Sony A9: Speed with Ease!

 

The A7 series by Sony have been in the market for a while now. Even as they set the standard in terms of resolution and low light shooting, the Sony A9 is here. The numbers in the specification sheets alone are mind-boggling. Shridhar Kunte puts it to the test.

This article was originally published in December 2017.

Sony A9

Sony A9

Since the introduction of the mirrorless cameras, the segment has come a long way. Over the years, even as they tried to catch up with the conventional DLSRs in terms of resolution and high ISO performance, certain aspects like continuous shooting and AF speed was always a tad behind. With the introduction of the Sony A9, it seems as though there is finally a befitting reply to the big boys… Canon and Nikon. The advantages of mirrorless camera in terms of size and weight is commonly known. With the addition of speed, Sony is now taking the fight to the opposition.

Features
The A9 is built around an all new back illuminated full frame stacked CMOS sensor with integral memory, and with a resolution of 24MP. In this stacked design, the integrated DRAM memory modules, high-speed processing circuit and the BIONZ X image processing engine are all aligned immediately behind the image sensor. The stacking arrangement allows the image sensor to temporarily store large volume of data in the integral memory, which gives a huge spurt in readout speed of about 20 times faster. This CMOS sensor offers an ISO range from 50-51,200, that can be further expanded to ISO 204,800.

Subjects are quickly caught by the A9’s AF, and the camera doesn’t let them go, no matter how fast they move. Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/4 (ISO 100)

Subjects are quickly caught by the A9’s AF, and the camera doesn’t let them go, no matter how fast they move.
Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/4 (ISO 100) Photograph/Shridhar Kunte

The A9 borrows features like fast AF, burst modes and the voluminous edge-to-edge AF points available on Sony’s popular A6300. A total of an eye-watering 693 phase-detect AF points and 25 contrast-detect AF points covers 93 percent of the sensor, which can capture images in bursts of up to 20fps… with simultaneous AF tracking enabled! The AF also functions with light levels as low as -3 EV, with the promise of precision and speed.

The larger buffer can hold a substantial 241 RAW files, or 362 JPEG images. The new sensor is capable of taking reading from 1200 zones in evaluative metering. The meter has a working range of -3 EV as well, to 20 EV. To support this rather incredible shooting speed, the camera has two memory card slots… one for SD cards and one for SD/Memory Stick cards. The lower card slot supports UHS-II type cards for faster transfer speed.

The camera is equipped with 5-axis in-camera image stabilisation that works with almost any lens mounted on the camera. It also works in conjunction with Sony’s optically stabilised lenses, to deliver the best overall effect. Stabilisation will work for both stills as well as videos.

The EVF is an OLED with 3686k dot resolution. A double sided aspherical lens in the EVF delivers a rather large magnification of 0.78x. And with ZEISS T* Coating, it reduce reflections as well. Fluorine coating is applied on the outer-most lens for improved protection from dirt or smudges, which is, in practice, a rather common occurance. The EVF has a high refresh rate of 120fps, provides a smooth image with minimal display blur, especially when shooting fast, moving subjects at 20fps. The 1.44 million-dot 3-inch rear LCD panel tilts, but does not swivel.

As you would expect from Sony’s flagship mirrorless camera, video is well taken care of. The camera records 4K (3840 x 2160p) video while using the full width of the full-frame image sensor. When shooting in this format, the camera uses full pixel readout without pixel binning to collect 6K of information. This is then down sampled to give sharp, detailed footage. The HD footage can be even captured at 120fps at up to 100Mbps, which allows footage to be reviewed and eventually edited into 4x or 5x slow-motion video files in Full HD resolution. One needs to use a SDXC card with a minimum write speed rating of 95Mbps to enable continuous in-camera 4K recording. As the A9 is targeted at sports and wildlife photographers, Sony has decided to make do without the S-log gamma mode.

The camera is relatively quiet, and it does not draw attention. I like the toned down appearance of the Sony A9. It does not attract attention to itself. Exposure: 1/160sec at f/11 (ISO 3200)

The camera is relatively quiet, and it does not draw attention. I like the toned down appearance of the Sony A9. It does not attract attention to itself.
Exposure: 1/160sec at f/11 (ISO 3200)  Photograph/Shridhar Kunte

Handling
At the first look the A9 looks and feels very similar to the A7 series cameras. When it comes to build quality, there’s little to complain about. The A9 feels extremely solid. Built with durable magnesium alloy, it is built to withstand professional use. It is also weather-resistant. However, on closer inspection of the body, I found no trace of rubber seals at any of the hatches to protect the camera from water or dust.

