Sony A9

In 2017 Sony introduced the first professional, full-frame, mirrorless camera. With its stacked sensor, the A9 was designed to compete with the best professional DSLRs of the time (namely the Nikon D5 and Canon 1Dx mkII). So, after five years of service (wow, has it been that long?!), what impact did the A9 have on the market and is it still competitive as a high-end professional camera today?

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The Sony A9 + Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM lens

Pro DSLR Killer

Compared to the best professional DSLRs, the Sony A9 was substancially smaller, lighter and cheaper, but that was just the beginning. The main areas where it proved itself against the established standard was: Higher burst & shutter speeds, a higher-resolution & stabilized sensor, a viewfinder with zero blackout, extremely reliable AF tracking (inlcuding eye-AF) and a completely silent shutter that was almost entirely void of rolling shutter issues. With substantial speed improvements across the board, it took mirrorless cameras from fun alternatives to consumer DSLRs to the best option for professionals, bar none. It's difficult to overstate just how much of a pivotal shift in camera technology this was. Five years on; Canon and Nikon have both released their own pro mirrorless options, along with statements regarding the end of some, or all DSLR production. To illustrate what scared the big manufacturers so much; Here's a comparison between the Nikon D6 (2020) and Sony A9 (2017)...

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Feature        | Nikon D6 Sony A9 

  • Price (USD)

  • Weight (g)

  • Resolution (mp)

  • Burst (max fps)

  • Buffer (# of RAW)

  • Shutter Lag* (ms)

  • Shutter Speed (max)

  • Startup Time (sec)

  • ViewFinder Blackout

  • AF Points

  • AF Coverage (%)

  • Eye AF

  • Battery Life

  • Silent Penalty**

  • DxO score: DR

  • DxO score: ISO

  • Lens Calibration***

  • IBIS (Stops)

  • Compact

  • Tilting Screen

  • True DoF Preview

6,999

1450

20

14

133

39

1/8,000

0.4

Yes

105

26

No/Yes

3600

Yes

12.3

2434

Yes

No

No

No

No

4,499

673

24

20

241

20

1/32,000

0.6

No

994

93

Yes

650

No

13.3

3517

No

Yes (5)

Yes

Yes

Yes

KEY:  Worse  /  Better |  NOTES:

* Shutter Lag: A pre-focus shutter lag time to state how responsive the camera is in its natural mode.

** Silent Penalty: Whether the camera slows down or loses functionality during silent shooting.

*** Lens Calibration: Whether lenses suffer from front/back focus issues, requiring calibration.

NOTES (on above):

Letting those statistics sink in for a while truly illustrates how quickly and drastically DSLRs have been left behind. Even things that don't easily compare on paper (like AF and EVF usability) are a big win for mirrorless. This is arguably a more disruptive technology than Nikon's first purpose built DSLR (D1) was when it marked the death of Kodak at the turn of the millennium.

By the time the D6 was released the Sony A9 was actually $1000 cheaper, making it half the cost, as well as half the size & half the weight. The only substancial stand-out for the Nikon here, battery life, can differ so drastically to the CIPA results that even that isn't a clear win for the DSLR (scroll down to the battery life section to see what I mean).

EVF vs OVF

Switching from a DSLR's optical viewfinder (OVF), to an electronic one (EVF) in mirrorless will feel strange at first. Of course it has finite limitations (like resolution and frame-rate) which will initially feel like a downgrade, but it's well worth considering its numerous and significant benefits first:

  • Silent Shooting - Shoot electronically to make no noise at all, but still be able to see using the viewfinder

  • Live Exposure - No more guessing exposure or dynamic range. Shooting full manual is also much easier, faster and better

  • AF Sensors - Many more focus points over a much greater part 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 since it's shown in real-time

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

  • 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 switching modes and AF systems

  • Shooting Into The Sun - 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

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Sony 200-600mm G - Baby Blue Tit

Evolution

The A9 was a strong design evolution from Sony's existing full frame mirrorless cameras of 2017 (mkII A7's), bringing features like: A deeper grip, a drive/focus mode dial, multi-selector, touch screen, improved buttons, dual memory cards, better build and a significantly improved battery. Although this distinction didn't last long (the mkIII A7's taking everything accept the mode dial), what really set the A9 apart was speed.

