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Sony Alpha SLT-A33 Gordon Laing, February 2011
 

Sony Alpha SLT-A33 design

Externally, the Sony Alpha SLT-A33 is styled like a traditional DSLR, with few clues to the unique technology housed within other than a deeper than average viewfinder housing. At first glance you'd also be forgiven for assuming it's roughly the same size as a typical DSLR too, but place the SLT-A33 side-by-side against one and you'll notice it's slightly narrower and about 1cm shorter than most budget models. The only dimension that's shared with a typical DSLR is its thickness as the SLT-A33 is designed to use standard Sony Alpha lenses and hence requires a specific mount to sensor distance.

   
 
   
   
   
 
   
Once in your hands, the SLT-A33 body feels compact but comfortable. The shorter height of the camera means you'll typically only have two rather than three fingers wrapped-around the grip, leaving your little finger dangling below, but you can still hold it securely with small to medium-sized lenses and there's no pinching of your fingertips either. Anyone regularly using bigger or heavier lenses though would be advised to try the combination in person as it almost certainly won't be as comfortable as a full-sized DSLR. Fitted with the kit lens though, the SLT-A33 feels just fine.

While the SLT-A33 is smaller than a typical budget DSLR though, it isn't significantly lighter. Weighing 492g with battery and card, the SLT-A33 is only 8g shy of the body-plus-battery weights of the Canon EOS 1000D / XS and Nikon D3100. Thanks to its standard Alpha mount, there's also no size or weight benefit to the SLT-A33 once you've fitted a lens either. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise though as despite switching a moving mirror and optical viewfinder for a fixed mirror and electronic viewfinder, the SLT-A33 shares roughly the same components as a standard Alpha DSLR.

If you're looking for a more significant saving in size and weight over a traditional DSLR while retaining the large sensor and removable lenses, you'll need to go for a mirrorless 'EVIL' model, although most, including Sony's own NEX-3 and NEX-5, sacrifice a viewfinder as standard. Arguably the closest rival to the SLT-A33 in terms of a hybrid camera offering both a screen and viewfinder for composition is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2. Based on the Micro Four Thirds standard, the GH2 dispenses with a mirror altogether and exploits a new mount for a shorter lens to sensor distance. This allows the GH2 to enjoy a thinner body, albeit one with roughly the same width and height as the SLT-A33.

While the GH2 body plus battery only works out 48g lighter than the SLT-A33, the Micro Four Thirds standard allows smaller and lighter lenses. Fit the standard 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) kit lens to the GH2 and it becomes almost 100g lighter and noticeably smaller than the SLT-A33 equipped with its 18-55mm (27-83mm equivalent) kit lens. In this respect, the SLT-A33 is held back in ultimate size and weight by the decision to use standard Alpha mount lenses, although the obvious benefit is a large existing catalogue to choose from.

In terms of controls, the SLT-A33 will be immediately familiar to any DSLR owner. There's a mode dial on the upper left side, and a scattering of buttons on the upper and rear right surfaces including a traditional four-way rocker. You'll find dedicated buttons for the D-Range (DRO) setting, ISO, White Balance and drive options, along with a button which starts filming video regardless of the mode you're currently using.

The Fn button isn't customisable, but does fire-up a very usable menu system which displays a column of settings on the left and right sides of the image view. The available options vary depending on the current mode, but set to Program, the Fn menu presents quick access to the Drive, Flash and AF mode, AF Area, Face Detection and Smile Shutter options on the left, and Sensitivity, Metering, Flash Compensation, White Balance, DRO / Auto HDR and Creative Style on the right.

 
Sony Alpha SLT-A33 Function Menu: 3:2 / 16:9 aspect ratio
Function menu when shooting in 3:2 aspect ratio
  Function menu when shooting in 16:9 aspect ratio

   

After pressing the Fn button, simply use the rocker control to highlight the desired setting before pressing the central button to present a menu of options. Quicker still, with the desired option highlighted, the finger dial can be used to directly adjust most of the settings; this also avoids the annoying quirk of the user interface which throws you out of the Fn menu every time you confirm an option, slowing down multiple changes.

