Sony Alpha a55 vs Canon T2i

Sony Alpha A55 vs Canon Rebel T2i : Best for Beginners?

When I got interested in photojournalism in the early 1990s, there were only two real players in the market (at least, in my price range), and that made my choice a bit easier. Nikon and Canon. Sure, Minolta was out there, Pentax and even Sigma had AF SLRs, but because they didn’t have professional bodies, they were not really in the running. For years afterward, I ignored most of the remainder of the SLR market.

Sony's Line of Lenses
Sony’s Full Lens Line-Up

Sony’s introduction of the Alpha A900 changed that. Here was a professional quality body with a professional quality sensor (the same as that from the Nikon D3x), and at a reasonable price (compared to the Nikon, at any rate). And then came the Carl Zeiss lenses, made specifically for Sony. I actually began meeting professional photographers who were Sony shooters, and they weren’t ashamed to admit it. The Sony Alpha a850, also weighing in with a 24.6megapixel sensor at under $2000,  extended Sony’s influence even further.

In the same way, Sony’s A55 and it’s little brother the A33 have the potential to make a mark on the amateur market. They’re two of the most innovative new SLRs in years, especially for entry level models. Let me begin by taking a look at some of their features. [Sony, incidentally, has been calling them SLTs instead of SLRs because the mirror transmits light. This is just needless confusion; the term ‘reflex’ in SLR has nothing to do with the movement of the mirror.]

Sony Alpha a33 fixed pellicle mirror.
Though difficult to see, the translucent mirror is visible between the lens mount and the sensor.

Undoubtedly the most remarkable feature of the A55 and A33 is the implementation of a fixed pellicle mirror. In the vast majority of SLRs, when you look through the viewfinder you’re actually looking down through a tiny periscope; the light comes in through the lens, then is reflected off of a mirror up into the prism of the viewfinder, which reflects the light out into your eye. However, when you release the shutter, the mirror has to flip up so that the light can get to the film or sensor instead. This process not only takes time, but it introduces noise and vibration into the system, both of which can be problematic.

A fixed pellicle mirror, though, solves these problems. Instead of using a mirror that flips up and out of the way, fixed-mirror systems use a thin, semi-transparent mirror that lets most of the light through to the film/sensor, while reflecting another portion of it up to the viewfinder. Thus, when the shutter is released, there is no delay for the mirror to get out of the way; the shutter can release immediately. Furthermore, since the mirror stays in place, you don’t lose your view through the lens during the exposure. This not only helps the camera maintain focus, but helps the photographer track his/her subject. I first encountered this type of setup in a Canon EOS1 RS back in the mid-1990s. The cameras were extremely fast for their day, shooting 10 frames per second. However, the cameras never gained popularity due to a couple of drawbacks: since only part of the light got to the film, you essentially lost the advantage of using expensive, wide aperture lenses. The EOS1 RS, if I’m not mistaken, lost 2/3rds of a stop. This means that if you’re using a 50mm f1.4 ($350) lens,  you have to expose as if you were using a 50mm f1.8 ($98). Furthermore, since only about 66% of the light coming through the lens was directed to the viewfinder, it was difficult to see all of the detail, and nearly impossible to use in the dark.

Sony Alpha a55 Fixed Pellicle Mirror systemSony’s implementation of the technology is different, and the first attempt that I’m aware of in the digital age. Take a look at the diagram: A is the mirror, B the sensor, C is an autofocus module, and D is the electronic viewfinder. That’s right… instead of using a standard optical viewfinder, Sony opted for an electronic one. This solves some problems while creating others: it’s not as dim and hard to see in the dark as an optical viewfinder, and because the viewfinder sensor can use less light to make a live image than the camera’s sensor, more light can be transmitted through to the mirror to the camera’s sensor, so only about 1/3rd stop of light is lost. I’ll speak about the drawbacks later in the article.

The new Sonys are capable of very fast shooting, as would be expected, but there’s also an advantage that’s never been encountered before in a fixed mirror SLR: full time, high quality auto-focus for HD video. Naturally, that capability extends to still-photography as well.

Additional Features

Like most Sony SLRs, these bodies include image stabilization known as “Steadyshot Inside”. Unlike Canon and Nikon cameras, which offload the responsibility to the lenses, Sony bodies provide somewhere in the range of 2-4 stops of stability, and works with any lens put on the camera. The a55 also has built-in GPS for geo-tagging, which I’ve always thought should be a standard feature, now that the technology is so prevalent. Like the Canon 60D, it has an articulated rear LCD.

