After seeing Thomas Heaton trade gear on MPB to fund a new camera, I decided to give it a try myself. I was shocked to see that I could almost do a swap for a Sony A1! (I had a lot of stuff). So I cleaned / packaged up my old gear and in a week I had a shiny (almost) new Sony A1. It was an extremely smooth experience (which I am in no way sponsored to say). Here are the thoughts of someone who normally wouldn't be able to have this rather ridiculously specified light-box?
4:2:2 10bit Video
Dual CFExpress Slots
1/260th Electronic shutter
1/400th Mechanical shutter
9.4m/dot 240hz 0.9x Zero Blackout EVF
14bit RAW 100%
759 PDAF Points
155RAW Max Burst
736g With Battery
12mp RGB sRAW
I quickly ran out of space for a complete feature list here, so these are just some of my favourites.
Having owned the Sony A9 for a couple years, the A1 was a great upgrade for action & wildlife. The original stacked sensor camera also made a great point of comparison for the A1. The speed & silence focused A9 already had a higher pixel count than any pro DSLR, but with the pro mirrorless war heating up Sony decided to dial everything up to eleven. The A1 combined speed & silence from the A9II, video from the A7SIII and resolution from the A7RIV. Previously we had to chose a high-end camera that would specialize in one area and sacrifice everwhere else, but the A1 doesn't compromise... kind of... at a price.
Coming from the four year older Sony A9 I found the extra detail from the A1 impressive. As long as you have enough light to reliably shoot at low ISO it effectively doubles your lenses focal length. Pushing the sensitivity much beyond triple digits results in the benefits melting away pretty quickly however, so if you're someone who lives in these higher values I recommend managing your expectations. The down sides of this resolution - the massive file sizes - are less nebulous however. Were you happy with a 1TB SSD before? Well now you'll need at least 2TB and the speed of your editing will certainly take a MASSIVE nose dive! If someone were to offer me a 100mp camera right now I would tell them thanks, but hell no!
Conversely I am strangely fascinated by the 12mp small RAW files, These surprisingly large files (bigger than the A9 RAW files) are lossless compressed at exactly 4:1 pixels, so it's possible they're combining the 4-pixel beyer cluster into a single full RGB per-pixel RAW (4:4:4 chroma sub-sampled). If true that would make them the best 12mp images ever made! That probably sounds like a strange thing to get excited about on a high resolution camera, but yeah... I kinda am. 12 megapixels sound bad today, but you can quite reliably shoot this format for important images. As long as you don't need to crop a lot they provide stunning image quality!
Sony 135GM | f/1.8 | 1/2500th | ISO 100
The A1 inherits its body design mostly from the A7RIV, although it's a bit bigger and you get a revamped shooting dial from the A9II. I wasn't a huge fan of Sony's ergonomics in the previous generation (A9/A7III), but fortunately this has been vastly improved here and without the need to drastically increase the size of the camera. Where my pinky finger would constantly slip off the A9 this no longer happens with the A1 despite it not being much taller, so I think Sony has really started to refine and solidify this small camera design.
The old tilty rear-LCD is probably the biggest hardware disappointment of the Sony A1. I don't really care about the resolution as the lower battery drain could be easily seen as a plus. This argument can sound video focused or nitpicky, but when you want to shoot low angle portrait orientation shots and you can't see what you're shooting it's disappointing considering Sony already had a fix for this issue. Fortunately the A7SIII's viewfinder did make its way here and it's now fully blackout free. It's superb, but...
Taken With: Sony A9 + 90mm f/2.8 G Macro
The A1's electronic viewfinder (EVF) specifications sound insane. 0.9x magnification (huge), 9.4 million dot (Triple other high-end models), 240hz refresh rate (faster than I can see) and zero blackout (game changer). There are a couple of caveats here though. You can't combine all those things together, so the most logical compromise is to drop the refresh rate, to 120hz (medium). I had heard people being far too hyperbolic about the EVF experience. Of course I was excited to try it, but ultimately I was left a little disappointed despite it actually being pretty great. Now I'm no OVF evangelist, but this certainly does NOT look like an optical viewfinder and whoever says it is either needs their eyes examined (or should get their tongues out the marketing department's ass holes), because they're doing a massive disservice to an otherwise great feature.
Sony 135GM | f/1.8 | 1/100th | ISO 100
The Sony A9 was already a really fast camera (general operation, auto-focus, burst, sensor scanning speeds etc.), but the A1 cranks the extreme dials up to eleven. Adding another 50% to the burst and sensor scanning speeds, while pushing double the pixels and at higher bit-depths. At maximum speed the A1 writes over 1.6GB of data per second... That's insane!