Silent Benefits

The world's first stacked sensor brought two fundamentally game-changing features. A very high scan speed (1/160th), allowing the fully silent electronic shutter to be used without concern of rolling shutter. As well as being great for weddings, sports and wildlife, this increases battery life and reduces mechanical wear, dramatically improving the lifespan of the camera.

 

Viewfinder blackout is the next big benefit. Many mirrorless cameras mask slow responsiveness by displaying the last image, while it gets ready to take a new one. This gives the impression of zero blackout, until you move the camera, resulting in a laggy/stuttery view. 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 that the camera has a choice of fake sounds and/or flashing graphics to give you some indication that the camera has actually taken a shot.

Build Quality

Despite not being much bigger or heavier than the A7 (mkII's), the A9 was a step up in build quality, ruggedness and weather resistance. Even with a 2Kg+ lens attached holding just the camera feels confidently solid.

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An Exploded Diagram of the A9's Magnesium Chassis

I am thankful that the A9 kept the smaller form factor of the A7 range. You can always add a vertical grip for extra battery life and easier portrait shooting if desired, but this makes it much easier for me to carry every day than a pro DSLR. The more compact design also offers a halfway option with a grip purely for the pinky, extending only the grip side if you don't want the extra weight of the full vertical grip. It doesn't allow for tripod use or battery removal while attached and could be more sculpted (to stop your finger from slipping off), but I'll take this over a non-removable battery grip any day!

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Sony A9 with extra "Thumb grip" & "pinky grip" extention

Burst

The top burst speed of 20 frames per second (fps) is pretty amazing for action photography! Although it's worth noting not all Sony lenses allow this speed, some top out at 15fps (click here for a full list). Also 3rd party lenses seem to be artificially capped to 15fps, allegedly due to inferior focus mechanisms, but that's still a decent speed. Word on adapted lenses varies from between 5-15fps, depending on which adapter. lens, firmware, aperture and focus mode you use.

Another thing that limits the full burst speed is uncompressed RAW. Using this will drop the speed to 12fps. It's worth noting that unlike the A9II, using uncompressed RAW is still limited to 12bit during burst shooting. This might seem like quite a few restrictions on the A9's advertised 20fps, but it's not bad compared to the current competition. Even the 30fps Sony A1 won't give you faster burst speeds than 15fps on 3rd party, adapted or slower Sony lenses.

Buffer

At full speed (20fps) the buffer allows for just over twelve seconds of continuous shooting. Even five years on this is pretty incredible. I have never needed all of it and I can't think that I ever will. It produces an absolute ton of images to look through in post. For your own sanity I don't recommend using it just because you can, but it's nice to know the option is available for the most tricky situations!

 

Even with fast cards buffer clearing will be pretty slow however, but given that most will want the two cards to be writing the same thing (redundancy) it's a shame that only one of the readers is the faster UHS-II speed, so you will be limited to the slower one. This is most frustrating when shooting a burst of stills and then wanting to record a video, because you will just have to wait for the whole buffer to clear first. The menu system is also locked out when the buffer is clearing, although that's much less of an issue.

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Sony 90mm f/2.8 G Macro - Greater Spotted Woodpecker (male)

AutoFocus

The standout focus feature for me here is tracking. Working across a thousand focus points & almost the entire frame, it can be used in combination with Eye-AF and in that mode it has totally transformed the way I shoot. Even with fast & erratic subjects it allows me to concentrate on composition &/or settings. I just tell it where to start and am confident that it'll take care of focus 95% of the time.

Although eye-AF unfortunately doesn't work in video here, touch to focus (using the rear screen) does. The general speed and accuracy of the focusing is lightyears ahead of the A7RII, even beating out the the newer A7IIl by a big margin due to a slower reaction speed and there being no tracking on the A7III. Amazingly this ability extends to adapted lenses as well. Eye-AF has settings for humans and animals, the latter being less reliable and not covering a wide range of creatures, but it's still pretty great.

Customisation

The amount of customisation on the A9 is pretty amazing. Organising that through the menus is not as nice compared to the most modern Sony's (like the A1), but it's much better than it used to be! Almost everything that I wanted to customise here could be done and there are way more custom buttons to map things to here as well. 11 buttons can be customized with 72 functions. The physical drive/focus mode dial helps here too, as those common functions are more clear and not required to be mapped somewhere else. 

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.

