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Sony A9 Review / Overview| The Affirmation Of Mirrorless & Wish Fulfillment

April 28th 2017 1:20 PM

So, this, is the Sony A9. It costs twice as much as most people’s mortgage, looks very much like the A7 you’ve got now, has a rubbish touch screen, and, if you’ve got fists of ham and fingers of sausage it may not be the most comfortable piece of kit. In addition, while the buffer limit is around 200 shots compressed, only one of its card slots is UHS-II. That’s problematic because a full buffer then, takes minutes to offload, not seconds, and you lose playback and menu functionality during that time.

So some design decisions are a bit cruel and confusing by Sony, but here’s the thing; focusing on that when looking at it as a whole is kind of like declining a date with Mila Kunis because her handwriting’s a mess – you’ve lost the plot. While certainly not perfect, thanks to a new sensor, processor, and a myriad of other things, the Sony A9 is (arguably) the most powerful mirrorless camera ever made. Moreover, it becomes clear that what this is, more than anything, is a statement piece.

SONY A9 STILLS SPECS

  • World’s First full-frame stacked CMOS sensor, 24.2 MP2 resolution
  • BIONZ X Image Processor
  • 3.0″ 1.44m-Dot Tilting Touchscreen LCD
  • Internal UHD 4K/30p Video Recording
  • 120fps all full HD at up to 100Mbps
  • Full pixel readout without pixel binning
  • Blackout-Free Quad VGA 3.7m-Dot OLED EVF
  • up to 20fps  for up to 241 RAW/ 362 JPEG images
  • Silent, Vibration-free shooting at speeds up to 1/32,000 sec
  • 693 point focal plane phase detection AF points with 60 AF/AE tracking calculations per second
  • Extensive professional features including Ethernet port for file transfer,  Mag. Alloy Dual SD card slots, and extended battery life
  • 5-Axis in-body image stabilization with a 5.0  step shutter speed advantage

It’s actually a defining moment in camera history because it is the materialization of the tangible proof-of-concept for mirrorless. That to those who relegated mirrorless to the games-cupboard as a party trick, or thought mirrorless was just about a size advantage, you were wrong. It says to DSLRs, unequivocally, that anything you can do I can do too – or better.

Truly, if you bought mirrorless for the size, you were barking up the wrong tree, as that was never what it was about. The problem though, was that in its infancy when it really wasn’t nearly as good as its more mechanical contemporaries, ‘size’ was the marketing point it was sold under. But those of us in the ‘know’ knew it was just a matter of time before the potential would be realized, and that when it did there would be a shift.

Well, it has, and now the reasons for having a DSLR above a mirrorless are only really there if you squint. If you open your eyes, it would be hard to miss the fact that the DSLR is surpassed in so many ways. Sony, rather hilariously, has figured out a way to take what’s good for you and make it something you want.

At 20 fps the A9 is 1.7x faster than the Nikon D5, 1.5x faster than the Canon 1DX Mark 2, twice as fast as D500, and those are about the best sports cameras in the world.

But that’s really just the tip of the technological iceberg that is the Sony A9. Below the surface, in essentially every scientific and measurable way it’s ahead of the competition. It’ll 3D track as well as any of those cameras even with fast depth changes, and its Eye-AF is the best I’ve ever seen – no, really, it’s actually good enough to trust with tracking your subject without manual-input point movements in all but very low light. Wedding, sports, and event photographers take note.

Then there’s the lack of blackout, which is truly a revelation and a bit weird if I’m honest. When using a traditional mechanical shutter –regardless of how fast it’s moving– you still get a blackout as the shutter opens to reveal the sensor (yes, rangefinders exempt). What that means is that for every deciding and critical moment you’ve ever captured, you’ve never actually seen it as it’s occurring. You see the moment right before and directly after, just not as it happens. Well, that problem is now a thing of the past.

With the A9 there’s just no break in visuals, but as a consequence of how quick and quiet it is there’s no sensory feedback suggesting how many frames you’re through. That’s not a bad thing really, it’s just so far removed from what you’re used to that you let go of the trigger, pull back and think…what the hell just happened? Because that’s what the A9 does to your senses and sense of normalcy – it shifts it forward. If you really are one looking to capture just the right moment, once you use this there’s no going back. You may love your D500 and your 1DX Mark II, but use this for half an hour and going back won’t feel like going back 30 min, it’ll feel like stepping back 5 years.

