Earlier today, Sony announced the a9, a revolutionary mirrorless camera with a spec sheet that at first looks like it's full of typos. Did they really mean 20 frames per second? Is it actually 693 phase-detect autofocus points? Continuous burst raw capture up to 241 frames? But sure enough, the a9 delivers on it all. After spending a brief time getting familiar with the new camera, here's what made me most excited about using it.
After the announcement here in New York, Sony had an indoor demo area set up to play with the a9 and photograph a variety of sports-themed action shots. Clearly one of the biggest focuses of this camera is to sink into the professional sports photography world and this was going to be their way to frame it that way.
The first thing I can't help but notice was how incredibly fast and accurate the Sony a9's autofocus system is. As it was mentioned, the camera had 693 phase-detection autofocus points spread throughout 93 percent of the image area. It also performs 60 focus and exposure calculations per second, even during continuous burst shooting. Combining these two with the moveable point AF-lock on mode gave me really solid results.
Photographing two boxers sparring and rotating around each other in the ring throwing punches, I was able to keep the AF locked on one person wherever they moved without any real effort on my part. I can just half-press the shutter (or hold the AF-On button) and watch the camera do its work. The AF points light up (or more accurately, a representation of the AF points) in little green boxes on the screen and follow my locked-on subject flawlessly. I can recompose the frame or wait out a lull in the action and it won't drop the target. In a more extreme situation, a gymnast doing a floor routine (pardon me, I don't actually know these sports terms) going from one side of the mat to the other towards the camera was still kept in focus the whole way through, flips and all.
The autofocus was also able to cut directly to the action from a completely out of focus state to locked on almost instantly. I kept playing with this one detail for more than a minute because I really couldn't believe how fast it worked. The camera is at the ready regardless of where it was last focused and what you need to capture now. No other Sony Alpha camera comes close to the level of speed and accuracy that the a9 has.
Silent Shooting at 20 Frames Per Second
Having the ability to shoot 20fps is remarkable. Shooting 20fps in complete silence is ridiculous. The shutter sound heard when firing at 20fps through the electronic shutter is a courtesy by Sony to remind the shooter the amount of frames they're capturing (there's no screen blackout on the camera to tell you this anymore). When this artificial sound is disabled in the menu settings, it opens up new opportunities for photographers who are in sound-sensitive locations.
Now of course shooting at 20fps is going to be overkill for many things. There's just not enough of a change going on frame to frame in slower moving action to make it worth the culling time and looking at almost identical photos to figure out which is "best." However, shooting the gymnasts today was a perfect use for it. Partially because I was unfamiliar with what was about to happen next, and also because they move very fast. The chances of me coming away with a very good shot skyrocket with 20fps in this situation. It's another tool in the bag.
Improved Buffer and No Playback Restriction
It's happened. Sony has done it. Finally I can stop complaining about being blocked out of the image playback screen while the camera writes the photos to the card. Now a user can always enter into the playback mode and immediately see everything that's been written to the card. In the upper left hand corner there's a progress bar with a number that shows how many photos are currently clearing the buffer, just like the RX100 V has.
Oh, and what a buffer it is. Sony claims the a9 can capture 241 compressed raw files in continuous burst, or 362 JPEGs. In my shooting today I got a little over a hundred photos while shooting JPEG plus uncompressed raw files. If you want to shoot 20fps, you are going to need an adequate buffer, and Sony seems to have managed just that.
The Sony a6500 brought a refreshed menu system with it, and the a9 continues to build on that. Like the a6500, the a9 menu system is now divided into tabs and pages. The top tabs of the a9 separate settings into Photo/Video, Network, Playback, Setup, and now introduces My Menu. "My Menu allows 30 menu items to be registered for instant recall when needed," says Sony. These menu items can be rearranged under My Menu or removed at will. This is one that many photographers have been asking for, and Sony has finally delivered.
This one "feature" is actually more like a lot of little things that add up to being a great camera experience. The Sony a9 has further improved the body design of its camera and has made it more comfortable and quicker to control. The physical focus mode and focus drive dial on the top left keeps you out of dealing with several button taps to change them in the menu. The C3 button has been moved to the left side with the menu and they've added an optimally placed AF-On button and AEL button to the right. We have a multi-selector joystick in addition to the rear scroll wheel/directional pad. The EVF has a 120 fps refresh rate. Touch focus is available on the LCD screen. Sony throws every good idea they've had from past products at the a9, and in the process they improved upon them as well in ways that show that they have their ears to the ground and are listening to customer feedback.
The Sony a9 is priced at $4,499 and preorders begin this Friday.