Sony A9 Image Quality


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Slightly below average mean saturation with good overall hue accuracy.

ISO Sensitivity
50
100
200
400
800
In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center. Mouse over the links to compare ISOs and click on the links for larger images.

Saturation. The Sony A9's mean default color saturation is 107.5% at base ISO or in other words, oversaturated by 7.5%. That's just a bit below average these days, and mean saturation gradually falls as ISO rises, to a minimum of 100% at ISO 204,800. That's not unusual, though, as cameras often reduce saturation at higher ISOs in an attempt to reduce the appearance of chroma noise. As usual, reds and dark blues are boosted the most, but not as much as we often see. Most other colors are pushed just a bit, though yellow and light green are undersaturated which is quite common. Overall, saturation levels are still pleasing though a little muted compared to most cameras, but you can of course tweak saturation to your liking. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. The Sony A9 did a good job with Caucasian skin tones when using Manual white balance in the lab, with Auto white balance producing just slightly warmer results. Brighter flesh tones have a healthy-looking pinkish tint, though darker areas are nudged slightly toward orange. Still, pretty good results here. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. Like many cameras, the Sony A9 pushes cyan toward blue, red toward orange, orange toward yellow and yellow toward green, but most shifts are actually quite minor. The yellow toward green shift combined with its desaturation does make some yellows look a bit dingy, though, and the cyan toward blue shift is so slight that blue skies my not appear as deep blue as from other cameras. With an average "delta-C" color error of 4.18 after correction for saturation at base ISO, overall hue accuracy is actually above average, with accuracy only moderately lower at higher ISOs. Hue is "what color" the color is.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Warm color with Auto white balance; Incandescent is pretty good, and Manual is very good. Average exposure compensation required.

Auto White Balance
+0.3 EV
Incandescent White Balance
+0.3 EV
Manual White Balance
+0.3 EV

Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance is a bit too warm and orange with the Auto white balance setting. Results with the Incandescent setting are quite good, though, and only slightly warm. The Manual setting is the most neutral and accurate. The Sony A9 required +0.3 EV positive exposure compensation here which is about the average required for this shot, though images are little bright. (Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.)

Outdoors, daylight
Very good handling of contrast, color, and exposure in harsh lighting.

Manual White Balance,
+0.3 EV
Auto White Balance,
0 EV

Outdoors, the Sony A9 performed very well in challenging lighting. +0.3 EV exposure compensation was required to keep the mannequin's face reasonably bright in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot, which is less than the average amount required from the cameras we've tested. Contrast is a little high as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera did a great job of holding onto bright highlights and detail in the shadows, even without the help of Sony's Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO) feature. We preferred Manual color balance for the "Portrait" shot though, as Auto white balance produced skin tones that were a touch warmer and yellow. Default exposure is very good in our Far-field shot (above right), perhaps just a touch dim but with very few highlights blown, again with DRO disabled. There are some very deep shadows, however detail is quite good and noise is well-controlled. The Far-field shot with Auto white balance also has good color, though perhaps just a touch cool. Overall, great performance in harsh lighting, especially considering DRO was off for these shots.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
~2,850 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, about the same from RAW files.

Strong detail to
~2,850 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,850 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,850 lines horizontal
ACR converted RAW
Strong detail to
~2,850 lines vertical
ACR converted RAW

An in-camera best quality JPEG of our laboratory resolution chart reveal sharp, distinct line patterns up to about 2,850 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and to about 2,850 lines per picture height in the vertical direction. Some may argue for higher numbers, but lines begin to merge here and mild aliasing artifacts occur much earlier, at about 2,100 lines. Complete extinction of the pattern doesn't occur until about 3,800 lines in both directions. Adobe Camera Raw wasn't really able to extract more resolution here from a RAW file, but it produced a lot more color moiré both before and past the resolution limits, as it often the case. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Excellent sharpness, with few sharpening artifacts. Mild noise suppression visible in the shadows and areas of low contrast.

Excellent definition of
high-contrast elements with very low sharpening artifacts.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.

