Sony A9 Image Quality Comparison

Below are crops taken from our laboratory Still Life target comparing the Sony A9's image quality to other current sports-orientated flagship cameras: the Canon 1DX Mark II, Nikon D5, Olympus E-M1 Mark II and Sony A99 Mark II. We've also included its closest sibling in terms of resolution, the 24-megapixel Sony A7 Mark II, to better see how image quality has changed since its release. Note that these shots were taken with the Sony A9's mechanical shutter using the self-timer for best image quality (as we do for all cameras that offer a choice of shutter modes). We will be examining the effect of the electronic shutter on image quality in our full test results once we have finished testing the Sony A9 in the lab.

NOTE: These images are from best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction and using the camera's actual base ISO (not extended ISO settings). All cameras in this comparison were shot with our very sharp reference lenses. Clicking any crop will take you to a carrier page where you can click once again to access the full resolution image as delivered straight from the camera. For those interested in working with the RAW files involved: click these links to visit each camera's respective sample image thumbnail page: Sony A9, Sony A99 II, Sony A7 II, Canon 1DX II, Nikon D5 and Olympus E-M1 II -- links to the RAW files appear beneath those for the JPEG images, wherever we have them. And remember, you can always go to our world-renowned Comparometer to compare the Sony A9 to any camera we've ever tested!

Sony A9 vs Canon 1DX Mark II at Base ISO

Sony A9 at ISO 100
Canon 1DX Mark II at ISO 100

Here we compare the 24-megapixel Sony A9 to Canon's top-of-the-line sports DSLR, the 20-megapixel EOS-1 DX Mark II. The higher-resolution Sony A9 does resolve a bit more detail in most areas, however theoretical resolving power is actually pretty close, with the Sony only offering about a 9.6% advantage in linear resolution not including the impact of different AA filters. The Sony image is however much crisper thanks to a more advanced sharpening algorithm that not only brings out more fine detail, but also avoids the unsightly sharpening halos Canon's default processing generates along high-contrast edges. (Canon's Fine Detail Picture Style does a better job rendering fine detail with reduced sharpening halos, however we always compare default processing here.) The Canon's default noise reduction also blurs our tricky red-leaf swatch already here at ISO 100, while the Sony image renders much more of the fine thread-pattern that the Canon likely treats as noise. The Canon produces more accurate colors overall, but the Sony isn't too bad with less green-to-yellow and pink-to-red shifting than we've seen from some past Alpha models, though it still desaturates yellows and light greens more than we'd like to see. Both cameras show some moiré patterns in the red-leaf swatch and elsewhere, though the Sony's is perhaps a bit more pronounced, suggesting it has a weak anti-aliasing filter if it has one at all.

Sony A9 vs Nikon D5 at Base ISO

Sony A9 at ISO 100
Nikon D5 at ISO 100

Here's another comparison to a direct competitor with slightly lower resolution, the 20-megapixel Nikon D5 DSLR. Nikon's sharpening is more aggressive than Canon's, so its image has a similar amount of crispness and "bite" to it as the Sony's, but again sharpening halos are much more visible from the Nikon along high-contrast edges. Blurring in our troublesome red-leaf swatch isn't as pronounced as the Canon's was, however the Sony still easily bests the Nikon in this area, resolving more of the fine thread pattern with higher contrast and less blurring. Colors from the Nikon are however more pleasing with more accurate pinks, yellows and greens.

Sony A9 vs Olympus E-M1 II at Base ISO

Sony A9 at ISO 100
Olympus E-M1 II at ISO 200

In this comparison we pit the Sony A9 against the 20-megapixel Micro Four Thirds Olympus E-M1 Mark II. Hardly a fair comparison if you just consider the relative sensor sizes alone, however the E-M1 II is capable of 15 fps burst shooting with the mechanical shutter (the A9 tops out at 5 fps) and up to a whopping 60 fps with electronic shutter (versus 20 fps for the A9), and it has fast hybrid AF as well, so it competes with the Sony in terms of performance. Once again, the Sony captures a bit more detail with a slightly crisper image, but its sharpening algorithm does not generate obvious halos along high-contrast edges like the Olympus does. And again, the Sony does a much better job with our challenging red-leaf swatch with the Olympus blurring a lot of the fine detail away while leaving some lighter pixels behind. Like the other contenders, colors are however more pleasing and accurate from the Olympus.

