Sony Alpha A9 Digital Camera Review
Sony's new camera matches Canon and Nikon's best pro DSLRs—for thousands less.
For the past decade or so—ever since it purchased the camera operations of Konica-Minolta—Sony seems to have been trailing in the wake of Nikon and Canon as far as DSLRs are concerned. Despite creating perhaps the best point-and-shoot camera ever made, the best travel-zoom camera, and thoroughly dominating the smartphone camera world, pros have generally stuck with the big two.
The new Sony Alpha A9 (MSRP $4,500) may just be the camera that changes that for good. Though it looks, feels, and operates much like Sony's previous full-frame mirrorless options (cameras like the A7R, A7S, A7 II, and Sony A7R II), the A9 is something much more. Though still diminutive compared to full-frame DSLRs, it's beefier, better built, and significantly more capable than anything Sony has made before.
Though specs hardly tell the whole story, in this case they certainly set the tone: 24.2-megapixel full-frame sensor, 20 frames per second continuous shooting, 5-axis OIS, a 693-point autofocus system, a beautiful and bright OLED viewfinder, and in-camera 4K video capture. It makes for a flexible, expandable, reliable system that pros will absolutely want to check out for themselves.
Though the real-world shooting experience does leave a few things to be desired, the A9 feels like the exclamation point on the past decade for Sony's camera division. It's not perfect, but it has enough going for it that professionals everywhere should start figuring out how much it would take to switch to Sony.
About the Sony Alpha A9
The Sony Alpha A9 is a full-frame mirrorless camera featuring Sony's FE-mount, including FE (full-frame) and E (APS-C) lenses. The body design looks just like Sony's A7-series cameras, but with a few nips and tucks, a more solid all-around construction, and water-resistance. Here are the A9 specs provided by Sony:
- 24.2-megapixel full-frame (35.6x23.8mm) Exmor RS CMOS sensor
- Bionz X processing engine, with 14-bit RAW
- 693-point wide-area phase-detection on-sensor autofocus
- 5-axis image stabilization with 5-stop CIPA performance
- ISO 50-204,800 (expanded, with mechanical shutter)
- ISO 50-102,400 (expanded, with electronic shutter)
- 0.5-inch 3.67m-dot Quad-VGA OLED electronic viewfinder
- 3-inch type 1.44m-dot TFT articulating rear LCD screen
- XAVC S (AVC/H.264) 4K/30p and 1080/120p video
- Dual SD memory (incl. 1 UHS-II compliant slot)
- 1/32000th max shutter speed (electronic, 1/8000th mechanical)
- 20fps continuous shooting (electronic, 5fps mechanical)
- Wired (LAN, USB) and wireless (NFC, Bluetooth, WiFi) connectivity
- 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks
- NP-FZ100 battery pack (650 shots CIPA w/ monitor), USB charging
What we like about the A9
The speed offered here is simply incredible
Twenty-four-point-two megapixels at 20 frames per second.
I'm just going to let that hang there on its own, because it's absolutely incredible. Though the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II can hit 60fps at 20.4 megapixels, that's with a much smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor and a weaker all-around autofocus system. The Sony A9 has a higher resolution sensor, with a far more robust tracking system and an OLED viewfinder with no "blinking" at all while shooting.
The closest competitors are dedicated action and sports cameras such as the Nikon D5, Canon 7D Mark II, and Canon EOS-1DX Mark II. Those three all have roughly 20-megapixel sensors, but all top out somewhere between 10-16fps (and the 7D Mark II uses an APS-C sensor). The A9 handily outpaces all of them.
Is there a huge difference between the A9's 20fps and the 1DX II's 16fps? No. But there is a huge difference between those two cameras, such as...
The A9 puts that power (almost) in the palm of your hand
The Sony Alpha A9 isn't a small camera, by any means, but the body is a significant departure from what we're used to seeing from pro-grade sports cameras. It weights a little less than half what the 1DX II weighs, without a lens attached. Though the weight (and overall silhouette) is a bit closer if you add on Sony's optional battery grip, you at least have the option of removing the vertical grip—something you obviously can't do with the Nikon D5 or 1DX II.
