Sony a9 Review

Sony has been getting a lot of attention for their cameras recently and the a9 is another prime reason to consider adding a Sony model to your kit. The a9 is targeted squarely at professional photographers with the current market-leading models, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and Nikon D5, falling directly in its crosshairs.

If you have used a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC) in the past, you are likely thinking that these models are inadequate for many professional needs, especially including sports and wildlife photography. A mirrorless camera requires an electronic viewfinder (EVF) and the live action blackout historically occurring with each frame capture alone has made these models inadequate for such use. However, with the a9, Sony changes everything. Let's get started with the Sony a9's list of headlining features.

Summary of Sony A9 Features

  • World’s first [i] full-frame stacked CMOS sensor, 24.2 MP [ii] resolution
  • Blackout-Free Continuous Shooting [iii] at up to 20fps [iv] for up to 241 RAW [v]/ 362 JPEG [vi] images
  • Silent [vii], Vibration-free shooting at speeds up to 1/32,000 sec[viii]
  • 693 point focal plane phase detection AF points with 60 AF/AE tracking calculations per second
  • Extensive professional features including Ethernet port for file transfer, Dual SD card slots and extended battery life
  • 5-axis in-body image stabilization with a 5.0 step [ix] shutter speed advantage

Some of these features, individually or combined, are record-setting. But, perhaps also record-setting for a camera is the footnote density found in those bulleted features – 9 references in 6 bullets. Some may not matter to you, but others likely will, so I'll list them here:

  • [i] As of April 19th, 2017
  • [ii] Approximate effective megapixels
  • [iii] Electronic shutter mode. At apertures smaller than F11 (F-numbers higher than F11), focus will not track the subject and focus points will be fixed from the first frame. Display updating will be slower at slow shutter speeds.
  • [iv] “Hi” continuous shooting mode. The maximum frame rate will depend on the shooting mode and lens used. Visit Sony’s support web page for lens compatibility information.
  • [v] “Hi” continuous shooting mode, compressed RAW, UHS-II memory card. Sony tests.
  • [vi] “Hi” continuous shooting mode, UHS-II memory card. Sony tests.
  • [vii] Silent shooting is possible when Shutter Type is set to “Electronic” and Audio signals is set to “Off.”
  • [viii] 1/32000 shutter speed is available only in the S and M modes. The highest shutter speed in all other modes is 1/16000.
  • [ix] CIPA standards. Pitch/yaw stabilization only. Planar T* FE 50mm F1.4 ZA lens. Long exposure NR off.

Conditional statements aside ... with the a9, we get 24 MP of full frame resolution, a nice bump up from the current Canon and Nikon options. The "Blackout-Free Continuous Shooting" erases one of the biggest EVF hindrances to photographing action. Photographers chasing perfection cannot have a too-fast frame rate and 20 fps is substantially faster than the current Canon and Nikon pro DSLR capabilities (14 and 12 fps respectively). There are not many applications needing (or even being able to use) a 1/32000 shutter speed, but ... having it available is nice, even if it is only available in two modes. The 1/16000 fallback rate supported when using the electronic shutter in other modes is still extremely fast. However, the mechanical shutter speed tops out at 1/8000, the typical max shutter speed for its sports-oriented, pro-grade DSLR competitors.

Those using previous Sony MILCs, including the a7R II, know that battery life has been an issue. That issue has been addressed with file redundancy, file transfer and additional professional needs on the requirements list also being checked off.

While in-body image stabilization (IBIS) is a very useful feature, sports and action photographers will likely have in-lens image stabilization available in their Sony telephoto lens. Using such a lens, including the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens, causes the a9 to disable IBIS. Thus, IBIS, is not always of value, but when in-lens stabilization is not provided, the camera itself can fill this feature void.

While on the lens topic, we need to address the elephant in the room. With the a9, Sony has released a game-changing professional sports and action camera, but the professionals being targeted by this model usually consider their wide aperture, long focal length lenses, such as a 400mm f/2.8, among their most-needed tools. As of a9 review time, there are no Sony FE lenses with an f/2.8 aperture longer than 200mm available. While the coming Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens should provide professional-grade image quality through its focal length range, with Sony's 1.4x and 2x FE teleconverters taking it up to 800mm, still not addressed is the wide aperture so often required for professional sports and wildlife photography.

What about using Canon and Nikon lenses adapted to the Sony a9? Well, I expected to test some of those, but ... adapters are finicky and the adapter that I often use with the a7R II does not work on the a9. In addition, adapted lenses generally do not perform as well as native lenses, with, primarily, AF speed performance being degraded. This is an important consideration for the targeted photographers as they are often dealing with very challenging subjects with timing and focus speed being critical. Another consideration is that adapted lenses (and even some of Sony's FE lenses) are not compatible with the a9's 20 fps drive mode.

It could be argued that Sony should have introduced at least one pro sports lens at the same time as their first pro sports-oriented camera and that not doing so will hurt a9 sales. However, Sony has been rapidly turning out new premium-grade lenses and I would wager that Sony is hard at work on FE 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 GM (Grand Master) OSS lenses. In the meantime, for those wanting a high performance camera with some un-matched features but not needing those particular lenses, the a9 is a strong contender.

For this review, I opted to primarily use what I consider Sony's review-time-best-available sports lens, the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens. It was a great choice.

Sony a9 Front

Sensor and Image Quality

Anyone serious about photography cares about image quality and image quality is a primary consideration for camera selection. To that end, the Sony a9 receives a new full-frame 24 MP stacked CMOS sensor.

ModelFOVCFSensorPixel SizePixels/MegapixelsViewfinderDLA*
Sony a7R II1.0x35.8 x 23.9mm4.2µm7952 x 530442.4 .78x100%f/7.2
Sony a91.0x35.6 x 23.8mm5.9µm6000 x 400024.2 .78x100%f/9.6
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II1.0x36.0 x 24.0mm6.6µm5472 x 364820.2 .76x100%f/10.6
Canon EOS 7D Mark II1.6x22.4 x 15.0mm4.1µm5472 x 364820.2 1.0x100%f/6.6
View the full Sony a9 specifications to compare additional cameras.