Sony A9 vs Sony A7 II at Base ISO

Sony A9 at ISO 100
Sony A7 II at ISO 100

Here we decided to compare the Sony A9 to its closest mirrorless sibling in terms of resolution, the 24-megapixel Sony A7 II, just to see how default image processing at the same resolution has progressed since the A7 II came out in late 2014. As you can see, image quality here at ISO 100 is similar in most areas, however the new Sony A9 does a much better job with fine detail in our tricky red-leaf swatch, resolving many of the individual threads that the A7 II blurs away as if noise. The Sony A9 image also looks slightly crisper, and color has improved as well. It'll be interesting to see how they compare at higher ISOs but there is a definite improvement in the fabrics here at base ISO.

Sony A9 vs Sony A99 II at Base ISO

Sony A9 at ISO 100
Sony A99 II at ISO 100

And finally, we decided to compare the A9 to Sony's other sports-oriented full-frame ILC, the 42-megapixel A99 Mark II. It's capable of burst speeds of up to almost 12 fps which is very impressive given the resolution. Here we can see the A99 II easily out-resolves the 24-megapixel A9, capturing noticeably more detail while still producing a very crisp image with few sharpening artifacts, but as expected, noise levels are a little higher from the A99 II. Colors are similar, though again the A9 offers a slight improvement over the A99 II in terms of accuracy.

Sony A9 vs Canon 1DX Mark II at ISO 1600

Sony A9 at ISO 1600
Canon 1DX Mark II at ISO 1600

Here at ISO 1600, the Sony A9 still produces a crisper, more detailed image with fewer sharpening artifacts. However luma noise is a bit higher than the Canon in flatter areas, and the Sony's area-specific noise reduction did produce some artificial-looking artifacts, such as some darker and lighter pixels in the red-leaf swatch which produced a slight "salt and pepper" effect. Canon's more traditional approach to noise reduction did soften the entire image more, but noise appears more natural and consistent.

Sony A9 vs Nikon D5 at ISO 1600

Sony A9 at ISO 1600
Nikon D5 at ISO 1600

The comparison to the Nikon D5 is similar to that of the Canon 1DX II, with the Sony generating a crisper, more detailed image with almost no sharpening halos, but with slightly higher noise along with some unwanted noise reduction artifacts.

Sony A9 vs Olympus E-M1 II at ISO 1600

Sony A9 at ISO 1600
Olympus E-M1 II at ISO 1600

Unsurprisingly, the full-frame Sony A9 easily bests the Olympus E-M1 II here at ISO 1600, with a much crisper, more detailed image. As the Olympus work hard to keep noise under control it distorts, blurs and smudges fine detail, especially in our red-leaf swatch.

Sony A9 vs Sony A7 II at ISO 1600

Sony A9 at ISO 1600
Sony A7 II at ISO 1600

Both of these siblings produce very crisp images with good detail, however noise does appear a little higher from the A9 in flatter areas, and as mentioned previously, the revised area-specific noise reduction retains more fine detail in our red-leaf swatch. However, the A9 leaves behind small areas with well-defined individual thread patterns while blurring other areas that results in a somewhat peppered look compared to the smoother but more blurred rendering from the A7 II.

Sony A9 vs Sony A99 II at ISO 1600

Sony A9 at ISO 1600
Sony A99 II at ISO 1600

The 42-megapixel A99 II still handily out-resolves the A9 here at ISO 1600 while still producing a somewhat crisper image as well. As expected, noise is higher from the A99 Mark II, however anti-noise processing does not produce the unwanted noise reduction artifacts seen the A9's red-leaf swatch.

Sony A9 vs Canon 1DX Mark II at ISO 3200

Sony A9 at ISO 3200
Canon 1DX Mark II at ISO 3200

The Sony A9 still manages to produce a crisper, slightly more detailed image than the Canon 1DX II at ISO 3200, however luminance noise is higher and has a less consistent grain patter in flatter areas, making it look less film-like than the Canon's noise grain. Both camera start to struggle to faithfully reproduce the tricky red-leaf fabric, though the Canon does a better job here, with a smoother but less distorted rendering.

