In 2017 the Sony A9 showed that mirrorless cameras could do far more than a professional DSLR. Faster shutter and burst speeds, higher resolutions, smarter, quicker and more reliable auto focus, in a much smaller, lighter and completely silent package (with no rolling shutter issues). Sony's 2nd generation stacked sensor couldn't possibly be as pivotal, but it would refine everything while destroying any notion of compromise (between resolution, speed and video). Now that it's nearly three years old, how does the Sony A1 "stack" up against the competition?
Sony A1 with Sony 135GM
Full Frame CMOS
30fps / 155 shots
30s - 1/32,000th
4k/120 / 8k/24
4:2:2 / 10bit
100 - 32,000
0.9x / 100% / 9.3m / 240hz
3" / 1.44m / Flip only
SD (x2) / CFE A (x2)
Capable of high performance and quality without a shutter mechanism is what makes stacked sensors truly game-changing. We now have a second generation one from the company who invented them. DPReview has a great article about the performance of the Sony A1 sensor here if you'd like to dive into more details...
I should start by pointing out that there are cheaper full frame cameras with slightly better resolution and dynamic range, but what makes the A1 so special is its ability to shoot that resolution (50mp) at high speed (30fps), usably (fast AF tracking), at max quality (14 bit RAW), in total silence (electronic shutter), with no motion issues compared to a physical shutter (rolling shutter), in a compact and lightweight body (737g). Nothing else claims this crazy combination of features, not even 3 years later! The stunning full frame 8k, 30fps, 4:2:2, 10bit video supports IBIS, focus tracking and advanced colour profiles (including LOG) for an hour before overheating (almost two hours on a charge). A very impressive ability considering the camera's small size (a running theme).
Although image quality will never drop below that of a lower resolution camera, it's worth tempering your expectations when pushing above ISO 2000 in darkness. Detail will melt away pretty quickly in low light, with the caveat that DxO Pure RAW 3 does a fantastic job (the best IMO) at retrieving the detail. The down sides of the high resolution are less nebulous however... Storage and processing times are considerably more than double that of the A9 files. If someone were to offer me a 100mp camera right now I would tell them thanks, but hell no! The diminishing returns are just not worth the penalties. This is the new apex of resolution & speed.
Sony 135GM | f/1.8 | 1/400th | ISO 100
The Sony A1's EVF is stunning and still unmatched after two and a half years (first seen in the A7SIII a few months earlier and now also used in the A7RV). This is the largest EVF (0.9x magnification), with the highest resolution (9.4 million dots) and capable of the highest refresh rate (240hz). Although that last metric will need to drop to 120hz to preserve the other two, but that's more than fine.
Note: As amazing as this EVF is, I never once thought it looked like an optical viewfinder. I understand why reviewers are told to use these hyperbolic statements. DSLR users are cultishly closed minded about optical viewfinder's (OVF) superiority. The reality is; Even a modest EVF can be seen as objectively better. EVF's have at least 20 real world benefits (that I could think of) over a DSLR. Look, I get it, it's cool that OVF's don't drain battery life, while having infinite resolution, dynamic range & refresh rate, but they also have a host of restrictions that EVF's don't. EVF's strong points take a while to explain properly, but they are truly game-changing. Them looking like an OVF is not one of them, it never will be and that's OK.
Sony 135GM | f/2.2 | 1/5000th | ISO 100
Speed & Silence
Removing the need for a physical shutter is the holy grail of mirrorless cameras and it's now here. Reliable silent shooting opens up high end photography in places or events that wouldn't previously have been allowed (churches, weddings, golf, tennis and other sports etc.). The Sony A9 set a high standard for this in 2017. Nothing could compete for literally years, but in 2021 Sony decided to raise the bar again with the A1. Adding another 50% to the burst and sensor scanning speeds of the A9, while pushing double the pixels and at higher bit-depths. At maximum speed the A1 writes over 1.6GB per second, for over five seconds! Sony's ability to do this in a substantially smaller body than any other pro mirrorless camera is especially impressive due to heat concerns. It manages this with a beefy heat-sink, first seen in the A7S III, which is rumoured to use the same sensor, just with a quad-beyer filter.
