Sony A9 Field Test Part I

High-speed sports shooting straight from NYC

by William Brawley | Posted 04/27/2017

(Formerly known as "Sony A9 Gallery Supplement.)

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 32mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 6400

IR publisher Dave Etchells and I had an opportunity to shoot with the all-new Sony A9 following the big press conference announcing the camera in New York City last week. We've now be given the green light to publish full-resolution, real-world images (both RAWs and JPEGs) from this new flagship Alpha camera. Better still, we're told these are final image quality, so this is it! To get our initial take on the camera with some important shooting notes, read on below, but if you simply want to cut to the chase, jump on over to our Sony A9 Gallery Page for a full bevy of sample images.

Given the A9's reported pro-level chops when it comes to autofocus, particularly continuous AF, as well as its super-quick 20 frames per second burst shooting capabilities, it was no surprise that Sony organized a variety of high-speed sporting events for us to photograph. The morning session consisted of both ice hockey and figure skating, while the afternoon shooting took place in a massive track and field training facility hosting a variety of Olympic-style sports, such as running (50m dash, baton relay, etc), pole vaulting and triple jump, as well as cheerleading, table tennis and taekwondo.

Needless to say, given its speed, both Dave and I shot a massive amounts of frames with the A9. I managed just shy of 4000 RAW+JPEG frames on a single 128GB UHS-II memory card, while Dave dumped his card at mid-day, freeing up even more space, and finally capturing nearly 7,000 total images in the end. And as we recently discussed, a single Sony A9 battery had enough juice to last each of us the entire day!

OK, let's see some of the photos!
FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM: 113mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 1600, +0.3EV

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 36mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 3200, +0.7EV

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM: 200mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 1600, +0.3EV

The A9's 20fps burst is scary-fast!

The Sony A9 can indeed fire off shots extremely quickly. The 20fps burst is, frankly, a little scary. Coupled with the nearly silent electronic shutter (or the completely silent Silent Shooting mode) you can fire off frame after frame in practically no time! We're still waiting on getting our review copy of the Sony A9 into the lab, so our full assessment is forthcoming, but from the shooting we've done so far, the buffer performance is also very good. Sony claims the camera can handle over 240 raws until the buffer fills, but I, personally, never reached that amount since the action I witnessed all happened so quickly. I think my longest continuous sequence was somewhere around 70+ frames -- which is a ton of shots in and of itself.

This animation demonstrates the impressive burst sequence capabilities of the A9.
To download the video of this animation, please click here.

Sony A9's AF performance is so far very solid with only a few missteps

As for autofocus performance, no final judgments yet, as we need to spend more time with the camera, but so far things look very impressive. For the vast majority of shots, the A9 nailed the focus. Only rarely did the camera lose focus during a long burst, and in my experience, it never completely lost focus of a subject (i.e. losing the subject and shifting focus to the far-off background). I even experienced a few sequences where I had to deal with a big obstruction. For example, in the sequence animation shown below, I was tracking a hockey player, only to eventually have my view blocked by another player. But once my subject passed by out from behind the obstruction, the camera soon regained focus on my intended subject.

Occasional (rare) hiccups

Dave had a couple of sequences (out of many dozens he shot that day) where the camera did just lose it entirely; in one, the camera showed it was tracking a runner in a 50-meter dash from the very beginning, but was actually focusing halfway up the track, and didn't start actually tracking until the runner arrived at that point. In another, it started tracking a group of runners just fine, but then jumped to the background when they were a third of a way down the track, and stayed there.

It's important to note that these extreme focus losses represented a tiny minority of the shots we captured (as noted, I never had that happen myself) but they were concerning because the camera showed focus points dancing over the subjects the whole time. While we were told that image quality was final for these samples, it's possible that the AF code wasn't final. Again, we'll know more once we can get our hands ona final production sample.

Note that this sequence was intentionally slowed down to show the point at which the player was obstructed, the camera briefly lost focus, and then re-gained it.
To download the video of this animation, please click here.

While I didn't have any any complete focus losses, I did find a few sequences where the camera successfully tracked a good number of frames of the sequence before showing a few soft images that were more often than not slightly front-focused; almost as if the tracking prediction algorithm was a bit too aggressive, jumping the gun a bit. On more than one occasion, this behavior ended up being rather frustrating, as I felt the A9 missed focus on my single favorite frame of a sequence, or the "money shot."

I mostly used Expand Flexible Spot as well as Lock-On AF: Expand Flexible Spot AF modes. Dave used the Lock-On AF: Expand Flexible Spot option for most of his morning shooting, but that set of results turned out to be marred by too-slow shutter speeds in many cases. (We found best results with 1/1,600, 1/2,000 or higher.) In the afternoon, he switched to the camera's Wide-Area AF mode, and was generally very happy with the results. (Interestingly, a Sony Tokyo staff member told him that the AF engineers described the wide-area auto mode as "very strong", seeming to suggest that it was the most sophisticated of the lot.)

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 51mm, f/5, 1/1000s, ISO 6400

While wide-area worked very well for him in the afternoon's track & field shooting, Dave did find that it did poorly in the case of the high-jumper, having trouble tracking her against the busy background behind her, during her run-up, and then tracking her as she went over the bar. Switching to lock-on flexible spot mode worked quite a bit better for shooting her.

