Sony continues its attack on the status quo with yet another game-changing release: the mirrorless Alpha a9. On paper, this is one of the most exciting releases for sports shooters in years, because it claims to prove finally that mirrorless cameras can keep up with, and even beat, their DSLR adversaries. However, after owning and shooting with Sony cameras for the past few years, I’ve learned that you must read the fine print to truly understand what you are getting yourself into. And the a9—which is certainly a marvelous camera—still falls victim to Sony’s footnotes, limiting what could have been the best sports camera ever made.
Speed, Speed, and More Speed
When I was at the Sony Alpha a9 launch event here in New York City, Sony made it clear that this camera was designed to be fast. The reps displayed sports photo after sports photo and then dove right into the new stacked-sensor architecture (a first for full frame) and described exactly how it achieves this incredible speed. Simply put, its improved processing, more efficient wiring, and added memory throughout the data pipeline—and directly on the sensor—make the stacked architecture so much faster than conventional sensors. It also manages to squeeze a mind-blowing 693 phase-detect AF points on the chip for achieving AF tracking performance demanded by fast-moving action, and the system is one of the most responsive and accurate that I have ever used.
All this tech can be summarized by a single number, however, and that is the 20 frames per second the a9 can achieve using a completely silent electronic shutter. I’ve been very wary of electronic shutters because they have a few notable drawbacks, but Sony seems to have eliminated many of these concerns by ensuring super-fast readout of the sensor. Images appear free of flicker, can be shot at shutter speeds of up to 1/32000 second, and lack any visible rolling shutter distortion. However, the electronic shutter still can’t support flash, so if you need that, you are stuck using the focal-plane shutter, which is limited to 5 fps and 1/8000 second.
Anyway, once we had the a9 in hand it was obvious we needed to take this to some sort of sporting event, and we chose to shoot some basketball games at the famous West 4th Street Courts, also known as “The Cage,” where Kenny Graham’s League is entering its 40th year. This was bound to produce the tight, fast-paced action where the a9 could really shine, or fall victim to any shortcomings.
Improved Ergonomics to Match Improved Performance
If there has been one near-constant complaint about Sony’s a7 series bodies, it involves handling and ergonomics (and battery life, but I’ll get to that later). The smaller bodies have always been almost there, but there were always simple improvements that could be made that would make things so much better. With the a9, Sony seems to have figured out that it would be wise to make the changes shooters have been asking for, and so the manufacturer did it, and did a good job, too.
The beefier body sports more dials, more controls, and now a joystick, which all result in faster, more intuitive operation overall and, finally, the ability to change the focus point quickly without having to press multiple buttons. This is a critical feature for sports photography, so this feature came just in time. Though some will still feel that the grip isn’t quite big enough, this ends up coming down to personal preference, and your affinity for larger telephoto lenses, as they certainly make things a little cramped for your fingers.
Beyond this, both monitoring options received notable improvements, with the a9 being the first full-frame mirrorless camera from Sony with a rear touchscreen and the revamped blackout-free quad-VGA 3.7m-dot OLED EVF. When I first tried the upgraded EVF, I didn’t think too much of it—the extra resolution made the image and text a little crisper for sure, but it didn’t quite impress me as much as Leica’s massive 4.4MP EVF on that company’s SL camera. However, once I got on the court and took my first burst of photos, the blackout-free aspect of the a9 really opened my eyes. With the a9, I could keep watching the game as I shot, which made a difference for keeping fingers and toes from getting accidentally cropped out when the action got close. Also, the a9 seems to be less susceptible to flickering light sources in live view, which is a nice bonus.
After a few bursts on continuous high, I had to check on the files to make sure everything was writing smoothly and, pleasantly, I could check some photos as the camera was writing—a huge improvement over previous models (except the a6500), which required the camera to finish writing before you could access many settings. You can watch the write progress here, as well, and it was quite fast, thanks to the new UHS-II SD card slot. One thing I must point out is that the second SD card slot is only UHS-I, so using it as an overflow really isn’t an ideal option. I ended up just switching the cards physically when I filled up the first. You do have other choices here, such as sorting based on raw/JPEG or stills/video, which are probably better options than overflow or backup, as you will always be limited by the slower card.
