Sony A9

Marketed as mirrorless' first competition to pro DSLRs (2017) - the Sony A9 was smaller, lighter, faster, cheaper and higher resolution. However, Canon and Nikon were starting to visibly sweat and four years on, both manufacturers now have their own stacked sensor professional mirrorless models. Some say this is the final nail in DSLRs coffin and I would be inclined to agree because these high end features will trickle down to cheaper cameras very quickly.

 

Although initially to expensive for me to justify, I bought a second hand Sony A9 in 2021 (instead of a new Sony A7III). After a year of using this camera with a various lenses, I'm ready to share how I feel about that decision...

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The Sony A9 + Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN ART lens

A7 Pro

As the name suggests; The A9 was quite a departure from the previous full frame Sony mirrorless cameras (A7 mkII series). It pioneered aspects like: Deeper grip, drive/focus mode dial, multi-selector, touch screen, improved buttons, dual memory cards, better build & weather sealing, plus the amazing Z-type battery! Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) most of this was imediately taken to the A7 mkIII series. This meant that ultimately only the mode dial would differenciate the A9 visually, until the A1 took that and so we now have a rather confusing catalogue hierarchy. Eye-AF and 4k video had existed before (the latter lacking profiles for no good reason), both were improved here, but those features also trickled down to the A7 mkIII series.

Benefits

Much of the A9's benefits are about speed, resulting in substatial improvements with: Rolling shutter, Viewfinder Blackout, Refresh Rate, Startup Time, Shutter Lag, Shutter Speed, Focus reaction, AF tracking & burst shooting. Although the A9 was not a "cheap" model, this combination of experiences turned mirrorless cameras from fun alternatives to consumer DSLRs to almost entirely superior to even the best pro DSLRs. It's difficult to overstate how much of a pivotal shift in camera technology this represents.

If you're only used to optical viewfinders (OVFs), switching to an EVF for the first time will seem strange, but before you give in to the urge of rejecting this new-fangled technology, you might want to sift through this list of benefits it has first:

  • Silent Shooting - Many models can shoot electronically to make no noise when shooting at all 

  • Live Exposure - no more guessing exposure. Makes shooting full manual much easier, faster and better

  • AF Sensors - More focus points over more of the frame for more accurate focus and better tracking

  • Eye-AF - The ability to lock focus and track the eyes of people (plus many animals)

  • No Chimping - reviewing images is now unnecessary - correct DoF and Exposure are shown in real-time

  • Augmented Info - viewfinder can show: histogram, levels, eye-AF, focus peaking, clipping etc.

  • Tilting Rear Screen - Easier shooting from lower and higher vantage points

  • True Focus DoF - permanent DoF preview that shows the correct depth & unaffected by brightness

  • No DoF Limit - No limit to seeing shallow DoF (DSLRs usually limited to f/2.5 due to focus screen)

  • 100% Viewfinder - Large 100% viewfinders are no longer exclusive to the most expensive cameras

  • Crop Lenses - show just like full frame (zoomed in and 100% coverage)

  • Focus Magnification - makes manual lenses or checking focus, very fast and accurate

  • No Light Leaking - viewfinder doesn't need to be covered during long exposures

  • Focus & Speed Unhindered in Live-View - no mirror swithing modes and AF systems

  • Shooting Into The Sun - is no longer dangerous for your eyes

  • Image Review In Sunlight - when you struggle to see the rear screen

  • Viewfinder Colour - showing the world with white balance adjusted colours (full spectrum game-changer)

  • See With Dark / Opaque Filters - strong ND, IR or UV pass can still show a normal exposure in the viewfinder

  • In-Body Image Stabilization - DSLRs don't have IBIS, but if they did you wouldn't see the effects in the viewfinder

  • No Lens Calibration - With focal plane AF calibration for front/back focusing is no longer an issue

  • Adapt DSLR Lenses - Short flange distance means you can adapt to older lenses, sometimes with AF

*Silent Killer

The Sony A9 was the world's first stacked sensor camera. This provides two fundamentally impressive features when using the electronic shutter. Firstly, the sensor scans at a very high speed (1/160th). This allows you the confidence to leave the camera in the (fully silent) electronic shutter mode without having to worry about movement in the images resulting from rolling shutter. As well as being great for weddings, sports and wildlife, this increases battery life and reduces mechanical wear, dramatically increasing the lifespan of the camera.

