Sony a9 Review

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“Sony’s first shot at the professional sports market just revolutionized the entire industry in a single swing.”

Introduction

The Sony a9, initially released in spring 2017, is the most specialized of Sony’s full-frame mirrorless lineup. It’s a camera primarily geared towards speed, tracking, and Sony’s most dedicated sports and wildlife camera to date. It marks the next evolution in their digital cameras and the first to switch from mechanically based technology to a fully digital camera dependent on solid-state devices. It’s also the first camera to feature a stacked back-side illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor for better low light performance and a dramatic increase in the sensor reading speed.

Sony positions this camera to compete with Canon’s 1DX Mark II and Nikon’s D5, both of which have traditionally been the go-to cameras of choice for professional sports photographers. Considering Sony’s relatively new to this niche, can they even compete, and is this camera really up to that kind of standard? Well, today, we find out.

Sony-a9-Full-Frame-Mirrorless-camera-specs

What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Sony a9?

Pros:

Image Quality

It features a one of a kind 24.3MP Stacked CMOS sensor, allowing the camera to provide better resolution than both the Canon 1DX and the Nikon D5. The 14-bit uncompressed RAW files it produces deliver plenty of detail and the excellent color rendition we’ve now come to expect from Sony. And while on paper, it shares a similar resolution sensor as the base a7 Mark III, it has a 10x faster sensor readout providing class-leading processing power. This added sensor readout offers several distinct advantages over the other alpha series cameras.

Firstly, it allows for an impressive burst rate of 20 fps using the electronic shutter with continuous autofocus. This type of speed makes continuous bursts on this camera almost appear like video. And not only is the camera extraordinarily fast, but it’s also entirely silent as well. This speed is the result of a revolutionary sensor stacking technology and Sony’s redesigned electronic shutter. When shooting in this configuration, the camera also experiences no viewfinder blackout. The blackout-free experience makes a significant difference when tracking complex action or sports. And it can easily be the difference between capturing a critical moment, or not. This is among the most advertised features on this camera, and the one that truly separates it from the pro-level DSLRs. We’re now provided with a scene free of interruptions. And not only can you capture the decisive moment with extraordinary high-frame rates, but now you can see it at the time of exposure as well.

Secondly, Sony has implemented a new anti-distortion electronic shutter, which reduces and virtually eliminates rolling shutter while shooting stills. Though not obliterated, it reduced enough that the remaining rolling shutter is more than usable for most situations. This is the first real camera designed to use the electronic shutter primarily, and Sony has overcome almost every weakness associated with its use. Seriously impressive.

Lastly, it features an enormous buffer depth, which is 3x deeper for RAW images than the standard a7 series cameras. It delivers 241 RAW photos or 362 JPEGS, which equates to about 12 seconds of RAW shooting or 18 seconds of JPEG.

Video Quality

It shoots 4K UHD video up to 30 fps and 1080p full HD video up to 120 fps, both with a bit rate of 100 MBps in the XAVCS codec. Overall, the video quality here is excellent, though not ground-breaking, as this is not Sony’s flagship video-centric camera. Nevertheless, it shoots actual 4K resolution, in which the video oversamples from 6K, for added fine detail. Like the images it produces, the videos are sharp with excellent color rendition. And the addition of 1080p at 120 fps adds a nice bonus for those wanting that super-slow-motion effect.

Experienced video shooters will be pleased to know that the camera features zebras, for highly warning indication, and peeking to help when manual focusing. Though, these are long-standing features on Sony cameras.

Low Light Performance

It features a native ISO range from ISO 100 to 51,200, and further expandable to 204,800. The sensor performs quite well in low light high ISO conditions, the result of its impressive back-side illuminate design. Users can expect usable images up to ISO 6,400 without the need for any post-production noise reduction.