Those viewing the Sony a7R II favorably may not have been excited to see the a9 released with considerably-lower resolution – and the difference is noticeable. While it may not look greatly different physically than the a7R II, the a9 is a considerably different camera, built for speed over resolution, where the a7R II shines in this comparison. Still, the a9 has higher resolution than the Canon 1D X II and Nikon D5. When viewing the a9 vs. 1D X II comparison, consider that different software pipelines were used and that the Sony camera was tested on a different lens due to the adapter incompatibility I mentioned. Still, the FE 70-200 is a high end model and the comparison uses a stopped down aperture.

If the Canon 1D X II's 20 MP images are good enough for the largest agencies capturing the Olympics, the Super Bowl and other major world events, the Sony a9's 24 MP images will easily suffice.

On the Sony a7R II page, I described the software and setting process I used to create the standard being used here. That leads us to another important image quality factor, the high ISO noise quality of a9 images.

Sony A9 ISO Noise Comparison

A great starting point for evaluating camera noise is the site's comparison tool and Sony a9 noise test results are available there. The smoothly-colored Kodak color patches test chart subject combined with no noise reduction processing (key point) makes noise especially noticeable and more detailed scenes will show far less-noticeable noise levels. As always, noise reduction processing will bring improvement to these images, but noise reduction can be applied to any image. So, avoiding noise reduction in the comparison levels the playing field. The Sony RAW-captured noise test images used the "Uncompressed" RAW setting.

From ISO 100 through ISO 800, noise levels grow, but they remain very low, showing the benefit of a modern, moderately-high resolution full frame sensor. At ISO 1600 through ISO 3200, noise levels are noticeable, but images still retain very high quality at these settings. ISO 6400 images began to take an impact from noise and at ISO 12800, images are looking somewhat rough. Turn ISO up to 25600 or 51200 only as a last resort. ISO 102400 and 204800 are available and while they sound amazing, if your only option is to use these settings, just pack up and go home. The signal:noise ratio is extremely low at these required-for-marketing-purposes settings.

Noise reduction is available during post processing of RAW images or in-camera during JPG capture. Two sets of with-noise-reduction results are included in the noise tool for the a9, showing the performance at low and normal settings.

Also included in the noise tool are pushed and pulled exposure results. The "Standard Pushed EV" results show the standard results processed brighter by the indicated number of stops. The "Exposed +/-" results were captured between one and three stops brighter or darker than the standard results, then adjusted to the standard brightness in Capture One. These results combine to show how noise levels are influenced by the described processing adjustment and they also show dynamic range issues.

How do the Sony a9 noise levels compare to the Sony a7R II? In the Sony a9 and a7R II noise comparison, we see the a9 showing significantly less noise, at least in part capitalizing on its large pixels and lower resolution. At the same time, we see that the Sony a7R II has modestly higher dynamic range than the a9. That link shows a comparison of images captured at a 3 stop higher exposure setting than the standard results and processed to -3 stops. Notice that the a7R II is holding the highlight color better in the top-left two monochrome blocks? Also, notice that the a7R II's bright yellow block has better color.

How do the Sony a9 noise levels compare to the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II? In the Canon 1D X Mark II and Sony a9 noise comparison, we see the Sony pipeline being used for this testing creating slightly brighter results and the Canon pipeline producing slightly sharper results. Equalize those two attributes and the two cameras deliver similar noise levels. That the a9 has a 4 megapixel advantage over the 1D X II tips the scales in the Sony direction.

In the +3 EV capture, we see that the Sony a9 has a very slightly higher dynamic range than the 1D X II, keeping some color where the 1D X II does not.

Overall, I am finding it more challenging to properly color balance the Sony images than I do Canon images, but the a9 images look great. From my experience, they have been very sharp and detailed in real world situations. This camera produces great looking image after great looking image.

Sony a9 with 100-400mm Lens

File Size and Media

As hinted above, Sony offers the option of "Compressed" or "Uncompressed" RAW file format options. These are 14-bit files, though Sony notes that resolution may be limited to 12 bits in Long Exposure NR, Bulb and Continuous shooting (see page 94 in the owner's manual). Because of the TIFF-like file structure (RAW converters create 16-bit TIFF files from Sony RAW files extremely quickly), Sony RAW files remain consistently-sized throughout the ISO range. Regardless of the ISO setting used, the a9 uncompressed RAW files weigh in at about 47.2 MB. The compressed a9 RAWs are about half as big, each being about 23.8 MB.

Why not simply use the Sony compressed RAW file setting? That seems like the logical preference, with the dramatically smaller file sizes being much-preferred. Unfortunately, unlike Canon's RAW file compression, Sony's compression algorithm is a lossy one, meaning that some image detail is not retained during compression.

Is the difference between Sony compressed RAW and uncompressed RAW noticeable? In real life images, I had difficulty seeing any difference in real life images even when zooming to magnifications greater than 100%.

The following table shows comparative RAW file sizes for a photo of a standard in-studio setup with a moderately-high amount of detail taken with the referenced camera.

Model / File Size in MB @ ISO:(MP)100200400800160032006400128002560051200102400204800409600
Sony a7R II(42.4)82.882.882.882.882.882.882.882.882.882.882.8  
Sony a9(24.2)47.247.247.147.147.147.147.147.147.247.247.247.3 
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II(20.2)24.624.925.326.026.827.929.131.033.436.338.440.844.7
Canon EOS 7D Mark II(20.2)25.525.926.727.728.930.632.735.137.941.0   
Canon RAW file sizes increase with: 1. Resolution 2. Bit Depth (14-bit is better/larger) 3. Detail (noise adds detail, so high ISO file sizes increase). Memory and disk are cheap - buy more.

A big Sony a9 advantage over the a7R II is its dual media slots. The a9 can write files to both cards simultaneously (for redundancy) or sequentially (for increased capacity) with especially the former being valued by professionals who can afford no excuses.

