In April 2017, Sony unveiled the Sony Alpha a9, its flagship full frame mirrorless camera. Equipped with the world’s first 24.2 Megapixel full-frame stacked CMOS sensor and the new BIONZ X processor, the Sony a9 delivers silent and blackout-free continuous shooting at 20 fps at full resolution with a buffer of 241 RAW and 362 JPG. After shooting 241 RAW and 362 JPG the camera slows down and stop shooting because the memory buffer is full (~12+ second of shooting at 20FPS). But still, this is quite an impressive performance.
The silent and vibration-free shutter offers ultra fast speed, up to 1/32, 000 seconds. Speed is the theme of the a9, so the AF system provides 693 phase-detection point that covers 93% of the sensor with 60 focus and exposure tracking calculations per seconds.
Other features include 5-axis in-body image stabilization with a 5.0 step shutter speed advantage, an impressive high-resolution view-finder, Ethernet port, dual SD card slots and extended battery life.
Sony invited me to a shooting session in New York in April, where I covered the news, and to give me the opportunity to try the impressive new capabilities of the a9, namely the 20 fps continuous shooting with expanded and super-fast AF tracking. The day after the press conference, in the morning, we went to an ice rink to shoot hockey players and ice skaters in action. In the afternoon, we shot indoor vault pole, martial arts, ping pong, track running and long jump.
This hands-on review is our first impressions on the shooting experience and the performance of the a9 while playing with it for only one day, shooting high-speed actions during various sports training sessions.
Overall the experience was great. The ability to shoot continuously fast moving subjects while maintaining the focus in real time is quite amazing. The high-resolution viewfinder that allows tracking a fast-moving subject in burst shooting mode with no blackout is key to make sure your photos will be the way you want them.
The a9 delivers professional-grade photography, and since I am not a professional photographer, I offer my opinion based on my experience shooting with high-end consumer-grade mirrorless and DSLR cameras.
Release date: The Sony a9 is available since June 2017 for $4,999.99.
What’s new (key features)
- 693 point vs. 400 in the previous model for the AF phase detection
- 25% faster than R7II
- 20 fps continuous shooting with 241 RAW / 362 JPG buffer
- No viewfinder blackout, unlike high-end DSLRs
- High-resolution viewfinder delivers a direct image of the subject
- Fast, vibration free, silent shutter, unlike high-end DSLRs
- Continuous tracking and AF of fast-moving subjects
- Enhanced battery life
- Dual SD card slots
- PC Terminal
- Built-in Ethernet port for FTP file transfer
- New buttons layout
This hands-on is structured in relation to the key features Sony developed for the a9.
SPEED, FOCUS, and SILENCE:
Exmor RS 24.2 MP full- frame stacked CMOS sensor
The unique design of the full-frame Exmor RS sensor, with its stacked structure that includes integral memory, allows a readout speed 20 times faster than the previous system, according to Sony.
Now the circuit layer is separated from the pixel area layer so it can be enhanced.
Additionally, an integral memory is embedded in the circuit layer to temporally store the large amount of data produced by continuous shooting in RAW and JPG. (see graphic)
During the sports photo session in NYC, a few times I reached the limit of the sensor capacity to store the data while shooting at 20 fps both in RAW and JPG. The sensor slows down and stops until all the data are processed and transferred to the two SD cards. However, it provides enough time to shoot the most interesting actions in various sports. In my opinion, it could be more efficient to reduce the frame rate to 10 fps, the option is available directly on the drive and focus dial and labeled as M with rectangles- 5 fps is available as well as L (H = high fps, M= medium fps, and L= low fps).
BIONZ X processor
According to Sony, the enhanced BIONZ X processor with its front end SLI delivers better performance in various areas including autofocus speed and accuracy, face detection, and EVF display response.
Additionally, the new processor reduces noise for high ISO shots and improves detail rendering. 14-bit RAW is supported and is even available when using the electronic shutter.
Key features explored:
20 fps continuous shooting (Excellent)
The beauty of shooting at 20 fps is the ability to capture almost every bit of a fast moving subject, both in JPG and RAW. For professional sport and wildlife photographers, this is a great feature. During our session, I mostly shot at 20 fps and sometimes at 10 fps, and the results were impressive. From each 20 fps burst shot, I could get at least one good image.