Comparison with Canon and Nikon

Canon’s “Rebel” series is the most popular line of entry-level DSLRs in the United States, and the Nikon D3100 is a very sophisticated new model from Nikon, so they seem like reasonable models with which to begin a comparison. First, a look at the standard features:

 Sony Alpha a55Canon Rebel T2i / 550DNikon D3100
Amazon Price $749
$715$626
B&H Price


$749$719$649
Body MaterialPolycarbonatePolycarbonate, Fiberglass Resin and Stainless SteelPolycarbonate
LCD Size / Resolution3.0"
921,000 pixels
3.0"
1,040,000 pixels
3.o"
230,000
LCD Articulated?YesNoNo
Sensor Size15.6mm x 23.514.9 x 22.3mm (APS-C)15.4 x 23.1mm
Crop Factor1.5x1.6x1.5
Sensor Resolution16.2 Megapixels18 Megapixels14.2
ISO Range100 - 12800100-6400
+12800
100-3200
+6400
+12800
Total AF Focus Points15911
Cross-Type AF Sensors31?
AF Light Level Range-1 to +18-.05 to +18 EV-1 to +19
Metering System1200 Zone evaluative metering 63 Zone Point Linked Evaluative
9% Center Weighted
4% Spot
420 pixel RGB sensor evaluative
6% Center Weighted
2.5% Spot
Max Frame Rate : RAW (14-bit)?3.7?
Max Frame Rate : RAW (12-bit)n/an/a?
Max Frame Rate : JPG10fps3.7fps3fps
Max Burst Duration RAW (at highest frame rate)206?
Max Burst Duration JPG (at highest frame rate)3534?
Shutter Speed Range1/4000th - 30 sec.
+bulb
1/4000th - 30 sec.
+bulb
1/4000th - 30 sec.
+bulb
Maximum Flash Sync Shutter Speed (standard flash)1/160th sec.1/200th sec.1/200th sec.
HD Video Resolutions1080i, 1080p, 720p1080p, 720p1080p, 720p
Available HD Video Frame Rates1080i @ 60fps
1080p@ 30fps (no 24fps yet)
PAL and NTSC
24/25, 30 at 1080p
24/25, 30, 60 at 720p
24fps @ 1080p
24 or 30 fps @720p
Auto Focus in Video ModePhase DetectionContrast Detection
Firmware Sidecar AvailableNoMagic Lantern Under Development. Currently version provides audio meters.No
Media TypeSD / SDHC / SDXC plus Sony memory sticks.SD / SDHC / SDXCSD / SDHC / SDXC
Weight492g (with battery and SD Card)530g (with battery and SD card)455 (body only)
Viewfinder Coverage100%
1.1x magnification,
1.4 million pixel viewfinder (electronic)
95%
0.87x magnification
95%
.80x

Major Issues:

Battery Life

I mentioned before that Sony’s implementation of the fixed pellicle system has some drawbacks. There will always be a loss of light with this camera, but only about a third of a stop. For most entry-level photographers, I don’t think this will be an issue. With modern digital cameras, increasing the ISO 1/3rd stop will not produce a significant difference in noise. This is a minor drawback, as far as I’m concerned.

The major one is power draw. Although Sony reports that you can take a few hundred photos on a battery charge, the numbers are misleading; many photographers have found that when using the camera for extended periods (such as shooting a long event), even when not releasing the shutter, the draw of the electronic viewfinder kills the battery in just a few hours. In fact, using the electronic viewfinder uses more power than using the rear LCD in live-view mode (330 vs 380 expected photos, according to Sony)! Reports vary, and a systematic testing approach isn’t obvious, but most owners don’t expect to be able to use a battery for more than about 3 hours.  This shouldn’t be a problem for casual photographers, or even photographers who plan ahead and carry an extra battery or two. I can imagine it being a very significant problem for backpackers and landscape photographers who spend a long time away from a power supply. Standard SLRs, such as the Canon T2i or Nikon D3100, will generally shoot about the same number of photos per battery charge (450 or so without using live-mode), but the photographer can spend days staring through the viewfinder, waiting for the right moment to click without causing a dramatic drain on the battery.

There will undoubtedly be photographers who object to the electronic viewfinder, period. Personally, I think it has some great advantages as well, so I’ll let it stand as a matter of taste. It does seem to provide a good representation of what the sensor will capture, at a larger size than most APS-C viewfinders (including the Canon and Nikon), and it’s nice in the dark.