Being a performance-driven camera model, it is surprising to see the now-somewhat-old-standard SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards and also Memory Stick Pro Duo cards being the only options supported. Memory card slot 2 supports the UHS-I SD standard while slot 1 extends compatibility to the faster UHS-II format. While I question why both slots are not UHS-II-capable, I like that I can use the same card format in both slots. Slot 2 (only) supports the Memory Stick Pro Duo standard (and this perhaps answers the question I just asked). While faster card formats are available, I like the convenience of being able to use the SD card reader built into my Dell XPS 15 laptop and that I have lots of SDXC cards was similarly convenient.

Sony a9 with 24-70mm Lens Angle

Frame Rate, Buffer Depth, Shutter Sound

One spec that a slow memory card format could exhibit its shortcomings in is the buffer depth. Still, with a 362 image JPG spec and 241 RAW file spec, any a9 shortcoming was hard to visualize in this regard.

ModelFPSMax JPGMax RAWShutter LagVF Blackout
Sony a7R II5.0242320msn/a
Sony a920.0362241  
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II14/16140/Full/Full59/73/17036-55msn/a
Canon EOS 7D Mark II10.01303155ms100ms
View the full Sony a9 specifications to compare additional cameras.

As a footnote, Sony's RAW buffer size spec was determined using the compressed, lossy, RAW format. The spec is reduced by about 50% when using the 2x larger Uncompressed RAW file format.

The 20 fps frame rate is, simply, awesome. As I said earlier, photographers chasing perfection cannot have a too-fast frame rate and 20 fps is considerably faster than the review-time-current Canon and Nikon options. While the 20 fps rate is a headlining feature, the footnote attached here is that JPG or compressed RAW formats must be used, only the electronic shutter is supported and only specific Sony FE lenses are supported. Even some Sony FE and E lenses support only a reduced (but still fast) 15 fps in high speed mode. The capabilities of adapted Sony A-mount lenses get a reduced frame rate with reductions becoming more complicated. Adapted other-brand lenses fare no better.

Let's take a quick tangent. What are the advantages and disadvantages of an electronic shutter?

Let's start with the positives. With no mechanical shutter being used, there are no moving parts, shutter failure is not possible, there is no shutter vibration to be concerned with, faster shutter speeds are possible (up to 1/32000 in this case) and the camera can be operated in absolutely silent full stealth mode. Wildlife and event photographers take careful note of that last benefit, but also note that it becomes hard to know the precise shutter release timing. After using the camera in silent mode and with no viewfinder blackout occurring, I enabled the shutter release audible beep to help with this issue (and Sony offers additional options in this regard), but one must still be confident with the timing of the electronically-produced shutter sound matching the precise image capture time (I didn't prove out that issue). While photographing a sprint car race, I could not hear the beep and had to rely on the flash of the selected focus point to know that I was capturing images.

The a9 allows the electronic shutter or mechanical shutter to be specifically selected or the camera can automatically select what is used and the a9 will select the electronic option for the highest frame rate needs.

A huge advantage enjoyed by the a9 over previous electronic shutter models is that there is almost no perceptible viewfinder blackout at fast shutter speeds. While the blackout is still noticeable at slow shutter speeds, photographing action is when blackout becomes a big issue and action is typically photographed with fast shutter speeds. Even very fast subjects can easily be tracked in the a9 viewfinder. Race cars passing by at over 100 mph (160 km/h) were not an issue for this best-I've-ever-used EVF system.

The downsides of an electronic shutter are primarily related to the current-technology line-by-line reading of the imaging sensor. Fast subject or camera movement can result in an angular-shifted image with vertically straight lines becoming slanted (with the camera in horizontal orientation). It is not hard to create an example showing this effect. Simply quickly pan the camera across a scene with a vertical line extending the frame height while taking a photo with the camera in horizontal orientation.

Sony a9

To capture the above images, I leveled the tripod, mounted the camera level on the head, released the panning lock on the ball head and captured a burst of images while quickly rotating the camera. The two images above show the camera being rotated in opposite directions, though not at the same rotation speed. The lines in the image are vertical in real life and again, the camera was not tilted.

An issue relating to a fast-moving camera or subject of course goes against the grain of the purpose of a pro sports and action camera. But, needed to be understood is that the second curtain of a mechanical shutter chasing the first curtain can produce the same effect. However, the difference between mechanical shutter and electronic shutter performance in this regard has historically been quite big. The a9 has changed this game. While the mechanical shutter remains advantaged in this regard, the a9's electronic shutter significantly closes the gap between the two and I have not noticed the electronic shutter angulation effect in use.

Another electronic shutter issue to be aware of is that certain light pulsing can influence the results, potentially creating banding. I have not encountered this issue with the a9.

Be aware that the electronic shutter is not compatible with flash.

So, if the compressed RAW file format and electronic shutter work for you (and they likely will), the 20 fps high speed drive mode awaits your use. Does the a9 truly reach the 20 fps rate as advertised? I tested that.

With a freshly-formatted fast Lexar 128GB Professional 1000x UHS-II SDXC U3 Memory Card loaded and the Sony A9 set to high speed drive mode, ISO 100, a 1/32000 shutter speed, a wide open aperture and manual focus (no focus lock delay), the buffer consistently filled at 235 images in 11.8 seconds for an impressive 19.8 fps rate calculation. There are very few applications where this performance would not be completely adequate. Additional frames are captured every .3 seconds after the buffer is filled.

Switch to uncompressed RAW capture with the electronic shutter and the buffer capacity is, as expected, reduced to 117 images. More critical is that the 20 fps frame rate is sacrificed with this setting change with a 12 fps rate being realized over the 9.75 second buffer-filling burst.

With uncompressed RAW capture and the mechanical shutter selected, the buffer capacity is increased up to 150 images. While it may seem strange to have the buffer depth increased by using mechanical shutter, the culprit is the reduced frame rate experienced. With the frame rate reduced to only 5 fps, the buffer writing to the card is better able to keep up with the frame rate and an increased duration (30.1 seconds) is available before the buffer is filled.

