Sony Alpha A9 Review: Game Changer
Ease of Use10/10
- Accurate autofocus tracking
- Insanely fast speed shooter
- Can be tricky with big lenses
- Uncompressed RAW shooting limits frame rate
- USB 2.0 file transfer
It’s an interesting shift to see mirrorless cameras change the game for DSLR users for once, the only thing that would deter me as a user to make that switch with full confidence is tracking autofocus especially in fast moving scenarios, like animals, sports, the like. It’s one thing that sets DSLR users apart from the rest. For them, the Canon’s and Nikon’s reign supreme, well, that is of course, until now. In comes Sony Alpha A9 that’s changed the way we look at mirrorless cameras and quite frankly has blown up the door on speed.
A primer on the Alpha A9
Sony has been noticeably winning in a few departments with their alpha series that came out a few years ago. The A7 is a worthy example of how Sony made a multipurpose full frame camera that was a great shooter that excelled in the photo and video department. I noticed in this part of the region, indie filmmakers are now inclined to use the Sony A7s2 for their video projects. Compact cameras with sharp optics that took rival DSLR’s to task.
The A7 variant was a great camera but photographers wanted more and it looks like Sony listened and delivered just that. Think of the Alpha A9 as the smarter, younger brother who happens to be a lot more successful in a very prestigious family heritage. It’s a camera that married autofocus and speed, it made me feel like I truly didn’t deserve such power. That said, the A9 doesn’t come cheap and it’s targeted to the pros at a $4,500 price tag. However to note, it’s still cheaper than its rivals in the same class. The Nikon D5 costs $6,499 and Canon’s 1Dx Mark 2 costs $5,999
On the Inside
How the A9 achieves its insane frame rate is all thanks to a 24.2-megapixel Exmor RS image sensor. It’s the first to use stacked CMOS powered coupled Sony’s new Bionz X processor, allowing the A9 to shoot at maximum speeds giving 241 compressed RAW frames or 362 JPEGs giving a blackout free shooting experience.
The shutter is electronic, which means it can go silent as well. When you do enable the shutter sound, you’ll think you’re holding a minigun and firing off bullets making it near impossible to miss a moving object in focus. Our automotive editor tested the new BMW 450i and drove it towards me so I get a range of shots of the car in motion, I’ve taken a slow mo of the frames I fired in the seconds the car drove towards me. While the A9 does detract focus, it instantly readjusts whilst holding the shutter. The end result is a shot that you’ll see on our review BMW’s new line coming right up.
Besides the electronic shutter, which offers up to 1/32,000 secs, a mechanical shutter offers a 1/8000 at 5 fps should you need it. The Alpha A9’s wide autofocus system covers more than 90 percent of the frame. The AF system has 693 phase detection points which perform several focus/exposure tracking calculations, at this point, I reckon Canon and Nikon might need to take notice.
There are two SD card slots, the primary which works with a faster UHS-II standard. It allows allows for dual JPEG+RAW shooting to both cards. I did miss using my faster CF cards which I invested for my DSLR’s but in a mirrorless world, smaller is better. A major nitpick I had was when a card fills up, you’re forced to manually switch to another card.
It does have its chops as a video capable camera to a certain extent, 4K 3840 x 2160 resolution, the sensor captures it at 6K and down-samples it for shaper video footage. You’ll get great video but a lack of S-Log gamma mode means filmmakers would be better off with the Alpha A7R2 and A7S2. It does have slow and quick motion mode that Sony users will find familiar. There are Microphone and headphone sockets onboard as well. However, Sony has marketed this to be the photographer’s trusty speed demon and as of this review, I was given a Sony SEL 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS telephoto zoom and Sony FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G that I couldn’t really take video on. I’ve reached out to Sony regarding this and will update the review accordingly.
On the Outside
The Alpha 9 takes its design chops for the A7R2 with some massive upgrades. Design wise, there’s a AF joystick control point which can also be used via the touchscreen LCD and alternatively an AF-ON button activates autofocus without the need for the shutter. There’s a higher capacity battery inside and there’s been a change from the usual button layout from the A7r2. the record button for video ideal to shoot when you want to use the screen. The dials on the left are layered to offer control for drive and AF modes while exposure is on the right. You’re free to customize the buttons and dials too.
