It's been fascinating to watch the rise of mirrorless cameras over the course of my 7+ years writing about digital photography. And Sony in particular has been fun to watch as they've lead the mirrorless charge in terms of sensor size and resolution.

I’ll never forget the moment the Sony NEX-7 was unveiled in a pre-launch briefing in 2011 - it was the first time I truly craved a mirrorless body - the publication I worked for at the time even named it 'Camera of the Year'. Up until that point mirrorless still felt like something of a novelty: a nice option for amateurs craving a small, light ILC alternative to a DSLR, but certainly not a replacement for one, especially for those 'serious' about their photography.

It's often been Sony in particular making the mirrorless cameras I'm most eager to get my hands on.

As the mirrorless market continued to take off and cameras like the original Sony a7 were unveiled, my interest in what originally seemed like a niche continued to grow. And while a lot of brands have contributed serious innovation to the mirrorless market, it's been Sony in particular making the mirrorless cameras I'm most eager to get my hands on - an opinion not shared by all my colleagues, mind you.

But time and time again I found my expectations of shooting a Sony mirrorless camera never quite matched the reality of using the product. For instance, when it came to the Sony a7, sure it packed a full-frame sensor in a super compact mirrorless body - something that'd never been done, but the user interface of the camera, to put it simply, felt unfinished. This led to an overly frustrating shooting experience.

The Sony a9 is the brand's first truly refined mirrorless camera, in this writer's opinion.
ISO 1000 | 1/1000 sec | F5.6

To make matters worse, many of Sony's early mirrorless UI stumbling points were uniquely their own: slow startup times, vague error messages, and batteries draining while the camera's shut off were problems other manufacturers had long since addressed (not to mention poor battery life). And while no one has the perfect menus, Sony's have historically been the most cluttered and confusing.

But time and time again I found my expectations of shooting a Sony mirrorless camera never quite matched the reality of using the product.

For years, early Sony mirrorless adopters defended their decision to go all-in citing that, eventually, you do get used to the annoying UI and find workarounds. And indeed I'm sure they did. But a good camera shouldn't force you to work around it: it should work with you. And as the Sony a7 II-series came to market, it seemed clear the brand was intent on fixing a lot of these issues and shaking its image as the camera brand with bad UI.

And then came the Sony a9

But it wasn't until the release of the Alpha 9 this year, that a Sony camera has felt as refined in use as it DSLR counterparts. A year early, the Sony a6500 came pretty close to hitting this mark, but it's the Sony a9 that's finally won me over as a whole-hearted mirrorless believer.

Make no mistake, the a9 is meant to compete against the likes of the flagship Nikon D5 and Canon EOS 1D X Mark II. What it lacks in built-in vertical grip, it makes up for in a faster burst (20 fps on the Sony, 14 fps on the Canon and 12 fps on the Nikon). But it has more appeal to me than as just a sports camera.

The a9 is a sports camera, but that doesn't mean it isn't also well-suited for shooting candids. In fact it's flip-out touchscreen is perfect for discreetly focusing on a subject.
ISO 100 | 1/640 sec | F5.6

For me, the mark of a truly good camera is one you find yourself reaching for regardless of the assignment or subject matter. Since the a9 landed in our office, it's been a camera that I've found myself grabbing for both static and moving subjects. Because as well-suited as it might be for sports photography, it's also a great street photography camera with lenses like the FE 28mm F2 attached. I find that using the flip-out touchscreen to select a point of focus is a great way to shoot candids.

Since the a9 landed in our office, its a camera that I've found myself grabbing for both static and moving subjects.

I recently took a trip to Jackson, Wyoming where I expected to shoot a mix of wildlife, landscapes and video, and found myself bringing the a9 because it offered a fast burst rate with good AF, 4K video without any heavy crop factor and excellent dynamic range. But moreover, I packed it because it is a camera I enjoy shooting with and can, with some time spent, customize to complement my shooting style perfectly.

I picked the Sony a9 for a once in a lifetime trip to Jackson, Wyoming because of its small size, dynamic range, 4K video and burst speed.
ISO 50 | 1/640 sec | F8

That's a big step forward for Sony. They've long made cameras that out-spec'ed the competition but for me personally, were not enjoyable to use. But the a9's menus have been overhauled and are less confusing, its also responsive (starts up fast) and rarely throws confusing errors messages. These may sound like little things, but they add up to vastly more pleasant shooting experience compared to Sonys of years past.

I packed it because it is a camera I enjoy shooting with.

Improvements like a new, larger capacity battery that doesn't self-drain, gave me more confidence in grabbing the Sony for what was likely a once in a lifetime shooting excursion. Plus, compared to a D5 or 1D X II, the a9 is a much smaller lighter camera to pack. And its in-body + lens stabilization allows me the flexibility to shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds and avoid lugging a tripod around. This was something that mattered to me as I was to do a lot of hiking in Jackson.

These bison may be nursing, and therefore stationary, but they can run at speeds up to 40 MPH. Good thing the Sony a9 can shoot at 20 fps.
ISO 100 | 1/500 sec | F5.6

Where Sony can go from here

The Sony a9, and its recently-released cousin, the Sony a7R III are both exceptional cameras. I used to hesitate to pick up a Sony camera; with this recent generation, no longer. That said, there are still some areas these cameras could improve to truly leave their DSLR pals in the dust, specifically: weather-sealing and subject tracking.

'Nikon's 3D Tracking is still superior to Sony's Lock-on AF for subject tracking.'

The Sony a9 is dust and moisture resistant to certain degree, but the lack of robust rubber gaskets on the ports, SD card and battery doors does not lead me to trust its ability to survive shooting in conditions such as a lacrosse game in torrential downpours - I'd be much more comfortable grabbing a Nikon D5 of Canon 1D X II.

The same goes for any assignment/circumstance were nailing focus on the shot is mission critical: Nikon's 3D Tracking is still superior to Sony's Lock-on AF for subject tracking.

There are some other minor grievances I have with the a9, like the inability to enter menus while the buffer clears. Another: the omission of video gamma and color modes found in most other Sony cameras. But these are all things that can easily be added/improved in the next generation. And if there is one thing I've learned covering Sony's camera technology, it's that the brand listens to customers and industry feedback.

Note: This was shot through a seaplane window.
ISO 800 | 1/2000 sec | F5.6

It's no secret that Sony is hungry for a piece of the professional sports photography market, eager to get mirrorless cameras on the sidelines of the Olympics and Super Bowl. And with the Sony a9, there's compelling reason to at least acknowledge Sony as a legit player. I think it will take a few more generations of cameras for Sony to blow past the competition, giving pros a concrete reason to consider switching. But if they keep moving in the direction they have been, I see no reason why more and more pros wouldn't give them a chance.

So for winning me over and being the first Sony mirrorless camera I truly love shooting with, the a9 is my pick for 2017 gear of the year.