This review page will be updated when my preordered Sony a1 arrives, but for now, here are my expectations for this camera.
First, I love the Sony a1's name. It is short and to the point, reflecting the best-of-the-best features in, and a no-compromise attitude behind, its design.
What subjects are the Sony Alpha a1 mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILC) best suited for? All of them. This camera is "The One" for everything.
Sony referred to "The One" in their teasers leading to the a1 announcement, and the a1 is the "1" camera for all needs. At review time, there are few cameras even slightly better at anything than the a1.
Attaining the ultimate camera status comes at a high price, a price that will primarily be found worthy by professionals and serious enthusiasts. Those willing to pay the price will have the ultimate image capturing tool in their hands.
Let's dive right into the Alpha a1 features called out by Sony.
Groundbreaking Sony Alpha 1 Camera Marks a New Era in Professional Imaging
The Alpha 1 Delivers an Unprecedented Combination of Resolution, Speed and Video Performance, Empowering Professionals with a New High-Resolution 50.1-megapixel Full-frame Image Sensor, High-speed Shooting at up to 30 Frames per Second, 8K 30p Video and More
In typical Sony fashion, we have reached 13 footnotes in just the camera features bullet list (there are 32 in the full press release). Call it full disclosure.
i Compared to the BIONZ X imaging processing engine.
ii "Hi+" continuous shooting mode. In focus modes other than AF-C, effective at 1/125 sec. or higher shutter speed. In AF-C mode, effective at 1/250 sec. or higher shutter speed, and the maximum continuous frame rate will depend on the shooting mode and lens used. 20 fps max. when shooting Uncompressed or Lossless compressed RAW.
iii At shutter speeds of 1/125 sec. or higher. The number of AF calculations will depend on the lens used.
iv As of January 2021, Sony survey. Among full-frame mirrorless cameras.
v As of January 2021, Sony survey. Among full-frame interchangeable-lens digital still cameras.
vi Up to 1/200 sec. Synchronization via the sync terminal is not available for electronic shutter.
vii APS-C S35 Shooting is fixed Off when shooting 4K 120p and 8K movies.
viii 10% image crop.
ix Sony internal tests.
x When recording with S-Log3. Sony internal tests.
xi Still images only.
xii CIPA standards. Pitch/yaw shake only. Planar T* FE 50mm F1.4 ZA lens. Long exposure NR off.
xiii As of January 2021, Sony survey. Among interchangeable-lens digital still cameras.
Now that those details are cleared up, let's break down the features list.
The first bullet point in the features list, "New 50.1-megapixel (approx., effective) full-frame stacked Exmor RS CMOS image sensor in combination with an upgraded BIONZ XR imaging processing engine with eight times more processing power," highlights the image quality capability of this camera.
|Canon EOS-1D X Mark III||1.0x||36.0 x 24.0mm||6.6µm||5472 x 3648||20.1||.76x||100%||f/10.6|
|Canon EOS R5||1.0x||36.0 x 24.0mm||4.39µm||8192 x 5464||45.0||.76x||100%||f/7.1|
|Canon EOS R6||1.0x||36.0 x 24.0mm||6.56µm||5472 x 3648||20.1||.76x||100%||f/10.6|
|Sony a1||1.0x||35.9 x 24.0mm||4.2µm||6000 x 4000||50.1||.90x||100%||f/6.7|
|Sony a9 II||1.0x||35.6 x 23.8mm||5.9µm||6000 x 4000||24.2||.78x||100%||f/9.6|
|Sony a9||1.0x||35.6 x 23.8mm||5.9µm||6000 x 4000||24.2||.78x||100%||f/9.6|
|Sony a7R IV||1.0x||35.7 x 23.8mm||3.8µm||9504 x 6336||61.0||.78x||100%||f/6.1|
|Sony a7R III||1.0x||35.9 x 24.0mm||4.5µm||7952 x 5304||42.4||.78x||100%||f/7.2|
|Sony a7R II||1.0x||35.9 x 24.0mm||4.5µm||7952 x 5304||42.4||.78x||100%||f/7.2|
|Sony a7 III||1.0x||35.6 x 23.8mm||5.9µm||6000 x 4000||24.2||.78x||100%||f/9.6|
|Sony a7C||1.0x||35.6 x 23.8mm||5.9µm||6000 x 4000||24.2||.59x||100%||f/9.6|
The 50 MP resolution is not new. The Canon EOS 5Ds R, my primary camera for about five years, has this resolution. The 50 MP resolution is also not the highest in a full-frame format camera. The Sony a7R IV, introduced nearly two years prior, has 61 MP.
However, I find 50 MP full-frame imaging sensor resolution optimal for ultra-high resolution while providing low noise at the pixel level, avoiding the softening effects of diffraction, and being manageable for camera shake. Of course, down-sampling higher resolution images, such as those from the Sony a7R IV, to 50 MP results in at least equal image quality, including in all of those regards.
Those stepping up from a Sony a9 II, a9, a7 III, or similar resolution camera should expect to see a dramatic increase in resolution. Using the 50 MP EOS 5Ds R as the compared-to camera, this is how that difference should appear. Note that Sony cameras tend to be extremely sharp, but they typically show greater levels of moiré, as seen in this example.
Those stepping up from a Sony a7R III or Sony a7R II should expect to see a modest but still noticeable increase in resolution. Again using the 5Ds R as the compared-to camera, this is how that difference should appear.
