One-minute sequence of the Moon and clouds at its closest point and largest size, shot using the A55 with 500mm Minolta AF reflex lens and 2X Teleplus converter.
It’s taken me a long time to get round to writing a review of the Alpha 55. You don’t get to use a new type of camera very often, and this camera blends elements which have all been used before in a completely new way. This review is pretty from the point of view of the still photographer not the video shooter. This is a multi page report. There’s a lot of it. Please use the navigation for pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and on to keep the pages a reasonable size – even if it’s rather hard to spot it… or click the Read More link to get it as one big scrolling monster.
Continue reading »
Sony today announced upgrades and a road map which will keep NEX E-system adopters more than happy – especially those who have added NEX to their Alpha outfit. Diehard Alpha purists will be less delighted.
At the photokina press conference, a two-year rollout of additional NEX lenses was announced including a fast Carl Zeiss wide-angle, a premium quality G-series standard zoom, a macro lens, a portrait lens, a wide-angle zoom, and a prime telephoto.
Firmware upgrades for NEX-3 and NEX-5 to enable Aperture presetting for video, and AF operation of SAM and SSM Alpha mount lenses with the Sony adaptor, were promised for October with a similar upgrade for the NEX VG-10 in November. The NEX 3 and 5 upgrades will allow assignable functions for the buttons, including direct access to ISO setting or HDR (amongst other choices).
Sony went out of their way – as on their stand – to highlight the explosion of 3rd party adaptors making almost every lens in existence usable with the NEX body’s 18mm register. They announced they were already working with partners to enable production of NEX adaptors and even NEX compatible lenses, but could not reveal anything yet. The opening up of the system to 3rd party makers would, said Toru Katsumoto, help revive photography itself.
With NEX now accounting for half of all mirrorless/compact interchangeable lens sector sales, they were confident of its future.
The bad news, for many, will be that the Alpha 700 replacement – optimistically shown with a vertical grip, 500mm f/4 G SSM lens and a new flash – will have a fixed Translucent mirror just like the A33 and A55. Paul Genge of Sony UK confirmed to us after the presentation that it will not have a flip-up mode to allow shooting without this extra sheet of glass in place.
As tests of the A33 and A55 have shown clearly, the Translucent mirror creates visible bright-edge ghosting or secondary imaging in the vertical direction. For many users, this will be a no-go option; they will look at the Pentax K-5 and the Nikon D7000 and see a ‘pure’ optical path from lens to sensor (although we all know the cover glass assembly of the sensor removes this possibility).
Perhaps the real A700 of tomorrow will be the Sigma SD-1 – the 1.5X factor, beautifully designed, 15 megapixel (true!) Foveon machine claimed as ever to match a much larger real pixel count – 48 megapixels. Well, Sigma need not make such claims. 15 megapixels is enough. It was enough with Bayer pixels. 15 real Foven RGB coincident location pixels will be one amazing camera.
Today was a wonderful day. Summer temperatures. Everyone was sitting round outside in the open spaces at photokina and it was like a big barbecue party with all the wurst-stalls grilling away. The sunniest photokina we’ve ever been to. And there is an amazing level of optimism here about trade and the market. We had a recession – unless someone screws it up, we are in for a boom again. There is so much fantastic stuff coming and China is both the market and the innovator in so many ways.
– D&SK, reporting from outside the Restauration K A Pütz Brauhaus, with 2nd small Kölsch
Additional notes: I filmed the entire conference on my NEX-5, which overheated losing 1 minute midway (pull out the LCD assembly and have the screen away from the body – this stops it overheating so fast, my mistake). But I need my big iMac and fast broadband to edit this and put up several YouTube sections, I can not do so from photokina pressroom or hotel wifi. It will be posted next week.
