Sony Alpha a1 Review

Sony a1

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, and this is arguably the best interchangeable lens camera ever produced.

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.

Summary of Sony Alpha a1 Features

"The Alpha 1 Delivers an Unprecedented Combination of Resolution, Speed and Video Performance." [Sony]

  • 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 poweri
  • Blackout- free continuous shooting at up to 30 frames per secondii
  • Fast sensor readout enables up to 120 AF/AE calculations per secondiii, double the speed of the Alpha 9 II, even during 30fps continuous shooting
  • Bright and large 0.64-type 9.44 million-dot (approx.) OLED Quad-XGA electronic viewfinder with the world’s firstiv refresh rate of 240 fps
  • Silent, vibration-free electronic shutter
  • World’s firstv anti-flicker shooting with both mechanical and electronic shutter
  • Electronic shutter flash syncvi up to 1/200 sec. for the first time in the Alpha™ series
  • World’s fastestv mechanical shutter flash sync up to 1/400 sec.
  • 8K 30pvii 10-bit 4:2:0 XAVC HS video recording with 8.6K oversampling for extraordinary detail and resolution, in addition to 4K 120pviii 10-bit 4:2:2 movie shooting capabilities
  • Wide dynamic range of 15 stops for stillsix and 15+ stops for videox
  • Improved Real-time Eye AF (autofocus) for humans and animals, and new Real-time Eye AF for birdsxi, as well as Real-time Tracking that automatically maintains accurate focus
  • 5-axis optical in-body image stabilization for a 5.5-stepxii shutter speed advantage
  • S-Cinetone color matrix as seen in FX9 and FX6 to deliver expressive cinematic look
  • Professional workflow support with the industry’s fastestxiii built-in Wi-Fi, SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps, 1000BASE-T Ethernet 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.

Sony a1 ExmorRS Sensor

Sensor and Image Quality

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.

ModelFOVCFSensorPixel SizePixels/MegapixelsViewfinderDLA*
Canon EOS-1D X Mark III1.0x36.0 x 24.0mm6.6µm5472 x 364820.1 .76x100%f/10.6
Canon EOS R51.0x36.0 x 24.0mm4.39µm8192 x 546445.0 .76x100%f/7.1
Canon EOS R61.0x36.0 x 24.0mm6.56µm5472 x 364820.1 .76x100%f/10.6
Sony a11.0x35.9 x 24.0mm4.2µm8640 x 576050.1 .90x100%f/6.7
Sony a9 II1.0x35.6 x 23.8mm5.9µm6000 x 400024.2 .78x100%f/9.6
Sony a91.0x35.6 x 23.8mm5.9µm6000 x 400024.2 .78x100%f/9.6
Sony a7R IV1.0x35.7 x 23.8mm3.8µm9504 x 633661.0.78x100%f/6.1
Sony a7R III1.0x35.9 x 24.0mm4.5µm7952 x 530442.4.78x100%f/7.2
Sony a7R II1.0x35.9 x 24.0mm4.5µm7952 x 530442.4 .78x100%f/7.2
Sony a7 III1.0x35.6 x 23.8mm5.9µm6000 x 400024.2.78x100%f/9.6
Sony a7C1.0x35.6 x 23.8mm5.9µm6000 x 400024.2 .59x100%f/9.6
* Learn more about DLA (Diffraction Limited Aperture)
View the full Sony a1 specifications to compare additional cameras.

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 will see a dramatic increase in resolution.

Those stepping up from a Sony a7R III or Sony a7R II should expect to see a modest but still noticeable increase in resolution. This is that difference.

While creating comparisons, I'll include one for the higher resolution Sony a7R IV. Warning: Ultra-high resolution is addicting.

I'll use a Sony a1 vs. Canon EOS R5 comparison to illustrate a point. While Sony cameras produce extremely sharp images, they show greater levels of moiré or false color. Note that difference in the Sony vs. Canon comparison.

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:

  1. Lens aberrations (high-quality lenses will make the best use of the resolution available)
  2. Subject motion (an increased pixel density means that details will cross over individual pixels at a higher rate of speed, meaning that a slightly faster shutter speed will be required to avoid increased blur at the pixel level)
  3. Shortcomings in your technique including camera shake (you will need slightly faster shutter speeds for sharp handheld images — image stabilization and use of a tripod becoming more necessary)
  4. Focusing errors are magnified
  5. Environmental issues such as heat waves are magnified
  6. Diffraction

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 and 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 similar to the lower resolution camera in an equalized comparison, placing it on par with the camera thought to be the low light king.

Like all of the other Sony Alpha cameras, the a1 imaging sensor has a 3:2 aspect ratio. Optionally (mandatory when using an EF-S lens on the adapter), a 1.6x crop can be set. Other aspect ratios available are 1:1, 4:3, and 16:9.