Does everyone need 50-megapixels of resolution? No, but from an image quality perspective, I can't think of a negative reason for having too many pixels. All other aspects remaining equal, more is better. It takes no more effort to press the shutter release on an ultra-high resolution camera than on a low-resolution camera.
That said, there are some negative aspects to ultra-high image resolution. More specifically, higher resolution magnifies things you don't want to see, including:
The details of diffraction do not need to be understood. Still, all photographers should be aware that, as the aperture opening decreases (higher f/number), images become less sharp at the pixel level beyond the approximate aperture we refer to as the Diffraction Limited Aperture ("DLA", included in the table above). As resolution increases, that point of visible degradation occurs at a wider aperture, slightly negating the higher resolution advantage. While you will want to use apertures narrower than the DLA at times, the decision to do so should happen with the understanding that pixel-level sharpness becomes a compromise. Those wishing to retain maximum sharpness in their ultra-high resolution, very deep DOF images may decide that tilt-shift lenses and focus stacking techniques are especially attractive.
I've mentioned "pixel-level" very frequently here. I want to emphasize that when the final output size matches that from lower resolution imaging sensors, the entire list of magnification issues just presented are negated, and oversampling with downsizing to a lower resolution has benefits.
Large file sizes require large amounts of storage, cause increased file transfer/load times, and require increased computing cycles. Buying higher capacity memory cards and drives and getting a faster computer, if necessary, are good ways to mitigate the drawbacks of larger file sizes.
The advantages of the increased detail captured by a higher resolution imaging sensor abound and include output at a larger size or to crop while retaining high resolution. I often find myself using the entire image dimensions to frame the final composition I am seeking, attempting to have the most detail for viewing or printing large. While this strategy is usually a good one, sometimes that tight framing gets me in trouble, such as when I clip wingtips, need a bleed edge for printing, or need to format the image to a non-3:2 ratio such as for an 8x10 print. Having significant-resolution available provides the freedom to frame subjects slightly looser, better accommodating such needs with high resolution not being sacrificed by moderate cropping. Birders especially will love that ultra-high pixel density imaging sensors effectively increase the "reach" of all lenses. With this much resolution, there is often the potential to crop a variety of final compositions from a single image.
I first became addicted to 50 MP image quality with the Canon EOS 5Ds R, and I'm happy to see this resolution in the high-performance a1.
Need more than 50 megapixels? Pixel shift multi shooting delivers up to 199 MP via a 16 image composite. I'll explore this feature below.
I should mention that low-resolution cameras (if I can refer to 24 MP imaging sensors as low resolution) are often referred to as being ideal for low light. With a higher signal to noise ratio, the larger photosites on lower resolution imaging sensors produce lower noise levels at the pixel level, primarily noticeable when photographing at high ISO settings.
When directly compared at the pixel level, the low-resolution cameras typically show less noise. However, to equalize the comparison, the higher resolution image should be reduced to the lower resolution image's pixel dimensions (or vice versa if the higher resolution is required). Reducing image dimensions brings the benefit of oversampling, a benefit often touted by manufacturers when describing video recording capabilities. The higher resolution camera typically performs at least similarly to the lower resolution camera in an equalized comparison, placing it on par with the camera thought to be low light king.
Like all of the other Sony Alpha cameras, the a1 imaging sensor has a 3:2 aspect ratio.
The a1 has ISO 100–32000 available, and expanded ISO settings from ISO 50 to ISO 102400 are available in still image mode.
Sony has not heavily promoted improved high ISO noise level performance from the a1. The latest imaging sensors are usually the best produced in this regard, though advances have been modest in recent years. I don't expect dramatically lower noise levels than from other recent Sony models, though I'll be surprised if the a1 results are not the best in class.
Great news is that Sony again claims an incredible dynamic range of 15 stops, as specified for previous high-performing Alpha series cameras.
Sony's imaging sensors are among the best available, and we should expect nothing short of excellence from the new sensor in the a1. Overall, the Sony a1 should produce exceptional image quality, featuring high-resolution, modest noise levels, and excellent dynamic range.
So, this camera's 50-megapixel resolution likely has your attention, but how does 199 megapixels sound? This camera has that option.
It started with the Sony a7R III. This camera arrived with an intriguing new feature called Pixel Shift Multi Shooting. That feature came back in an improved form in the a7R IV, and it now the a1 has this feature.
Going way back to 2014, I asked Canon for a pixel shift feature (see: "Ultra-High Resolution Via Multiple Shots"). Sony answered my request.
I had requested a higher resolution final image to be created from the shifted sensor, but Sony's original decision in the a7 III was to enhance the existing resolution. With the Pixel Shift Multi Shooting feature enabled (now implemented with Shoot 4 Shots selected), the camera rapidly captures four images (Uncompressed RAW format and silent mode are automatically selected) to be composited together during post-processing. The big deal is that the sensor is shifted one pixel between each image capture, resulting in the pixels moving in a square pattern. Each pixel on the Bayer sensor (no high-pass filter is present) is filtered to capture either red, green, or blue light (only). The shift allows each pixel in the final composited image to have input from a pixel-well filtered for each color (green gets double coverage), without demosaicing. While the native sensor resolution is retained, the result is a considerably sharper image, with noticeably lower noise and moiré essentially eliminated.
