Sony A9 Field Test Part II

The A9 body is the best full frame mirrorless design from Sony yet

by Jaron Schneider | Posted

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 198mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s, ISO 2500

Introduction: A bigger, better, higher-performance Sony mirrorless camera

I have shot with every full frame Sony mirrorless that they have released, and it's been a fun ride watching them iterate and improve on their design over the last few short years. Originally, their ILC camera design was supposed to be as small and compact as possible, and it felt like Sony was willing to make more sacrifices to the camera's performance and comfort level in order to achieve this. With the A9, it appears that Sony has finally been willing to strike some kind of a middle ground. With a body that's slightly larger than the A7R II (which was slightly larger than the A7R), the A9 boasts a minor size boost and in exchange a more comfortable grip, larger battery and better heat sinking than its predecessors.

The A9 keeps much of what Sony users will find familiar while doing a little to make their camera more comfortable for those with larger hands. I used the camera exclusively without the optional battery grip and found it to be quite comfortable to hold. I, however, do not have the largest hands. In contrast, two of my friends who do have larger hands found it to still be smaller than they would have liked, with both their pinkie finger and ring finger not fitting into the given grip space and being forced to press up against the bottom of the battery compartment, which is not very comfortable. This can easily be solved by using the battery grip, but that's not the most elegant "solution" to the problem to them.

What's odd is that if the camera as a standalone was large enough for their hands (let's pretend the battery grip was always part of the body design, and the camera was simply larger as a result), they would like the way the camera felt. But suddenly asking them to add a peripheral to achieve that was going too far, and they didn't like that suggestion of being forced to use the grip.

I don't think they alone share this somewhat paradoxical view. It's not uncommon to want the camera in its original state to simply work, and having to purchase and always include a peripheral isn't the most desirable situation. That said, it's also possible they didn't want to like the A9, which happens to be a very popular stance for some reason.

The Sony A9's new battery lets you keep shooting throughout the day

Moving on, the larger grip was added to the A9 to allow for a larger compartment for Sony's new battery. The new one is noticeably larger but still only about 2/3 the size of the somewhat ubiquitous Canon LP-E6 battery, for example. So, it's still very small compared to the competitor batteries, yet its performance was quite impressive. Combined with the A9's vastly improved power efficiency, the new battery has pretty much quelled my rage regarding the short battery life of Sony cameras. In multiple instances I have shot for hours upon hours, both actively and stopping to check images, and at no point did I ever have to replace the battery or stop due to it dying.

In Santa Barbara, I shot with the camera often and intermittently starting at dawn and did not stop until past three in the afternoon. The battery never made it below 50%. During my overheating tests, I fired over 4000 shots (8000 files of both JPEG and RAW), and the battery never fell below 70%. During the baseball game, in which I shot through eight innings non-stop, the battery never went below 60%.

This is exactly the kind of performance I and many like me have come to expect out of traditional DSLRs, except the A9 is capable of it with a full-time electronic viewfinder. The power consumption and battery changes Sony made in their A9 over their previous full frame professional bodies is nothing short of spectacular. For those who have been waiting for mirrorless to catch up to DSLRs, the A9 is making an extremely strong case that such a time has arrived.

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 30mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 100

Weather "resistance" may limit the A9 as a "workhorse" camera

Though I have not broken my A9 yet, it's only because I've tried to be careful with it. And that's kind of a fundamental issue with the Sony cameras when it comes to actually considering them "workhorses." Compared to its larger and beefier competitors like the D500, D5 or 1DX Mark II, the Sony A9 feels far more frail. Is it as frail as it appears? Probably not, but by the nature of its build and lack of true weather sealing (the carefully worded weather "resistance" is meant as a warning from Sony: don't actually get it wet or covered in sand) means you will find it much easier to break than its rugged competitors.

