Sony A9 Camera Review

bythom sony a9 wlens

What is It?
The Sony A9 is something new from Sony. How exactly to categorize it is at least for now a bit of a dilemma. After all, Sony already has three different A7 models that are targeted at least partly at professionals. Is the A9 a one-off model, or the start of a new, higher end professional line?

Back in the Minolta days of the Alpha mount, the 9 numbered camera was a halo camera: one designed to compete with Canon and Nikon’s highest offerings. The 7 numbered cameras were the workhorses that most people bought. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing the same numbering scheme appear in Sony’s lineup. 

The A9 is certainly a halo camera. 

Sony’s introduction of the A9 trumpeted a number of technologies and features, but the ones that really put the camera in a new class compared to Sony’s previous offerings are these:

  • 20 fps continuous shooting with 241 shot raw buffer
  • Electronic shutter for silent shooting
  • Uninterrupted viewfinder (no blackout)

All this with a 24mp full frame sensor sitting on a five-axis image stabilization platform. And yes, autofocus at 20 fps.

To put that in perspective, the Canon 1Dx Mark II and Nikon D5 are both 20mp full frame, top out at 16 and 14 fps, are not silent, and have short viewfinder blackout periods between shots. Both Canon and Nikon use lens-based IS only (Sony uses both sensor and lens IS).

So first up, we have to talk about who uses these cameras (1Dx, D5, and now A9). For the most part, photojournalists and particularly sports photographers. The Canon 1Dx and Nikon D5 are built with the former in mind with performance for the latter. What I mean by that is that those two cameras are designed to withstand one heck of a lot of user abuse—the common phrase you hear is “I could hammer a nail with this and not break anything”—yet perform at extremes when needed. 

Indeed, I’ve watched PJ’s literally throw their cameras into the trunk of their vehicle and drive off to their next event. Examination of heavily used PJ cameras will show a lot of brassing, worn grips, missing/broken buttons, and maybe even broken glass on the LCD screens. Yet those cameras almost always still work no matter how bad they look and how many parts are broken on them. 

Pixel count isn’t particularly important to this group of photographers, which is one reason why this type of camera seems to lag the other top cameras in megapixels. Most PJ/sports shots are used exactly like smartphone shots: crop to the relevant action and post/print in smallish sizes. If a newsroom photo editor has 1500 pixels on the long axis when he’s done cropping, he’s usually got enough pixels.

Which brings up the other aspect that tends to be common among these cameras: they shoot really well into very high ISO values. That’s because those fewer pixels are big ones. The per pixel noise levels in these top cameras tends to be really good, and I’ve watched pros regularly shooting at ISO values I would have previously thought of as absurd (e.g. ISO 12800). 

I mention all this to put some context on the A9. Sony clearly is trying to claim that the A9 is in the same league and can be used for the same things as the Canon 1Dx Mark II and the Nikon D5, but close examination tells us that in some things yes, some things no.

So let’s start with body build. I’ll have more to say about this in the handling section below, but the A9 is basically a slightly larger A7-type of camera. That’s both good news and bad in terms of build.

bythom sony a9 frame

The good news is that the A7/A9 construction is simple and to the point. Behind the skin is a magnesium alloy top, front, small frame, and rear cover (above). But close examination shows that it isn’t the more monolithic construction that the Canon/Nikon offerings use. No way I’m hammering a nail with the A9—not that anyone asked me to try that—as my sense of the A9 design is such that really strong force in a few places on the body will probably cause alignment issues. 

Not to say that the build is poor. It’s actually very good, and for the most part robust; I just don’t think an A9 will handle the kinds of abuse I see many PJs subjecting their cameras to. The lens mount, for instance, has been changed from the A7 models and uses more screws to keep it in place, but I’d still judge it to be the likely weak point for rough handling. 

Sony made a number of other improvements to the body. The dual card slot door has an interchange lock on it (i.e. won’t accidentally get popped open while shooting, which stops the camera from shooting). The mechanical shutter has been tested to 500,000 cycles. Additional seals were made for moisture and dust resistance.

One of the reasons the A9 is a bit bigger is that it uses a new NP-FZ100 battery, which Sony claims provides 2.2 times the life of the battery used in the A7 series (NP-FW50). The CIPA numbers say 480 frame per charge, but as you’ll see in the performance section below, if you’re using this camera for the intended purposes, you’re going to do far, far better than that. 

But let’s go inside for a moment and discuss the heart of the A9 that makes it so unique: the image sensor.

bythom sony a9 front

The image sensor is a 24mp Sony Exmor RS, but one that has been flipped and stuffed with technology. The technical term is BSI Stacked. BSI means that light coming into the sensor is collected across the entire sensor surface (no data lines, power lines, or electrical components on the surface). Stacked means that Sony has put a set of circuitry on the other side of the sensor. In particular a high speed data processing chain with its own memory.