Sharpness. The Sony A9 captures very sharp, crisp images overall, and it doesn't generate heavy sharpening halos around edges with high contrast that we often see, such as around the lines and letters of our olive oil bottle label crop (above left). Excellent results here. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows relatively mild noise suppression in the darker areas of the mannequins's hair. Only a relatively small number of low-contrast strands are smudged together, while higher contrast strands remain distinct. Excellent results here as well. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Sony A9 produces in-camera JPEGs with sharp, crisp detail. Additional detail can often be obtained from carefully processing RAW files with a good converter, so let's have a look:

Base ISO (100)
Camera JPEG, defaults
RAW via Adobe Camera Raw

In the table above, we compare a best quality in-camera JPEG taken at base ISO using default noise reduction and sharpening (on the left) to the matching RAW file converted with Adobe Camera Raw 9.1 via DNG Converter 9.12 with some moderate but tight unsharp masking applied in Photoshop (300%, radius of 0.3 pixels, and a threshold of 0).

As you can see, the Adobe Camera Raw conversion does contain slightly more fine detail, though the difference is quite minor here at base ISO, and the camera produces higher contrast which give JPEGs better "pop." (You can of course dial up the contrast in ACR to match.) Color in the ACR conversion is more accurate, though, particularly in yellows and blues. Noise is a bit higher with ACR's default noise reduction, though that's usually the case.

Bottom line: The Sony A9's JPEG engine does a great job, producing crisp, detailed images here at base ISO without introducing sharpening artifacts, however discerning users will likely still want to shoot in RAW mode to make the most out of the A9's excellent sensor.

ISO & Noise Performance
Excellent high ISO performance.

Default High ISO Noise Reduction
ISO 50 ISO 100 ISO 200
ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600
ISO 3200 ISO 6400 ISO 12,800
ISO 25,600 ISO 51,200 ISO 102,400
ISO 204,800

The Sony A9's in-camera JPEG images are very clean and detailed at ISOs 50 through 800, with almost no degradation in image quality as ISOs increase within this range. ISOs 1600 through 12,800 show a nice, gradual decline in image quality, well-controlled chroma noise, and a good amount detail left at 12,800 for such a high ISO. At ISO 25,600, luma noise starts to become prominent, noise reduction artifacts are more noticeable, chroma noise becomes visible, and image quality drops off more rapidly from there, with the top two ISOs looking more like paintings than photographs.

Still, excellent high ISO performance for its class, with area-specific noise reduction that hangs onto more high-frequency detail and produces fewer artifacts around high-contrast edges than some prior Sony models.

As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.

A note about focus for this shot: We used to shoot this image at f/4, however depth of field became so shallow with larger, high-resolution sensors that it was difficult to keep important areas of this shot in focus, so we have since started shooting at f/8, the best compromise between depth of field and sharpness.

Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
Excellent highlight and shadow detail in harsh lighting. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.

0 EV +0.3 EV +0.7 EV

Sunlight. The Sony A9 handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above very well. We preferred the +0.3 EV exposure here, as the default 0 EV exposure is a touch dim in the face while the +0.7 EV exposure had too many blown highlights. Contrast is a little high, but shadow and highlight detail are both excellent. Despite the bright appearance, only a few highlights are blown in the mannequin's shirt and white flowers at +0.3 EV, though the red channel is clipped in some of the flowers as is often the case, as well as in specular highlights where you'd expect clipping. There are some dark shadows however they're quite clean and detailed, though very deep shadows are posterized as expected. Overall, excellent performance here.

See below for results with Dynamic Range Optimization and High Dynamic Range features enabled.

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)

Outdoor Portrait DRO Comparison (0 EV)
DRO
Setting:


Off

Auto
(Default)


Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Level 4

Level 5

Dynamic Range Optimization is Sony's name for their dynamic range enhancement technology. DRO divides the image into small areas, analyzes the range of brightness of each area, and adjusts the camera's image processing parameters accordingly to make the best use of the available dynamic range. Auto DRO is enabled by default on the Sony A9. You can also set the level manually, from 1 ("weak") to 5 ("strong"), or turn it off. As one would expect, DRO is only available for JPEG files.

