The Sony a9 Is a Sports Camera Without Sports Lenses

The Sony a9 Is a Sports Camera Without Sports Lenses

Earlier today, Sony released the a9, which basically reads like a dream list of specifications. It's a clear shot across the bow of Nikon's and Canon's professional bodies, but as much as I'd like to pick one up, I won't be buying it.

I'm about as heavily invested in the Canon system as a person can be, sporting the 1D X Mark II and the 5D Mark IV alongside a full complement of lenses. That's not to say I don't always have my eye on the industry and am not tempted by the likes of Sony leapfrogging the traditional development timeline and releasing drool-worthy bodies. The fact that I'm invested so heavily in Canon is a fluke, really. I bought my first Canon DSLR on Black Friday because it was the best deal, not because I knew enough to decide between that and a Nikon at the time (this was long before Sony mirrorless was a thing). Once I knew enough to know the difference, I decided I liked Canon's skin tones and system enough not to warrant switching and I continued to build my kit from there. Part of that kit includes supertelephoto prime lenses. 

Don't get me wrong; this is an amazing camera.

I'm generally happy with my kit, but that's not to say I don't appreciate the allure of mirrorless. A WYSIWYG viewfinder alone would be worth it; I'm frequently shooting in environments that push my ISO to 12,800 and even 25,600, and that often means what I see through my viewfinder are variations on black and a little less black. And then there's the adaptability. Anyone at Fstoppers will tell you I'm a huge glass geek, constantly playing with anything from the big white supertelephotos to a 65mm f/0.75 (yes, you read that aperture correctly) X-ray lens I bought on eBay. The ability to adapt basically any lens to mirrorless is huge for me. And then, there's in-body stabilization. Sure, most of my lenses have stabilization built-in, but having it with all those adapted lenses would be a huge boon. There's also having better AF point coverage; I'm frequently annoyed by the limited amount of the frame covered by my AF sensor. And of course, there're Sony's strong video capabilities to consider too. I've never been someone to care that much about bulk. I get it: it's a big deal for a lot of people, but it doesn't bother me. And of course, the most alluring thing about switching to Sony? Those sensors. There's really no arguing that they produce gorgeous files at the forefront of the full-frame industry, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't jealous of that.

But this is a really amazing camera.

The Sony a9 is basically everything I could ask for in a camera and then some. It has all the benefits of mirrorless that I mentioned above. It has Sony's vaunted stacked CMOS sensor. It has dual SD slots, 5-axis in-body stabilization, full-frame 4K video with 6K oversampling, a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body, 693 phase detection AF points covering 93 percent of the frame, a 0.78x viewfinder (as opposed to 0.76x on the 1D X Mark II), a tilting LCD, a silent 1/32,000 s electronic shutter, an absolutely crazy 20-fps continuous shooting speed with a 241-shot buffer, 480-shot battery life (950 with a grip), and blackout-free shooting. And what's the best part? The price. At $4,500, it seriously undercuts both the Canon 1D X Mark II and the Nikon D5 with better specs in most areas. 

But here's the heart of the issue: the a9 is not the same breed as the a7 series. The a9 spec sheet firmly places it in the 1D X Mark II and D5 realm, the sports shooters, the birders, the photojournalists. And what do they all have in common? They use some of the most extreme lenses out there: the 200mm f/2, the 400mm f/2.8, etc. Sony has yet to touch the prime supertelephoto market with the E-mount, yet they've released a camera aimed squarely at photographers for whom such lenses are practically a job requirement. It's a bit of a riddle at the moment. I wish they had gone the Fuji route and released a full complement of lenses to match the intended purpose, and perhaps those are on the way, but for now, the a9 feels a bit like a gourmet meal with no silverware to me. 

Unfortunately, this means Sony has shot itself in the foot just a bit here by not including lenses appropriate for the intended purpose of the a9. When the a7 series was first starting to gain momentum, this was also one of the main complaints: Sony was putting out bodies faster than native glass to match them. They've answered this in a big way with some beautiful E-mount lenses, including a 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8, 85mm f/1.4, 16-35mm f/4, and more. Essentially, these lenses brought the a7 series onto the same plane as other working photographer systems. Today, they even added a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, reaching into focal length territory they hadn't yet touched. 