The OLED viewfinder is beautiful, and better than optical in many ways
There are some true optical viefinder die-hards out there, but even they will have to admit that there are some real advantages to the Sony A9's electronic finder. It's big, it's bright, it's very colorful, and it shows a true readout of exactly what the sensor is recording in real-time.
While burst shooting, the biggest benefit is the lack of a "blink" when the frame is captured—you just get a continuous stream of your subject, with a white box that pops up around your subject indicating a frame has been captured. It gives you a much better idea of what you're capturing in the moment, and is better for keeping consistent framing even while shooting at a very high speed.
And like all EVFs, you can also access the menu right in the viewfinder. This is useful for critical moments when you don't want to take your eye off the finder, but it's also useful on very bright days when the rear LCD will get hopelessly washed out. In short, this is one of the best EVFs we've seen yet.
The low light performance is astounding
True flagship cameras like the D5 and 1DX II are typically lauded primarily for their speed, but in the past few years they have become equally adept at capturing usable images in extremely limited light. The A9's maximum ISO speed "only" gets to 204,800 (and only 102,400 with the electronic shutter enabled), but you can expect usable image quality right up to ISO 25,600.
Though that's not the best that we've seen, it's a significant advantage over cameras like the Panasonic GH5, Olympus OM-D E-M1 II, and the Fujifilm X-T2. Even in bright light, the base ISO of 50 provides just over 14 stops of dynamic range, which is two or more stops better than those other cameras. That simply provides a depth of tonality that other cameras will not match without capturing multiple frames.
The new autofocus system is glorious
Professional photographers are loyal to Canon for lots of reasons, such as its wide array of pro-grade lenses, its top-notch service and support, and its excellent 1D- and 5D-series cameras. But for my money, the real reason Canon has so many die-hard supporters is its autofocus system.
For professional purposes, Canon has always been ahead of the pack when it comes to tack-sharp autofocus and beautiful, reliable subject tracking. Whether you shoot sports, news, action, or wildlife, Canon has you covered, with a far more detailed, granular array of options for tuning it just the way you want.
Sony isn't quite there yet with the A9, but damn if it isn't close. The A9 features 693 autofocus points on the sensor, with excellent tracking and several game-changing features such as Eye AF, which focuses and locks onto a subject's eyes above all else. The autofocus system is sensitive down to -3 EV with an f/2.0 or faster lens attached.
In practice, it's almost impossible to trip up. Even while intentionally shooting through tricky subjects like chain-link fences, the A9 found subjects and held onto them tight. I wish there was a bit more control—similar to Canon's use-case AF modes—but what's here is compelling enough for photographers of all stripes.
What we don't like about the A9
The battery life is good, but not great
If you've shot with any of Sony's full-frame cameras to this point, you may wondering why this isn't in the "What we like" section; getting "good" battery life from a full-frame Sony seems like cause for celebration. While the battery life is indeed much improved over previous Sony cameras, you're still only looking at an hour of consistent shooting per charge, or about 600 shots. The optional battery grip helps with that, but you're still only approaching about half what you get with a 1D X or D5.
It's also worth noting that this is a new battery pack, so if you have a ton of batteries and chargers that you use with an existing A7-series setup, you'll need to upgrade (not that you'll be complaining that much). The A9 also supports USB charging, so you can supplement the battery with a USB battery backup like this one, which can be a real life-saver if you have a shoot that'll take you away from a power source for awhile.
Dual card slot are great, but only one is UHS-II
Again, file this under "Things we like, but are nitpicking anyway." The A9 has dual SD card slots, which is great. While it's a bit questionable that Sony isn't supporting its own proprietary XQD memory format (which is found in some Nikon DSLRs), it does show just how far SD has come considering it seemed like it was approaching its performance ceiling years ago.
The new class of UHS-II compliant cards are incredibly fast, which really helps because, again, you'll be capturing 20 24.2-megapixel frames (RAW and JPEG!) every second. You'll need to get those images off your card quickly, and UHS-II is the way to do that. Unfortunately only slot 1 is UHS-II ready. I have no idea why, but it's annoying if you want to stock up on UHS-II cards.
The small size makes wielding large lenses difficult
With a performance profile that seems geared largely toward sports and action photography, you'll undoubtedly want to slap some true action-ready telephoto lenses on this bad boy. Unfortunately, the A9 feels very small when attached to anything larger than a 24-70mm f/2.8. It's workable, but with longer lenses I often felt like I was holding a big lens with a camera attached rather than the other way around.