The a1 has the ISO 100–32000 range available, and expanded ISO settings from ISO 50 to ISO 102400 are available in still image mode. The entire range is selectable in 1/3-stops.

Sony did not heavily promote improved high ISO noise level performance from the Alpha a1. The latest imaging sensors are usually the best produced in this regard, though advances have been modest in recent years. I didn't expect dramatically lower noise levels than from other recent Sony models, though I expected the a1 results to be the best in class, and they are.

Let's take a closer look at noise and dynamic range.

Sony a1 ISO Noise Comparison

With the Sony a1 noise test results from 180 different test images available, much can be discerned. The smoothly-colored Kodak color patches test chart subject combined with no noise reduction processing (key point) makes noise especially noticeable compared to detailed scenes that better hide noise levels. As always, noise reduction processing can improve upon the noise level seen in these images, but noise reduction can be applied to images from every camera, reducing its differentiation. So, avoiding noise reduction in the comparison levels the playing field. Unless otherwise noted, the Sony RAW-captured noise test images utilized the "Uncompressed" RAW setting and were processed in Capture One with the Natural Clarity Method and the Sharpening Amount set to 30 (on a 0-1,000 scale).

What you see in these results is not significantly different from what the a7R IV delivered though slightly less noise may be noticeable at the higher ISO settings. As the ISO setting increases from 100 through 800, noise levels grow slowly. But, they remain very low, as usual, showing the impressive capabilities of a modern, high-resolution full-frame imaging sensor. At ISO 1600 through ISO 3200, noise levels become noticeable though images retain a high quality at these settings. By ISO 6400, images begin to show noticeable impact from noise, and by ISO 12800, noise is strong. ISO 25600 through 51200 results look bad unless significantly downsized, and ISO 102400 results look terrible. ISO 32000 is the highest non-extended a1 ISO setting, and, to give credit where due, that is the number most prominently displayed on Sony's website at review time.

Do not expect noise performance from an ultra-high-resolution imaging sensor to match that from the same size, similar generation low-resolution imaging sensors such as that in the Sony a9. However, if the lower resolution works for you, the higher resolution images can be considered oversampled and processed to smaller dimensions.

With the a1, Sony promised a repeat of the a7R III and IV's very impressive up to 15-stops of dynamic range at lower ISO sensitivity. One way to look at a camera's DR capabilities is to over or under-expose images and adjust them to the correct brightness in post-processing.

Increase the exposure by 3 stops and pull it back by the same in Capture One to get an idea of the dynamic range available. In that comparison, a1 appears to deliver the same dynamic range as the a7R IV. Try higher ISO comparisons to see that these two cameras produce similar results and retain excellent dynamic range at high ISO settings. Images from both cameras have lost the color information in the brightest color blocks with the colors becoming gray, but both appear to have lost a similar amount of color detail. At higher ISO settings in this comparison, notice the reduced noise advantage of this form of oversampling. Also, look at the ISO 50 comparison to see the reduced dynamic range available at this expanded setting. Both cameras are looking outstanding with this chart overexposed by two stops.

It is similarly interesting to look at underexposed images with brightness increased by the offsetting amount. In the -3 EV comparison, the a1 turns in very slightly lower noise levels than the a7R IV, though the higher-resolution a7R IV has additional resolution available for oversampling. Underexposing when using the a7R IV involves little or no noise penalty vs. selecting a higher ISO setting in the first place. Still, getting the exposure right in the first place delivers a lower noise image if a longer exposure/same ISO setting can be utilized. A real advantage of this capability is that shadow details can be pulled out of a very high dynamic range scene that is otherwise properly exposed and when an HDR technique cannot be used or is not desired.

The JPG result set utilized the camera default settings. Manufacturers want you to think their cameras are sharp, even if using a mediocre-performing lens. However, this oversharpening is destructive to image details, and noise is sharpened. The compare-to image in that link was created with the USM strength sharpness parameter reduced from 4 to 2. The less-sharpened image still looks good, and the magnified difference makes that image look significantly better still. The two ISO 100 images below are enlarged to 300%, revealing the ugliness of oversharpening.

Sony Alpha a1 Sharpness Comparison

Differences to look for include the halos around details and the increased noise.

High ISO noise reduction is always available during post-processing, and with-noise-reduction results are included in the noise tool for the a1. Interesting is that, even with High ISO noise reduction set to off, the a1 still appears to apply some noise reduction Note that the JPG image was captured with auto white balance, while the RAW images were processed with a custom white balance, explaining the color difference seen here.

The other two noise reduction settings available in camera for non-RAW file format capture are Low and Normal, both illustrated with the default camera settings. A set of RAW images with noise reduction are provided. These were processing using the default Capture One for Sony settings.

Noise reduction can make a huge difference in the results, but not all of it is positive. Noise reduction is destructive to fine details and must be applied carefully for optimal results. The same applies to sharpening, and a stronger amount of sharpening may be needed when noise reduction strength is increased, boding well for Sony's default over-sharpening.