Three flaps on the left side of the body hide the various ports: behind the largest flap you'll find a Mini HDMI jack and a standard USB port, while below are two smaller flaps, one covering the remote control port and the other a 3.5mm microphone jack. Like other recent Sony cameras, there's no connectivity to TVs without HDMI.

The SLT-A33's HDMI port outputs a 1080i signal during normal composition and while recording video, but look a little closer at images grabbed over HDMI and you'll notice a difference to the way most cameras operate. During normal Live View composition, the actual image appears to be upscaled from standard definition video with fuzzy details when viewed at 100%. Start recording video though and the image output over HDMI becomes much sharper; indeed we'd say the SLT-A33 outputs genuine Full HD video over its HDMI port while recording video.

You can see an example of this below where we've grabbed frames over HDMI during Live View and when recording video, then taken 100% crops from each. It's clear how the HDMI output while recording video is much higher resolution than during Live View composition. Note the lens focal length and composition were the same for each frame-grab, but as explained in the Movie Mode page, the A33 slightly crops the field of view once you start recording - hence the slightly tighter crop below right.

     
Sony Alpha SLT-A33
100% crop from HDMI output during Live View
 
Sony Alpha SLT-A33
100% crop from HDMI output during Movie recording
100% crop from HDMI output
100% crop from HDMI output
     

This is in complete contrast to most cameras with HD video which tend to output a Full HD image over HDMI while composing, before downgrading to standard definition once you start recording video. This doesn't make any difference to the quality of the recorded footage, but higher-end videographers who connect external monitors to aid filming obviously prefer a high resolution output. Annoyingly though the A33 scuppers much of the usefulness of this feature by scattering a variety of icons over the image which can't be switched off.

Compare this to the Panasonic Lumix GH2 which can output a completely clean 1080i signal over HDMI while recording video - while also keeping its main screen active with a selection of shooting information if desired. This kind of feature will only impact a small number of owners, but positions the GH2 more towards pro video work than the A33.

Moving onto audio capture, the SLT-A33 features built-in stereo microphones on either side of the viewfinder head - a nice feature considering most video-equipped DSLRs only have mono mics, but it should be noted Panasonic's GH2 also features built-in stereo mics.

As mentioned earlier, the SLT-A33 also features a 3.5mm jack to connect an external microphone. Sony labels this jack as 'plug-in power', and claims it'll power compatible mics, but thankfully it didn't affect its compatibility with more sophisticated models with phantom or built-in power sources. We successfully used the SLT-A33 with a Rode SVM, although thanks to a proprietary hotshoe on the Sony, there was no means to physically mount the microphone without an adapter or bracket. To be fair though, while Panasonic's GH2 features a standard hotshoe onto which you could physically mount some third-party mics, it's equipped with a less common 2.5mm microphone jack, again demanding adapters for use with third party accessories.

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While both cameras involve adapters when using third-party microphones though, the Lumix GH2 does at least offer adjustable recording levels and peak-meters on-screen if desired; like the clean HDMI output, it's another aspect which higher-end videographers will appreciate, although again general consumers won't worry about.

Under the camera you'll find the battery compartment, which also houses the memory card slot - access to this will be blocked when mounted on all but the smallest tripods. The SLT-A33 is powered by an NP-FW50 Info Lithium Ion battery pack which provides accurate feedback on the remaining charge with a percentage indicator in the corner of the screen or viewfinder. Sony quotes a full charge is good for 340 images with the screen or 270 with the viewfinder (yes, that's less with the viewfinder) under CIPA conditions. These figures are roughly similar to Panasonic's GH2 which delivers 320 images with its screen or 330 with its viewfinder.

If you're shooting video or a lot of continuous bursts on the SLT-A33 though, you'll find your battery depleting a lot quicker than you might expect, making a spare (or at least daily access to the charger during heavy shoots) a necessity. While this is no different to a DSLR when shooting video or composing in Live View, the benefit of a traditional DSLR is its optical viewfinder which when used exclusively for composition can greatly extend the battery life.