Full Time Autofocus

The Canon T2i doesn’t have full-time autofocus in video mode.  Nikon’s D3100 does offer full time AF like that of the Nikon D7000, but it’s the slow, contrast-detection type. Sony is the only model that offers full-speed, camcorder style AF during video recording. This is a big deal for people who want to shoot videos on their SLRs in the same way that they would with a camcorder or point and shoot; so far, this hasn’t been possible. Victory for Sony.

The same can be said for shooting fast bursts of action in still photography. Although some pro-model cameras (Canon 1D IV) can shoot 10fps, it’s an unheard-of speed for a camera in this price range, and even pro-models do not focus full time during their bursts, they use predictive focusing instead (which actually works quite well, for what it’s worth).

Video Issues

For serious film-makers, the Sony won’t be such a big hit. Unfortunately, it has very limited manual control in video mode, and its automatically controlled exposure sometimes leaves a lot to be desired (like when it cranks the ISO up to 1600 for no good reason). The a55 also doesn’t support 24fps shooting.

However, Sony has already announced that they plan to offer a firmware upgrade for the a55 to improve the manual control and other video options for the camera, so perhaps it will have a brighter future.

Ergonomics

I usually leave ergonomics out of my articles completely, since it’s such a subjective issue. However, I have to mention this: the Sony a55 is small. It’s quite small, actually. For me, it’s uncomfortably small. I don’t have massive hands, but I do have long fingers, and I felt that I could only comfortably fit three of them on the camera body. In this regard, the Canon and the Nikon are not particularly comfortable either, but both are better than the Sony.

Conclusions: Who Should Buy the a55?

The Sony a55 is not for everyone, but it is still a very remarkable and capable camera. The camera’s features benefit two main user groups. The first is action photographers; primarily sports photographers rather than field journalists. The continuous auto-focus system, the continuous visibility, the fast response, and the fast bursts will all benefit action photographers. Because there are only 3 cross type-points for focusing, it may not perform as well as more professionally oriented models, but it should certainly out-shoot the entry-level competition. The lack of mirror movement also makes it a good choice for photographers interested in macro photography, especially for insects or other moving objects for which mirror-lock-up on competing models is impractical.

The second group is the video enthusiast, but not the serious film-maker. That is, a person who is interested in using the camera as an alternative to a home video camera or point-and-shoot camera, but not necessarily for film or broadcast production work. The AF system makes the camera the first great alternative to a video camera for the casual user, but the lack of manual controls keep it out of the range of the more serious user.

I would not recommend the camera for the landscape photographer who spends extended periods away from home, the car, or nearest power supply. This is unfortunate, because the built-in GPS would be great for hikers who want to keep track of locations, but the number of batteries that you’d need to carry for a multi-day trip would simply be beyond the realm of practicality.

And naturally, if you’re buying your first SLR, you should consider that your camera is part of a larger system, including lenses, flash equipment, software, and potentially, 3rd party extras.  Some flash radio-triggers that offer TTL, for example, are manufacturer specific and Sony has a small enough segment of the market that they’re not always supported.

[ As usual, questions and comments are welcome! If you’ve used a particular camera and can offer insight, please feel free to share your thoughts. ]

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Jomorning
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Jomorning

You know, nothing against new technology but Canon has been making cameras since sliced bread. Sony is an infant and is great at copying other cameras, refine it and throw a lot of bells & whistles in a slick package that is very competitive in pricing with their competitors. But new and more features isn’t always better. I like Canon because the few cameras I’ve purchased from them have never let me down in terms of image and built quality. I had a Canon G6 for 6+ years and after much abuse (which would’ve killed most cameras) it still works like a charm. Maybe some top engineers from Canon fled for Sony, but I would seriously doubt it given my experiences with Sony cameras – that is, they are overpriced fragile fancy gadgets that usually last 1-2 years max in terms of durability or upgrade ability.

To me, and most pro reviewers, Canon has the slight edge in picture quality. Before anyone starts to equivocate that it is negligible and point to other ‘features’ or gimmicks I call them, I suggest they have their head examined on what we use cameras for. I have an iPad 2 for GPS, wifi, should cameras have those too? I mean lets put a wifi and touchscreen on Canon because surfing the web on a camera is much more fun than just taking pictures, right?

Newer isn’t always better and people always want newer things, like the teenager unwilling to buy the same old model of car his father bought. They want that sleek, newer car model. It is more of a fashion statement than anything lasting.