The image shown of the A7XX (the ‘Advanced Alpha’) is the same mag-alloy body (strap lugs give this away) ‘750’ that was seen at PMA, it’s actually like a slightly rounded Pentax K-5 in size and heft from the description and screen views. Because it will use Translucent mirror technology, you must not assume outright that this means no optical finder. It may use the semi-silvered mirror at 45 degrees, and have a new AF method, quite unlike the A33/A55 – and it could have a really good glass prism finder. But the mirror, like the old Canon Pellix and RT models, would be fixed. We simply do not know but the shape and size indicates it’s not necessarily an SLT in the A33/55 mould. I could devise an AF detector capable of reading from a focus screen (just as the human eye does). Anyone with basic optronics/optics knowledge can see that there are many potential ways to achieve AF, and they do not preclude fitting an optical focusing screen. There are also ways of achieving superior on-sensor contrast detection AF. – DK
Edited from Sigma Japan’s announcement:
Sigma’s lenses for Sony mount may have a potential aperture operation problem when used with the Sony α33 and α55 Interchangeable Lens digital cameras.
To overcome this issue, we will be offering, free of charge, a modification service to our customers who have purchased a Sony α33 and α55 and own Sigma lenses for Sony mount. This phenomenon will only occur with Sony α33 and α55 cameras. Future production of Sigma lenses will be fully compatible with these cameras.
We deeply apologize for any inconvenience caused to our customers.
When shooting with a Sony α33 and α55 cameras, the aperture may not work properly and a “camera error” message will be displayed on the camera.
Lenses requiring the modification
All current Sigma’s lenses for Sony mount.
For lenses discontinued several years ago, a modification may not be available. For further details, please contact your nearest authorized Sigma Service Station.
Support for this issue
We will be offering a modification service for our current range of lenses free of charge. Please contact your nearest authorized Sigma Service Station.
Mark for compatible lenses
Future production of Sigma lenses will be compatible with these cameras. The above sticker will be put on the product box of compatible lenses.
For further information, please contact your nearest authorized Sigma Service Station.
Depending on whether the aperture problem is entirely mechanical (the coupling) or also involves electronics, it would be fair to assume that problems with the A33/A55 may not be restricted to Sigma independent lenses, but may also apply to other makes, especially older lenses. Brands made by Sigma such as Quantaray are almost certain to be affected. We await Sony’s statement on compatibility with older lenses, including Minolta. Please note that the Alpha adaptor for the NEX E-mount provides normal aperture operation with Sigma lenses; how the A33/A55 mount differs we have yet to see.
The final release of Adobe Camera Raw 6.2, DNG Converter 6.2 and Lightroom 3.2 includes raw conversion support for the Alpha 33 and 55 models as well as the NEX-5 and NEX-3, Alpha 290 and 390 which were included in the Release Candidate versions. These August 30th releases are final version, RC versions are a form of beta test.
The bad news is that anyone using the LR3.2 RC as a temporary free solution for getting full profile correction without investing in Photoshop CS5 will lose their freebie. But Lightroom is eminently affordable, and it can function as a raw conversion front-end for any earlier Photoshop or Elements version. On its own, it is a mere 10MB of program data fatter than Adobe Camera Raw as a plug-in and runs with great efficiency on modestly specified laptops (etc). It’s a lean, keenly priced solution which offers many further benefits as a DAM (Digital Asset Management) library such as keywording, copyright control, metadata editing, version stacking and multiple catalogues.
I am informed that support is included for the 16mm lens on NEX (profile) but I can’t tell whether it is the profile I supplied to Adobe Labs, or a new one, because my profile has remained unchanged on my system – same names, same modification date. And there’s no NEX-3 version which might be expected if they had created new profiles. So it looks as if it could be worth sending profiles into Adobe after creating them.
It’s fantastic news that Adobe has released ACR for the new Alpha 55 16 megapixel sensor before the cameras even hits the street – mine is on order, waiting! Not so great for Nikon users; no D3100 raw conversion in this release. But Canon users get the 60D (despite Adobe missing it out from their front page list). Adobe did this Sony friendly pre-release once before, for the Alpha 100, getting the conversion into place before the camera went on sale.
The bad news is that the Alpha 580 and 560 models are not in the list alongside the fixed mirror pellucid, transflective (anything but Translucent, please…) cameras.