The above thumbnails and histograms show the effects of the various levels of DRO on our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with no exposure compensation. Mouse over the links on the right to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the link to visit the full resolution image. As you can see from the thumbnails and histograms, increasing DRO progressively boosts shadows and midtones while leaving highlights essentially intact. The Auto setting produced a better overall exposure compared to the default exposure without DRO, and the five manual levels give quite a bit of control over the effect.

Far-field DRO Comparison (0 EV)
Off

Above, you can see the effect of DRO settings on our Far-field shot. The default Auto setting produced a nicely balanced exposure, despite the harsh lighting. A useful feature.


Outdoor Portrait HDR Comparison
HDR
Setting:


Off

Auto

1 EV

2 EV

3 EV

4 EV

5 EV

6 EV

High Dynamic Range. The Sony A9's HDR mode takes three images in rapid succession, one nominally exposed, one underexposed, and one overexposed, then combines them into one high dynamic range JPEG automatically. Lighter areas from the underexposed image are combined in-camera with darker areas from the overexposed image to produce an image with compressed tonal range. The camera then saves a single composite image, as well as the nominally exposed image. The overlaid images are micro-aligned by the camera, but it can only correct for so much movement. If the camera can't micro-align successfully, an icon indicating HDR capture failed will appear. For best results, the subject should not move or even blink, so it's not really intended for portraits. There is also a manual mode where you can select 1 EV ("weak") to 6 EV ("strong") difference in exposures.

Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the link to visit the full resolution image. As you can see, the Auto setting did a pretty good job, with an effect somewhere between the 2 and 3 EV manual settings. The higher the manual setting, the more highlights were toned-down and shadows opened up, but as you can see higher settings can produce flat and unnatural results with this subject.

Far-field HDR Comparison

Above, you can see the effect of HDR settings on our Far-field shot. Watch out for ghost images from subject movement during the capture sequence, though, as can be seen around the leaves of some of the shots above. Still, Sony has one of the better in-camera HDR implementations we've seen.

Dynamic Range Analysis (RAW mode). While we once performed our own dynamic range measurements based on in-camera JPEGs as well as converted RAW images (when the camera was supported by Adobe Camera Raw), we've switched to using DxO Labs' results from their DxOMark website. As technology advanced, the dynamic range of modern high-end cameras in some cases exceeded the range of the Stouffer T4110 density scale that we used for our own measurements. DxO's approach based on RAW data before demosaicing is also more revealing, because it measures the fundamental dynamic range of the sensor, irrespective of whatever processing is applied to JPEGs, or to RAW data by off-the-shelf conversion software.

In the following, we use DxO's "Print" dynamic range results, which are scaled based on camera resolution. As the name suggests, this scaling corresponds to the situation in which you print at a given size, regardless of how many megapixels the camera might have. (In other words, if you've decided to make a 13x19 inch print, that's the size you're printing, whether the camera's resolution is 16 or 300 megapixels.) For the technically-minded, you can find a discussion of the reasoning behind this here on the DxOMark website. Also note that DxO Labs uses a signal-to-noise (SNR) threshold of 1 when defining the lower boundary of acceptable luminance noise in their dynamic range measurements, which corresponds to the "Low Quality" threshold of the Imatest software we used to use for this measurement.

Here, we compare the 24-megapixel Sony A9 to two pro sports DSLR rivals, the 20-megapixel Canon 1DX Mark II and the 20-megapixel Nikon D5.

As you can see, the Sony A9's dynamic range is similar to that of the Canon 1DX Mark II's. At base ISO, the Canon has a slight advantage with a peak dynamic range of about 13.5 EV versus about 13.2 for the Sony, but the Sony catches up at ISO 1600 and offers slightly better dynamic range at higher ISOs with up to about 1/2 EV advantage at ISO 102,400.

The Sony A9 offers significantly better dynamic range than the Nikon D5 at low ISOs, with almost a full stop advantage at base ISO (13.2 vs 12.3 EV). At intermediate ISOs, the two cameras a virtually neck-and-neck, however the Sony takes a slight lead at its highest two ISO settings.

