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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Previous comments
Yin Ze's picture

Ha ha. you would definitely get the sony pr job. You sound just like sony pr when i asked them why you can't switch aps-c to full frame crop while buffering. he said, "why would you want to do that?" lol.

I heard the A1 finally allows you to switch from full-frame to aps-c crop mode while buffering. Is this confirmed? This was another stupid limitation and please don't say sony locked this function out while buffering because it has to write to card while switching to aps-c crop mode.

I make a lot of residual sales from video clips these days so it is incredibly frustrating when I have to wait for buffer to clear when shooting video at an event or news situation.

as i said before why can panasonic gh4 engineers figure this out in 2014 and sony engineers are still trying to figure it out.

Damian F's picture

I can’t believe fstoppers would publish this article. The second you said “this was tested with a fast SD card.” you lost all credibility. And so we are clear, a UH1 SD card with 170MB write speed isn’t even a fast SD card and it’s hilarious that you think it is.

tim munsey's picture

So a few mistakes Nando, will you correct your publication? Another error made "You have to choose the right file format (JPEG or lossless raw)" should be JPEG or compressed raw. The camera has the option to enable aperture drive which will quickly close down the aperture during operation from being wide open during focus.

Damian F's picture

They shouldn’t correct this review. The editors should take it down.It’s an amateurish review by a mediocre photographer (dial back the saturation slider Nando. You’re going too far) that’s deeply flawed and make the entire publication look bad. If you’re going to have someone review cameras that person should understand cameras. That’s not the case here.

Adam Palmer's picture

Came here to correct a few rookie mistakes but I see it has been done already in the comments. If there is any take away it should to us the cf express cards. They really need to come out with a bigger CF express card.

Yin Ze's picture

yeah, the a1b will come with 1 cf express b slot upgrade.

3ric Johanson's picture

Here's my take on the ugly aspects of the sony a1:

- They should have gone with CF express B. There are so many existing (large) cards made by several manufactures and a very healthy market. Making their own standard just for this camera is extremely dumb. Express A is slower, extremely limited in size, and extremely hard to buy. My local camera shop which sells the A1 doesn't even have any stock. Additionally, CF Express A is half the bus speed of B -- I'm sure the A1 could utilize the faster card!

- Sony A1 and sony in general has extremely poor API support. I automate cameras -- in complex multicamera rigs. For example, using a microcontroller adjust the f-stop or shutter speed on a dozen cameras in an array. We end up using Canon R5s for this, because the automation and APIs for sony are terrible. They had "Camera Remote API" which was so limited it was useless, now they have replaced it with the "Camera Remote SDK" which only supports a few cameras and only "heavy" (eg: windows or linux) platforms. What would be useful is a standard API which works on all of their cameras, open enough for users to operate it easily from any platform or wizbang they want.

- No out of the box solution for external memory. Get on this already. The external bus on the camera (usb 3.2) is fast enough for storage of photos and video. And lots of media exists. For many workflows, this is important. I'm sure it can post to facebook or somesuch, but goodness if it can write to my samba NAS!

- Provide more clear technical specs on the a1. For example, if I'm in /medium/ continuous shooting mode, what is the frames per second and how long can it shoot at with a CF express card in it? In what cases does it shoot 30fps? What's the shutter latency in all of the various modes?

- Bitdepth nonesense - most sony cameras (including the a7r4) end up in 12 bit mode when shooting continuous. This ends up being learned by end users eventually because sony doesn't publish it. No idea if this problem exists on the a1 or not, but I suspect it does because they are focused on these 30fps figures so strongly and it's quite a bit of data on a limited bus speed.

- I'm probably one of the few who doesn't dislike the sony menu system. ha! But one of the key features most of the "pro" bodies have is the ability to save and restore full camera settings profiles which can be saved and restored by memory card (not this c1 c2 nonsense, ALL settings). This is important for professional users.

Yin Ze's picture

guess this is not the camera for you. stick to canon or apple.

Joe Bodego's picture

that's exactly what the majority of people are going to do, lets take this art of photography out of the hands of the elite and privileged. .