Sony's imaging sensors are among the best available. We expected nothing short of excellence from the new sensor in the a1, and it delivered that. Overall, the Sony a1 produces exceptional image quality, featuring high-resolution, modest noise levels, and excellent dynamic range.

Pixel Shift Multi Shooting

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 result 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.

Sony a7R III

60 MP | 240 MP   60 | 240 MP

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.

In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)

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.

File Size and Media

Selecting the latest Sony image file format arriving in the a1 was a no-brainer for me. Finally, Sony provides a lossless compressed RAW file format, delivering 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. The image compression does not appear to 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 will depend on the speed of the processor. As I write this, the lack of third-party software support for the lossless compressed file format is a problem, though one that I expect resolved quickly.

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.

Model / File Size in MB @ ISO:(MP)100200400800160032006400128002560051200102400204800
Canon EOS-1D X III(20.1)24.725.225.426.026.927.828.930.331.933.735.936.3
Canon EOS 5Ds R(50.6)65.266.467.669.873.077.281.988.4    
Canon EOS R5(45.0)51.653.153.655.657.760.163.066.470.575.179.5 
Canon EOS R5 CRAW(45.0)28.129.329.931.533.335.536.235.936.036.937.7 
Canon EOS R6(20.1)24.124.724.925.626.427.328.429.831.433.335.535.9
Canon EOS R6 CRAW(20.1)13.814.214.514.915.616.416.416.015.715.816.114.8
Sony a1 Uncomp(50.1)102.2102.2102.1102.1102.2102.5102.4102.6103.4103.4104.4
Sony a1 Non-Lossy(50.1)64.064.765.767.169.171.674.478.280.896.093.9 
Sony a1 Lossy(50.1)54.454.454.354.254.454.654.554.755.655.656.4 
Sony a9 II(24.2)47.247.247.147.147.147.147.147.147.247.247.247.3
Sony a9(24.2)47.247.247.147.147.147.147.147.147.247.247.247.3
Sony a7R IV(61.0)117.0117.0117.0117.0117.0117.0117.0117.082.082.082.0 
Sony a7R IV CRAW(61.0)59.159.159.159.159.159.159.159.159.159.159.1 
Sony a7R III(42.4)81.981.981.981.981.981.981.981.982.082.082.0 
Sony a7R II(42.4)82.882.882.882.882.882.882.882.882.882.882.8 
Sony a7 III(24.2)47.147.147.147.147.147.147.147.147.147.247.247.2
Sony a7C(24.2)47.147.147.147.147.147.147.147.147.147.247.247.2

RAW file sizes increase with: 1. Resolution 2. Bit Depth (more is better/larger) 3. Detail (noise adds detail, so high ISO file sizes increase) 4. Lack of compression. Memory and disk are cheap – buy more.

At ISO 100, the Sony non-lossy compressed RAW format results in a huge file size reduction. This file is 63% as large as the uncompressed result and similar in size to Canon's standard non-lossy compressed 50MP EOS 5Ds R RAW files. At the highest (noisiest) ISO settings, the compression savings is significantly reduced.

The lossy compressed file size is, as expected, smaller than the non-lossy compressed file size. However, the difference is small enough at all except the highest few stops of ISO settings that there is little incentive (aside from a frame rate requirement I'll discuss soon) to drop down to the lossy option.

The Sony Alpha 1 has dual media slots, both supporting SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-II) and CFexpress Type A memory cards.

Compared to CFexpress Type B memory cards, the CFexpress Type A cards available at review time are slower, considerably more expensive, and not available in capacities nearly as high. Still, they are smaller, and the ability to use SD cards in 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, and both are very expensive. I mention the cost of CFexpress Type A memory for a sub-four-hour shoot in the Sony Alpha a1 Meets a Redhead Field Report — it is (currently) extreme. Watch for many more options coming available soon, with prices falling.

Understand that the highest a1 video recording formats and framerates require fast memory cards. "To perform shooting with this setting, use a memory card higher than SDXC V90 or memory card higher than CFexpress VPG200, or change the file format" is the message greeting incompatible settings and card combinations. As I write this, "higher than SDXC V90" does not exist in the SD format.

A (minor-for-most) memory card performance-related issue to mention is the SD memory card format time. Sony's format process is long, taking about 10 seconds. While 10 seconds is not a terribly long timespan, it seems quite long when inserting a not-preformatted memory card when action is happening. Format your Sony-destined memory cards during shoot preparation instead of during a shoot.

Sony a1 BIONZ XR Processors

Frame Rate, Buffer Depth, Shutter

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. In focus modes other than AF-C, a 1/125 sec. or faster shutter speed is required, and 1/250 sec. or faster is required in AF-C (continuous AF) mode.

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.

