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Hands On: Sony A55, A560 and 24mm F2 ZA SSM

by Chris Gampat on 08/24/2010

Sony announced the new A55, A560 and 24mm F2 lens and earlier this evening, I got to play with those items at a private Sony event at the Alvin Ailey Dance Studio in NYC. Impressions, findings and images are after the jump. Please do note that I handled pre-production units and that all these photos were shot in JPEG mode.

A55

The Sony A55 is an extremely small DSLR. I don’t have big hands, but when my fingers cuff the grip, my pinky finger ended up not touching the camera. It truly is the smallest DSLR I’ve ever held and feels even smaller than the Panasonic DMC-GH1(a camera without a mirror at all.)

The camera is actually still very fairly simple to use in manual mode. Choosing the autofocus settings is simple as is selecting which focusing point one wants to use. The reason why this is important because of the audience that this camera is targeted towards. This feature though is displayed similarly to the NEX-5.

Sony has done something that every photographer wants when buying a camera targeted at this level: users are able to change essentially every single setting while looking into the viewfinder. To do this, just look in and press the Fn button for the display to come up. This way the camera never has to leave eye-level. From the custom menu that is displayed the user can change things from ISO, white balance (with live preview), shooting drive, etc.

The camera, like Nikon, has its own settings for Autofocus and Manual focus. The lenses also behave this way.

The flash seems to come up higher than on ordinary DSLRs which will help to illuminate subjects better.

One of my favorite features is the articulating LCD screen. This will be instrumental to videographers and when combined with the full-time phase detect AF, many videographers will be simply floored with the performance.

And it really is that fast. Granted, it only shoots super fast in the 10FPS shooting mode which essentially takes over the camera and puts it in a Program mode of some sort.

To be honest, while sitting through the presentation I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What professional photographer needs to shoot that many frames and uses an APS-C sized sensor camera?” The answer: it’s not meant for pros. Shooting the dancers reminded me of that. And the average person loves to shoot cameras like they’re machine guns. Granted so do some sports photographers, but they’re only in short bursts.

However, I can imagine that a consumer will probably have the same look on my face as I did when I imported over 400 photos into Lightroom. I haven’t had a look on my face like that since shooting a wedding, but at least I got paid for that.

It must be noted that Sony has done a great job with the autofocus. The constant phase detect AF worked wonderfully. For the burst photos above, I set the focusing point to the dancer’s face. Admittedly, I’m not satisfied with the photos but they serve the purpose of demonstrating the burst function. Additionally, these are pre-production units.

Now, I did shoot videos, but as you’ll read in the Sony NEX-5review, I’ve been having issues having them to work on my MacBook. Copy Editor Julius Motal is a Sony shooter, and is trying it out for himself. Perhaps we will figure out the solution soon.

A560

The A560 was a camera that felt more like the type of camera that I would use despite the fact that I found its image performance to not be on par with the A55 but its processing speed to be faster. Once again though, these were pre-production units.

The grip and body of the A560 feel very good. Not as excellent as the Sony A850or the Sony A900and even A700 felt, but I could see myself shooting concerts with it.

Something that needs to be kept in mind is that the A560 cannot autofocus in video mode at all, according to the Sony PR reps. If you’re a photographer or prefer to manually focus anyway the most cinematographers do, then you’ll have no problem. The buttons aren’t as close together on the back since the camera body is considerably larger. Whether or not those are your preferences for a DSLR that shoots video is really up to the user.

My only critique would be that I wish they would have incorporated a back dial to change the aperture.

The top is characterized by less settings on the mode dial than the lower model as well as a Live View/OVF switch. Unlike the A55, some setting will not be able to be manipulated unless the user takes their eye away from the viewfinder.

The autofocus performance is speedy, and actually very smart based upon your composition of the subjects.

Granted, this was all shot in great lighting. Photographer Brian Smith, who was on set to give us demos, assured me that these are the cameras that you’d want to use to shoot in terrible lighting because of the revamped autofocus. When I asked about these (the A560 and A55) over the full frame models, he stated that the higher models are all about resolution and these are more about performance.

To be honest with you, I agree with him. The focusing on this camera seems a tad bit better than some Canon models I’ve been testing. Once again though, I’d like to remind readers that all products handled were pre-productions units.

Though I would like to comment that Sony’s menus have been cleaned up from the catastrophe that I consider the NEX-5′s to be but still aren’t as simple or great as the A-850′s or A900′s are.

24mm F2 ZA SSM

On an APS-C body, the 24mm F2 ZA SSM lens is about 36mm. It is fast and actually fairly light. The build of the lens seems very solid. It isn’t a large lens, but the lens hood makes it seem much larger and more intimidating than it is really is. When talking to Brian about it, I commented that it has a speedy autofocus and seems to give no distortion in the images.

That means that if you’re photographing dancers, they will be surely getting ready for their closeup and you’ll be getting ready to prep yourself for perhaps being knocked down. No one was, thankfully.

These were all shot on the A55 using the 10 shot burst mode. If it were up to me, I would’ve had some fill-flash on the subjects but myself and another journalist only found the flashes at the end of the event.

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