The instruction manual for the Alpha 33 and 55:
is already on-line and shows a March 2010 publication date, which means that Sony has had these new cameras in existence since the beginning of the year, certainly well before PMA when mockups were shown. It’s likely that Adobe’s Thomas Knoll has been using one from the first bug-free pre-production model onwards!
Now all we need is the revised lens series with SAM or SSM motors fitted into the 16-80mm CZ, 16-105mm Sony, 18-200mm and 18-250mm Sony; the 11-18mm wideangle replacement, the 75-300mm SAL replacement, and a few other goodies. Hopefully all Zeiss glass gets SSM where possible. That 16-80mm CZ is four years old now as a design. A tweak to the maximum aperture, or the zoom range, would revive interest.
– David Kilpatrick
It’s a funny word to use, because the mirrors involved are transparent and not translucent (which implies passing light but not in an image-forming manner). Translucent means semi-opaque, letting light through in the way that an opal perspex sheet or Kodatrace foil does. Transparent means something you can see through.
But now, thanks to the wonder of changing language, translucent is also going to have to mean transparent, or semi-transparent. Pellicle, semi-silvered, whatever term you wish to use.
Unfortunately, for this writer the misuse of the word translucent stands as one of the biggest schoolboy howlers ever imposed on the entire world by the ignorance of a corporation. It’s such a glaring error I can hardly bring myself to use the term – others, like Dave Etchells, have happily assimilated the new meaning into their technical lexicon. And as the video above shows, they’ve made it into a trademark, a permanent part of the future of this technology.
Wiki, and pretty well every dictionary ever published, disagree with Sony’s imaginative use of a word from which they have now removed its exact meaning:
Wikipedia: “Transparent materials are clear, while translucent ones cannot be seen through clearly.”
Adjective: (of a substance) Allowing light, but not detailed images, to pass through; semitransparent.
(the semi bit of semitransparent cited here seems to mean semi-detailed, vaguely delineated – not slightly darker; otherwise the primary definition of the word is diluted).
There has been some heated argument on dPreview forums about this post of mine (my view is shared by many). No-one has made the point that words evolve to have useful exact meanings. Transparent and translucent are words which may once have shared a common poetic meaning in 18th century descriptive writing, but whose meanings were refined with the progress of science and technology. This process in the course of over 200 years resulted in a useful distinction between the meanings of transparent and translucent. Sony’s commercial misuse of the word Translucent is damaging to the English language and to the scientific and technical lexicon; it predisposes future confusion about the meaning of the words.
It is also a fait accompli; there is no turning back, since Sony’s corporate stance is much like that of Mrs Thatcher; no u-turns and never admit to be being wrong. They have also no doubt invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the consultancy involved, and the registration of the term as a trademark, the creation of branding artwork.
They could have branded the mirror TransLumina® or, more usefully, just called it a transflecting mirror – transmitting-reflecting. That term is already used to describe the sort of mirrors used in ‘Big Brother’ with cameras behind them.
As to whether it’s a true pellicle mirror (a thin stretched film of vacuum coated Mylar or a similar polymer) no-one seems to be clear. It moves out of the way to allow sensor cleaning but could be relatively fragile. It certainly does not need to move to allow 10fps (Alpha 55) or 7fps (Alpha 33) continuous shooting. Sensor dust is often created within the camera by wear and tear on the shutter mechanism, so access for cleaning is essential and the mirror can not be designed to seal the sensor chamber. The Alpha models still have a shutter, that’s the next thing we shall see eliminated. That old rumour of the 15fps silent shooting Alpha DSLR seems to be more than a rumour; we are almost there.
For many users, the critical advantage of all four new Sony models will be HD Video with sensor-based in body image stabilisation. This will enable all kinds of lenses from macro to ultrawide or soft focus, manual adaptations and Minolta AF legacy glass to be used for video with confidence.
Welcome back the circular polariser, unlike mirrorless ILC cameras these new models will not allow the use of linear polarisers without AF efficiency reductions, but exposure should be unaffected as the sensor itself provides the metering with 1200 zones.
