Sony A1 Review
|Full model name:||Sony Alpha ILCE-A1|
(35.9mm x 24.0mm)
|Viewfinder:||EVF / LCD|
|Native ISO:||100 - 32,000|
|Extended ISO:||50 - 102,400|
|Shutter:||1/32000 - 30 sec|
5.1 x 3.8 x 3.2 in.
(129 x 97 x 81 mm)
|Full specs:||Sony A1 specifications|
Sony A1 Review -- Field Test
Sony A1 Field Test Part I
An absolute powerhouse for image resolution, AF and performance
by William Brawley • Posted 05/03/2021
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 1000
Sony's Alpha full-frame mirrorless system has several varieties and versions to fit one's shooting style or creative needs. The 61-megapixel Sony A7R IV fits the bill quite well for professionals who want very high-resolution performance, offering fantastic resolution and dynamic range. For those needing tip-top speed and fast image transfers, such as news wire and sports photographers, the Sony A9 and A9 Mark II were practically tailor-made for ultra-swift performance. However, in many respects, the existing A7R IV was and is rather impressively capable for fast action and high-speed shooting, despite the 61MP sensor. Though, to be fair, it could only shoot at up to 10fps, while the 24MP A9/II offered a speedier 20fps.
But, let's say you wanted a camera that can do both high-res and high speed. Or rather, a camera that can do nearly everything, including high-res stills, low-light shooting, insanely-fast burst shooting with sophisticated autofocusing, ultra-high-res video recording, fast workflow features and more? Does this "Swiss Army knife" camera exist?
Sony believes so with their flagship Alpha 1 camera. On paper, the new Sony A1 seems absolutely packed with the features and performance to make it a do-it-all camera. High-res photography? The A1's 50MP sensor should offer excellent resolving power. High-speed sports and action photography? The A1 can shoot full-res images at up to 30fps, plus no EVF blackout and a high-performance AF system with sophisticated subject-tracking. What about video? The A1's got you covered there, with 4K video up to 120fps as well as 8K at 30p. And when it comes to workflow features, the A1 has built-in Wi-Fi that's 3.5x faster than the A9 II, has 1000BASE-T Ethernet, a full-size HDMI port and USB Type-C with up to 10Gbps transfer speeds.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 400 (Cropped)
As I said, on paper, the Sony A1 seems absolutely incredible, but how does the A1 perform out in the real world? In this initial Field Test Part I, I will dive into the physical features of the A1, including build quality and handling characteristics. I will also explore real-world image quality and performance, particularly in birding and wildlife photography.
(Note: We were only given a very short time with an Alpha 1 sample, as they are currently in very short supply. We only had about a week or so with this initial review unit. However, we hope to get another review sample in the future, and we will have much more to review and investigate with this super Sony flagship camera.)
Without further ado, let's dive in...
Key Features & Specs
- Full-frame 50MP Exmor RS stacked CMOS sensor
- New Bionz XR image processor
- ISO range: 100-32000 (native); 50-102400 (expanded)
- Up to 30fps continuous burst with blackout-free shooting
- Hybrid AF system with 759 PDAF points & 425 CDAF points
- OLED EVF with 9.44M dots and 240fps refresh rate
- 8K/30p & 4K/120p video
- Updated menu system from the A7S III
- Touchscreen rear display
- Dust- and moisture-resistant construction
- Dual UHS-II/CFexpress Type A card slots
- Full-size HDMI, USB Type C, Headphone & Microphone jacks
- Ethernet connection and Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)
- $6500 body-only
Design & Handling
While the internals of the Sony A1 are largely all-new, the exterior design is, by and large, very similar to that of existing full-frame Sony Alpha cameras, particularly the A7R IV and A7S III as well as the A9/II. In terms of physical measurements, the A1 is nearly identical to the A7R IV, with practically the same dimensions and weight, though the A1 weighs just ever-so-slightly more. Overall, the design and operability of the Sony Al should be largely familiar to those who have used a recent Sony full-frame Alpha camera. The camera maintains that sleek, chiseled styling with angular EVF placed front and center. However, the edges of the camera body are smooth and slightly curved, allowing for a comfortable hold on the camera. The handgrip, too, is fairly sizable despite the overall small form factor, taking after the larger, deeper handgrip design that debuted back on the A7R IV.
Like my experience using the A7R IV, the grip on the A1 feels very nice in the hand, yet the camera body overall remains very compact. The larger, contoured handgrip fits nicely into my average-sized hand, with the camera being tall enough for all four of my fingers to fit comfortably around the grip. On earlier Alpha camera models prior to the A7R IV, the bodies weren't as tall, and I tended to slide my pinky finger underneath the camera. Like with the A7R IV, I don't experience this at all now with the Alpha 1. The slightly taller body and deeper handgrip greatly improve the ergonomics and overall hand-feel of the camera. Of course, the grip isn't as deep as the ones on a typical full-sized DSLR, but it's certainly deep and substantial enough to offer a secure, balanced grip, even when using heavier lenses.
The top of the Sony A1 (top) compared to the earlier Sony A9 (bottom)
Once again, despite the overall impressively small and compact size of the A1 for a full-frame camera, I still sometimes found the outside of my fingers bumping up against the lens, especially if it was a large and wide lens such as the FE 200-600mm G lens. I wish there was just a bit more room between the grip "interior side" and the lens mount. It's not particularly bothersome or uncomfortable -- this is undoubtedly a minor quibble -- but simply something I've noticed when using Sony mirrorless cameras.
