As some of you know, I had been a long-time Canon shooter with a switch to Nikon just over two years ago.  And yes I have been very happy with my current camera but about a year ago I thought that something was missing – I was missing the extra “reach” that a crop camera provides.

A year ago a sweet deal fell into my lap that I had to try: someone local to me needed to sell his Olympus E-3 and 150/2 lens.  I thought “Hey, this is like getting a 300/2 lens!  With a 2xTC that’s 600/4! And it’s stabilized!”  But as time passed with more and more use I ended up deciding that the much smaller Olympus 4/3 sensor (the crop factor is 2x, not 1.5/1.6x) just wasn’t for me.  While the lenses were 1 to 2 stops faster, the noise was 2 to 3 stops worse than what I was used to.  Plus Olympus has some more work to do with their continuous autofocus.  So I sold them and am currently sans telephoto.

After seeing some of a fellow poster’s shots with his Sony A550, I decided to rent it along with a lens (the Tamron 200-500) to have a decent test drive.

The first advantage Sony has (and above Olympus in a certain aspect) is that instead of adding image stabilization to a lens, they have added it to the body – it works by moving the sensor up/down, left/right as needed.  This means that every single lens you use on a Sony body will be stabilized, something Nikon and Canon can’t claim.

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And where does Sony go beyond Olympus?  Look at the right side of Box 2 above.  (Source: Sony A550 manual)  Next to the hand there are bars.  The more bars that show up in the viewfinder, the more motion you have on the “Super Steady Shot” stabilizer.  If the hand shows up it’s a warning that your shot will probably be blurry due to excess motion of your camera.  The more (and taller) bars means more motion so the goal is to wait until the bars are very low before taking a picture.  Canon and Nikon’s image stabilization is sometimes visible in the viewfinder but sometimes you can’t be sure that it’s really helping until you look at your picture.  Having something in the viewfinder really helps – but it is necessary since you are looking through the viewfinder and not directly on the sensor – which is being stabilized.

This stabilization is what led me to rent the Tamron 200-500 lens.  Inexpensive when compared to Sigma’s equivalent lenses that have image stabilization built in to the lens, the Tamron is considered to be one of the better consumer long telephoto zooms on the market today, and is available for Nikon, Canon and Sony.  But the lens is not stabilized on a Nikon or Canon body!

The first day with the lens I took it with me to a local minor league baseball game.sony alpha review

While normally for a sporting event you can’t use a “slow” lens (the Tamron maxes out at f/6.3 at the long end of the zoom), there was enough light to get this shot.  Was it perfect?  No – there is still some motion in the pitcher’s arm – just a little too much, but the rest of the image is sharp.  The A550 had no problem keeping up with the focus here (although the Tamron did hunt occasionally when looking for an initial focus lock, I won’t fault the camera for it because autofocus is generally better with a larger maximum aperture.) and I did not need to do any noise reduction from the 14mp sensor.sony alpha review

Again, very sharp – this time it’s at the short end of the zoom.  Just enough blur to convey motion in the image but the camera did a great job of shooting at 5fps to capture this one image of the ball after it left the bat.

I was surprised how well the camera+lens combo did that night – the only downside is that the lens is very long and barely fit in my Velocity sling-bag.

The next day I went to the Hamilton Pool Preserve.  The goal of visiting that day was to try and capture some birds but alas they were mostly in hiding while I was there or they were just the cave swallows – and those are very very small and very very fast.

I ended up using my Nikon most that trip, but it did prove something about the Sony.

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This shot is acceptably sharp but I was hand-holding it on uneven terrain….and I do not have steady hands. A close-up view of one of the caves above Hamilton Pool.  Handheld with no support!sony alpha review

The image on the far right is not sharp.  But look at the EXIF data again.  This was a 600mm equiv. shot taken handheld at 1/40 sec.  And it’s only slightly blurry!  So while the image is slightly blurry, this is probably “the shot” that has me extremely interested in the Sony system.

For my last day with the combo, I took the lens down to Longhorn Dam to go after some birds (see inset).sony alpha review Unfortunately there was only two Snowy Egrets, several pigeons, and countless turtles to photograph that morning. Is this a great picture?  No.  But it shows me something.  First, this is cropped.  Second, the pigeons are reasonably in focus….and they were in flight.  And they aren’t that large of birds to begin with.  But the A550 was able to get a hold of them and focus at least for a split moment.  During my last day it the Tamron’s two problems became more evident: focus speed and softness wide-open at the long end.  While focus speed may improve with a higher-end body (the motor to drive the Tamron is inside the body, while many new lenses have motors in the lens itself), the softness isn’t really correctable.  Perhaps if I had stopped the lens down, it would have been sharper, but still – I’m surprised I was able to get this.  I rarely got something like this with the Olympus – on larger birds.

 

sony alpha reviewCropped again, and if you look closely enough you’ll see the softness in the fine details.  But the camera was able to capture the image and move on to the next shot in the series (I was shooting at the max FPS) – this was one of a sequence I took when I saw the birds beginning to fight over the “territory” at the base of the dam.

By the end of my rental period I was kind of sad to send the combo back.   While not perfect (buffer clearing speed seemed slow but it could have been my Class 6 SDHC card, not the camera!  Plus the lens softness @ 500mm), the system has potential – mainly because even older lenses have image stabilization!  All of the older Minolta Maxxum autofocus lenses will work with a Sony Alpha camera, so while they are not as common as used Canon and Nikon lenses, they do exist, and they can be found.  Plus, Sony has not abandoned the format!  While they currently do have a vacuum at the high end prosumer line (the A700 was discontinued without a replacement, and the A550 is currently the best APS-C camera in Sony’s lineup), my guess is that they are planning something huge with expected A750 coming later this year – based on how the A550 does live-view (best dSLR live-view system bar none), I’m guessing that they will have the best dSLR video mode once it is released (right now no Sony dSLRs have video), and it will blow Canon and Nikon out of the water.  But we’ll see.  For now, I just have a conundrum of getting a second Nikon body, or using a second system (again) for telephoto shots.   Sony has a very good chance to become the latter for me.  Don’t discount their equipment because it’s not Canon/Nikon.  They deserve to be considered a major player at or near the same level as the other two major brands.

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