This will be one of the tests reviewers need to carry out on the new pellicle mirror Sony Alpha 33 and 55 models – to confront them with not only polarising filters, but conditions in which light is naturally polarised. How will they render sky gradations or reflections off water?
Two further Alpha models are being released, which are essentially updates for the 500/550 – the Alpha 580 which will hit the shops before the winter buying season, adding 16.2 megapixels and a 15-zone AF module, HD 1080p video and (non-video) Contrast Detect AF with all Alpha mount lenses. The 560 will not arrive until some time in 2011, using a 14.2 megapixel sensor.
More of a landmark than a benchmark, the inclusion of 10fps continuous shooting with active phase detect AF and 16.2 megapixel file size in the Alpha 55 is unprecedented and possibly unforeseen by competitors, in this class of sub-$1000 consumer DSLR (let’s continue to use the term, since they are clothed as DSLRs). The dual format card drive supports the 30Mb/s transfer rate of the latest Class 10 SDHC cards and Sony’s fastest MemoryStick Pro Duo generation. The HD video also has a reasonable 17mbps bitrate.
The new technology has been well documented before the launch, but the fine detail of the new cameras is now clearer. The Alpha 55 is some markets will incorporate GPS geo-tagging for stills and videos (we wait to see whether raw files are tagged, and how accurate this is – the accessory Sony geo-tagging system available to date has only permitted JPEG tagging, and has not been accurate enough to know which street in a town the picture was taken in).
Rumours that the 33 and 55 bodies would be SSM/SAM only, with no internal focus drive, were unfounded as Sony states clearly that both are compatible with ‘the full range’ of over 30 Alpha lenses (indeed, the product shots of the 33 and 55 alone show the 18-200mm SAL DT lens fitted). The 55/33 1080i/60p (1080p in AVCHD camera archive format) video claims ‘smooth, precise’ phase detect auto focus during video shooting, but makes no reference to this being limited to in-lens motor lenses. Therefore we can assume it works with in-body AF drive lenses as well, and you just have to edit the soundtrack.
The new ISO 25,600 mode does not imply a radical sensor change as it is only available using Multi-Shot Noise Reduction, which requires a burst of 6 frames at the 10fps/7fps native maximum speed of the camera, and can not save raw files. The ISO range of the sensors is 100 to 12,800. Is this range quoted as absolute, or after accounting for the semi-silvered mirror light losses? If it’s the range before allowing for the mirror, then the 14.2 megapixel sensor of the Alpha 33 may be more like the Nikon 3100’s sensor than the NEX (ISO 200-12,800) is.
Thom Hogan has shown pixel dimensions and size data which support Nikon’s claim to have an entirely different sensor fab line of their own, compared to the A550/NEX sensor. But how about compared to the A33/560 sensor?
The 55’s new 16.2 megapixel CMOS will probably appear in the forthcoming Alpha 700 successor, which it is believed will form the main Sony exhibit at photokina (Cologne, September 21st-27th). Both models have a new 15-zone AF sensor with three cross sensors, but not f/2.8 sensors – all are designed to operate at f/5.6 virtual aperture. However, there is a hidden clue that the cross sensors may be f/3.5 capable, as the high-speed shooting modes with continuous AF set f/3.5 by default on any lens capable of this (if the lens is, say, only f/5.6 then the largest aperture is always set). Setting f/3.5 implies that this confers an advantage in focus sensitivity over f/5.6, f/4 or any other particular aperture – and that f/3.2, f/2.8 or wider would bring no benefit. That points to some of the sensors having an f/3.5 virtual aperture.
The new cameras are known as SLTs – Single Lens Translucent – instead of SLR. See my intro. Did they have no English speaking staff on their team? I’m sure there is a German word which describes their mirror correctly. I’d rather have the right German word than the wrong English one. Ah well, as the bloke leaning on the pub bar says, durchsprung vor technik…
Confusing aspects – Auto HDR is said to be available in P/A/S/M modes. I guess in M mode it must leave the aperture alone and change just the shutter speed. Regular bracketing is still limited to a disappointing 3 exposures at 0.7 EV intervals, maximum.