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 love Sony's choice to keep their full frame cameras relatively small, but I wasn't a huge fan of their ergonomics as they got heavier with the A9. I'm happy to say that they're much improved on the A1 and without the need to drastically increase size. My pinky finger would constantly slip off the A9, but this no longer happens with the A1 despite it not being much taller. It's still not the most comfortable grip ever, but it's not bad and I do appreciate the camera's small-ish size.
The chassis of the Sony A1 has a tough multi-piece metal frame with good weather sealing. The buttons feel great compared to older cameras too, so Sony are clearly taking notes. The connections / ports are impressive considering its size - having a full size HDMI, ethernet and flash terminal, as well as separate mic / headphone jacks, USB-C (3.1 gen2) and legacy Sony multi port. It's also worth noting that the hot-shoe supports the new digital microphones from Sony that don't require cables or batteries (which I love).
It might be the smallest pro camera body, but it's memory solution is by far the most flexible. So, you just want two cheap SD cards for redundancy and compatibility? Sure. Want to put a UHS-II speed SD card into either slot and have it write at full speed? Of course. How about the ability to go even faster with CF Express? Yea.... "Wait, can I have two of those, in redundancy mode for 8k video and RAW+JPG?" Yep, absolutely!
It's worth noting that it's not as fast or as cheap as the CF Express type B cards used by Canon and Nikon. If you want two super-fast slots for the lowest cost, those other systems will be more appealing, albeit only on their pointlessly massive pro bodies, but then you can't use simple, compatible SD cards. Their smaller models like Canon's R5 and Nikon's Z8 only have a single CF-E B slot and thus slow down massively in redundant shooting modes (required by many professionals), limited by their second memory slot being SD only. In my opinion the Sony solution is genius for how scaleable and compact it is!
The A1 doesn't reach the immense battery life of the Sony A9, but considering its high resolution stills and video the performance is actually pretty great. Compared to the Canon R5, which has similar features and weight to A1, the Sony has nearly double the battery life! Depending on the way you look at it, Nikon fares even worse. The Z8 and Z9 are considerably bigger & heavier cameras. If you add spare batteries to the A1 to match that weight of the other two, the Sony will last four or six times longer on a charge (respectively)!
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. I am less forgiving when unable see what I am shooting on low angle portrait shots considering Sony already had a solution for this issue with the A7SIII's flip out screen. I understand that it's not as good for most simple still shooting (an issue they didn't fix until the A7RV), but I think it would have been the lesser of two evils here as well.
Sony 135GM | f/1.8 | 1/160th | ISO 4000
There are a lot of benefits to using the electronic shutter (no blackout, vibrations, noise or wear, but also higher shutter, burst and AF tracking speeds) so it's great that the A1 has no penalties (rolling shutter) from using it. The A1's sensor scans at the same speed as the physical shutter of the A9, allowing it to be used reliably 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... kind of. The carbon fiber shutter syncs at 1/400th for full frame or 1/500th in crop mode (APS-C), although it only works in EFCS mode, which is rather disappointing. However, most users will likely only use the physical shutter as a fancy dust protector. I wish Sony had offered a variant without it. Perhaps now they could do an A1C with the A7RV's LCD and all the new AI focusing? Oh yeah that would be nice!
The Sony A9 had 4k video, but was crippled with low data-rates, compressed 8-bit colours, no profiles, no focus tracking or eye-AF. Perhaps this was intentional due to it having better rolling shutter performance than their dedicated video camera. Fortunately this is mostly not the case with the A1. With the ability to shoot full frame 8k, with 4:2:2, 10bit colours, profiles (including LOG), IBIS and AF tracking - the A1 is capable of some seriously good video! Some of these specifications are more impressive than the FX3, which has been used to make big movies. More importantly for me is its ability to shoot 4k @ 120fps with all of those other nice benefits and low rolling shutter too. Now I can shoot slow motion animals without the focus hunting all over the place in meh quality 8-bit 1080p.
