Everybody wants to find the one. For imaging professionals, “the one” is the one camera that can do it all. The Sony Alpha 1, or a1, is that camera. An unbelievable array of high-end specs makes this mirrorless flagship the one to beat. A quick look reveals a brand-new full-frame 50.1MP Exmor RS stacked CMOS sensor capable of 30 fps full-res shooting; 8K 30p and 4K 120p video in 10-bit 4:2:2 with no recording limit; all the latest connectors, including full-size HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3.2 Gen 2, and 5GHz MIMO Wi-Fi—and that is just scratching the surface.
A New Flagship
Sony makes a lot of cameras. Seriously, one could say the company makes too many cameras, with 10 full-frame mirrorless models to choose from today. The a1 raises that number to 11! However, the a1 comfortably sits above the rest as Sony’s definitive flagship mirrorless camera. It is so definitive because it manages to balance the features of multiple cameras to create one all-encompassing model. The a1 brings together the stills prowess of the a7R IV, the video spec of the a7S III, and the speed of the a9 II and improves on each in its respective categories.
Look at these key specs:
- 50MP full-frame Exmor RS Stacked BSI CMOS sensor
- 10-bit video at up to 8K 30p and 4K 120p
- Continuous shooting up to 30 fps for 200 consecutive frames
Compared to the 61MP a7R IV, the a1’s advanced 50MP Exmor RS stacked BSI CMOS and BIONZ XR processor promise to deliver better low-light performance up to ISO 102400 without sacrificing much in terms of raw resolution. Compared to the 4K-shooting a7S III, the a1’s higher-resolution sensor can create high-quality 4K at the same frame rates and color depths, while also enabling 8K 30p recording. Compared to the well-connected a9 II, the a1’s lightning-fast AF system and sensor can hit an incredible 30 fps at double the resolution without slowing down for 200 frames. What more could you want in a single camera?
For all these years Sony’s advantage has been a willingness to differentiate between its various lines, providing the near ideal match for different users. Want video? Go with the a7S series. Sticking with stills? The a7R is pure resolution. How about traditional sports and wildlife? The a9 is for you. Sony brought all this knowledge and experience into a single, impressive package called the a1.
We shouldn’t forget that the a1 is, at its core, a mirrorless camera. We have never seen a true mirrorless flagship from any brand yet—the a9 came close but had some room to improve. Canon and Nikon still offer DSLRs in the form of the EOS-1D X Mark III and D6, respectively. The a1 is the first mirrorless camera being clearly defined as a flagship. For that reason alone, we are going to do a deep dive into the stills specs first.
A 50MP full-frame Exmor RS stacked BSI CMOS sensor and advanced processor system are what make the a1’s imaging pipeline work so well. Breaking down that sensor, it is a 50MP full-frame CMOS, so you will be getting great detail in your images. Now, the stacked part requires some explanation. “Stacked” for sensors refers to a design that stacks the photosites (pixels) over the copper wiring, over a dedicated DRAM (memory) chip that makes the entire process incredibly fast while simultaneously optimizing to reduce noise.
Conventional sensors have wiring alongside the photosites, which have to get smaller to make room and therefore aren’t as receptive to light—this results in more noise. Plus, conventional chips don’t have a dedicated memory chip on them. The stacked memory of this new sensor means data can be offloaded even faster, enabling such high continuous shooting speeds and dramatically reducing rolling shutter.
As we stated, this sensor design allows for higher-resolution imaging while still offering excellent light-gathering capabilities. This gives the a1 the ability to capture 50MP stills at up to ISO 102400. Still not sure I would make a habit out of doing that, but it’s good to have as an option. It also implies great dynamic range (up to the rated 15 stops) and excellent shadow recovery in post. Image quality is going to be outstanding on the a1.
Plus, for maximum resolution, the a1 retains the Multi Shot Pixel Shift mode to capture images up to 199MP. A nice addition many have been begging for is a compressed lossless raw format to save space on your cards and drives.
Having touched on speed in the sensor design talk, it’s time to detail those specs now. Among the many highlights of the a1, its ability to capture full-res 50MP images at 30 fps is a standout. This is 50% faster than the a9, which already was among the fastest cameras on the market. The a1 can maintain these speeds for up to 200 frames in a single burst, or just under 7 frames.
One part of the chain making this possible is the use of dual CFexpress slots. CFexpress Type A cards can reach speeds of up to 700 MB/s—a necessity for this much data. The slots are also dual and will accept UHS-II SD cards, though at a slower speed. The other part is the forward-thinking engineering of G Master lenses. They have the proper motors to work at 30 fps. Unfortunately, it seems only the G Master series are able to support this speed. All other lenses will be limited to 20 fps.