A performance-related consideration is that writing the full buffer to the card takes a very long about-1:05 with the referenced SDXC card. While you may not be capturing buffer-filling bursts most of the time, you need to understand that writing to the card takes a noticeable amount of time. While already-written images can be reviewed during the buffer-write process (a nice feature), the still-buffered images are not available for review and the camera menu is inaccessible. If shooting a long burst of action photos and needing to quickly check how the last images look or change a menu setting, this camera may leave you wanting. In comparison, the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II with a CFast 2.0 card can continuously shoot RAW images until the card is filled and images are immediately written to the card and available for review.

A (minor-for-most) memory card performance-related issue to mention is the memory card format time. Sony creates a database while formatting memory cards and the entire format process is long, taking about 9 seconds to format a 128 GB UHS-II SDXC card. While 9 seconds is not a terribly long timespan, it seems quite long when inserting a not-preformatted memory card when action is happening (and not in keeping with our impatient culture). The 1D X Mark II formats a 256 GB CFast 2.0 card nearly instantly. You will likely want to format your Sony-destined memory cards during shoot preparation, not during a shoot.

Always beneficial for understanding the speed of a specific frame rate is a visual example. I was looking for speed, so a visit to the PA Sprint Car Speedweek finale at the local dirt track seemed appropriate. Drag your mouse over the labels under the following image for a visual look at the 20 fps rate using a 410 sprint car cornering at over 100 mph (160 km/h) as the subject.

Sony a9 20 fps Frame Rate Example

That is an impressive number of angles on a single car in a single pass.

There are few applications where faster panning is required than auto racing photographed from the infield fence and this is a scenario where the electronic shutter readout could cause the angulation issue described above. That effect is surely in these images, but ... it is hard to notice. If I had not told you about the issue, you likely would not have noticed it and even after being made aware, you may still not see it.

The only downsides to the high frame rate itself is the space the files consume on media and the time it takes to transfer, pare down and process the images. Dealing with over 6000 images captured in 3 hours at the aforementioned race, with most of the event time spent waiting between race events, was quite daunting. When 20 fps is too fast, the a9 offers Mid and Lo continuous shooting modes for 10 fps and 5 fps shooting respectively with an electronic shutter and 5 fps (same as Hi) and 2.5 fps with the mechanical shutter.

"This unique 24.2 megapixel sensor, when combined with the refined BIONZ X image processing engine and front-end LSI, delivers approx. 20x faster data readout speed than Sony full-frame mirrorless α7 II cameras." [Sony]

A short shutter lag is an important attribute of a camera, especially one designed for pro use. I have not seen a Sony-sourced spec for this and with no sound for the electronic shutter, it is hard to determine the responsiveness of the shutter. I enabled the electronic shutter sound, but there seems to be a slight disconnect (at least psychologically) and in a loud environment (such as the dirt track race), the sound is not audible. Easier to see is the mechanical shutter and it seems reasonably fast.

As discussed, turn off audio with the electronic shutter selected and when pressing the shutter release, you hear ... absolutely nothing. Complete silence is a hard sound to share on a website, so I'll trust that you can understand this camera's ability to be stealthy in that respect. Below I'll share an example of the mechanical shutter and, to give you an audible understanding of 20 fps, I'll share the electronic shutter in high speed mode with the audible shutter sound enabled.

Sony A9 One Shot with Mechanical Shutter
Sony A9 Burst with Electronic Shutter
Sony A9 Burst with Mechanical Shutter
Sony a9 Compared to Canon EOS-1D X Mark II Frame Rate

Camera sounds are recorded using a Tascam DR-07mkII Portable Digital Audio Recorder with record levels set to 50% at -12db gain and positioned 1" behind the rear LCD.

That last sound clip should be eye-opening for you and the only reason the Sony has any sound at all is because I enabled its electronic sound. It is not hard to determine which would be the better option to use during a wedding ceremony, at a press conference, while a golfer is hitting the ball or in a vast number of other situations where silence is golden.

Sony a9 with 24-70mm Lens Top

Autofocus

That a camera delivers fast and precise autofocus is paramount for most professional uses, especially for sports and wildlife where do-overs are seldom possible. If the camera does not do this task extremely well, it will not be chosen for these uses. To that end, the a9 features 693 phase-detection AF points on the image sensor and that the AF points are directly on the sensor of course means there are no AF calibration issues. While 693 is a big number, perhaps even more beneficial is that those AF points cover approximately 93% of the image area as shown in the Sony illustration below.

Sony a9 AF Point Coverage

Often, especially when photographing wildlife, I find myself needing to use a slightly wider focal length or longer subject distance than otherwise needed, just to be able to keep a focus point properly located on the subject. This camera essentially eliminates this issue and higher quality images are the result.

Sony claims that 60 AF/AE calculations are being made each second, especially relevant while shooting in continuous mode. "The BIONZ X processor and a front-end LSI deliver higher performance in a number of critical areas including autofocus speed and precision, face detection speed and precision, and EVF display response." [Sony]

The Sony A9's Focus Area options are Flexible Spot (S, M or L point size selectable), Expand Flexible Spot (uses focus points around the spot as a secondary priority area for focusing), Center, Zone (9 selectable large AF areas) and Wide (all points active). AF point/area selection can be done 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 cancel icon is tapped. AF parameters can be further configured including Priority Set in AF-C (priority for AF vs shutter release in continuous focus), AF tracking sensitivity and orientation-sensitive AF point and area selection.

A camera of course requires a lens and the lens plays an important role in autofocus performance. For proving out the a9's capabilities, I selected the excellent Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens. Over a nearly 2-month duration, I've put this combination to work in a wide range of scenarios. Here is what I've learned.