That last part is how we get the 20 fps electronic shutter, basically. The memory in this extra layer acts as an additional buffer for data that’s being siphoned off the image collection at incredible speeds, and in 16 line slices. Overall, the electronic shutter on the A9 works very similarly to what happens with a mechanical shutter above its flash sync speed (the point above which the shutter doesn’t open the entire frame at one time but rather uses a traveling slit). Indeed, measurements seem to indicate that A9 is about equivalent to a mechanical shutter with a flash sync speed of 1/125. That’s excellent performance, and means that any rolling shutter effect in still photos is incredibly minimal, and nearly matches that of the Canikon beasts. Top electronic shutter speed is 1/32,000.

This is all important. If you look at any of Sony’s marketing, or the brochure for the A9, what you’ll find is that almost every image is a sports image. Sports photography requires fast shutter speeds with no linear distortion, and at high frame rates. That’s exactly what this new sensor produces.

But that’s not all the sensor does. Across most of the image area (93%) there are 693 phase detect autofocus points, meaning you can acquire focus from nearly any position in the frame. These points are feeding the camera’s computer focus data at 60 frames per second, and can do so in light as low as -3EV.

The on sensor phase detect focus is generally followed with a contrast detect confirmation, what Sony calls Hybrid AF. I’ll have more to say about how that works in the performance section, but this is the way most mirrorless cameras are getting better focus discrimination from what is a geometrically limited on-sensor PD system. 

I mentioned 60 fps. The EVF you’re looking through while framing can actually run at 120 fps in non silent modes, but typically will be running at 60 fps with a 3686k dot OLED display backed by some Zeiss optics between it and your eye. The distinction? There’s no blackout in electronic shutter modes. So it’s like like looking at a very small, continuous computer display.

Indeed, this is one of the things that startles people who pick up an A9 and shoot with it when configured for maximum performance: they don’t think it’s shooting at all because it’s not making any sound (silent electronic shutter) and there’s no blackout between frames in the viewfinder. As an old video cameraman on some sports broadcasts, this is exactly what I’d see on the old video cameras: a continuous view that made it easy to follow the action. How do you tell that the camera is shooting, then? Sony has several visual options. I gravitated towards blue flashing dots in the four corners of the display to indicate that the camera is taking images.

If there’s a game changer in the A9, the zero blackout viewfinder would be it. When you’re on the sidelines right next to the action and it zips by you so that you’re panning, even the very minimal viewfinder blackouts of the Canikon pro bodies can be a bit disruptive to your keeping perfect framing. Without giving anything away in the performance section (there’s good news, there’s bad news), I found that keeping framing consistency is indeed a very valuable aspect of the Sony A9 viewfinder. It is, indeed, the one thing that makes the sports shooting experience with an A9 unique.

A surprise technology in the A9 is the Ethernet port. The 1Dx Mark II and D5 have Ethernet ports, so why not the Sony?

bythom sony a9 connectors left

Doors removed to show connectors

Okay, just putting a port into the camera isn’t exactly solving the problem we PJ/sports shooters have. Realistically, our cameras are like fire hoses: they create a humongous amount of data fast (I filled 64GB in one quarter photographing college football shooting raw the first day I shot with the A9). We actually need some flexibility to program what goes down that fire hose. 

Right now what we have is a fire hose (Ethernet) that we can push everything through. Yes, I know some of the pro stadiums now have Ethernet connections at the shooting areas, but just being able to “connect” isn’t enough. The camera makers aren’t giving us enough options on how we configure our workflow. (If anyone from Sony is reading this, please contact me and I’ll provide some scenarios/details on what is really needed.

Indeed, this is where I find a few “features” in the Sony A9 aren’t quite up to the Canon/Nikon levels. While the A9 has two mismatched SD card slots (one UHS-I, one UHS-II), the ability to assign what goes where, when, and why is mostly missing.  

bythom sony a9 back

Let’s back up a moment and look at the body controls. One pivotal change between the A7 and A9 is the addition of the focus joystick just below the AF-On button (Sony calls it the Multi-Selector, but they’ve also called the Direction pad a multi-selector in the past, so I’ll stick with joystick to distinguish it from the pad). If we early A7 (and A6xxx) users had any complaints, it was putting the focus detection where we wanted it. 

The original NEX designs required multiple steps to move the focus position. Then we got a “mode” to more directly control it. Finally, with the A9 we have the right answer: direct control. As with the Nikon implementation, the joystick is also a button, meaning it can do two things at once (such as back-button AF plus position). 

bythom sony a9 newdials

The other big control addition is a pair of dials stacked on top of one another on the left top of the camera (when you’re holding the camera). The bottom dial controls the focus mode (e.g. continuous or single servo), while the upper dial allows you to set various frame rates and shooting methods. 

