When Sony Electronics President and COO Mike Fasulo took the stage in New York City on April 19 to introduce the company’s latest camera, he said the product would be an example of Sony’s two unwavering commitments: innovation and proof. Innovation “only an industry-leading imaging company can deliver” and proof “that we are listening to our customers.”
Sony’s new flagship mirrorless interchangeable lens camera uses a newly developed full-frame (35mm) Exmor RS CMOS sensor, born from the “stacked” technology that was introduced in the Cyber-shot RX100 IV and RX10 II cameras – the first for a full-frame sensor, Sony said. Together with a new Bionz X image processor, the A9 delivers performance we haven’t seen before in mirrorless and DSLR cameras.
The A9 is as much about engineering, as it is about the end user. In developing the camera, Sony said it studied the wants and needs of its customers – in this case, professional sports photographers, the target buyer of this $4,500 (body-only) camera.
“We want to know your pain points and obstacles, so that we can resolve them and allow you to do what you do best,” Fasulo said.
That means a speedy camera that helps, instead of hinders; a camera with features that complements a photographer’s workflow. The creators’ voice “has been critical to our product development,” said Kenji Tanaka, the senior general manager of the Digital Imaging Business Group at Sony in Japan.
That sounds great but, in actual use, does the A9 compare with the DSLR workhorses that photographers use? It does. In our initial hands-on use, we found it on par in some ways, and superior in others. We had an opportunity to try a preproduction unit of the A9, and shot fast-moving athletes at various sporting events. (Because we were using beta firmware, we weren’t able to test out the camera fully, but Sony told us the firmware in the preproduction models is close to the finished version.)
The A9 is designed to be the ultimate sports camera. With its 20-frames-per-second (fps) prowess and continuous autofocus, it’s a tremendous achievement.
A phenomenal “stacked” sensor and autofocus
The A9 introduces the world’s first “stacked” back-illuminated full-frame sensor. As we said, the stacked sensor technology isn’t new – Sony introduced a one-inch variant when it launched the Cyber-shot RX10 II and RX100 IV. Although the resolution isn’t as high as the 42.4-megapixel full-frame sensor in the A7R II, the stacked technology allows the A9’s 24.2-megapixel sensor to achieve an overall readout speed that’s 20 times faster than the non-stacked 24.3-megapixel sensor in the A7 II. It also gives the A9 an extended ISO range of 50 to 204,800.
Working with the new Bionz X image processor, the sensor can shoot 20 fps RAW continuously, and up to 362 shots before slowing down. In comparison, Canon’s 1D-X Mark II can handle up to 14 fps and Nikon’s D5 goes up to 12 fps; the A7R II can only muster 5 fps. But in order to achieve this, you will need to use an UHS-II SDXC card to maximize speed and writing capability. The sensor allows for an electronic shutter speed of 1/32,000 of a second, and Sony says the fast shutter speed helps to eliminate rolling shutter effect.
Helping to grab sharp photographs is a new autofocus system featuring 693 phase-detection AF points along with 25 contrast-detect points. The PD points are on the sensor and cover 93 percent of the frame – far more than the A7R II’s 399 points, and the greater coverage means more things will be focused. And thanks to the sensor/processor combo, the A9’s autofocus and auto exposure systems are calculating up to 60 times per second.
Every camera company touts speed, and most new models are fast, but the A9 is an entirely different beast.
A camera is only as good as the lens that’s attached. Sony has steadily grown its lineup of full-frame E-mount lenses, and even introduced a new G Master 100-400mm lens alongside the A9. The A9 has a good selection to choose from, but Sony’s full-frame lens options still pails in comparison to Canon or Nikon’s.
However, it can autofocus A-mount glass as well as select Canon lenses, via an adapter. Sony isn’t promoting the latter (the A7R II had this capability), but it’s something that could entice Canon DSLR owners. Like other new Alpha camera, the A9 has a five-axis image stabilization system that steadies any lens.
Pro-centric design and features
From afar, the A9 could easily be mistaken from its full-frame siblings in the A7-series. In fact, the A9 is only a tad larger and heavier than the A7R II, measuring 5 x 3.8 x 2.5 inches and weighing around 1.5 pounds (body only). What’s improved is the larger grip, which is something working photographers prefer and has space for a bigger battery. The weather-sealed body (dust and moisture resistant) is made out of magnesium alloy, making the body strong while also lightweight.
The A9 gains two new layer-cake-style dials on the top-left – one is for selecting a drive mode (single; high-, medium- and low-speed continuous; timer; and bracketing), while the other, which is beneath the drive dial, is for choosing a focus mode (single autofocus, continuous autofocus, etc.). The dials give photographers quick access to these parameters, rather than having to drill through onscreen menus – handy when you can’t take your eye away from the viewfinder during the middle of a crucial shoot. The rest of the controls are as familiar as can be, including a joystick on the back – something found on most DSLRs, but a first for Sony’s mirrorless lineup.
