Is the Sony a9 II a Massive Disappointment?

Is the Sony a9 II a Massive Disappointment?

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.

Sony a9 II telephoto zoom

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.

Sony a9 II weather sealing

Is this the first time that Sony has published weather-sealing diagrams for a mirrorless camera?

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.

The Competition

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.

The Canon 1D X Mark II

The Canon 1D X Mark II

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.

Sony a9 II

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.

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26 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

I honestly think this was a naming issue more than anything. Perhaps Ryan Mense was on to something with his nickname for the camera. If it was called the a9 Press Edition instead of the a9 Mark II, I don't think anyone would bat an eye.

David Schloss's picture

Let's also remember that "mark" already is the camera industry's term for an upgraded camera line. The Canon 5D Mark II wasn't a completely new camera compared to the 5D. The Olympus 1DX Mark II wasn't a brand new top-to-bottom camera. The Sony a7 II wasn't a completely new camera over the a7.

Sony DID use a new name, when they made the a9. It was the a9, not the a7X or whatever. It featured the new stacked CMOS sensor, and so it got a new moniker.

Of course the 5D II wasn't a completely new camera versus the 5D. Yet you apparently neglect that the 5D II was both a massive improvement and, entering cinema and television, revolutionary.

Atop a notably improved viewfinder, a greatly improved monitor, and a slightly improved frame rate, the 5D II nearly doubled the resolution and introduced video recording, no less than at Full HD.

Of course the a7 II wasn't a completely new camera—hence, its name—but it massively improved upon the a7. And then the a7 III, astonishing, blew the a7 II away. These are consensus views.

michael andrew's picture

Maybe Sony accounting finally found out what floor Sony marketing and Sony product development work out of and are trying to right the books. Look at how many cameras with how many different features and innovative technologies Sony has been releasing in the last 5 years, they still have to remain profitable to keep it up and if the A9 didn’t sell that well this may be a Canon-esq 5D style revamping to collect revenue.

Errick Jackson's picture

I don't know. I'm still wondering what more people could've wanted in an update to this camera other than an ISO performance boost. A resolution boost would be improper for the use case this is aimed at. A framerate boost further than 20fps seems....unnecessary to the say the least. Don't really know how the AF system could get any better in a significant way.

Can someone enlighten me? It seems ideal for the shooters it's aimed at.

Jaap Venhovens's picture

And there seems to be more then meets the eye, although this 'review' seems more subjective then technological analysis. It comes from an experienced photographer in a field the A9 is meant for.https://pmrphoto.blogspot.com/?fbclid=IwAR0MtNwjLDx1__jqKymu24sSilSjpbi1...

Jaap Venhovens's picture

BTW, I own both the A7R3 and the A9, And I decided to skip both new models. My only desires would be the improved ergonomics and the coloured autofocus box, the grey square on the A7R3 is sometimes barely visible, but I'm still hoping that Sony will fix this in a firmware update

Yet another article on why people should appreciate and like the A9II. DPR told it's readers the same.
https://www.dpreview.com/opinion/5179774637/the-a9-ii-is-a-camera-sony-h...

Nice reaction from TyphoonTW
"Hold on a second... When Canon and Nikon release cameras with mild improvements we get talks about cripple hammers, they're not innovating etc etc, yet when Sony releases a copy/paste of a nearly 3 years camera it's a good marketing move because the improvements are apparently aimed to professionals? Is this the Twilight Zone?"

Seems like a justification article. Didn't see that before for other camera's. Apparently Sony is going for damage control.

That's why sony guy is out in full force with his review. He would do same thing on sportsshooter.com message board about Sony and people objected.

I really was disappointed first, thought of a 36MP 20 frames / second monster. and maybe some features from the A7rIV the body yes but the EVF? But there a several reasons which I find now - well done Sony :
- Connectivity was improved a lot, targeting pro sport photographers
- Voice Comments for an amateur senseless but for a sport pro photographer fantastic
- and the more mature body of the ARIV

This update was ...

Incremental :Then is it not so that Sony in the past did not jump too much form one model to the other?
it was always incremental , from AII to AIII, from ARII to ARIII to ARIV

Not out of the curve : Means even Sony would have more improved technique to offer , they must let space for innovation model by model, maybe the A9III sees higher res sensor and other things like quad-pixel sensors

Also Sony putting into its cams the last State of the art makes the cams more expensive, and here an important note: The A9II comes with the same price as the A9I - Wow!!!!
The Pros are happy, and maybe for the non-sport-pro shooter ....

here to the story of 18 improvements of the A9II :

https://pmrphoto.blogspot.com/?fbclid=IwAR0MtNwjLDx1__jqKymu24sSilSjpbi1...

/Thx

i will wait for an unbiased review.

Sony is a technology manufacturing company. This is "tik/tok" methodology. Im new to photography, but have been around computers (and tvs and phones) for a long time. Ive heard many on these forums and others complaining about slow refresh on cameras. You can forget that with Sony. They are absolutely used to releasing incremental updates as they are available, then a new model when appropriate to include revolutionary tech. This camera isnt meant to be new and replace the older model. It simply keeps the model fresh for the time being. Current for new buyers and fresh against competition. Nothing more.

