Sony a9, now with updated firmware, is a speed demon in a race against DSLRs

On April 19, the company that created the first full-frame mirrorless camera launched its fastest pro camera yet — and it might just be a DSLR killer. The Sony a9 is a mirrorless camera that packs in the world’s first stacked full-frame sensor and upends a number of complaints surrounding the earlier a7 series including a 20 frames-per-second (fps) burst speed, the company’s fastest autofocus system yet, a no-blackout viewfinder, and even double the battery life. On Thursday, January 11, Sony expanded the camera with updated firmware to enhance its performance.

At the heart of the new Sony a9 is a full-frame 24.2-megapixel sensor that, unlike traditional sensors, is stacked into multiple separate layers. By separating the sensor into one layer for the pixel area, one layer for processing and one layer dedicated to memory, the camera can handle data at much faster speeds, making it possible to handle the high-resolution files quickly. The stacked sensor is not a first for Sony but it is a first in the large full-frame size. The stacked sensor also still uses a backlit design for better low-light performance, which is paired with an ISO range of 100 to 51,200 that is expandable to 50 to 204,800.

That tech introduces a 20 fps burst speed that, to our knowledge, has not yet been possible on a full-frame camera and blazes past the Sony’s earlier cameras by 20 times. While larger files tend to mean shorter burst speed buffers, the a9 can continue shooting at 20 fps for up to 362 JPEGs or even 241 RAW images, all while still using continuous autofocus. RAW files can also be recorded in the 14-bit uncompressed format. The burst speed is also paired with a shutter speed that tops out at 1/32,000.

The speed of the sensor is matched with an enhanced autofocus system that Sony says is capable of making 60 autofocus tracking calculations per second using 693 phase detection focus points, thanks to a new Bionz X processor and a front-end chipset. That brings a 25 percent autofocus speed improvement over the A7R II, Sony says.

Sony says a DSLR’s need for physical mechanisms limit the capabilities, so it started asked, ‘What if mechanisms can be replaced digitally?’

“This camera breaks through all barriers and limitations of today’s professional digital cameras, with an overall feature set that simply cannot be matched considering the restrictions of mechanical SLR cameras,” said Neal Manowitz, the vice president of digital imaging at Sony Electronics. “But what excites us most about the a9 — more than its extensive product specs — is that it allows professionals to see, follow and capture the action in ways that were never before possible, unlocking an endless amount of new creative potential.”

In video mode, the Sony a9 can record 4K (3,840 x 2,160), but over-samples and collects 6,000 pixels worth of information, which creates enhanced color and depth, the company says. HD videos can be shot as quick as 120 fps with bitrates up to 100 Mbps. A five-axis stabilization system is also built into the body, rated at up to five stops.

While earlier models black out the electronic viewfinder as the image is recorded, the a9 continues to show the scene through the viewfinder, with no blackouts while shooting those 20 frames per second. The entire viewfinder has been updated with a 3,686k dot resolution, making it Sony’s highest-resolution electronic viewfinder yet. The viewfinder also uses a .78x magnification, along with a Zeiss T coating to reduce reflections.

The new viewfinder is paired with a touchscreen at the back. The design of the mirrorless also includes two separate drive mode and focus mode dials, along with custom settings for several physical controls. The joystick was also designed to make selecting autofocus points quick within the zone-flexible spot and expanded-flexible spot focus modes. With the ability to take large files quickly, Sony added two memory card slots to keep up with the camera. The battery is also more than double Sony’s A7 cameras, rated at a 2.2 times increase over the older models, Sony says.

The dual card slots and longer battery life are a response to feedback from users of the A7 series, Sony says. “I’ve been shooting Sony for a long time. I honestly never thought [Sony engineers] were paying attention. This is a wish list come true,” photographer Cristina Mittermeier said during the a9’s press event.

The a9 includes both Wi-Fi and an FTP port for fast transfer of files, a feature designed for studio photographers as well as photojournalists covering sporting events or high-profile news stories.

The announcement of the a9 also comes with a new 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens designed to maximize the potential of the Sony’s newest mirrorless camera. A battery grip, external multi-battery adaptor kit, and a grip extension will also be released, as well as new replacement batteries chargers, eyepiece cups, and a screen protector.

With the release of firmware update 1.10, Sony enhanced image quality even further and fixed a few minor bugs. Along with improving overall image quality and stability, Sony says the new firmware supports eye autofocus with the LA-EA3 lens adapter and corrects a bug that caused some RAW files to disappear when the SD card was connected to specific smartphone models.

Moving on to firmware 2.0 as the a9 sits a few months shy of its first birthday, the latest update brings enhanced performance using the continuous autofocus mode for both moving subjects and while using a zoom lens. The update also brings a few new options, including the option to transfer all protected files simultaneously and adding the camera’s serial number to the photographs. Sony says the update also improves overall stability, as well as creating more accurate warnings for overheating.

The Sony a9 may be a beast, but it costs a pretty $4,500 for the body only.

Update: Added news about Sony’s updated a9 firmware.

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