Sony a1: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sony a1: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sony Netherlands gave me a Sony a1 for a review. During two weeks, I dove into this amazing camera, learning about all the things that make the Sony a1 the top of the Alpha line-up. I shot a lot of pictures and learned a lot of things about this camera. These are my thoughts.

I got the FE 50mm f/1.2 G Master and the FE 12-24mm f/2.8 G Master together with the Sony a1 — two great lenses that made photographing a lot of fun. I used the Sony a1 next to the Canon EOS R5, also with a 50mm f/1.2 lens. To my own surprise, both cameras are very much alike, not only in possibilities but also in size and weight. Instead of writing a traditional review, I decided to write down the good things about Sony a1, the bad things, and also the ugly things. 

The Sony a1 with the two lenses I used during my review.

The Good

Let's start with the newly designed menu. It is more logical and much friendlier to use. Navigating is almost intuitive, and you are able to find the right function quite easily. It took years of complaints from users and critics before Sony decided to change it, but it is finally there. 

Finally, Sony has implemented a new menu structure. It is a great improvement.

The dynamic range of the Sony a1 is amazing. It lets you lift the shadows without ending up with too much noise. It is perfect for situations when HDR won't work or filters are not practical. If you need to capture the scenery with just one exposure, the Sony a1 won't let you down. Just be sure to not clip the highlights.

It is easy to lift shadows, thanks to the large dynamic range of the sensor. (Sony a1, FE 12-24mm at 12mm, ISO 160, f/11, 1/125 s)

The autofocus works as well as you may expect from a modern Sony Alpha series camera. It's accurate and quick, and you have the opportunity the focus on the eyes of humans, animals, and birds. On top of that, the camera can distinguish faces. If you have programmed it for one person, it will choose that one over the others.

The Eye-AF is very fast and accurate. It is the best I have used to far. (Sony a1, FE 50mm, ISO 100, f/1.2, 1/800 s)

The dials, wheels, and buttons will make it easy to set your camera to your own needs. But it also helps to adjust settings very quickly. The design is based on the Sony a9 and a9 II, which is a good choice.

The Sony a1 has a 50-megapixel sensor, allowing you to crop the image without losing too much resolution. Although many won't need this amount of pixels, it's nice to have. If you need even more pixels, just activate the pixel shift function which increases the resolution by a factor of four.

Dark clouds at sunset, just before the rain came down. (Sony a1, FE 12-24mm at 12mm, ISO 400, f/11, 1/10 s)

The buffer can store somewhere in the vicinity of 500 images before it runs out. When shooting 30 frames per second, this buffer is filled in about 17 seconds. This is enough for almost any action you can imagine.

The Bad

Although the new menu is a big plus, Sony hasn't made it as good as possible. That's a pity. It still has strange and cryptic abbreviations, and even though every menu function offers a help page, it won't help you that much.

Although the menu is improved, it still has cryptic abbreviations. The help function isn't great on some occasions.

Sony says the a1 can shoot up to 30 frames per second. But it only reaches these speeds under very strict conditions. You have to choose the right file format (JPEG or lossless raw), and it's limited to a certain range of lenses. On a lot of occasions, the camera won't go beyond 20 frames per second. But to be honest, on most occasions, that's more than enough.

The flash synchronization speed can go up to 1/400 sec with the mechanical shutter. It is great to see these shutter speeds for flash. But unfortunately, this sync time is restricted. You need to tick all the boxes before you are able to reach these speeds. 

The 1/400 s flash synchronization time doesn't work on all occasions. (Sony a1, FE 50mm, ISO 100, f/1.2, 1/200 s, Profoto B10)

The projected menu information on the screen can be difficult to read at times. Although it depends on the subject in your frame, the red color of the chosen function is almost unreadable in some situations. Especially when the icon is relatively small or when words and abbreviations are used, you need to look closely to decipher the meaning. Fortunately, you will get used to it, and you will be able to recognize it to compensate for the unreadable information.

The projected menu options can be difficult to read, especially the red parts. This also depends on the subject.