In fairness, I have shot with the A9 in very moist environments (right next to a thundering waterfall) and in very dusty and hot environments (horse track in Santa Barbara), and it's no worse for wear. I've also seen many instances of Sony cameras doing just fine in somewhat extreme environments. I have also seen them outright fail due to moisture levels. It's a known issue, and one Sony has yet to address.

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 70mm, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 100, -0.3EV

When all is said and done, my only real complaint in these environments is changing lenses. With no mirror to protect the sensor, if you encounter any kind of blowing water or dust (think wind, or just air currents) it is very much inevitable you will get something on the sensor. If you forget to turn the camera off before switching lenses, this chance increases by a huge margin (when the camera is on and the sensor is charged, it becomes a literal magnet for dust particles). Though a DSLR does have a mirror to protect the sensor in these kinds of situations, if there really was a dust storm blowing dirt around, you would still get dust and dirt inside the camera while changes lenses. Is it better or worse? Hard to say. It may just be a "mental thing" with me when it comes to this kind of camera build. I'm more afraid of the dust than perhaps I need to be.

A familiar design with more controls and dials

As far as the physical placement of buttons, dials and knobs, the A9 does not stray from the tried-and-true design decisions of the A7R II or the A7S II. It feels very much the same to use, and everything is precisely where I expected to find it. The top of the body has three knobs: one for shooting speed/mode, one for camera mode and one for exposure compensation. The shooting speed/mode dial also has a smaller dial built into it that lets you change which type of focusing you want the camera set to (manual, direct manual, AF-C and AF-S). Both this dial and the shooting speed/mode dials use locking buttons to prevent accidental changes. For the shooting speed/mode dial, you have to simultaneously press a button in the middle of the dial while turning the dial in order to adjust the mode. For the focusing dial, a small button to the bottom left of the dial must be pressed and held down while turning in order to adjust the focusing type. Both can be done with one hand, and though it takes a bit of getting used to, it's easy to get the hang of.

The camera mode dial also has a center button that must be held in order to adjust, but the exposure compensation dial does not have a lock button of any kind.

In addition to the on/off switch and trigger button, the A9 also has two custom settings buttons on top of the camera that can be mapped to your choosing. There are no buttons on the face of the camera at all -- save for the front control dial on the grip -- in contrast with what you find on something like the Nikon D500.

The rear of the camera is also familiar, with two more custom settings buttons (one which shares a function with the trash icon), and the Menu, AF-On/magnify, AEL, Fn, and Play buttons. There is the same rotating dial near the bottom right of the camera for moving through settings or the menu as well as the "enter" key in the center of that dial. The A9 also has an omni-directional joystick above that dial.

The Fn key works as expected and as it does on other models, which is to give you access to a host of options on the main screen that may be slower to find using either the menu key or other buttons. This is actually less of a problem on the A9 as it is on something like the RX100, which has fewer physical buttons, but it's nice that it's consistent across Sony cameras.

Finally, a touchscreen on a full-frame Sony mirrorless camera

The rest of the rear of the camera is taken up by the articulating touch screen, the "touch" part of that being a first for Sony's full-frame mirrorless cameras. Unfortunately, it's not a full-time touch screen and is only helpful for touch to focus in photo and video. You cannot use it to navigate any menu or select anything on screen except for touch focus.

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 200mm, f/3.2, 1/1600s, ISO 100, -0.7EV

Speaking of touch focus, though it's nice that Sony finally included a touch screen on the A9. I go into more detail regarding the touch-to-focus in the video section (as it works the same in live view for stills as it does in video, but has more of a video-centric feel to its addition).

On the positive side, the A9 does not hunt or rapidly shift focus when you tap to focus in video. Focus shifts smoothly, and mimics how a manual rack focus would look. When tapping to focus in stills mode, however, it does not actually work perhaps as expected, in my opinion. When you tap on the screen, you are simply moving the focus area. In order to actually focus there, however, you still have to activate the focus (either back button focus, half press on the shutter, etc). I was expecting it to automatically adjust focus where I tapped, but this was not the case. Oddly, that grey focus box would be a welcome addition to the video mode, which would show me where the camera believes I touched. We don't get that for every autofocus mode, however, and it only appears for video mode if you have the autofocus mode set to Flexible Spot or Expand Flexible Spot.