When it comes to the controls on the Sony A1, the camera is essentially a blend of the A9 II and the A7R IV, with only some very subtle tweaks to the design of a few buttons. Once again, if you've used a Sony Alpha camera before, things should be extremely familiar for you with the A1. Like the A9-series cameras, the Alpha 1 has a pair of large control dials on the top deck, one being the main PASM mode dial on the right of the EVF and a dual-layered dial on the left. This left dial was unique to the A9-series and is now on the A1 as well, and offers quick access to Drive Mode settings and AF modes -- two critical shooting features that many professionals and advanced amateurs need to have right at their fingertips. I love this extra physical control, as it's an overall much more pleasant experience than diving into the menus or even using the Fn (Function) shortcuts menu. I find that it's a faster way to change these settings as well as offer a super-quick way to simply check what burst and focus modes you are currently set to.
Strangely, speaking of the Fn menu, the A1 uses the same overall operating system and menus as the A7S III (which, to be fair, are vastly improved compared to earlier Alpha-series cameras), but by default, two of the Fn menu slots are taken up my Drive Mode and AF mode settings. The A1 doesn't let you adjust these two settings via the Fn menu because they are set using the dedicated dials on the top. Fortunately, you can customize the shortcuts in the Fn menus, but it seems like strange overlooked detail.
On the back of the A1, the control layout is essentially identical to that of the A9 II and A7R IV. This new camera uses the same button layout and the same slightly-enlarged buttons and dials that we saw in these two earlier models. If you haven't used one of the earlier-generation Sony Alpha cameras prior to any of these three models, or compare them side by side, you won't notice a difference. However, the slightly larger buttons are just a little bit easier and nicer-feeling to press. They feel just a bit more substantial. The joystick control also has an improved texture for easier operation.
I am most familiar with the A7R IV in terms of the other current-generation Sony Alpha full-frame cameras. On that model, I noted that while it had touchscreen functionality, it felt somewhat underutilized -- at least in general. The touchscreen only really offers tap-to-focus or touch-and-dragging the AF point/area around the screen. It also has a Touch Pad mode that keeps the touchscreen active for AF point changes while using the EVF. Personally, however, I only really use a camera's touchscreen for moving the AF point around, so it wasn't much of a frustration point for me on that camera. However, the Sony Alpha 1 brings over the touchscreen usability improvements we saw with the A7S III. Utilizing the revamped menu system and graphical user interface improvements from the A7S III, the Alpha 1 is much more touchscreen-friendly. You can now tap and swipe through all the menus, as well as the Quick Menu shortcuts -- and you can still use physical buttons for menu navigation if you want as well. You can also pinch to zoom and swipe through images in Playback mode now, as well.
Unlike the new A7S III, the Alpha 1 retains the more stills-centric up-and-down tilting rear screen design rather than a fully-articulated screen with front-facing functionality. For the most part, it comes down to personal preference, but as a photos guy, first and foremost, I much prefer this tilting display style rather than the articulated design. I find it much easier to use for low-down or up-high shooting positions, and I just like the smaller footprint of not having a screen swung out to the side. That said, it's not as user-friendly for vertical orientation shooting, which I do miss. Also, despite the A1's downright impressive video specs, the screen design here is not as user-friendly for video creators. The Alpha 1 feels like it still leans a bit more into the photos space rather than video, while the A7S III is more of the video-heavy Alpha camera (unless you need 8K video).
Lastly, I should, of course, touch on the A1's fantastic electronic viewfinder. Again, the camera shares a lot of similarities to the A7S III, which introduced an absolutely incredible, high-resolution viewfinder. The A1 also sports the extremely sharp 9.44M-dot EVF OLED EVF with a massive 0.9x magnification factor. The view through the camera is crisp, bright and expansive. The refresh rate, however, is doubled compared to that of the A7S III, from a 120fps refresh rate to 240fps. With speed and performance being two of the Alpha 1's hallmark features, having that swift EVF refresh rate makes tracking and photographing fast-moving action much easier. You can, however, adjust the EVF frame rate down to 120fps or 60fps, if desired. The instruction manual states that when the EVF frame rate is set to the "Higher" setting (aka 240fps), the display's resolution is decreased.
Overall, the handling and user experience of the Sony A1 is very familiar and similar to that of the A7R IV and A7S III. The larger grip and improved controls make for great handling and usability despite the camera's generally compact form factor. The build quality also feels top-notch and extremely sturdy. If you're already a Sony Alpha owner, you'll feel right at home with the Alpha 1, and if you're moving over from an earlier-generation Alpha camera, the updated menu system is a major improvement. In my opinion, the menus can still feel a bit complex (the camera, after all, has a lot of features and a lot of user-customization options), but it's much easier to find what you're looking for than the earlier menu design.
