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Sony A1

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 a few metrics while trying to dismiss any notion of compromise. Now that it's nearly three years old, how does the A1 "stack" up against the competition?

Sony A1 with Sony 135GM

Key Specifiations

Sensor:

Resolution:

Burst:

DR Stops:

P-Shutter:

E-Shutter:

SS:

AF points:

Video:

Vid Qual:

ISO:

EVF:

LCD:

Memory:

Weight:

Battery:

Full Frame CMOS

50mp

30fps / 155 shots

11.36 (14bit)

1/400th (EFCS only)

1/260th

30s - 1/32,000th

759 (92%)

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)

737g

430 (NP-FZ100)

Image Quality

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.

IQ

Sony 135GM | f/1.8 | 1/400th | ISO 100

EVF

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.

evf

Sony 135GM | f/2.0 | 1/6400th | ISO 100

Speed & Silence

Removing the need for a physical shutter is the holy grail of mirrorless cameras and it's now here. The A9 could fairly reliably use it's electronic shutter for stills in daylight, but there were a few occations where you would need to fall back on the physical shutter. The A1 can shoot in almost any artificial lighting and it even works with flash. 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 A9 had no competition for years, but by 2021 Nikon and Canon started to bring out thier own stacked sensor models, so 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 reliably high bit-depths. At maximum speed the A1 writes 8GB of data in 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 by using a substantial heat-sink, first seen in the A7S III (which is rumoured to use the same sensor, just with a quad-beyer filter).

SPeed

Build

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.

Build

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).

Memory

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!

mem

Battery Life

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)!

batt

Rear Screen

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.

lcd

Sony 135GM | f/1.8 | 1/160th | ISO 4000

Shutters

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!

shutters

Video

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.

vid

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

AutoFocus

Things are improved over the four year older A9 here, but not in a massive way. The autofocus is still pretty amazing and bird eye-AF is nice addition, but if - like me - you have areas where birds and other animals coexist, then 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 work on the older Canon R5 or significantly less expensive Z8 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 often consider switching systems for this reason. What's worse is that Sony added this feature to the older and much slower A7C camera via a firmware 2 years ago and as of March 2024 the A1's v2.0 FW is still missing this massively important feature.

Another feature that would have been logical to bring to the Sony A1 was focus bracketing. Something that is a staple of macro photographers to add depth of field, using a simple menu option to set a near & far focus range with intervals. This is now included on the A7RV camera and newer, but Sony refuse to add it to the flagship A1, despite being found in DSLRs over a decade ago.

af

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.

raw

Competition

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...

comp

Stacked sensor mirrorless flagship cameras from Canon, Nikon & Sony (2021)

Lenses

Sony FE system is still probably the most compelling option for lenses. There are a lot of great AF lenses from Sony and Zeiss, lots of native 3rd party AF options (for various budgets) and the ability to adapt almost any SLR and Rangefinder lens with or without AF. Where it falls down is with longer lens options currently. As of 2024 we now have a couple of nice lightweight primes, in the Sony 300mm f/2.8 and Sigma 500mm f/5.6, but there is still no 200mm f/2, no other compact and/or cheaper telephoto primes, nothing with in-built tele-converters, no PF lenses and nothing at all above 600mm. Nikon is bringing out a lot of interesting telephoto lenses for their considerably newer mirrorless platform now that are putting Sony to shame.

 

I have a few Sony lenses (40G, 55ZA, 85, 90G, 200-600G), but the Sony 135GM is easily my favourite. Optically it's 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. 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 not a cheap lens I think it's actually reasonably priced for what it is. Even when cropped to 200mm it let's in more light and provides better subject isolation than the Sony 70-200GM II. If you're feeling brave and your subject is static you can use the Bokeh Pano technique to emulate a 70mm f/0.93 at 200mp.

 

The only counter argument to this stunning lens is the Samyang version, which amazingly matches the 135GM in image quality (yes, seriously) and costs less than half, while shaving 180g off the Sony's weight! Making it the lightest 135mm f/1.8 lens by far.

lens
DSC00150d.jpg

Sony 135GM @ 1/160th, f/2.2 iso 320 | Focused at around 90cm

DSC00150cs.png

1:1 pixels (on PC) | 9.6x crop | 1300mm equivalent

coclusion

Conclusion

What's great about the Sony A1 is how much it crams into a small & light body with amazing battery life. Its speed, silence, resolution, video and longevity combined with its compactness are so impressive that nearly three years on nobody does anything 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...

The biggest weakness of Sony cameras is that they litter the market with new models and limit software features to those artificially, so that existing users are more tempted to upgrade. Even if features could easily be added to older models via firmware, they generally aren't and nowhere is this more frustrating than with the flagship A1. The long awaited v2.0 update brought a couple of features that a few will appreciate (menu updates and focus breathing compensation), but many people are still screaming for features that other cameras have had for ages, even cheaper Sony models with older hardware:

  • Animal Eye-AF in video (Added to the A7C 2 years ago)

  • Focus Bracketing (Nikon had this ELEVEN years ago!)

  • Pre Capture (Olympus had this 7 years ago)

  • In-Body Pixel-Shift stitching (Pentax had this 7 years ago)

  • Open Gate video (Panasonic had this 8 years ago)

  • 6K video resolutions (Panasonic had this 5 years ago)

  • Shutter angle (Simple implementation that would improve usability)

None of those things require faster hardware, or hardware that the A1 doesn't have. Some of them have been added to older Sony cameras with the original Bionz X processor. Forcing users to buy newer, or lower end cameras to perform specific operations, or to switch to other brands is just really annoying!

If you're in the market for a new high end mirrorless camera and you think you might want to shoot video of animals or macro one day I would highly recommend the Nikon Nikon Z8 over the A1!! It maybe heavy as hell and have terrible battery life, but it can do anything you might want to do as a photographer / videographer and it's €2000 less...

images

Bokeh Panos

The next few images are bokeh panoramas (A.K.A. "Brenizer Method"). Most were taken with the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM lens and some with the Samsung AF 135mm f/1.8 lens.

 

This technique creates wide angle images with otherwise impossibly shallow depth of field (amazing subject isolation), extreme resolution and sharpness. I have been shooting these since 2009 with the Nikon D3 & 85mm f/1.4 AF-D lens, but they are much easier to shoot on mirrorless cameras and especially so of stacked sensor cameras like the A1 when in silent shooting mode. You really don't need a high resolution sensor for this (I usually downsample my images to 6mp for processing), but if you want to shoot gigapixel images you can. I would love to print these off really large one day and stare at the details really closely :D.

 

See below for more information and links...