I wish I had such a camera for shooting keynote speakers at tech conferences, in that situation you need to shoot several images of the presenter to get an attractive face, without the mouth wide open or the eyes closed. Wedding photographers should greatly benefit from that feature as well.
Blackout free and High-Resolution Electronic High Refresh Rate Viewfinder (Excellent)
One of the most impressive features is the blackout free and high-resolution viewfinder. In traditional DSLRs when burst shooting, the EVF displays one black image in between each shot, due to the shutter and mirror mechanism.
The high luminance 3836K dot Q-VGA OLED Tru-Finder delivers a quite impressive image quality and high refresh rate (120 fps).
In fact, I could perfectly follow the action and the fast-moving subject, and get an accurate idea of my final shots, thanks to the image quality and the lack of blackout.
According to Sony, the Tru-Finder integrates advanced optics 0.78x magnifier with great corner-to-corner clarity. The image rendering in the EVF was bright, and the whole surface of the image was almost equally bright, and I could see fine details. In lower quality EVFs that I have tried in the past, the corners of the image are dark, and the resolution is not that good, making it more painful to use compared to the larger LCD display.
Wide and Fast AF (Excellent)
Sony improved its wide area phase-detection to 693 points that cover about 93% of the frame, which provides enhanced precision and unfailing focus in scenes where the focus would be difficult to achieve with a smaller coverage.
Sony claims that the speed of its hybrid AF system is 25% faster than the previous flagship model, the Alpha R7 II.
The 25 points contrast-detection autofocus covers a smaller surface than the 93% of the phase-detection, that offers great tracking.
My experience of the AF tracking (very good)
The auto-focus system was one of the focus of my shooting session. Since the photoshoot was all about fast-moving subjects, in AF-C Focus mode (Continuous AF), I had to use mainly the Lock-on AF flexible spot: L option. This is only available in continuous focus mode, and once you set the starting focus point and as soon as the shutter button is half-pressed, the a9 automatically tracks the moving subject. L stands for large, meaning your AF spot is large, and you can select Medium (M) or Small (S).
With that option, the sensor tracks the subject you selected at the beginning of the action and maintain the focus. The sensitivity was standard (level 3), and you can choose from 5 levels, from low tracking (1-2) to high tracking (4-5). This is become useful for shooting team sports since the autofocus tends to jump from one player to another or keep track of the one you selected as the subject to follow depending on the level of sensitivity.
There are other Auto Focus modes available, depending on what you need to shoot:
Wide: the whole area of the frame is in focus
Zone: a specific zone in the frame is selected to be in focus
Center: only a rectangle in the middle of the frame is in focus),
Flexible Spot: a small area in the frame is selected to be in focus – the size can be set to small, medium and large
Expand Flexible Spot: similar to Flexible Spot and expand the focus points to surrounding points.
Lock-on AF: sensor tracks the subject that was selected at the beginning of the action and maintain the focus when it is moving around the frame – only available in AF-C mode (Continuous AF)
Eye AF: available in a different location under the Custom Key menu – useful for portraits
Face detection: this is good for portraits as well, and the function is located in the Camera 1 in the settings.
Most of my shots (not all) were done in manual mode with wide aperture value f/5.6, so the depth of field was restricted, and a 1/800 shutter speed. ISO was set to auto with a range of 100-6400.
60 calculations per second (Excellent)
The new design that combines mirrorless construction and a new stacked CMOS sensor that embeds internal memory that helps to deliver unprecedented readout enables high calculation speed, at 60 times per second. According to Sony, the subject motion and exposure changes can be tracked without interruption during continuous shooting.
In the beginning, the AF sensitivity was set Low Tracking Sensitivity level (1 and 2 – prioritize stability), so the AF was jumping to another player when he passed in front. When I changed it to high tracking sensitivity level (4 to 5 – prioritizes responsiveness), the AF would lock on the subject selected no matter what others were doing. More on Focus Settings on the Sony a9 guide.
Silent, Vibration-free, and Fast Digital shutter – (Excellent)
The silent electronic shutter in the a9 is also vibration-free and delivers a maximum speed of 1/32000. It allows maintaining a shallow depth of field in bright conditions.