Bigger Batteries are Better
I said I would get to the battery life later, and finally I can talk about how Sony has developed a brand-new pack for the a9: the NP-FZ100. This battery boasts a capacity 2.2x that of the NP-FW50 and, as a side note, the a9 doesn’t seem to have the phantom battery drain issues of its predecessors. I left the camera with a freshly charged battery and was pleasantly surprised to see it was still at 100% when I picked it up a couple of days later. The bigger battery easily led to longer shoots, and it means I no longer need to keep a stash of eight batteries around.
For more numbers-based estimates on battery life, I will say that I shot almost 3,000 photos in a shooting period of about 3-4 hours and the battery dropped to 54%. This was with a lot of continuous shooting with wide AF using the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens. Also, I was connected to my phone over Bluetooth for getting location data, though this turned out to be unreliable because it would lose connection and not reconnect automatically without having to turn the camera off and then on again.
It should be easy to get a day’s worth of shooting done with a single battery. If you are really pushing the limit, the VG-C3EM Vertical Grip is a good option, as well, and it will really help when using larger or heavier lenses. Another option, though seemingly better for video shooters or time lapses (though you can’t download any PlayMemories apps to the a9, like the Time Lapse app…), is the NPA-MQZ1K Multi Battery Adapter Kit, which works with the a9, as well as older cameras that take the NP-FW50.
Back to the actual image-making experience, the first stop must be the autofocus system. With an insane 693 points, the first question we should ask is whether it makes good use of them, especially considering the target market of sports shooters who are constantly shooting fast-moving and busy scenes. By and large, I was impressed by the a9’s AF performance. It consistently found the right subject and could track with astounding accuracy, although, in moments where it didn’t quite work right, it lacked the professional level of customization found in the 1D X Mark II and D5 that would’ve sorted out these occasional hiccups.
The autofocus tracking did, on occasions, switch subjects for seemingly no reason. Looking at the following burst of a player moving toward me, you can see that it followed him, with face detection, very well, even maintaining focus when another player moved through the frame. Then, near the end, the player in the red jersey steps into frame and the system switches almost instantly to him. The irony here is that this is only possible because of the 93% coverage of the focus points, meaning that even subjects on the edge of the frame can steal focus without warning. An easy fix is to use any of the zone or point AF areas and then use the joystick to control them, which is a very good way to handle it.
Compared to those professional DSLRs, the a9 is truly a serious contender for rapid autofocus. It did tracking at 20 fps, has incredible accuracy, and even includes features like face detection for even better performance. This is one of the smartest systems I have ever seen and, misses, though they happened, were few and far between. If you were waiting for a mirrorless camera that had reliable autofocus, this is finally the one.
On to Image Quality
I know, I usually dive right into image quality when I review cameras and lenses, but with all the other major improvements, I felt this could wait a little, especially since Sony’s sensors are well established as top performers at this point. For the most part, the a9 delivers the image quality we expect now, even with its newly designed 24.2MP sensor. It has stellar control over noise and can resolve good detail, allowing for some cropping if so desired. Dynamic range is great, as well, with plenty of latitude for pushing and pulling your files in post, which was extremely helpful for some of these high-contrast scenes.
There is one thing that has been and still is an issue for Sony shooters: compressed raw. For 99% of my shooting time with the a9, this was not an issue. But for that 1%, it really is a problem. This isn’t solely a space issue either (considering compressed raw, at only about 25MB compared to the uncompressed 50MB, seems like a good idea when you end up shooting thousands of frames at 20 fps), because the a9 slows down to 12 fps when working in uncompressed raw. As you can see from this image, when there is a high-contrast scene, there is potential for artifacts to appear at the edges of your subject.