First, the a9 focuses in extremely low light levels (rated to EV -3 – 20 with an f/2 lens), light levels well below what my Sekonic Litemaster Pro L-478DR Light Meter will provide a reading for. As usual, focus speed suffers in low light, but the job gets done. That the EVF shows an amplified signal coming from the imaging sensor makes this camera easier to use in low light than optical viewfinder models.

In AF-S (single shot mode), AF has been extremely accurate and I developed a high level of trust in it. I use the small Flexible Spot AF most frequently in this mode and the camera very reliably focuses on what it is told to focus on.

The speed of AF-S single focus lock, however, is somewhat slow. While the camera drives focusing at a fast speed, the camera always defocuses the lens prior to focusing. Even if the subject was already in focus, the lens is adjusted to a shorter focus distance and then back to where it started. That defocusing adds a slight delay and it was problematic in some situations where I needed to focus and capture an image immediately due to a subject that was not still.

In AF-C continuous focus mode, the a9 gives up the focus hunting practice and the result is noticeably-faster focus acquisition.

One task I gave the a9 was photographing a soccer game, starting at dusk and quickly transitioning into under-the-lights action. While the 200mm long end on the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens felt completely inadequate for the purpose with average soccer action distances photographed at 200mm f/2.8 resulting in a depth of field that was not terribly challenging to AF, the results were excellent. Nearly all of the over-1,000 images were in focus.

For a staged test, I had subjects run toward the camera from much closer distances than those encountered at the soccer match. The a9 also performed extremely well in this test with nearly all images being in sharp focus until the subject approached very closely, at approximately 1/2-body 200mm framing distance.

Sony a9 AF Action Portrait

For this image, I used an AF zone located near the top of the frame with the camera impressively keeping the eyes in focus. The wide area coverage of the AF points allowed me to place focus points on Brianna's face while framing very tightly.

More to the extreme was the challenge some tame white-tailed deer fawns provided for the a9. These adorable little animals were very active, constantly playfully running around. In this case, the a9 and 70-200 did not perform as well. When the fawns were not moving much, AF-C proved very accurate even with the 200mm f/2.8 at minimum focus distance. Slow action results were also good, but when the fawns started running around, the out-of-focus percentages went rather high.

As noted above, I photographed a dirt track race with the a9. The extreme power-to-weight ratio cars were coming around the turn at very high speeds. I could hold the AF point accurately in place while the cars approached, but panning with the cars as they went by was physically very challenging. To more accurately access the fault of out of focus images, I would need to be able to see where the selected focus point fell on the scene as the car went by. Unfortunately, I have not found software to show the selected AF point overlaid on a Sony RAW image. Thus, I have to go with perception for the passing car results.

On the easier-to-perceive side of the equation, the a9 kept the cars in focus on the inside of the track (closer to the camera) until a certain point where I could see the plane of sharp focus begin drifting back and the cars then went out of focus. The camera was better able to track the cars on the outside of the track, but it was still challenged by the closer subjects. As the cars passed, sometimes the camera could pick up the right focus distance, but frequently not.

As mentioned, this camera's AF system is configurable and it is impossible to test all possible scenarios and all possible AF settings. For my testing, I used the default settings and it is possible that both the fawns and the race car images would have fared even better with AF tracking sensitivity increased.

Video

Sony has been praised by many in the video industry for including high-end video features in their mirrorless full frame cameras. The Sony a9 continuous this trend with features such as:

  • Full-frame (no crop) video capture at 4K, 24/25p (1.24x crop when set to 30p)
  • Up to 4K video output simultaenously to microHDMI and memory card
  • XAVC S format, H.264 compression with uncompressed Linear PCM Audio
  • 3.5mm headphone/mic jacks, microHDMI
  • Built-in stereo microphone

Available formats and framerates are as follows:

XAVC S 4K [3840 x 2160px]: 30/25/24p at 60 or 100 Mbps
XAVC S HD [1920 x 1080px]: 120/100p at 60 or 100 Mbps, 60/50/30/25/24p at 50 Mbps
AVCHD [1920 x 1080]: 60/50i at 17 or 24 Mbps, 60/50p at 28 Mbps, 24/25p at 17 or 24 Mbps
MP4 [1920 x 1080, 1280 x 720]:60/50p at 28 Mbps, 30/25p at 6 or 16 Mbps

The value of being able to record 4K video at 60 fps cannot be understated, even if your typical output is only Full HD 1080p. The additional resolution captured in 4K recording is substantial. The illustration below demonstrates the difference between Full HD and 4K resolutions.

4K vs. FHD Resolution Comparison

If outputting to 1080p, you can easily downsample the 4K video, crop the frame to provide a tighter angle of view, or even pan your FHD video within the confines of the 4K captured frame. You can also mimic zooming in and out of a scene to add even more production value to your 1080p movies.

Of course, creating 4K content is the primary benefit of purchasing a 4K-capable camera. 4K video offers more than 4x the resolution of Full HD, allowing for beautifully sharp and detail rich movies that will remain impressive on resolution-hungry devices.

Movies can be recorded in any shooting mode by pressing the MOVIE button located to the right of the viewfinder. Optionally, the shutter button can also be programmed to start/stop movie recording when the camera is set to Movie or Slow & Quick Motion modes, although relegating the shutter button to video start/stop purposes inevitably disables focusing via the same button.

In Slow & Quick Motion mode, the camera records in XAVC S HD format and can be set to capture frame rates ranging from 1fps to 120fps in NTSC (1fps - 100fps in PAL), with the former being appropriate for speeding up slow motion events such as flowers blooming and the latter being useful for slowing down fast action events such as an athlete scoring a goal or a bride throwing the bouquet. Note that audio is not recorded in S&Q Motion mode.

And on the subject of audio, sound is recorded via the built-in stereo microphone or alternately an external microphone using the 3.5mm mic jack.

Various markers and masks can be displayed, with options such as gridlines and aspect ratio masks aiding in shot framing. The a9 can be set to record 4K video in-camera (via the memory card) and output the video to the microHDMI (to a compatible playback monitor or recorder), or alternately only output the video to the microHDMI.