It's not 2013 anymore. At the beginning of the mirrorless revolution, there was no arguing that these cameras were woefully behind advanced DSLRs, but that's just not true anymore. While they're not perfect, the speed gap has closed considerably, while for certain work, mirrorless cameras are actually more accurate. Next, it was the battery life. I routinely get well above 6,000 shots on a charge with my 1D X Mark II, and while I don't need that kind of insane performance all the time, the battery life of early mirrorless cameras was simply unacceptable. Nowadays, it still lags behind DSLRs and likely always will, but the 950 shots one can get out of the new a9 with the attached grip is perfectly acceptable and should make the likes of wedding photographers breathe a modest sigh of relief. 2017 is an exciting time for mirrorless. But still, it's all about the glass.

Give me one of these and I'll drink the Sony Kool-Aid.

Am I saying the a9 is a dud? Absolutely not. It's a monster of a camera that most any photographer would be thrilled to own. Wedding shooters, portraitists, and enthusiasts will all be happy to use one. I'm just not ready to make the switch myself. Not yet. Not until the glass such a body begs to be shot with appears. Sony does have my attention, however.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Previous comments

Yeah, on a tiny crap sensor. Lol, why would you even attempt to compare the two?

The writer needs to chill down abit. It's a new camera. No one ask you to switch brand instantly. For now, we can just hope for more new prime glasses for wildlife and sports. Sony is making a slow good progress.

Sorry guys, but I would deviate from the topic in discussion here. I am actually perfectly in sync with Alex here. Although, I am completely different from him. I am no professional photographer, but actually own a Sony alpha (entry level A58). But the point made by him are valid in my case too.
Firstly, I wanted to buy Nikon D3300 and next in line was 1200D. I was convinced by the salesmen (from different stores who both had the other two cameras as well) that A58 was better than them both. After using it a few times and then using my friends' D3300 and1200D, I am even more convinced now that I made the right choice. Even for a casual photographer like me higher frame rate is very useful. I have taken some pretty good pictures of moving animals and cars that would not have been as good using slower frame rates. More autofocus points also help a great deal on auto modes. battery life in this case is actually much better than the other two. I like the SLT technology as I can actually see the effect of changing settings real-time on my viewfinder and that helps me a lot.
However, the biggest problem is related to lenses. There are very few to upgrade my kit lenses, unless I start considering Sigma and Tamron (which I might given few choices in Sony). Whatever Sony lenses are there are super expensive.
That actually baffles me about Sony's strategy here. A) they have so many different mounts that even the handful of lenses are not compatible with their entire range. Cannon with its EF mount and Nikon with its F mount don't have this problem. B) on top of it they have by far the fewer lenses of all three.
How can they expect to sell more cameras if people don't find and ecosystem around them. Its no secret that lenses are far more important that the camera and that is what Alex is pointing out here. No wonder Sony is selling in so little numbers when compared with Nikon or Canon.

The higher frame rate is not getting you better pictures of moving cars and animals. You can get amazing images of things in motion just by firing a single frame. 8fps vs 5fps doesn't get a person better pictures. Period. It's an understanding of timing, shutter speed, and panning that allows a photographer to get good pictures of objects in motion. The Sony A58 is inferior to the D3300 in just about every area. It's not a bad camera. It's just an inferior one overall.

My metabones in many cases has faster AF on my A7R2 than the 5DM3. They have come an immense distance with firmware and hardware updates on metabones. I suspect it should work with an A9 with a firmware update.

Yes, but they're not native E-mount. In fact, the continuous frame rate on the a9 is cut in half when shooting with these, and that's not even taking into account the AF penalty.

There's no AF penalty with LAEA3 adapter, AFAIK you still can use all AF points on the sensor.

It's the speed that's a problem. It's known to be very slow, particularly with longer lenses.

Its common that when a ground breaking product is announced from a rival brand of someone's brand, they find something to down ride that product. This article reads like Sony has stopped their lens lineup and no one heard what Sigma's plan for E-mount which they said will be newly designed glasses, not just mount adapted from their Canonikon versions. So more manufacturers for sure will follow Sigma including Tamron in near future. And Sony is not hoping to get all Canonikons to switch to their system with release. There are many pros out there who would like a body that wont wear out their joints and shoulders before they reach their 40s bros and siss. Please consider them..

Enlighten me: how this 20FPS would be usable in sports/action? It's not GLOBAL electronic shutter... O_o

Are yaa a sports photographer mate??

Be constructive or go away :P

Ur doubts raised my question.. I'm not coming after you anyway..

Great article, the A9 looks like a great camera but probably one of the biggest issue Sony faces is physics. To get the most out of the sensor you got to invest in normally the larger size lenses (unless your doing street or using wide angle primes). Most of the lenses can be quite big or big compared to the body (any of the telephoto or even the short telephoto lenses). When they work that out it will be hard to beat as a system, in saying that looks like a great camera regardless of what you shoot with.

