The runner-up for Camera of the Year this year in TOP's humble opinion is the Sony A55, a DSLR that uses a (still-) innovative pellicle mirror (essentially a beam splitter). It's an action camera for video shooters and a technological tour de force.
The pellicle mirror has a long (if somewhat marginal) history in SLR cameras, starting with the Canon Pellix of 1965. Canon (Nikon, too) subsequently used the technology in some specialized high-speed pro cameras—i.e., cameras with fast motor drives. Because the mirror didn't have to flip out of the way, it was easier to achieve blazing fast frame rates. But it was the Canon EOS RT from the early '90s that was intended to showcase the technology to amateur photographers.
The EOS RT probably also scared Canon away from the technology permanently, at least for advanced amateur cameras in the A55's category. Canon fully expected the RT to be a hot commodity among advanced amateurs, but the product was a spectacular flop—the run of 10,000 units, which began its life with a premium pricetag, was expected sell out within a year. Nearly a decade later, there were still NOS (new old stock) RT's—discounted heavily to just above half their original asking price—going begging.
Why? Hard to say why photographers stayed away from the RT, but it was probably because of two perceptions—first, the image-forming light from the lens having to go through the mirror was expected to have some deleterious effect on sharpness (a reasonable-seeming assumption, just not one that was actually true), and people just didn't like the idea of the 1/3rd-stop reduction in the image-forming light that created an effective speed hit. At any rate, that was the last pellicle-mirror camera for advanced amateurs we're likely to see from Canon.
Sony is either willing to take chances that Canon et al. won't, or else it just doesn't know any better, having no negative experiences in its history to dissuade it from the idea. And that's a good thing.
Times have changed, of course. With today's high digital ISOs, the "film speed" hit isn't really noticeable any more, or it certainly isn't critical. And what with the malleability of digital images, perhaps people feel a bit less paranoid about phantom deterioration of image quality.
Plus, I loved the RT. Great camera. Canon knew the truth about it—it was the company's potential customers who had it wrong. I had one for a year and did a lot of great work with it. The lack of vibration, super-speedy shutter lag (it beat even the Leica M6), and relative quietude were all pleasing and practical. A fine camera, for its day.
In the A55, one of the old advantages applies—a very fast frame rate. The A55's pellicle mirror (or "translucent mirror technology" also permits phase detection autofocus for shooting at up to the camera's full speed of 10 FPS, which makes for focus tracking that's unprecedented at this level of the market.
We haven't reviewed this camera. The best reviews are at The Luminous Landscape, which is more interested in video than most other photo sites. L-L has a preview, a more complete follow-up that fleshes the Preview out into a full review, a video sample, and a brief autofocus tracking demo.
At any rate, the A55 is a fresh application of a valuable and practical technology, a departure from the me-too-ism all too frequently observed in DSLR marketing these days. That's worth a nod in our book.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by ben: "Oh man, what an awesome camera! I got to play with it for a week, so I could teach my friend who bought it how to best use it. For me, the thing about the camera is how great the EVF is—better easily than any of the Panasonic G-series. I think marrying the pellicle mirror to an EVF system was really a stroke of genius for Sony.... If this camera had a Nikon mount I would buy it in a second.
"One detail that I really like about the A55 is that in manual focus, the selected focus point lights up (red or green, I can't recall which) when your subject is in focus. Much better than having to keep checking the bottom left corner on a Nikon. A little detail, but one that makes this camera great for anyone who prefers manual focus."
Featured Comment by William Porter: "The A55 is indeed a noteworthy camera. I went with the A55's more conventional cousin the A580, mainly because the A580 has a vertical battery grip and the A55 doesn't. As a wedding shooter, I worried that the A55's relatively limited battery life would be a problem for me. I was also a bit concerned by early comments about the A55 noting that it isn't a great choice for studio work. But I've now had several chances to play with the A55 and I like it a lot. The A55's EVF seems to be a point of contention with some photographers but I rather like it. If Sony comes out with an A77 in the next year, I'll probably turn that way.
"I like that Sony is willing to take some risks like this. The electronic camera may benefit from some serious rethinking, and I'm glad that Sony is doing it (along with Panasonic, Sigma, Ricoh...)."
Featured Comment by Edward Taylor: "One interesting aspect of this camera that I haven't read about anywhere is that it would seem that the translucent mirror would solve the problem of sensor dust. I am always hesitant to change lenses in the field with most digital cameras because I never know when doing so may ruin the rest of my shots because of a dust spot right in the middle of the sensor. This design would allow the sensor compartment to be sealed just like on fixed lens cameras."
Featured Comment by Robin P: "Also a very interesting review at Photo Club Alpha."
Featured Comment by Dennis: "Tests suggest the A55 is (expectedly) slightly behind the D7000 and Pentax K-5 using the same sensor at high ISO due to slightly light loss (yet still excellent) and that it records plenty of detail. There have been many discussions about 'ghosting' of highlights due to the mirror, with most people seeing no problems; it seems likely (not quite concensus yet) that the ghosting occurs in extreme lighting situations where the highlights are overexposed.
"I tried an A33 alongside the NEX-5 for a few days. I was really looking for a compact camera and hoping the A55 would satisfy, but I ultimately decided that I'd be more likely to carry the NEX when I wanted something compact. The A33 was without a doubt the better camera, though.
"AF is fast (D D-B: yes, DSLR fast). Competes favorably with any sub-$1000 DSLR, though AF speed is very lens-dependent. The camera is small. With a small prime like the 28/2, it's a nice unobtrusive camera. (It's also very quiet—much quieter than the noisy NEX). Sony has finally put out a few affordable primes—the 35/1.8, 50/1.8 and new 85/2.8. Unfortunately, they all use the new SAM focusing which is smooth, but not silent (it clicks at the start and stop of focusing and is annoying on video if not as loud as screw drive lenses).
"With big lenses, the camera is fine—you put your left hand under the lens and control the camera with your right. It's with mid-sized lenses like the excellent 16–80mm that I found the camera uncomfortable after a while.
"I've always liked LV on an LCD—the LCD on the A33 is nice (though I prefer one that flips out to the side) and I really like the idea of keeping it protected when not in use. The EVF, I didn't like so much. Not because it's an EVF versus an OVF, but because it's hard to look at with eyeglasses (for me anyway). Some cameras are better than others for eyeglass wearers. I can see the entire VF on a Canon 7D with ease; a 60D pretty well, the Nikon D7000 easily enough. On my A700 (which has an excellent VF) I have to make a point of looking into the corners. But the EVF on the A33 was very tiresome. I had to hold the camera unnaturally close to my eye (pushing my eyeglasses further up along my nose than I usually wear them) to see the entire frame.
"Now—one of the best things about the A33—a seemingly trivial feature—is the built in level. OK, other cameras have levels, too. But you can see at a glance a horizon level (am I tilted left or right?) in either landscape or portrait mode, overlaid over the VF whether using the OVF or the LCD. And it has another level telling you whether the camera is aimed up or down. You might think this only handy for architectural photography, but playing around with it, I found a lot of my images were improved by simply bending and shooting from a foot or two lower to get a straight shot, rather than aiming the camera down.
"It's really a fantastic little camera. It bugs me, though, that Sony appears intent on giving up on 'true' DSLRs in favor of this design exclusively. Have you even been out shooting stars at night and then been blinded by your LCD? Do we know the mirror won't get gunked up and hazy after a year of use? I would like to have the option of a DSLR backup camera to go along with an SLT (which would probably get used most of the time)."