Oddly enough, the picture profiles (including S-Log2/S-Log3) found in other Sony ILCs are not available in the a9.

With my testing of the a9 limited to the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens, I didn't have the opportunity to try out the a9's 5-axis in-body image stabilization while recording video (as mentioned earlier, using a lens featuring its own stabilization disables the a9's IBIS). However, it's comforting to know that the feature exists when in-lens stabilization is unavailable, enabling more stable video to be recorded, increasing video production quality.

While the Sony a9 performs reasonably well from an autofocus perspective in video mode, my impression is that Canon cameras featuring Dual Pixel CMOS AF sensors perform better, with smooth and prompt focus adjustments being made. That said, I'm certain that we will see many highly prized moments recorded with the a9.

The high quality video capabilities of the a9 add strongly to the overall value of this small, high-performance camera model.

Exposure/Metering System

Modern cameras are very good at determining the exposure parameters required for properly exposed images and the a9 is among the best currently available.

Photographers using one of many recent-model Canon DSLRs will find light flicker avoidance notably missing from the a9. I have grown used to being able to enable the 1D X II's flicker avoidance and side-step the light flicker problem, so that made the Sony a9's lack of this feature somewhat glaring to me.

At the dirt track races after dusk, I fared well with mostly undetectable color balance issues. A few images had a vastly different color balance, but the results were largely unaffected. On the other hand, the results from a night-time soccer match were quite bad, with wide strips of strong white balance differences running through the images. For example, in some instances, the grass foreground may have a strong blue tone while the mid and background appear far more red-toned. Correcting the color of these images during post processing would have been a challenge. Also ugly were images captured at fast shutter speeds under fluorescent lights at home. Slow shutter speeds typically avoid the light flickering problem, but this camera is being targeted for action use and action-stopping typically means fast shutter speeds. Thus, I point out this deficiency and to illustrate my point, I'll share a photo of a white wall:

Sony a9 Light Flicker Example

Color correcting that 1/500 second-captured image will surely challenge your post processing skills. Interesting is that most images in a 20 fps burst were similarly affected by the flicker, showing frame rate alignment with the flicker frequency.

From an overall auto color balance in images processed in Capture One Sony Edition are slightly cool-toned and as mentioned earlier, I find them slightly difficult to tweak to the result I'm looking for.

Viewfinder

The size of the camera is very small, but the size of the viewfinder is not. With one eye in the viewfinder of the a9 and the other eye simultaneously in the 1D X Mark II viewfinder, it is readily apparent that the a9's viewfinder image is modestly larger than even this highly-respected 1-Series viewfinder.

I will not go into a full discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of an EVF here, but the a9 has the most pro-ready EVF I've used to date and the biggest advantage over the rest of the field (including the a7R II) is the lack of blackout when the electronic shutter is used (under the right conditions, as already noted). The constant view of the action permits careful framing to be continually maintained.

Quickly put the a9 to your eye and, via eye-detection, the camera switches the image display from the rear LCD to the EVF nearly instantly, ready for a quick capture. The information displayed is highly customizable and with the 120fps refresh rate, I rarely see flickering, though setting the camera set to a narrow aperture in low light is one example of where flickering became apparent. DOF preview is automatic and the background blur change can be seen as the aperture is adjusted.

Tour of the Sony A9

Those familiar with Sony's typical camera layout will readily familiarize themselves with the a9. Those familiar with Canon and Nikon DSLRs should be ready for a learning curve. Loaded with dials and buttons, the a9 provides great control at your fingertips and, with 4 custom buttons, plenty of customization capability is provided. While the Sony a9 (and similar models) is a bit clunky in design with plenty of sharp corners and sharp edges, a seasoned user is going to find it ready to get the job done.

Back of the Camera

Let jump right into a visual here:

Camera Back View Comparison

To compare the Sony a9 with many more camera models, use the site's camera body comparison tool.

Dominant on the back of most cameras is the LCD monitor. This one is a tilt type 2.95" TFT with approx. 1,440,000 dots. The tilt adjustment, ranging from approx. 107 degrees up to approx. 41 degrees down, is a very attractive feature to those of us using fixed LCDs. The image quality of the LCD is nice, though it falls short of the less-reflective, higher-saturation Canon LCDs when viewed side-by-side. While this LCD can be used for touch AF point selection, that function is the limit of its touch capabilities.

Sony a9 LCD

I'll take a small tangent to mention Sony's menu system (that you will often view it on the LCD is the tie-in I claim here). I'm both spoiled and acclimated to Canon's excellent, logical menu systems, but I feel lost in Sony's seemingly overly-difficult menu system structure that includes a very large number of subtabs under the main tabs. That a customizable "My Menu", missing on the a7R II, is now provided is alone a big improvement. For example, I no longer have to go deep into the tabs just to find the frequently-used "Format" option.

At the bottom right of the camera back, we see the playback and delete/C4 (custom button 4) buttons retaining their a7R II locations. Moving up, we find the control wheel that is now raised and slightly enlarged, both very positive features/changes. Missing from the control wheel are the left-most icons. These functions have moved up to the new drive mode dial on the top of the camera. I'll address that change below.

Replacing the switch above the programmable function button is the new (I am calling the a7R II a predecessor here) multi-selector (joystick). This button is used for, and especially useful for, AF point selection. While the multi-selector works fine and it is a very welcomed addition to this camera, I would like it to have a slightly improved more-significant/positive feedback click.

A pair of new buttons, AF-On and AEL (Auto Exposure Lock), functions displaced by the multi-selector, take up residence above the multi-selector. The C3 (custom button #3) gets booted from the right side of the camera and takes up new residence to the left of the menu button on the top-left of the camera back. Showing serious attention to video needs is Sony's addition of a movie start/stop button, located just to the right of the viewfinder.

Top of the Camera

While I like the changes (again, from the a7R II) I see on the back of the a9, the changes on top are at least as useful, starting with the stacked dials on the top-left.

Camera Top View Comparison

The camera body top view comparison tool allows comparison of many additional camera models.