 

The second big benefit is the lack of viewfinder blackout. Many mirrorless cameras mask slow sensor speed by displaying the last taken image while it gets ready to take the next one. This gives the impression of zero blackout, but any movement in the camera will present a rather uninspiring experience. By stark contrast, the A9's live view is completely unhindered by shooting so you (and the camera's AF system) never lose track of your subject. This is such a bizarre sensation it's actually nice that the camera has a choice of fake sounds and flashing graphics to give you some indication that the camera has actually taken a shot. Addictionally, setting the audio feedback to a custom button has been extremely useful when switching between wildlife and general photography.

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An Exploded Diagram of the A9's Magnesium Chassis

Build Quality

Despite being not much bigger or heavier than the A7, the A9 was a step up in build quality and ruggidness. It brought a stronger chassis that is dust and water resistant. I feel pretty confident holding the camera by just the grip when a big (+2Kg) lens attached.

I love that this camera packs its features into a smaller size to be more travel friendly by default. Of course you can add a battery grip if needing a vertical grip and/or battery life too. Another nice benefit of the smaller camera is there is a halfway option. This extends the grip only on the right side, for the pinky finger. This is useful when using longer lenses but not needing extra battery life and keeping the weight down. This is great in principle, but the design is rather poorly thought out. It's not flared (to stop your pinky from slipping off), it has no tripod mount and you can't change the battery with it attached. I heard your eyes rolling on those last two... yeah, it's annoying in that regard. I have to say that I don't love any of the 3 grip options for the Sony cameras. They're fine, but none feel sublimely comfortable like say my old Nikon DSLRs did.

Competition

2022 has given us stacked sensor pro mirrorless from Nikon and Canon (and a new one from Sony - A1). Both veterans decided to stick with inflexibly large designs for ergonic superiority. This has some tiny design benefits, but no real functional advantage any more. In fact it only really stops you from having a more portable option, if required. This will be a personal thing of course but I assume Nikon & Canon know what they're doing. Assuming that most pros are stuck in their ways feels risky, because are they all?

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Burst

The top burst speed of 20 frames per second (fps) is pretty amazing for action photography, although unfortunately it's artificially locked out for native 3rd party lenses. This is frustrating when you can tell that the lens is clearly capable of more (or is in manual focus mode). 10fps is still decent, but this feels like a cheeky way to force consumers into buying Sony's own lenses.

Buffer

At full speed the buffer allows for just over twelve seconds of continuous shooting (at 20fps). This may not be best in class four years on, but it was at the time. It produces an absolute ton of images to look through in post, so for your sanity I don't recommend holding that button down just because you can, but it sure is nice to know it's there when shooting action or wildlife! Buffer clearing is pretty slow and this can be frustrating when shooting a burst of stills and then wanting to record a video. The menu system is also locked out when the buffer is clearing, but that's less of an issue once you've properly set up the camera how you like it.

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Sony G 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 - Long Tailed Tit

AutoFocus

Tracking and Eye Autofocus are extremely impressive in the A9, although the latter unfortunately doesn't work in video. The speed and accuracy of the focusing is lightyears ahead of the A7II or A7RII and this extends to adapted lenses as well. The system inspires a lot of confidence. Misses are rare, giving you the ability to fine tune your skills, rather than getting frustrated by technical limitations. More specifics are mentioned about focusing in the next section...

Lenses

Sony have a long head start concerning full frame autofocus mirrorless lens design (currently 41). If you add on the Zeiss Batis (5), Sigma (12), Samyang (12), Tamron (9) or Tokina (2) ranges of native autofocus FE lenses it currently totals 91 and that's before you include any manual focus, or pre-adapted DSLR lens options (like Sigma's DG Art series).

This gap in lens options could get bigger due to Sony's lens mount (E/FE) being unusually (for Sony) open source. The Sigma DG DN 100-400mm FE (used for many of the wildlife photos shown here) is an amazing lens that you won't find for Canon or Nikon for this reason. Weighing just over 1Kg, it offers superb image quality, auto focus and image stabilization for its size, weight and price.

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Sigma DN 100-400mm f/5.6-6.7 - Roe Deer

Adapting lenses like the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 ART is an absolute joy on the A9. A little heavier than Sony's own GM version (mostly due to the adapter), but every bit the image quality and for much less money. This lens was a pain to focus on many other Sony cameras, but here it works better than many of my native Nikon lenses did on pro DSLRs! That's an incredible illustration of how far the focusing has come on the A9.

