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.

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89 Comments

Previous comments

Ah, the decalre victory strat
Doesn't work, does it?egy..

Still failing man. Just stop before you put yourself farther behind.

>>Part of the appeal of the a7 and now a9 series is the ability to use virtually any lens with a dizzying array of adaptors for virtually anything. With sports photography, some of the more esoteric focusing modes - like near eye following - that come only with native glass aren't really an issue. <<

Hello??? Do you understand *anything* about shooting sports or birds in flight? AF speed is everything. The adapters are slow. Too slow. I was thinking very hard of buying an A7 and the adapters were too slow for my use, and I'm not a sports shooter.

>>>So use whatever big glass you want - with full electronic connections. <<<

And get as many sharply focussed pictures of empty air as you want...

>>The glass will come. <<

It's wonderful that you can predict the future.

>>>As you stated, no one can compete with Sony on the sensor front.<<<

Except Fuji and Nikon and Oly, you buy Sony sensors. And then that sensor in the Leica Q is arguably better than anything Sony make....

Taz Rahman's picture

The lovely adapters allow for all the lovely Canon glass to be used for whatever situation one demands. However, I am not so certain this is going to get lots of professional sports photographers buying this body. If Sony can offer good deals and make it a competitive price, aspiring sports photographers could buy into the Sony system. Is Canon or Nikon under threat? Not immediately. The pro sports market is dominated by Canon anyway. It is good to have a third player and to have more choice,

Spy Black's picture

Eventually Sony will release longer lenses. It is a weak point in this camera. This camera however will find it's place in the crowd. This camera is cool, but it's aimed at the spray & pray crowd. While good for them, too many people are getting bent out of shape about this. It's just a camera. If you don't need to spray and pray, there's plenty of cameras already out there for you. Also, cameras like the 1Dx, D5 and D500 are plenty good at the spray & pray game as well. Remember that a camera is only as professional as the person holding it.

You can't say Nikon or Canon is threatened by this since, because in reality it's all about the LENSES! All that Nikon and Canon can do is respond with their own high-end mirrorless option. They'll always take over because the lens selection will always be greater. If Sony can get Zeiss to build them a whole army of lenses (instead of like 2 or 3) or the minute Sigma and Tokina start selling affordable e-mounts will this ultimately change.

Alex Cooke's picture

I do hope, if nothing else, it scares them into quickening that R&D pace a bit.

jessepatterson's picture

I'm with you on that one Alex. I've been waiting for Sony to release a mirrorless camera with the features the A9 has however, like you, because I am heavily invested in Canon, I'd need to see how well a metabones adapter would work. That has been the main reason why I haven't jumped for the A7RII. If the autofocus speed of Canon lenses on the A9 can match or exceed the speed of my 5D4, I'm in!

Alex Cooke's picture

That would be *incredible*!!

that directly falls on companies like metabones to figure out Sony's code...or perhaps work with Sony in making something like that happen. Sony though isn't one to share ideas with others...(ex. beta and betamax tape)

Ben Perrin's picture

Make sure you get your hands on one before buying. People were "amazed" at the A7RII for it's autofocus speed but I can tell you that the autofocus is a toy compared to even a 5dm2. Shooting both side by side I was amazed at how much better the Canon was. I bought the Sony for landscapes though and it's great at that. Hopefully the new a9 is different and is amazing but just don't fall for the marketing hype. Also the adapters work like poo with telephoto lenses.

jessepatterson's picture

Thanks for the info Ben! I believe you with the 5D2 comparison. I guess I need to wait for a better metabones adapter however, I may just get an A7R2 (or 3 if it comes out soon) since I feel let down about a $99 C-LOG upgrade for the 5D4 right now (especially since I'll have to send it in for the upgrade).

None of the other rumored features of the upgrade came true and even though I still need the 5D4, my second body should probably be Sony from now on.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

The Metabones thing depends on the Canon lenses. I switched and my vintage Canon lenses like 24-70 and 70-200 were not stellar performers with the A7R2 + MB4. I did a firmware update to the MB4 and it was a little better so I sold those lenses. I didn;t really expect a 2016 adapter to work 100% with 20 year old lenses. OTOH the Canon 85 1.8 is wicked fast on the Canon 5D MK2 (which never was the fastest Canon AF) And the Sigma 24-105 ART is very good depending on the mode.

There is a chart somewhere that shows which Canon lenses work well with the MB4. The newer the lens the more compatible.

I am sure a company like Sony has some long glass in the pipeline.

Ben Perrin's picture

I understand your dilemma. Like Mr Hogwallop said updating the firmware of the metabones can make a big difference. Unfortunately Canon's offerings of late have been a little lackluster and the Sony's are great but don't quite have the robust nature of a Canon or Nikon lineup. There are pros and cons to both. I wish you luck and hope you get the system you are looking for.

David T's picture

Huh, the AF on my 5DMK2 has been disappointing. Everything except middle focus point is almost unusable, even in studio conditions with modeling lights on.

Ben Perrin's picture

That's why I was comparing it to the 5dm2, it's not the best performing af in the Canon lineup for sure. I do only use the middle on the 5dm2 but I was shooting a wedding and found that I always was leaning towards the af on the Canon as the Sony af was slow in comparison. Also I get random lockups with the metabones attached. Even if I shoot with a Sony lens on the a7r2 the autofocus is no where near as fast or reliable. Especially when the light goes down. I ended up resorting to MF on the Sony at night whereas the Canon would happily lock focus every time. I don't want to say that I dislike the Sony because I love using it and it even works better with certain lenses such as the 85 1.2. But it won't even work with my 135L or 35L whereas the Canon will just lock on instantly and the files always come back in focus. Like I said I don't want to make it sound like I'm knocking the Sony because it is in front of the Canon in so many other areas however the autofocus is terrible compared to any decent dslr and the cameras tend to have more issues than any other dslr I've ever used (and I own the 1dmk3). I'll always reach for the Sony for landscapes without question but anything that requires movement I tend to gravitate toward the Canon. YMMV.

Nikon DID release a mirrorless option (like Nikon 1) but apparently they spent most of the R&D budget for that on stupid Ashton Kutcher. Canon probably has something in the works and they'll probably be the first to respond. But in typical canon form, it'll leave out something like 4K clean hdmi output or something else we'll need ML to do.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Unlike Sony who says here is the new A9 you can order it at BH, Canon will announce the announcement date of the camera they might release in 6 months....

Dave Melges's picture

The most common a9 shooter will have three lenses...not an army, and all of those 3 lenses already exist.

The idea that Canon and Nikons huge fleet of lenses will somehow protect them from getting their butts kicked was already being proved dead wrong before the a9 even announced.

Canon and Nikon dropped in sales last year, Sony was up 55%

Look at the BULK of shooters, don't project your own situation onto everyone. In forums, every time someone says "but lenses" I say "ok, which lenses do you shoot?" Then they list 3 lenses you can get for Sony.

I survey a thousand photographers a year....the percent of high end shooters that require lenses you can't put on a Sony, is about 4.

Sony DOES need more lenses.....but the only thing right now about the lens situation that's REALLY slowing Sony down, is false perception.

febri kristiawan's picture

Nikon 1 v3 can shoot 20 fps with continuous AF and subject tracking.. I think, it's old technology

dred lew's picture

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.

Himanshu Singh's picture

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.

Tyler Chappell's picture

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.
http://snapsort.com/compare/Nikon-D3300-vs-Sony-SLT-A58/detailed

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.

Alex Cooke's picture

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.

Kursad Sezgin's picture

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

Alex Cooke's picture

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..

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