I suppose some touch functionality is better than none, but the implementation here feels incomplete.

As for the quality of the screen, it is as expected: bright, easy to see in nearly all lighting conditions, and it articulates in a way that made shooting in crowds a huge boon. During the Golden State Warriors celebration parade, I held the A9 above the heads of those around me in order to get certain shots, and I was able to use the articulating screen to assure I was getting what I wanted in frame. This is a massive benefit over my other go-to action camera, the 1DX Mark II as that camera does not have an articulating screen, and in the same situation I would be forced to guess where my subjects were and "spray and pray."

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 200mm, f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 100, -0.3EV
Dual memory card slots, but sadly not dual UHS-II

The right side of the A9 holds the battery and two memory cards. The dual memory card slot was an absolute must for this camera, but unfortunately it wasn't executed in a way that would maximize the best-case scenario for the A9: only one of the two slots is UHS-II. When shooting at maximum burst speed, it would be nice to send JPEGs to one card and RAWs to the other, but in doing so you will be limited to the maximum shooting speed of the slowest card slot. For most, this will mean sending RAWs to slot one with a UHS-II card, and JPEGs to slot two with a UHS-I read speed. You will get decent performance here, but not the sustained 20 frames per second shooting that I have come to expect when writing all data to one UHS-II card.

I found that I would get around 117 RAW+JPEG files written to a UHS-II card before the buffer kicked in, which very closely matched our lab testing. When I separated the writing to two cards, RAWs to UHS-II and JPEGs to UHS-I, I was able to fire 110 shots before the buffer kicked in.

This is not a huge difference, but it is noticeable. Where you will notice the difference is in buffer clearing: the full buffer clearing time felt greatly increased. While it took about 30 seconds to clear the buffer fully after firing that many shots, it took closer to a minute to do so writing across both card slots. That is where you will feel the biggest difference between UHS-I and UHS-2, and it can become frustrating waiting for a buffer to clear. Also, as is the case with every other Sony full frame mirrorless ILC before it, you cannot access the menu of the A9 while it is writing to a card. You can change your camera settings and you can view images (albeit slowly) as they are writing, but you cannot get to the meat of the A9's systems while you wait for the buffer to clear.

For those curious, writing to UHS-II with RAW only, I was able to get exactly 120 shots before the buffer kicked in.

To wrap, the A9 will record simultaneous stills (redundantly), simultaneous movie files (redundantly), simultaneous recording of stills and movie files, sort JPEG/RAW, sort still/movie, and copy.

Lots of ports make it a connectivity king, though flimsy microHDMI is frustrating

The left side of the A9 plays host to six different ports: 3.5mm microphone jack, headphone jack, microHDMI, microUSB, flash sync as well as a standard Ethernet jack -- something not seen on earlier A7-series cameras. The inclusion of all these ports is great, and should cover just about anything you want to do with the A9.

The microHDMI has to be the most annoying of the ways to offer HDMI (as the design itself of that kind of cable/port is very flimsy and easy to break), but it's understandable given the lack of remaining space on the small body.

The only other note on these ports is that when the doors to those ports are all closed, there is no outward labeling of what port is where, which can mean fumbling for a bit to find the which of the three doors you wanted. I say this is an issue because after four years of shooting with three or four different cameras, I can confidently say I never have a firm grasp of which port is where on what body. Some indication on the side of the camera is always welcome.

The A9 has yet to overheat, even when working heavily while subjected to high ambient temperatures

Going back to the size of the A9 compared to its predecessors, I for one am extremely grateful that Sony finally acquiesced to letting their camera get larger. The new battery lasts much longer than any other Sony camera I've shot since their push into mirrorless (as mentioned above), and the way the new body is able to dissipate heat means not only has my test unit never overheated, it has never even indicated to me that it was reaching temperatures above recommended levels.