There are a lot of benefits to using the electronic shutter (no blackout, vibrations, noise or wear, plus higher shutter & burst speeds) so it's great that the A1 has no penalties from using it. The A1's sensor scans at the same speed as the physical shutter of the A9, allowing it to be used all the time and it even works with flash photography. Sony could have left out the mechanical shutter entirely (like Nikon did with the Z9) but instead opted to include the fastest one on the planet. Syncing at 1/400th for full frame or 1/500th in (APS-C) crop mode, if you ever feel the need to use the mechanical shutter, at least you won't be disappointed. It feels weird getting a state of the art shutter that most will use as a fancy dust protector, when the Nikon Z9 (which is twice the size & weight) doesn't have one. In Nikon's defence, I would rather there was an option to not have the mechanical shutter in the A1 and save the cash.
The flexibility of the A1's dual SD / CFExpresss Type A memory options (first seen in the A7SIII) is extremely impressive, especially given the camera's small size. Its ability to take two cheap SD cards for redundancy is nice. Both ports supporting UHS-II speed SD cards is even better, but most impressively both slots also accept CFExpress (Type A). The only down side is the price of those faster options. It's nice that you only need V60 SD cards to shoot max quality videos (like the one below), but even those are not exactly cheap. New 1TB Angelbird cards are good value per gigabyte, but it's a shame there are no 320GB or 512GB versions... yet.
Sony 135GM | f/2.2 | 1/5000th | ISO 100
For a small, high-resolution and high-speed flagship hybrid camera the A1's battery life is quite impressive. It's only when you compare it to cameras double the size / weight, or other Sony camera's (using the Z100 battery) that it looks less impressive. This is especially true of the A9, which just sips power on electronic shutter mode (not so much on paper). In real-world use the A1 battery life feels about half that of the A9.
UPDATE: The brand new and still substantially bigger & heavier Nikon Z8 (with a much lower resolution EVF) has significantly less battery life than the Sony A1. It's shocking to see Canon and Nikon still struggling to match the smaller Sony cameras battery performance after nearly 6 years!
I often use the Bokeh Panorama* technique to make wide angle images with otherwise impossible subject isolation and sharpness. I like to shoot these in electronic shutter mode (like everything else) because it burns through a lot of images, so it's nice not to have that slowly destroying your shutter mechanism. When shooting this technique on the Sony A7III in silent mode, images would frequently have distortion from rolling shutter, due to the speed of panning throughout the batch. This would break the auto stitching process and make them impossible to stitch, but with the A1 I can reliably move as fast as I like without worrying about rolling shutter.
The below image is made up from 66 images, taken on the Sony 135GM lens. Usually I would shoot these in the (12mp) small-RAW mode, but just for fun I took and processed these at the full 50 megapixels...
Below is a crop of above (click to zoom)
To achieve this subject isolation (DoF) from a single image you would need a 42mm f/0.6 lens (on a full frame camera). If this lens existed it would be impossibly large, heavy and expensive. It certainly could not be this sharp too. Another benefit from the technique is extreme resolutions. Using 50mp files this result was over a gigapixel (1,000 megapixels). Click to zoom in on Rebecca's eye (above) and check out the detail in her contact lens!
For more information about this technique and how to shoot them you can check out my guide, or see more images like this here.
Sony 200-600G (4k 120fps 4:2:2 10bit / S-Cinetone)
The Sony A9's video quality was rather crippled (perhaps because it had better rolling shutter than their dedicated video camera at the time), but that's no longer the case with the A1. Able to shoot full width 8k 30fps is cool, but more importantly for most is its ability to shoot 4k, 120fps, 10bit, 4:2:2, with colour profiles, human eye-AF and touch tracking too...
Things are improved over the already impressive A9 here, but not in a massive way. Bird eye-AF is great, but if like me you have areas where birds and squirrels coexist, switching animal types is infuriating AF! That said, the camera will try to focus on the eyes of creatures that you are not set to, it's just MUCH more reliable in the dedicated modes. Just like the A9, eye-AF combines incredibly well with focus "tracking" so you can guide it where to start. Yes, re-framing is a little archaic, but it's infinitely more reliable to fall back on the amazing tracking than it is to trust "wide-area" will find an eye when you need it to.
The biggest disappointment with eye-AF is that none of these animal modes work in video at all. If this sounds nit-picky it's worth noting that all of these focus features work on the older and significantly less expensive Canon R5. Given Sony's extremely poor record of bringing substantial improvements, I very nearly switched all of my glass over to Canon for this reason.
Sigma DN 85mm Art | f/1.4 | 1/4000th | ISO 100
RAW / 14bit
The original A9 could only retain full 14bit RAW quality during single shots (any burst speed would drop to 12bit). The A9II could retain 14bit quality up to 12fps burst, but only if you were willing to shoot in uncompressed RAW. Despite pushing double the resolution at an even faster burst the A1 manages to retain 14bit RAW files at all times.