With 20 fps burst and a no-blackout viewfinder, the A9 is the ultimate sports camera.
And about that viewfinder: If the stacked sensor is the A9’s coolest component, then the no-blackout electronic viewfinder is a close second. With a DSLR’s burst mode, you will see a black screen as it shoots rapid fire. That is known as viewfinder blackout, which occurs when the mirror flips up to allow light to hit the sensor. The A9’s EVF does not suffer from this phenomenon, and it’s like watching a video when you are shooting burst.
Sony says viewfinder blackout, due to mechanical components, is a symptom of the DSLR’s limitations, and one that’s difficult to overcome. The A9’s EVF also says a lot about how far mirrorless cameras have come; you can no longer argue that mirrorless cameras are slower than DSLRs.
The EVF’s resolution is a bright 3,686k-dot OLED. For live-view, the A9’s three-inch LCD is also an improvement over the A7-series. It’s touch capable, brighter at 1,440k-dots, and tilts up and down for framing above and below.
The A9 may be compact like the A7, but Sony tries to fit as much DSLR-like performance and features where it can (its engineers are great at this feat). It has two SD card slots, with one supporting the faster UHS-II type. The convenience of simultaneous recording allows for redundancy/backup, or recording RAW and JPEG files to separate cards. Strangely, one slot also supports the Memory Stick format, which hasn’t been on anyone’s radar for a long time. When asked why Sony didn’t go with the XQD format, the company said XQD would have required a larger camera body and it’s better suited for video.
Wi-Fi, NFC, and Bluetooth (for location, date, and time stamps when paired with a phone) are standard, but the camera also has an Ethernet port for wired connections. This allows for not only fast transfers to a computer in a studio environment, but also lets photographers upload to a secured FTP server. There is also a sync terminal for external flashes.
Professional and enthusiast photographers love customizable buttons. The A9 has them, but it also has a My Menu system that lets users tailor the menus to their workflow. Sony said 72 functions can be assigned to the buttons.
The A9 uses a new battery with twice the capacity of previous batteries used in Sony mirrorless and DSLR models. For example, the A7R II is rated for 290 shots, while the A99 Mark II is rated at 390. The A9 can handle up to 480 shots. In comparison, the Nikon D5 battery is rated at 3,780 shots. Sony offers an optional battery grip that supports two batteries, but it still won’t beat a high-end DSLR.
The A9 is shaking the camera world in ways that are great for photographers – not so much for the competition, but we’ll leave the industry ramifications to the pundits. The A9’s introduction reminds us of when Sony introduced the A7, the first mirrorless full-frame camera that was also a game changer. We took part in a one-day shooting event that Sony held, where we were able to put a pre-production unit to work.
Some minor caveats: Although photo and movie quality were to spec, the firmware wasn’t final. Not that this impacted usage as far as we could tell, but we want to note these are not exactly the same cameras that go on sale in May. Also, there were only four of the new 100-400mm G Master lens available, so there was limited opportunity to use one. But on the plus side, we did get to use two other great G Master lenses, a 24-70mm and 70-200mm.
We can’t imagine a wedding photographer being disappointed in the color and smooth motion the A9 delivers.
As long-time Sony reviewers we’ve complained about short battery life for years. Sony heard this loud and clear, and has finally done something about it. Very few photographers ran through a single battery during the day’s shoot – a true breakthrough for the company. Yes, high-end Canon and Nikon DSLRs pack more power, but those cameras are also a lot bigger.
During our hands-on sessions the most impressing feature was the blackout-free display while cranking off those machine-gun like 20-fps bursts. With every camera made before the A9, there’d always be a black screen in high-speed continuous mode. So, as your subject moved, you had to guess where it would go. Not with the A9: As there’s no blackout, you can blitz along at 20 fps and still track your target.
Another cool feature is silent shooting. When DSLRs are rapid firing, there’s a noticeable click-click-click of the shutter. With the A9 you can turn the sound off. Press the shutter and you can’t even tell if it’s working, but a virtual gray frame flashes continuous to let you know it’s capturing images. Now you can shoot bursts in a church wedding, on golf match sidelines, or the opera, and no one will hear the camera as it does its work.
For our one-day shoot, however, we got to photograph athletes in a variety of sports. With hockey players and figure skaters, we tested the autofocus tracking abilities and the 20 fps burst modes. As the hockey players sprayed ice toward us as they skate by, it tested the camera’s weather sealing (no problems).
In a second session, we could choose from pole vaulting, Tae Kwan Do, sprinting, hurdling, long jumping, cheerleaders, and table tennis – a mini Olympics, if you will. The only thing missing was some cute mascot egging us on.
As we shot, we noticed not only how fast the camera was shooting, but also how quickly it was writing the RAW images to the card. If you shoot up to the 362 max shots, it will require a bit of time to finish writing to the card, but we never had to wait too long before we could move to the next sporting event.