While it might not sound like adding a joystick/button and a stacked dial changes much, it does. You can now change most shooting parameters with direct controls, exactly what a pro wants. Noticeably absent are dedicated WB and ISO controls, though. The good news is that you can pretty much assign anything in the menus to any of many configurable buttons. The bad news is that usually means assigning something to one of the small buttons on the camera, and those buttons aren’t entirely shooter friendly (see handling).

Out back we’ve got a 3” 1.44m dot LCD that features some touch control. As usual with TFT LCDs, there’s a wide supported viewing angle, but in bright light the display will likely seem a little dim. There’s a “Sunny Weather” mode for that, but I’d personally rather have less viewing angle and more brightness. The LCD tilts up by a bit over 90 degrees, down by almost 45 degrees. In sports shooting, I found more than once that I wish it had more downward tilt.

I have to admit I didn’t really spend a lot of time testing the video side of the camera. But you’ll want to know that it does full pixel read-out 4K video, one of only a couple a cameras that do true full frame 4K video. But note that the video is downsampled to 4K. This is one of the “tricky” aspects of 4K. No two 4K captures are alike, it seems. 

Sony captures 24mp of data (6000 x 4000, which they claim could generate 6K video) and then resamples it to 4K (3840 x 2160). As you might notice the math isn’t a perfect match. Many cameras get around resampling by subsampling, plus you see other cameras with cropped 4K video.

4K video can be 30/25/24P, and records with the Sony XAVC S codec. You get 4.2.0 color, 8 bit data, and 100Mbps bit rates. 1080HD video can be at 100P with the same parameters just mentioned, or 60/50/30/25/24P at 50Mbps. 

Mic and headphone jacks are built into the camera, and HDMI uses the small Type-D connector (and uncompressed 4.2.2 video is output). Sony rates the minimum battery life for video at 105 minutes (using viewfinder; 120 minutes with LCD). 

Overall, the camera is about 24 ounces (673g). Not exactly light weight, but considerably lower in weight than the Canon/Nikon DSLRs Sony wants to compete with.

bythom sony a9 wgrip

You can add a vertical grip and dual battery holder (VG-C3EM) for US$350. Also, a US$400 NPA-MQZ1K pack is available that can hold up to four FZ100 batteries external to the camera (and allows AC use, as well). 

The camera is made in Thailand. Cost is US$4500.

Source of the review unit: two-month loan from B&H
Sports events shot with the camera: college football, basketball, Spartan Races, more

I’ve only begun to touch on all the features of this camera, so if you need more information about something, see either this site’s camera data page for the A9 or Sony’s Web page for the camera.

How's it Handle?
Let's get an initial impression out of the way first: the A9 is a bit heavy for its compact size. And when you put an f/2.8 GM lens on it—any of them—you end up with a pretty dense package that's surprisingly hefty. 

Now you might think I'm going to slam Sony on this. Not at all. For sports and wildlife work—especially with long lenses,—you want something other than a flyweight camera otherwise you'll have trouble stabilizing it during use. 

Yes, I know some of you are saying "but that's what on-sensor IS is for." Not really. The trick with sports and wildlife is to keep the camera always pointed at the thing that's moving in front of you, and the focus system pointed exactly at the thing you want focused. The better you do that, the better the AF system works, for one. (If you have to ask, there’s a frequency both to the focus sampling and another to the IS correction; these can intersect in ways that impact the focus performance. It’s better to just remove that variable if you can.) A bit of weight keeps the camera more stable as you track motion.

So I like the added heft of the A9 over the A7 bodies. What I'm not sure I 100% like is the grip and hand position. It's better than the A7rII, for sure, but I still felt a little like there was something missing in the right hand position. It doesn't help that Sony put the AF-On button I normally use just a little left of where it would fall naturally under my thumb, but if you have big hands that might not be your problem, the depth of the grip itself might.

bythom sony a9 frontangle

The extended grip definitely helps, as one of the things that doesn't quite feel right with the body-only is that your hand feels a bit like it's falling off the bottom of the camera. I actually end up tucking my little finger under the A9 body as kind of an additional support point. It feels weird to do that at first, but I eventually got used to it. But it does show that the small body size doesn’t necessarily make for the best, stable hand position.

That out of the way, let's talk about the things that Sony "fixed" over the A7 Mark II bodies. 

Right away there's the focus position joystick. This is something that's been needed on the Sony mirrorless systems since the beginning. Using the Direction pad is sub-optimal, if for no other reason than its position on the camera back. But Sony had other issues with using the Direction pad, especially early on when some models only supported a two-step approach to moving the focus sensor.

