Sony’s a55 SLT offers three important benefits of a single lens reflex design: interchangeable lenses, spritely phase-detection autofocus and a large image sensor. But guess what — it’s not an SLR. What it gives you is an SLR-like experience in a smaller, lighter, quieter instrument.
Overall, I was impressed with the a55. It is another entry in the relatively new class of camera that offers all the benefits of the SLR but in a more compact form. It will compete with small SLRs as well as larger Compact System Cameras like the Panasonic GH2. I haven’t seen the GH2 yet but on paper, it looks like a Sony-Panasonic grudge match in the making. Both have 16 megapixel sensors, both shoot 1920×1280 AVCHD video, both use electronic viewfinders and both are smaller and lighter alternatives to the SLRs they compete with.
For decades the SLR has been the gold standard for camera versatility but the a55 demonstrates what electronics can add to the formula: lower weight and smaller size but also innovations that that only digital electronics can make happen. The best examples of that are Sweep Panorama and 3D Sweep Panorama. The camera takes a burst of shots as you pan the scene, and then combines them in-camera to create a single JPEG panorama, or in the case of 3D Sweep, a panoramic MPO-format 3D image.
I have a couple of overseas trips coming up and the a55 is definitely on the short list of cameras I’d want to take with me. In these times of checked baggage you can’t lock, plus weight and size limits for what you carry on, a small camera system looks attractive — especially if you don’t have to give up anything in image quality and advanced features.
Not many camera makers offer GPS functionality, maybe because not many people are into it, but I was happy to learn of the a55’s built-in GPS radio (in models destined for North America, at least). I find it very useful to geo tag photos when I’m in a foreign place, where all the landmarks start to look the same after a few days. I have an external unit that plugs into my SLR, but having it built in means one less thing to deal with.
Unlike Sony’s NEX line, which needs an adapter to mount existing Alpha lenses, the a55 can use the same lenses as Sony’s SLRs, so you have a large existing pool of lenses to draw from. But remember, the a55 isn’t an SLR and that story is in its mirror. Stay tuned for Part 2