We never really touched another key AF setting on the camera, namely the "sensitivity" adjustment. This controls how "sticky" the AF tracking is, when an interfering object passes between the camera and the subject. Sony had the cameras set midway between the two extremes, and we wondered whether adjusting it one way or the other might have improved tracking on some of our shots. (Would setting it to the more sensitive end of the scale have helped with the few front-focus situations mentioned above?) In the case of the pole vault, Dave was sitting off to the side, right near one of the uprights. The camera had no problem most of the time, but in a couple of sequences jumped to the upright when it came in between the athlete and the camera, and then faithfully tracked the upright until it was out of the frame. Clearly, that was a situation that called for the more "sticky" end of the sensitivity range, something we would have thought of if we'd had more experience with the camera (or had been pro sports shooters, for that matter).

Face/Eye-detect all the time (in wide area mode)?

We're not sure how much it applies to other focus modes, but Dave noticed while using the wide-area auto mode that the camera really seemed to be aware of faces, even though it didn't always put a face-detect box around them in the viewfinder. Looking at sequence after sequence, it seemed that the A9 was working hard to keep the athletes' faces in focus, which seemed to translate into focus that looked good overall. In portrait shots, the camera seemed to just go for eye focus, even if you weren't explicitly telling it to. (That's an option, via a button-press prior to releasing the shutter.)

Like a lot of high-end interchangeable-lens cameras, the Sony A9 has an array of AF settings, including the aforementioned tracking sensitivity control. Also, neither of us are professional sports shooters. (Dave chimes in here, saying especially not him ;-) So your mileage may vary, especially if you're experienced in the field.

Smart autofocus: Motion-detection to find the subject

A bit of a side note on something about the A9's autofocus that we don't think we've seen before, at least not at this level: AF systems have been using image information to find subjects for a long while now; face detection has been around since the digicam era. The Sony A9 adds a new wrinkle, though, using motion within the scene to identify the subject. Waiting for the 50-meter dash to start (with the runners at the far end of the track) and with the camera in wide-area mode, Dave noticed a couple of times that the clusters of AF points displayed in the viewfinder would sometimes jump all over the place, hunting for a subject; up to the skylights, to the runners, off to the side and around again. The camera hunted until one of the runners moved, at which point it locked onto them. At that range (~50 meters away), the distance information wasn't enough to figure out that the runners were the subject, all else being equal. But even the slightest movement relative to the rest of the scene (as little as a runner shifting their weight from one side to the other), the camera immediately locked on.

And it's important to note that we're talking about relative movement within the frame; the A9 seemed able to find moving subjects even in the face of camera movement, although we'll want to check that out further once we get a test sample of our own.

Bottom line: 90+% "keepers"

In our experience, while the Sony A9's autofocus isn't perfect, we saw 90%+ "keeper" rates in most of our continuous-shooting series, and that's pretty darned good.

Using 1/4000s shutter speed to capture sharp frames, I needed to use ISO 25,600 for this sequence with the new 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM lens. Despite the higher ISOs, I could tell that nearly every frame of this long sequence was in sharp focus.
To download the video of this animation, please click here.

In this short 4-frame sequence from the longer sequence above, you can see how the first shot at the top is sharp on the runner's face, but then the camera slightly misses focus for the immediately following two frames before regaining it once more in the last shot here at the bottom.

FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS: 345mm, f/5.6, 1/2500s, ISO 25,600

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM: 138mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 5000, +0.3EV

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM: 200mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 6400, +0.3EV
Very good image quality based on real-world shots

Lastly, let's discuss the all-important image quality. Again, we still need to get the A9 into our lab for testing, but from these gallery images so far, the A9 offers solid image quality. Since most of the shooting was both indoors and using really fast shutter speeds, I ended up with a vast majority of images at higher ISOs, including some very high ISOs. Factor in the new 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM lens, and I was easily hitting ISO 25,600 at 400/5.6 in order to capture crisp shots of runners barreling down the track. Looking at the JPEGs, the default noise reduction is definitely apparent, especially at these tip-top ISO levels (no surprise there, really), but NR processing was also quite noticeable in lower-contrast areas like the subjects' hair or facial features, even down to around ISO 3200. Despite the NR processing, the high ISO shots look quite impressive unless you zoom all the way in for the higher ISO's.

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 49mm, f/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 500
We shot at very high ISOs all day, to get high enough shutter speeds indoors to freeze the action. Slowing down a bit, Dave took this portrait shot of the high-jumper athlete. It was still at ISO 500, but the crispness and clarity of the image stood out. Here again, even though he was in wide-area AF mode, the camera zeroed in on the subject's eye, resulting in perfect focus. (Note how the catchlights in her eye are perfectly sharp, with the depth of field so shallow that the tip of her nose is just starting to go past the depth of field at this aperture.)

Clean, crisp sharpening

Another thing the portrait shot above shows is how far Sony's come with their sharpening algorithms. Take a look at this full-sized crop of the woman's eye, and see just how sharp her eyelashes are, without any hint of over-sharpening halos. After years of working around camera sharpening algorithms (dialing down sharpening all the way, then using strong, tight unsharp masking in Photoshop; radius of 0.3 pixels, strength of 200-300%, for instance), we feel like we can finally trust the A9's in-camera sharpening to do a good great job.

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 49mm, f/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 500 (1:1 camera to screen pixels)
Sony's really cracked the code for great sharpening. This was shot at ISO 500, so things would be even more crisp at base. But check out the sharpest edges of the eyelashes, and the catchlights in the eye. There's no sign at all of haloing or over-sharpening artifacts. Finally, we can trust the camera's sharpening and not have to process everything through Photoshop to get crisp results.

So far, things are looking really promising for the new Sony A9 flagship camera, especially in the critically difficult sports shooting arena. Please stay tuned for more in our Sony A9 review!


For more real-world gallery images
head over to our Sony A9 Gallery Page.

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