Sony A9 Conclusion

by William Brawley | Posted: 10/06/2017

Though we as an organization avoid reporting on rumors and speculation of future camera products, we can't help but get just as excited as the next person speculating about upcoming new gear! One of the most hyped and most rumored cameras in recent years has been the Sony A9. Sony's A7-family of full-frame mirrorless models have been a tremendous hit with photographers and videographers, both professionals and enthusiasts. Given the range of different A7 models, each with varied capabilities and features, folks were extremely curious about where Sony would go next. With a growing catalog of lenses, a refined and compact body design, and high-performance phase-detect autofocus -- to name a few -- there were fewer and fewer areas left where DSLRs had the clear advantage over Sony's mirrorless cameras.

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 182mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s, ISO 2500

At last, with the A9, Sony takes aim squarely at the flagship DSLRs from Canon and Nikon, the 1D X Mark II and D5, respectively. For many professional photographers, the idea of a small, lightweight mirrorless camera is an attractive prospect, but they often demand true workhorse cameras -- ones that are tough, reliable, accurate and at the end of the day let them get the shots they're after. For many shooters, current mirrorless cameras do just fine in a professional environment, however for sports and action photographers, especially, flagship DSLRs still have the edge in the speed, performance and accuracy departments over a mirrorless camera.

That is, until now.

Performance: Amazing burst speeds & top-notch C-AF

Thanks to the all-new, stacked, full-frame sensor, which combines a back-illuminated design with on-board DRAM memory, and the latest BIONZ X image processor, the A9 makes some pretty bold performance claims on its spec sheet. Competing against the likes of the 1D X Mark II and D5 flagship DSLRs, the A9 needs to be top-notch in its speed and accuracy, and for the most part, Sony succeeded here.

Impressively, the Sony A9, both in our lab tests and in the field, offers astonishing performance in many areas, including its class-leading 20fps continuous shooting rate, even at full resolution and with RAW+JPEGs. 20fps is scary-fast and can add a level of complexity to your workflow -- be prepared to shoot LOTS of photos! You'll rack up tons of images in no time, so have lots of high-capacity memory cards on-hand and lots of hard drive space available.

FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS: 339mm, f/5.6, 1/2000s, ISO 25,600

Equally impressive alongside the 20fps burst is the A9's autofocus system. The big story here is continuous AF, which proved excellent during our testing. Single-shot AF was fine, but nothing remarkable based on our numbers, but it got the job done. And for a sports- and action-centric camera, the A9 excelled beautifully and rarely missed a shot when it came to C-AF thanks to its sophisticated phase-detect AF and excellent subject tracking capacities.

Flagship performance with a few hiccups

But, despite its impressive burst rates, the A9's performance is not without caveats. First, the 20fps works only with electronic shutter; mechanical shutter only gets you 5fps. We didn't spot much if any rolling shutter artifacts with the electronic shutter, so that's a big relief. With 20fps, thankfully, the Sony A9 also has a very generous buffer capacity, but buffer clearing times were disappointingly sluggish, even with a UHS-II card. Buffer clearing was particularly slow with JPEGs, which is interesting and concerning, especially considering that many pro sports photographers, for example, rely on JPEGs during assignments for their smaller file sizes and faster transmit times back to photo editors. In our tests, the A9 took just under four minutes to clear a 350+ JPEG buffer, whereas it took 36 seconds to clear 126 uncompressed RAW files.

Like many other Sony cameras, the A9 still locks you out of the menus while the buffer is clearing; another frustration. However, given the A9's level of button customization, you can somewhat workaround this Menu-lockout limitation. The camera provides a variety of Menu-specific functions that can be assigned to any number of the A9's buttons. During buffer clearing, the A9 still lets you access the main Function (Fn) shortcut menu, as well as any of the Menu functions you custom-set to a button. So, though you can't access the full Menu while the buffer is clearing, you can still access certain menu items that have been pre-assigned to a custom button -- it makes the Menu lockout issue slightly less frustrating.

Overall, though the Sony A9 is very quick and nimble, letting you easily capture fast action and sports subjects. The camera does need some tweaking and may require a few changes from your typical camera setup and workflow, such as enabling electronic shutter mode and using compressed RAW format in order to squeeze out the maximum shooting performance of the camera.

FE 12-24mm F4 G: 12mm, f/6.3, 1/1000s, ISO 100, -0.7EV
Excellent image quality: lots of detail, nice higher ISOs & great dynamic range

Image quality overall is excellent with the A9, both at low ISOs and at higher sensitivities. The camera's JPEG engine works well at balancing detail with noise reduction as the ISO climbs. In both real-world shooting and lab testing, the A9 did very well up to ISO 12,800. Images still had a good amount of detail with controlled noise; an 8 x 10 inch print looks great at this ISO. Given Sony's strengths in this area in other cameras, it's not surprising for the A9 to excel here as well. Nonetheless, for a camera designed for versatility, it's great to see that the A9 can handle difficult lighting conditions.

FE 12-24mm F4 G: 18mm, f/4, 10s, ISO 6400

Dynamic range was also excellent, especially for a sports- and action-centric camera, which allowed for lots of flexibility in post production. Compared to its two main rivals, the A9 offers similar dynamic range performance to the 1D X II, edging ahead of the Canon at higher ISOs, while besting the D5 at low ISOs, in particular, and keeping pace with it at higher levels.