So Sony's learning. But not fast enough, it appears. If I'm going to use the joystick to position focus, that's where my thumb is going to be. That means I also want to set AF-On to pressing the joystick in (it's a button in addition to enabling movement). Sony allows me to do that, can either move or press AF-On, you can't do both simultaneously. This is the same problem the Nikon D500 and D850 have (but the Nikon D5 doesn't). Moreover, Sony's joystick is a little flimsy. It's also a little fidgety about whether it's being pressed or moved, which makes it sometimes difficult to fine tune focus using that single control. 

Now I'm being critical here because Sony is close to a full solution. Very close. But until you've used a D5 with AF-On enabled on the joystick press while still moving it, you won't know what you're missing on the A9. 

bythom sony a9 top

Sony's made some small changes to button feel, but the complaints I've had about them still apply. C1 and C2 are distinguished only by position and easy to confuse when in a hurry. The AF-On button isn't prominent enough, particularly with even thin gloves on. The Direction pad and its ring is much better than the A7’s, easier to find by feel, and more robust, plus the addition of the focus and drive setting knobs on the top left plate are very welcome. 

I'll say this: Sony didn't take any steps backward in terms of ergonomics on the A9 from the A7 series. But neither did they make truly strong gains in ergonomics with their changes. The Sony design still doesn't have the comfort the Canon/Nikon DSLRs do, and feels a little "edgy" in the hand.

Moving the video record button to a position you don't tend to accidentally hit it is a step forward, for sure, though.

I guess I was expecting a bit more refinement to the A mirrorless design, but I'll take what we got. In many ways the Sony feels better in the hand to me than the Fujifilm X-T2, for instance. But not as good as the Olympus E-M1 Mark II (or the Nikon DSLRs I use). Progress, but not as much progress as I’d like.

The thing that was trumpeted by Sony that most impacts handling is the continuous EVF view: no blackout. This really is a bit of a game-changer, pardon the pun. In all previous camera designs with fast frame rates, you'd pan with a moving subject and your framing would often get slightly suspect towards the end, particularly with motion that was erratic. 

What immediately struck me with the A9 was that this was no longer really a problem. Not that it was a big problem for me, but I've got plenty of multi-frame sequences from DSLRs in my sports files where my framing at the end of the sequence just wasn't as good as it was at the start of the sequence. 

Almost immediately I noticed I wasn't having that issue with the A9, and it really has to be credited to no viewfinder blackout. You definitely feel like you've got a different view of the world, that's for sure. Indeed, it reminds me of covering sports with the big broadcast cameras I did many years ago: I'm just watching the frame all the time and adjusting my pointing with what I'm seeing. There's nothing getting in the way of my view at any time (other than referees ;~). 

This feature alone makes the A9 a different "handling" camera for sports (and maybe for wildlife) than any previous performance still camera. Try it. You'll have a completely different impression than you do from a DSLR, or even other mirrorless cameras. 

The menu system still needs work (and could benefit from touch operation). It also needs a help system to explain things, especially since Sony continues to use a lot of abbreviations, acronyms, and unclear wording. I'd also like to be able to skip tabs (e.g. anything related to video or networking) without having to navigate up to them, across, then back down into the menus. Yes, I know I can build a MyMenu to help with this, but that's a task that takes a lot of thinking and pre-planning to get right. Then creating it is a lot of button pressing. 

While it may seem like I’m critical of the handling, the A9 is the best-handling Sony so far. So progress. But the fast development/production cycles of these cameras are resulting in a lot of small things that could have been done better. At the US$4500 price point, I expect a company to have put more work into the ergonomics of the camera, as it’s a tool that I’m going to have to use for quite a while to get value from, and thus I want to be 100% comfortable while using it.

How's it Perform?
Note: The A9 has had two major firmware updates since this review was written. In particular, focus performance has been improved.

Battery: Don't worry about the battery. Finally we have more DSLR-like performance out of a mirrorless camera battery. Indeed, better performance than Sony suggests in the specs. During the first football game I shot over 1500 images and still had 30% charge left when I checked it. In virtually every sports shoot during the last two months I was always well over 1000 images a charge and even over 2200 once. At this level, I just don't think that you worry much about battery performance. Sure, carry an extra charged battery with you just in case, but I'd guess you'd have to be shooting back to back events or one really long cricket match before you need to change.

To put that in context, during the Spartan Race World Championships at Squaw Valley I was shooting from 7am to almost 4pm, and pretty continuously (heats start every 15 minutes all morning, so no matter where you’re at on the course you tend to have a continuous stream of participants to shoot in action. I used one and half batteries over nine hours. I’m perfectly fine with that.

Autofocus: This is the one you wanted to hear about, right? Many of you probably just skipped down to this part of the review. 