The stacked dials provide easy accessibility and visual confirmation, to these commonly used settings. By the way, for those not familiar with Sony acronyms, "BRK" stands for "bracketing". A variety of bracketing options are available.

Skipping over the viewfinder and hot shoe, we find the ultra-common mode dial. Once again, Sony neophytes probably need to be enlightened regarding the S&O acronym. That is "S"low and "Q"uick, referring to Slow and Quick Motion movies previously mentioned. Just counter-clockwise to the S&O mode is the normal movie mode.

Continuing in the counter-clockwise motion, we find 3 custom modes, ready to store your most-used settings for immediate recall. I use these modes at least as much as any other modes combined.

Next up are the modes that professionals (and anyone serious about photography) have come to expect: M, S, A, P. Those who just want to take advantage of a great camera without a learning curve (and those who just need the camera to decide what settings are needed in an instant) have the intelligent auto mode ready for immediate use.

A pair of programmable custom buttons are within convenient reach of the index finger on top of the camera and the shutter release, surrounded by the power switch, is located to the front. The exposure control dial is also easily accessible (to the thumb) with easy visual confirmation of the current setting. Less obvious is an additional dial, referred to as the rear dial, located rearward between the mode dial and exposure compensation dial.

Once acclimated to the controls positioning, the a9 is very easy to use and a quality feel abounds, including dials that click reassuringly into positions.

Side of the Camera

Obvious is that the a9's left side ports are not the same as the a7R II's.

Camera Side View Comparison

Opening the port covers makes clear what features are available here.

Sony a9 Ports

From bottom-left and continuing clockwise, there is a speaker, a PC port flash sync terminal (ready to control studio lighting), a LAN port, mic and headphone ports, an HDMI (micro) port, a charge indicator lamp and a micro USB (2.0) port. You picked up on the "charge indicator lamp" right? This camera can charge an installed battery via a USB cable.

Sony a9 Right

The right side of the camera features the NFC (Near Field Communication) touch point and a pair of memory card slots reside under the spring-loaded door released by the also-spring-loaded switch to the left. It would be nice if Sony standardized the orientation for the card slots so that we could remember that the label goes to the front or back, but the a7R II and a9 use opposite memory card orientations. The a9 is brand label-forward oriented. My preference is label-rearward so that I can more-quickly identify the card inserted.

Size of the Camera

For the power and capabilities this camera has, the footprint is remarkably small and the light weight is a similarly positive feature. The small size has been an attraction of the mirrorless cameras and small is great in many respects.

ModelBody DimensionsCIPA Weight
Sony a7R II5.0 x 3.8 x 2.4"(126.9 × 95.7 x 60.3mm)22.0 oz (625g)
Sony a95.0 x 3.8 x 2.5"(126.9 x 95.6 x 63.0mm)23.7 oz (673g)
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II6.2 x 6.6 x 3.3"(158 x 167.6 x 82.6mm)54.0 oz (1530g)
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV5.9 x 4.6 x 3.0"(150.7 x 116.4 X 75.9mm)31.4 oz (890g)
Canon EOS 5Ds / 5Ds R6.0 x 4.6 x 3.0"(152 x 116.4 x 76.4mm)32.8 oz (930g)
Canon EOS 7D Mark II5.9 x 4.4 x 3.1"(148.6 x 112.4 x 78.2mm)32.1 oz (910g)
Canon EOS 6D Mark II5.7 x 4.4 x 2.9"(144.0 x 110.5 x 74.8mm)27.0 oz (765g)
Canon EOS Rebel SL2 / 200D4.8 x 3.6 x 2.7"(122.4 x 92.6 x 69.8mm)16.0 oz (453g)
Canon EOS M54.6 x 3.5 x 2.4"(115.6 x 89.2 x 60.6mm)15.1 oz (427g)
View the full Sony a9 specifications to compare additional cameras.

Small is great in many respects, but too small is a real potential downside in regards to the grip of a professionally-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 are used, I still want total control over my camera and attached lens. The a9 (and a7R II) grip is modestly too small for my medium-sized hands, even with the battery grip installed. When grasping the camera in the manner needed to control a sizable lens, the first joint on my first fingers presses into the back of the lens. With neither my finger joint nor the lens being cushioned, discomfort is the result.

Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens in Grip

While having a small camera is good for compactness reasons, a professional model, especially when being used to capture action, needs a larger grip. The Sony VG-C3EM vertical grip should be considered a requirement for this camera.

The vertical grip provides much-improved handling of the a9 (it minimally gives my pinky a role) and also permits two batteries to be used, doubling the number of shots that can be captured before battery replacement. Grip features include a vertical shutter release, rear control dial and multi-selector. While this camera is much easier to operate in vertical orientation with the grip installed, the grip's rear dial falls under the pad of my thumb. This is not terribly uncomfortable, but it is not optimal either.

The biggest downside to the grip, aside from the purchase cost, is the size and weight added to the camera. Still, even with the grip installed, the a9 remains smaller and lighter than the Canon and Nikon equivalents.

Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens Angle View

The VG-C3EM is constructed of magnesium alloy with dust and moisture resistance matching the a9. It is well-built and well-matched. If you get the a9, get the grip too. You don't have to use it all of the time, but it will be ready for when you want it. My VG-C3EM never left the camera.

Build Quality and Durability

Built on a magnesium alloy frame, the Sony a9 has a high quality, solid feel to it. The buttons, dials and switches all have nice haptic feedback, though the multi-selector leaves room for improvement.

While I haven't seen the level of weather-sealing received this camera defined, it indeed has this feature. Sony states "Enjoy carefree shooting in tough environments, with comprehensive dust- and moisture-resistance measures that help guard against moisture and dust. Protection includes sealing around buttons, dials, media jack cover, and enclosure edges featuring tongue-and-groove joints for double shielding to tightly interlock panels and components."

I didn't stress test the a9 for wetness survivability, but I did introduce it to a considerable amount of red clay dust at the dirt track. The camera cleaned up beautifully with just a Rocket Blower, returning it to a pristine black appearance.