Video: Lots of features, but not quite a pro's A-cam

While the primary use of the Sony A9 will likely be for sports photography, it's still a very capable video shooter just like Sony's A7-series full-frame cameras. 4K video is offered up to 30p frame rate, and the quality is excellent -- detail, color and dynamic range are all very good -- even at higher ISOs (up to around ISO 10,000). The A9 oddly crops 4K/30p video slightly, yet doesn't for 4K/24p. For a $4500 professional-level camera, the lack of 4K/60p is also a bit surprising, though you can get higher framerates with Full HD settings -- all of which look great. The A9 offers clean HDMI output as well as headphone and microphone jacks, but lacks other cinema-focused features like S-LOG picture profiles. As with stills, the AF performance with video is stellar, but the touchscreen felt imprecise with no visual feedback as to where you're placing the AF point. Overall, the Sony A9 is a solid video camera, though perhaps not as a primary cinema rig; certainly a solid B-camera or other secondary video camera.

Build Quality: Weather-sealed, more controls, beefier battery

Design-wise, the Sony A9 remains very similar to its A7-series siblings -- compact, modern styling with a deep handgrip and numerous physical controls -- yet with some new features and improvements to better suit professional photographers. The addition of the dedicated drive mode/speed + AF mode combo dial makes it super quick to change critical shooting modes without having to dive into the menu -- something pros out in the field will certainly appreciate. (We'd love to see this dial implemented on future Sony cameras.) Further, the joystick-like control on the rear again reinforces the A9's focus on speed and quick access -- this control designed for instant movement of the A9's numerous AF points.

The all-magnesium alloy body feels very solid and robust. Sony advertises "dust- and moisture-resistance" including seals around button and controls. The camera feels built to a more rugged degree than the A7-series, but is the A9 as weather-sealed as flagship DSLRs from Canon and Nikon? That remains to be seen.

The A9 is one of the rare Sony mirrorless cameras to offer a touchscreen, and their first full-frame E-mount camera to do so. Like the Canon 1D X II, however, the A9's touchscreen is limited in functionality and only implemented for tap-to-focus. We suspect many long-time pros will be fine with this arrangement, opting to stick with the viewfinder for most shooting. And the electronic viewfinder itself is fantastic. Bright, large and crisp, the A9's EVF provides an accurate view with 100% frame coverage.

Compared to the A7-series, the A9 offers a couple very important upgrades to meet the demands of pros: battery life and dual memory cards. The compact size of the A7 models meant compromising with smaller batteries, especially compared to DSLRs. Plus, an optical viewfinder uses far less power than the constantly-in-use EVF and LCD screen of a mirrorless camera. The Sony A9 offers an all-new, larger-capacity battery, and it works extremely well. Although its CIPA rating is still well below that of a DSLR, the bigger battery lets the A9 easily last throughout the day, even after shooting thousands of frames based on our real-world testing.

The dual memory cards are a new feature for a Sony mirrorless camera, too, letting you have an instant backup card for your shots, or simply record RAW to one and JPEGs to another, for example. However, the fact that both slots are not UHS-II-compatible (only one is) is rather disappointing.

FE 12-24mm F4 G: 24mm, f/6.3, 1/250s, ISO 800

Summary: Sony knocks it out of the park with their first "flagship" mirrorless

All in all, the Sony A9 is a stunning technological achievement. The speed and performance offered in such a small, compact camera is amazing. The camera's 20fps burst with continuous AF is scary -- it works very well, but you'll fill your memory card(s) very quickly if you're not careful. The A9's image quality performance is top-notch, as well, and the camera's speed and AF capabilities are excellent, though not without its a few downsides. Regardless, the A9 feels like a true professional-grade camera aimed at professionals, that also happens to be a mirrorless camera. Time will tell as to whether or not the A9 has enough "oomph" to sway the professional folks away from the tried-and-true world of flagship DSLRs, but the Sony A9 is seriously worth giving a try. Job well done, Sony.


Pros & Cons

  • Stacked, backside-illuminated 24MP full-frame sensor offers incredible performance
  • Higher resolution than other sports shooters
  • Great high ISO performance
  • Very good dynamic range for a sports shooter
  • Excellent JPEG engine (apart from sub-par color)
  • 5-axis in-body image stabilization
  • 693 phase-detect AF points
  • Phenomenal 20fps burst speed with AF/AE
  • Very deep buffers
  • Very low shutter lag
  • Fast e-shutter
  • Large, high-res EVF with excellent coverage
  • Dual card slots (but see related con)
  • Larger battery offers very good battery life for a mirrorless
  • Optional grip doubles battery life
  • Supports USB charging
  • Built-in Wi-Fi, NFC and Bluetooth
  • Ethernet port
  • Rugged, weather-sealed construction
  • Lots of customizable controls
  • New dedicated AF mode/Drive speed dial
  • Touchscreen LCD, but limited in functionality
  • 4K Ultra HD video with clean HDMI out @ UHD 4:2:2 8-bit
  • Excellent video quality
  • 1080p video @ 60p, 100p & 120p
  • C-AF for video is very good
  • Headphone, microphone jacks
  • Sluggish power-on time compared to pro DSLRs
  • Slow buffer clearing even with fast UHS-II card
  • Can't access menus while buffer is clearing (Function menu & custom buttons still work, though)
  • Only one card slot supports UHS-II
  • Default JPEG colors a bit muted
  • Somewhat cool auto white balance outdoors
  • Still no lossless RAW compression option
  • Burst rate limited to 5fps with mechanical shutter, and 12 fps with uncompressed RAW
  • 4K video is cropped in by about 1.2x at 30p
  • No visual feedback for tap-to-focus in video
  • Lacking 4K/60p video option
  • Expensive (but it is competing against $5/6K flagship DSLRs)

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