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Sigma DG 135mm f/1.8 Art - Swedish Military

Battery Life

Mirrorless cameras may never match the battery life of pro DSLRs on paper, due to their smaller batteries and always active sensor / screens, but I have been extremely impressed by it on the A9. Due to my exclusive use of the electronic shutter and religiously turning the camera off when I'm not using it (due to a faster start-up), I get better battery life from the A9 than the A7III (710 vs 650 CIPA).

 

I recently shot almost 2,000 images (+ 3 short videos), using a mix of EVF and rear screen, over a 3 hour period, in -10°c weather and the camera displayed 81% battery remaining! This was not a new battery either, I have owned it for a year and someone else owned it for years before that. By comparison; The Sony A7II camera (using the NP-FW50 battery) has died on me in only a few minutes at -3°c, capturing less than a hundred images for a timelapse. This new Z type battery says it's 2.2x more capacity, but in my experience the life can far out-perform that. The A9 has actually beaten my pro DSLRs on battery life and if you factor in only using the rear screen on the DSLR then the A9 will win by a much bigger margin.

Lenses

Sony have a long head start concerning full frame autofocus mirrorless lens design (currently 43). If you add on the Zeiss Batis (5), Sigma (15), Samyang (16), Tamron (10) or Tokina (4) ranges of native autofocus FE lenses it currently totals 93 and that's before you include any lesser known 3rd party lenses, pre-adapted DSLR options like Sigma's DG series (17), or manual ones like Zeiss Loxia (5). By the time you read this the above numbers will be wrong as I frequently see new lens announcement for this platform, a testament to Sony's open source lens mount.

 

Additionally, hundreds of lenses can be adapted from Canon, Pentax, Nikon, or Sony's own A-mount SLR systems and retain autofocus. Contax's G series rangefinder lenses can also be adapted with AF. Even more amazingly; Manual Leica M lenses can be turned in to autofocus lenses with an adapter from Techart. It doesn't end there; Far more rangefinder, SLR and even medium format lenses can be manually focused using cheap adapters. Over a decade on, Sony's E mount has the most & solid support for adapting lenses from older systems. It's worth pointing out that adapting lenses from other modern mirrorless systems usually does not work, due to the short flange distances (sensor to mount), although there are some exceptions (Sony E lenses can be adapted to Nikon Z.

Using a Canon EF mount Sigma DG 135mm f/1.8 ART (not included in the list of 93 lenses above) with Sigma's own MC-11 adapter is interesting as it focuses faster and more accurately than my Nikon lenses did on one of their pro DSLR. That's an incredible sign of how far the focusing has come on modern Sony cameras! This lens is a little heavier than Sony's GM version, but every bit the world class image quality and for much less money. A couple savings like that can pay for a second hand A9, which just blows my mind!

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

The A9 launched with one professional tele prime lens, the 400mm f/2.8. Over 4 years on we now only have one more, the 600mm f/4. It feels like there are too many classic lens options missing to create confidence with professionals, especially 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: Please can we have a few more of these... (eg. 200/2, 300/2.8, 400/4.5, 500/5.6, 600/6.7, 800/6.3).

I own and enjoy using several Sony & Zeiss lenses, but they mostly seem a bit overpriced for what they are. looking back on my collection there is something particularly special about modern Sigma lenses. The Sigma DG DN 85mm f/1.4 ART, for example, is an amazing portrait lens! I used this to take many of the nature images you see here, product photography (below) and all of the bokeh panoramas (bottom of this page). This lens is a nicer option than the Sony GM in my opinion as it has all the same controls and buttons, but adds an extremely useful aperture lock. It matches or beats the optical quality, firmly beating it on focus speed / noise, has a nicer hood, the build quality is top notch, while being smaller, lighter and cheaper.

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Sigma DN 85mm f/1.4 - The First DSLR (Nikon D1)

Video

I am starting to shoot more video, but it's not really my thing so I'm sure others will have better opinions on this than me. It's clear that the focus of this camera has been stills and not video. Not being able to start shooting a video until even a few images clear the buffer is the only thing I find super annoying. I am happy that it has a full frame 4k/30 and a 1080p/120 mode for when I need to shoot something, as my old A7 had neither of these. The lack of colour profiles, 4:2:2 or 10bit don't really bug me, although it would have been nicer to have them it's not something that would put me off recommending this camera. Maybe the lack of eye-AF in video is the second most annoying thing, but I guess there has to be some reason to buy the A9II :P.