Joe Bodego's picture

With a decent smart phone and a little Photoshop skills, one can achieve the same or better results. This camera is an insult to the concept of photography which is really a story telling medium. Photography brings joy, archive your life, educate you, challenges you. I see none of these in this over priced crap of a camera. Tell me please how can this camera better tell me a story? Please somebody!!!. Remember when its was a big deal to own a sony TV?. Sony is an evil company that should be shunned by all photographers for putting a camera like this on the market.. I intend to..

3ric Johanson's picture

"With a decent smart phone and a little Photoshop skills, one can achieve the same or better results." - that's great for you, I'm excited to see your portfolio and galleries of photos!

Joe Bodego's picture

There you go "Portfolio" this generation don;t care about your portfolio, they don;t need to pay your overhead and your ridiculous prices. My friend got married in the DR 4 years ago, not one photographer. Do you know what they paid for? "A local band to perform". The photos were all done by friends and family who gladly donated the photos. Even her 12 year old cousin was in on the photography and video. Sony is a disgraceful company that should go out of business based on their greed and lies that would only be believed by the last bastion of a generation that would soon need to be pushed around in a wheelchair.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

In other words, they ain't gots no money or just cheap. What does that have to do with how you feel the a1 is ludicrous? If it's not for you, it's not for you.

Yin Ze's picture

I guess you won't be happy with the price of their new Airpeak drone then.

Michael Chan's picture

depends on the story you are trying to tell. a phone is fine for some, if not many. it is just a tool, you use the best tool to get the results you need.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- "With a decent smart phone and a little Photoshop skills, one can achieve the same or better results."

LOL, no. Just no. Hint: sports, wildlife, weddings, events, etc. Are you seriously going to tell me you'd photoshop dozens upon dozens, even hundreds, of smartphone snapshots to make it look like it came from a1....or any proper camera for that matter?

Yin Ze's picture

I use a9, a7riv, dji osmo action, and drone for video and photos. I use the iPhone Pro Max 12 a lot and the combined image stabilization and image processing is incredible. I mix down the video sources In Final Cut X. There are times when the scene is very high contrast with a lot of dynamic range and the phone will do an incredible job and Sony raw file requires a lot of adjusting of slides in Capture One.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I don't know much about video so I can't comment, but, I do know to this day, smart phones are not normally used for cinema or even vloggers/Youtubers. If they use smart phones, it's more for ads or just an exercise.

3ric Johanson's picture

Don't feed the trolls!

Yin Ze's picture

"I do know to this day, smart phones are not normally used for cinema or even vloggers/Youtubers. If they use smart phones, it's more for ads or just an exercise."

"Steven Soderbergh’s latest — enough about his “retirement,” already — is a trippy psychological thriller shot entirely on an iPhone, and it’s less a gimmick than the product of the prolific filmmaker utilizing a tool that could keep up with his fast pace"

A tool is just a tool if it does a specific job more efficiently than another tool.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Well, speaking reading comprehension, which you seem to lack. Hence, I specifically stated "not normally used for cinema", "If they use smart phones, it's more for ads or just an exercise."

The link with films you provided:

1. They are all B-Movies style.
2. They were produced between 2011-2018. Most of the examples where 2014-2015.

If you are going to lose sleep over this, at least bring up some current content + decent movies/shows and not something that look like some B-movie, daytime soap opera, or a cheesy documentary.

Yin Ze's picture

Once again you make a baseless claim then try to back it up with another baseless explanation. Point is the iphone is more than a capable tool in the right hands. In your hands it's as useful as the drivel you keep posting.

Michael Chan's picture

have used an a1 for 2 months. uhs-2 card. every camera will have its limitations. you just have to learn them and compensate. the question is do you need this camera for the results you are trying to achieve. was not unhappy with the r4 that it replaced, but i would make at least one comment that there is a remarkable reduction in the amount of sensor dust.

on the pricing issue, it is definitely not a "value" camera body. that said, it has a unique set of features for a single body and cannot be expected to beat the "best" features of every camera body ever made. every individual has to make that decision for him/herself.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

All this whining about the menu lock outs during buffering. I used to shoot motorsports with a Sony NEX-5N (2012) and never had this problem. You know why, I don't go into the menu just for the hell of it or to find something to cry about.