Now, a lot of this tech is predicated on the use on an electronic shutter, but there are other benefits of this shutter behavior: The A9 is incredibly quiet and has virtually no vibration. If you’ve ever used a D5 or 1DX you know shooting at speed makes it feel like maybe you need a license to open-carry, and while the 8 year old in you loves it, it’s loud, interrupting of ambiance, and brings with it some shake. Those are non-issues for the A9 because it’s as quiet as a church mouse on Sunday and as far as shake, well, there’s more shake in America’s foreign policy.

It’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And if you’ve got your hand on your wallet with a finger hovering over a ‘buy’ button, you can stop reading here because regardless of what I’ll say next, I’ll never begrudge the purchase of this camera. But as someone who is a bit old fashioned, and a realist, I’ve got to say that it’s not perfect, and there’s something missing that you can’t really put a finger on – something that can’t be measured. There’s no…soul?

When you look at its contemporaries like the D5 and 1DX you get the feeling they are shining examples of brands refusing to adapt and re-think things; that they are carry-overs from a time where cameras were designed by smart men with nothing but a cigarette and a slide-rule – relics of the Cold War era.

The A9 though? That feels like it was designed by software and science. There’s no design for design’s sake. There’s no art, no emotion. It’s the kind of camera you imagine is built in a world of matrices by men in white suits who have number tags in place of name tags; a place where you just can’t imagine anyone who worked there had ever sent their co-worker a meme, or even knew what one was.

When you use a D5, 1DX or similar, it’s akin to driving an American stick-shift from the 70’s. It’s all very manual and there’s feedback that you feel, rather than feedback that you read. With the A9, it’s kind of like what I’d imagine controlling a Reaper drone from half a world away is like – a bit removed from the experience. In fact, I’d wager you’d never get emotionally attached to an A9 because it’s all very serious and utilitarian.

That said, you do get the sensation that it’s the embodiment of function over form, and that each design was meticulously decided upon. For instance, a Sony engineer related to me a story about how, after the ‘final’ shutter button was done and one staff member said something unflattering in passing, it didn’t turn out to be the final one after all. And 200 variants later we have this one.

It’s clear they’ve taken this same utilitarian sensibility of approach to design throughout the camera, because Sony hasn’t just given it an amazing feature-set, but they’ve done a lot to help you exploit the A9’s robust firepower. The results make you look better than you are, and make you feel like a hero.

Unlike the other power shooters that are clunky and ungainly, this one is nimble, sharp, and adaptable. If I had to write a dating profile for it, its equivalent to that profile staple ‘as at home in jeans as in a tux‘ would be ‘as comfortable at a Christening or wedding as at the Olympics‘, and that would be no embellishment. Whereas a D5 and 1DX really feel wasted in some scenarios, the A9 is happy to be your discreet and civilized travel shooter by day, and your sports superhero by night, all with the turn of a dial.

[REWIND: Sony Announces A9 And 100mm-400mm 4.5-5.6 Super Telephoto Zoom]

So when you think of it as a whole, how good it makes you look, how easy it is to get the best out of, that it’s 1/3 less in price than a D5 or 1Dx Mark II; that it’s smaller, faster, more agile and adaptable, you kind of wonder why you would go for anything else in this space? I mean, those other cameras’ real claims-to-fame are FPS and AF ability; those were the pillars they were built around. Take those crowning achievements away and that’s like taking away the sunshine from a summer holiday in Aruba – you’re left with… not much else to speak of really.

In a sense, you might miss the ruggedness* of the others and the older mechanical feel of things in a sort of odd Stockholm Syndrome kind of way, but if we agree that these cameras are all about getting the shot under the most strenuous of circumstances, then there’s no room for emotion, only for the tool you can best rely on to do the job. Arguably, that’s now the A9.

At the very least the A9 challenges the long-standing status quo of performance cameras, but at most it’s far more than that; it’s the division bell between the standard and the ab-so-lutely remarkable. Consider the bench, marked.
Click here to see the offered options.

* There is that percentage of users there who really need this and the Sony can’t compare

About

Kishore is a photographer and writer based in Miami, though he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. With a passion for beauty and aviation photography his work is all at once focused and eclectic. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Comments [17]

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  1. Chris Chu

    Among all of the camera reviews I’ve read over the years, this one stands out in being both highly informative and entertaining to read.  Thank you.

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  2. Robert Serafin

    Nice article,but you really made me laugh with SOUL topic

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  3. Mike Glatzer

    This is such a great platform, but I keep seeing one glaring issue – where’s the long telephoto glass for serious sports and wildlife shooters? Until Sony releases that, I don’t see many of those users rushing to buy an A9. Even with lens adapters, unless the new AF makes up for the slow-down you get from not using native glass. I think Sony put the cart before the horse with this release, but it needed to do it to say, “Hey old farts (Canon & Nikon), the future is now and we’re coming for you!” 

