Camera Review: The Sony a9
October 10, 2017
With the a9, Sony has thrown down the gauntlet to the competition. Its speed, AF performance, image quality and dynamic range make it a tough camera to top.
Sony made a number of improvements to the design of the a9, starting with a new top dial and a repositioning of the movie record button.
Few companies have disrupted the market for professional cameras quite like Sony, but the a9 may be the company’s most ambitious model yet. While Sony’s a7 cameras have lured pros in need of high resolution or extreme sensitivity, there was still a yawning performance gap between those models and the flagship DSLRs that dot every sideline at every major sporting event around the world.
With the a9, Sony isn’t looking to narrow this gap. It wants to leap over it entirely, setting a new benchmark for autofocusing and continuous shooting speed. We worked with N.J. photographer and director David Patiño to see if the a9 made the jump.
The new a9 takes the rapid autofocusing, burst modes and plentiful AF points of Sony’s popular a6000 series and melds them into the full-frame body of the a7 series. The result is a 24-megapixel, full-frame mirrorless camera with 693 phase-detect and 25 contrast-detect AF points covering 93 percent of the sensor that can burst at up to 20fps with AF tracking. The buffer can hold a generous 222 RAW + JPEG images. AF metering is available
down to -3EV.
The 24-megapixel stacked CMOS image sensor is back-illuminated and can process data up to 20 times faster than the second-generation a7 models. It has a native ISO of 100-51,200 (expandable to 50–204,800). Both Sony’s BIONZ processor and the front-end LSI have been upgraded to cope with the data demands of the new a9. This one-two processing punch enables the a9 to perform AF/AE tracking calculations up to 60 times per second. AF performance clocks in about 25 percent faster than the a7R II, Sony says, and eye tracking is 30 percent more accurate.
Like the a7 models, the a9 offers in-body image stabilization good for up to 5 stops of correction, per CIPA standards. You can record 4K video (3840 x 2160) at 30p across the full width of the sensor with no pixel binning (a Super35mm crop option is also available) or full HD up to 120p.
You’ll enjoy mechanical shutter speeds up to 1/8000 sec. and there’s an electronic shutter capable of a brisk 1/32,000 sec. There’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for connecting to mobile devices.
While the a9 hews rather closely to the design established by the a7 series, Sony did make a few tweaks. The best is a new joystick on the back of the camera to help you select AF points (you can also use the 3-inch touch screen display to adjust focusing points). Other design tweaks include the addition of drive mode and focus mode dials on the top of the camera and an AF On button. You can assign AF areas to the camera’s custom buttons so you can pull them up quickly, a new feature Sony is calling AF Area Registration. A group of specific settings, such as exposure and shutter speed, can now be grouped together and mapped to a single custom button for easy recall.
The movie record button, which Sony used to wedge awkwardly into the hand grip, is now located more conveniently by the EVF. Speaking of which: The 3.86K OLED viewfinder is extremely bright, sharp and, with a choice of 60 or 120 fps refresh rates, it’s speedy enough to keep pace with quickly moving subjects. It’s incredible but even more impressive is the lack of blackout during high-speed shooting.
The a9 offers a pair of memory card slots, but only one supports speedy UHS-II SD cards. At least it’s marked clearly on the interior of the memory card door. At 24 ounces, the a9 is three ounces heavier than the a7 R II but compared to the full-frame DSLRs it’s competing against, it’s a piker. Nikon’s D5 is 49 ounces while Canon’s 1D X Mark II is a chunky 54 ounces.
The a9’s speed would count for nothing if it couldn’t produce pleasing images. Fortunately, it more than delivers on that front, Patiño tells us. “Between the color and dynamic range, it’s really off the charts,” Patiño says. He used the a9 for both stills and video.
RAW files that typically show noise on other cameras at ISO 1600 were surprisingly clean out of the a9. Noise is very well contained through ISO 25,600. While the a9 doesn’t quite have the low-light chops of Sony’s a7S II, it comes quite close—with a much higher resolution sensor.
While Sony is clearly targeting the a9 toward high-speed still shooting, it’s outfitted with its fair share of video features as well. However, Patiño was confused by the omission of an S-Log color profile. As an owner of two a7R IIs and two a7S IIs, which he uses largely for video, he says the lack of S-Log does constitute a deterrent for video shooters—though presumably it’s something Sony should be able to add via a firmware update. That said, the footage out of the camera was excellent, Patiño says.
If you deplore the ability to “spray and pray,” you should stop reading. Shooting in high-speed continuous mode with the a9 is essentially like shooting video. (Remember the days of 15 fps? This is faster.) Since you’re using an electronic shutter, the spray is largely silent—which is helpful if you want to be discrete but also makes it very easy to amass way more images than you really need. After just ten minutes of testing the high-speed burst mode, we had snapped over 400 frames (RAW+JPEG).
This incredible speed is paired with an impressive autofocusing system that does an excellent job tracking subject movement across the frame. Sony has finally added tools to customize autofocusing sensitivity so you can tailor how aggressively it refocuses on objects moving in and out of the frame. The camera is also very good in low light, including tracking moving objects. We did wish the AF points would illuminate as you toggle the joystick.
Sony made a significant improvement to the battery. Whereas the a7 series models would tap out at around 200 images, the a9 can hit 450 per CIPA. Patiño says that the battery life improvement is immediately recognizable to anyone who uses an a7. That said, it still lags far (in some cases, miles) behind the performance of its flagship DSLR competitors. Nikon’s D5, the battery king, delivers a CIPA-sanctified 3,780 shots per charge.
With the a9, Sony has made a formidable mirrorless camera that should appeal to sports and wedding photographers in need of freezing fast-moving subjects. Its 24-megapixel sensor tops both Canon and Nikon flagships in the resolution department and delivers extremely pleasing color and surprisingly excellent high ISO performance. The compact size and relatively inexpensive price tag also make the a9 a very compelling alternative to its pricier full-frame foes.
Of course, the a9 has its liabilities. Even with the improved battery, the a9 out of the box is far behind its DSLR competitors in terms of battery life. You can add a new accessory battery grip to the camera, but then you’re losing the smaller form factor, which is part of the a9’s appeal. The lack of S-Log makes the a9 less useful as a video camera. Sony doesn’t quite have the stable of lenses that sports photographers may need, but Patiño is confident that they will soon enough—and the recent G-Master lenses have all been excellent, he says.