Sony now offers a lossless RAW option on the A1 (from Firmware 1.30), although it limits the max burst rate to 20fps. The headline 30fps requires lossy compressed RAW, but this is not something that needs to be avoided. Sony's lossy RAW is only about 10% smaller than lossless, storing much more data than Canon's praised C-RAW, for example. It was clear that Sony never intended to need a lossless codec. Like uncompressed, it was included to appease people complaining about lossy compression in principle, without fully understanding this specific implementation of it. This issue gets blown out of proportion so much and so often in reviews that people think it's important when it just isn't. However if you want to waste your disk space and slow your camera down unnecessarily, now you can.
2021 was the year that finally brought professional stacked sensor mirrorless cameras from Nikon and Canon, with the Z9 and R3 respectively. These are both large machines, so yet again Sony stands out as "The Small One" of the bunch. The A1 also felt like Sony's answer to the extremely well rounded Canon R5, but then Canon finally brought their stacked sensor pro camera (R3) and they went for the same old average resolution, action camera in a massive body design, like a silent 1Dx mkIII... Yawn!
At least Nikon combined resolution and speed with their Z9, but again they fell back on the pointlessly massive body design. The weight of the Z9 is almost double the A1's. You could carry 7 spare batteries for the Sony A1 and still weigh less. The Z9 doesn't even come close to doubling the A1s battery life, so the A1 with a battery grip is not only far lighter, but it lasts longer on a charge too. I owned a pro Nikon DSLR for nearly a decade, it was a good machine for its time, but technology has moved on. I cannot not live with these inflexible and unnecessarily heavy bricks any more, so a big thank you to Sony for bucking this annoying trend!
See the conclusion for an update about the Nikon Z8...
Stacked sensor mirrorless flagship cameras from Canon, Nikon & Sony (2021)
Sony FE system is still probably the most compelling option for lenses. There are a ton of Sony and Zeiss ranges, lots of native 3rd party AF options for various budgets and the ability to adapt almost any SLR and Rangefinder lens with or without autofocus. Where it falls down is with longer lens options currently. Missing staples like a 200/2 & 300/2.8 for pros. Not having any compact and/or cheaper telephoto primes, nothing with in-built tele-converters, no PF lenses, nothing at all above 600mm. Sony don't have a road-map for their planned lenses and that is a big shame because it would help to give people confidence that they are addressing this.
I have a few Sony lenses (40G, 55ZA, 85, 90G, 200-600G), but the Sony 135GM is easily my favourite. It is practically glued to my camera (as you can probably see). Optically it's practically perfection. It's relatively light. The dual XD linear motors allow it to track subjects through the A1's 30fps max burst speed. The 69cm minimum focus distance makes it a half decent macro lens too. The A1's resolution allows this lens to be cropped use-ably as a 200mm f2.7 or even a 300mm f/4 equivalent (see below).
Sony 135GM | f/2.2 | 1/1600th | ISO 100 (2.3x crop)
If full-frame speed & silence for action are your primary need, but you have any kind of reasonable budget then I would highly recommend the original Sony A9 first. It does 95% of what the A1 does, in a lighter body, with much better battery life and costs a tiny fraction of the price. It's only when extreme resolution (stills and video) are needed on top of speed and silence that the A1 gets interesting, but as long as money is no object also because the A1 doesn't make any kind of value sense. Sony's reluctance to support their flagship camera with meaningful firmware features over the last two years has drastically faded its relevancy given the strong competition. Even more unfortunate is that Sony's own newer & cheaper cameras have started to look more appealing for specialities as well. Thus I find the A1 extremely difficult to recommend to anyone who isn't already invested in Sony lenses.
Even though Eye-AF in video is sadly lacking for wildlife photographers and the rear screen is a let-down in general, if ultimate resolution, speed and video in a small silent package mean more to you then the A1 does still make sense. With a good firmware upgrade (animal eye-AF in video, focus bracketing, breathing compensation, in-body pixel shift etc.) and a hefty price drop I feel like the A1 could still be a pretty attractive option in 2023, but currently (near its full price) I can't describe it as a compelling option.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this Nikon have announced their Z8, which mostly addresses my issues with the Z9. The Z8 is still too big and heavy, especially considering it's lacklustre battery life and the SD card is going to slow everything down for serious users (wanting redundancy), but I still think it's a more well rounded camera than the Sony A1. Given its price it's simply amazing! I see the Z8 getting compared to a Nikon D850 or Sony A7RV often due to price, but that only makes sense if you ignore the game-changing stacked sensor. It should be compared to the Sony A1 and it even blows the amazing Canon R5 out of the water.