In terms of noise, the camera has a native sensitivity of up to ISO 51200, though if you are in any of the continuous shooting modes, you will be limited to ISO 25600. It does a great job keeping noise under control up to 25600, and 51200 is even useable with some noise reduction in post. Once you start entering the 102400 to 204800 options, though, you do start to lose a lot of detail, so I wouldn’t recommend them. One thing to note is that there are limitations when using the electronic shutter, especially at higher ISOs—you may notice a drop in dynamic range and an increase in noise. You will also be limited to ISO 25600.
Even though there are occasional hiccups, the a9 does create good-looking images. Outside of the rare instances where the image breaks down due to compression or at extremely high ISOs, the images are quite acceptable. There is a good bit of leeway when it comes to raw, though not as much as the a7R II, and it appears the camera is optimized to handle slightly higher ISOs to account for sports shooters who need improved sensitivity as they raise the shutter speed.
Small Tweaks Make a Huge Difference
Thinking about the camera in terms of a complete package, the a9 is the best Sony has ever done. The new dials and functions make the camera much more user friendly than the earlier a7 series bodies, even though those were off to a great start. One of the more interesting features is the ability to assign APS-C/Super35 mode to a custom button for rapid access. It also gains the latest menu system we have seen in more recent Sony releases, including a My Menu for setting up your most commonly accessed options with ease.
The top dials all received a revamp, with the new dials for focus mode and shooting mode being the handiest for quick access during shooting. The exposure compensation dial, on the other hand, tends to get knocked out of position easily since it doesn’t lock and is in a vulnerable location. While all the other dials have locks, this turned out, personally, to be more of an annoyance than a benefit, since you can’t configure these to be constantly unlocked for moments you need faster swapping. On the more positive side is the relocation of the Record button to a more accessible spot, just underneath the viewfinder. And, as we have come to expect from Sony’s mirrorless cameras, the a9 does have a 5-axis in-body stabilization system, which is just as functional as when it was introduced.
With its slightly larger body, the a9 feels a lot better in the hand. Personally, I still want it to be a hair taller. Sony seems to have released the GP-X1EM Grip Extension specifically because of this, which makes me wonder why they didn’t just address this when they designed the body itself. But, you do have to give the company credit for putting in pro-level connectivity with a LAN terminal and (finally!) a PC sync port.
What About Video?
The a9 falls into an interesting place when you consider its video functionality. It does down-sampling from the full-frame image to produce sharper, more detailed UHD 4K footage, has native UHD 4K video in Super35 mode for users who require it, and the stacked sensor design improves readout time to reduce rolling shutter dramatically. Autofocus is also outstanding in video, and when you add in the touchscreen controls, it really is a high-performing system. But, it doesn’t have any of the advanced video features we’ve come to expect, such as S-Log and Picture Profiles.
So, for whom is the video on the a9? Sony likely doesn’t expect professional video shooters to pick this up since, for a comparable price, you can get the much more capable FS5 or for less cash you can get the still-great a7S II. This makes it appear as though Sony is including video functions for the photographer who may, on rare occasions, need to capture video for an event. The lack of log profiles may be a benefit for those on a tighter deadline or with less editing experience, since the standard output from the camera is very good.
Recently, I took the D5 out for a spin and, years ago, I did get to use a 1D X for some sporting events. I have to admit that the a9 is a seriously impressive camera, especially considering the dramatic difference in size and price. Twenty frames per second is fun, even if it is overkill for many subjects, and the complete overhaul of the body and handling make it the most enjoyable Sony mirrorless camera yet. Where the a9 really shines is with the AF system, and this alone could sell the camera for many shooters. It is fast, incredibly accurate, and it has 93% coverage, meaning you can now frame images and track subjects without worrying about them exiting the focus area. Sure, there are some issues, but no camera is perfect, and the feature set the a9 manages in such a small body is something truly remarkable and should make everyone in the professional sports and action market start to consider the mirrorless format.