In attaining its renown, Sony broke that paradigm with all of its prior fullframe mirorrless cameras. Recently, some of Sony's mere firmware updates have so refreshed the cameras as to resemble a new autofocus system.

From a7 to a7 II to a7 III, from a7S to a7S II, and from a7R to a7R II to a7R III, there were big leaps in performance or features or both. Even where, for instance, Sony kept the same sensor, the a7R III, there were massive improvements in performance and features.

Or the a7S II, atop keeping seemingly the same sensor, lacked a massive improvement in performance, but had other big advancements, like IBIS. So the disappointment is that, at last, Sony has settled into the paradigm that you describe. Whether Sony is blameworthy for that is a different topic, debatable.

Almost nobody changed 1DxII or D5 for a 5fps mechanical shutter (less jello) without anti flickr ..and without a n accurate predictive AF system.

I doubt that with a limited 10fps with active anti flickr this time, photograph would like to go down from 15fps and active antiflickr on a 1DxII for years.
The last 2 weeks in Qatar I could see loads of Canikon with artificial light sports evey evening.
Without anti flickr, nobody would bring such body there.

A few additional important aspects are described by Thom Hogan:
http://sansmirror.com/newsviews/2019-mirrorless-camera/october-december-...

Will Murray's picture

A massive disappointment to a bunch of people who were never the intended market for this camera.

It's a camera for professional sports shooters, and in that light, the upgrades make perfect sense.

Exactly, probably also a massive disappointment to a bunch of people who were never going to buy the Sony a9 II regardless of what features it had.

Jan Kruize's picture

It’s only 2.5 years since the A9. Yes, that’s the problem i have with sony. Every 2.5 years or 2 years they bring out a follow up of a camera. And tons of fools running to the camerastore to get one. Nikon and canon bring out a new one after four years with nice new things. Yes it is better wheatersealed now. Come on.... this isn’t even an issue with the other brands. But i rest my case.

dale clark's picture

Nobody forces "fools" to run out and get a camera every year or two. Just like phones. The same people stand in line for hours to be the first with a new phone or game station every year. I do think, however, the younger generation does expect more updates at a quicker interval.

Not disappointing at all. Looks amazing.

Eric Robinson's picture

I’m not sure what this piece was trying to say, but the final paragraph appeared to sum up the authors mixed up muddled up flappy mirror fixation;

“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.”

You actually think the sculpted turd that is the 1DX was produced by an artist?

Gion-Andri Derungs's picture

Maybe for some it is and for some it's not. BUT, you can only get disappointed, when your expectations are too high...

I don't understand the complaints about better ergonomics and usability. I was one of the biggest complainers about the shitty feeling Sony bodies. The a7R IV corrected so many of those issues for me. It's not perfect but it's certainly a much much better feeling camera in the hands. I simply don't understand usability complaints, the cameras easy to use. The menus are fine once you figure out where everything is. There's a learning curve on everything.

I asked sony on our call why no CF express. They agreed it's a better format. I think their issue is keeping a camera small and i don't agree. Go larger and put the two better PRO cards in the dam camera.

But NO it's not a mass disappointment. It's a 2 year refesh that's better than any other two year refresh from Nikon on their D series and Canon doesn't do 2 year mid cycle refreshes.

I'm glad Sony didn't enlarge the body. But I disbelieve that a larger body was truly needed to fit two CFexpress slots.

I am a Sony a9 user and there are MANY small, but VERY beneficial changes to the a9II. I am very excited about it.

Those who dispute the a9 II disappointment sometimes argue, I see, that the disappointed, not professional action photographers, are irrelevant. But that argument is irrelevant to our disappointment.

Sony's new flagship suggests a ceiling on other Sony cameras afoot. And so, suddenly, I no longer eagerly await the a7 IV, certainly a camera aimed at users like me, except to acquire the autofocus upgrades that Sony already added to the a9 by mere firmware updates.

The a9 II's improvements range from basically required, like weather sealing and mechanical rate of 10 fps, already in the a7 III, to tangential, its file handling more convenient and its hotshoe accepting Sony's digital mic. But absent are numerous features, some quite simple, that would impact shooting, photos, post-, and even file handling:

- CFexpress slots
- full touchscreen
- prerecord buffer
- ISO invariance
- more EVF resolution
- higher EVF refresh rate
- lossless compression
- more monitor resolution
- mechanical rate of 12 fps
- electronic shutter w/ flash
- variable ND filter built in
- flash transceiver built in
- sensor shielding from dust
- inset slider to lock all settings
- screen tiltable in portrait mode
- two or three more custom buttons
- power switch moved from shutter button

As higher viewfinder resolution causes lag, why not make the resolution adjustable, as in the a7R series? And, yes, 24 MP already leads among action cameras. But the leading sensor maker can't improve the sensor at all in three years? Since, and including, the a7R II, every Sony 35mm but the a9 has been ISO-invariant. Now the a9 II isn't, either?

I can't say what Sony should've done. But given what Sony could've done, Canon and Nikon must be relieved. The a9 II's users can, for instance, hear digitally mic'd audiocaptions while manually editing the same, familiar dust specks out of those 100 photos. If that ability trickles down to the a7 IV, I'll welcome it, yeah, but increasingly wish Sony hadn't relaxed.