When Sony released their first mirrorless camera, few were convinced it could ever match up with big DSLR pro bodies such as the Nikon D5 or Canon 1D X II. The Sony a9 is the first attempt to offer pros a mirrorless alternative to these brick-like cameras, but does it stack up?
I’ve been a Canon and Nikon user ever since I got into photography. Aside from Phase One, I hadn’t tried any other camera brand before Sony loaned me the a9. The only few times someone handed me a mirrorless body, I felt like it was a toy and the EVF was annoying me more than anything. So, to put things in perspective, let’s say I wasn’t starting the review with high expectations for the a9.
When I took the a9 out of its box, I was astonished by how tiny it was. Having used both the 1D X and all Nikon pro bodies since the D4, I could only be amazed by how small this thing was while still packing in all the features someone would expect from a pro body. However, the small form factor quickly shows its limitation. Once I had put the 24-70mm f/2.8 G on it, I remembered why I love the pro bodies so much: their balance with big and heavy lenses is perfect. With the a9, the balance is entirely out of whack, and on a full day of shooting, I can only imagine what your wrist would feel like. Also, if you have medium-to-large hands, you’ll probably want to get a grip to avoid having your pinkie trying to find its place and rubbing the bottom of the camera.
Once I got over the form factor, I started playing with the camera and truly enjoyed the ergonomics. It didn’t feel like a toy but more like a real camera. The buttons are well placed, and when you come from a DSLR, you don’t feel lost using it. The EVF is also excellent. I remember looking through the viewfinder of the very first Sony a7 and swearing that EVF would never replace an optical viewfinder. Well, the a9 made me rethink my initial opinion.
Just like on most recent cameras, you’ll find a joystick to pick your autofocus point. It’s perfectly sized and fits perfectly under the thumb. The joystick coupled with the numerous customizable buttons make this camera a killer working machine once you’ve set it up to your liking.
Because it was a loan from Sony, I couldn’t realistically test the weather sealing or well, I could have, but I doubt I would have been allowed to write another review after that. So, my judgment is limited to the feeling I had while having the camera in my hands. It does feel solid, but it doesn’t feel quite as rugged as a Canon 1D X II or Nikon D5. Furthermore, by not having something that covers the sensor while changing lenses, the a9 doesn’t beg to be used under harsh conditions. Now again, I may be wrong here, and some people may use it in terrible weather without a hiccup, but the body doesn’t feel as solid as other pro cameras.
It’s great to see that Sony decided to slowly implement dual card slots in their recent cameras, including the a9. A pro body without this very feature wouldn’t entirely be destined for pro use. However, it’s a shame to offer Memory Stick compatibility to the detriment of speed. See, because of the MS compatibility (or instead should I say backward compatibility), the second slots will only take UHS-I SD cards instead of UHS-II. It may not be an issue for most users, especially given that the a9 comes with a substantial 5GB buffer, but those looking to get the most out of it (thinking about action, press, and sports photographers) may prefer that both slots be faster.
To end this build quality section on a good note, the one thing I truly appreciated was the fact that I could charge the a9 battery through the USB port. The included USB cable was extremely short, and at first, I was wondering why they would include something as short. No one could ever shoot tethered with that! But after a little research I learned that like the a7 bodies, it could be charged by USB! If you have a couple of external phone batteries, you’ll be able to use them to recharge your a9 on the go! It's extremely useful if you shoot videos or travel a lot.
In terms of features, the first thing that stands out when putting the camera to the eye is the crazy AF Sony implemented! 93 percent of the field of view is covered, and the focusing is fast, I mean blazingly fast. I didn’t think I’d ever say that, but I think mirrorless cameras like the a9 are almost matching the pro DSLR bodies. When I say almost, it’s only because I didn’t have a D5 or 1D X II in my hands to compare. But I’m sure it’s either on par or extremely close. Even in low light, I was surprised by how good it was. It’s the only place where I feel like it’s still a bit behind the best DSLR bodies.
The electronic shutter is another feature that’s extremely useful for those shooting documentary style. It can be set to make absolutely no noise. I wish I had that same feature on my 1D X II back when I was shooting weddings; it would have helped me to capture so many candid moments. Furthermore, the electronic shutter allows for shutter speeds up to 1/32,000 s, which is fantastic when shooting wide open in bright sunlight. One downside of the electronic shutter is when shooting with flash: it won’t work well together. The a9, like all other mirrorless cameras, will have to then rely on the mechanical shutter to offer a sync speed of up to 1/200-1/250s. The mechanical shutter works fine but will limit you to five images per second in burst mode instead of the whopping 20 frames per second it can otherwise achieve. It’s a shame that no electronic shutter has yet been developed to fully work with flash and match the x-sync of leaf shutter lenses on medium format. Hopefully, this will be different in the years to come.
Speaking of the 20 frame per second this beast can capture, it’s quite disturbing to use it when you are used to a DSLR. First, because it doesn’t sound like a machine gun, and second because it has no blackout! The first few times you’ll use the burst mode, you may wonder if the camera is indeed taking any picture. While I don’t shoot sports or fast-paced situations a lot, I did play around with the burst mode and with the AF on, and it’s astonishing to see how well it keeps up.