For the most part, Sony delivers pro-level focus performance that can be said to rival most DSLR systems. There's plenty of good news in the autofocus system. 

bythom US CO CU vs UNC A9 18082

I followed this play through the entire sequence from snap to final pile (at 10 fps). One thing I observed is that with the right tracking settings, the A9 will almost always keep focus on the subject without popping off to something that intrudes into the frame. Thus, the running back is still in focus here and the camera is tracking on his motion, not on other things happening in the frame.

On static subjects, or even subjects moving parallel to you, or in AF-S mode, I can't find anything to complain about. Focus acquisition is fast, and the focus plane is where you want it (more automated functions) or where you put it (single area, for example). Note that these conditions are ones where the “hybrid” bit of Sony’s focus system really come into play: obtain initial focus with the on-sensor PD and refine with the contrast detect system. 

Face detection works quite well when subjects are facing you, though be careful of really fast lenses: the focus plane isn't always exactly on the part of the eye you might want it to be (hint: enable eye detection). But it's absolutely a delight to have the camera grab the face right, and at f/2.8 and f/4 it's more than accurate enough for me. 

The speed of static and parallel motion subject focus is essentially identical to what you'd expect on a well specified DSLR. With face or eye detection working, it also might be more often at the exact position you want.

So here's where the focus ring rubber meets the road: continuous autofocusing on fast moving and erratic subjects that are moving towards or away from you. Things aren't exactly perfect for the A9 here. Let's look at three images in a long sequence (I've cropped two of them):

bythom US CO CU vs UNC A9 17039
bythom US CO CU vs UNC A9 17070
bythom US CO CU vs UNC A9 17081

So why is the middle one out of focus? Because that's were I started to zoom out. Literally, a 3mm focal length difference triggered this, and it took the camera six or seven images before it restored focus. 

As more than one other reviewer has noted, the big "avoid this" thing with the A9 continuous autofocus is having a subject moving rapidly towards you while you're zooming the lens out to hold framing. I noticed this over and over in football sequences with the 100-400mm and 70-200mm lenses: as the subject came towards me and I tried to zoom out to maintain framing, the camera would tend to lose focus. For how long and by how much seemed to vary with the situation, but it's a pretty repeatable problem. If I kept the lens at the same focal length, this did not happen (though other things weren't perfect with this type of motion as the Hybrid system tends to punt if it thinks its within some unknown DOF calculation). If the subject was moving away from me, I couldn't trigger the same problem while zooming in. [Sony improved the focus while zooming in firmware 2.0 in January 2018]

I mentioned "how long and by how much." I've got some football sequences where the camera didn't have a problem, a few where it recovered quickly, a few where it never recovered, and others in between.  This is not an issue I have with the Nikon D5, which in the same situation just continues to nail focus. 

But that brings me to a more critical assessment of "in focus." As I noted earlier, on static subjects and AF-S the Sony A9 is essentially flawless. Even on subjects moving mostly parallel to you with AF-C (continuous autofocus) I'd expect a near-100% keeper rate from the A9. 

The big difference I note between the Sony A9 and my D5 is this: subjects moving toward and away from me. I've looked critically at sequences both from my own shooting and that of others using an A9, and I'll say this: the A9's focus plane is looser on that kind of motion in continuous sequences than the Nikon D5. The A9's focus plane will drift a tiny bit forward and aft of where it really should be in long sequences. Not enough to throw away the image. We're talking modest "misses" here, like the difference between focusing on the eye and the nose. But they're still misses in my book. You might not always notice this with the 100-400mm lens, because you're shooting at f/5.6 and the depth of field sometimes buries the exact focus plane point on casual examination. 

On the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens shot wide open I started to notice this more. On the 85mm f/1.8 lens shot wide open on close action I noticed it still more. This is important, as eventually Sony will get around to producing lenses like a 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8, and that's going to reveal this "not quite" aspect to some of the continuous autofocus system to more people. My hope is that Sony will be able to tweak their autofocus system before those lenses start to appear, though. I suspect they will.

As it stands right now, I can recommend the A9 for continuous focus work. With two caveats, one small, one bigger. Caveat number one—the minor one—is that on some types of motion, mostly towards you, don't push the DOF too narrow when shooting with continuous autofocus if you absolutely need to focus at a specific point on your subject. Caveat number two—the major one—try to avoid zooming out while motion is moving towards you. If you do, get off the AF-On button and back on to re-establish a focus sequence after the zoom. Losing focus doesn't happen every time, but it happens often enough that you're going to eventually not get an image you wanted. 

Now well all this sounds harsh, it isn't as harsh as it sounds. I can live with both those caveats at the moment, particularly because I can mostly control them (keep a bit of DOF, don't zoom in certain situations). When I do that, the A9 is shooting much like the pro DSLRs in terms of autofocus. For mirrorless, that's a huge step forward. 

