Low-to-medium ISO sensitivity noise

What a difference a sensor makes. Though the A550 is the same 14.2-megapixel resolution as the cheaper A380, the A550's Exmor CMOS sensor delivers much cleaner images at all ISO sensitivities than the CCD used by its sibling does. They're sharp and relatively clean at least through ISO 400. ISO 800 looks very good on my high-end, color calibrated monitor, but slightly noisy on my cheapo standard-issue display. At ISO 1,600, image detail starts to mush up a bit, but for the most part, detailed photos can remain usable up through ISO 3,200.
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Photo by: Matthew Fitzgerald/CNET / Caption by:

High ISO sensitivity noise

As is typical for its class, ISO 6,400 and above are more emergency modes than for everyday shooting; however, the A550 displays better noise suppression at these midrange ISO sensitivities than we usually see from Sony. Its ISO 6,400 shot, for example, is much cleaner than our equivalent shot with the full-frame A900 and A850 models.
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Photo by: Matthew Fitzgerald/CNET / Caption by:

ISO 6400, Sony A550 vs. Canon EOS 7D JPEGs

Though you have to take this comparison with a grain of salt--I couldn't reshoot the 7D to match because I no longer have the lens so the settings aren't comparable--you can see that the A550's noise at ISO 6,400 fares pretty well compared with the more expensive 7D.

(A550: 1/50 sec, f4.5, multisegment metering, AWB, ISO 6,400, 18-55mm lens at 35mm. 7D: 1/15 sec, f11, pattern metering, AWB, ISO 6,400, 15-85mm lens at 70mm.)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

ISO 12,800 noise

While not a complete mess, like most cameras in its class ISO 12,800 is definitely best for small sizes.

(1/50 sec, f7.1, ISO 12,800, multisegment metering, AWB, 18-55mm lens at 35mm)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

ISO 800 noise, raw correction

While the original JPEG version of the this shot looked OK, it was slightly underexposed. But it held up surprisingly well to exposure adjustment and color correction. Once again, it looks much better on my high-end, calibrated display than on a typical consumer model.

(1/60 sec, f2.8, ISO 800, multisegment metering, 24-70mm f2.8 ZA SSM lens at 45mm. Raw file processed with Adobe Camera Raw 5.6.0.148; custom white balance, exposure boosted +1, Blacks setting=2, all other defaults.)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Metering

I thought the A550's metering handled this exposure very well.

(1/60 sec, f18, ISO 200, 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens at 55mm, multisegment metering, AWB, standard Creative Style)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Sharpness

The A550 definitely benefits from using a slightly better lens than the standard kit, and can produce some nicely sharp results.

(1/50 sec, f2.8, ISO 200, 50mm f1.8 lens, multisegment metering, AWB, Standard Creative Style)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Auto HDR

Though it's only two shots and takes longer to save to the card than I'd like, Sony's Auto HDR does a decent job of producing images with a larger dynamic range than it would otherwise render. Note that you do gain a little depth of field as well.

(1/50 sec, f4.5, ISO 400, multisegment metering, AWB, 18-55mm lens at 35mm. Top with standard Dynamic Range Optimization, bottom with AutoHDR.)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Color

The lack of any daylit natural colors in new York City in February makes it difficult to show how much Sony pushes the saturation of its colors in its default Standard Creative Style. Worse, with this model it looks like the raw files are similarly oversaturated.

(1/60 sec, f5.6, ISO 200, AWB, pattern metering, Creative Style standard, 18-55mm lens at 50mm, DRO auto)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:
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