Hands-on with the Sony A9

A true mirrorless monster

by | Posted 04/19/2017

Sony A9 Review - Hands On
The Sony A9 with FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens & battery grip.

After the press conference of Sony's surprise unveiling of their latest flagship Alpha camera, the Sony A9, I was able to get some brief hands-on time with the new camera. With various units set up around a few indoor sporting demonstrations, I was able to get a sense of just how fast and nimble this new full-frame mirrorless camera really is. Unfortunately, these demo cameras had taped-up card slots, so no sharing of any photos taken with the camera today. (But stay tuned!)

The Sony A9 is all about speed and performance

First and foremost, this camera is all about speed and performance. Thanks to its stacked sensor design, the A9 can shoot at up to 20 frames per second for over 200 frames in RAW or RAW+JPEG mode. The stacked sensor design, first seen in the 1-inch-type RX100 IV, sees the A9 now brings that tech up to full-frame. The on-board memory and signal processing handles the massive data load extremely quickly, giving you that nimble high-speed burst capability. In my brief experience with the camera thus far, let me tell you that it is indeed fast. Very fast. In a sports-shooting scenario, you can fire off bursts of shots in quick succession, or mash the shutter button for tons of frames to make sure you nail the precise moment.

Sony A9 Review - Hands On

After firing off a big burst of shots, the camera, of course, immediately begins processing and writing images to your memory card, or cards. As I've experienced before with Sony cameras, certain operations, like trying to access the menu, while the camera is writing to the card are unavailable, which is a little frustrating. The inclusion of a UHS-II card slot speeds things up dramatically in this regard, so you'll spend less time locked out of the camera. I do wish that the A9 had two UHS-II slots, but alas one slot is still UHS-I. But, hey, two card slots are better than one, so I'll take it.

It should be noted that the 20fps burst rate is available for electronic shutter only. Switching to mechanical shutter mode, the burst drops down dramatically, to just 5fps at the fastest.

Coupled with its impressive continuous shooting capabilities is the A9's super-fast hybrid autofocus system. Sporting a whopping 693 phase-detection AF points, the A9's autofocus coverage is practically the entire sensor. My initial impression is that AF performance is very good. The camera was quick and decisive to both acquire and adjust focus, and it seemed to track moving subjects very quickly. Of course, not being able to see the images on my computer, it's hard to know if the camera nailed every shot in a burst sequence, but my take is that it performed very well. Needless to say, I can't wait to try it out in the field with some tricky sports, especially difficult indoor sports like basketball.

Sony A9 Hands-On: AF & Burst Shooting

The lack of viewfinder blackout is awesome

The new EVF on the A9 is also fantastic. The A7R II, which I had by my side, already has a great-looking EVF, but the one on the A9 has an even higher resolution 3686k-dot screen, making for an even better user experience. One of the big features about the Sony A9 is the blackout-free shooting experience. In both the EVF, and on the LCD, the camera does not blackout between frames when continuously shooting with the electronic shutter.

In normal single-shot or mechanical shutter shooting modes, the EVF's refresh rate is set at 120fps, making it easy to follow moving subjects. When using the blackout-free electronic shutter-based continuous shooting mode, the viewfinder frame rate is pegged at 60 fps. That's still plenty fast, and given the cool blackout-free operation, it feels very easy and very responsive to follow and track fast-moving subjects, as well as not miss decisive moments.

The A9 is super-quiet when using the electronic shutter

Sony made a big point about how quiet the A9 is, especially highlighting Silent Shooting mode, which has been included in a number of previous Alpha mirrorless cameras, such as the A7S II and A7R II, for example. This mode, using the electronic shutter, makes shooting completely silent, which is great for photojournalist and other documentary photography work as well as wildlife photographers; key demographics for the Sony A9. But, even when not using Silent Shooting mode, the electronic shutter operation on the A9 is incredibly quiet. Now, if you switch to the mechanical shutter, then yes, you hear noticeable "ka-chunk" sounds when you fire off a shot. Given the performance advantages on the A9 when using the electronic shutter, I'd be hard-pressed to opt for the mechanical one.