Sony hasn’t done anything for me especially after many expensive electronics such laptops, cell phones and cameras I’ve purchased from them that usually die way before their time. I’m not saying their SRT line of cameras will be any different, but judging by their history, I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

I rather have a camera from a company that’s been designing cameras for decades. I mean $500-$700 is a lot of money to invest for something you have no idea in terms of its durability and even if Sony will offer same type of lenses down the road. Canon you know will always have more lenses and support because the company has a clear path and solid record of quality and durable cameras.

Flora
Member
Flora

Matthew,

What is the difference in shooting speed between the Sony DSC H50 and the A55VL ? Also the 300 mm lens I saw for the A55 is not AF and I understand the AF one is much more expensive. Don’t know if I would be able to handle focusing myself or would need the AF. Don’t even know how much of a difference we are talking about….Just want to know if it is really worth me upgrading myself from the H50 to the A55 as I only purchased the H50 almost 3 years ago. Just wanting something that will perform better during gymnastic meets. What do you suggest. The guy at the camera store suggested the Cannon Rebel 3t1 but from what I have read on the different websites, Sony comes ahead of the Rebel 3t1. Any thought are appreicated.

Flora
Member
Flora

Matthew,
I actually have a Sony DSC H50 which I believe is from the cybershot family. I have always thought it is a great camera and does extremely well during normal circumstances. Nevertheless, my older daughter is in gymnastics and cheerleading and when I take pictures during competitions, they all seem to come out blurry. I have used the sports scene and since it is indoors they come out very dark. As I am not an expert, I used the camera on the easy shoot or automatic shoot settings. I have tried using the 10 fps to see if I can at least get one decent picture, but that extremely frustrates me as the camera takes the 10 frames in very slow motion. You can actually see how slow when looking into the electronic viewer. I am considering purchasing a Sony A55 but would like to know if I would be considerably upgrading myself or not. TheDSC H50 was about $400 2 ½ years ago and if I do decide to purchase the A55 I am looking at $799 for the camera and another $200 for the 300 mm lens. I am looking at close to $1,000. Before I go into this type of investment, I would like your advice. I have read about all the marvelous things the A55 is capable of, but as I am not an expert photographer, would like your opinion. I would like a camera that can actually take pictures of my daughter while performing her cheerleading and gymnastics and get decent clear non blurry pictures. So….would the A55 be a considerable upgrade for me from the DSC H50 ? Any advice is appreciated.

Kim
Guest
Kim

Hi Matthew,

I have enjoyed reading the posts , and suggestions by you. I am considering on a Sony A55 for it’s capabilities for shooting action shots. I am not that interested in the video feature as I use a digital camcorder for that. I was curious if there is another camera that might have the ability to shoot actions shots, in sports, for around the same price? Being user friendly is important also as I do not have a lot of experience at using an upper end camera yet.

Thanks for your help!
Kim

Suhas
Guest
Suhas

Hi Matthew, Thank you for your comments, it’s been a great help in understanding what to buy. What do you think of Pentax K4? Is it in same range feature-wise? it is in price range :)
Thanks again.

~Suhas

catzcradle
Member

I’ve really appreciated reading everything here as I’m in that mode of getting my first Interchangable lens system (Dslr, M4/3 or the Sony SLT) since I sold off an ancient Pentax K-1000 and lenses years and years ago. I’ve been shooting with bridge style cameras with long zooms since the first Canon S1-IS (and since then the s3-IS, s5-IS, and finally now the Fuji HS10)

I have a vacation coming in September, and a nice bonus next month. I’ve been agonizing over the Sony A55, Canon 60D, Canon T3i for a while now and trying to figure out even if moving to the dSLR type will actually be a real upgrade for me.

I’ve looked over the pictures I’ve taken over the past year, mostly holiday, car shows, travel, events and yard wildlife ranging from 28-200 or so mm equivalent. I have a real desire to get back into something higher end, and don’t take enough video to probably make the a55 AF that necessary, though I like the tech. Ideally I would like a “walk-around” lens that I can use for most of the pictures, and I’m really trying to get more DOF options than the small-sensor cams can do. I also worry about the a55 being too small. The 60D does worry me in the complexity level, but I do have some understanding of using PASM modes, processing raw images, etc. I also would really like better low-light capability.