In the a7R III review, I suggested that Sony shift the sensor 1/2 pixel in each direction to implement my enhanced resolution concept as well. Apparently, they were listening, the a7R IV came with that superpower, and this feature returns in the a1.
New with the a7R IV and returning with the a1 is a Shoot 16 Shots option that captures images with the sensor moved 1/2 pixel between captures. This technique provides the benefits of clarifying the Bayer sensor while substantially increasing the resolution. Process the 16 images into incredibly-high-resolution 199 MP images. The difference is dramatic.
Pixel Shift Multi Shooting is a great concept, but not one without downsides. The first and perhaps biggest downside is that both the camera and subject must remain motionless while capturing the 4 or 16 images. Essentially, PSMS requires tripod-based shooting and still subjects. Even heat waves can prevent optimal results, and with the current processing options, areas not identical between images results in a strong, fine band pattern.
Pixel Shift Multi Shooting creates either 4 or 16 normal RAW image files that can be individually used. Processing is required to combine these files into the enhanced or enhanced and enlarged result. At review time, processing options I am aware of are Sony's Imaging Edge (formerly named Image Data Converter) and PixelShift2DNG. I'll give Sony's software another chance during the a1 review, but it has been kludgy (to be kind), and I struggled to process the a7R IV files (with error messages preventing the saving of edited .ARQ files, the combined RAW image). PixelShift2DNG was easy to use, but I need to spend more time working the results up to the sharpness I want.
Hours spent on processing Pixel Shift files have taught me that some editing prowess is required, especially related to sharpening. If the source files are over-sharpened, the final results will show jaggies and other artifacts. If the source files are under-sharpened, the final results will not be sharp.
I'll share some comparison examples from the a7R IV below.
It is not hard to see the Pixel Shift Multi Shooting advantage in the 100% crops. Look closely at the lettering on the small round label on the candle and at the stitching detail in the flag fabric. The increased resolution is outstanding.
The difference made by the Pixel Shift capture and processing is dramatic. If shooting a scenario with no moving subjects, consider using the 4 or 16 image Pixel Shift Multi Shooting options. Aside from some storage space, there is little to lose. If the result does not work out, simply delete all except one of the RAW files as would have been otherwise captured.
Those with advanced processing skills can utilize 4-shot Pixel Shift Multi Shooting more frequently, even when some subjects move (such as tree branches). The shifted image can be processed and layered in editing software along with one of the source images. Show the single-source image (try using layer masks in Photoshop) in sections having movement problems. Potentially, salvage most of the shifted image quality. Utilizing this technique for 16-shot capture will be more challenging, requiring up-sizing of a base image.
New is that the a1 can utilize flash for PSMS image capture.
Camera shake directly impacts image quality for both still images and movies, and Sony's 5-axis Optical In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) is a difference-maker, providing up to a 5.5-stop shutter speed advantage, and the stabilized viewfinder is also quite advantageous. Lenses such as the Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens and FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens have significantly increased versatility with IBIS available.
Many of Sony's lenses, including the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens, have image stabilization included, and in-lens stabilization can be better-tuned to the focal length in use. However, IBIS also has advantages. For example, in-lens stabilization cannot correct for rotation as IBIS can. IBIS works in coordination with in-lens OSS (Optical Steady Shot) for enhanced overall performance.
Selecting the latest Sony image file format arriving in the a1 will be a no-brainer for me. Finally, Sony provides a lossless compressed RAW file format, promising a significant file size reduction over the (enormous) uncompressed RAW file size, the only non-lossy RAW format previously available. The new lossless RAW file format retains the ultimate image quality while dramatically reducing memory card and drive storage requirements for a win-win.
Are there downsides to the new Sony lossless compressed RAW format? Smaller files read and write faster from and to memory cards and disk, but compute cycles are required for compression and decompression. I expect image compression to not challenge the Alpha a1's BIONZ XR processor. When converting RAW files to other formats, Sony's TIFF-like uncompressed RAW files process extremely fast. In regards to decompressing RAW files during this operation, the overall performance difference may depend on the speed of the processor.
The lossy compressed file format available on previous Sony cameras is still a good option, and it remains available, as does the massive uncompressed RAW option. In addition, "The Alpha 1 includes the HEIF (High Efficiency Image File) format for smooth 10-bit gradations that provide more realistic reproduction of skies and portrait subjects where subtle, natural gradation is essential." [Sony] The oversampled 21 MP image size is available.
The following table shows comparative RAW file sizes for a photo of a standard in-studio setup with a moderately-high amount of detail captured with the referenced camera. I'll add the a1 numbers when this camera hits the lab, but estimate sizes between those from the EOS 5Ds R and EOS R5.
