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To A65 or to A55? That is the Question..
on November 14, 2011
Sony A55 vs. A65: is Newer Really Better?
When Sony released info on the Nex-5N, NEX-7, a65 and a77 models, I decided that the technological leaps on the new line was enough to make me a believer. What really put me into the Sony system over Canon and Nikon was the lower price points on the Sony lenses. Yeah, they don't have as many lenses as the Big Two, but I don't know any photographers with 25+ lenses in their closet, either. The NEX-5N looked nice but I like viewfinders and didn't want to be gouged on that accessory. The NEX-7--while pricey--still doesn't have a release date. The a65 was priced below the a77 by almost $500, so that was a no-brainer, but was it $200-worth more than the a55, a camera that--for the most part--touts a devout ownership?
I actually bought the a65 and the a55 at the same time, opting for the a65 because of its corrected overheating issue while filming video (the tie-breaker for many) and the a55 because, aside from the overheating issue (a "logical" deal-breaker for many with the arrival of the a65), it offers just about everything else the a65 does, minus some cosmetic differences and a handful of megapixels most of us will never use or need.
First, the differences. The a65's swivel LCD is a nice little touch over the a55's traditional vertical flip-out. With the rotating swivel I was able to take shots by holding the camera down low and high over my head. The LCD view on this unit is crystal clear. The electronic viewfinder on the a65 is superior to the a55. (**I'm not going to get into the differences between the OVF and Sony's EVF; if you are reading this, it's because you're either used to EVFs in general, don't mind them, or think Sony cameras are cool, regardless.) The EVF here offers a FULL view of my shots. Also, if you use the EVF instead of the LCD, there is a level meter that basically tells you if your shot is in focus, and if your horizon/vanishing points are perfectly level; this is invaluable if you're taking landscape or wide shots. When shooting people it eventually recognizes redundant faces and will instantly articulate in on the principle person you're shooting automatically if they are in a crowd or shot with multiple people; this I also found to be a rather nice innovation and would be tremendous if I were shooting a wedding and only cared about the bride, for example. The thing that I liked most about the a65 over the a55 however was completely unexpected: on the a65 there is a dedicated ISO button next to the aperture/shutter wheel, and next to it is a dedicated exposure button that will give you accurate adjustments in the EVF before you shoot. AWESOME. After a couple hours of shooting with this unit I could easily toggle between the Aperture, ISO and exposure intuitively by simply moving my finger slightly from one button to the next. In this regard, making on the fly adjustments while shooting on the street was a snap.
One cosmetic/function quirk that really bugged me on the a65: the frame-zoom button is in a weird place. Located in the top right behind the wheel and shutter button, I kept hitting it by accident and it was quite annoying. I also didn't like how it basically took me a day and a half to 1) find the playback function for video and 2) toggle back and forth between video and regular picture playback mode. After two days I still didn't know how to download the video off of the card. It was like Easter egg hunting! Also, some of the novelty shooting camera modes looked like fun when I first powered up, but I quickly realised that the shooting potential of this camera was so great that I'd actually be doing a disservice by being too cute with the toy functions. The regular shooting and BW modes were all I truly needed to get really impressive results.
The a55 by contrast shoots just a clip slower¬¬--though the AF is just as snappy--with little discernable difference, unless you put the camera in review mode to look at shots after you take them, then it sorta bricks out for longer seconds than its successor. (**On the a65 the review mode is default to OFF.) The a55 is also decidedly lighter in weight. I will note that because I have egregiously long fingers, it was actually a less comfortable handle than the a65, and I almost felt like the two models are specifically tailored to different hand-types. Actually, this is a BIG DEAL if you don't care about cute functions: if you have little hands and generally prefer light equipment, the a55 (at $200 less I remind you) carries more value in day-to-day carrying and shooting. If you have bigger hands, the a65 is an absolute must, you will thank me later.
Finally, the video mode. On the a65 the quality on the 60i is far superior to anything I've ever seen on a DSLR, hands down. I actually wanted the a65 because it shot in "cinematic" 24p, but I can attest that compared to the 60i on this unit it left a lot to be desired. If you are mulling the a65 specifically because it has a 24p option, do yourself a favour, save your money and get the a55, just trust me on this. One more thing on the video: I know some (well, a LOT) of a55 users have complained about the sensors overheating at about 5-10 continuous minutes of filming. When I tested the a55 out of the box (it was the first thing I tested, actually), the camera copped out at just over 8 minutes at room temperature. I ran the same test on the a65 and made it nearly 20 minutes without any issues whatsoever. That being said, this is an SLT/DSLR-type camera. You should know that it is extremely UNSATISFYING to hold an SLT/DSLR camera to shoot video for more than a couple of minutes, period. In that sense and in retrospect, the 5-10 cap on the a55 seems pretty negligible. Honestly, if you are leaning towards the a65 only for its longer shooting time capability, don't. Unless you're currently trying to get 15+ minutes of continuous film out of your DSLR (and really, you shouldn't be), the video capabilities and shortcomings between the two units should be the least of your worries.
Finally, a lot has been said about Sony's poor performance at high ISO levels. Indeed, on the a65 when I shot a band performing in a club the background noise left a lot to be desired past 1600. On rendering the blurs and noise actually turned to mud and many of those photos were simply unusable. I did not test the a55 in this regard; I feel if having a great performer at super high ISOs is your thing, Nikon is probably way to go. (**I REALLY wished this a65 performed better here.)
All this being said, the a65 is a winner over the a55 in every category if money is not an issue. If money IS an issue, or if you want to get more bang for your buck, the a55 body-only plus a better-than-kit lens will give you awesome value and you won't be missing anything it doesn't offer over the a65 if your only concern is taking fantastic pictures. In doing a side by side comparison of well-lit indoor shots using the same 35mm 1.8 lens stopped down to f2, the a55 curiously produced sharper photos, while the white balance on the a65 appeared to be slightly more neutral. My reaction: Huh . . .
So what did I pick? Ultimately, I went with the a65. Really, the ISO button and ergonomical fit for my big hands were the things that really swayed me. I shot on both cams at 12MP so I didn't get full reso use out of either body. But I had to ask myself: Is the ISO button alone worth $200? Absolutely not. But the a65 fitting better in my bigger hands, that was worth $200. That won't be worth $200 to everybody. If you have smaller or normal-sized hands and just want top notch performance and super sharp pictures the a55 is a sneaky good pickup. You can always fix balance in post.
This cannot be overstated, but if want to get a nice and cheap prime lens, I HIGHLY recommend the Sony 35mm1.8f. It is the 50mm equivilent on the A65 (if you buy the 50mm your shots will be too tight to take on the street). The lens costs $50 more than the Sony 50mm but it truly rivals glass more expensive than this. People are blown away by rather standard shots I've taken with this. If you don't care about the so-so kit lens and want to save some dollars, buy the body only and get the 35mm.