Sony a9: High Speed For Photographers With High Standards

Ira Block Sony a9
Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks 2017, shot with the Sony a9 from the west looking east. The NY Life Insurance building is on the left and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower is on the right.

Within minutes of picking up the new Sony a9, globetrotting photographer Ira Block knew something was different. He was holding in his hands a game changer of a camera. What most impressed him right off the bat? Speed.

“With speed,” says Block, “I’m not referring to the 20 frames per second. When I say speed I mean responsiveness. It responds really fast, and the autofocus system is really on target. Being able to do 20 frames per second, that makes it perfect for sports shooters. But, short of that, everything else about it is great for people photographers. Look at a wedding photographer. Suddenly the kiss happens, you may kiss the bride, and you’ve got to get the picture sharp, you’ve got to get the focus, you’ve got to make it all happen. It’s one thing if you’re an amateur and you miss something, you feel bad. But when you’re getting paid to get the pictures, you can’t miss. This camera is just fantastic.

“I know some like to call this a sports camera,” says Block, “but, for me, it’s a camera where, if you’re shooting any sort of people, anything where you have people and they’re moving, this camera is terrific. It responds quickly, it will get the focus on the person, and you’ve got your picture! I’m so excited about the camera. I’m going to get a second one immediately.”

Photo by Ira Block
A woman performing a traditional Thai dance at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok.

A longtime National Geographic photographer, Block shoots a variety of subjects in a variety of challenging situations, everything from street photography to landscapes to wildlife to posed portraits. He’s a traveler who relishes cameras and lenses that are compact and light and require zero compromises. He’s somewhat of a traditionalist who demands that new features actually improve his work before he’s willing to give up control.

“I come from shooting film many moons ago,” he says, “and when I change, I change slowly. I love digital, but I tend to not use as many of the bells and whistles on these cameras because I feel I need to be in control. But, every so often, someone shows me something and I try it out and it’s fantastic. Eye detection is the one.”

The Sony a9’s improved eye-detecting autofocus not only finds and follows a subject’s eye, but it’s also a function that’s easier than ever to access.

Photo by Ira Block
Balloons flying over temples in Bagan, Myanmar.

“I tried eye detection on the a7R II and I liked it,” Block says, “but on the a9 it’s even more accurate. And now you don’t have to turn on face detection first. The new eye detection is fantastic. I was doing a portrait the other night of an old baseball player, and I do a lot of horizontal portraits because I like the feel of it. And I always have the subject off-center. And then you either move your focus point or you focus and recompose. I used to focus and then shift the camera, but the problem with that is, when you’re that close and you shift the camera, you may shift the focus accidentally.

“With the toggle switch on the back of the camera,” he continues, “I use it with flexible spot metering to move the spot. On the a9 that toggle switch is always on, so I just hit it to move the focus point wherever I want. The eye autofocus is even one step finer than that. And what I’ve done is, the lenses have this focus hold button, so I assigned eye autofocus to that. That’s an easy, convenient button for me to get to. With my 24-70mm G Master, or my 85mm, I’ve got eye autofocus turned on in the system without having to turn on face detection and it just hits it. I hit that button and it goes right to the eye. It tends to pick the correct eye and you’ve got the correct focus point. It’s crazy that you can compose anywhere you want.”

Were there any big surprises Block found when he got his hands on this new camera?

“What really surprised me,” he says, “was the size of it. I thought it was going to have to be bigger. I knew that Sony would have something special in the works, and I thought to achieve all they wanted to do, it was going to have to be bigger—somewhere between the a99 and the a7. But this camera is almost identical to the a7 system, and with just a little bit different ergonomics. But it’s still small and unobtrusive, and it’s just so responsive.”

Photo by Ira Block
A fisherman unraveling fishing line in Cojimar, Cuba.

An unobtrusive approach is crucial for Block’s shooting style. Whether he’s in tight quarters or a sensitive situation, a bigger camera might prove distracting and draw attention to the photographer. What Block wants is to be as inconspicuous as possible. It’s essential for his work. Not only does the small size of the a9 help with that, the silent shooting mode does, too.

“The ability to go silent is terrific in a lot of situations,” Block says. “For event photographers, or for me, if I’m photographing in a quiet place and I don’t want to call attention to myself, I definitely go to silent mode. And Sony has come up with a flashing notice in the viewfinder for that reason so you know you’re taking pictures. You can assign all these custom buttons; I assign a button to immediately go into silent mode so, again, I don’t have to dig into the menu.”

