We were at the announcement of Sony’s flagship mirrorless cameras and were able to shoot with it for our hands-on Sony A9 review. This was a surprise sprung by Sony as it had gathered a select group of journalists in London on the pretext of a masterclass to celebrate the Sony World Photography Awards 2017, but then announced the new Sony Alpha 9.
Hands-on Sony A9 Review: Key specifications
- 24.2Mp full-frame sensor with stacked CMOS design and integral memory
- 20fps maximum continuous shooting with AF/AE tracking for up to 241 raw or 362 jpeg images
- 693-point wide area phase detection AF
- 5-axis image stabilisation with 5EV compensation
- Sensitivity range of ISO 100 – 51200 (expandable to ISO 50 – 204,800 with mechanical shutter or ISO 100 -25,600 (ISO 50) with electronic shutter
- 0.5-inch type electronic (OLED) viewfinder with 3,686,400 dots
- 3-inch LCD with 1,440,000 dots
- 4K video
- Battery life 480 shots with viewfinder, 650 shots with LCD
- Dual card slots, Slot 1: SD(UHS-I/II compliant), Slot 2: Memory Stick Duo/SD(UHS-I)
- LAN terminal
Crucially the Sony A9’s AF system is able to calculate focus and exposure up to 60 times per second, which at 20 frames per second means 3 times per shot and this contributes the delivering fast, accurate focusing.
What’s more, with the electronic shutter in service there’s no blackout visible in the viewfinder.
Hands-on Sony A9 Review: Build and Handling
The Sony A9 is only a little bigger than the Sony A7R II but it feels more robust and solid.
While there are lots of similarities with the Sony A7 II (and Sony A7R II and A7S II) there are a few differences too. One of the most obvious differences is the introduction of two stacked dials on the left of the top-plate. The lower dial is released by a button just to its left and it allows you to set the focus mode. Above it is the drive mode dial, which has a central button that must be pressed before it can rotate.
Over on the right of the top-plate is a familiar mode dial with the usual advanced exposure mode options (program, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual) along with an Auto setting, three custom settings and two video modes – one standard and one S&Q (slow and quick) option for shooting slow and quick motion footage.
One change that I’m particularly pleased about is the location of the video record button. Instead of sitting on a corner of the camera so you have to readjust your grip and wobble the camera every time you press it, this is now on the back of the A9 to the left of the AF-on button and within easy reach of your right thumb.
Another significant introduction is the mini-joystick on the back of the camera that allows you to set AF point quickly – hurrah!
The new electronic viewfinder (EVF) is a Quad-VGA OLED Tru-Finder with 3,686,000 dots, 0.78x finder magnification and Zeiss T* coating to reduce reflections. It also has a refresh rate of up to 120fps which means you see plenty of detail and movement looks smooth. The outer element has a fluorine coating to hep repel dust and fingerprints. I found it provides a very clear, natural view that is sure to convince EVF-haters that they are the future for photography.
The 3-inch 1,440,000-dot touchscreen on the back of the camera also provides a good clear view – although I’ve yet to test it in bright sunny conditions. It’s responsive to touch and it’s a shame the touch-control doesn’t extend to navigating the menu and making setting selections, it’s just for setting AF-point.
And while it’s handy to be able to tip the screen up by 107 degrees or down by 41 degrees, it would be even better to have a fully-articulating screen.
It’s when you shoot with it that you notice the real difference between the A9 and the A7RII. The focusing is fast, really fast. And when you’re shooting at 20fps there’s no blackout, so you can keep the subject in the frame easily.
The camera is also very quiet and there’s only a slight flickering of a frame around the subject to let you know that you’re actually shooting. Memory cards are going to fill up very fast in the early days when people are getting used to the fact that the camera is firing off images.
Sony A9 review: performance
We’re not allowed to publish any of the images that I shot with the Sony A9 until next week, but I can do a little analysis of them.
Checking the EXIF data reveals that the last image I took the with the Sony A9 was 28 minutes after I took the first shot. During those 28 minutes I shot a total of 921 images with the majority being shot at 20fps. There were many breaks in shooting in that time while we moved between the different shooting set-ups, waited for the action to start, the boxing partners to change and I checked shots on the back of the camera etc. That gives you a taste of how many images it’s possible to rack-up when you’re shooting at such a high frame rate.
We were shooting in a boxing gym with constant lights set-up to allow a movement-freezing shutter speeds of 1/1000sec and 1/1600 sec to be used at a sensitivity setting of ISO 1600. The smallest aperture I used was f/6.3, with many being at f/2.8 and f/4 so the relatively restricted depth of field makes the success or failure of the AF system fairly obvious.
The shoot was centred around testing the autofocus and drive speed. I primarily shot in Wide and Zone AF mode because these appeared to work very well, but I did dabble briefly with Flexible Spot and Expanded Flexible Spot as well. In Wide AF mode the camera uses the 693 AF points to latch onto and follow the subject. In Zone AF mode you can select a smaller area for the camera to concentrate on and, as in Wide mode, the AF points illuminate in green to show when they’re in action. It’s a familiar arrangement with Sony cameras and it gives you the reassurance that the camera is doing what you want it to do. However, it seems far more effective than any Sony mirrorless camera I’ve used previously and although it’s early days in testing terms, it also seems better than the Sony A99 II.
With two boxers in the frame when I was using Wide AF mode the focusing system tended to select one (not always the nearest) and stick with them. If one boxer obscured the other, the AF system would switch subject and it didn’t leap onto the background. On some occasions it homed in on the gloves – often the brightest part of the scene.
Examining the images reveals that the camera delivers a very high hit rate. It’s also clear that the sensor captures a good level of detail with fine subjects like hair looking great at 100% on screen.
Shooting at ISO 1600 meant I wasn’t pushing the boundaries of noise control but the results look very good with just the subtlest texture being visible in darker areas viewed at 100% on-screen.
The lights were daylight balanced and the camera was set to its Daylight white balance and Standard Creative Mode settings. This produced attractive, vibrant colours and skin tones that reflect those of the subjects.
I shot in shutter priority mode and Multi-segment metering selected, leaving the exposure compensation set to zero. While some of the images look a little dark, they are generally when the subjects were a little further from the lights and the lens was at maximum aperture.
The Multi-segment metering really showed its skills when I was shooting a relatively small subject against a bright background with strong highlights – it delivered perfectly exposed images.
Sony A9 review: early verdict
With just 28 minutes shooting time in controlled conditions (and the usual press event scrabble for shooting position) under my belt there’s still lots of testing to be done with the Sony A9 but the early signs are extremely good. I’m really looking forward to using the camera in a wider range of conditions and seeing how its AF system copes with lower light levels.
The Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5–5.6 GM OSS Super Telephoto Zoom (model SEL100400GM) was introduced with the A9, and I was able to shoot with it on the new camera. It also seems very good, but with a variable maximum aperture of 4.5-5.6 it may not be the lens that sports pros want. Sony needs to add more long, fast lenses to its range if it is to win the sports and wildlife market that the Sony A9 is aimed at.