Sony A9 Review - Hands On
The Sony A9 with FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens

Familiar A7-style body, but with nice improvements

Design-wise, the Sony A9 looks quite similar to its A7-series brethren, but there are a handful of thoughtful new additions to the A9's body design. For starters, there's now a second top-deck dial on the left side of the EVF. This dual-layer dial has a locking top dial for drive mode settings, while the bottom layer controls focusing modes. The bottom dial here is very reminiscent of the drive mode on a number of Nikon DSLRs; there's an unlock button that you press and hold with your thumb while your index finger rotates the dial via a small tab. This secondary dial is quite handy overall, as it provides a fast, physical adjustment to two very important and highly-used settings. You spend less time diving into menus and more time shooting.

Sony A9 Review - Hands On

Another new addition to the camera's controls is the introduction of a joystick control on the rear of the camera, taking the place of the AF/MF/AEL switch lever seen on the A7-series models (since focus mode is now up in that top-deck dial). The rather large and flat joystick control works very well to make on-the-fly focus point changes when using AF modes like Flexible Spot. The joystick control is responsive and solid, while at the same time not feeling flimsy or fiddly. In other words, I didn't feel as though I'd accidentally press it or make incorrect adjustments.

Sony A9 Review - Hands On

In addition to the joystick control, the A9 also gains a dedicated AF-ON button, which is super helpful for those who use back-button focusing. There's also a dedicated auto-exposure lock button off to the right as well.

The rest of the controls feel very similar to those on the Mark II series of A7 models, so if you're already familiar with the Sony A7, the A9 is a no brainier to pick up and use. Comfort-wise the A9 feels great in the hand and, again, very similar to the A7-series. Dials and controls feel sturdy and the grippy material around the handgrip provides a solid hold. Given its compact nature, I do find that my pinky finger doesn't quite fit on the grip when hold the camera; I often myself wrapping my little finger underneath the base of the camera. I find myself doing this with a gripless E-M1 Mark II, for example, as well. If I were shooting longer, heavier glass, such as an adapted Sony A-mount telephoto lens or even the 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens, I'd prefer the camera to be bit "taller" or simply resort to a battery grip. And given the new battery grip design for the A9, with space for a second battery, that seems like a win-win; more comfort and much longer battery life.

Sony A9 Hands-On: Battery Life

Lastly, the Sony A9 is the first full-frame Sony mirrorless model to offer touchscreen functionality. (Finally!) The implementation is fairly limited, but arguably put to use for the most appropriate function: touch-to-focus -- simply tap the screen where you want the AF point, or you can tap and drag your finger around the screen to move the AF point. You can'€™t, however, navigate menus or interacting with on-screen displays.

Hands-on with the new 100-400mm GM lens

And speaking of longer lenses, I also had some hands-on time with the new FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens. For such a versatile telephoto range, the new Sony 100-400mm GM lens is incredible compact. In fact, from a distance, I often got it confused with the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM lens; it's that compact. Compared to other 100-400mm lenses for full-frame DSLRs, the Sony 100-400mm GM lens is indeed very compact and lightweight. On a non-gripped A9 body, it balances decently well, but I'd personally enjoy using a grip when this lens is attached.

Sony A9 Review - Hands On

Like the 70-200mm GM lens, the new 100-400mm sports a similar overall design, complete with a stylish white paint job. The zoom and focus rings feel very smooth. The zoom ring has adjustable tension, letting you personalize how light or stiff the zoom action is. In the full "loose" position, the zoom ring was very smooth and easy to rotate, but if you hold the lens downward it can extend on its own a bit (a.k.a. "lens creep") so make sure and either lock the zoom or adjust the tension accordingly depending on how you'll be using and carrying it.

Sony A9 Review - Hands On

Wrap-up

Overall, the Sony A9 looks to be a total beast of a camera. Performance-wise, the camera is just amazingly fast, at least from my initial impressions. With the A9, Sony has taken aim at the flagship DSLRs like the Canon 1D X Mark II and Nikon D5. The Sony A9 takes what made the A7-series great, such as their excellent image quality and compact design, and kick things up a notch, a big notch, to bring the performance and speed aspects needed by professional sports, wildlife and press photographers.



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