But you’ll love the direct D-Range button which gives access to D-Range and HDR options directly, and the direct Finder/Screen button which toggles between using the very high resolution EVF with its ‘virtual 1.1X’ 100% view of the subject – effective visual scale, larger than the Alpha 700 and larger than any previous Alpha digital model except the Alpha 900 and 850. That’s one of the benefits of the EVF, a relatively tiny display is viewed through a high magnification ocular and ends up with a ‘window’ on the world which beats the tiny tunnel vision of optical finders. Technically it is very similar to the last EVF produced by Konica Minolta on the Dimage A200, with the benefit of five years’ further development. It has the same 60Hz refresh rate and visually almost raster-free RGB.
Where the A550 and its earlier stablemates vary slightly around a viewfinder with an effective 0.50X scale (relative to a full frame 100% view using a 50mm lens), the A55 and A33 provide an effective 0.73X and that’s impressive. The ocular is set well back (remember the Konica Minolta A2, and the Sony Cybershot DSC R-1?) because it is a telescope design. This also gives it a very narrow range of possible eye positions, a common feature of EVFs. The eyepoint is close, and you must position your eye precisely.
The rear screen uses the same type of (Schott?) reinforced glass with (3M?) resin gel adhesive as Canon’s 7D – this totally seals to the LCD module itself eliminating air gaps, and improves contrast. It is a technology first seen in the 7D and becoming standard across the industry though the NEX has shown Sony to have the best implementation so far. It is scratch proof, by the way, and it can be cracked by impact like any other screen.
The tilt-swivel action is borrowed directly from the Nikon D5000. In fact, it’s so identical in articulation it even included the amazingly silly front facing mode where the screen is obscured by your tripod, hanging under the camera and preventing it from being placed on a flat surface for self-portraits or videos. But it has the same benefit as the Nikon, the screen can be flipped to face the camera and protected completely while you use the EVF.
Functions familiar from the NEX including Sweep Panorama and Sweep 3D Panorama are built-in and accessed from the main mode dial, which also provides physical settings for all the main modes. Depth of field preview is restored – with the usual button – because is can now actually work. It was always useless in real terms on optical viewfinder cameras, as the focusing screen never represented wide apertures correctly.
Now, with an EVF, for the first time ever an eye-level Alpha gives absolutely perfect and precise previewing of depth of field and bokeh effects whatever aperture you are working at – even at f/1.4, which was never possible and still isn’t with the A850 or A900 for that matter (which is why their Preview mode is useful).
You can also preview the exact image appearance. By pressing the AE lock button, the auto gain of the EVF or rear screen are turned off and replaced by an exposure-compensated view. So if you dial in -1 EV (using the adjacent dedicated button), and change the WB, and use a different picture style with more saturation and contrast just pressing AE-Lock will immediately preview your image with these adjustments applied. And you can enlarge in the usual two steps to check auto or manual focus.
The finder and screen also have a Nikon-style two axis spirit level (flight simulator horizon) display to help you get your horizontals straight and your verticals parallel. It can be activated on either, and does not have to appear on both simultaneously.
For movie makers, the binaural stereo microphones are a great move. Even on the NEX, the two small top aperture mics give excellent stereo. The 33/55 mics are placed either side of the ‘prism’ housing, rather like the ears on your head. This will give the stereo image created by these cameras a really natural quality. Natural, that is, to a pygmy marmoset monkey… but still, I will wager, the best stereo image of any DSLR/HybriD. And Sony provide a stereo 3.5mm mic jack socket, though without any manual control of gain levels.
I’m sure we will have to buy the A780 to get that. Click the picture above for a big version. Who says Sony does not have a range to match Nikon or Canon, whether or lenses or of cameras? From the left, the cameras show the current range before we even see the magnesium-bodied Alpha 700 replacement arrive. A900, A850, A580, A560, A55, A33, A390, A290.
– David Kilpatrick
Read Sony Press releases and full technical data:
Alpha 33 and 55 Press Release
Alpha 560 and 580 Press Release