The Sony a1 offers high-resolution functionality for those who want more than the 50 megapixels available. With pixel shift, the Sony a1 makes it possible to shoot an almost 200-megapixel image. You can choose between 4 or 16 images. But it isn't possible to process these images in the camera. You need to do this in your post-production. If you know how it works, you can do it yourself. But if you don't have the skills, you need to use the Sony software for the pixel shift high-resolution images.

How much resolution do you need? If you need almost 400 megapixels, you will have to use pixel shift and merge the images yourself. It can't be done in camera. (Sony a1, FE 11-24mm at 12mm, ISO 200, f/11, 1/100 s, panorama with three images)

The Ugly

The camera is very fast, and the amount of images that can be stored in the memory is amazing. But it takes almost a minute before the buffer is cleared. During this time, you can't use the functions in the menu. You have to wait until the buffer is cleared. I have to mention this was tested with a fast SD card. I don't know how fast it is with a CF Express Type A card.

Shooting a series of images is no problem at all. But clearing the buffer takes about one minute. Some menu functions can't be changed while clearing the buffer, but it has improved since the Sony a9 (Sony a1, FE 100-400mm at 388mm, ISO 1,600, f/5.6, 1/2,000 s)

The autofocus may work well under normal conditions, but when the situation gets more challenging, it may become much more difficult to use it the way you like. The camera isn't measuring the light and autofocus with the maximum lens opening, but it's closing the physical lens opening if you turn towards a smaller aperture. This way, the autofocus won't have the maximum amount of light available, which can make it difficult. 

Under normal conditions, the AF works perfect. But if you want to use a large depth of field in a dark environment, it may fail on you. (Sony a1, FE 50mm, ISO 100, f/1.3, 1/200 s)

If you run into a situation when you need to focus in a dark environment with a small aperture, the camera will sometimes fail to recognize faces or eyes. You may even get in a situation when the camera is hunting for focus. I have run into situations when the autofocus fails to focus at all.

Most of the time, you will open the aperture when the environment is dark. But if you need a small aperture and the light is bad, be prepared for possibly failed autofocus.

More About the Sony a1

There are more things to tell about the Sony a1. It shoots video in 8K, and there are lots of settings available for video-oriented enthusiasts and professionals. I don't know enough about video capabilities to give an opinion about the Sony a1. But I do know the fast readout speed of the sensor makes the camera less subjective to the rolling shutter effect. This is perfect for video shooters who love to shoot a lot of action.

The Sony a1 is weather resistant. 

The connections, ports, and battery are well designed. I like the hinged doors that cover the ports. Unfortunately, the battery door lock is not spring loaded.

About the Price of the Sony a1

The Sony a1 offers a lot of functions and possibilities. It is a great camera with an improved ergonomic design and a larger grip compared to its predecessors. I do believe it is the best photographic-oriented Sony camera on the market today. But you will pay a lot of money for this top-of-the-line model. Even though some specifications make it a very luxurious camera with amazing capabilities, I think it is overpriced.

Morning has broken... so has the bank. The Sony is expensive (Sony a1, FE 12-24mm at 24mm, ISO 50, f/16, 1/2 s)

Spring in the Netherlands. (Sony a1, FE 12-24mm at 21mm, ISO 200, f/11, 1/160 s)

My Conclusion After Using the Sony a1

I must admit, the Sony a1 is the best Sony Alpha series camera I have ever used. It ticks a lot of boxes that were missing with the previous models. It's a pity Sony didn't introduce these improvements in previous models. The menu is one example, but the size and ergonomics are also something they could have taken care of a long time ago. 

With every new Sony camera, the size and ergonomics become better. The Sony a1 now has a good grip for me. I like it. Here, the Sony a1 is standing next to the Sony a7R II.

An overview of the knobs and dials of the Sony a1

Even with the improvements, I believe there is still room for more. I wonder why Sony didn't make a lot of these changes as perfect as possible. Some are just not ready. It wouldn't surprise me if the next camera will introduce just another set of minor improvements.

The Sony a1 is a great camera with amazing capabilities. I enjoyed shooting with this model a lot, more than any previous Sony camera. I want to thank Sony from the Netherlands for the opportunity to review this camera. 

Shooting landscapes with the Sony a1 is fun. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a fully articulating LCD screen. 

The Sony a1 can be purchased with this link.