Sony users should have no problem finding their way around the A9. In comparison to the flagship cameras from other manufacturers, the Sony A9 is rather compact and light. If you are used to more beefy, chunkier handgrips, the handgrip on A9 will feel really small. For smaller hands, this grip is of a decent size and will feel comfortable, but those with larger hands will find the little finger hanging off the bottom of the camera. One can compensate by adding the optional GPX1EM grip extension for comfort, or by attaching the VGC3EM battery grip that has the additional benefit of longer battery life, and will also add some weight to the camera, for balancing well with medium telephoto lenses.

The controls on the back of the camera has had a moderate revamp. The new welcome addition is the joystick to help you select AF points. This is logically placed and is easy to access with your thumb. The same operation can be carried out with the touch screen as well. Sadly though, this is the only operation you can do with the LCD screen while shooting and using the EVF for composing the image. The dedicated video recording button has been moved from handgrip and now finds a new place to the right of EVF, just above the LCD. A new dedicated AF-ON button for activating autofocus independently of the shutter release is also an addition.

The continuous eye AF automatically detects and tracks an eye of a person, even if the face is turned at an angle or partially obscured. Exposure: 1/500sec at f/4 (ISO 1600)

The continuous eye AF automatically detects and tracks an eye of a person, even if the face is turned at an angle or partially obscured.
Exposure: 1/500sec at f/4 (ISO 1600) Photograph/Shridhar Kunte

Performance
For testing the A9, we specifically requested for the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens. On the field, I tried it out at a wedding, and with sports as well. I was very curious to see the newly enhanced AF system and burst mode in action, and I am happy to say that it worked quite well in all the challenging situations I threw at it. The comprehensive 693 phase-detect AF point system was quick to respond in most situations and was bang on target. I first tested continuous AF by shooting at the local football club. The camera did an exceptional job of keeping players in sharp focus while shooting long bursts at 20fps at f/2.8. It only occasionally hesitated when they were moving quickly away from the camera, capturing a few frames that were a little less sharp. But this is a scenario in which even conventional DSLRs usually struggle too. After analysing the images shot using the high-speed continuous mode, I realised that it is almost like shooting video.

During the wedding, I tried Eye Focus Mode to capture portraits. The camera instantly locks on to your subject’s eye and follows it around the EVF as your subject moves. With the electronic shutter, the shutterspeed goes up to 1/32000 sec. This allows the use of lens wide open, even in bright daylight for blurred backgrounds.

The camera has a very large buffer, but it also takes a long time to clear. While this operation is in process, there is no way to access the camera’s menu. After capturing JPEG fine images in a full burst, it can take up to a minute with a fast UHS-II card to empty the buffer fully. While capturing video the camera utilises all of the pixels from a 16:9 segment of the sensor covering its full width. The captured 4K video showed well-detailed footage, with no visible artefacts.

Conclusion
Since the introduction of mirrorless cameras, we observed the struggle to catch up to DSLRs in terms of speed and resolution. With the A7 series, Sony matched up, or even surpassed resolutions. Now, with the introduction of Sony A9, speed is also taken care of.

At its MRP of Rs. 3,07,990, the Sony A9 is yet another worthy flagship. Notably, at this price, it is much cheaper than the big boys in the market. I was particularly impressed with its blistering speed of 20fps, large and bright viewfinder and the EVF with no blackout. Here is a camera that will take conventional DSLR’s from Canon and Nikon head-on.

The advantage that Canon and Nikon have is the huge lineup of fast telephoto lenses for sports and action photographers. Sony, on the other hand, has only one zoom lens with a reach beyond 200mm. Yet, considering Sony’s aggressive stance with mirrorless cameras, sports optics cannot be all that far.

FINAL RATINGS
Features
4K video with in-camera recording, back illuminated sensor, 5 axis IS
14/15
Performance
Superb autofocus tracking, Impressive battery life
42/45
Build Quality
Magnesium alloy construction, weather sealing
18/20
Ergonomics
Very customisable, some handling quirks
12/15
Warranty & Support
Large number of service facilities
4/5
MRP Rs 3,07,990
OVERALL 90%
VALUE FOR MONEY 4/5
Who should buy it? Any photographer who needs speed, AF performance and low light capabilities combined in small and light package.
Why? With 20fps burst speed it is blazing fast, with excellent AF tracking capabilities that rarely goes wrong.
Tags: better photgoraphy, Camera, December 2017, Shridhar Kunte, Sony A9, Sony A9: Speed with Ease!