File TypeFramesSeconds
JPEG Extra fine L1829.1
JPEG Fine L40020.0
JPEG Standard L40020.0
RAW (lossy compressed)23811.9
RAW (lossy compressed) & JPG1929.6
RAW (Lossless Compression)964.8
RAW (Lossless Compression) & JPG834.2
RAW (Uncompressed)824.1
RAW (Uncompressed) & JPG783.9

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 highlight 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. Once supported by Capture One, I will 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 is 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). In an under-four-hour duck shoot, starting at 30 fps and soon moving to 20 fps, this camera collected nearly 9,000 images.

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. Bat on ball, ball leaving foot, shot put leaving the thrower's hand, hurdler in perfect jump pose, perfect wing flap pose, and peak of a dog's leap are a small number of examples that benefit from the fast frame rate.

The first two examples illustrate 20 fps capture, and the last shows 30 fps:

Sony a1 20 and 30 fps Frame Rate Example

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

In the first set of examples, 20 fps captured most of the desired sequence (yes, I should have held the shutter release a bit longer to get just the feet sticking out of the water). In the second set, the American widgeon wing flap shows the 20 fps rate insufficient for availing the full range of wing positions. Sorry, thanks to the wind direction, only back-facing wing flaps were performed on this day.

In the third set of examples, a 20 fps rate would have provided a good set of results to choose from, but the 30 fps rate provided the optimal ear and leg position options.

Here is another 30 fps example:

Sony a1 30 fps Frame Rate Example

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

The more I shoot at 30 fps, the more I find myself wanting to shoot at 30 fps.

Sony Alpha a1 30 fps Sports Sample Picture

Read the Going Down in the Steeplechase – Sometimes 30 fps and 50 MP are Critical page for more information on this image.

Here is a comparative look at max frame rates and buffer capacities.

ModelFPSMax JPGMax RAWShutter LagVF Blackout
Canon EOS-1D X Mark III16/20>1000>100029-55msn/a
Canon EOS R512/2035087/18050msn/a
Canon EOS R612/201,000+240 n/a
Sony a110/30400238  
Sony a9 II10/20361239  
Sony a910/20362241  
Sony a7R IV106868n/an/a
Sony a7R III10762820msn/a
Sony a7R II5242320msn/a
Sony a7 III1040163  
Sony a7C10213+115+  
View the full Sony a1 specifications to compare additional cameras.

For a data point: I tested the Sony a1's 10 fps mechanical shutter drive mode with the camera was configured to manual mode (no AE time lag) using ISO 100, a 1/8000 shutter speed (no waiting for the shutter operation), a wide-open aperture (no time lost due to aperture blades closing), and manual focus (no focus lock delay). The image was black for the smallest file size, the battery was near full charge, and a freshly-formatted fast memory card was loaded.

Using a relatively fast ProGrade Digital 64GB 200MB/s V60 UHS-II Memory Card, the Sony a1 fills the buffer with 73 uncompressed RAW images in 7.20 seconds. An additional frame was captured every .7 seconds after the buffer filled. Use the lossless-compressed RAW format to increase the buffer capacity to 88. Switch to the lossy-compressed RAW format, and the buffer does not fill until 169 images are captured.

Writing the buffer contents to the referenced card is a very slow process, taking a long 49.3 seconds for the referenced card. Fortunately, some (not all) setting changes are permitted during the buffer clearing process.

With dual card slots, the a1 offers the choice of writing each image to a single card or to both cards simultaneously. In addition, the a1 features "Sort Recording", writing subsequent images alternatively between the card slots. With both slots simultaneously in use and each image written to a single card, the a1 writes files considerably faster. Using two V60-rated SDXC cards and the lossless-compressed RAW format, the a1's buffer capacity increased significantly, nearly 2x, to 160 from 88. Decreased was the buffer write time, dropping to 30.6 from 49.3 seconds. The downside to sort recording is the (modest) additional complication to uploading images.

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 via the dial? It seems availing this option amounts to only a small software change. Then, 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 (only) 1/2 second. 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 nearby 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 delivering a significant 1.5x rolling shutter reduction compared to the Alpha a9 II. Even during fast panning with the a1, vertical lines remain nearly vertically straight for remarkable performance.

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] The flicker avoidance feature was game-changing, and many of us were excited when it first arrived. Now, in the Alpha a1, the flicker avoidance works similarly-great with both the mechanical second curtain shutter and the full electronic shutter.

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 — I seldom use it on the a1.

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).

The a1's mechanical shutter sounds are audible but very subdued. Following are links to MP3 files featuring those sounds.

Sony a1 One Shot Mode
Sony a1 Burst Mode

Interval shooting is available.

Autofocus

A misfocused image is generally 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. This technology gave the Alpha a1 designers 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 performance is outstanding.