Slow motion 4k video (5:1 - forced to NTSC)
A couple of disappointments: Firstly I hate that 120fps is only for NTSC regions. I know it avoids banding in artificial lighting, but I don't get why it's locked out as an option because you're a dumb photographer who can't be trusted to pick your own frame-rates. Yeah sure, I can change my region to NTSC, but then the camera complains every time I put in a new battery because it knows I'm not in that region. Let me pick the frame-rates that the camera advertises, or let me pick my region FFS!!!
Secondly: So your amazing sensor scans in only 4ms (1/260th) that'll be great for video right?! well it would be if it could, but it doesn't. You can have half that for quarter resolution (4k) or you can have a quarter the speed at full resolution, which is actually slightly slower than the Canon R5. Don't get me wrong, the video performance is still good, it's just not as stellar as it could be. Unfortunately the real benefits of the stacked sensor do not show up in video.
High resolution super-sampled footage for zooming and panning
Things are improved over the four year older A9 here, but not in a massive way. The autofocus is pretty amazing and bird eye-AF is great, but if like me you have areas where birds and other animals coexist, switching animal types is infuriating AF! My biggest disappointment with eye-AF is that none of the animal modes work in video at all. When you consider that animal eye-AF and auto subject switching works on the older and significantly less expensive Canon R5 it makes the A1 feel quite poor for wildlife considering its price. Given Sony's extremely bad record of bringing substantial improvements via firmware too, I very nearly switched all of my glass over to Canon for this reason. Ultimately the A1's stacked sensor kept me around, but it's unfortunate that I often regret that decision when shooting wildlife!
Just like the A9, eye-AF combines really well with focus "tracking" so you can guide it where to start. If you thought we were past "focus re-framing" think again. It's infinitely more reliable to fall back on tracking (if the AF system loses lock on an eye), than it is to trust "wide-area" might find an eye in the frame somewhere and that's if you're set to the right creature. In many situations the Sony A1's auto focus feels like shooting in "cheat mode", but it's still possible to see many ways that it could be improved! This is already the case with newer Sony models like the A7IV, A7RV, VZ-E1, A7CII, A7CR, which have better and/or more advanced AI tracking than the A1, even if their sheer AF speed is not as quick.
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 it to 12bit). The A9II could retain 14bit up to 12fps burst, but only if you were willing to deal with the annoyingly massive uncompressed RAW files. Despite pushing double the resolution at an even faster burst (30fps) the A1 manages to retain 14bit RAW files at all times (even when using lossy compressed RAW). This combined with its resolution is what makes the A1' image quality head and shoulders above the A9 & A9II. 12 vs 14bit is a considerably more substantive issue than lossy vs lossless raw (on Sony at least).
Note: 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, although this is NOT something that needs to be avoided. Sony's lossy RAW is only about 10% smaller than lossless. 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 its implementation. This issue gets blown out of proportion so much and so often in reviews that users unfortunately assume that 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 tired formula - an average resolution, action camera in a massive body design, like a silent 1Dx mkIII... Yawn!
Nikon combined resolution and speed with their Z9, but again they fell back on the pointlessly massive chassis'. The weight of the Z9 is almost double the A1's, meaning you could carry 7 spare batteries for the Sony A1 and still weigh less. Since the Z9 doesn't even come close to doubling the A1s battery life, 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 lot of high quality lenses from Sony now, a ton of Sony and Zeiss lenses in general, lots of native 3rd party AF options for various budgets and the ability to adapt almost any SLR and Rangefinder lens with or without auto focus. 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. Nikon is bringing out a lot of interesting telephoto lenses for their considerably newer mirrorless platform now. Sony don't even have a road-map for their planned lenses!