While the exterior of the Sony Alpha 1 isn't all that different from the A9 II, the all-new imaging pipeline is the star of the show. In particular, the brand-new 50.1-megapixel full-frame sensor puts it among the highest-resolution full-frame cameras on the market. It sits just below the 61MP A7R IV as Sony's second-highest resolution mirrorless camera, while also competing squarely against other high-res full-frame cameras, such as the 45MP Canon R5 and Nikon Z7 II as well as the 50MP Canon 5DS/R DSLR cameras. For fine-detail work, such as landscapes, portraiture or editorial work, for instance, the Sony A1 is clearly an excellent option.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1600s, ISO 1000
However, these comparisons only really apply if you're looking at straight resolving power, but the Sony A1 is much more than just a megapixel machine. The camera's new 50MP sensor features a backside-illuminated design for increased light-gathering performance. Also, it uses a stacked circuitry design and integrated on-chip memory like the A9/II sensors for faster data readout performance. In fact, Sony states that the sensor readout speed is 1.5x faster than that of the A9 II's stacked 24MP sensor. These sensor characteristics allow the A1 to not only perform well at higher ISOs, despite the high megapixel count, but also read out raw sensor data very quickly, which allows for super-fast burst shooting and minimal rolling shutter artifacts when shooting with the electronic shutter.
It's clear that with the combination of sheer resolving power and performance, the Sony A1 is designed to be as versatile as possible when it comes to the type of subject matter you want to photograph.
FE 200-600mm G: 547mm, f/6.3, 1/1600s, ISO 640
Now, as mentioned earlier, we were only given an Alpha 1 review sample for about a week or so, and because of this, my shooting time with the camera has so far been fairly limited, with the majority of time spent shooting in daytime situations. Also, the Alpha 1 is the first Sony camera with Real-time Eye AF for Birds, and as such a good portion of my shooting time was spent capturing photos of birds and some other wildlife. There are, however, some more general-subject sample images in the Gallery. As such, my discussion here on image quality performance will focus primarily on overall image quality, particularly at lower- to mid-range ISO levels, as well as dynamic range and raw file flexibility. However, photographing wildlife in forested areas did provide some opportunity to raise the ISO level somewhat, so I will touch on high ISO performance in this Field Test, as well.
FE 200-600mm G: 594mm, f/6.3, 1/500s, ISO 400, -0.3EVs
Sharpness & fine detail
When it comes to overall image quality performance, I'll cut right to the chase: the Sony A1 is fantastic. Given Sony's reputation for cameras with excellent image quality performance, I was not expecting a poor showing from this flagship Alpha camera in the image quality department -- and particularly so given the camera's $6500 price tag! And indeed, the A1's 50MP full-frame sensor can capture images with a stunning amount of fine detail, even with just the JPEGs straight out of the camera.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/500s, ISO 640
Like the high-res A7R IV, the Alpha 1's sensor also lacks an optical low-pass filter (OLPF), enabling you to capture more extra-fine detail. More and more cameras these days are doing away with the OLPF in order to squeeze out just a bit more per-pixel detail out of the sensors, at the risk of capturing moiré and aliasing artifacts, however. In most day-to-day shooting, you likely won't encounter issues. However, if you photograph subjects with fine, repeating patterns, such as certain fabrics or buildings, aliasing and moiré pattern artifacts can appear.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 800
RAW crop (Capture One export into Photoshop for cropping)
During my time with the Alpha 1 photographing primarily natural subjects like birds and wildlife, I rarely noticed any issues with moiré or aliasing artifacts. That being said, I did notice a few occurrences of it, such as on the face of a distant building and even in some areas of the very fine detail of a bird's features. However, bear in mind that I had to look very closely at the images -- nearly 200% zoomed-in on the RAW files in Capture One -- to really notice. The A1's in-camera JPEG processing does a good job of removing these artifacts, particularly with moiré, however as you can see from this bird photo below, the jagged aliasing artifacts are quite tricky to process and appear in both the JPEG image and in the RAW file.
FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 24mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO 100
RAW crop (Capture One export into Photoshop for cropping) - It's difficult to see, but you can still make out a subtle bit of moiré pattern interference covering this area of fine brick detail.
At the end of the day, it's unlikely you'll run into major issues with moiré or aliasing artifacts, but it is worth considering depending on the type of images you capture most often.
All in all, from just a resolving power perspective, I am extremely pleased with the image quality performance from the Alpha 1. The Sony A1 is clearly a fantastic camera for high-resolution creative endeavors, be it landscapes or wildlife photography. For wildlife photography, and birding in particular, the A1 offers excellent cropping capabilities, as well, giving you a lot of creative freedom and extra "reach" in order to get the best composition. Plus, it's just a lot of fun to zoom in on and see all the fine feather details!
Another area of strong performance is dynamic range. Once again, Sony's sensors have a history of excellent performance in this image quality segment, and the Alpha 1 shows no sign of deviating from that path. As I mentioned earlier, most of my shooting time was during the day and often during midday hours in bright, sunny conditions; not the most appealing time of day for outdoor photography but a good way to get tricky high-contrast images with lots of dynamic range.
FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 39mm, f/5.6, 1/500, ISO 100
Looking at just the JPEG images straight out of the camera, the Sony A1 does an impressive job at balancing bright lights and retaining detail in the shadow areas, even on some rather tricky images. The camera's processing does well here, even with the camera's standard Picture Profile setting. Comparing a JPEG against its companion unedited RAW file in Capture One, the JPEG files oftentimes show a bit more detail in the shadows, while in the RAW file, the shadow area appears completely black.