I would like to fully wrap up our test of overheating with some data we pulled from the image files as well as a third and final test of the camera's ability to manage heat.

One of the first tests I did was on overheating, and you can see that full test and result here. What we did not publish at the time was the camera's internal temperature, both the sensor and the battery compartment. We now have that information by reading the EXIF data on the files:

From the first part of the test (left in the sun on the porch in San Diego):

  • Camera Temperature: 30 ºC
  • Battery Temperature: 28.9 ºC

From the second part of the test (left in the car in the sun in San Diego):

  • Camera Temperature: 45 ºC
  • Battery Temperature: 48.9 ºC

After that test, I then took the A9 to Sacramento to photograph a baseball game, and as luck would have it, I was again able to gauge how well the A9 handled heat. When we arrived, the ambient temperature was 40 ºC (104 degrees Fahrenheit). I shot while standing in that heat, and then continued shooting well past sunset. The camera got hot, but never overheated:

From the beginning of the game (third base line):

  • Camera Temperature: 38 ºC
  • Battery Temperature: 40 ºC

From the seventh inning (first base line):

  • Camera Temperature: 43 ºC
  • Battery Temperature: 45.6 ºC

If you would like to verify these numbers yourself, you can download the RAW files here: First test, second test, third test, fourth test.

While the A9 got its hottest during my test of leaving it in the car in the sun, the more "real world situation" of using it on a blistering hot day in Sacramento subjected the body to some serious heat; heat I am certain would have caused the A7R II to shut down and refuse to operate. For some reason many want to be able to point to something, anything, to say that this camera fails in some regard to older mainstay cameras. That said, I am 100% confident that overheating does not plague this camera, and that it can't be pointed to as a weakness.

The Sony A9 autofocus system is simply outstanding

The Sony A9 offers a lot to be excited about, but the number one jaw-dropper at its reveal was the autofocus it showed: it was phenomenal. In demonstrations, the A9 looked to outclass just about any other camera on the market, and was at the very least the best autofocus system anyone had ever put into a mirrorless camera.

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 200mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s, ISO 3200

After testing, I am confident that the second statement is 100% true, but the "fight" for best autofocus in a sports camera is still up for debate.

FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM: 16mm, f/5.6, 1/3200s, ISO 400, -0.7EV

In most situations, especially at wider angles, the Sony A9 never missed a shot. This is best exemplified by the images from the horse track and the bike ramp. Even backlit, the A9 was very reliable.

FE 12-24mm F4 G: 12mm, f/6.3, 1/1000s, ISO 100, -0.7EV

During a baseball game, the A9 also shined. There were only a few shots where I experienced the camera miss the subject I wanted to focus on, and that was due to other objects (read: first/third base coaches) standing in the way of the player I wanted to follow moving between infielders.

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 200mm, f/3.2, 1/1250s, ISO 1250

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

I did take a sample video where I tasked the A9 to follow a batter as he rounded first base, and this was perhaps the most impressive example of autofocusing I saw out of the A9. While racking out, following the runner and having a coach enter the frame, the A9 never once lost focus on the batter.

Sony A9 Autofocus Test Video
4K Ultra HD (3840 x 2160), 30p, H.264
Download Original (1.67GB MP4)

The only time I had trouble with the A9's focusing was during the Warriors championship celebration parade. Multiple times while attempting to get shots handheld, the A9 missed focus. Where I experienced virtually no failures across three other major shoots I did with the A9, that fail rate spiked dramatically during the Warriors parade. I'm still not certain why, as the lighting was ideal during the parade and in many shots, my angle of view was completely unobstructed. I even tried different autofocus settings to try and improve the results, it still failed at critical times. There are several images of the team that have missed critical focus, choosing to grab the foreground rather than faces (even when faces are more centered than the foreground). Of these, the shots I took of Kevin Durant are most forgivable due to the speed his bus was moving and my position to him.