On the less bright side, I still can’t get over the fact that Sony didn’t include a timelapse feature in the a9 and the new a7 bodies for that matter. It’s also not compatible with the PlayMemories Store for some reason. These mirrorless cameras are kind of like what smartphones are to older cell phones, but yet, it misses the mark when it comes to offering a modern system with slightly more advanced features. The idea of an app store for the camera was quite smart; it’s a shame it doesn’t work with the latest and greatest Sony alpha cameras.
But let’s talk a bit more about the more advanced features a mirrorless camera offers that your old DSLR doesn’t. Because, if you are like me before I used the a9, you may not even know about these time-saver features that can indeed make your workflow a lot better. The EVF allows for a lot more info to be displayed. Imagine having live view mode enabled all the time but in your viewfinder. Wouldn’t that be great? You have a live histogram to make sure your exposure is dead on, the final image before you even press the shutter right in front of your eyes, all the settings displayed, depth of field preview in real time, white balance shown as it’ll be captured. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. And before you start asking how it works when shooting studio when using settings for strobes, well, you switch the exposure preview off and done, it now works like an optical viewfinder! The EVF, once you get used to it, is probably the best thing a press or wedding photographer could ask for. It makes getting the right settings on every shot so easy, it’s almost not fair. Also, because it’s kind of like using live view, you can even shoot video while looking through the viewfinder. It won’t go all dark like a DSLR that flips up a mirror to enable live view.
Another great thing that Sony offers is the face and eye detection. It finds and tracks your subject's face or eye. If you shoot with a very shallow depth of field, this is such a huge benefit. It’ll almost make it hard to have a blurry shot. Furthermore, it can be enabled and disabled by the simple press of a button. No need to press a button, choose the right option, and continue shooting. No, just set a custom button for eye focusing, push it when you want to enable it, and that’s it!
Let’s quickly go over the video features. The Sony a9 can shoot video like any other Sony alpha camera. The video quality is even excellent. However, it doesn’t come with as many options as the a7 bodies. For example, it lacks S-Log. It’s a bit puzzling to see such a feature lacking on the flagship camera. Also, when shooting in 4K, if you set the a9 to 30fps, you’ll notice a slight crop of around 1.2-1.3x. I couldn’t find out why, if it’s to overcome heating issues or for processing speed reasons, but it’s something to keep in mind while shooting if you were to change settings between two sequences. I don’t want to get into too many details regarding video, because I believe the a7 range is better suited for this than the a9. However, if you do need to shoot videos from time to time, the a9 is still a competent camera.
If the Sony a9 wants to rival with the Nikon D5 and Canon 1D X II, it has to offer not only fast and precise AF with a high-speed burst mode but also great image quality. With no surprise, the a9 delivers excellent files even at high ISO. Up to ISO 6,400, it delivers clean files that are virtually noise free. When going up to ISO 25,600, the a9 still creates usable files if appropriately exposed. At 51,200, it does show quite a bit of noise, but depending on the exposure and amount of details required, the shot may be usable as well. These are more than respectable performances.
The Sony A9 currently retails for $4,198 without a lens. Its batteries are sold at $78, while the grip will set you back $298. If you don’t want a full vertical grip, but just better handling, there is a grip extension available for $108.
The camera itself is about $1,300 cheaper than a Canon 1D X II and $2,300 less than the Nikon D5. Whether they are on the same level or not is hard to say. The a9 is a very high performing camera with tons of features that pros will enjoy. It’s unclear if the weather sealing and longevity of the Sony is on par with its competitors, only time and user feedback will tell.
But what does cost more are the lenses. Sony glass is quite expensive compared to Canon and Nikon. If you are a Canon user wanting to switch, adapters will do the trick in most cases, though you may lose a bit of focusing speed. If you are a Nikon user, you’ll most likely want to sell your lenses and get new ones.
What I Liked
- Precise and fast autofocusing system
- AF coverage
- Weight and size
- Silent electronic shutter
- Burst mode up to 20 fps
- Video quality
- Price when compared to the 1D X II and D5
- 120 fps in full HD
- Bright and large EVF
What Could Be Improved
- Balance with lenses
- No timelapse and not compatible with the PlayMemories Store
- No flip-out screen
- No S-Log
- Crop at 30fps in 4K
The first attempt of Sony at making a mirrorless camera that can compete with Canon’s and Nikon’s flagship bodies is far from bad. Quite the opposite actually, it’s very promising for the future of mirrorless cameras. Sony managed to prove that the autofocusing system can be just as accurate and just as fast with more extensive coverage. It also comes with features that are nowhere to be found on the pro DSLR such as eye-tracking focusing and all the comfort the EVF offers. Let’s not forget that it’s all packed in a tiny and lightweight body, which, granted, is both an advantage and disadvantage.
My experience with a mirrorless camera was very positive, and I can’t wait to give the Sony a7 III and a7 R III a try. They are more in line with my work. I don’t feel like the a9 is worth the money compared to the a7 line if you don’t need the extremely high frame per second it can achieve and the best autofocusing performances a mirrorless can offer, but if you do need those things, it's an excellent camera.