Focusing Performance

It features a 693 phase-detect AF system, 425 of which offer contrast-detection, covering 93% of the frame. Essentially, you can focus anywhere on the screen with complete confidence. Not only that, the camera performs confidently at light levels of -3 EV. Firmware v6.0 also brings along the addition of real-time AF, removing the need for setting eye-AF to custom buttons. Instead, it engages automatically at all times, simplifying workflow and other ergonomic involvements. And changing between eyes occurs with the single press of a custom button. Overall, the camera is excellent in both lateral movements across the frame. But, also, when the subject races towards the camera, an area its competition often struggles. And even if the camera loses focus, which it rarely does, it will lock on again in the next frame. This is because the camera recalculates autofocus and auto-exposure 60x per second, 3x faster than the rate it shoots, creating tracking performance that’s class-leading. And, surprisingly, this performance remains even when using adapted non-native Sony lenses.

It also inherits face-detect and eye-detect AF, which are excellent for portrait photography. These features work even when subjects are quite small in the frame, and their faces are in profile. Impressive. Even if the camera loses track of the eye temporarily, it will track the subject as an object instead. Overall, the face and eye detection delivered is good enough that portrait photographers will rarely ever find a need to touch the AF joystick for manual control.

It features a newly-developed subject recognition algorithm that uses an element of machine learning to better identify and track a subject in the frame. This algorithmic approach to focusing was a first for any camera. Overall, it works incredibly well and is very tenacious at tracking, really freeing users to allow them to concentrate on composition. Not focus.

With the latest firmware update, it now also includes animal detection, which identifies the unique properties of the animal for better tracking. Helpful.

In short, the subset of these innovations makes the autofocusing performance delivered by this class best in class, outside of Sony’s newly announced a9 Mark II.

Battery Performance

It marks the first Sony full-frame camera to go forth with the new NP-FZ100 battery. Finally, the prayers long-time users hoped for has arrived. Sony now rates the new battery to deliver 650 shots per charging and 120 minutes of video recording, making the camera directly comparable to DSLRs in this regard.

Display & Viewfinder

It features an OLED electronic viewfinder with a resolution of 3.69M dots and a large 0.78x magnification. Compared to other alpha cameras, it delivers the best viewing experience to date. Sony has also improved the refresh rate, now adding the option of a 120 Hz setting for added realism and reduced latency.

It features a similar 2.95-inch TFT tilting LCD as the a7 range. However, it now has an improved resolution of 1.44M dots and touch capability. The touchscreen now sports, touch focus, touch tracking, AF touchpad when composing via the viewfinder, and pinch-to-zoom during image playback. Overall, while not fully featured like the competition, it does work well for sophisticated rack focusing. And, unlike other a7 cameras, it doesn’t dim when shooting in 4K, and the Sunny Weather Mode is available to make composing in bright daylight quite easy.

User Interface

It features the customizable My Menu, allowing users to store their favorite and frequently used settings on a single page, without digging into the main menu. This is an incredibly welcomed addition, as the menus here are not very intuitive and are quite complicated.

It features four customizable buttons, C1-C4.

The shutter button can now be used as a video start and stop button.

The mode dial features three memory recall states, numbered 1-3. Memory recall allows users to customize and save shooting settings as presets for immediate access. Four additional presets can also be saved on an SD card as well.

You can now assign custom functions to both the rear and front control dials as well, further adding to the cameras overall customization.

The camera features a rating function, convenient of on-location sorting of favorited images.

Physical Layout & Ergonomics

The general design and layout are largely similar to the other full-frame a7 series. So, for experienced and current Sony users, transitioning to the a9 will be quite comfortable and seamless for you. However, it does feature several distinct differences. First, it features a dedicated Drive Mode collar, saving time digging through the menus by providing immediate access to this setting. Secondly, it features an AF joystick. Sony calls it the multi-selector, but it’s perfect for quickly selecting AF points or navigating the menu. Next, it features a redesigned and heftier grip than the standard a7 cameras, making the camera far better balance when mounted with larger lenses. Though, its grip is still quite small in comparison to the competing DSLRs. Overall, it’s about the same size as the a7 Mark III, making it quite small and compact for the professional demographic it aims, weighing in at a mere 588g body only. But, don’t be fooled; its magnesium alloy chassis, and the weather-resistant body still delivers an impressive presence.