Missed Focus
FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 155mm, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 100, -0.3EV

While it did fail to nab perfect focus a few times, I have to remind myself that I was able to capture around 2000 photos of that event, and of those 2000 photos only a small fraction failed in focus. It just so happens that those failed images I really wanted.

Missed Focus
FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 70mm, f/5.6, 1/100s, ISO 100, -0.3EV

So while the A9 autofocus system is remarkable and exceedingly impressive, it is not infallible.

I also noticed that the A9 with the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 also has a motion blur problem if you're not totally steady when firing under 1/320 second. I believe that in a well lit situation, at ISO 100 and f/5.6 at 200mm, I should be able to slightly move the camera and still capture tack sharp images as low as 1/160 second. However, both at the parade and in testing later in a similar lighting environment, I found that I can't move the camera much or I would see motion blur in many or all of the images captured.

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 200mm, f/5.6, 1/160s, ISO 100, -0.3EV

The motion blur I experienced with photographing Steph and Aesha Curry at the parade I retested in similar lighting, shade and peeking sun, with the same shutter speed, aperture and ISO. I gently swayed the camera as I shot in High burst mode to simulate the situation I experienced at the parade.

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 200mm, f/5.6, 1/160s, ISO 100

Both at the parade and during my tests, the lens was set to IS mode 1, and the camera's built-in OSS was also activated. When I did so, the same motion blur occurred. I even increased the shutter speed a bit to try and alleviate it, but it still occurred as high as 1/320 second.

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS: 198mm, f/6.3, 1/320s, ISO 100

This kind of motion blur remains one of my few concerns with the A9. Based on pure specifications of the shot, there should be no reason to see this kind of blur in the images. I'm not "swinging" the camera around madly, simply swaying gently as I would expect to in a crowd or event situation. I would expect images shot as low as 1/125 second to provide enough speed to capture the image without blur, and especially at 1/160 where I was during the parade, but even as high as 1/320 second I'm still seeing it.

This was, by the way, all while the camera showed the subject in focus. I know that it was capable of it, as a few of the shots did come out sharp. So it's not the autofocus so much as something else.

Editor's Note: The FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens used for these images shipped with firmware version .01. There has since been a firmware update. We will revisit this blurring issue once the camera and lens returns to our lab and undergoes a firmware update.

Back to the autofocus though, I think I need to stress how good it actually is. Though it can sometimes fail to grasp what you might want specifically, it is quite good most of the time and excellent at tracking. Though many can complain about things like size, ruggedness, and before, battery life and overheating, I have yet to hand the A9 to a skeptic and not see them marvel at both the speed and accuracy of the camera. It is excellent in this regard, and that should not be ignored. Sony has done something truly great with autofocus on a mirrorless sensor, and the hurdle they have been trying to get over appears to finally have been jumped.

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM: 70mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 100, -0.3EV

The Sony A9 offers excellent image quality & dynamic range

Sony has for the last few years shown to have the absolute top-tier sensor tech, and it's why their imaging business is booming. So it's never been a point of contention that Sony's sensors are the best things about their cameras.

But in a strange turn, one of the largest concerns expressed to me by critics and prospective buyers has been, outside of the overheating question, if the dynamic range was "any good." I was asked this question so many times that I began to subconsciously question it myself, even going so far as to assume it wasn't the best when having a conversation with a Sony engineer earlier this summer. And, as if to back up my seeded beliefs, the Sony engineer did not disagree or correct me when discussing the dynamic range shortcomings.

So, that must mean the camera has poor or sub-par dynamic range, right? Well, DxO published their findings on the Dynamic Range, and said this on the matter:

"On unprocessed RAW files, it achieves excellent color depth of over 20 bits and good color depth (over 17 bits) at ISO 1600 and ISO 6400, respectively. Dynamic range is even more impressive, with the a9 benefitting from the same performance uplift at mid-ISO sensitivities as the A7R II, to offer excellent dynamic range of over 10EV up to ISO 6400."