Our go-to setting was 1/2,000 in shutter-priority and f/2.8 with the 24-70mm, which was our most-used lens. The 70-200mm (and the 100-400mm, when available) was nice to have, but it weighs you down. Besides, the 24.2-megapixel full-frame sensor lets us enlarge in post-edit, so we could always crop into an image if we need to. Still, we can see why sports photographers love those telephoto primes.
As mentioned, the A9 will support some Canon lenses through an adapter, and we think many professional Canon users will definitely give the A9 a spin.
When we were shooting at the various locations, we couldn’t make a final determination about image quality. Reviewing several thousand photos on a three-inch LCD is really not our idea of fun – even though we could enlarge them to see finer detail, just to get an idea how well the camera was performing.
However, when we checked them out on a 27-inch monitor at home, it was here we could see the really fine quality of 24MP full-frame files. With the proper lighting, you can just keep blowing them up, zeroing in on eyeballs, for example. Colors are very accurate, from the hockey player jerseys and skin tones to hair color and uniforms. We can’t imagine any but the most fussy pixel peepers will complain about the A9, but we’re sure some will.
The one noticeable drawback on the big screen was digital noise in low light with fast shutter speeds. Again, these cameras are pre-production units, so we’ll need to withhold judgment on image quality, including ISO performance.
It does video, too
One feature Sony seemed to have glossed over during the product launch is video capture. And although Sony is targeting the still photographer with the A9, it doesn’t mean it can’t handle video. In fact, the A9 can shoot 4K video with full readout of the sensor and no pixel binning, thanks to the stacked technology. This helps limits artifacts like moire while delivering sharper video quality. With a fast card and Sony’s XAVC S high-bitrate format, you can record 4K/30p at 100Mbps.
The A9 is an awesome example of where camera technology is headed.
We set the A9 to Super 35mm, which oversamples 6K data to 4K, and the quality is outstanding (see the sample video). With photographers having to double as videographers these days, cameras like the A9 offer the versatility. We can’t imagine a wedding photographer or their clients being disappointed in the color and smooth motion the A9 delivers.
One problem, if you want to call it that, is the time it takes to review a day’s shooting, especially shooting 20 frames per second. With a 2012 MacBook Air, it took around 40 minutes to transfer approximately 4,500 photos from the SDXC UHS-II card. We captured thousands of images, and it required hours to review. It didn’t help that Sony’s Image Data Converter, one of the few software to read the A9 files (as of press time), would crash frequently on the older Mac.
It’s definitely something to deal with, although we think many sports photographers are used to this. One thing we did notice that was bit disconcerting is the amount of noise in low-light shots. We’ll withhold final judgement until we can perform our standard test on a production model, but these samples didn’t look as good as the recently reviewed Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
We wish we had more time to experiment with the available options, as this camera is loaded with them. Living with the A9 will be quite an adventure and we can’t wait to do a full review – but we’ll have to be patient, as this will be a highly sought-after camera.
Not for consumers, but tech to watch for
Back in the day this writer used to shoot NHL hockey games with a motorized Nikon F2 film camera (the ancestor to the Nikon DF). It felt like opening a surprise package every time the film was developed – you never knew how your photos turned out until that moment. And there was that flapping mirror interrupting your view of the action. Fast-forward to the A9, and how far digital has come: There is none of those issues, and you could track the skater, puck, whatever, and never lose sight of them. As where camera technology is heading, the A9 is awesome.
Many people have likened the A9 to a DSLR killer, like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. It’s not – as least not for several years. While growing, Sony’s lens lineup still doesn’t rival those of Canon and Nikon, the DSLR kings. Both companies have loyal customers, but unless the DSLR evolves to counter mirrorless cameras like the A9, we could see more professional photographers trickle over, because Sony is trying to build a camera users want, not just engineers.
The A9 is unequivocally a professional camera, with a $4,500 price to match. It’s overkill for consumers, but that doesn’t mean they should dismiss it. The breakthrough technologies of the A9 could trickle down to the A7-series or even less expensive cameras. We wouldn’t be surprised if an APS-C stacked sensor is in the works (we know Sony is already working on a stacked sensor for smartphones), bringing more speed to Sony’s A6000-series. As an analyst alluded to us, the A9 may be impressive, but Sony isn’t done yet. And that’s a good thing for photographers of all stripes.
- Fast continuous shooting and autofocus
- Silent, vibration-free operation
- Viewfinder with no blackout
- 693 phase-detection AF points
- Dual card slots
- Noisy low-light video and photos
- Limited full-frame lenses compared to competition
Update January 28th, 2018: Sony has since updated its A9 camera to firmware version 2.0. This major update includes increased stability throughout, better continuous autofocus with moving subjects and improved stability when zooming. New functions include the ability to transfer protected images via FTP, IPTC metadata input using Sony’s IPTC Metadata Preset software, and the Sony A9 will put the camera’s serial number into the metadata. You can find out more and download the firmware update on Sony’s website.