Ira Block On Street Photography: “I would call myself a ‘controlled’ street photographer. I’m not just grabbing quick pictures off the street. I’m so careful about composition and the whole foreground-background thing, so when I do my so-called street photography, I find the background that’s going to work and I stake the place out. And, then, when the moment happens in front of that background, or that blends in with that background, then I grab the image. So, for that work, this camera is fantastic because those things just happen in a moment. So, if it’s street photography, I just control one portion of it—the background—which will make or break your photo, in my humble opinion. Then I let the actual moment happen in front of it or blending with it. And that’s where the speed of this camera is another thing I really like.”

Sony has added manual buttons and dials to the top of the camera, and Block says this kind of instant access is not only a pleasure for someone trained on manual film cameras, it’s also a much faster way of controlling exposure settings.

Photo by Ira Block
A scene on Calle Padre Pico in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

“I really think it’s terrific that they put a hard autofocus and speed dial on the top of the camera,” he says, “because now you don’t have to dig into the menu to get to something that you use quite often. And the ability to just customize the camera to the way you work, and then having certain features as physical features—because everyone works differently, and no one loves digging into menus. If you’re working slowly and you want to try something you never use, that’s one thing. But if it’s a function that you use or change a lot, the ability to get to it from a hard button or a physical dial is really good.”

Block is also pleased to see the a9’s new, longer-lasting batteries. With two bodies in his kit, he previously carried six or seven batteries at a time. Now he’s able to cut that number in half—and that’s a big deal for a traveling photographer. It means he can carry another lens, a bigger lens, without adding to the net weight.

“I love primes,” he says, “and, of course, that’s my background. When I was younger, zoom lenses weren’t that good. But, these days, my main lens is the 24-70mm G Master. One of the main reasons why I’ve embraced the zooms is dust. I’m out a lot, and if I’m changing primes a lot, I would be getting dirt on my sensor. My two main lenses are the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm, both G Masters. I’ll get the new 16-35mm F/2.8 G Master when it comes out. It’s the type of lens I’ll use for sky photography; ƒ/2.8 is a nice aperture where you can lower your exposure times so you don’t get as many star trails.

Photo by Ira Block
A ballerina poses on the stairs of an old house in Havana, Cuba.

“The other lens I’m definitely getting,” Block adds, “is the 100-400mm G Master. I’m not a big telephoto person, because I tend to like to work close to my subjects. But when you’re traveling, sometimes that telephoto is necessary for a certain effect, for a compression effect. I use telephotos for their compression effect in travel photography. It’s hard to know what to expect, and sometimes you can’t get close enough. And the 400mm would give me great stacking. And if there’s wildlife around, even though I’m not a wildlife photographer, I love to be able to capture that. Likewise, though I’m not a traditional landscape photographer, that long lens is great for stacking mountains and foreground-background relationships, and for getting a nice sky or clouds.”

A travel photographer like Block really does need to be a jack-of-all-trades, and a master of them all as well.

“The core of my work is mostly cultural travel stuff,” he says, “but I also need other images to work around that. To me, you want to carry equipment you’ll have with you, that you won’t leave behind in a hotel room and then regret it. So because that 100-400mm isn’t that heavy of a lens, I decide on some days to go out with the 70-200mm G Master, but then if I think there may be something where I’ll need a longer lens, I’ll take the 100-400mm.”

Photo by Ira Block
A plane waiting for passengers at Olgii Airport in western Mongolia.

The lens quality of the G Master series, plus the 24 megapixels and processing power of the a9 coupled with Block’s discipline and refined technique, make for amazing image quality even at jaw-dropping print sizes.

“The average person may not be making large prints,” he says, “but I do a lot of exhibits. I’m making 6-foot, 8-foot, even 10-foot prints. That’s where these lenses really show their ability to resolve. Corners are always tough for lenses. But these lenses do really well in the corners. I’m making big, big prints. I love the fact that the resolution and sharpness and color really work well.”

Adds Block, “Here’s the other thing that’s so funny. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, it’s only 24 megapixels.’ Well, I’ve got a 10-foot print in one of my exhibits that was shot with the a7 II, because the a7R II hadn’t come out then, and it’s 10 feet wide. So 24 good megapixels with a good processing engine—I have no problem with. If you shoot it right, if it’s sharp, you’ll be able to make as big a print as you want.”

Learn more about the Sony a9 at sony.com/electronics/interchangeable-lens-cameras/ilce-9.

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