Overall, very good dynamic range for a full-frame camera, especially for a sports shooter. Click here to visit the DxOMark page for the Sony A9 for more of their test results and additional comparisons.

  1 fc
11 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16 fc
No NR
ISO
100
Click to see A9LL001003.JPG
2s, f2.8
Click to see A9LL001007.JPG
30s, f2.8
Click to see A9LL001007XNR.JPG
30s, f2.8
ISO
3200
Click to see A9LL032003.JPG
1/15s, f2.8
Click to see A9LL032007.JPG
1s, f2.8
Click to see A9LL032007XNR.JPG
1s, f2.8
ISO
51200
Click to see A9LL512003.JPG
1/250s, f2.8
Click to see A9LL512007.JPG
1/15s, f2.8
Click to see A9LL512007XNR.JPG
1/15s, f2.8

Low Light. The Sony A9 performed extremely well in our low light tests, producing bright images down to the lowest light level we test at (1/16 fc). Noise is practically nonexistent at ISO 100, and very low at ISO 3200. Some very fine luma and chroma noise can be seen at ISO 3200 with noise reduction minimized (right-most column), however it has a tight "grain" which isn't objectionable. As expected, noise is much higher at the highest native ISO of 51,200, though it's still fairly fined-graned and images are still usable.

Auto white balance did a very good job here, producing a fairly neutral, just slightly cool color balance even at the lowest light level.

We didn't notice any significant issues with hot pixels, heat blooming or banding (fixed pattern noise).

Low-light AF: In the lab, the Sony A9's autofocus system was able to focus unassisted on our legacy low-contrast target down to -2.3 EV with an f/2.8 lens, which is a bit disappointing for the class of camera. (Sony rates the A9's low-light AF sensitivity at -3.0 EV but at f/2.0 which is a stop faster than the lens we test with, so it appears the A9 does meet Sony's spec even with our low-contrast target.) However the Sony A9 was able to autofocus on our newer high-contrast target down to about -6.1 EV, which is excellent. And with the Sony A9's AF assist lamp enabled, the camera was able to autofocus on both targets in complete darkness.

How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Thanks to its hybrid AF system and large sensor, the Sony A9 autofocuses in extremely low light, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Excellent, high-quality prints up to at least 30 x 40 inches up to ISO 800; Very good prints up to 13 x 19 at ISO 6400; Usable 5 x 7 inch print at ISO 51,200.

Canon PRO-1000 Printer ImageISO 50/100/200 images all look fantastic with crisp detail and vibrant colors that can make wonderful prints all the way up to a massive 30 x 40 inches. At this size, you are pushing the resolving power of the 24-megapixel sensor, as you can see very subtle pixelation upon really close inspection. However, the viewing distance necessary for this size makes for a crisp, highly detailed print.

ISO 400 prints look very similar to the lower ISOs, with only a slight hint of luminance noise appearing in shadow areas. However, regarding overall print quality, this didn't affect print size limits in our testing, and we're more than willing to print up to 30 x 40 inches at this ISO -- excellent fine detail all around.

ISO 800 images, as expected, show a bit more noise that the previous ISO, and here, a 24 x 36-inch print looks fantastic. However, overall noise is still so low, and fine detail is still visible and sharp that a 30 x 40-inch print is definitely acceptable at this sensitivity, especially given the normal viewing distance for a print of this size.

ISO 1600 prints show an increase in noise -- as expected -- but it's mainly still concentrated in the shadows and some low-contrast areas (our notorious red-leaf fabric swatch is definitely showing a big reduction in detail). Still, a 24 x 36-inch print looks great at this ISO, showing lots of detail and pleasing colors.

ISO 3200 images display stronger noise as well as noticeable signs of noise reduction processing. We're playing it safe and calling the maximum print size at 16 x 20 inches for this ISO. However, it's right on the cusp; a 20 x 30-inch print it probably doable with careful post processing.