Autofocus receives a solid boost and calculates at a rate of 120x each second. The Fast Hybrid AF system boasts 759 points covering 92% of the sensor. Subjects can move quite freely throughout the frame and keep up with the fastest continuous shooting rates. This system even boasts continuous focus with apertures closed down to f/22—an unheard of spec. A brand-new function is Bird Eye AF as a part of the real-time Animal Eye AF feature, which should make plenty of wildlife photographers very happy.
To pull off these speeds, the a1 relies on an advanced electronic shutter capable of speeds up to 1/32,000 second. The anti-distortion shutter claims rolling shutter has been improved by 1.5x. It even works with flash up to 1/200 second.
For circumstances in which the mechanical shutter is best, there is a new dual-driven mechanism that can sync with flash down to 1/400-second in full-frame. This can help in very particular situations and could be a lifesaver.
Sure, the 8K recording grabs your attention, but it’s the smaller things that make the a1 a professional workhorse for video.
May as well talk about that 8K video feature. It is a big deal, and only possible due to the new sensor and processing. It hits a stable 30p rate and can record in 10-bit 4:2:0 by oversampling the 8.6K area. This should be gorgeous footage. Plus, an in-camera extraction option will allow you to pull 33.2MP stills from the 8K video without a computer. To help handle heat, there is a graphite heatsink and Sony has claimed there is no recording limit.
As for the rest of the video, the 4K modes can hit 120p with 10-bit 4:2:2. In APS-C mode it even over-samples from 5.8K resolution. One small but important thing is the addition of the S-Cinetone profile. Seen only on Sony’s high-end cinema cameras such as the FX9, this profile brings amazing color straight out of camera. Plus, you can more easily match the a1 with those cinema cameras on a multi-camera shoot.
ProRes RAW makes an appearance with the a1, which can send a 4.3K raw video signal up to 60p via the full-size HDMI output to compatible Atomos recorders. This will send a 16-bit linear raw video signal, which will be encoded by the Atomos recorder as a 12-bit log raw file that retains essentially all the data.
It’s a great option to have and, if you want to learn more, I would highly recommend checking out our article ProRes RAW Demystified: Learn Workflow from Capture to Export. TL;DR? ProRes RAW delivers incredible flexibility in post when you need it with moderate data rates.
Refined Body Design
While it's a “brand new” line by name, the a1 borrows a lot from the a9 II and more recent a7S III. It even works with the same VG-C4EM Vertical Grip. Other things you might find familiar are the Ethernet port, USB Type-C (upgraded to USB 3.2 Gen 2 speeds!), a Multi Interface Shoe with support for digital audio and the XLR-K3M XLR Adapter, and a full-size HDMI port. Wi-Fi received a nice upgrade to 2x2 MIMO, making it 3.5x faster than previous transfer speeds. This should make wireless remote workflows more reliable.
Where there is a notable bump in performance is the viewfinder. Of course, there is no blackout, it is a 9.44m-dot resolution with .90x magnification and a 240 fps refresh rate. The tilting rear screen isn’t groundbreaking, but the new menu layout and full touch operation should help speed up many common changes.
Unsurprising is the integration of a 5.5 stop in-body image stabilizer, which can go into Active Mode for video to smooth out footage even more. It’s a solid system we have seen plenty of times at this point and should work wondering with this high-resolution body.
Optimized for Professional Workflows
As a flagship, the a1 is obviously targeting professional photographers and videographers and therefore makes sure it has optimal settings and functions to fit their workflow. It has super fast Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO, a USB Type-C port with 10 Gb/s, and a 1000BASE-T Ethernet for getting connected the best way for your situation. You also has FTP still and movie uploads and standard tethered shooting functionality.
One thing to consider is the Xperia PRO, a new 5G smartphone from Sony that can work as an HDMI monitor or USB tethering system for remote streaming and transmitting files. The a1 can make use of both of these functions, as well as FTP support, to create a seamless workflow for capturing images and instantly transmitting them to a server and/or stream.
Want to learn more about the a1? Tomorrow, Wednesday, January 27, 2021, at 12:00 PM, B&H will be hosting a livestream to give a first look at the camera with some Sony reps. Please go sign up to check it out and stay tuned to this page as we continue to add new information and images. If you have a question about the a1, please drop by the Comments section, below, and we will do our best to get you an answer.