Now, of course, RAW files give you way more flexibility in terms of tonal adjustments, and as expected, the Alpha 1 is no slouch here. As you can see in some of these example images below, the A1 offers a lot of adjustment potential, even in tricky, super high-contrast scenes. Editing files in Capture One, I was very impressed with the ability to pull back a lot of bright highlights and reveal detail, as well as lift up heavily crushed black areas without introducing much noise.
FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 24mm, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO 100
Even in this excessively adjusted RAW version of the above photo, the amount of noise introduced by drastically raising the darker shadow areas is surprisingly minimal to my eye. (And this is with Capture One's Luminance and Color noise reduction sliders set all the way to zero.)
RAW adjustments in Capture One
100% Crop -- Capture One RAW edit with with shadow/black levels excessively boosted, and NR processing reduceded as much as possible (Luminance and Color noise reduction sliders set to zero.)
High ISO performance
Lastly, I want to touch on high ISO performance. Photographing birds and other wildlife with the FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G lens in forested areas and with a higher shutter speed did provide some opportunity to raise the A1's ISO sensitivity to some degree. Rarely did the ISO creep past ISO 3200, however. Nevertheless, I wanted to comment on higher ISO image quality, at least to some degree, even if I have not had the opportunity to extensively shoot at the camera's extreme higher ISOs.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 2000
Much like the high-res A7R IV, the Sony Alpha 1 does impressively well at higher ISOs, despite the high-res sensor. Traditionally, about five or so years ago, high-megapixel camera sensors were at a bit of a disadvantage for high ISO performance compared to similarly-sized sensors with lower megapixel counts and thus larger pixels. These lower-res sensors, all else equal, were generally better at gathering more light and therefore doing a bit better in low-light and higher ISO situations. These days, with big advancements in sensor design and image processing technology, you can easily have a high-res camera that also does very well at high ISOs.
FE 200-600mm G: 456mm, f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 2000
At what I'm considering mid-range high ISO levels, such as ISO 3200-6400, the Sony A1 does very well at controlling noise levels, and I was very pleased with the image quality, even from JPEG files straight from the camera. The JPEG image processing with the default level of in-camera noise reduction does a very nice job at reducing visible luminance and chroma noise while still maintaining a pleasant amount of sharp, fine detail. At really close inspection, much like my experience with the A7R IV, NR processing is noticeable, with the processing smoothing out some noticeable fine detail and giving the image somewhat "digital look" -- especially with regard to blurred background areas and background noise.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 5000, +0.7EVs
At lower "high ISOs," such as ISO 800-1600, the Alpha 1 offers outstanding image quality. Even in RAW files, noise feels almost nonexistent to my eye, even at 100% zoom level. Images are very clean, feature excellent fine detail and vibrant colors.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 1600
When examining RAW files without heavy NR processing, I also see very well-controlled noise levels at this higher ISOs and very good fine detail. The noise has a fine-grained appearance to it, and it doesn't seem all that distracting when viewed up close. As is typically the case, RAW files give you more control over noise removal and sharpening than just SOOC JPEGs, and how one processes RAWs files is a matter of personal taste. I lean more towards letting a bit more noise remain in my images to allow for finer detail to come through, so I am very pleased that the A1 keeps noise levels under control at higher ISO levels.
Autofocus & Performance
Finally, I want to talk a bit about the Sony A1's performance as well as its autofocus. Besides resolving power, one of the Alpha 1's other hallmark features is its sheer horsepower when it comes to continuous burst shooting performance. The A1 is clearly designed to handle sports, fast action and other fleeting, fast-paced moments, offering up to 30fps burst shooting (with some caveats, though) and a high-speed AF system with tons of AF points and sophisticated subject tracking features.
In terms of autofocus, the A1 features the same overall AF system as in the recent A7S III. Despite the different sensors, the A1 incorporates the same massive number of AF points, at a whopping 759 on-sensor phase-detect points plus 425 contrast-detect AF points. The autofocus coverage also spans nearly the entire frame at about 92% of the total sensor area, which makes it easy to precisely place your AF point right where you need it as well as more easily track moving subjects through the frame.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 800
Like other recent Sony cameras, the Alpha 1 also features Real-Time Tracking subject detection with Real-time Eye-AF for both humans and animals. The A1 offers several ways to utilizing the real-time tracking AF modes. It can either be a totally automatic "all-points" mode (Focus Area: WIDE), in which the camera will essentially determine where to focus automatically. Or, you can have a movable AF point (or a zone of AF points) to provide the camera with a "starting point" of varying precision to begin focusing and tracking. Despite the increasing sophistication of subject-detection AF systems these days, I'm still wary of letting a camera completely and fully automatically determine where to focus, which is why I'm glad that Sony cameras, including the Alpha 1, provide focus area modes like Small Spot and Expand Mode that also work with real-time tracking. For instance, when photographing wildlife with lots of grass, plants, tree branches or other obstructions in between you and the subject, the camera can still misfocus when using a fully-automatic AF mode. For the majority of my time with the A1, I used the small- or medium-sized setting of Expand Spot AF mode + Tracking for small perched birds or other small wildlife, which let me easily and quickly control precisely where I wanted to focus. Then, while half-pressing the shutter, I could easily reposition the camera to get my composition while maintaining focus on my subject.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1600s, ISO 640
One of the brand-new features of the Sony A1 is the addition of "Bird Eye AF" to its Real-time Eye-AF system. In addition to being able to detect and track human eyes as well as some animals like dogs or cats, the inclusion now of tracking birds' eyes is a major benefit to bird photographers. Being a fan of bird photography, I was really excited to test this feature out, and lo and behold, it works extremely well. Sony's Eye AF technology has always worked very well, especially for people, and in my experience, the cameras detect and begin tracking faces and eyes very quickly -- and even when the subject is surprisingly small in the frame. I had the same kind of experience here with the A1 and Eye AF with Birds.
FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM: 400mm, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 320
Not a great shot, of course, but even in this backlit scene with the bird completely in shade, the A1's Real-Time Tracking AF feature still managed to find and focus on the bird's face/eye.
Whether close up or frustratingly far away, I was very impressed with how the Alpha 1 was still able to detect and lock onto a small bird's eye. Furthermore, even in challenging lighting conditions, with eyes in deep shadow or even the entire bird in full shade and silhouetted against a bright background, the majority of the time, the A1's Bird AF was able to find the bird. What's even better is that if the camera can't lock onto the eye of the bird, the AF system doesn't just fail or give up, but rather it seems to revert back to general face/body detection, which also generally hit the mark with both birds and other small wildlife subjects.
FE 200-600mm G: 600mm, f/6.3, 1/250s, ISO 1250
Overall autofocus performance of the A1 is excellent. Much like with other Sony Alpha cameras I've used, single-shot AF is extraordinarily fast and feels nearly instantaneous in most situations. Continuous tracking also works extremely well, and the new Bird AF feature is excellent. And while I didn't have an opportunity to really push the limits of the continuous AF, such as with motorsports or a fast-paced sport like soccer or football, the camera never felt sluggish in acquiring or tracking focus on a moving subject.
Burst Shooting Performance
The Sony A1 also has some very impressive performance specs, thanks in part to the combination of the stacked sensor, the fast BIONZ XR processing engine and the speedy CFexpress memory card support. The A1 is capable of capturing full-resolution 50MP images at 30 frames per second, with continuous autofocus. That is some serious memory-card filling shooting performance!
Of course, there are some caveats to the Alpha 1's eye-catching burst specs. In order to achieve the full 30fps burst rate, you first must use the electronic or silent shutter. The camera's mechanical shutter is still limited to just 10fps, much like the A7R IV. Also, you can't capture images at 30fps using uncompressed RAW or the new lossless compressed RAW image formats. Instead, you'll have to use JPEGs or lossy compressed RAW. Otherwise, with these other image quality settings, like uncompressed RAW+JPEG, the Alpha 1 will "only" shoot up to 20fps -- which, to be honest, is plenty fast for almost any sports or action subject.
FE 200-600mm G: 594mm, f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 800
Further, note that the camera's menus won't explicitly mention "30fps", even if you're in the proper image quality mode or camera settings. Be aware that it's "up to" 30fps, and other factors such as the particular lens' AF motor or other challenges in maintaining focus on your subject might impact the camera's maximum burst rate.
In the field, I wanted to make sure I was capturing images at the highest possible quality settings -- uncompressed RAW + JPEG -- and as such, I was limited to just 20fps. As mentioned, this is an already extraordinarily fast burst rate and more than enough to capture challenging moments.
Gif of a 20fps burst sequence - Stacked and auto-alighed in Photoshop
In some quick, non-scientific tests, however, I confirmed that the camera can shoot at around 30fps using the lossy RAW image quality setting. One burst at about 1.5 seconds in length, the camera captured 51 frames, and in another 1.3-second burst, I got 42 frames. I also switched over to a UHS-II SD card rather than the faster CFexpress Type A car, and with another approximately 1.3-second burst, I recorded 45 frames. Similarly, using JPEG + Uncompressed RAW, the camera recorded about 29 frames in an approximately 1.3s burst in multiple runs, which closely matches the 20fps burst spec for that image quality setting.
Buffer capacity also varies with the camera's continuous shooting rate and image quality settings. Buffer feels nearly endless when using Lossy RAW format and a super-fast CFexpress memory card. I was able to capture over 400 frames at 30fps with no noticeable slowdown. Once lifting my finger from the shutter button, the camera finished writing buffered images to the card in about 10-11 seconds. At 20fps with uncompressed RAW + JPEG, I consistently captured about 80 or so frames before the shooting rate speed dipped slightly (which is also consistent with around the 78 frames according to Sony's specs).
With the fast CFexpress card, buffer clearing times are fantastic. So even if the 20fps burst rate slows, you can easily take a quick pause and resume shooting without any real impact on performance or any noticeable sluggishness. In most scenarios, you wouldn't be likely to continuously shoot for that long, or at least I wouldn't. However, using a Sony 300MB/s UHS-II SD card was noticeable slower when it came to buffer clearing, which isn't unexpected. Buffer clearing there took about 26-27 seconds, and at 30fps, burst shooting felt like it slowed down after only about 5-6 seconds.
FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 70mm, f/2.8, 1/2000, ISO 125
Overall, the Sony Alpha 1 is an outstanding camera. Given Sony's history of producing excellent cameras with fantastic image quality, excellent autofocusing and solid performance, I was expecting the flagship Alpha 1 to feel familiar and more of the same, really. Only better. And it is.