The camera is a solid piece of construction, I took this camera out on a dusty road but I did worry for the ports since the covers are plastic and can come across as flimsy but like you can see it does offer everything a fast shooter would want in their arsenal.
Menus are also customizable, with Sony offering various level of operation. The viewfinder in particular has a a 3.68-million-dot resolution and 0.77x magnification, one of the best right now. The LCD screen that offers live-view is the same as the Alpha 7 which is tiltable but not fully articulated, you’ll have to bump up the brightness when shooting outdoors though.
Focus so sharp, it cuts.
The Alpha 9’s prime directive is its autofocusing system and it was a joy to use it. This was one shot out of 20 that I used. The A9’s focusing system recognizes the main object and maintains that focus as it moves. It can track via the user selecting the focus points manually or a central lock on AF mode which the Alpha A9 has no trouble doing. Face detection is also available for portrait mode which locks focus on the subject’s eyes. I shot this image at the Sony A9’s launch event at Photography Live earlier in April followed by an image I shot of Mali during our car photoshoot.
A performance king
There’s no other way to put this, the Alpha 9 will surprise you in so many good ways. The feature packed mirrorless camera will give you complete confidence in what you’re shooting. When it comes to churning out JPEG’s, it knocks it out the park. Cutting noise reduction and giving out fine details synonymous with Sony standards provided you can remember your choice of that best shot among hundreds.
Some adjustment might be required to deal with the SD card switch and you won’t be able to access the menus when you finish shooting a batch of pictures for at least a minute and a half on a fast card. You can however change shooting settings and still keep shooting more. I shot on uncompressed RAW which reduces the buffer and frame rate by nearly half, make no mistake, it’s no slouch.
Battery life impressed me too. While it doesn’t match up to other professional DSLRs, the Alpha A9 endures, I also learned that the battery can be charged via USB so if you’re going to be shooting on a long day, a power pack will come in handy. Sony Middle East has told me it plans to bundle two batteries in its initial retail roll out for A9 buyers which is a great deal too.
The Alpha A9’s 24.2MP full-frame sensor will not fail you in terms of image quality and high ISO noise reduction like the A7R2 and noise is barely noticeable until ISO 2000. The below shot was an HDR image I shot at ISO 1250 and allowed me to pump out a bit more detail than I normally would. That it’s going to be handy in low light situations. I didn’t have much light to work on as this shot was taken just after losing any natural light but I still got my details in to stack it together.
The Alpha A9’s impeccable method of capturing detail has suddenly made an interesting play in the world of DSLR’s and what it means to take on the big powerhouses with the likes of Canon and Nikon. It’s literally best described as a game changer. Its small form factor and excellent handling will make you feel like you’re wielding a true image capturing weapon without weighing you down. It’s also mostly praise for the sweet combination of a silent fast shooter and an autofocus system that will not fail you.
I will admit you’re going to need a tripod to mount your bigger lenses. It’s also Sony’s little battle right now with their own lenses which are priced at a massive premium, sure you can mount it via an adapter but you want to get the most of the many A9’s tricks which are best put to use with their G line up. Sigma lenses and Canon EF mounts would work too but you’ll be dealing with limitations. The Alpha A9 is a truly remarkable camera that Sony has catered to a very niche crowd.
The same niche crowd are those who are highly mobile photo journalists or photographers invested in sports or animal photography. These are the people who will push the Alpha A9 to its realized potential. For video shooters, there’s still no reason to walk away from the excellent A7r2 or A7s2. There is a reason though that this camera gets a nearly perfect score despite all of this.
Like all things with the advancement of digital imagery, it’s great to see Sony, bring a surprise winner to answer for Canon and Nikon’s heavy weight flagship, both great cameras in their own right but you can’t help but notice what Sony is going to come up with next.