When Sony’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras, the a7 and a7R, shipped at the end of 2013, the company had a market share in the full-frame space that one company exec said was around 1 percent. While those two mirrorless cameras broke ground by placing high-resolution full-frame sensors into a body that was around the same small size as many mirrorless APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras, they weren’t a smash success. The slow autofocus, limited performance and lack of pro lenses made the cameras a good choice for a secondary body or a travel camera, but few used them as their primary camera.
In just under four years since the a7 launched, much has changed both in the camera market and in Sony’s positioning within that market. The new Sony a9 is the fifth camera in the full-frame “alpha” series after the a7 and a7R, and it arrives following nearly two years of continuous Sony product releases. There are now more than 20 lenses in Sony’s full-frame lineup, and the company announced recently that it was in the second position in U.S. full-frame camera sales for the first quarter of 2017. While we wait to see if Sony can repeat that in future quarters, it’s clear the tides have changed.
The Sony a9 is a groundbreaking camera, as it’s the first full-frame mirrorless to surpass the performance (at least in terms of frame rate and AF speed) of the top-end DSLRs. With a top frame rate of 20 fps and nearly 700 focus points, the Sony a9 is a dream camera for sports shooters and a tremendous performer for just about any other market as well. While many mirrorless cameras have a “silent” shooting mode where an electronic shutter is used instead of the mechanical shutter, that feature is often an afterthought. In the Sony a9, the standard shooting mode is “silent” electronic shutter.
Electronic shutters are usually plagued with “rolling shutter,” which is a distortion in a photo created as the camera reads the image off the sensor. Sensors send data to their processors line by line, from top to bottom or from left to right. During the few fractions of a second it takes to read each line of data from the sensor, a subject can move, causing one side of the image to appear out of alignment with the rest. If you’ve ever shot panoramic images in a scene with moving people, you’ve seen a form of this problem. As you scan the camera horizontally, moving objects blur or get distorted.
Thanks to a newly designed sensor that incorporates processing and a buffer on the same chip, the Sony a9 can operate in electronic shutter mode with no rolling shutter—the data is read faster than subjects can move. That’s another first for the Sony a9. Silent shooting is naturally advantageous for some types of photography—wildlife, news, wedding and military uses spring to mind—but having no shutter noise quickly becomes normal when using the a9 for a while.
The Sony a9 has an electronic viewfinder and, in another first, there’s no blackout during capture. This is a feat that DSLRs by definition cannot achieve—the mirror in a DSLR goes up and down to capture an image, which causes a blackout—and the speed of Sony’s processor allows it to display the image while simultaneously capturing and recording it.
The company has been keenly aware of the feedback from the a7 series cameras and has continually told the media that it was listening to journalist and customer feedback very carefully. I’ve personally spent hours talking to Sony’s engineers about features and functionality I’d like to see come to the system.
While not everything has been ticked off the wish list, they certainly managed to tackle a lot of them. From things like the addition of a new top-mount dial to control shooting speed and modes to the dual card slots and Ethernet connector, it’s clear the company is listening.
Another important improvement is in dust and moisture resistance—the Sony a9 is “fully weather sealed” (that doesn’t mean waterproof) versus the “weather-resistant” claims of the previous cameras.
The much-lamented battery life of the a7 cameras has been improved with a new “Z” class battery from Sony that it claims can capture 450 shots, but we’ve found captures nearly 10 times that many. In one day of shooting with the a9, I captured 3900 RAW+JPEG shots, plus about five minutes of 4K video, and still had 29 percent battery power left at the end of the shoot.
Sony also managed to cram this pro-level speed into a body that’s scarcely larger than the a7-series cameras, and the result is a professional camera system that, between body and lenses, can be pounds lighter and much smaller than the competition. The a9 body weighs 24.2 ounces, compared to the Nikon D5 at 49.9 and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at 53.76.
The a9 is not, however, a camera without limitations. Every camera system has to make some trade-offs, and the a9 is no exception. While the water-resistance has been improved over the a7, it’s not on par with the durability of the pro Nikon or Canon offerings. The Sony a9 can record in 14-bit RAW unless shooting at 20 fps, at which point it captures in 12-bit RAW, but the camera is probably only capable of around 12 stops of dynamic range, less than that of the a7 RII. This is on par with the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, however, so at least all the pro bodies are on an even footing.