This camera focuses extremely fast, though still annoying is that, in AF-S (single shot) drive mode, the lens is defocused prior to focusing, even if focusing on the same subject at the same distance. All current Sony Alpha current models do this, and, while the refocusing happens quite fast, the focus lock time seems at least double what it could be. The behavior goes away in AF-C (continuous) drive mode.

The a1's focus accuracy is excellent.

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]

When photographing living subjects, it is critical to get the eye(s) in focus. In that regard, Eye-AF has been game-changing, tenaciously tracking subject eyes, making accurate focus easy for even beginners and perfect challenging-subject framing for professionals, even with gloves on. The a1's eye AF system has selectable subjects, with Human, Animal, and Birds as the options. An "Auto" option would be a welcomed inclusion as it is common to have only one subject type in the frame. The face memory and registered faces priority feature enables the photographer to focus on a preferred face when multiple are present.

Animal subjects' eye distinction ranges from that of a sheepdog (essentially no eye visible) to that of a mountain goat (black eye on white coat), and current AF systems are not able to discern all eyes. To quickly present a large variety of subjects to the camera for initial testing, I used photos of the subjects.

The a1 was very adept at selecting whitetailed deer, raccoon, black bear, red fox, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, mountain lion, cottontail rabbit, gray squirrel, goldendoodle, and golden retriever eyes in the photos. The eyes of elk, brown bear, moose, and horses (brown, black, palamino), black rat snakes, and pronghorn proved more challenging for the a1, with the camera only sometimes selecting them.

With birds selected as the subjects, turkey, cormorant, snowy egret, great egret, royal tern, great blue heron, Canada goose, ovenbird, little green heron, magpie, canvasback, American widgeon, and blue jay eyes were routinely selected (many of these birds have black eyes or large black pupils). In photos, Bald eagle, wood duck, common loon, roseate spoonbill, and cardinal eyes were challenging to the a1's eye AF

With human subjects selected, the camera was quite adept at selecting the eyes and switching to faces when depth of field became adequate to cover the eyes.

When the subject's eye was not automatically selected, the camera often still selected the appropriate AF distance. When the eye is not auto-selected, a great, readily-available option is to use the rear LCD as a touchpad, moving the AF selection crosshairs to the eye. This results in the camera tracking the selected subject as desired.

Sony a1 Sample Picture

In the field, the a1's eye detection tracking and AF accuracy on the tracked eye have been exceptionally good. I go into much more detail in the Sony Alpha a1 Meets a Redhead Field Report, but I'll share some examples here.

Even at close distances, the eyes of whitetail deer leaping toward the a1 with a Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens mounted were rendered sharply at an extremely high rate. Ducks (redhead, American widgeon, canvasback, and scaup) bobbing in and out of the frame (1/3200 required to freeze most of this motion) of the same lens were easily within this camera's eye-tracking capability. This camera turned an extremely difficult focusing scenario into an overwhelming selection project — most images were eye-sharp. The a1 also readily recognized and tracked the eyes of various birds coming into our feeders, including red- and white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, etc.

Sony a1 Running Dog Sample Picture

Using another lens capable of extremely shallow depth of field, the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens, along with 30 fps capture, the a1's eye AF tracked running dogs to close distances with very good accuracy. Note that DSLRs do not even have focus points peripheral enough to track an ideally framed subject's eyes at close distance.

Sony a1 Action Sample Picture

When tracking sprinting people, even at close distances, the a1's 30 fps eye-AF accuracy rate was outstanding.

The Sony a1's Focus Area options are Wide (all points active), Zone (9 selectable large AF areas), Center Fix, Spot (S, M, or L point size selectable), Expand Spot (uses focus points around the spot as a secondary priority area for focusing), and Tracking (with the full range of AF point selection options). It seems that tracking should be an independent option that can be enabled or disabled. When not using a tracking feature, I am most often using Flexible Spot (S) and sometimes wish that an even smaller (XS) one was available.

A current advantage of the Sony system is that eye AF works in various focus area modes, including the small spot. This feature aids in specifying which subject's eye should be focused on when more than one are present.

I wish Sony's focus indicator in the viewfinder was not as thick. While it is very obvious, the focus indicator (and the viewfinder level) covers too much of the subject.

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 other recent Alpha series cameras.

Movies

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 through 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. The difference is noticeable and extremely important.

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]

When OSS is set to standard, the camera attempts to hold the image still. This is great for stationary filming, but the results are jumpy when moving the camera. When the OSS mode is switched to the active setting, considerably smoother motion is recorded. The difference is quite noticeable.

"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. Extremely high video recording performance is what the a1 delivers.

Exposure/Metering System

"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 handles auto-exposure calculations very well, the a1 improves upon this performance, 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 touched upon earlier in the review, the a1 has the "World's first anti-flicker shooting with both mechanical and electronic shutter." The anti-flicker shooting feature was game-changing, and Sony just raised that game.