I belive the most important thing about this camera is that it prove mirrorless is the future and the mirror is obsolete.
Hopefully both Canon and Nikon will get to work hard and offer mirrorless full frame to.

Sony has big head start on that...surprised Canikon is so slow on getting a viable mirrorless out there. there a way or an adapter to port all of my nikon glass which I spent part of my life acquiring, to fit on one of these beasts ??? Selling and buying again seems like a black hole money wise...

I think right now the Metabones for Nikon to Sony is a "dumb" adapter while the Canon, which I have communicates the settings, AF etc from camera to body. Surprised Nikon is just a mechanical adapter not electronic...yet.

I TOTALLY get your point. I think you're missing the numbers though. I mean, you're right. But the people you're talking about are the 1% of the 1% of the 1%. I personally know 2000 photographers, none of them, not ONE has a 200mm f2.

None of them have the 400mm f2.8

A bucketload of them have the 70-200f2.8.....of all the sports shooters I know, more than half use primarily the 70-200. They're not shooting the NFL...they're shooting HS football, college, volleyball, swimming....most sports actually don't requires exotic glass.

A lot of the a9 shooters will even get the 70-200f4, smaller, lighter, focuses brilliantly, and with the superior low light performance you KNOW a BSI 24mp camera is going to give, they'll shoot sports up one stop in ISO

You can adapt Canon lenses to this and shoot GREAT stuff......lenses won't be a problem.

Of course you're right...your basic premise is right, if Sony wants to dominate sports shooting, they need at least two more sports oriented lenses. They could really use a wildlife lens.

But the 99% of all sports shooters don't shoot anything past the 70-200 and the new 100-400 they just announced.

Sony will sell MILLIONS.

That's fair, Dave, but here's my counterpoint (and I'd love to hear your take): for the shooters who don't need the truly high-end lenses, will they even buy this camera? If they don't near top-end lenses, maybe this camera is overkill and they don't need it either.

I think the shooters that Dave is mentioning (bball, volleyball, HS football, etc) would still LOVE to have the capability to shoot 20fps, despite not shooting with a 300 or 400 lens. Also, Sony seems to be selling this as a sports photographer's dream, but I'm sure there is also a HUGE number of wedding/event photographers with kits comprised mainly of a 24-70, 70-200, 16-35, (and a couple primes) that would seriously be considering purchasing the a9 for the same reasons. To your point, though, there are still a good number of sports photographers (soccer, NFL, baseball, tennis, golf) and wildlife shooters that NEED specialized high end glass and they might feel a little left out of the conversation. When Sony finally gets into their world, I think we'll really see Sony emerge as the top choice across the board. This is one hell of a start though.

With the current system, it's a wedding camera. The 20fps is just for that 3 seconds out of a 14-hour day that fps might matter. But it's cooler to pretend it's a sports camera. Also OK for sports that happen right in front of you where a 70-200 is as much as you need. This will kill for table tennis.

It's more that if you want to shoot FE Sony, this is the only one appropriate for mission-critical professional work (for now). The two-cards alone make it worth it for me, and the other stuff, especially joystick, is also a crucial change.

This is almost exactly how I feel about the A9. Thanks for the article, Alex!

Great article Alex

Hi Alex.
Very likely, you will be able to use all your canon and sigma lenses with MC11 adapter. 20fps will come down to 10fps, but manual focus will be back at 20fps again.
While you will have all other advantages of A9: better EVF, IBIS, lighter and smaller, faster operation etc.

I would say, its time to let go the old body of canon with crippled sensor technology. See the future, you don't wanna regret.

I tryed mc-11 adapter on 24-105 Sigma with a7r2. Not working good. To use adapted lenses on A9 seems like a waist to me.

I think you're forgetting the two lenses it does have, a 300mm F2.8 and a 500mm F4, they are two of the most commonly used sports lenses

Those aren't native E-mount lenses.

Really Sony? 480 shot battery life in a 20 fps camera? I was angry at Canon and their 1200 shots in 1DX MK II compared to Nikon D5 3780 shots but this is crazy!

To get back to having an actual adult discussion, ARE fast teles needed for the A9?

I doubt sports and wildlife shooters want the ultra narrow dof very often. And it's quite possible that the high ISO performance of the A9 is good enough that the apertures from the Sony zooms are adequate. And this is a mirrorless, so you don't need a fast lens just to see what's going on.