    All I know is that I’m super excited for the next A7 series release because if it captures key innovations from the A9 (joystick, 80% of the AF improvement, menu system, bigger battery and some others) then the only thing holding people back from switching is the cost associated with doing so. 

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  4. Ted Nghiem

    The sony a9 looks kickass.  But, I am more interested in Fuji’s GFX line.  If the next iteration increases its high sync speed, then, that is a winner in my book.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      The A9 is quite a piece of kit, and not intimidating to use. I wouldn’t, however, say the A9 and GFX are interchangeable though. Literally on two totally different ends of the spectrum.

      You know Ted, I’m very curious to see what Fuji does with the GFX, but more curious to see what the buyers do with it, because , my inclination is to think that amount of interest there suggests a lot is brand loyalty at play, and that perhaps some overestimating what the Medium Format sensor will bring to their lives.

      I can say now I don’t exactly relish the thought of walking around with the GFX, and it didn’t make a great impression on me from a feature-set or handling perspective (granted, I used it before it was the final polished version). Especially not in the face of the X1D which is not only nice to look at, but to hold. While the Hassy’s software at the time wasn’t perfect, it was a camera I’d want to take everywhere and would actually use. Actually, at the A9 launch event there was someone walking around shooting with the X1D and I though…right, I could have one of those and I’d be using it in a studio and in travel. 

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  5. Black Z Eddie

    Sony is just whooooping ass.  If I didn’t already have the A7RII and A7II, I’d be all over this camera!  But, my gear buying is done for a while.  But, mark my words, if one of them dies, A9 is on my target list.  :)

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    • Kishore Sawh

      That’s not a bad idea Black, the A9 is so versatile. I think you just have to know what you need. If you’re using an A7RII and doing studio portraits… A9 won’t replace that necessarily, but for versatility etc….

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    • Black Z Eddie

      Kishore Sawh, I’m trying to get back in to motorsports shooting again.  I miss it.  That’s why that stinkin’ A9 is so tempting.

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  6. Xz VR

    All good and all but my current camera D810 still does what I need now and more. To me its image quality is still topnotch and still makes me in awe at each shutter click. I’ll be still be waiting on the sidelines but getting close. What I don’t like is say I got A9 for $4500ish only to be replaced by A9S 6 months later and the A9MK2 in a year.. 

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Haha. I feel you on those points, and I like hearing that because too many people buy new stuff without getting near the edge of the envelope of what their current gear. 

      I mean, it really depends on what you shoot and how. If you’re a studio or portrait shooter then resolution will be more important and I’d go with the A7Rii or like a D810 etcetera. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and what features you really need. It’s unlikely that if you use a D810 you’ll need an A9 because they are totally opposite types of cameras and I wouldn’t compare them. 

      You’ve gotta know when that new tech is beneficial. I am used to rangefinders and OVFs from DSLRs but, for example, if I’m doing an outdoor shoot, like lifestyle or swimwear in the morning where lighting conditions are changing by the second, the EVF is a godsend because there’s no need for test shots for exposure because you see it in camera real time. 

      The A9, as eluded to above, can be used in pretty much any scenario – but you just may not need it. 

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    • Black Z Eddie

      Xz VR, assuming you did get the A9, why do you believe you’ll need to get the latest version each time one comes out?  Don’t.  

      I don’t why why people feel like they got jipped when a new version comes out.  By that logic, you’ll never own anything new because you’ll always be waiting…or worst, you own a Canon or Nikon.  Haha. Joking, I’m JOKING!  :)

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    • Matthew Saville

      Black Z Eddie, the reason people feel jipped when a new camera comes out, SOMETIMES, is because they spent WAY too much on the WRONG camera, plain and simple. And this current situation, with the A9 at $4500 instead of $2500 or $3500, is a prime example of what COULD lead to that exact feeling of buyer’s remorse.

      For a Nikon shooter, one need only look back 10 years to the Nikon D3, a $5,000 camera that, as Nikon’s first full-frame body, literally EVERYBODY who could come even close to affording one, did. Many, many, many credit cards were maxed out to afford that thing, because it was the ONLY Nikon option at the time.

      Unfortunately, what 50-75% of those D3 buyers REALLY “needed” was, of course, the D700. Which came out less than 1 year later, at about $2,000 cheaper. It had the same sensor, the same AF system, and mostly the same indestructible flagship build quality, though only one memory card slot.