Available metering modes are Multi, Center, and Spot (standard and large), Entire Screen Average mode (stable auto-exposure through composition changes), Highlight (detects the brightest area in the frame to (strongly) avoid blown highlights). When the Focus Area parameter is set to Flexible Spot or Expand Flexible Spot, the metering spot location can be linked to the focus area.

Sony a1 EVF

Viewfinder and LCD

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.

The image displayed by this massive electronic viewfinder is beautiful.

Available are High and Standard Display Quality parameters and Standard, High, and Higher Finder Frame Rates. The difference between the frame rates is noticeable when the subject is in motion. High Display Quality is only available at the Standard Frame Rate. This EVF offers a selectable field of view, 41° or 33°, and the fine print says that the 240 fps refresh rate (Higher) requires the 33° field of view option and UXGA (1600x1200, 1,920,000 pixels) resolution.

When using the full EVF (lower frame rates), this EVF is considerably larger than the already large EVF in the Sony a7R IV. The 33° field of view option is considerably smaller than the a7R IV EVF, but it is usable — and can track very fast subjects moving laterally (or vertically).

Under direct sunlight, the a1's EVF proximity sensor does not work. The sensor must be shaded prior to placing an eye to the EVF or the EVF does not turn on.

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. Update: the a7R IV revision A was released soon after the a1, and that revision introduced a 2.36 million dot LCD, furthering the LCD comment.

Following a moving subject in the viewfinder is extraordinarily challenging when the display blacks out or pauses during frame capture, especially 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 that feature. Note that using the second-curtain mechanical shutter will bring the blackout back as there is no way to prevent the physical shutter from blocking the view.

I have not found Sony's camera menus easy to navigate, and 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.

Change requires acclimation. I'll reserve my final verdict until after fully acclimated, but initial impressions are that the new menu system is a modest improvement and that the built-in help function is not especially helpful in most cases.

A significant improvement is: "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.

The Sony a1 again features the valuable electronic level. As already mentioned, I find the viewfinder graphics, especially the level indicator's two large superfluous semi-circles, consuming too much space. These features sometimes cover subject details. For example, it is sometimes difficult to see if a catchlight is present in an elk's eye. A thinner border on the AF point square would be another improvement.

This LCD's tilt feature makes high and low position shooting easy, though neither direction reaches 180° to facilitate selfies/vlogging. While the LCD is not viewable from the front, it also does not interfere with L-brackets and wires plugged into the ports.

An opportunity for improvement: when reviewing an image, pressing the shutter release does not start an exposure. A second shutter release press is required to capture the picture.

Sony a1 LCD Open

Tour of the Sony a1

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, and the a1 does not depart far from the a7R IV, III, and other similar model layouts.

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).

Sony a1 Back

Back of the Camera

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 function (customization lets you restore that function).

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 easy-to-find controls are provided in a mature layout.

The rear control dial is a great feature; however, I will complain a bit here as this implementation is not my favorite. The edges of the control are not as grippy as I'd like (perhaps the surrounding plastic is raised too much), the dial presses in all directions (like a joystick) but only has 4 accepted press directions, and the clicks are not as reassuring as they should be.

Sony a1 Top

Top of the Camera

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 for the thumb (press the lock and turn the dial with just a thumb), though at the expense of accessibility for the index finger.

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 a9 II's design departs from the a7R IV and III designs utilizing the rear control dial and custom buttons for this functionality. While the physical controls are faster to use, the newly selected options do not display in all viewfinder displays, making changes in the dark challenging (and not so dark without reading glasses) to see.

The mode, exposure compensation, and drive mode dials feature lock buttons to prevent inadvertent changes. Only the exposure compensation dial features a toggling lock that retains the locked or unlocked setting when pressed – meaning that you can have your preference of locked or unlocked. The drive mode dial features solid positional clicks, but the focus mode dial clicks are slightly soft for assured position setting.

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 mode options are again provided, ready to store your most-used settings for immediate recall. Note that the a1 is also capable of saving and reading camera settings to/from a memory card.

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. This dial and the front dial have soft-click positions.

Overall, the Sony Alpha a1 provides a considerable number of controls, availing quick setting changes. Once acclimated to the Sony control positioning and feature locations, this camera is easy to use. This camera's controls (except the rear control dial) have a high-quality overall feel.

Obviously, Sony does not include a top LCD on the latest Alpha camera models. While I like the top LCD, I don't seem to miss it when using these cameras.

Sony a1 Left Side

Side of the Camera

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.

Sony a1 Ports

The change from the a7R IV and a9 II designs noticeable on the camera's right/grip side is the new memory card door release, including a slide lock. I was initially concerned that I would break this door as I acclimated to the lock button, but acclimation happened fast.

Sony a1 Right Side

When planning for the Sony a1 arrival, I wanted to know if an L-plate from a previously available camera would fit the a1. Ideally, that would be an L-plate already in my kit. I find L-plates a necessity. New L-plates designs typically reach the market months after new camera models, and the arrival of a new camera model that uses existing plates can result in already available L-plates going out of stock.