|Model / File Size in MB @ ISO:||(MP)||100||200||400||800||1600||3200||6400||12800||25600||51200||102400||204800|
|Canon EOS-1D X Mark III||(20.1)||24.7||25.2||25.4||26.0||26.9||27.8||28.9||30.3||31.9||33.7||35.9||36.3|
|Canon EOS 5Ds R||(50.6)||65.2||66.4||67.6||69.8||73.0||77.2||81.9||88.4|
|Canon EOS R5||(45.0)||51.6||53.1||53.6||55.6||57.7||60.1||63.0||66.4||70.5||75.1||79.5|
|Canon EOS R5 CRAW||(45.0)||28.1||29.3||29.9||31.5||33.3||35.5||36.2||35.9||36.0||36.9||37.7|
|Canon EOS R6||(20.1)||24.1||24.7||24.9||25.6||26.4||27.3||28.4||29.8||31.4||33.3||35.5||35.9|
|Canon EOS R6 CRAW||(20.1)||13.8||14.2||14.5||14.9||15.6||16.4||16.4||16.0||15.7||15.8||16.1||14.8|
|Sony a9 II||(24.2)||47.2||47.2||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.2||47.2||47.2||47.3|
|Sony a7R IV||(61.0)||117.0||117.0||117.0||117.0||117.0||117.0||117.0||117.0||82.0||82.0||82.0|
|Sony a7R IV CRAW||(61.0)||59.1||59.1||59.1||59.1||59.1||59.1||59.1||59.1||59.1||59.1||59.1|
|Sony a7R III||(42.4)||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||82.0||82.0||82.0|
|Sony a7R II||(42.4)||82.8||82.8||82.8||82.8||82.8||82.8||82.8||82.8||82.8||82.8||82.8|
|Sony a7 III||(24.2)||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.2||47.2||47.2|
The Sony Alpha 1 has dual media slots, both supporting SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-II) and CFexpress Type A memory cards. The CFexpress Type A cards available at review time are slower and not available in capacities as high as CFexpress Type B memory cards. Still, they are smaller, and the ability to use SD cards in the both slots is a huge advantage. The primary advantage of CFexpress Type A cards over SD cards is speed.
Which CFexpress memory card should I get for the Sony a1? I expect this scenario to change rapidly, but, there are only two options as I write this. You can get the Sony 80GB CFexpress Type A TOUGH Memory Card or the Sony 160GB CFexpress Type A TOUGH Memory Card. Right, neither card is going to hold many minutes of 8k video. Watch for many more options becoming available very soon.
Early in the DSLR history, the fastest continuous frame rates available were an exact spec, with few contingencies. Today, with so many factors affecting this spec, an app is practically required to determine the realized continuous frame rate.
That said, with the right settings, the Sony a1 can record 50-megapixel images at an incredible 30 fps rate, a framerate commonly used for movie recording. The required settings for 30 fps still frame capture include the full electronic shutter, the lossy compressed setting for RAW capture, the right lens (certain lenses disqualify 30 fps), and even the shutter speed is a concern. Each image requires time to capture, and if continuous AF is selected, the camera needs enough time between shots to process focus information.
The AF system is not the only feature that requires scene visibility. Your eyes have the same requirement. Keeping a moving subject (most still subjects do not require a fast frame rate) in the frame is incredibly important, and the a1's ability to shoot blackout-free is remarkable and differentiating.
Here are the a1's available still image frame rates:
AUTO/Electronic Shutter: Hi+: 30fps, Hi: 20fps, Mid: 15fps, Lo: 5fps
Mechanical Shutter: Hi+: 10fps, Hi: 8fps, Mid: 6fps, Lo: 3fps
As usual, the a1's buffer capacity specs are also complicated. The frame counts below appear to be from 20 fps captures, and the continuous shooting time in seconds column reflects this assumption.
|JPEG Extra fine L||182||9.1|
|JPEG Fine L||400||20.0|
|JPEG Standard L||400||20.0|
|RAW (lossy compressed)||238||11.9|
|RAW (lossy compressed) & JPG||192||9.6|
|RAW (Lossless Compression)||96||4.8|
|RAW (Lossless Compression) & JPG||83||4.2|
|RAW (Uncompressed) & JPG||78||3.9|
Using 30 fps H+ mode yields 165 JPG and 155 RAW (lossy compressed RAW only) images for 5.5 and 5.2 seconds of shooting time. That pair of image count numbers highlights an interesting difference. While more JPG images can be recorded before reaching the buffer capacity, the difference is only slight. Similarly interesting is that the 20 fps lossy compressed RAW buffer capacity is considerably higher than the JPEG Extra fine L capacity.
Consider the until-full-buffer time durations for your expected shooting scenarios, and base your judgments accordingly. I expect to use RAW (Lossless Compression) exclusively (unless wanting the 30 fps rate), and the 4.8-second duration is sufficient for most of my needs. Even in the worst 20 fps case above, the about-four seconds of shooting time is quite good.
Daunting will be selecting the best images from a shoot involving significant use of the 20 or 30 fps capability. A one-minute duration of 30 fps shutter release pressed creates 1,800 images (30 frames x 60 seconds).
Does everyone need 30 fps? Of course not. However, with the extreme number of images captured today, it is difficult to create imagery that stands above those from the crowd. Using the 30 fps rate may capture that perfect moment of action that makes an image rise above the rest.
Here is a comparative look at max frame rates and buffer capacities.
|Model||FPS||Max JPG||Max RAW||Shutter Lag||VF Blackout|
|Canon EOS-1D X Mark III||16/20||>1000||>1000||29-55ms||n/a|
|Canon EOS R5||12/20||350||87/180||50ms||n/a|
|Canon EOS R6||12/20||1,000+||240||n/a|
|Sony a9 II||10/20||361||239|
|Sony a7R IV||10||68||68||n/a||n/a|
|Sony a7R III||10||76||28||20ms||n/a|
|Sony a7R II||5||24||23||20ms||n/a|
|Sony a7 III||10||40||163|
The available Sony Alpha a1 mechanical shutter speeds range from 1/8000 to 30 seconds plus Bulb. This range is typical for high-end camera models, but I'm ready for Sony (and Canon) to enable longer exposure settings. Why not offer 2-minute exposures? It seems that availing this option amounts to only a small software change. Include a menu option to permit limiting the range.