Design-wise and ergonomically, the camera is comfortable and rugged with an array of physical controls, a nice photo-centric tilting touchscreen and a lot of user customization. It feels like a solid, modern Sony mirrorless camera. Sony has improved the usability of the touchscreen and menu system, which were two of the main usability criticisms from the A7R IV.
FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 24mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO 100
From an image quality standpoint, the Sony Alpha 1 is one of the best cameras I've ever used. With 50-megapixels at your disposal, you can capture images with a stunning level of detail, excellent dynamic range and vibrant yet natural-looking colors. And for wildlife photographers, you have plenty of leeway for cropping if needed. Of course, the downside to 50MP files is storage, which fills up quickly -- especially when you are shooting at 20-30fps. My folder of 2300 or so images quickly ballooned to over 300GBs. Performance-wise, the Sony A1 is a stunning piece of technology. The autofocus system is fantastic, offering fast performance and excellent subject tracking, even in very tricky shooting scenarios. Burst shooting, also, is bordering on excessive. But it's nice to have the speed when you need it. It's certainly faster-shooting than what I need; 20fps is more than enough, let alone 30fps. Though there are limitations to achieving that eye-watering "30fps" burst rate, the camera is still capable of outstanding performance for almost any photography situation.
Overall, the Sony A1 is what I experienced with A7R IV but turned up to 11. I thought the A7R IV combined image quality and performance (and to be fair, it still does), but this new flagship Alpha 1 goes even further.
• • •
Sony A1 Product Overview
by Jeremy Gray
Sony has announced the groundbreaking Alpha 1 camera, promising many new features, blazing-fast performance, improved image quality, 8K video, and a pro-oriented workflow.
The Sony A1 is equipped with a brand-new stacked 50-megapixel image sensor, paired with the Bionz XR image processor introduced in the Sony A7S III. This combination and other advancements in technology make Alpha 1 Sony's most advanced camera to date. The company also claims it's the most innovative, and it's tough to disagree. Let's take a deep dive and learn more about all the impressive tech packed into the all-new Alpha 1.
Sony A1 Key Features and Specs
- New 50.1-megapixel full-frame stacked Exmor RS CMOS image sensor
- Native ISO range of 100-32,000, expandable to 50-102,400
- Sony promises improved colors, tones and gradation with new sensor and processing engine
- Stated 15-stop dynamic range
- Upgraded Bionz XR image processor
- Blackout-free continuous shooting at up to 30 frames per second
- Up to 120 AF/AE calculations per second
- Hybrid AF system with 759 PDAF points and 425 CDAF points
- AF system delivers 92% image area coverage
- Bright, large 0.64-type OLED EVF with 9.44M dots and 240fps refresh rate
- Improved silent, vibration-free electronic shutter
- New carbon fiber mechanical shutter
- Anti-flicker shooting with both shutters
- Electronic flash sync of 1/200s, mechanical flash sync of 1/400s (up to 1/500s in APS-C)
- 8K/30p video
- 4K/120p video
- Industry's fastest built-in Wi-Fi
- Includes built-in 1000BASE-T Ethernet
Sony A1 Design
The Sony A1 has familiar Sony styling, but there are some intriguing aspects of the body to discuss. Sony is building upon its advancements with other Alpha cameras, including many cues from the recent Sony A7S III. The A1 uses the same new menu system found in the A7S III while adding menu options to correspond to new features. The main menu and function menus are touch-responsive, which is a big improvement compared to the A9 II.
Likewise, the A1 incorporates the same 0.64-type electronic viewfinder as is found in the A7S III, albeit with double the refresh rate. The 9.44M-dot EVF has a 240fps refresh rate, plus with the blackout-free shooting, the A1 promises to be a very smooth camera when shooting action. You can also select from 60fps and 120fps refresh rates for the EVF. The EVF has 0.9x magnification and a 41-degree FOV. The A1's EVF is the highest resolution, largest and fastest EVF in its class.
In terms of durability, the A1 is built using a magnesium alloy chassis that is both light and rigid. The lens mount has six screws, which Sony states enhance strength and rigidity. The body has dust- and moisture-resistance at all body seams and the battery cover. The dual media slots, which support UHS-II SD cards and new CFexpress Type A cards, have a double sliding cover. The A1 also includes a lens lock button and mount cushion.
The shutter has also seen improvement. The A1 has a new mechanical shutter unit, which allows for shooting speeds up to 10fps. The carbon fiber shutter has an advanced motor, brake, and dampers. Sony promises that the shutter is 'good for more than 500,000 cycles.'
When looking at the front of the camera, you can see an IR white balance sensor. This promises improved white balance accuracy, particularly under fluorescent, LED, or other artificial light sources. We know the lens mount is strengthened, but the shutter also closes when the camera is powered off, protecting the sensor from dust and changing lenses. There is a standard anti-dust system in the A1 as well.
On the back of the camera is a 3" tilting touchscreen. The display tilts up 107 degrees and down by up to 41 degrees. The display is not tilt/swivel, which may prove disappointing for videographers who don't necessarily want to use an external monitor. The display has 1.4M dots, so unlike the EVF, this is not an area where Sony has pushed its existing technology forward.
To the right of the display is Sony's standard rotating selection wheel, an Fn button, autofocus sub-selector joystick, dedicated AF-ON button, and AEL button, and a dedicated movie record button. To the left of the viewfinder are C3 and Menu buttons. The layout is certainly familiar.
