Sony Goes Further Upscale with the A9

bythom sony a9

Sony set a new record today in their announcement of the new A9 mirrorless camera. Oh, not the shutter speed, frame rate, or other stuff you might be thinking of; the record they set is in the number of footnotes needed in the first 88 words: 9 (actually 10, since they later footnote something that appeared in those first 88 words).

I always get curious when I see footnotes. Sony is making a lot of claims with this new camera, and the footnotes tell the fuller story that you might miss if you were to read the top level specs.

But let’s get to the basics first. The A9 is a US$4500, full frame, 24mp mirrorless camera that’s pretty much geared for speed. Frame rate? 20 fps. Silent shutter speed? 1/32,000 (though there’s a footnote). 241-frame raw buffer (another footnote). The A9 has dual SD slots (another footnote). A much bigger FZ100 battery that nets a 450 shot CIPA average. A better EVF than anything Sony has done previously, with 3.7m dots running at 120 fps (another footnote). From a spec sheet standpoint, there really isn’t a lot to complain about. Sony’s covered all the bases to make a top end camera. The A9 should ship next month.

The body itself seems like a slightly beefed up A7 Mark II series body, with a couple of changes and additions Sony A7 users will like (a focus joystick, which is absolutely necessary with 693 autofocus points scattered across almost the whole frame (93%), a dedicated focus setting dial, etc.). There’s a two-battery vertical grip option, and a plethora a multiple-purpose buttons on a weather-resistant body.

Inside we’ve got a new 24mp 36x24mm sensor that’s tricked out with BSI (back side illumination) and stacked electronics and gapless microlenses all with copper and aluminum wiring for efficiency. Sony makes a point at the beginning of the press release to call attention to the fact they’re the world’s largest sensor maker (“…a worldwide leader in digital imaging and the world’s largest image sensor manufacturer…”). It’s likely the stacked electronics that enable many of the speed aspects of the camera. That’s because in electronic shutter mode there apparently is no (or little) rolling shutter effect, and in 4K video mode the sensor pulls a full frame 6K data set that the electronics downsize to 4K. It takes lots of on-sensor or off-sensor bandwidth to do both those things, and it appears much of this is being done on-sensor.

Behind the sensor is a 5-axis image stabilizer that has a claimed 5-stop CIPA rating with a 50mm lens on two axes (another of those pesky footnotes).

So about those footnotes. Some are ignorable, a few are important. For instance, while the buffer and frame per second calculations are correct for one card slot, the second card slot is not UHS-II. Why camera makers think this is a good thing to have differing slots when they are constantly performing integrity checks on the disk tables on cards, I don’t know. Basically you’re always limited by the slowest card in the camera. So shooting to both cards at the extremes of what the camera is designed to do is likely to have some downgrading effect, probably mostly on buffer.

Likewise, that 120 fps viewfinder is actually 60 fps if you want the uninterrupted view with the electronic shutter. Not a terrible deal, but bragging about a spec in one place and then disclaiming for a critical use elsewhere takes away some of the excitement. Likewise, the 1/32000 shutter speed is only available in the Manual and Shutter Priority exposure modes (otherwise you’re limited to 1/16000). Note also that at apertures beyond f/11 focus doesn’t track with the electronic shutter, too.

I think it’s going to take some shooting with the A9 to really get a sense of its ability and how these small disclaimers impact actual shooting. One of the footnotes that concerned me was “25% faster autofocus" than the best A7 model to date. Thing is, I’ve never really complained about the speed at which an A7 focused. It’s the accuracy with which it focuses. Clearly Sony is doing phase detect to initially move the lens and contrast detect to finalize focus. But that finalization is coming off 60 fps data. The thing about the Sony focusing I’ve found is that it is incredibly good at a lot of things, but motion tracking to or from you tends to make for a lot of small misses in continuous shooting. Small misses that net usable images, often because of depth of field, but not tack sharp images.

Sony seems to be trying to say the A9 is a 1DxII or D5 equivalent—especially since they went so far as to copy Nikon’s Ethernet connection, among other things—but the proof is in the shooting. The thing about Nikon’s latest DSLR focus system is that it is fast and precise in tracking rapid and erratic motion. The DSLR phase detect focus design just has more focus discrimination in it due to the geometries involved, so it doesn’t need a second step to verify focus, and the D5/D500 certainly are doing focus calculations far faster than 60 fps with their dedicated sensors and CPU.

Still, any improvement from the A7rII is welcome and definitely will give DSLR users pause. That’s where the lens situation starts to become an issue for Sony, though. We’ve got a 70-200mm f/2.8, but only f/4.5-5.6 70-300mm and now 100-400mm lenses (see below). Sorry Neal (Manowitz, VP of digital imaging at Sony), but I can still “follow and capture the action in ways” with a DSLR that your camera can’t. Make some lenses and your statement has more weight.

So despite all the buzz from Sony that the A9 is a sports-shooter camera, we need to verify that it really does have the necessary focus performance, and Sony needs more lenses for that market ASAP.

I find plenty that’s very appealing in the A9 specs. But I have to wonder from all the footnotes and all the still small-and-hard-to-find buttons whether Sony has fully dialed in a DSLR-killer yet. Testing will tell. Until then, we can all just drool over the plethora of interesting spec points.

bythom sony 100-400

Besides the new camera, Sony also introduced the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens, which covers the full and APS-C frame sizes. While Sony hasn’t yet made a super exotic for the FE mount, this lens is probably right beneath such an effort, being a G Master design with all of Sony’s known flourishes. If the hypothetical MTF charts are predictive of actual performance, this should be a very good lens optically, especially at 400mm.

The 100-400mm lens should be available in June for US$2500.

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