ISO 6400 prints display more noise, and although it's far from severe, it definitely causes a reduction in fine detail, making a 13 x 19-inch print the maximum size we're willing to endorse here.

ISO 12,800 images show stronger noise, and detail throughout certainly takes a hit, but noise is still far from obnoxious, to the point that the A9 is capable of a nice 8 x 10 inch print. Even further, an 11 x 14-inch print could be doable for less critical applications or with careful post-processing.

ISO 25,600 prints top-out at 5 x 7 inches. Noise as well as noise reduction artifacts are quite strong now, and they take a toll on fine detail.

ISO 51,200 images also offer usable prints up to 5 x 7 inches, which look surprisingly clean at this print size given this high sensitivity.

ISO 102,400/204,800 prints are, sadly, much too noisy and lacking in fine detail for us to consider usable for quality prints.

Sony's new flagship full-frame 24-megapixel mirrorless camera turned in a fantastic performance in our print quality analysis. From its extended base ISO of 50 all the way up to ISO 800, you're basically free to print up to whatever size you desire. Our testing stops at 30 x 40-inch prints, which, to our eyes, was hitting the resolving power of the A9's sensor, but still produced fantastic prints given the viewing distance required for that size. Up to ISO 800, fine detail is excellent, color rendition looks vibrant and pleasing, and noise as the ISO rises within this range is very well controlled -- if barely an issue at all. Even as the ISO rises into the mid- to upper-tiers, print sizes remain large and noise is well under control. Even at ISO 6400, for example, the Sony A9 offers an impressive 13 x 19-inch print size. The camera even manages to offer a pleasing 5 x 7 inch print all the way up to ISO 51,200. However, the Sony A9's two expanded high ISOs of 102,400 and 204,800 should both be avoided if print-making is your end goal.

About our print-quality testing: Our "Reference Printer"

Canon PRO-1000 Printer ImageTesting hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printer, which we named our "Printer of the Year" in our 2015 COTY awards.

The Canon PRO-1000 has a lot of characteristics that make it a natural to use for our "reference printer." When it comes to judging how well a camera's photos print, resolution and precise rendering are paramount. The PRO-1000's more than 18,000 individual nozzles combine with an air feeding system that provides exceptional droplet-placement accuracy. Its 11-color LUCIA PRO ink system delivers a wide color gamut and dense blacks, giving us a true sense of the cameras' image quality. To best see fine details, we've always printed on glossy paper, so the PRO-1000's "Chroma Optimizer" overcoat that minimizes "bronzing" or gloss differential is important to us. (Prior to the PRO-1000, we've always used dye-based printers, in part to avoid the bronzing problems with pigment-based inks.) Finally, we just don't have time to deal with clogged inkjet heads, and the PRO-1000 does better in that respect than any printer we've ever used. If you don't run them every day or two, inkjet printers tend to clog. Canon's thermal-inkjet technology is inherently less clog-prone than other approaches, but the PRO-1000 takes this a step further, with sensors that monitor every inkjet nozzle. If one clogs, it will assign another to take over its duties. In exchange for a tiny amount of print speed, this lets you defer cleaning cycles, which translates into significant ink savings. In our normal workflow, we'll often crank out a hundred or more letter-size prints in a session, but then leave the printer to sit for anywhere from days to weeks before the next camera comes along. In over a year of use, we've never had to run a nozzle-cleaning cycle on our PRO-1000.

See our Canon PRO-1000 review for a full overview of the printer from the viewpoint of a fine-art photographer.

*Disclosure: Canon provided us with the PRO-1000 and a supply of ink to use in our testing, and we receive advertising consideration for including this mention when we talk about camera print quality. Our decision to use the PRO-1000 was driven by the printer itself, though, prior to any discussion with Canon on the topic. (We'd actually been using an old Pixma PRO 9500II dye-based printer for years previously, and paying for our own ink, until we decided that the PRO-1000 was the next-generation printer we'd been waiting for.)

 

The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Sony Alpha ILCE-A9 Photo Gallery .

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Sony Alpha ILCE-A9 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!



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