Sony has established the era of the incremental update, offering new bodies at an alarming rate that are putting the old guard to shame. Where flagships used to be replaced every four to five years, Sony has just announced its ultimate camera after the first iteration has been on the market for a mere two-and-a-half. Is this what customers want, and is the a9 II a big disappointment?
As Fstoppers’ own Ryan Mense noted when running through the specifications in this article, this is not a groundbreaking announcement, though Sony had set the bar — and thus expectations — pretty high with the a9 when it was unveiled back in April 2017. 20 frames per second of blackout-free shooting was unparalleled, and let’s face it: it still is. Whatever you think of Sony cameras in terms of their color science, ergonomics or usability, this is unmatched more than two years later.
Many of us were expecting a bump, either in frame rate or resolution or perhaps even in both, and Sony has offered neither. Some would suggest that Sony is being lazy, hasn’t continued to innovate, or is holding back with some of its new sensor technology. Whether any of that is true or not is unclear, but the fact that Sony is releasing a camera that doesn’t offer significant upgrades here is due to two factors: firstly, it’s only two-and-a-half years since the a9 hit the shelves, and there are the Olympics next year. Sony is not afraid of putting out incremental updates and apparently, doesn’t need to be.
Secondly, this lack of an upgrade is testament to the fact that the competition still hasn’t caught up. If anything, it’s an indictment of Canon and Nikon that Sony can put the same sensor in the upgrade to its flagships sports shooter and present the same technology in the solid belief that nothing else can touch it.
Yes, But Why?
Two aspects are a little puzzling. Firstly, it’s not clear why Sony has opted for a pair of UHS-II slots over CF Express. Is it a cost-saving measure? Does Sony feel that CF Express is still too new and wants to give photojournalists as much flexibility as possible and not disrupt existing workflows? It seems unlikely that Sony is worried that customers will be reluctant to splash out for the significantly more expensive CF Express cards given that these will be used by professionals who either aren’t paying for it or can justify the cost because of the performance that it offers.
Secondly, Sony has kept the same 3.7-million-dot electronic viewfinder that was used in the first iteration of the a9, and choosing not to deploy the 5.76-million-dot version used in the recently released a 7R IV. Those with more technical knowledge than me will be able to confirm, but it seems that the refresh rate on the higher-resolution EVF can’t keep up with the a9 II’s autofocus. If you have any insights, leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Whatever the Weather
What many professional shooters will be delighted to see is some significant upgrades to the weather-sealing. To my knowledge, Sony has always been a bit cagey about the weather sealing on the a9, while the a9 II sees Sony releasing the weather-sealing diagrams as part of the product announcement.
From what we’ve seen so far of the a7R IV, the weather-sealing is vastly improved, but I suspect that potential customers would love to see a direct and objective comparison between the a9 II, the Canon 1D X Mark II, and the Nikon D5. Trying to find someone willing to trash 15 grands’ worth of camera gear for the purposes of science might be tricky, however. For that reason, Sony would be wise to put out some performance indicators, however, as ruggedness in the field has always been a talking point when it comes to cameras being used by sports photographers and photojournalists. If this new camera matches the competition, it’s time to put this argument to bed and prove the a9 II’s performance.
Although the vast majority of us will not be buying one of these cameras, it at least makes for an entertaining battle between the camera industry heavyweights. Pricing for the a9 II is in line with that of the a9: $4,498. This makes it a grand cheaper than the 1D X II and the D5, and you have to wonder who, outside of the agencies, is buying a Canon or a Nikon right now.
That said, the 1D X Mark II might still be the better option for many professionals. When you step indoors, you don’t have to switch from electronic to mechanical shutter and thus drop to 10 frames per second to avoid the banding often caused by artificial lights. And when shooting outdoors, you have a camera that has a proven track record of performing consistently under truly terrible conditions.
Many will be commenting that it’s still quite rare to see Sony cameras in the pit at major sports events, and there’s good reason for this: agencies are heavily invested in Canon and Nikon, and the transition — if and when it comes — is still a number of years away. The shift away from Canon and Nikon will not happen overnight, and nor will the shift to mirrorless when it comes to live events. However, much we may predict their demise, DSLRs have their place.
Interface Is a Fuss
One aspect that the industry is still waiting for Sony to address is the interface. The menu systems are a barrier for many, and shortcuts and memorizing manuals can only go so far: however well you think you know your camera, you can still be stumped as to how to tweak a setting, and digging through Google search results while trying to shoot a live event is far from ideal. I’ve barely held a Nikon, but I wouldn’t be fazed if I were to turn up to a job to find the client handing me a D5 to shoot with. By contrast, I would have reservations about renting a Sony a9 II for a shoot, as I know that I’d be spending the night before setting it up and trying to make sure I knew how to use it — and I’m a Sony a7 III owner.
The Incremental Conclusion
To all those who are a bit underwhelmed by Sony’s latest and greatest camera, I’d understand your disappointment if it were 2021. However, it’s not even three years since the a9 became available, and while some upgrades that were expected are markedly absent, for me, this is more an indication of the competition than of Sony itself. Part of me suspects that a 30-megapixel sensor with improved low ISO performance was perfectly feasible, but why would Sony be in any rush to bring this to market when the gap between the a9 and the competition is already a yawning chasm? And consider this: depending on what Canon and Nikon finally produce next year, a Sony a9 III might be little more than two years away, perhaps even less.
While the hardware doesn’t frustrate, usability certainly does. Sony could make a camera that has great interface and better ergonomics, but it doesn’t, possibly because it doesn’t need to. Hopefully, pressure from other manufacturers will change this, because while Sony cameras have incredible specifications, they are not exactly a joy to use. These are cameras made by accountants and not by artists, and I dream of a camera that has the specifications of a Sony, the ergonomics of a Canon, and the interface of a Hasselblad. I fear I might be waiting a while.
As usual, leave your thoughts in the comments below.