Extremely impressive is the 1/32000 to 30 seconds plus Bulb shutter speed range available with the electronic shutter. Note that continuous shooting mode limits the electronic shutter exposure duration range to 1/32000 to 1/2 seconds. An example of this limitation having an impact is when shooting continuous frames of the night sky using a remote release and equatorial tracking mount. In this case, the electronic shutter is desired for the lack of shutter shock, and the remote release button locked down permits motion-free control over the shutter and permits walking away for an extended length of time.
The full (first and second curtain) electronic shutter comes with both advantages and disadvantages.
A significant advantage is that the electronic shutter is silent, ideal for use during quiet events such as weddings, when photographing skittish wildlife, and any time movies are being recorded with audio. With no mechanical shutter in use, there are no moving parts, shutter failure is improbable, and there is no shutter vibration to be concerned with.
The downsides of an electronic shutter are primarily related to the line-by-line reading of the imaging sensor. Fast side-to-side subject or camera movement can result in an angular-shifted image with vertically straight lines becoming noticeably slanted (with the camera in horizontal orientation). The second curtain of a mechanical shutter chasing the first curtain can produce the same effect. Still, the difference between mechanical shutter (with electronic first curtain shutter) and electronic shutter performance in this regard has historically been quite big.
Certain light pulsing can influence electronic shutter-captured results, potentially resulting in banding. Also, defocused highlight bokeh circles can become clipped when using an electronic shutter.
With the a1, Sony has addressed the electronic shutter disadvantages, with High-speed readout from the new image sensor promising a significant 1.5x rolling shutter reduction compared to the Alpha a9 II. The increased readout speed "also offers silent anti-flicker continuous shooting with an electronic shutter for the first time in the world. "Stress-free continuous shooting is now possible even when shooting in challenging lighting situations with fluorescent or other flicker-prone types of artificial lighting." [Sony] In addition, this increased speed enables, for the first time in an Alpha series camera, electronic shutter flash X-sync up to 1/200 sec and 1/250 in APS-C mode.
The reasons to use the mechanical shutter are dwindling.
What is the Sony a1 flash X-sync with the mechanical shutter? Sony claims the world’s fastest 1/400 X-sync is that answer (1/500 in APS-C mode).
A misfocused image is usually useless, photographers heavily rely on autofocus, and a flagship camera is expected to have an incredible-performing AF system — nothing less would be acceptable.
The high-performing Sony AF systems, especially eye AF, have been attracting photographers to the Sony Alpha series cameras for years. The Alpha a1 designers had a solid baseline to build upon. With the new, extremely fast BIONZ XR image processing engine providing eight times more processing power than the BIONZ X in the a9 II, along with AF algorithm improvements, the a1's AF system should be incredible.
The a1 AF system has 759 phase-detection AF points and 425 contrast-detection areas with 92% coverage, focuses in light levels as low as -4 EV (really dark), focuses with an f/22 aperture opening, and performs 120 calculations per second. Real-time Tracking of humans (even when the subject’s face looks away, 30% eye AF improvement over a9 II), animals (improved eye tracking, primarily designed for cats and dogs), and birds (eyes, first in and Alpha series camera) are featured in still photo mode, and humans are tracked in movie modes.
"The Alpha 1 also features AI-based Real-time Tracking that automatically maintains accurate focus. A subject recognition algorithm uses color, pattern (brightness), and subject distance (depth) data to process spatial information in real time at high speed." [Sony]
AF point/area selection can be made using the joystick or, if using the rear LCD for live view, touching the LCD will select the focus point, overriding the AF area to Flexible Spot until the focus cancel button (center of the rear dial) is pressed. A great a1 feature is that the rear LCD can function as a configurable AF point/area selection touchpad during viewfinder use, as featured in recent Alpha series cameras.
As with the AF system, a flagship camera released at this time is expected to have incredible movie recording capabilities. The Sony Alpha a1 checks that box.
"For the first time in an Alpha camera, the Alpha 1 offers 8K 30p 10-bit 4:2:0 XAVC HS recording with 8.6K oversampling for extraordinary resolution. Combined with Sony’s acclaimed autofocus technology, gradation and color reproduction performance, the Alpha 1 will help the user realize their creative vision with the finest detail." [Sony]
Thanks to a heat-dissipating frame, the ultra-high resolution 8K video recording is supported for, minimally, 30 minutes of record time before overheating shutdown occurs. In addition, 4K 120p (5X slow-motion video, 10% crop) 10-bit 4:2:2 and 1080p 240 fps capabilities are provided. The full sensor width is used for 4K recording though pixel binning — not downsampling.
Real-time Eye AF and Real-time Tracking for movies are supported with the BIONZ XR engine providing significantly improved detection, accurately tracking human eyes, including at a wider range of head angles, including for 8K and 4K 120p recording.
We talked about the faster imaging sensor readout earlier in the review. This feature brings a huge benefit for movie recording, with a 2.8x rolling shutter effect improvement as seen in the a7R IV.