The buffer is much faster, and write times are significantly improved, and the camera is capable of doing more tasks while writing to the card. The a7 series needed to wait until the buffer was clear before you could play back images or access the function menu, but that limitation is gone on the a9. You still can’t access the main menu until the buffer is clear, which is something you can do on the top-end Nikon and top-end Canon, so there’s still a bit of overall performance gain to be had on those cameras.
4K video, which was one of the hallmark features of the second-generation a7 cameras, is slightly more limited in the a9 compared to the a7S II and a7R II, as there’s no 10-bit output over HDMI, and the top video bit-rate tops out at 100 Mbits. It still features full-sensor readout with no pixel binning, but the pro videographer is likely going to want to stick to the a7s II.
Sony has taken strides to improve its menu system, making tabs more obvious and grouping some categories together, among other improvements; the menus system is still unnecessarily cumbersome. Sony has acknowledged it’s still working on this, but it would have been great to see the menu on the a9 overhauled. Settings are often oddly named, oddly located and don’t always work as expected. For example, a focus hold setting that allows the camera to record a focus point to return to with the push of a button takes multiple steps to enable and then didn’t always work as expected.
There are sometimes multiple ways to achieve the same task, too. There are now by my count three different ways to set custom shooting modes, but only two of them can be programmed to buttons. It feels like different engineering teams simply added features to the camera’s menu without regard for what other teams had done. At the very least, the a9 needs a fully touch-screen LCD to make menu selection easier.
At a recent press event, where journalists were working with the Sony a9 and a number of new zoom lenses, I heard one product manager emphasizing to one of the members of the pro support team that the Sony a9 is “one of our flagship cameras,” with the high-resolution a7R II and the high-sensitivity a7S II part of its top-end lineup.
That’s significant for two reasons: first, because it indicates that the a9 isn’t meant to be a one-size-fits-all camera and will be part of a range of solutions for different photographic problems; and second, because while the a9 is a stunningly good camera, it’s not perfect. With a7 series cameras forming part of the triad of the company’s flagship bodies, it’s clear that more cameras are coming. Whether Sony calls those something like a9R and a9S or updates the a7R II and a7S II to have the feature set of the a9, it’s certain that a video-centric and a resolution-centric body are coming.
Built For Speed, And Other Things
I’ve spent days with the Sony a9, and it has quickly become one of my favorite cameras. While I’m always going to love the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, the Sony a9 performs as well as either of the systems and is much more comfortable to hold.
Anyone who has used the Sony a7-series will be instantly familiar with the camera, and the additional control dial makes it a lot easier to switch modes. By default, the Sony camera is in electronic shutter mode yet makes a noise when the shutter release is pressed. This is a sound being produced by the camera and can be disabled. I like to turn on a visual indicator that flashes the corner of the frame when the images are being captured, to prevent accidentally holding down the shutter release instead of half-pressing and taking 40 inadvertent photos before I notice.
The autofocus in the a9 is spot on, a world better than the a7-series cameras. Sony has not only created a camera that can keep up with the competition but has created a camera that can exceed its performance. In our focus tests with the a9, we found the camera captured frame after frame of in-focus action, even locking onto the eyes of athletes moving at full speed. On our YouTube channel, we reviewed the AF capabilities of the camera, and you can see that in most bursts, each frame is in focus across all the action.
This places the a9 ahead of the Nikon D5 (our benchmark for AF precision) and Canon EOS-1D X Mark II in terms of accuracy and tracking capability. Part of this is the density of AF points—693 for the a9, 153 for the D5 and 61 for the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II—and part of this is the coverage of the AF points. The Sony a9 spreads the points out nearly edge-to-edge while both the Nikon and Canon system have a preponderance of points in the center of the frame.
Image quality is excellent from the Sony a9. While Sony marketed this camera to the sports shooters, it’s capable of producing excellent images in any number of photographic specialties. Portrait shooters will want to stick with the a7R II, thanks to the high-resolution sensor and greater dynamic range, and some landscape shooters may feel similarly inclined.
The advent of the mirrorless era saw many promises about what the technology would do someday. Without a mirror, it would be possible to have incredible frame rates, stunning video, more precise AF and more, even with a full-frame sensor. The mirrorless world has been close to catching up with the DSLR world in terms of performance and image quality for a few years. The Sony a9 marks the point at which the underlying benefits of a mirrorless system can provide functionality that simply can’t be met by DSLR cameras. We’re in uncharted territory in the world of camera development, and it will be interesting to see what we discover.