With the release of the full-frame a9, Sony continues to push technology to the edge. Built around a 24-megapixel, stacked CMOS sensor (a first for full-frame cameras), the a9 delivers stunningly fast continuous shooting—up to 20 frames per second of full resolution JPEGs. Thanks to its sensor technology and almost 700 AF points (count ‘em) covering about 93 percent of the frame, autofocus keeps pace with the camera’s high-speed shooting. What’s even more impressive is that the a9 does so noiselessly, with virtually no blackout in the EVF. And, thankfully, Sony delivers what Alpha owners have been pining for—a huge increase in battery life.
Another notable feature includes internal 4K video recording, albeit without picture profiles. The camera also includes improvements to physical controls over the a7 series cameras. Priced at $4,500, the Sony a9 is a serious investment.
I tested the camera under a variety of conditions with a number of different lenses, including the new FE 100-400mm f/3.5-5.6 GM OSS (also announced with the a9), the FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM and the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS.
Speed isn’t the a9’s only strength. Image quality is also excellent, with accurate exposures along with well-rendered, pleasing colors. Default sharpness settings produce crisp images, with impressive details, especially when shooting with Sony’s G Master lenses. The camera handled low light/high ISO settings quite well. While I tried to keep the ISO at 4,000 or under, pushing light sensitivity to ISO 12,800 is possible without too much detail loss.
Video quality was quite good too. Colors were nicely saturated and crisp. There was little evidence of rolling shutter, and the on-board microphones clearly reproduced the sound of chirping birds.
The Sony a9 may have the look and feel of its a7 series siblings, but examine the camera closely and you’ll notice a few key differences. At approximately 5 x 3 7/8 x 2 ½ inches and 24 ounces, the a9 is slightly larger and heavier than, say, the a7R II (4.69 x 2.74 x 1.50 inches and 22 ounces).
The a9 also incorporates a new joystick control, which is a welcome addition, and the red movie button is now more conveniently positioned closer to the EVF so you’re less likely to hit it by accident. New custom options allow you to save multiple setting combinations including AF mode, shutter speed and aperture. The camera is equipped with a PC Sync Port, Wi-Fi, Ethernet and RJ-5 ports. Dual SD/SDHC/SDXC card slots are available too, although only one of the slots supports UHS-II cards.
Finally, the adjustable touchscreen LCD is responsive, although it can be difficult to see under very bright sunlight.
What We Liked
Of course, this camera’s continuous shooting and AF speed are its key strengths, but being able to capture images at high speed without any viewfinder blackout was equally, if not more, impressive. It’s so quiet and fast that I had to put my ear to the camera to hear the barely audible shutter—a welcome change from the a7 series’ clanging shutter.
Sony a7 cameras are also known for their comparatively short battery life, but the a9 delivers a considerable increase in endurance. Although the CIPA rating for viewfinder use is about 480 shots, I managed to capture almost 2,000 images in a day with 23 percent of the battery still available (an optional battery grip provides even better assurance that the camera won’t run out of juice). And, of course, we love the a9’s great image quality, 4K capabilities and its long list of pro features, including the new custom options.
What We Didn’t Like
Although we like having dual card slots, it’s a little disappointing that only one supports UHS-II. Videographers will also be disappointed that the camera lacks Sony’s S-Log color profile. The a9’s short handgrip makes it difficult to comfortably balance long lenses on the camera’s compact body.
How It Compares
It’s almost impossible to compare the a9 with other cameras, although the closest performance you’ll get is with the Nikon D5 and the Canon 1DX Mark II—both of which are much larger, heavier and more expensive. But one of the reasons to choose a mirrorless is to cut down on bulk and weight, so in this case, you have to make a decision about what’s most important to you.
While the a9’s 20 fps burst capture may invite the old “spray and pray” shooting technique, the number of AF hits vs. misses, even in short bursts, is perfect for moving subjects—whether it’s the recessional at a wedding or the fancy footwork of guests on the dance floor. You can always dial down the burst rate to, say, 5 fps or 2.5 fps using the mechanical shutter if the 20 fps electronic shutter is overkill for your shoot.
The bottom line is that the a9 is not just for sports shooters or wildlife photographers who need that burst of speed. It is, perhaps, the autofocus performance and excellent image quality that will also bring wedding photographers into the a9 family.
Theano Nikitas has been covering photography for more than 20 years. Although she loves digital, she still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film.