Sony A9 vs Nikon D5 at ISO 3200

Sony A9 at ISO 3200
Nikon D5 at ISO 3200

It's a similar story here with the Sony producing a crisper, slightly more detailed image while the Nikon produces a smoother, slightly cleaner image with a more film-like grain structure. The Nikon also does a bit better in the red-leaf pattern with much of the apparent detail from the Sony more distorted than from the Nikon.

Sony A9 vs Olympus E-M1 II at ISO 3200

Sony A9 at ISO 3200
Olympus E-M1 II at ISO 3200

The Olympus E-M1 II does very well for a Micro Four Thirds camera, but it simply can't compete with a good full-frame sensor in terms of noise, which means its noise reduction processing has to work a lot harder to keep noise in check with fine detail and crispness suffering more as a consequence. Despite the stronger noise reduction, the Olympus also shows slightly higher luminance and chrominance noise than the Sony, and fine detail in our red-leaf swatch is all but gone now.

Sony A9 vs Sony A7 II at ISO 3200

Sony A9 at ISO 3200
Sony A7 II at ISO 3200

Here at ISO 3200, the Sony A9 leaves behind a little more luminance noise than the A7 II which is visible in the flatter areas, but the noise "grain" appears a little tighter and more consistent, and fine detail is better in our mosaic crop. The A7 II does a bit better overall with our tricky red-leaf swatch as well as the pink fabric even though the A9 still manages to hold onto at least some of the fine thread pattern in the red-leaf fabric. It's a difficult call as to which one actually produced the better overall image as it depends a lot on personal preference, though we give the edge to the A9 here.

Sony A9 vs Sony A99 II at ISO 3200

Sony A9 at ISO 3200
Sony A99 II at ISO 3200

Noise is definitely higher in the A99 II image here at ISO 3200, but it still retains significantly more detail than the A9 while remaining very crisp. Overall, we think the A99 II is still the better performer here as there is a lot more detail to tradeoff against noise, especially if you reduce its image size down to the same resolution.

Sony A9 vs. Canon 1DX Mark II, Nikon D5, Olympus E-M1 II, Sony A7 II, Sony A99 II

ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
1DX Mark II
ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 200
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
A99 II
ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Detail comparison. High-contrast detail is also important, pushing the camera in different ways, so we like to look at it separately here. All the full-frame cameras do well here, with the A99 II easily coming out on top with the best detail and contrast, few sharpening halos, as well as very little degradation as ISO is increased within this range. Interestingly, contrast from the A7 II appears a bit better than the A9 but otherwise they appear very similar. The Canon shows the lowest contrast of the full-frame models while the Nikon D5 arguably shows the highest, but both contain obvious sharpening halos. Unsurprisingly, the Micro Four Thirds Olympus E-M1 II trails the pack here with its smaller sensor, especially as ISO rises.

Sony A9 Print Quality Analysis

Excellent, high-quality prints up to at least 30 x 40 inches up to ISO 800; Very good prints up to 13 x 19 at ISO 6400; Usable 5 x 7 inch print at ISO 51,200.

ISO 50/100/200 images all look fantastic with crisp detail and vibrant colors that can make wonderful prints all the way up to a massive 30 x 40 inches. At this size, you are pushing the resolving power of the 24-megapixel sensor, as you can see very subtle pixelation upon really close inspection. However, the viewing distance necessary for this size makes for a crisp, highly detailed print.

ISO 400 prints look very similar to the lower ISOs, with only a slight hint of luminance noise appearing in shadow areas. However, regarding overall print quality, this didn't affect print size limits in our testing, and we're more than willing to print up to 30 x 40 inches at this ISO -- excellent fine detail all around.

ISO 800 images, as expected, show a bit more noise that the previous ISO, and here, a 24 x 36-inch print looks fantastic. However, overall noise is still so low, and fine detail is still visible and sharp that a 30 x 40-inch print is definitely acceptable at this sensitivity, especially given the normal viewing distance for a print of this size.

ISO 1600 prints show an increase in noise -- as expected -- but it's mainly still concentrated in the shadows and some low-contrast areas (our notorious red-leaf fabric swatch is definitely showing a big reduction in detail). Still, a 24 x 36-inch print looks great at this ISO, showing lots of detail and pleasing colors.