Frame Rate: Okay, Sony trumpeted 20 fps as something you're going to want. What you're really going to want is to turn that off most of the time. Say what?

In the first quarter of the CU football game I shot with the Sony A9, at 20 fps I filled 128GB of card space. In the second quarter I turned the frame rate down ;~). 

Simply put, 20 fps sounds great at first hearing. But in practice, it creates a real headache for a working pro. Since we're generally on deadline for submitting first images by the end of halftime in such games, 256GB of images would be an awful lot to download to your laptop, make selections from, and re-transmit the keepers within the fifteen minute time frame. Not. Going. To. Happen. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when 20 fps can be useful to try to capture an exact moment (e.g. golf swing). But you’re simply not going to be leaving the camera set to 20 fps unless you’re a masochist. 

Write Performance: The two slot problem rears its head. One slot is fast (UHS-II), the other isn't (UHS-I). Effectively, this makes the A9 a one-slot camera when you're shooting sports. That's because you really don't want to roll over to using that second slot and have your buffer impacted. I'm also confused by the Set Rec. Media menu setting: this is not particularly useful; Sony really needs to look at how Nikon implemented Secondary Slot options and come up with a more sophisticated slot handling system. 

But yes, if you're using the UHS-II slot with a UHS-II card, performance is what you'd expect. You get plenty of buffer space (maybe too much considering that the 20 fps machine gun you're pointing can fill cards fast). I never got a buffer hiccup while shooting, though I often had delays in being able to chimp a shot. 

Sony has fixed much of their "can't do things while card is still writing problem." On the A7rII, you can't press AF-On until the buffer fully clears. On the A9 you can, which means you can start shooting again even if the buffer hasn’t fully cleared. But there are still things you can't do when the buffer is writing to card, just not ones that tend to impede your continued shooting.

Image Quality: Exmor RS is a known quantity, and there are no surprises with this sensor. It’s got a wide useful dynamic range at base ISO and it can shoot high into the upper ISOs before noise gets to objectionable levels. If it’s not the best image quality from a 24mp full frame sensor we’ve got to date, it’s an extremely close second.

In the raw data I have no real objections. You can shoot 14-bit uncompressed with the A9 at high speeds and not be buffer bound for most things, so you can get around that Sony compression artifact in their smaller raw files without much penalty. You just get larger files to deal with.

Sony’s JPEG rendering has improved quite a bit over the years. 

Sony’s default JPEG style is actually now a bit more neutral overall than Nikon’s default. Nikon is boosting saturation of a few colors a bit more, so what I see on the ColorCheckers is that Nikon is polluting yellow with a bit of orange, for example. Sony’s default produces the opposite impact, with the yellow drifting slightly green. Both are more neutral than Canon’s defaults, but I’d judge the Sony to be the closest to neutral across more color values. 

Of course, Nikon has a Neutral Picture Control, and it’s still about the most color-neutral you can set a still camera from any manufacturer. Still, I appreciate Sony not moving towards exaggeration in their JPEG defaults. You get a very good base image out of the A9 without having to tweak anything in the menu system.

At high ISO values it used to be that Sony just smeared detail with heavy-handed noise reduction. That problem seems to be gone, and there’s a really good balance between noise reduction and detail on the A9, at least out to ISO 12800, which is about as extreme as I want to shoot.

One thing that has been talked about is the propensity for banding with the A9. Generally, that's not something I found to be a problem, with one exception: when image screens are in the view:

bythom US CO CU vs UNC A9 16751

When video displays are in your frame, their refresh frequency can certainly interfere and show you banding. But that's true of DSLRs, as well, they just tend to trigger at a different refresh rate.

I looked carefully for examples where frequency-based lighting produced banding with the electronic shutter of the A9, and while I could find a couple of minor examples of this, I found that to be no more of a problem than I do with the DSLRs. Frequency-based lighting sucks when you're shooting at high shutter speeds, as you often end up in the wrong places in the cycle and get artifacts of that. 

Overall, I find banding to not really be an issue with the A9. Other than avoiding big video screens in the shot, as above, there's nothing I'd tend to do differently on an A9 than a DSLR here. 

Final Thoughts
I really wanted to like the Sony A9. And to a very large degree I do. But frankly, I was expecting a little bit more than Sony actually delivered.

Oh, Sony delivered at the sensor. Indeed, the whole reason to buy an A9 is essentially based on the sensor. Silent shooting at 20 fps with good autofocus and no black-out in the viewfinder is indeed a unique capability you won't find anywhere else at the moment, and it's all due to the changes at the sensor. The dynamic range of the sensor is good, the electronic shutter is nearly as good as a mechanical one, and all the added bandwidth just does wonders for shooting action. The on-sensor phase detect focus system and the image stabilization at the sensor just all add up to one heck of a lot of useful and state-of-the-art technology in essentially one chip and its packaging. 