Would you prefer to leave the gimbal behind? Active mode IBIS is designed for video recording while in motion. "When using Sony’s desktop applications Catalyst Browse or Catalyst Prepare for post-production, an accurate image stabilization function is available which utilizes metadata generated by camera's built-in gyro." [Sony]
"The Alpha 1 features S-Cinetone, the same color matrix that produces the highly regarded FX9 and FX6 color and skin tones. It delivers natural mid-tones, plus soft colors and gorgeous highlights to meet a growing need for more expressive depth. The S-Log3 gamma curve makes it possible to achieve 15+ stops of dynamic range, while the S-Gamut3 and S-Gamut3. Cine color gamut settings make it easy to match Alpha 1 footage with video shot on VENICE cinema camera, FX9 and other professional cinema cameras." [Sony]
"Other features that the Alpha 1 offers include; 16-bit RAW output to an external recorder via HDMI for maximum post-production flexibility, a digital audio interface has been added to the camera’s Multi Interface (MI) Shoe for clearer audio recordings from a compatible Sony external microphone, 5.8K oversampled full pixel readout without pixel binning for high-resolution 4K movies in Super 35mm mode and more." [Sony]
Review the full Sony a1 movie capabilities here. Expect extremely high video recording performance from the a1.
"At an astonishing calculation speed of up to 120 AF/AE per second, the Alpha 1 can maintain focus with high accuracy even for fast moving subjects. It can automatically adjust exposure, even with sudden changes in brightness, with an AE response latency as low as 0.033 seconds" [Sony]
While Sony's current line of Alpha series cameras handle auto-exposure calculations very well, expect the a1 to improve upon this performance, minimally with faster detection of exposure requirements.
Like the a9 II, the a1 features 1200-zone evaluative metering at EV -3 – EV 20 with +/- 5.0EV exposure compensation available.
As touch upon earlier in the review, the a1 has the "World's first anti-flicker shooting with both mechanical and electronic shutter." We originally saw the anti-flicker shooting feature as game-changing, and Sony just raised that game.
The Sony Alpha a1 features a huge 0.64-type OLED electronic viewfinder, featuring industry-leading 9.44 million-dot Quad-XGA resolution, .90x magnification, and 25mm-high eyepoint, with the world’s first 240 fps refresh rate to keep up with fast action. This EVF offers a selectable field of view, 41° or 33°, and the fine print says that the 240 fps refresh rate requires the 33° field of view option and UXGA (1600x1200, 1,920,000 pixels) resolution.
Like the a9 II and a7R IV, the a1's rear LCD is a good quality 2.95" tilting touch screen LCD with 1.44 million dots. With larger and higher-resolution LCD panels now available, it is a little surprising that Sony stayed the course with the same size and resolution LCD found in the a9 II and a7R IV. This LCD will not be viewable from the front, but it will also not interfere with L-brackets and wire plugged into the ports.
Following a moving subject in the viewfinder is extraordinarily challenging when the display blacks out or pauses during frame capture. I can't imagine keeping a moving subject in the frame if the viewfinder was blacking while capturing images 20 or 30 times per second. A standout Sony a9-series camera feature has been blackout-free shooting, and the a1 gets this feature.
I don't recall hearing anyone rave about how easy Sony's camera menus were to navigate. Sony has addressed this issue with the a1. "Touch-responsive main and function menus with menu tabs on the left of the display, and related parameter groups and parameters on the right, make for easy navigation and tracking control." [Sony] Sony's LCD touch capabilities were previously limited to touch AF point selection when the rear LCD was active and touchpad functionality for AF point selection when using the EVF.
Another significant improvement: "For easy customization, a subset of the camera’s shooting settings now changes according to the selected shooting mode, making it easier than ever to use different aperture, shutter speed and other settings for shooting stills and movies." [Sony] This feature makes switching between stills and movie modes especially efficient.
Those familiar with the a9 II, a7R IV, and other similar Sony Alpha series cameras will readily familiarize themselves with the a1. Visually, the a1 and a9 II are nearly the same.
As you review the images of this camera and contemplate using it, keep in mind that the controls are extremely customizable. "164 Functions are assignable to 17 custom keys as well as the front and rear dials. Independent function sets can be assigned for stills, movies and playback." [Sony]
To visually compare the Sony a1 with many other camera models, use the site's camera product image comparison tool (the a1 vs. a9 II comparison is preloaded).
The back of the camera changes from the a9 II include a red circle instead of a red dot on the movie start/stop button, a larger viewfinder with the proximity detector moved to the bottom of the viewfinder, and the "SONY" badge has disappeared from the bottom of the LCD. The additional change from the a7R IV is the left side of the rear control dial losing its functions.
The a1 carries over some of the nice feature enhancements first seen on the a7R IV, including buttons raised higher with a raised plastic surrounding area below them. Overall, a solid set of rear camera controls are provided in a mature layout.
Again, the top of the a1 is nearly identical to the top of the a9 II. Sony repositioned the focus mode lock button to an easier to reach location, and the a1's larger viewfinder size is readily seen in this comparison. With the drive and focus mode selection moved to dials on the a1, this camera and the 19 II's design departs from the a7R IV and III designs utilizing the rear control dial and custom buttons for this functionality.