Niche Features/Extras

It features built-in 5-axis image stabilization, inherited from the a7 cameras, which works in cohesion with optically stabilized lenses for greater performance. Sony rates the system to deliver 5.0 stops of stabilization, rivaling that of the industry-leading Panasonic and Olympus cameras. Overall, this system is reliable and well implemented.

Like several other Sony cameras, it also features simultaneous proxy movie recording. This feature allows users to record both a high-quality and low-quality video simultaneously for more seamless sharing online.

It now has a built-in intervalometer, helpful for shooting time-lapses.

It features an ethernet port for FTP file transfering, so professionals can immediately deliver images even while shooting.

It features a flash sync terminal for wired connection to compatible flash units.

It has a headphone input.

It has a microphone input.

It supports USB charging and continuous power.

Like the a7R Mark III, it also features dual SD card slots, where one is UHS-1 compatible and the other UHS-II.

Like several other Sony cameras, it features Clear Image Zoom, which allows a penalty-free digital zoom of 2x in stills and 1.5x in 4K without any loss of detail.

It has a photo capture setting, which pulls 8MP stills from the captured video file.

It features built-in Wi-Fi, NFC, and Bluetooth for wireless image transfer as well as remotely controlling the camera. The remote shooting control offered by the PlayMemories apps is reasonably robust and quite reliable. The camera can also geotag and time sync images via Bluetooth as well.

It features the S&Q (Slow and Quick) Mode, which provides a variable frame rate between 1-120 fps. This feature allows in-camera rendered quick or slow motion, respectively. It’s a unique way to perform in-camera time-lapse movies or a convenient way to picture what a slow-motion capture will look like before post-production.

Cons:

Image Performance

When shooting using the mechanical shutter, the camera only provides continuous shooting speeds of 5 fps, making it the slowest of the current alpha series cameras.

When the camera ultimately reaches its buffer, it will take upwards of two minutes to clear. During this time, it locks you out of some of the menus, dramatically slowing workflow. The only real thing possible during this time is image playback. However, it’s painfully slow. So once the buffer fills, you’ll essentially become a spectator as the camera locks up and writes the images to the SD card. And while it features a large buffer that won’t be filled often, you will suffer the penalties if it does.

While the camera’s image quality is good, it’s not necessarily breathtaking or extraordinary by any means. This camera has quite a strong anti-aliasing filter, reducing fine details compared to the standard a7 series cameras. Overall, the images are softer and provide less dynamic range.

Video Capabilities

Although Sony includes the picture effects and profiles, this is a smaller selection that’s available on other alpha models. And, unlike the base a7 Mark III, this camera lacks any sLog profiles. While many misuse Sony’s log profiles, there are situations where it’s useful to have. Sony choosing to make this seemingly arbitrary and confusing decision to remove the presence of log picture profiles was unnecessary. Even more so, considering these profiles are available even on their much cheaper RX100 Mark IV camera. While this camera is not technically their video-centric model, it’s a shame as this is otherwise a great video camera. Thankfully in their absence, a flatter look is easily achieved Using Sony creative style settings. The drawback, however, is that doing this offers nothing to preserve critical information, particularly when shooting in high-contrast scenes for better dynamic range. Nevertheless, if your primary motivation to get this camera is that you’re looking for a compelling video camera, this may be a potential deal-breaker for you. Consider the base a7 Mark III instead as this removal cripples this as a serious professional video camera.

When shooting in 4K 30p, you incur a crop into the frame, and the presence of rolling shutter is fairly evident as well. Thankfully, Full HD doesn’t suffer from either of these.

Face detect autofocus is not supported when shooting in 4K.

Menus

As with other models, Sony provides fewer image playback and review options than the competition. It also features limited in-camera editing functionality, nor does it support RAW to JPEG conversion.

Like previous A7 cameras, the touch screen does not support menu navigation, leaving a dance with the d-pad or joystick to fight with the menus.

Ergonomics

While the camera is dust and weather resistant, it doesn’t offer the same robust weather sealing as the competition.

