Home Buyer's Guide Cameras SLRs Under $1,000 Sony Alpha DSLR-A550
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1. Simplicity: Designed for professionals and advanced amateurs, the SD14’s design focuses on direct access to key controls, reducing the need for deep menus. 2. 2.5-Inch LCD:The LCD provides 100-percent coverage. If you prefer the optical viewfinder, it provides 98-percent coverage—very good by comparison with the optical viewfinder on most other cameras. 3. Pop-Up Flash:The SD14’s built-in flash has a guide number of 36 and coverage for focal lengths as wide as 17mm. There’s also a hot-shoe for accessory flash.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A550

ESTIMATED STREET PRICE: $949 (body only)

With a brand-new 14.2-megapixel Exmor APS-C CMOS sensor and a brand-new BIONZ processor, not to mention a host of new features previously seen only in top-tier D-SLR models, the recently announced Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 offers pro-level functions, phase-detection focusing and extended live-view benefits.

D-RANGE OPTIMIZER: The A550 offers Auto HDR, but the camera also includes the Alpha series’ D-Range Optimizer function for expanding dynamic range with moving subjects and continuous shooting. There are five levels of strength to choose from, or you can set DRO to Auto to let the camera decide.

CREATIVE STYLES: There are six preset image styles in the A550—Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Land- scape, Sunset and B/W. Each sets tones, color, contrast, saturation and sharpness to the ideal levels of your scene.

FACE DETECTION: With the ability to detect up to eight faces, Face Detection in the A550 uses phase-detection (yes, it’s confusing) autofocus to confirm exact focus. White balance, flash, D-Range Optimization and other settings are employed to deliver natural skin tones for your subjects. A Smile Shutter function also triggers the shutter automatically when your subject smiles.

DUAL MEMORY: The A550 includes support for both Memory Stick Pro Duo/Pro-HG Duo and SD/SDHC memory cards, and there’s one slot for each.
The A550 uses the same pre-A/D conversion, on-chip noise reduction that Sony’s flagship A900 model uses. Noise reduction is applied a total of four times, twice before A/D conversion and twice after. This translates to better low-light sensitivity without a loss of sharpness—especially important, as the A550 features an ISO range a cut above the A900’s maximum ISO of 6400. Auto ISO in the A550 ranges from ISO 200 to 1600, and the camera also offers a user-selectable range up to ISO 12,800.

Live View in the A550 is the best of the Alpha series of D-SLRs, inheriting the tiltable LCD screen from Sony’s A380 model. The screen angles at 90 degrees both above and below for above-the-crowd shooting and low-to-the-ground perspective. Phase-detection autofocusing is available even in Live View and assists in other modes like Face Detection and Manual Focus Check Live View. A Smart Teleconverter mode is also included in the Quick AF Live View for capturing images at 1.4x or 2.0x magnification without manually zooming.

The A550’s Auto HDR mode, new to the Alpha series, captures realistic images that are able to show details in both bright highlights and dark shadows of a scene. It does so by taking two exposures, one exposed for highlights and the other exposed for shadows. The A550 then merges them together in the camera, aligning key points in the image to compensate for camera movement. The difference between the two exposures can be set in 1⁄2-stop increments for between one to three stops of exposure compensation, making Auto HDR as subtle or dramatic as you would like it to be. Because of the short amount of time between exposures, Auto HDR can even work with handheld shots.

Sony’s SteadyShot image-stabilization system is also included in the A550. By shifting the sensor within the body instead of elements in the lens, the A550 is able to provide image-stabilization compatibility with any Alpha system lenses. Lens manufacturing costs are also minimized, which means that future lens purchase costs are also reduced. SteadyShot image stabilization provides between 2.5 to 3.5 stops of blur reduction in the A550.

STANDOUT FEATURE: When using the Speed Priority mode, the A550 brings a staggering pro-level continuous shooting rate of 7 fps. Even when shooting in normal modes, the camera tops off at 5 fps (and 4 fps in Live View), previously unheard of in a D-SLR priced at under $1,000.
VERDICT: The A550 offers a lot of resolution, fast processing and a healthy set of pro features at a low cost.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A500
The A500 offers the same complete package as the A550, with only a few key differences. The Speed Priority shooting mode in the A550 isn’t available in the A500, so performance maxes out at 5 fps (4 fps with Live View), which is still very impressive in this class of camera. The A500 also features 12.3 megapixels in comparison to the A550’s 14.2 megapixels, and the LCD on the A500 has 230K resolution while the A550 has 921K pixels. Otherwise, all of the features in the A500 are the same, including a tilt-out LCD screen, Live View, Auto D-Range Optimization for in-camera dynamic range enhancement and ISO up to 12,800. For these reasons, some users may find the A500 to be the better deal at $200 less than the A550. List Price: $749.

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