Alongside the SLT-A33's battery is its memory card slot, which like other recent Sony cameras can accommodate either Memory Stick PRO Duo or SD cards, including the latest SDXC models. Sony recommends using Mark II PRO Duo cards or Class 4 SD cards as a minimum for recording HD video.

On the top of the body you'll find a small popup flash with a guide number of 10. The flash housing is quite short, initially raising concerns over its height when deployed, but a clever sliding mechanism allows it to raise higher than expected: approximately 50mm above the top of the lens mount. A proprietary accessory mount can be used to fit optional flashguns, such as Sony's own HVL-F42AM.

Finally, after complaining about its absence in earlier Alpha reviews, it's nice to find the SLT-A33 featuring a depth-of-field preview button.

 

Sony Alpha SLT-A33 screen

The Alpha SLT-A33 is equipped with a fully-articulated screen which can flip and twist to any angle including facing forward for self-portraits or back on itself for protection. A flip-out screen delivers genuine compositional benefits when shooting or filming at high or low angles, although Sony's decision to fit the hinge at the bottom of the camera makes self-timed or self-portrait shots tricky as the screen finds itself below the body when facing forward - this will be blocked when mounted on a tripod and also prevents balancing the camera on any surface. It seems a daft decision when side-hinged screens like those on Canon and Panasonic models avoid such issues.

   
 
   

The screen itself measures 3in with 920k dots and a wide 16:9 aspect ratio. This means HD videos or stills shot in the 16:9 ratio will fill the screen, but photos taken at the camera's native 3:2 aspect ratio will occupy a smaller portion of the screen, measuring 2.6in on the diagonal with black bars running down either side. These bars are however used to display extended shooting information.

In contrast, Panasonic's Lumix GH2 employs a 3in screen with 460k dots and a slightly narrower 3:2 aspect ratio. This means stills shot in the 3:2 ratio will fill the screen, while 16:9 content, such as HD video, shrinks a little vertically with black bars above and below and an image measuring 2.8in on the diagonal.

There's always going to be a compromise with a screen that's used to display content with different aspect ratios, and you should ideally go for one which matches your dominant shooting format. If you mostly shoot 16:9 content, the Sony is obviously preferred, but for 3:2 or a mix, the GH2's screen area is better-exploited than the Sony. The higher resolution of the Sony screen does however show finer details though, so there's pros and cons to each implementation.

While it's important to compare screen shape, resolution and articulation, the biggest difference between the A33 and GH2 displays is the latter is touch-sensitive. While swiping through menus or tapping desired options is a novelty you'll either love or hate, the GH2's touch-screen does have at least one genuine benefit over conventional screens: the ability to tap the subject you'd like the camera to focus on. This is exploited to particularly good effect while recording movies on the GH2 as you can simply tap the screen to 'pull-focus' between subjects without recomposing or touching the manual focusing ring.

     
Sony Alpha SLT-A33
Live Histogram
 
Sony Alpha SLT-A33
Dual-axis Levelling Gauge
     

Just before wrapping-up this section, we should note the SLT-A33 offers not just Auto and Manual control over screen brightness, but an additional 'Sunny Weather' option in the menu. This greatly increases the screen brightness and while some highlight areas inevitably become burnt-out as a consequence, it genuinely makes the image much more visible in direct sunlight. The Display options also offer an alignment grid (with markings for the video capture area), a Live Histogram and a neat dual-axis levelling gauge.

 

Sony Alpha SLT-A33 viewfinder

As a 100% Live View camera, the SLT-A33 is equipped with an electronic viewfinder. These have pros and cons compared to the optical viewfinders on traditional DSLRs. On the upside, the image in the A33's viewfinder is noticeably bigger than DSLRs costing a similar amount, and it also enjoys 100% coverage and the opportunity to super-impose colour graphics and guides. Unlike an optical viewfinder, it can also be used to film video, which is useful in bright conditions.