I will take a moment to complain about the lack of a spring in the battery door switch, though. To properly close the battery door, the switch must be manually slid to the closed position. I suppose that omission means one less spring to fail, but ... the memory card door switch is spring loaded, so that line of thinking is not being globally utilized. The a7R II has the same issue.

Battery

One of the big drawbacks of the Sony a7R II is the very short battery life with a meager 290-shot rating using the NP-FW50 battery pack (viewfinder rating). Even short duration a7R II shoots can require multiple batteries. Addressing that shortcoming is the new Sony NP-FZ100 battery pack, rated for approx. 480 shots using the viewfinder or 650 shots using the LCD monitor. While those are still rather short battery life ratings, the difference seems greater and I have been able to accomplish all of my needs with a single battery (I didn't shoot an all-day wedding or similar). Of course, the shooting style being used can make a dramatic difference in the number of shots obtained from a single charge. For example, I captured 6,125 images in a 3 hour timespan at the mentioned sprint car race with 34% battery life remaining in the single battery I took.

Unlike the NP-FW50, the NP-FZ100 is properly keyed and can only be inserted in one orientation. As already mentioned, this battery can be charged in-camera. As usual, an AC charger is provided. This is a corded model (vs. the compact direct-plug style).

Accessories

When deciding on a camera to purchase, the entire accessory system available to that camera should be considered. If your needs are light, a few good lenses may be completely adequate. Professionals with more complicated needs are not as easy to satisfy. While Sony trails Canon and Nikon in this regard, Sony has more than the basics covered.

What is the best lens for the Sony a9? The lens is of course one of the required accessories and most will find the Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens to be the best general purpose lens available for the a9. For longer focal length needs often encountered by professionals, the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens is a great choice. Watch our growing Sony Lens Reviews page for more good options.

Browse the reviews section of the site to find many more compatible accessories including tripods & heads, cases and much more.

Price

At first glance, the a9's relatively low price appears to be a very strong bargain when compared against the Canon 1D X Mark II and Nikon D5. But, the entire kit price, especially including lens costs, must be evaluated. Below is a current-representative kit price comparison between Sony, Canon and Nikon.

 Sony a91D X IINikon D5
Camera$4,846$5,999$6,497
16-35mm f/2.8$2,198$1,999$1,697
24-70mm f/2.8$2,198$1,749$2,397
70-200mm f/2.8$2,598$1,949$2,597
100-400mm$2,498$2,049$2,297
Total$14,338$13,745$15,485

Shown are review-time current street prices which are of course subject to change.

The Sony a9 camera price includes the optional grip, which most serious photographers are going to find important to have and the Canon and Nikon models have this feature built-in.

While this comparison uses the nearest-comparable lenses, and many are direct matches, not are all exact. The Nikon 16-35mm f/2.8 price is that of the closest current equivalent, the 14-24mm f/2.8. The Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 is not image stabilized as are the Sony and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 options.

As previously discussed, sports and action photographers are going to want longer wide aperture lenses and Sony FE 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses are likely in, minimally, the design phase. But as of review time, they are not available. Thus, the 100-400mm option fills in the bottom row of the comparison chart.

This chart does not include all direct lens comparisons available, so you must consider those lenses you additionally/alternatively need. Sony's 12-24mm f/4 lens is very considerably less expensive than Canon's 11-24mm f/4 lens and Nikon does not have a comparable model. Canon's 16-35mm f/4 lens is considerably less expensive than Sony's 16-35mm f/4.

The question I wanted to answer here: "Is Sony selling the a9 for a low price and making its profit on the lenses?" I can't say that is for sure the case, but the overall kit cost needs to be considered if, and this is a key point, price is what your decision is being based on. The Sony a9 and the lenses available for it are good enough to stand on their own regardless of the price consideration, but price is not likely going to be a strong factor if numerous lenses need added to the kit.

Wrap Up

This camera has an extremely deep feature set and I can't cover everything this camera can do in a reasonably-concise review. Communications features alone include an integrated LAN terminal, Wi-Fi, NFC and Bluetooth connectivity. The Sony a9 owner's manual (linked to at the top of this page) provides a deeper look into the full capabilities of this camera. Read the manual, go use your camera, repeat.

The Sony a9 used for this review was ordered online/retail.

Alternatives

Is the EOS Sony a9 the right camera for you? For those looking for a high-performance, professional camera model that includes a high frame rate, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and Nikon D5 are the strong competitors to the Sony a9. We answered the Should I Get the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II or the Sony a9? question on another page and I suggest that comparison be considered. I have not used the Nikon D5 and will save that comparison for someone else, but it is surely qualified for similar uses.

Those interested in a Sony model but not needing the fast frame rate should consider the Sony a7R II. The a7R II has a significantly higher resolution and a significantly lower price tag. As discussed throughout this review, the a9 has a significant number of feature advantages. The Sony a9 compared to the Sony a7R II page will illuminate many differences as well.

Summary

As I go back to my Sony a7R II to continue work on the Sony lens reviews, I'm left feeling in want. I am not in want from a resolution and dynamic range perspective, but I definitely want the a9's new and improved features in my a7R II. Sony is being recognized for having a significant impact on the camera industry in a relatively short period of time and the a9 extends that impact.

The a9 takes Sony's camera lineup to a new level of performance, including a 20 fps frame rate, silent shutter and no-blackout viewfinder. The ease of use improvements found on this model should similarly be considered. This very capable camera's biggest shortcoming, at least for some professional photography pursuits, is the lack of wide aperture, long focal length lenses. And again, I expect that shortcoming to be erased in the near future.

This camera has features that will, at least at review time, leave you wanting when shooting with anything else.

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My Recommended Sony a9 Retailers

Where you buy your gear matters. You expect to get what you ordered and you want to pay a low price for it. The retailers I recommend below are the ones I trust for my own purchases. Get your Sony a9 now from:

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Adorama
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