You can see for yourself the full breakdown of dynamic range at DxO, and since we no longer do in-house dynamic range testing, we recommend them as the best source for such results. For my particular evaluation, I just want to see how much I can get out of the highlights and shadows of an image, because in a totally practical sense, that's really all I ever use when it comes to dynamic range in my own images.

And looking at my test shots, I have to agree with DxO's findings: the dynamic range is absolutely what I would hope to find in a high-end camera and gives me the latitude to do basically whatever I might want in post. Let's take this image, as an example:

You'll notice that the sunset is clearly blowing out parts of the sky, and due to the extreme nature of that light, the foreground is nearly silhouetted. At the very least, the roof of the building is totally black.

I decided to bring the shadows up as much as possible in post:

You'll see that the roof not only fully comes into view, but you can see the details of the individual shingles therein. Is it totally clean? No, but it was also completely black in the original image I shot, so getting any detail at all is very welcome.

Next, I took the exposure down in the other direction, to see if I could get the sky properly exposed:

Looks good to me. The sky is very much no longer overexposed, showing that I can bring parts of an image that are very much blown out and recover them to proper exposure.

Below is one more example, with the shadows brought up in a severely underexposed image:

Looking back, I'm not really sure where the concern over dynamic range originated, but I'm confident in the A9's sensor now after doing my own testing and looking at what DxO found.

Moving on to ISO, let's first look at the ISO performance in stills and then in video, because the results are significantly different.

Sony A9 ISO Range Comparison: 100% crop from straight-out-of-camera JPEGs
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25600
ISO 51200
ISO 102400
ISO 204800

My opinion of how "good" the ISO performance is on the A9 depends on how much I'm willing to zoom in. If I do a true "pixel peep," the camera performs well until about ISO 10,000. Even a bit further, the ISO is still passable. Only at ISO 20,000 do I believe the noise rises and image quality falls to a point of unusable.

ISO 10000
ISO 20000

However, if I'm looking at these images at less than 100%, which is more likely given the intended use of this camera, I am comfortable saying the ISO looks quite passable up as high as 25,600. It's not "good" by any means, but the level of noise and image quality isn't so bad as to take away from the content of the image. In this regard, the camera performs exceedingly well.

In video, however, the noise that I am fine with in photos appears much more prominently and much sooner. Starting as low as ISO 6400, I start to notice video quality degradation, and sharpness falloff. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but if combined with clips taken at lower ISOs, the contrast in quality would be noticeable. Beyond that, my true ceiling of use would be ISO 12,800. The high level of noise and lack of sharpness is very visible here, and I would not recommend using ISOs this high unless quality of footage is secondary to what is being captured.

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

Sony A9 Field Test Summary

For a wildlife, event or sport shooter, Sony has made a miracle with its A9. It's fast and lightweight without being too small, and addresses just about every problem mirrorless has had up to this point. It has a great battery life and does not overheat. Sony even made the A9 give more feedback about how long you might have to wait to access the menu when writing to a card by showing the status of the card writing in the Playback menu (which you can access when it is actively writing). For me personally, these were all the most major concerns I had with Sony mirrorless up to this point, but they went one step further and put one of the fastest and most accurate autofocus systems I've ever encountered into the A9 as well. Is it the best? No, but it's darn close. The fact that a mirrorless is even in that conversation now is a huge step for the format.

Because of the A9, there is little left to point to that show the format as being inferior to a traditional DSLR. That gap has closed.

For Sony, the question now is not if the A9 can compete, which it very easily can, but whether it can finally turn Nikon and Canon users away from their 1D- and D5-type cameras. That we will have to wait to see, but from a pure technology and usability standpoint, there is no reason to believe that can't or won't happen.

Editor's Picks