What is your opinion about the Sony a1? Do you have one, or are you planning to acquire one soon? I love to read your thoughts on the good, the bad, and the ugly in the comments below.

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99 Comments
Nando Harmsen's picture

It is still slower than some of the competition. But I agree, CF express will be faster.

Yin Ze's picture

Hi Brad,

This is sad that the flagship A1 cannot "use the functions in the menu" while the buffer is clearing. This also extends to an inability to shoot video while the buffer is clearing. Whether this is 1-5 seconds with CF-A card it is simply unacceptable. Didn't sony have this problem back in the a7r2 days?

Simon Hartmann's picture

While i understand the sentiment, i must say it sounds like absolute madness to test the only (!) Camera on the planet that actually shoots 50mp at 30fps and THEN complain about clearspeeds WITH a cheap sd-card...like seriously, this is just mockery. This is bleeding edge new tech, ofc this creates new bottlenecks, but clearing a buffer in 1-2 secs or 20-30secs is a HUGE difference in my book...

David Hutson's picture

He didn't even give the specs on his SD card lol

Nando Harmsen's picture

@Simon Hartmann and @David Hutson Indeed, I should have mentioned it.
My cheap SD card is the SanDisk 64GB SD Extreme Pro UHS-I U3 V30 170MB/s
Works like a charm with other camera's without waiting for a minute before the buffer clears. Also with 20fps and 45mp uncompressed raw... And I could use the menu without restrictions....
:)

James Jones's picture

I use Sonys top of the line UHS-II cards and it's still a slow buffer to clear.

Chip Kalback's picture

I wish every camera/lens review included pug photos! :D

Roger Jones's picture

I'm sorry, how much is this new play toy? Around $9000.00 USD plus for camera and a lens?? Your joking, right?? I can buy, and process a lot of positive film from my Minolta 9 with it 50 f1.4 G lens (and other G lenses) for the price of this digital dust. Say what?? Minolta had G lenses, why yes, where do you think Sony got their G lenses from??? Canon? Nikon? No, no, from Minolta.
Sorry I own enough digital dust cameras and I have zero need for more, beside you'll never see the difference between a Nikon D850 or Canon 5D mkll or Pentax K1 mkll or leica M8. From what I understand there isn't a printer today that can really print over 12 bits and 15mp. You'll never see the difference, save your money and buy a new cell phone you'll get more use out of it and very nice images.
Nice test though. It isn't your test, that was excellent, it was the price that made my heart skip a few beats.
Have fun stay safe

Matt Williams's picture

"you'll never see the difference between a Nikon D850 and Leica M8"

Spoken like someone who has no idea what the hell they're talking about.

Also the cell phone part, the dumbest comment I've read this week.

Simon Hartmann's picture

While he surely seems a little overzealous to trash every digital camera out there, i DO believe he has a point when were talking purely IQ eg. for Landscapes. I would bet the Files coming from a D850 could closely keep up with any more modern camera IF you actually know how to edit the pictures. I feel Sensor-Improvements for Photography (not video) (Esp. Low Light and Dynamic range) have slowed down considerably the last 3 Years, yet ease-of-use (IBIS, Eye-AF, Framerates) have seen the biggest improvements.

Matt Williams's picture

It isn't the D850 that I think can't keep up....

The Leica M8 is a 10MP CCD camera from 2006 that requires an IR filter over the lens to even get proper color. It's severly compromised in every way compared to a D850, which is one of the most capable cameras you can buy.

David Hutson's picture

You don't have to buy one, that is true. But there is no question the technology is amazing and this camera delivers on so many levels

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

Awesome review Nando! I love how you presented this review. :)

Nando Harmsen's picture

THanks

Yin Ze's picture

Brad, the A1 still can't do what the 2014 GH4 could do: shoot video while the buffer is clearing. There is no excuse for this in 2021 on a $6500 camera.

Mark Rowe's picture

Yin, you’re basing your point of the fact that the slowest cards are being used. I shoot wildlife and sports, the buffer has never been an issue on my A1 because I use the recommended cf express type A cards. So, the switch between photo and video is absolutely fine, it’s literally cleared in seconds and that’s if I shoot a long burst of say 100 images! Which I would be silly to do for any scenario! No camera is damn near perfect, the point here is how inaccurate the article is and using an outdated memory card to comment on the buffer is just silly.