Cons

For me the A9 is an amazing choice (especially given the 2nd hand prices), but there's no such thing as a perfect camera and for some people it will be the wrong balance of features or just too expensive for what it offers. Here's a list of all the potential down sides that I can think of:

  • Not the most ergonomic grip (subjective, not related to size)

  • Weather sealing not quite on par with pro DSLRs

  • Gap for fingers can be tight with gloves on some lenses

  • Eye-AF does not work in video

  • Silent mode (electronic shutter) does not work with flash

  • Banding in some artificial lighting can occur (although improved over earlier A7 models)

  • Banding can occur in strong sunlight from the PDAF sensor array (although quite rare and subtle)

  • LCD resolution is a bit low

  • EVF resolution is a little average these days

  • Touch screen only works for focus placement (not menus)

  • Clearing the buffer locks out starting a video or menu adjustment

  • 3rd party lenses artificially locked to 15fps max burst

  • Burst shooting drops RAW depth to 12bit (small issue)

  • No colour profiles for video

  • No lossless RAW option (not a big deal IMO)

  • No flash (most won't care about this)

  • No voice memo (most won't care about this)

  • Lack of software features (pano, high res sensor shift etc.)

  • Uncompressed RAW drops speed to 12fps max (compressed is fine IMO)

  • Sony's lack of a lens roadmaps (pro tele prime lenses lacking)

Conclusion

Unless you shoot a lot of flash or problematic indoor lighting, the A9 is a superb camera, even today. I managed to pick up a used one in mint condition, with less than 1000 actuations and a spare Sony battery, for less than £1,400. That was lucky, but the used prices in general for this camera make it a bargain IMO. This is especially true if you shoot fast action and/or just like to shoot silently without the issue of rolling shutter.

 

Compared to professional DSLRs it superior in almost every way, while being half the size and weight. Battery life sometimes beats some pro DLSRs despite the always on screens, sensor and image stabilization and that blows my mind! Autofocus tracking & eye-AF may have been improved a little since, but it's still amazing here and even boosts adapted lens AF too, so if you're coming from an earlier A7 it will blow you away.

 

Even for wildlife photography I would be happy with 10fps for 6 seconds most of the time, but it's nice to know the A9 is able to do twice as much for twice as long. Again, things have improved a bit in the five years since, but not in a big way. Looking back on the market now it feels like the A9 was way ahead of its time and it still feels highly competitive today. The battery life, autofocus, zero blackout and reliable silent shooting are superb! The cons are few and far between.

Bonus - 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 motion. Another nice benefit is that the A9 can shoot up to 1/32000th with the electronic shutter (2 stops higher than a pro DSLR). This is very useful in bright conditions when shooting fast lenses, wide open and not wanting to blow out highlights.

Sequel

The A9's replacement took two and half years. I was very excited to see how they improved on this amazing machine. Unfortunately, not a lot, however. The A9II turned out to be one of the most modest refreshes I think I have ever seen. The same resolution (hell it's the same sensor), the same scan speed (from the stacked sensor), the same burst speed & buffer, the same EVF & rear screen (quite disappointing at this stage), similar limitations with 12bit shooting*, the same lack of colour profiles in video, the same video options, etc. etc. So what do you get for nearly double to price on the second hand market?...

  • Mechanical shutter now capable of 10fps bursts (useful for artificial lighting or flash I guess)

  • Voice memo feature (maybe somebody somewhere cares about this)

  • Improved AF & tracking (not easily quantifiable) 

  • Updated body from the A7R4 + improved dust and moisture resistance (meh)

  • Both SD card ports now support UHS-II (useful for extreme high-octane redundancy)

  • MI shoe now supports digital audio (supporting Sony's digital microphones is kinda nice)

  • *14bit Uncompressed RAW burst shooting (pretty cool, but only up to 12fps)

  • Eye-AF in Video (probably the biggest upgrade I can see, but many video features lacking)

Some of those are nice to have, but they're not really game-changing IMO. In my opinion the best thing about the A9II is that it pushes down the perceived value of the original model. On the second hand market the original A9 can be picked up for not much more than an A7III. If you value super high-end speed features like no rolling shutter with the electronic shutter, a relentless burst rate, zero blackout then it's an incredible bargain.

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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 a slight edge on ergonomics. This has some tiny design benefits, but both vertical grips are still too poorly designed to warrant this IMO. All this really does is stop them from having a more portable option. Wanna take your pro camera on holiday, or just carry it around often in a small bag? Well tough, because Canon and Nikon' business model relies on selling the same model without the useless bottom bit again in a year or so.