But realistically, the camera is essentially a third generation of full frame designs from Sony, and something like a sixth or seventh generation mirrorless design. It just seems that Sony isn't learning fast enough about some of their ergonomic gaffs. Many buttons are still too small and impossible to find and use with gloves on, for instance. The camera still feels a little "squarish" in my hands and not as comfortable in an all day shoot as the better DSLRs. The menu system really needs a help system, more organization, and fewer abbreviations and tough-to-decipher wording. The Menu button being so close to the eye-detection sensor while also being necessary to press to go "back" in some cases, means that you sometimes get a temporary blackout flash while using the menus. 

The word I'm looking for is "refined." The A9 does not feel like a completely refined full frame mirrorless camera, despite the fact that this would be basically the equivalent of at least the sixth generation of the more serious mirrorless designs Sony has produced (starting with the original NEX 5, and including two generations of A7). 

I guess at US$4500 I was hoping for more from Sony than a bunch of tech goodies crammed into an enhanced A7 Mark II. 

Is the A9 a good camera? Yes, it's absolutely great at what it does. And that's what makes me feel like the lack of better refinement is a disappointment. Sony is very close to making a camera that truly plays against the top Canon/Nikon offerings.

Update: Sony has made two major firmware updates to the A9 since I wrote those words. In terms of the performance aspects of the camera, they've made it better. But obviously, firmware doesn't change physical attributes, and those are still behind where the Canon/Nikon ergonomics are.

I wasn't really sure what I was going to write in the Final Words section until I used a Nikon D850 and a Sony A9 side-by-side on the sidelines of a football game and other sports events. Yes, I'm a long-time Nikon SLR/DSLR user, so I'm comfortable with Nikon's ergonomics beyond that of most users, even many pros. But the combination I was shooting with brought up an interesting aspect I hadn't planned to write about.

Shooting with the D850 was comfortable and I felt totally in control. The UI/ergonomics are now decades old in development and highly refined. But the tech of the camera isn’t quite up to the Sony. Shooting with the A9 I felt a little uncomfortable and sometimes scrambling for control. But the tech of the camera was delivering what it promised. 

Before someone says "but you're not a Sony user, you're a Nikon user": I own an A7rIII and use it regularly. It's not all that different from the A9 while shooting. Indeed, I'd say it's not different in any meaningful way other than the silent shooting bits. What I'm writing about here is the difference between a suit jacket that fits you perfectly, and one that just feels like it needs some tailoring. A subtle thing, for sure, but one that you notice when you shoot with a camera for hours on end as I have been with the cameras currently under test. 

Sony has a winner in the A9. It pretty much delivers on Sony's marketing promises about the technology. Shooting without frame blackout brings me back to my news video and sideline cameraman days for television: you can actually follow plays without getting slightly off in framing. 

Silent shooting is almost absurd when fans and the band and the PA all around you are breaking the 100db mark. I tried handing the Sony to a few other pros to shoot at several events, and they'd hand it back to me saying "doesn't seem to be working." Then I'd press the playback button and show them the frames they shot ;~). That raised a lot of eyebrows (think golf, think wedding ceremonies, even think model/photographer interaction in the studio). 

If you need what the Sony provides, Sony is about the only one that provides it, and they do so in spades with the A9. You're not going to complain about the image quality. You're not going to complain about the shutter and frame rate performance. You're not going to complain about silent shooting. You're not going to complain about the focus system, at least once you learn how to master it and you figure out the couple of anomalies you need to avoid. 

So what are you going to complain about? Small buttons. Menus. Hand position. Etc. Which is my point about refinement. Technology- and performance-wise, the A9 is undeniably a powerhouse. It absolutely deserves to be considered by pros who need those attributes. If I were an agency photographer and they handed me an A9 to use, I wouldn't be complaining, I'd just go shooting. 

But Sony really needs to work more on the rough edges in the user experience, which pretty much all boils down to ergonomics and menus on the A9. It wouldn't take much, because they're close. Someone needs to put some gloves on those Sony body designers and see what they change ;~). Then make them shoot with the body for four hours at a time with a big lens on the front and their hands and head getting sweaty. Finally, get someone to write a good help system for the menus at a minimum.  All that, and Sony would "be there." 

The A9 is Sony's best effort yet in the ILC arena. A very worthy camera, indeed. The quiet/fast/full time view aspects of the Sony A9 are going to attract a number of pro shooters, to be sure. And those folk are going to be very pleased with their camera and perhaps getting images that the DSLR shooters can't (backswings and ball strikes in golf, for instance). 