My ProMediaGear PLX3x Universal L-Bracket was undoubtedly going to work as well on the a1 as it does on nearly all cameras. Still, the cameras remaining in my kit eventually get custom Really Right Stuff L-Plates or Kirk L-Brackets.

That answer did not arrive before the a1, but I immediately and successfully installed the Really Right Stuff Ultralight Plate for Sony a7R IV, a7S III, and a9 II on the a1. I expect that similarly designed L-plates will also fit nicely.

Really Right Stuff Ultralight Plate for Sony a7R IV, a7S III, and a9 II

Stating this optimistically, I'm considerably less certain that the RRS L-Plate Set's wrap-around design will fit the a1's slightly larger grip. The calipers say the a1's grip is a couple of mm larger, including the area appearing to be inside the L-plate set (and RRS has announced that a new a1 L-plate coming). The a7R IV's bottom dimensions are similar enough to the a7R III that my Kirk a7R III L-bracket seems to fit properly on both, making that model another option.

Size of the Camera

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 was 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) joints (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 measures an additional about-1.6mm in depth (varying slightly depending on where measured) from the a7R IV grip. While this difference is slight, the lens impact pressure difference is noticeable. I'm not ready to call the issue completely resolved, but it has significantly improved.

ModelBody DimensionsCIPA Weight
Canon EOS R55.5 x 3.8 x 3.5"(138.0 x 97.5 x 88.0mm)26.0 oz (738g)
Sony a15.1 x 3.9 x 3.3"(128.9 x 96.9 x 80.8mm)23.7 oz (673g)
Sony a9 II5.1 x 3.9 x 3.1"(128.9 x 96.4 x 77.5mm)23.7 oz (673g)
Sony a95.0 x 3.8 x 2.5"(126.9 x 95.6 x 63.0mm)23.7 oz (673g)
Sony a7R IV5.2 x 3.9 x 3.2" (128.9 x 96.4 x 77.5mm)23.5 oz (665g)
Sony a7R III5.0 x 3.9 x 3.0" (126.9 x 95.6 x 73.7mm)23.2 oz (657g)
Sony a7R II5.0 x 3.8 x 2.4"(126.9 × 95.7 x 60.3mm)22.0 oz (625g)
Sony a7 III5.0 x 3.8 x 3.0" (126.9 x 95.6 x 73.7mm)23.0 oz (650g)
Sony a7C4.9 x 2.8 x 2.4"(124.0 x 71.1 x 59.7mm)18.0 oz (509g)
View the full Sony a1 specifications to compare additional cameras.

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, though the margin is insignificant.

The Sony a1 is a modestly-sized DSLR camera that feels comfortable in my hand.

Ergonomics, Build Quality and Durability

Built on a lightweight, high-rigidity magnesium alloy chassis, the Sony a1 is solidly built with a high-quality feel – similar to the a9 II and a7R IV. Most of the buttons, dials and switches have nice haptic feedback, and the fun-to-use factor is very high.

Sony a1 Weather Sealing

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.

ModelShutter Durability Rating
Canon EOS-1D X Mark III500,000
Canon EOS R5500,000
Sony a1500,000
Sony a9 II500,000
Sony a7R IV500,000
Sony a7R III500,000
Sony a7R II500,000
View the full Sony a1 specifications to compare additional cameras.

Note that the a1 shutter optionally closes upon power-off, adding protection to the image sensor.

Additional Features

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.

Battery

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 experience is that battery life usually exceeds CIPA ratings and dramatically exceeds CIPA ratings when shooting in continuous modes. Otherwise, 30 fps capture could consume a full battery charge in 15 seconds of shutter release press while looking through the EVF.

In a near-four-hour duck shoot, with the a1 in 30 and 20 fps modes, the camera fully discharged three batteries in nearly 9,000 shots. I'm very happy with 3,000 shots per battery. Infrequent use in single-shot mode will yield far fewer photos per charge, but the shot capacity is still good.

USB PD (Power Delivery) is supported.

While the a1's battery door is spring-loaded, the switch on the door again is not. Slightly annoying is that it must be manually slid into the locked position after closing the door.

The provided AC charger is a corded model vs. the cordless direct-plug-in style I prefer. I'm also not a fan of this charger's LED going dark when the battery is fully charged. The charger light also goes out if you turn off the light switch that controls the electrical receptacle the charger is plugged into. From the charger light perspective, those two scenarios look the same, and yes, I encountered this problem in a rental house, costing me about an hour of shooting in the field when the only partially charged battery drained more rapidly than expected.

What happened: at the end of a day, I placed a battery in the charger, observed the charging lights, turned off the overhead room light, and went to bed. In the morning, the charger light was off, indicating a full charge as I expected. However, also turned off was the overhead light controlled by the same light switch as the receptacle power. When I turned off the light, I turned off the battery charger, and mid-morning, I became a spectator until we returned to the vehicle an hour or two later where I could pick up a spare battery.