ISO 3200 images display stronger noise as well as noticeable signs of noise reduction processing. We're playing it safe and calling the maximum print size at 16 x 20 inches for this ISO. However, it's right on the cusp; a 20 x 30-inch print it probably doable with careful post processing.

ISO 6400 prints display more noise, and although it's far from severe, it definitely causes a reduction in fine detail, making a 13 x 19-inch print the maximum size we're willing to endorse here.

ISO 12,800 images show stronger noise, and detail throughout certainly takes a hit, but noise is still far from obnoxious, to the point that the A9 is capable of a nice 8 x 10 inch print. Even further, an 11 x 14-inch print could be doable for less critical applications or with careful post-processing.

ISO 25,600 prints top-out at 5 x 7 inches. Noise as well as noise reduction artifacts are quite strong now, and they take a toll on fine detail.

ISO 51,200 images also offer usable prints up to 5 x 7 inches, which look surprisingly clean at this print size given this high sensitivity.

ISO 102,400/204,800 prints are, sadly, much too noisy and lacking in fine detail for us to consider usable for quality prints.

Sony's new flagship full-frame 24-megapixel mirrorless camera turned in a fantastic performance in our print quality analysis. From its extended base ISO of 50 all the way up to ISO 800, you're basically free to print up to whatever size you desire. Our testing stops at 30 x 40-inch prints, which, to our eyes, was hitting the resolving power of the A9's sensor, but still produced fantastic prints given the viewing distance required for that size. Up to ISO 800, fine detail is excellent, color rendition looks vibrant and pleasing, and noise as the ISO rises within this range is very well controlled -- if barely an issue at all. Even as the ISO rises into the mid- to upper-tiers, print sizes remain large and noise is well under control. Even at ISO 6400, for example, the Sony A9 offers an impressive 13 x 19-inch print size. The camera even manages to offer a pleasing 5 x 7 inch print all the way up to ISO 51,200. However, the Sony A9's two expanded high ISOs of 102,400 and 204,800 should both be avoided if print-making is your end goal.

About our print-quality testing: Our "Reference Printer"

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printer, which we named our "Printer of the Year" in our 2015 COTY awards.

The Canon PRO-1000 has a lot of characteristics that make it a natural to use for our "reference printer." When it comes to judging how well a camera's photos print, resolution and precise rendering are paramount. The PRO-1000's more than 18,000 individual nozzles combine with an air feeding system that provides exceptional droplet-placement accuracy. Its 11-color LUCIA PRO ink system delivers a wide color gamut and dense blacks, giving us a true sense of the cameras' image quality. To best see fine details, we've always printed on glossy paper, so the PRO-1000's "Chroma Optimizer" overcoat that minimizes "bronzing" or gloss differential is important to us. (Prior to the PRO-1000, we've always used dye-based printers, in part to avoid the bronzing problems with pigment-based inks.) Finally, we just don't have time to deal with clogged inkjet heads, and the PRO-1000 does better in that respect than any printer we've ever used. If you don't run them every day or two, inkjet printers tend to clog. Canon's thermal-inkjet technology is inherently less clog-prone than other approaches, but the PRO-1000 takes this a step further, with sensors that monitor every inkjet nozzle. If one clogs, it will assign another to take over its duties. In exchange for a tiny amount of print speed, this lets you defer cleaning cycles, which translates into significant ink savings. In our normal workflow, we'll often crank out a hundred or more letter-size prints in a session, but then leave the printer to sit for anywhere from days to weeks before the next camera comes along. In over a year of use, we've never had to run a nozzle-cleaning cycle on our PRO-1000.

See our Canon PRO-1000 review for a full overview of the printer from the viewpoint of a fine-art photographer.

*Disclosure: Canon provided us with the PRO-1000 and a supply of ink to use in our testing, and we receive advertising consideration for including this mention when we talk about camera print quality. Our decision to use the PRO-1000 was driven by the printer itself, though, prior to any discussion with Canon on the topic. (We'd actually been using an old Pixma PRO 9500II dye-based printer for years previously, and paying for our own ink, until we decided that the PRO-1000 was the next-generation printer we'd been waiting for.)


Enter this month to win:

1 $300 Adorama Gift Certificate

2 $200 Adorama Gift Certificate

3 $100 Adorama Gift Certificate