I have a few Sony lenses (40G, 55ZA, 85, 90G, 200-600G), but the Sony 135GM is easily my favourite. Optically it's practically perfection - sharp wide open, right into the corners and very minimal flaring or aberrations. It is relatively light for what it is, but especially impressive for its weight distribution, which makes it feel lighter than it is. The dual XD linear motors allow it to track subjects up to the A1's max burst speed (30fps). The 69cm minimum focus distance makes it a half decent macro lens too. All this combined with the A1's resolution make for some formidable performance (see below). In less extreme examples the results from this lens can be cropped very use-ably to a 200mm f2.7 (23mp) or even a 300mm f/4 (10mp) equivalent. Since it performs well at its widest aperture you can almost always shoot at low ISO and reliably crop like crazy without concern. Although it's an expensive lens, you can also see it as a smaller, lighter and cheaper alternative to the 70-200 f/2.8 II. Even when cropped to 200mm it let's in more light and provides better subject isolation. If you're feeling brave and your subject is static you can use stitching (see more info at the end) to emulating a 70mm f/0.93 at 200mp.
Sony 135GM @ 1/160th, f/2.2 iso 320 | Focused at around 90cm
1:1 pixels (on PC) | 9.6x crop | 1300mm equivalent
The strongest element of the Sony A1 is how much it crams into a small & light body. Its speed, silence, resolution, video and longevity combined with its compactness are so impressive that nearly three years on nobody does anything quite like it. The speed aspect alone covers so much of the experience (responsiveness, rolling shutter, start-up, AF tracking, burst speed, buffer clearing etc.). Lens options, viewfinder, memory flexibility, physical shutter, ports, video features etc. all add up to make this a dream "Everything Camera" for many professionals... however...
What makes Sony cameras great is also a massive weakness. They flood the market with new models that have amazing features, but they don't look back to older models to bring them those same software features while other brands do far, far more. Nowhere is this more disappointing than with the A1. A camera that is supposed to be a combination of all the best features. It's certainly still priced as such, but in many ways it's beaten by newer cheaper models. Obviously anything related to hardware cannot be fixed, but there's plenty they could upgrade via firmware and just choose to ignore. Not having Animal Eye-AF in Video is frustrating when the A7IV had this feature a year ago, with a slower processor and cost a fraction of what the A1 does. Here are a bunch more obvious firmware omissions:
Focus Stacking (Nikon had this ELEVEN F***ing years ago!!!)
Predictive Capture (Olympus had this 7 years ago)
In-Body Pixel-Shift stitching (Pentax had this 7 years ago)
Focus breathing compensation (added to similar age Sony's)
Open Gate video resolutions (Panasonic had this 8 years ago)
6k 60fps Video Mode (should be possible, for more options)
120fps small JPG Stills (works in video, why not stills?)
Internal Compressed RAW video (screw RED and their dumb copywrite)
Menu upgrades (from all the newer Sony's)
There are a few things holding me back from highly recommending the A1 in 2023. The rear screen only allowing landscape low-angle shooting and no flip out ability was always a disappointment since Sony had just released the A7SIII with a fully articulating one. The lack of interesting telephoto primes and no lens road-map is frustrating, but the worst thing by far is the firmware situation! It feels like Sony forgot about the A1 after about six months. Sony making almost the same sensor for Nikon's Z8, which has animal eye-AF in video, internal compressed 12bit raw 8k 60fps video and predictive capture for €2000 less makes the A1 a tough pill to swallow for anyone coming from a DSLR and needs to buy new lenses anyway. These features are as compelling as the stacked sensor itself.
I often use the Bokeh Panorama* technique to emulate large format subject isolation. It makes wide angle images with otherwise impossibly shallow depth of field and extreme resolution 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 electronic shutter mode), images would frequently have distortion due to the speed of panning during shooting (rolling shutter). This made them impossible to stitch. However, with the A1 I can reliably move as fast as I like without worrying about this issue.
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, while not being very sharp either. When using this technique however you get extreme resolutions and depending on the lens, extreme sharpness too. Using 50mp files this stitched 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!