Sony VG-C4EM Vertical Grip for Alpha a1, a7R IV, a9 II, a7S III

Sony VG-C4EM Vertical Battery Grip

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 the use of two NP-FZ100 batteries, 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 is easily removable, creating flexibility in its use. 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 area that inserts 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 I'm photographing people or wildlife, the grip is usually installed.

If two installed batteries are not sufficient for your needs, get the Sony Multi Battery Adaptor NPA-MQZ1K. It holds four.

Which Lens Should I Get for the Sony a1?

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 Sony Alpha a1. 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.

Check out our Sony Lens Reviews for in-depth coverage of all of Sony's lenses.

Price

The Sony Alpha a1's ultimate feature set is accompanied by the highest price ever seen on a Sony Alpha 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 high price is justifiable for professional use and for use by serious amateurs with the desire to capture the ultimate images and the means for acquisition.

Wrap Up

Keeping a review of the incredibly feature laden Sony a1 concise but complete is a difficult balance to find, and this review is not a complete description of every Sony a1 feature available. Browse the Sony owner's manual (a link to the manual is provided with this review) to learn about more a1 camera features. Read the manual, use the camera, repeat.

The Sony a1 used for this review was purchased online/retail.

Alternatives

Is the Sony a1 the right camera for you? If the price is not a roadblock, the answer is probably "Yes!"

Following are three relevant specification comparisons.

Here is the Sony a1 Compared to the Sony a9 II In this comparison, the Sony a1 differentiates itself by having:

  • Much higher resolution (50.1 MP vs. 24.2 MP)
  • Higher maximum frame rate (30 fps vs. 20 fps)
  • Larger and higher resolution EVF
  • X-Sync of 1/400 vs. 1/250
  • Flicker avoidance with electronic shutter
  • Faster readout for less rolling shutter
  • 8K movie recording
  • Darker AF working range of EV -4 vs. EV -3
  • Faster live view frame rate
  • Dual SD/CFexpress Type A slots vs. Dual SD

The a9 II advantages include:

  • Higher ISO setting available (2048000 vs. 1024000
  • Longer battery life (500 shots vs. 430 with viewfinder)
  • Considerably Lower price

Here is the Sony a1 Compared to the Sony a7R IV.

The Sony Alpha a7R IV an impressive, ultra-high-resolution camera that looks and feels similar to the a1. In this comparison, the Sony a1 differentiates itself by having:

  • Higher maximum frame rate (30 fps vs. 10 fps)
  • Blackout-free shooting
  • Larger and higher resolution EVF
  • X-Sync of 1/400 vs. 1/250
  • Flicker avoidance with electronic shutter
  • Faster readout for less rolling shutter
  • 8K movie recording
  • Higher performance AF system, including 759 phase-detection AF points vs. 567
  • Darker AF working range of EV -4 vs. EV -3
  • Faster live view frame rate
  • HDMI Type-A (full size) vs. micro out terminal Type D
  • Dual SD/CFexpress Type A slots vs. Dual SD
  • More direct access setting controls

The a7R IV advantages include:

  • Higher resolution (61.0 MP vs. 50.1 MP)
  • Longer battery life (530 shots vs. 430 with viewfinder)
  • Dramatically lower price

Those who do not require the Alpha a1 advantages will find that last bullet point a decision-maker.

Here is the Sony a1 Compared to the Canon R5

The Canon camera model is not from the same company, but it doesn't hurt to look across the brands when shopping for a camera. In this comparison, the Sony a1 differentiates itself by having:

  • Higher maximum frame rate (30 fps vs. 20 fps)
  • Blackout-free shooting
  • Larger and higher resolution EVF
  • Modestly higher resolution (50.1 MP vs. 45.0 MP)
  • X-Sync of 1/400 vs. 1/250
  • Flicker avoidance with electronic shutter
  • Faster readout for less rolling shutter
  • Longer 8K movie recording before overheating
  • Live view frame rate of 240 fps vs. 120
  • More direct access setting controls
  • Dual SD/CFexpress Type A slots vs. CFexpress Type B and SD
  • HDMI Type-A (full size) vs. micro out terminal Type D

The Canon EOS R5 advantages include:

  • Faster AF in one-shot AF mode
  • Darker AF working range of EV -6 vs. EV -4
  • Larger and higher resolution LCD — 3.15" (8.01cm), 5.76 Million dots vs. 2.95" (7.49cm), 1.44 million dots
  • Larger grip
  • Top LCD
  • Considerably lower price

While not all of the differences listed above matter to all photographers, but that last bullet will be a big decision-making factor for many.

Summary

"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 is an extraordinary camera, the camera for everyone. 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'm loving the Sony Alpha a1.

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