Yin Ze's picture

Hi, I shoot fast moving events and waiting 1-5 seconds for buffer to clear is way too long. The a1 is supposed to about speed. You know that in this game 1/60th of a second can be the diffference between a good shot and an amazing shot. 1-5 seconds can be a lifetime. Also, cf express a is a bad choice for a camera that spits out 50 x 30 images.

Yin Ze's picture

AS I SAID ABOUT 6 TIMES ON THIS THREAD: IT IS NOT ABOUT THE BUFFER CLEARING TIME AS IT IS THE ABILITY FOR A1 TO INITIATE VIDEO RECORDING WHILE THE BUFFER IS CLEARING LIKE THE GH4 COULD BACK IN 2014. This is just Sony ignoring the little things that make a huge difference. Remember when you couldn't change the menu till the buffer cleared in previous generation? I guess you though it was ok to wait 10-30 seconds to change menu settings? Or being able to switch from aps-c to full frame while buffer cleared. (still don't get why you couldn't do that on a9 generation).

Yin Ze's picture

B.S., I AM USING THE CF-A Expresscard. I will type this s...l....o....w....l....y for you to read: IT IS NOT ABOUT THE BUFFER CLEARING TIME AS IT IS THE ABILITY FOR A1 TO INITIATE VIDEO RECORDING WHILE THE BUFFER IS CLEARING LIKE THE GH4 COULD BACK IN 2014.

Yin Ze's picture

wow, more B.S from B.S. Do you even have the camera? I am not the only pro who has an issue with it so once again you are wrong. I have the camera and it is a good upgrade from the 2 a9 and a7riv I have. I'm not sony fanboy like you so i can criticize Sony for falling short on a very capable $6500 body. Once again I will type this s...l....o....w....l....y for you to read: IT IS NOT ABOUT THE BUFFER CLEARING TIME AS IT IS THE ABILITY FOR A1 TO INITIATE VIDEO RECORDING WHILE THE BUFFER IS CLEARING LIKE THE GH4 COULD BACK IN 2014.

Yin Ze's picture

I know 43 other people who want this feature. All of us need this feature as client needs video and stills. I have also covered six of those competitions and you'd be stupid to be doing both in that situation. again more b.s. from b.s. getty photographers as well as many others are increasingly shooting more video along with stills. it's a fact of life. maybe you and your 20 friends are behind the curve. https://www.gettyimages.in/editorial-footage/news

3ric Johanson's picture

1. Use the correct memory card before you complain about buffer clear times.
2. Autofocus is always performed with the lens wide open, it then stops down for the shot. So these claims it does not focus as well when you stop down is just ignorance and inaccurate..

Yin Ze's picture

Hi 3ric,

This is sad that the flagship A1 cannot "use the functions in the menu" while the buffer is clearing. This also extends to an inability to shoot video while the buffer is clearing. Whether this is 1-5 seconds with CF-A card it is simply unacceptable. Didn't sony have this problem back in the a7r2 days?

2. I have a9 and a7riv and this is a huge problem. I have used aperture drive function on a7riv and it still sucks. With D810 I can shoot in lower light conditions(with flash) at f5.6 if needed. If I tried same thing with a7riv or a9 it would be a miserable experience with missed moments as af hunts.

3ric Johanson's picture

There are only a few menus locked out while the buffer is full. In general, you can change anything, but yes, you can't switch to video. This is because the video system doesn't use the buffer, it goes directly to disk so it needs to be cleared first. This is also true on my canon r5.

Yin Ze's picture

Hi, then why can the 2014 GH4 miraculously start recording video while the buffer clears? If the panasonic engineers who can't go beyond contrast-based af can figure it out sony engineers have no excuse.

Yin Ze's picture

'only a few menus locked out while the buffer is full"? THERE SHOULD BE ZERO MENUS LOCKED OUT ON A $6500 CAMERA.

3ric Johanson's picture

Yin Ze: Yelling and stomping your feet is cool. However, I don't know of any 8k camera that can switch between shooting stills and 8k video without clearing the buffer first. Do you?