  Sony Alpha SLT-A33 Viewfinder simulation
(grabbed from Sony promotional video)
 
   
   
 
   
   
 
   

On the downside, you're never in any doubt you're looking at an electronic image. Bright highlight details can often become saturated into pure white areas and despite the A33 having a high resolution panel, there's still only a finite amount of detail visible. The display technology which switches the colour of each dot to simulate a full colour image can also result in tearing / rainbow artefacts with fast motion: quickly pan the camera or glance from one side of the image to the other and some people will notice coloured edges to objects. To be fair some notice this more than others, but those who do will find it quite distracting at times.

All 100% Live View cameras to date also suffer from a performance issue during fast continuous shooting, where the image displayed between frames isn't live, but the previous shot played-back. This can make it hard to track action as the only feedback you have is the previous shot taken, which doesn't show what the actual subject is doing right now. In contrast an optical viewfinder gives a brief glimpse of what's actually happening between frames, allowing you to easily follow the action and recompose as necessary. While you can compensate for this to some degree when shooting action with a Live View system, it only works with predictable subjects. If the action is varying in speed or direction it becomes difficult to impossible to keep it centred in the frame. If you drop the A33's shooting speed to low, it has sufficient processing muscle to offer a brief glimpse of live action between frames, but at its top speeds, you'll only have the previous frame to guide you.

So with the pros and cons of electronic viewfinders duly noted, how does the A33's compare against the competition? The SLT-A33 appears to employ a 4:3 shaped panel in its viewfinder, but only uses a 16:9 shaped active area; this occupies the full width of the panel, but is cropped vertically. Sony quotes the viewfinder as having 1,440k dots, but we believe this is for the entire panel including the unused portions above and below. Most 1,440k dot viewfinder panels have an 800x600 pixel resolution which corresponds to a 4:3 shape; if this is the case, the 16:9 active area of the Sony A33's viewfinder would only use 800x450 pixels, or around 1,100k dots in total.

Either way, the 16:9 active shape of the viewfinder matches that of the screen with the same subsequent pros and cons: 16:9 material, such as HD video, obviously fills the entire area, while 3:2 content is positioned in the middle with black bars down the left and right sides. If the viewfinder panel is indeed a squarer shape, it's a shame Sony didn't exploit the extra area to expand the 3:2 frame vertically rather than crop it horizontally. As it stands though, even with a 3:2 image sporting black bars on all sides through the A33's viewfinder, the active image itself remains large - indeed much more so than the optical viewfinders on similarly-priced DSLRs which look almost tunnel-like in comparison. This makes it even more satisfying when you switch the A33 to 16:9 and find the 3:2 frame expand horizontally to fill the full width of the viewfinder.

Coincidentally the Panasonic GH2's viewfinder also shares the same shape as its screen, although for this model, it's a narrower 3:2 shape than the Sony. Unlike the Sony though, the GH2's viewfinder appears to use the entire panel area, which coupled with a higher quoted resolution of 1,530k dots (852x600 pixels) allows it to display an image which looks more detailed. It's also worth noting the GH2's viewfinder image appears roughly the same width as that on the A33, so 16:9 content actually looks around the same size on both. This then gives the GH2 the advantage when shooting 3:2 content as it expands the image vertically, rather than shrinking it horizontally. The 3:2 image on the GH2 looks huge in comparison to the Sony, and also contains more pixels: 852x600 compared to 675x450, should the A33's quoted resolution of 1,440k dots indeed apply to a 4:3 panel as suspected.

Again we're forced to speculate on the Sony numbers, but the bottom line is the GH2's viewfinder does look a little more detailed than the A33, not to mention larger for 3:2 content. While we noticed the rainbow / tearing effect on both viewfinders, it was also more pronounced on the A33, perhaps as a result of its lower active resolution. In short, the GH2's viewfinder was preferred over the A33, but again both enjoyed the benefits of an image that's bigger than all but the best DSLRs, along with 100% coverage and super-imposed graphics. And despite being beaten on viewfinder quality by the GH2, the A33 does boast a useful dual-axis level gauge that's absent on the Panasonic (see top screen grab).

Now check out our Sony Alpha SLT-A33 Features page to find out more about the focusing, stabilisation, sensor, image processing, and of course its HD movie mode.

All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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