The mode, exposure compensation, and drive mode dials feature lock buttons to prevent inadvertent changes. Only the exposure compensation dial featuring a toggling lock that retain the locked or unlocked setting when pressed – meaning that you can have your preference of locked or unlocked. The modes that professionals (and anyone serious about photography) have come to expect are included: M, S, A, P. Those who want to take advantage of a great camera without a learning curve (and those who need the camera to decide what settings are required in an instant) have the intelligent auto mode ready for immediate use.
Three custom options are again provided, ready to store your most-used settings for immediate recall.
S&O mode, referring to the opposites "S"low and "Q"uick, is used for Slow and Quick Motion movies. Just counter-clockwise to the S&O mode is the standard movie mode.
A pair of programmable custom buttons are again provided within convenient reach of the grip hand's index finger. These buttons are noticeably raised and are easier to find than on the a7R III and earlier designs.
The a1's power switch, surrounding the shutter release, is conveniently positioned, allowing the camera to be powered on with the grip hand's index finger while the camera is in hand.
The exposure compensation dial is easily accessible to the thumb and provides easy visual confirmation of the current setting.
On the a7R III, the dial on the top referred to as the rear dial, located rearward between the mode dial and exposure compensation dial, was exposed by 3mm more than in the a7R II, making it also considerably easier to use. On the a7R IV, the dial breaks out of the camera shell, becoming fully exposed on top of the camera where it is considerably easier to use. The a1 retains that optimization.
Overall, the Sony Alpha a1 provides a considerable amount of controls, availing quick setting changes. Once acclimated to the Sony control positioning and feature locations, this camera will be quite easy to use. Expect a quality feel, including dials and buttons that click reassuringly into positions.
Ports on the left side of the camera from the top-right, moving clockwise, are: mic and headphone (3.5 mm Stereo minijack), HDMI Type-A (note this is a full-size port), SuperSpeed USB Type-C 10 Gbps (USB 3.2), multi-terminal USB (Micro), flash sync terminal, and 1000BASE-T Ethernet connector.
The change noticeable on the camera's right/grip side is the new memory card door release.
One of the big attractions to the Sony MILCs is their small size and light weight. Small is great in many respects, but too small has a potential downside regarding the grip of a frequently-used camera.
When you want to have full control over something, you grasp it with your entire hand. You don't hold a baseball bat, tennis racket, or golf club with just your fingertips. The same is true for a camera grip. While I'm not swinging my camera in the same way as those sporting implements, I still want total control over my camera and an attached lens.
The Sony a7R II grip was too small for me. Despite its grip being about 2.5mm deeper than the II's, the a7R III grip didn't seem much improved. The a7R IV grip iteration was a significant improvement. The increased palm swell is immediately felt when picking up the camera.
The a7R IV grip extends forward noticeably farther than the a7R III grip, providing the depth needed to fill fingers, and many will find their pinky remaining on the grip vs. sliding under it. While the a7R IV's grip is much more secure and comfortable in hand, the lens clearance issue has not been addressed in this update. I've often complained about Sony's larger lenses uncomfortably impacting my first two fingers' first (non-cushioned) knuckles (I have medium/large hands). With the grip not being moved outward away from the lens, the a7R IV still has that issue.
The a1 grip evaluation awaits.
|Model||Body Dimensions||CIPA Weight|
|Canon EOS R5||5.5 x 3.8 x 3.5"||(138.0 x 97.5 x 88.0mm)||26.0 oz (738g)|
|Sony a1||5.1 x 3.9 x 3.3"||(128.9 x 96.9 x 80.8mm)||23.7 oz (673g)|
|Sony a9 II||5.1 x 3.9 x 3.1"||(128.9 x 96.4 x 77.5mm)||23.7 oz (673g)|
|Sony a9||5.0 x 3.8 x 2.5"||(126.9 x 95.6 x 63.0mm)||23.7 oz (673g)|
|Sony a7R IV||5.2 x 3.9 x 3.2"||(128.9 x 96.4 x 77.5mm)||23.5 oz (665g)|
|Sony a7R III||5.0 x 3.9 x 3.0"||(126.9 x 95.6 x 73.7mm)||23.2 oz (657g)|
|Sony a7R II||5.0 x 3.8 x 2.4"||(126.9 × 95.7 x 60.3mm)||22.0 oz (625g)|
|Sony a7 III||5.0 x 3.8 x 3.0"||(126.9 x 95.6 x 73.7mm)||23.0 oz (650g)|
|Sony a7C||4.9 x 2.8 x 2.4"||(124.0 x 71.1 x 59.7mm)||18.0 oz (509g)|
Overall, aside from the a7C, there is little size and weight difference between the Sony Alpha full-frame camera models. All are small. All are light. Those are features few will complain about, especially when carrying, either in a case or in hand, for long periods. That said, the a1 assumes the largest and heaviest position in the lineup, but by an insignificant margin.
Built on a lightweight, high-rigidity magnesium alloy chassis, the Sony a1 should be solid with a high quality feel – similar to the a9 II and a7R IV. In general, expect the buttons, dials and switches have nice haptic feedback and the fun-to-use factor is very high.
The a1 is dust and moisture resistant (though not waterproof). Sony indicated that the sealing is improved from the a7S III.