Yin Ze's picture

Hi nice debate tactic but let's take 8k off the table. CAN A1 immediately shoot 4k while stills are buffering? As I said gh4 could do this in 2014. Not sure why you would want to defend Sony for an obvious limitation.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I checked and checked again with the Sony A1 and also with the Sony A7R II. Both close the aperture when it is closed while AF and measurements are performed.
About the memory card: I used the SanDisk 64GB SD Extreme Pro UHS-I U3 V30 170MB/s. With the other camera I use the buffer is cleared much faster (20 fps and 45mp resolution) while using the menu without restrictions. Another camera shot 20 fps for with 20 mp for over 900 frames without any waiting time on that same card.
It can be done... only not with the Sony A1

3ric Johanson's picture

I have owned every single FE camera sony has released. UHS-I cards stopped being used years ago, so... the balance of your statements around performance simply lack any credibility. You'd have the same crap performance in other 50mpix cameras with that same card. As for autofocus: No, you are just incorrect. It stops down the lens to give you a DOF preview after it's gotten focus lock. Focus lock is completed with the lens wide open. It's been this way on every single sony FE camera body starting with the a7/a7r. I do agree with you that low light autofocus hunting is a problem, but it's not due to "stopping down". that's just absurd on it's face. Please fact check or hired an editor before you write "reviews".

Kevin Harding's picture

Sorry but this is just plain wrong : "The camera isn't measuring the light and autofocus with the maximum lens opening, but it's closing the physical lens opening if you turn towards a smaller aperture".

Whilst it's true that some lenses don't AF wide open there are many that do. Check the relevant thread on Fred Miranda for a list of those that meet this criteria.

Yin Ze's picture

My D810 still focuses better at f4-5.6 than Sony cameras because it closes the lens down at moment of exposure. This is a huge issue with shooting at f4-5.6 with mirrorless especially in lower light.

3ric Johanson's picture

...again, sony cameras don't close down for focus.

Kevin Harding's picture

No it's not, as I said above, if using the right lenses. I used to shoot with a number of Nikon cameras including the D3, D800 & D800e but they don't come close to the current A9 I'm using (and even my 'old tech' A7rii is pretty damn good, slower but accurate).

You clearly have a axe to grind in this thread but if you can't get your A9 to focus in low light it's likely user error. Maybe take another look at your settings ?

Yin Ze's picture

Nice try. Try tracking a moving subject at f5.6 in dim lighting with dslr 850 and Sony. See which one wins. A9 is very fast in most situations. Just not when stopped down. A7riv aperture drive Feature was supposed to help but I did not see big difference

Kevin Harding's picture

As I said. You seem unable to comprehend that you must be using lenses that open to max aperture to focus. Not all do this. Again ... check the thread on FM, many top line experienced photographers have contributed. If I was a photographer worried at all about this I'd take their experience over yours any day and twice on Sundays.

Yin Ze's picture

Not sure what the hell you are talking about. Mark Galer specifically shows how mirrorless cameras focus. "If you are capturing images using smaller apertures in AF-C and low light, you are effectively starving the AF system of the light it needs to focus quickly". "For fast AF choose a wide-apertue lens and shoot wide-open in AF-C" When I need to shoot at f5.6 in lower light conditions DSLR is way better at focusing. It's why I still use D4 and D810 for event work.

https://youtu.be/slIozdjYigc?t=190

https://imgur.com/a/6siUFKj

Yin Ze's picture

Hi Kevin, anxiously waiting for your rebuttal of Mark Galer's video about Sony af in low light since you would probably take his "experience over yours any day and twice on Sundays." It's Sunday.

Kevin Harding's picture

I've been far too busy to deal with an arsehole like you. I can only refer you to my previous comments but you seem far too thick to comprehend or to bother to go to FM where this issue has been addressed and answered. Instead you refer us to a 3 year old video. So that's where you are, far too arrogant to bother doing serious research. Now STFU.

Yin Ze's picture

Yeah, sure. Maybe you should tell Mark Galer your GROUNDBREAKING discovery that makes a9 autofocus like a DSLR when stopped down. You might win the Nobel peace prize. Please post link on comment on Mark Galer and let him know your genius.

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