Which brings us to the "who should buy" portion, which is going to be a little complex.

  • Nikon DSLR user: If you've already got Nikon lenses the cost of switching to a Sony A9 is going to be onerous. Moreover, the main thing you gain is >12 fps and silent shooting with no viewfinder blackout. Given the D500 (10 fps), D850 (7-9 fps), and D5 (14 fps) are all superb cameras with very short viewfinder blackout (and the D850 can be run in silent mode at 6 fps), I'm not at all convinced that a Nikon user should be leaving their mount for Sony. You can't really use Nikon lenses on the Sony bodies with an adapter and get reliable autofocus, so you're really talking about the cost of abandoning one system and buying into another from scratch. Doesn't make sense. The gains are minimal for a great deal of money and logistics.
  • Canon DSLR user: While the Canon lenses work pretty reliably in AF-S mode on the Sony bodies with converters I've tried, when we get to AF-C the results are less promising. I know one fellow who uses Canon autofocus lenses on his Sony body because Sony doesn't yet make the lenses he really needs. He mostly focuses with AF-S (single focus) and then follows focus manually when the action gets fast and erratic. I know of another who's found the right combination of adapter and Canon lenses to serve his needs well. While this is far better than the user coming from Nikon to Sony, I still just don't know that it's worth the time, effort, and money. But maybe. More than one pro I know has gone this route.

So the Canikon duopoly lives on, though it now has a third partner breathing on their heels. How about for the rest?

  • Sony Alpha user: No brainer if you need the things the A9 offers over the A7 models (or A6xxx models). The body is pricey, but Canon and Nikon are worse in that respect for their top models. Lots of the shooting experience is improved in the A9 over the A7, so I doubt you'll feel cheated. The problem, of course, is that we all expect Sony to use a variation of the same sensor in the A7 Mark III. You probably won't get the 20 fps or the no blackout viewfinder in that model when it arrives, but you have to bet that the A7 Mark III will be a substantive subset of the A9, with basically the same focus ability. So make sure you need what the A9 is likely to uniquely offer.
  • Starting from scratch: Here's where it gets interesting. Let's say you're coming out of college and have to commit to a camera brand as you go pro. For the shooting types that the Sony A9 is most likely to be coveted for (speed, smaller/lighter, sports-level autofocus, fast frame rate, etc.), the problem is cost. A basic set of lenses and an A9 camera body are going to set you back, considerably. An A9, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 are going to set you back about US$12,000 when all is said and done. You'd have a hugely competent camera and lens set that gets you from 24-400mm. The problem is the Nikon D500. While not exactly equivalent, a D500, 16-80mm f/2.8-4, Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8, and Nikon 300mm f/4 is going to cover 24-450mm (equivalent) and be half the cost. It's probably a better starting point for the starting-from-scratch shooter that really was looking at the A9. No doubt the A9 is the better choice in many ways (one stop advantage in image quality at high ISO values, faster frame rate, silent shooting, no blackout viewfinder), but it comes with a substantive cost penalty. 

If it's not clear by this point, let me state it explicitly: I believe that there has to be something about the Sony A9 that you covet in order to buy it. I don't know if that's the 20 fps, the silent shooting, the no-blackout viewfinder, the big buffer, or what, but it almost certainly has to be something about the A9 that you wouldn't expect in the coming A7 updates and aren't getting from the Canikon duopoly. That makes the A9 sale a bit of a tall order, as it's a lot of bucks for a bang. 

Despite Sony's hyper marketing of the A9, the camera has been in stock since the day it first arrived in stores. This suggests that the demand for the camera isn't as hot as the Internet coverage of it initially was. That's not to say it isn't selling, but rather that it's probably selling appropriately to what it does versus what it costs. 

The A9 is Sony's halo camera. It's quite a halo. It's clear from the minute you pick it up that Sony imbued it with virtually every technology they can currently produce and left out almost nothing an action still shooter would value. 

The A9 does exactly what Sony suggested it would do: in the right hands it can run with the big dogs and hold its own. Again, I wouldn't really complain if my agency told me that I had to shoot with the Sony for the next three years. I was able to get the images I wanted from it, and even about 10 fps more than I wanted ;~). As much as I complained about aspects of the handling, I complain about every camera in that respect, just about different things. There is no perfect camera on the market, not even close. 

But the A9 comes awful close. Closer than Sony has been before. It's a camera they are proud of, and they should be. It's a camera that will shoot sports or wildlife with the best of them. Personally, I'd glad. Competition makes everyone better, and there are things about the A9 I wish my Nikon's did/had. 

Don't be afraid of the A9. It's a powerhouse. Be afraid of your credit card. 

Recommended (2017, 2018) Original model no longer available. I now recommend the A9 Mark II model in its place, and you should also consider the Sony A1.

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