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Sigma DG 135mm f/1.8 - Friendly Red Squirrel

The A9 launched with one professional tele prime lens, the 400mm f/2.8. Over 4 years on we now have three professional camera bodies (adding the A9II & A1) and one more pro prime lens (600mm f/4). It just feels like there are too many classic lens options missing to create confidence with professionals considering how much time has passed. Most disappointingly Sony do not provide any lens roadmaps, so we can only guess what the situation might look like in the future. Sony: We would like to see more of these..

200mm f/2  |  300mm f/2.8  |  400mm f/4  |  500mm f/4  |  600mm f/5.6 |  1200mm f/8

I own and enjoy using several Sony & Zeiss lenses (28mm f/2, 35mm f/2.8, 55mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8, Batis 25mm f/2, 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3), but looking back on my collection there is something that especially impresses me about many modern Sigma lenses. The lens shown at the top of this post (with the A9) is another of my favourite Sigmas, the DG DN 85mm f/1.4 FE ART. It was used to take a few of the nature images, as well as all of the bokeh panoramas (shown at the end). This is a nicer option than the Sony GM lens in my opinion. It has all the same controls and buttons that the Sony version has, but adds an extremely useful aperture lock. It matches or beats the optical quality, firmly beating it on focus speed / noise, while being smaller, lighter and cheaper. The build quality is also top notch. Not long ago Sigma was firmly in the budget category, often sneared at, but now they have some of THE best lenses in existance (whilst still being cheaper). The same cannot be said of most Samyang or Tamron options.

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Sigma DN 85mm f/1.4 - Wild Rabbit

12bit vs 14bit

There seems to be some confusion about when the A9 can shoot 14bit images. Many reviewers claim that the electronic shutter or compressed RAW cause the camera to drop down to 12bit, but this is not true. You can actually shoot both silent and compressed together while retaining 14bit RAW files, just as long as it's in single shot mode. Any speed of continuous shooting (burst) will cause the camera will drop to 12bit. I was initially reluctant to use the burst speeds because of this, but thus far I have not seen any large detrimental effects to image quality.

Battery Life

Mirrorless cameras will likely never match the battery life of pro DSLRs due to their smaller batteries and always active sensor / screens. That said, I have been very impressed by the battery life of the A9. This is the first Sony to introduced the NP-FZ100 battery and although it's not the highest rated life using this battery, I think it might be in my case. Due to my exclusive use of the electronic shutter I seem to get better battery life out of the A9 than I did with the higher rated A7III (710 vs 650). The A7III's silent shooting was too troublesome for me to use it often.

 

Anecdotally: I recently shot almost 2,000 images (+ a few short videos), using a mix of EVF and rear screen, over a 3 hour period in -10°c weather and the camera still displayed 81% battery remaining! This is not a new battery either, I have owned it for a year and it was second hand. By comparison; The Sony A7II camera (using the NP-FW50 battery) has died on me in only a few minutes at -3°c, taking only a handful of images. This new Z type battery might say it's merely 2.2x more capacity, but in my experience the life can far, far out-perform that metric!

Conclusion

The Sony A7 series improved many things over DSLRs, but were also a big step down in a few areas (focusing and battery life). With the A9 there just isn't anything left that really needs addressing. This has not only been a massive improvement over previous Sony cameras, but also the newer A7III. I mention this because the second hand price of the two cameras is similar. 

 

I would probably be happy with 10fps for 6 seconds, but it's nice to know the A9 is able to litterally "dial up the speed" when I want to. Looking back on the market now it feels like the A9 was ahead of its time and although it holds its price pretty well it's still worth it today. The battery life, autofocus, zero blackout and reliable silent shooting are superb! The cons few and subtle.

Bonus Chat - Bokeh Panoramas

This is a technique that involves stitching multiple shallow depth of field images together from longer lenses to emulate impossibly fast wide angle lenses (go here for more info). I started shooting this technique on the Nikon D3 (2009) with the Nikkor AF-D 85mm f/1.4 lens. Switching to the Sony A7 (in 2014) was a big help for aligning the frames due to the rear screen, but the A9 has a few nice additions that make this technique an even nicer experience. Here is an example of how the images are combined using auotmated software (in this case - Microsoft ICE):

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Using the electronic shutter meant that I was no longer concerned about how many images I needed to shoot. A single bokeh pano can be made up from over 100 images. The lack of rolling shutter on the A9 meant I don't get broken or failed stitches from geometry issues resulting from a fast handheld panning technique. Another nice benefit is that the A9 can shoot up to 1/32000th with the electronic shutter (2 stops higher than an pro DSLR). This is very useful in bright conditions when shooting fast lenses, wide open and not wanting to blow out highlights.