Lacking Features

Sony has done away with the downloadable smart apps and PlayMemories store available on other recent models. Not a deal-breaker, but it was useful for some users.

This camera still uses the older generation USB format, which means both tethering and file transfer speeds are slower than the newer USB 3.0 and 3.1 revisions.

The camera lacks an anti-flicker mode, which reduces variances in exposure or white balance when shooting under fluorescent lights due to flicking. Thankfully, it has an AWB lock, which would prevent much of this issue, though it doesn’t bypass the changes in exposure.

Is this a good beginner camera?

No. This is certainly not a beginner’s camera. It’s also not an inexpensive camera either. It remains among Sony’s most expensive cameras released to date, though significantly less than the competition. Thus, for those starting out or for casual users, this is not a recommended purchase. Consider Sony’s: a7 Mark II, Mark II, or Mark III cameras instead.

What are the best lenses & bundles for the Sony a9?

General Photography:

FE 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 OSS

Specifically for Macro Photography:

FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS

Specifically for Landscape & Astrophotography Photography:

Vario-Tessar T* FE 16–35 mm F4 ZA OSS

Specifically for Portrait Photography:

FE 70-200 mm F4 G OSS
Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70 mm F4 ZA OSS
FE 85mm F1.8

Specifically for Sports & Wildlife Photography:

FE 200–600 mm F5.6–6.3 G OSS
Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens

Specifically for Product & Still Life Photography:

FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS

Extra Batteries:

Sony NPFZ100 Z-series Rechargeable Battery

SD Cards:

SanDisk 128GB Extreme SDXC UHS-I Card
Sony TOUGH-G series SDXC UHS-II Card

Is the Sony a9 a good camera for you?

Possibly.

For those who photograph sports, wildlife, and journalism, this camera is an entirely new experience. It’s stealthy, almost in a creepy way, as it makes zero noise. Hence, subjects are altogether unaware you snapped over 100 images in a single burst, without a stutter. Of the cameras available, this is the best performance camera for tracking action that exists. And with its price steadily lowering, along with continued improvement in firmware, it makes for a far more attractive camera today than it’s ever been. For a lot of users, this will be the time to pull the trigger finally. Its class-leading autofocusing, fast burst rate and large buffer make it into the ideal sports and action photographic tool.

While Sony touts this camera as the ideal sports camera, it’s clear that it’s not just capable of this medium alone. The ability to shoot entirely silently makes the camera an excellent, and arguably the best, option for events, weddings, or anyone who requires discrete shooting.

In the end, whether or not professionals opt to transition entirely to Sony with the release of this camera is irrelevant. Sony has proven that they’re capable of making a compelling camera that can meet the needs of any conceivable demographic of shooters out there. This camera dawns a new era in digital imaging with its blackout-free 20 fps continuous shooting, and it’s merely revolutionary. Sure, the sensor makes a comprise in image quality in the slightest. However, it’s still more than good enough to meet the demands of professional use in almost all shooting conditions and easily rivals the competition. As a release, this camera corrects several significant issues of previous Sony a7 cameras. And it impresses with the most robust and diverse feature set that the competition will find hard to match. Sony has simply designed the ultimate sports and wildlife camera. And while it has a few minor stumbles here and there, it’s an awe-inspiring feat, and a compelling attempt to win over a traditionally SLR dominated pro-market. With the release of this camera, the high-end DSLR kings now have some real competition. And surprisingly, in the form of a compact and small mirrorless camera. This camera is proof that mirrorless is not only the future in terms of form but also their function. Whether it’s accepted or adopted by the masses, the a9 is a game-changer.

Overview
  • Image Quality
  • Video Quality
  • Focusing Performance
  • Low Light Performance
  • Dynamic Range
  • Battery Performance
  • Display & Viewfinder
  • User Interface
  • Physical Layout & Ergonomics
4.2

Summary

Capturing a critical moment often takes fast indecisive reactions and a little bit of luck. The a9 removes the need for decisiveness, making luck a lot easier. It’s proof that mirrorless is not only the future in terms of form but also their function. Whether it’s accepted or adopted by the masses, it’s a game-changer.