      The same thing *could* happen with this A9. Make no mistake, Sony could have priced this camera at $3K or $3.5K, and still turned a nice profit. But they’re placing this camera as their flagship sports camera, aimed at the ~$6K Nikon D5 and Canon 1DX2. That’s the main reason this camera is $4500. Because it can be.

      If FPS and general blazing speed / responsiveness are what make this camera worth $4500, then there’s a very good chance that an “A9R”, with only 4-6 FPS, will cost just $3K or $3.5K. There’s an even better chance that we’ll see a handful of the A9’s major improvements show up in a “lowly” A7mk3, at just $2.5K or $3K.

      If most shooters are honest with themselves, they’ll realize that they really don’t need 14 FPS. The dual card slots and impressively good AF would be nice in an A7-series, though. So, for me at least, the A9 is a “wait and see” moment for sure. Because I know there’s a 75%+ chance that I’d regret buying it when the camera I REALLY want is juts 6-12 months down the road.

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  7. Michael Turk

    It is exciting to see the newer technology being made available for those who can afford it.  It makes sense for the camera and lens manufacturers to aim their new kit at the pro  and prosumer market, with the increasing number of consumers using smartphones in place of low-end kit.  However, as an enthusiast and retiree, using the A6xxx series, I really would like to see Sony produce some more mid-priced,  light, compact APS-C lenses to match their APS-C cameras.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      I don’t think you’re alone there, Michael, in wanting more mid-priced glass for e-mount, and I would think Sony is working its way in that direction. The new 85mm 1.8 is relatively well priced and i would think they’d continue to do more of that. Sony’s lens prices for e-mount are definitely a barrier for many, though it should be said the adaptability of Sony’s mount to take other lens does offer a certain level of reprieve. 

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  8. adam sanford

    Statement pieces don’t take pictures, Kishore — photographers do. 

    An outright filthy spec sheet does not improve the ergonomics, make more lenses magically appear, or breathe a photographer’s soul into it. 

    This is not the missing piece Sony needed.   IMHO, the company needs to pump the brakes on horsepower and focus on handling.

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    • Matthew Saville

      I think that, unfortunately, it is ALWAYS like this when new technology is hitting the streets. I’m not sure if you were around in the early days of DSLRs, Adam, but I had the misfortune of shooting with cameras like the Nikon D1X and Canon D60, some decade-and-a-half ago I think. They were absolutely atrocious to use, and it was a joke to try and handle them expertly. In my opinion, it took both Canon and Nikon many, many generations to get both SLR and DSLR ergonomics just right. Considering that this is both a newcomer to the field, and a whole new field to boot, I’d say that Sony is smart to just go all-out with sheer horsepower, and worry about ergonomics and UI as much as they can afford to before their target release date.

      From what I can tell, they’ve corrected quite a few of the quirks that I noticed about the A7R2, and that was already a pretty easy camera to use, once you got to know it.

      TLDR, I suspect that the A9 will possess just enough ergonomic finesse to reward any serious pros who are willing to truly get to know it. It’s never easy to learn a whole new UI, but as someone who has spent over a decade intentionally keeping up to speed on multiple UI’s for the sake of comparison and review, I’m pretty happy with Sony’s progress even in this, the arena in which they still need the most improvement.

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  9. Matthew Saville

    Kishore, I think you set a new record for elapsed words before mentioning a sexy female celebrity. But, you picked one of my favorites instead of a Kardashian, so I’ll allow it.

    Also, bravo for your nod to the fools who decided that full-frame mirrorless was magically going to be ultralight, way back when. That was a marketing ploy with a limited lifespan, and today with lenses like the G-masters and others, we now see just how dumb folks were to expect ALL aspects of mirrorless to magically get lighter and smaller. Good glass is good glass, period.

    I get what you mean about the lack of soul, too. When I held the A7R II, I could immediately tell what a badass piece of gear it was, but I also immediately felt how cold and void of character it was.

    What I realized is, …so what? Did we expect the Terminator to be warm and fuzzy?  Nope. We expected him to obliterate anything in his path with impunity. And that is what Sony is doing with their “perfect” modern technology.

    An atrocious UI is only a minor niggle in the long run, at least that’s what Canon and Nikon higher-ups need to be telling themselves right about now. Because while I personally love my Nikon ergonomics, interface, and customizability enough to stick with them for 1-2 more go-rounds, I am also warming up to Sony’s interface a little more, with every new camera they put in my hands.

    Quite simply, by the time Sony “gets it right” and delivers a Scarlett Johansson (or a Summer Glau) instead of an Arnold….It’ll be TOO LATE. 

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