It's not a deal-breaker—if you're shooting with a monopod or tripod you'll hardly notice, but it could make for some awkward setups with particularly wide pieces of glass. It also means the controls on the body are a bit close together, so you'll need to sharpen your muscle memory if you plan to operate the camera by feel alone.
The cost puts the A9 in a no-man's-land
There are two ways to spin the cost of the A9, depending on your viewpoint. If you're comparing it to the 1DX II or D5, its $4,500 body price is very competitive, even if you plan to add on the $349.99 vertical battery grip and a half dozen extra batteries.
But if you're cross-shopping this with something like the equally fast Olympus OM-D E-M1 II ($1,999 body-only), the cost seems a bit out of control. Many sports shooters don't need exceptional low light or super shallow depth of field, so the benefits of full-frame may not be there for everyone. Sony has a better pro-grade telephoto lens selection already, but a Canon 7D Mark II is also much cheaper, plenty fast, and has even more options for a cash-strapped sports/action/wedding photographer.
Still, the A9's speed, silent shooting chops, multimedia abilities, full-frame sensor, optical image stabilization, and small size will attract a lot of buyers. Though there are specific use cases where it makes sense to spend more (or less) on a different camera, the A9 makes a compelling case for itself.
Should you buy it?
Yes—but only if you're a professional who needs it.
While Sony's A7-series cameras have offered a tantalizing glimpse into Sony's vision for the future, they always seemed to be missing that extra bit of polish. Creaky lens mounts, a pokey autofocus system, pitiful battery life... they were great cameras, but not compelling enough that you'd consider dropping everything to switch to Sony; after all, there are a ton of great cameras these days.
The A9 is something different. Where the A7 seemed like a promising idea being sketched out in real time, the A9 is a complete, finished product. Plot it on an evolutionary timeline of Sony cameras and you'd be tempted to call it a new species entirely—or search for some missing link that explains the sudden burst of progress.
The combination of speed, power, reliability, and customizability is simply incredible. Though there are small things that I miss compared to similar Canon and Nikon cameras, it's worth noting that all of those competitors are either a) much larger, b) more expensive, c) slower, or d) all of the above. The A9 doesn't totally wipe them off the field, but if you've been complaining about lugging around a Nikon D5 or 1D X Mark II, the A9 will feel like a true breath of fresh air.
Of course, its diminutive size is also the A9's biggest problem. Even compared to mirrorless competitors like the Panasonic GH5, the A9 feels cramped. Professionals who are fully accustomed to shooting with a 1D X Mark II on one hip and a 5D or 7D on the other may not be able to get over just how small the A9 feels—especially with a large telephoto lens attached.
Most seriously, tapping into the A9's greatest strength—its speedy continuous shooting—means you're stuck with an electronic shutter and compressed RAW output. Though I've long learned to live without the ka-thunk! of a mechanical shutter slamming shut, professionals who have been happily grazing within Canon or Nikon's lineup may find it off-putting—or unworkable, if they rely on very high-speed flash syncing.
But for wedding and performance photographers, in particular, the silent shutter, burst shooting, and crafty autofocus system means you'll capture more moments (discreetly!) than ever before. For them, this camera is going to be very tempting—especially if you're willing to throw out old habits and learn all the neat little tricks and shortcuts that Sony has baked in along the way.
For existing Sony fans, the A9 presents a different dilemma. The A9 solves nearly all the major issues we've had with the A7-series cameras (particularly battery life), but it costs significantly more money. It's likely those improvements will trickle down to future A7 cameras, though, so patience may be the wisest choice.
Will the A9 finally be Sony's ticket into the hearts, minds, and bags of top professionals everywhere? Probably not—old habits die hard, and lenses, support, and familiarity are worth just as much to working pros. But even if the A9 doesn't have people trading in their 1D X IIs and D5s in droves, it's already a smashing success for Sony.
After a decade of building, Sony has produced a camera that can stand alongside the very best from Canon and Nikon. Maybe Sony couldn't quite follow Canon and Nikon's path to the top, but it's reached the summit all the same.
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