With no moving parts, the Sony a1's electronic shutter should last indefinitely, but the dual-driven, spring and electromagnetic drive actuator, carbon fiber mechanical shutter also has a durability rating that few photographers will reach: 500,000 actuations. While this is the best available rating, the a1 is not the first or only model to reach this number.
|Model||Shutter Durability Rating|
|Canon EOS-1D X Mark III||500,000|
|Canon EOS R5||500,000|
|Sony a9 II||500,000|
|Sony a7R IV||500,000|
|Sony a7R III||500,000|
|Sony a7R II||500,000|
Note that the a1 shutter closes upon power-off, adding protection to the image sensor.
Sony: "Professional workflow support with the industry’s fastest built-in Wi-Fi, SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps, 1000BASE-T Ethernet and more."
"The Alpha 1 has been designed and configured to support photo and video journalists and sports shooters who need to deliver stills or movies as quickly as possible with advanced connectivity options. It offers several features for fast, reliable file transfers. Industry’s fastest built-in wireless LAN allows communication on 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz[xxix] bands with dual antennas to ensure reliable communications. 5 GHz includes 2x2 MIMO support (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac) offering 3.5 times faster wireless FTP transfer speed than the Alpha 9 II - a notable advantage for news and sports shooters who need to deliver with reliable speed. There is also a provided USB Type-C connector to support fast data transfer when connected to a 5G mmWave compatible device such as Sony’s Xperia PRO and makes high-speed PC Remote (tethered) data transfer available for smooth handling of large image files. The Alpha 1 also has a built-in 1000BASE-T LAN connector for high-speed, stable data transfers, including remote shooting. FTPS (File Transfer over SSL/TLS) is supported, allowing SSL or TLS encryption for increased data security." [Sony]
Note that a GPS feature is not built into the a1.
Mirrorless cameras are not yet competing with DSLRs in the shots per battery charge spec. Still, their spec has risen high enough to be adequate for a significant percentage of needs, especially with a spare along. Highly convenient is that the a1 shares the Sony NP-FZ100 battery pack power source with many other recent Alpha series models. This relatively compact battery is rated for approx. 430 shots (viewfinder) or 530 shots (LCD monitor) (CIPA standard). Real-life use often exceeds CIPA ratings and dramatically exceeds CIPA ratings when shooting in continuous modes. Otherwise, 30 fps capture could consume a battery charge in 15 seconds of shutter release press while looking through the EVF.
USB PD (Power Delivery) is supported.
Like the a7R IV, the a1 is compatible with the Sony VG-C4EM Vertical Grip.
The vertical grip provides improved handling, especially with larger lenses and especially in vertical orientation where it provides the same grip and controls as the built-in grip. The VG-C4EM permits two NP-FZ100 batteries to be used, doubling the number of shots per charge.
The biggest downside to the grip, aside from the purchase cost, is the size and weight it adds to the camera. The grip being easily removable means you can choose when to use it. Remove the battery door via a spring-loaded switch to enable the grip to mount. As with most battery grips of this type, the removed door clips into space provided on the side of the grip fitting into the battery compartment.
The VG-C4EM features magnesium alloy construction with dust and moisture resistance matching the a1. This accessory is well-built and well-matched — I have one in my kit.
If two batteries are not sufficient for your needs, the Sony Multi Battery Adaptor NPA-MQZ1K holds four.
When deciding which camera brand to purchase, consider the entire accessory system available. If your needs are light, a few good lenses may be completely adequate. Professionals with more complex needs are not as easy to satisfy. In this regard, Sony covers far more than the basics and continues to add significant models to their E-mount lens lineup.
What is the best lens for the Sony a1? The lens is a required accessory, and most will find the Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens to be the best general-purpose lens available for the a7R IV. For the longer focal length needs often encountered by professionals, the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens is a great choice, and the Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens is an excellent option for wide-angle needs.
For more advice, the site's Best Sony Lenses page is a great starting point. The Best Sony General-Purpose Lens, Best Sony Telephoto Zoom Lens, and Best Sony Wide-Angle Lens pages feature recommendations for the top 3 lens types. Also, check out our Sony Lens Reviews for in-depth coverage of all of Sony's lenses.
The Sony Alpha a1's ultimate feature set is accompanied by the highest price ever seen for a Sony MILC. While the a1 price is high, it remains considerably less than the $8k we used to pay for the Canon 1-series professional DSLR cameras. With the a1, you get arguably the best mirrorless interchangeable lens camera ever built (as of review time). This camera is a best-in-class, feature-packed, professional-grade model. The price is justifiable for professionals and serious amateurs with the desire to capture the ultimate images and the means for acquisition.
Is the Sony a1 the right camera for you? Here are three relevant comparisons.
"The most technologically advanced, innovative camera that Sony has ever released, the Alpha 1 combines high-resolution and high-speed performance at a level that has never been accomplished in the world of digital cameras. With a brand new 50.1-megapixel full-frame stacked Exmor RS image sensor, up to 120 AF/AE calculations per second, 8K 30p 10-bit 4:2:0 video and much more, the Alpha 1 will allow creators to capture what they’ve never been able to before." [Sony]
Overall, the Sony Alpha a1 should be an extraordinary camera, the camera for everyone (able and willing to pay the price). The a1 garnered a great deal of attention at its announcement, and I expect the preorder line to take a long time to satisfy. I preordered the a1, and this review will be substantially updated upon its arrival.
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