To the viewfinder's left on the camera's top deck is a stacked Drive Focus mode dial. You can use this stacked dial to adjust the Drive Mode and Focus Mode on the fly while shooting. The right of the EVF has shooting mode, rear command, and exposure compensation dials. The shutter release has a surrounding on/off switch, and the C1 and C2 buttons are also located on the top of the camera.
The Sony A1 is packed with ports. The A1 has a SuperSpeed USB 3.2 Type-C connector, capable of 10Gbps transfer speeds, and it can accept power delivery over USB. There's a full-size HDMI port, mic/headphone ports, a USB Micro port, a flash sync terminal, and a 1000BASE-T Ethernet port for wired LAN transfer. In addition to the physical connections, the A1 also has the 'industry's fastest' built-in Wi-Fi, supporting 2x2 MIMO. The Wi-Fi is 802.11a/b/g/n/ac and supports 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Wireless data throughput with the A1 is about 3.5x faster than with the A9 II, which should excite many working professionals in fast-paced fields.
Image sensor, image processor, and shooting features: The Sony A1 has a new sensor and newfound speed
At the heart of the Sony A1 is its new imaging pipeline. The most significant change compared to previous Alpha cameras is the brand-new 50.1-megapixel Exmor RS image sensor. The image sensor utilizes a stacked design much like the 24MP Exmor RS sensors in the A9 models. The stacked design includes individual pixel and circuit layers and new A/D conversion for faster processing. The backside-illuminated image sensor and its integral memory promise speedier readout. The readout speed is up to 1.5x faster than the A9 II's readout speed. The enhanced readout speed performance, along with the new architecture in the Bionz XR image processing engine, is directly responsible for many of the A1's advanced features. Following the BIONZ X, the new BIONZ XR processing engine is technically comprised of two separate components (though Sony didn't expand on how many cores are involved or if it's a full-on dual-processor arrangement), and the BIONZ XR is said to offer 8x more processing power than the previous BIONZ X engine.
For example, the fast sensor readout speed minimizes still-image distortion when using the electronic shutter, which is required to achieve shooting speeds faster than 10 frames per second. The improved processing power also means that the electronic shutter has about 1.5x less distortion than the electronic shutter in the A9 II. The A1's power also results in the new flicker-free electronic and mechanical shutter functionality. The A1 is the first camera to offer flicker-free shooting with both its electronic and mechanical shutters.
The A1's electronic shutter includes a Hi Frequency Flicker function, which uses a variable shutter. This is important when shooting using LED lighting. When this feature is enabled, the shutter speed is variable in 0.X increments. For example, the A1 can shoot with a 1/200.6s shutter speed, rather than a standard 1/200s shutter speed, to significantly reduce issues from high-speed flickering light sources, including eliminating banding with LED light sources.
In terms of shutter speed specifications, the new carbon fiber mechanical shutter has an exposure range of 30s to 1/8000s, with a bulb mode, too, of course. The electronic shutter has the same bottom end but can capture images at up to 1/32,000s. When shooting continuously, both shutters have a minimum shutter speed of 1/2s.
The new shutter also impacts flash sync. When using the mechanical shutter and the full-frame area, the flash sync is 1/400s, a new record high for the market. You can achieve 1/500s flash sync when using the APS-C crop. This is a big deal for studio photographers and any photographer that uses flash for their work. When using the electronic shutter, the A1 introduces another first, using it for flash photography. When using the electronic shutter, the flash sync is 1/200s in full-frame mode and 1/250s when using the APS-C image area.
Getting back to the new sensor and how it impacts image quality, Sony promises better color accuracy and overall image quality than previous models. Sony also promises up to 15 stops of dynamic range when capturing still images with the A1. The image sensor has a native ISO range of 100-32,000, which can be further expanded to ISO 50-102,400. Sony states that high ISO performance is improved due to gapless on-chip lenses and an 'AR coated seal glass.' It will be interesting to see how the sensor performs in real-world use relative to the A9 II and the A7R IV.
The A1 also includes Sony's Pixel Shift Multi Shooting mode. This mode allows four images to be stacked for a roughly 50-megapixel final image composite with improved color and visible resolution. Or you can stack 16 images for a 199-megapixel composite image. While Pixel Shift Multi Shooting is not new to Sony cameras, the new sensor's readout speed now allows for the use flash in this mode (with flash sync up to 1/200s), something the A7R IV doesn't offer.
In terms of additional image quality features, the A1 has 10 Creative Look presets that can be used to fine-tune the appearance of stills and videos. The A1 includes a new Light JPEG image format and a new Lossless Compressed RAW image format, which impacts performance, as we will see in the next section. The Lossless Compressed RAW file is about 50-80% smaller than the Uncompressed RAW format, and Sony states that the image quality is the same. The camera also supports 10-bit HEIF formats.
Autofocus and Performance: Improved autofocus, 50-megapixel shooting at 30 fps and more
The Sony A1 uses the same autofocus system recently introduced in the Sony A7S III. The Alpha 1 has a hybrid autofocus system with 759 phase detection autofocus points and 425 contrast detection autofocus points. The autofocus points cover approximately 92% of the total image area. The AF system has more coverage density than the A9 series' AF system. The A1's AF system can be used in light as dim as -4 EV and can be used at f/22. The AF/AE system refreshes up to 120 times per second.