Don't be a dummy and hold down the shutter for a ridiculous and unrealistic length of time. Shoot in bursts. Be happy. :)

Yin Ze's picture

"I don't go into the menu just for the hell of it or to find something to cry about." -

what if you want to shoot video or change full-frame crop to aps-c so you can get better detail in viewfinder of distant shot. the aps-c crop is very valuable for framing or seeing what a subject is doing as I can punch.

3ric Johanson's picture

you press the "zoom" button, don't switch to aps-c. Duh.

Yin Ze's picture

so you can hit zoom button while you are shooting. you and black z are equally idiotic.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I can't imagine a situation where one would fill the buffer, 400 frames (approx), hell even 100 frames, then need to immediately switch to video or crop mode. And, crop mode isn't even that magnified so it's pretty negligible in terms of seeing what the subject is doing. If you are so far away that you need to punch in to see what the subject is doing, use the Zoom Magnifier button/function.

Yin Ze's picture

as you said, you don't shoot video so you can't imagine the needs of people who need to do both. as i said before the gh4 from 2014 can initiate video recording while the buffer is clearing. whether the a1 takes 1-5 seconds to clear the buffer before recording video that is 1-5 seconds too long. i have to shoot video and stils of fast moving events and slow poke a1 can't keep up with gh4 technology from 2014.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Stick to the GH4, then. Funny how you keep bringing up the GH4 over and over and over but own mostly Sony's. Maybe the GH4 were great at switching modes while clearing the buffer, but, apparently, they suck at everything else. Why else why you wouldn't own this god of a camera system.

If you were smart, since you have two bodies, use one for video and one for stills. Ba da bing! Capisce.

This reminds me of a very old joke:

A patient walks into the Dr's office, flailing his arms around, "Doctor! Doctor! It hurts when I do this!!!"

Doctor: "Then, don't do that".

Yin Ze's picture

You keep proving how low your reading comprehension is with every reply. Gh4 was a good option for shooting video compared to dslr back in 2014. Heck, it was pretty good system for its time especially when you needed a silent shutter. You might think Panasonic engineers but they figured out how to write video while the buffer is clearing. Something Sony engineers seemingly have not figured out in 2021.

And your stupid suggestion of shooting with two bodies is even more idiotic. Do I need to have the same lenses on each body because you will defend Sony to the end. Your blind allegiance is pretty pathetic.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Temper temper. Stomping your feet and throwing tantrums like bratty little girl just because no one sees your asinine way.

Let's try this. 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021. I count 8 years. One would think in 8 freakin' years you would have gotten it through your thick skull Sony does not do what you want it to. Then, not only do you own one Sony body, you own TWO! Fucking LOL! A smart person would have either changed gears or adapted to the fact. You've had Sony's probably for at least 3 years and never had the ability to fill the buffer (like a noob) then switch to video mode. Not sure why now all of the sudden you act like you're missing shots/coverage due to loss of functionality when you've never had that functionality with the Sony's. smh

I don't think there's anything else anyone can do for you. You'll just have put on your big boy pants and figure it out. Adapt, improvise, and conquer.

Yin Ze's picture

Hi, once again you still can't argue with the fact that your mighty sony engineers can't figure out how to change menus functions or switch to video while the camera is buffering. You don't shoot video so it is not something you see as a limitation. Your limitation is reading so I guess I will l leave you to entertain yourself. The funny thing is Sony only recenlty allowed you to change menu functions while buffering. I guess you probably liked being locked out of your camera because you are a sony sycophant. you are a sad boyman.

3ric Johanson's picture

Yin ze; I'd love to see your portfolio.

Yin Ze's picture

lol, the "show me your portfolio" line... lame.