It seems possible that f2.8mm 200mm and 400mm lenses aren't on Sony's roadmap because they are obsolete. If they were something Sony had in the pipeline, then you really would think that they'd have announced that today. And Sony aren't idiots. I think the author just hasn't thought enough about the difference between mirrorless and DSLR. The 100-400 zoom is very possibly the lens meant to pair with this camera for sports forever.

What is certain is that they're not expecting professionals to shoot NFL games with grindingly slow adapted lenses!

The other thing that the author didn't address is that A-mount lenses like the Sony 300mm f/2.8 G II are going to be supported through a Sony adapter. I know that adapting Canon lenses leads to slow AF, but maybe an all-Sony solution is completely different???

LA-EA3 with upgraded firmware will allow you to shoot A-mount glass (except screw drive) @ 10fps with all the AF goodies. It won't be long until the MC11 adapter will allow that with Canon EF and other EF mount lenses.

Mc-11 adapter is a joke.

Yup, I agree with you Sony glass doesn't have the reach of Canon or Nikon.

Here's the real point. There have been those who have doubted that mirrorless electronic only technology will overtake mirrored electromechanical technology. Although for experienced technologists the handwriting has been on the wall for a long time, this is now the end of all doubt. DSLRs will never have the leading bodies, ever again. That's over. This semiconductor. It only goes faster, from before, and from here, now.

The question is how much faster does new investment slow down in all dslr equipment due to "Well, lets be realistic, we'll need to change at some point." thinking. Faster, I'll guess.

You' re all doing as if some Japanese companies are yours or you are shareholders. You defend some company more than you would defend your families, it's comic. In reality, you would fight for any product, because it's as if you are unable to hold a conversation: you immediately turn to fight.
At any rate, there have been concerns about the Sony camera mount (did they fix it?) and the lens mounts. There are youtube videos you' ve seen with failed mounts on G-Master lenses without a drop or abuse.
How would these Sony bodies with the weakest lens mount in the industry, handle long sports lenses 3 times that weight?
As far as "I want the toy", I personally didn't improve my photography or the numbers of my shots with a new camera, because I stay more at home nowadays. I took thousands of pictures with an old 5mp camera and a film camera, and I kept only the great ones (about 1,700). Not because of the camera, but because I was going places and doing things!!!
I have pro equipment now, but I hardly go anywhere... so, the overpriced new cameras are not a solution to non-pros or even to most pros nowadays. Yes, they are over-priced: $3,000 is too much for an assembly containing one sensor, two chips and a $40 production cost body, but the HYPE keeps the prices up... both for Canikon and for Sony. If the "Japanese Company Fanboys" of all companies stop getting so excited all the time, while masking their life emptiness with the word "hobby", prices may go down to half.
(The best, most expensive canvas and brushes in the world, even with golden handles, won't make me a good painter - nor fighting on the internet about which ones are the best brushes !!!!!)

Sony has great technology, but their Product Sense is RETARDED.

(1) FE-mount is a stupid idea. Nothing can be dumber than putting a full frame sensor on a system with a lens bayonet 18mm from the sensor. The full frame lenses are just going to have to be bigger to push the rear element forward which makes the 18mm flange moot. Yeah... small and slim bodies with big and long lenses, really retarded. There is no stopping Sony from dropping an EVF on the A-mount and making mirrorless Alphas which already have a full line of Minolta, Sony-Adopted Minolta, Sony indigenous and Zeiss lenses. What is the point of FE??? RETARDED

(2) E-mount is a great idea as an APS-C targeted format. 18mm flange with 32mm standard lenses or 16-32 standard zooms make for very small systems with ideal optical arrangements that need not be retrofocus. Great Idea. But Sony neglected the niche the NEX-7 opened up by launching bullshit FE lenses and FE sensors while the APS-C E-mount and bodies languished. RETARDED.

(3) Sony can't seem to bring their lens people onto the same boat. The ex-minolta guys are doing their own G and G-Master stuff. The Sony guys are doing their own lenses. The Zeiss guys are collaborating with the Sony guys on Sony-Zeiss lenses while also making Zeiss made Milvus, Batis, Loxia, Touit and other stuff on the side. The entire lineup is a mess with a ridiculous number of duplicates and big gapping holes all at the same time. Why is the product chief not fired? RETARDED.

I am a Sony user, who migrated from a Contax system in the early days. Even I am totally fed up with their RETARDATION. All I want is a 36MP APS-C E-mount with a 33-66 or 16-32 lens around F2.8 or F3.3. The perfect walkabout camera the E-mount concept would have enabled. After three bodies and two sensor sizes I found myself with an A7R and the old Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 35-70/3.4 on an adapter and all the frustration. Sigh...