In terms of AF features, the camera includes Real-time Eye AF, which Sony says is improved by over 30% compared to the previous system. Real-time Eye AF and subject tracking can be used when recording stills and video. Real-time Eye AF for animals, and the newly added Real-time Eye AF for birds, is only usable when recording still images. The AI-powered subject recognition has been further improved with new algorithms. The A1's subject tracking algorithm analyzes color, pattern, brightness, and subject distance data to process information in real-time.
Appealing to sports photographers, in particular, the A1 includes the ability to temporarily disable the tracking capabilities while shooting. For example, if a subject is still in the frame, but you wish to track a different subject, you can disable the tracking to reset the subject and begin tracking once again.
The Alpha 1 can record 50-megapixel images at up to 30 frames per second, but with caveats. You must use the electronic shutter for speeds faster than 10fps (the mechanical shutter maxes out at 10fps), and you also must be shooting JPEG or compressed RAW files to achieve this maximum 30fps speed. When shooting at 30fps, you can record 165 JPEG images or 155 compressed RAW images, according to Sony's specs. You can slow down to 20, and 15 fps speeds, increasing the buffer to 400 and 1,000 JPEG images, respectively. At 20 fps, you can record in the new Lossless Compressed and Uncompressed RAW file types for 96 and 82 consecutive images, respectively.
The A1 is also equipped with in-body 5-axis image stabilization. This promises up to 5.5 stops of shake compensation.
Video: 8K/30p and 4K/120p highlight an impressive list of video features
For the first time in an Alpha camera, the A1 includes 8K recording. You can record 8.6K oversampled video at up to 30 frames per second. 8K video is recorded in 10-bit 4:2:0 XAVC HS format via HDMI.
The A1 offers in-camera 4K recording at up to 120 fps. The high speed allows for up to 5x slow motion – the A1 includes Sony's Slow and Quick shooting mode. 4K video supports 10-bit 4:2:2 recording, Long GOP inter-frame compression, and All-I intra-frame compression. 4K video can be recorded using MPEG-H HEVC/H.265 codec. 16-bit RAW output is also available to an external recorder via HDMI (requires a hi-speed HDMI cable). You can also record HDR HLG video using the BT.2020 color space with the A1. The maximum bitrate is 600Mbps.
When shooting 4K, the A1 uses full sensor readout with no pixel binning, and it utilizes 5.8K oversampling. In the Super 35 mode, about 2.3x the required QFHD 4K required data is acquired with full-frame readout and then rendered into Super 35. The improved sensor readout also results in about 2.8x improved rolling shutter effect.
The Alpha 1 and its Bionz XR engine allows for Real-time Eye AF (human) and Real-time Tracking for video recording as well, even when recording 8K/30p and 4K/120p video. If a 1.1x crop is acceptable, you can also record video using active mode image stabilization, making stable handheld recording possible when recording 4K/FHD video at 60fps or slower. In terms of operability, the A7S III's touch functionality when recording video is present in the A1.
To ensure extended recording, the A1 employs a revised heat-dissipating structure. You can record 8K/30p video or 4K/60p video continuously for up to 30 minutes. Sony didn't specify if there is a hard limit to the 30 minute recording time, only that they guarantee up to 30 minutes of continuous recording. Similar to the A7S III, depending on card capacity and/or environmental factors, it might be possible to record for longer periods of time. The heat-dissipating structure uses a graphite heatsink built into the IS unit, and it is said to be 5x more effective when extending the recording time than the system found in the A7R IV.
The A1 uses Sony's new Digital audio interface. Its Multi Interface (MI) shoe is compatible with the Shotgun Microphone (ECM-B1M) and XLR Adapter Kit (XLR-K3M). You can record audio at up to 48 kHz/24 bit using 4 channels.
Additionally, the A1 includes the S-Cinetone color profile. This profile, recently seen in the A7S III, was first present in Sony's FX9 and FX6 cinema cameras. S-Cinetone promises a cinematic appearance, featuring natural mid-tones, good skin tones, soft colors, and 'gorgeous highlights.'
To achieve the maximum dynamic range, which Sony states is greater than 15 stops when recording video, you must use the 10-bit S-Log 3 (S-Log 2 is also supported). This mode requires a minimum ISO of 800 (expandable down to ISO 200 for reduced noise).
Overall, the A1 promises many of the impressive video features of the A7S III while pushing boundaries more than the A7R IV and A9 II.
When will the Sony A1 be available, and what does it cost?
You can order the Sony A1 starting tomorrow, January 27, at 10 a.m. EST. Sony expects delivery to begin in late February or early March. The Sony A1 is the most expensive Alpha camera to date, with a suggested body-only retail price of $6,500 USD ($8,500 CAD).
It's an exciting day for Sony fans. The Sony Alpha 1 is the company's new flagship camera, and it aims to be everything for everyone. Although Sony expects the feature set to appeal to advanced enthusiast photographers, it's clearly targeting the professional market with this feature-packed, high-performance camera.
Sony is pursuing an all-in-one camera body, and the A1 appears to be as close as the company has gotten. There are some caveats for users to consider concerning certain highlight features, like the 8K video and 30fps shooting, but the A1 pushes a lot of boundaries. We're excited to go hands-on with the camera as soon as possible and let you know how it performs in real-world testing.