The silent shutter is a little disturbing at first since you have no sound feedback to know whether the photo was taken or not. The only feedback is a very subtle blinking frame displayed both on the LCD display and in the viewfinder. Once you get used to it, the experience is fantastic: we were 30 photographers in the venue shooting thousands of photos in total silence.
According to professional photographer Cristina Mittermeier, who was on stage at the press conference on April 19, the feature is necessary for wildlife photography, specifically when shooting sharks for example.
As for the super-high shutter speed, I tried it briefly at the beginning of our session, but since we were indoor in medium-light conditions, the photos I got even with the widest aperture and high ISO were very dark, so I deleted them. Testing the high shutter speed should be done outdoors in direct sunlight. I need more time with the camera to experiment with that feature.
Sony G-Master FE 100-400 mm Lens
Shooting sports requires powerful telephoto zoom, and Sony unveiled a brand new lens alongside the a9. That lens is optimized to work with the fast AF of the a9 and offers a maximum aperture of 4.5-5.6. For more information on the lens go to the product page.
The new super telephoto zoom lens allows getting closer shots even when constrained to be far from the athletes like in a stadium or an ice rink. Since I do not shoot pictures with telephoto lenses, so I cannot really share any opinion on the quality compared to competitive products. Overall, it was easy to use, and the quality of the photos we shot that day was very good. Despite its large size, the G-Master FE 100-400 mm was not too heavy to hold in the hands while shooting for an entire day.
Professional sports photographers may not switch from Canon or Nikon to Sony due to the lack of different bright telephoto lenses such as the 300 mm F2.8, the 400 mm F2.8, or the 500 mm F4, from Canon. For sure Sony is ramping up on that side, and we hope to see the company releasing more top-notch telephoto lenses in the next months or years. Here is a link to a list of recommended lenses for the Sony a9, depending on what you need the shoot.
I personally would use the Sony a9 with that lens, for press conferences with people moving around and speaking on stage. The AF tracking combine with 20 fps continuous shooting and the silent shutter are killer features to ensure perfect shots of people’s faces when they speak and move.
Dual SD card slots (Very good – UI could be better)
There are two media slots available in the a9, one for an SD card and one for a memory stick; the lower one is UHS-II compatible for fast write speed.
Since I was shooting both in JPG and RAW, I had to use both slots with two SD cards. Last February, Sony unveiled its new SF-G series fast SD card targeted for professional photographers and claimed it is the fastest in the world, with a write speed of up to 299 MB/s. We used that 128GB SD card in the lower slot, where the RAW files were stored. For the upper slot, I got another regular SD card. The setup was not very intuitive because the user interface does not indicate clearly which card you select for RAW or JPG. The Sony representative had to tell us which one to select.
Battery Life (Very good)
According to the specifications book, the new NP-FZ100 battery offers twice the life of the previous NP-FW50.
We started shooting in the bus at 9.30 am; the photo sessions were from 10 am to 12 pm and again from 2.30 pm to 4.30 pm. I changed my battery approximately at 3.30 pm it was at 11%. From my jpg folders, I shot 2903+352 jpg files, with the same amount of RAW, a little more since I approximately deleted 20 to 50 files. Additionally, I had a few 4K and FHD short videos.
User Interface and customization
The user interface is both complex and easy to navigate when you know what you are looking for. There are over a hundred screens to access functions, I shot over hundred pictures of the menus, and I did not get all the screens. Thus, I am not going to describe everything here but provide a few highlights.
Sony made customization of the buttons better, now you can customize four buttons with the functions you use the most from a very long list of choices. Check the photos below to see how it looks like.
The a9 is an impressive shooter that can appeal to photo amateurs who can spend the money ($4999.99), or to professional photographers who prefer to carry a compact camera instead of a heavy DSLR. Parents whose daughters and sons play soccer, train for ice skating or martial arts could be interested in the a9 to capture the best moments of their kids’ childhood.
The autofocus tracking of fast-moving subjects is amazingly accurate, and offers different artistic choices, thanks to the different levels of sensitivity and the broad array of focus area options.