Reading your blogs and articles has been really helpfull. Still, hope to make a real decision in march. :)

daniel
Member

Hi Matthew,
I am brand new in the forum and in this wonderful world of the serious Photography, I have find this Forum very interesting and reading I have had learning a lot!!!! English is not my mother tongue, but as a professional pilot I have an “acceptable” medium language level.
I owned just compact Canons, and try to find a good reflex, I played with a NEX-5 for several weeks taken very good shots, but I miss the viewfinder, so I am behind a Sony A-55, but I find reading about the new A-580, with the same sensor and processor, but with the OVF instead of the EVF.
I am agree with you about the battery consumption of the A-55 do to the EVF is a very important point to take in account.
Could you give me an advice and your point of view about the new and no reviewed Sony A-580, please?
I am looking also the Nikon 3100 or the wonderful but expensive D7000
Best regards
Daniel from Argentina

Rom
Member

Hi Matthew,

I read your reviews and it’s a big help for me specially the battery, because a55 is one of my choices to move up from p&s. I found out your response are straight to the point (for some reason). For battery issues, I think the new sony alpha a580 is better on this feature, can you do some review of this new slr? Considering the price range, please do comparison, i.e. canon 550d.

Thanks a lot
-Rom

Art Vandalay
Guest
Art Vandalay

My understanding is there is a setting to only enable to electronic viewfinder when it detects your eye is near the sensor, and you can turn the liveview lcd around when not being used. I’ve heard this greatly improves battery life as the camera basically goes into an idle state when you’re not shooting an actual shot.

kucau
Guest

Hi Mathew ,

Im a Sony shooter and i think you should mention one major flaw related to EVF auto-gain in Manual setting for A55/A33. I will never upgrade/downgrade to SLT if sony does not fix this flaw. There are few conditions in which this flaw severely affects my shooting capability.

1) Landscape when shooting in manual mode and small aperture

When u use f8 and smaller aperture, the EVF fails to gain up and u are left with totalldarkness, UNLESS u use BULB or raise up the pop-up flash

2) Studio shot ( manual mode + wireless trigger )

F8 and smaller u dont see anything to compose in EVF! unless u use flashgun to trigger studio strobes or use the pop-up the EVF will never auto-gain

3) Macro shot using available light

Total EVF darksness, well most ppl shoot macro using small aperture to maximise DOF . So no available light macro in this SLT .

Sony needs to address this issue ASAP via firmware upgrade before they loss all of their user base

sincerely,

Yusri
Malaysia .

Heather
Guest
Heather

Hi Matthew,

First let me say, thanks so much for all the great information. It’s definitely helping us make informed choices! We’re trying to do bunches of reading, but since we can’t find anywhere to try-out some of the contenders, we’d love your opinion about our upcoming purchase. Oddly enough, we are debating between the Canon 60D and the Sony A55 or 33 (I’m sure that lets you know what total amateurs we are!). Overall, I know the Canon is a superior camera, and that they aren’t your typical equivalents. We aren’t professionals and never hope to be, we just want to get great, crisp pictures AND videos of our young kids. We don’t own a video camera and will be counting on our DSLR to meet that need, but it’s only for personal use. I read that the Sony is the only one with continuous AF, and seems to be the best camera for video. However, I’m sure that the 60D beats it for still shots. I guess my question is, is the video on the Sony so noticeably better that we should choose it over the Canon 60D if it’s going to double as our video camera? Could we be happy with the AF on the canon for all things kid related? (By the way, we currently have a Canon Powershot s3i, so I know we’re jumping into a who new world).

Thanks for sharing your expertise!
Heather

Dr Anwar
Member

Hi Matthew
I’m a doctor by mistake and an artist by birth. Yes, I love painting and photography. Tho I know very little technical aspect of both i do both pretty decently. I’m using Sony H3 for the last 4years and loved it. Now I feel an ‘upgrade’. Net hunting has shortlisted the choice to 1.Nikon 3100 2.Sony A55 3.CanonT2i(D550).
I love Sunsets, flowers, Macro, ‘Shaded’ portraits, light and shade, subject focusing and Videos. My budget-around $800. which is the best camera for me(not necessarily from my 3 choices). please do help. Thank you

Dr Anwar
from beautiful coral island in Arabian sea

sheryl
Guest
sheryl

Do you know if the sony shoot true progressive? Sometimes when there is “i” into the mix, the progressive video is not true progressive. imovie uses single field procesing and does not work well with interlaced video.

Luna
Member

Hi Matthew,

I’m so glad to hear your opinion on the Sony A55 as I lately read a lot of reviews. I thought it compares with the D7000/60D, but from this I’ve learnt that it is not in their mid range class. Anyhow I think Sony is heading in the right direction and it would be interesting to see is other manufacturers will follow this new technology in DSLR. I still have a month to decide on what camera to buy. Good, quick review and comparison. Regards

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