3ric Johanson's picture

So wait to run around with a drone, an IPhone, and a gh4, and... No portfolio.... And spend time on forums complaining about cameras you can't afford. Cool story, bro.

Yin Ze's picture

Funny you mention the iPhone. i just shot a burst of 260 frames with the iPhone 12 Pro Max and then switched to video immediately. No waiting for iphone to finish buffering. BTW I can afford 2 A1 as the A9 has served me well despite its slow mechanic shutter. I am not a sony fanboi or youtube "influencer" who has to give an "unbiased review". the gear is just gear and if it is has limitations i am not afraid to voice my opinion. I will buy the a1 in good time when they fix the IBIS and EVF issues. Unfortunately your problems cannot be fixed with a firmware upgrade.

Yin Ze's picture

BTW, do you have a drone? It's another tool. as a sony fanboi you should sign up to buy the airpeak as sony is #1 with no flaws.

A M's picture

No doubt, this is targeted to the Pro market, though it is amazing how even amateurs will shell out large sums. For me, the most positive element related to Sony's innovations, is that it is forcing the veteran brands to sharpen up and innovate as well. Even pros would scratch their head and wonder: so I spend countless thousands to get what is (currently) the top product...but then, how long will I keep it...and will I have buyers remorse when Sony replaces it 6-8 months down the road?

When my 850 came on the market, the reviews were especially positive. And this DSLR provides amazing results.
And anyone looking at the results marvel at the crisp colours and resolution. In other words, why on earth would I spend more to get incremental results that the end user won't really see?

Ultimately, it's the printed results that matter. If you're happy with what you have, so is your wallet ! In the meantime, let's hope that a lot of this innovation drifts down to the camera bodies that are in the price zone for the sane.

Mark Rowe's picture

Wow... wow... I’m really confused how this article can be allowed to go out into the community. So many inaccurate statements in here. I’m not hating on the reviewer, I’m sure he has all good intentions, but I would strongly suggest that you put quality over the need to post something quickly. A review and commentary on a high end camera should take time and be put into many different scenarios to give a balanced view. There’s so many errors in this article that unfortunately misinform the reader.

James Jones's picture

Recently I had the chance to rent this for a trip and am extremely impressed with the cameras performance. The dynamic range of the sensor blows my A7III out of the water. I was shooting a rather challenging scene during sunrise with the sun reflecting off clouds and the ocean with black lava rock in the foreground. I figured the lava rock was going to end up being clipped totally black in an attempt to save the highlights but was pleasantly surprised by the cameras ability to recover the details in shadows from a single exposure.

I understand what you mean about the buffer as I used UHS-2 SD cards. Sony being the only manufacturer of this particular card type allows them to demand a kings ransom for even the lower storage capacity cards. Until other players are in the game for type A cards it'll be awhile before they catch on when type B is already cheaper and faster.

The 30 frames per second is both a blessing and a curse. Doing several bursts to try to get the perfect action shot tears through memory cards and storage quicker than anyone seems to realize, but it does allow the absolute perfect pose and timing of other factors to be captured.

My big complaint about the A1 was Sonys bone head choice to use the same terrible 2 axis tilt screen on their flagship. They really need to have something that is useful in more orientations and a much better resolution. I do a lot of low to the ground and above my head photography and it's just a guessing game if I'm properly angled with a 2 axis screen. For a nearly $7000 camera it's ridiculous.

Yin Ze's picture

Yeah, once again Sony introduces the betamax version of CFexpress. I use Prograde Digital dual SD card reader and while that is as fast as it gets with Sony SF-G cards it is nothing compared to the serious bandwidth of CFexpress Card Type B at 1700mb/s out of a theoretical 2000mb/s top speed. CFA is a paltry 800MB/S READ at best with a max of 1000mb/s theoretical. Unless they built some extra lanes in the A1 that future CF-A cards Sony has already hobbled the A1 for those who shoot in volume and need to quickly download RAW files. Their screen is also pretty sad looking for a 6.5k camera. I just don't get how they get so much right but flub the relatively easy stuff.