Believe it or not, sports and live music photography have a lot in common – your reaction time as a photographer is crucial. The money shot moments happen in a split second and if you are too early or too late on your shutter release you will have missed the shot. Most of the time when I’m out on a shoot I’m working with a DSLR that shoots 6 frames per second or a mirrorless that can shoot 11 frames per second. I’m used to waiting for that perfect moment to fire the shutter and usually do just fine with 6 fps – but I won’t lie, the chance to try out the Sony a9's 20 fps had me intrigued.

Recent Videos

For starters, I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to test out this camera. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky for the first day of The Presidents Cup golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey, giving pristine views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty from certain holes on the course.

Although I typically photograph live music, I’ve spent time photographing action sports and college games, and had a feeling that the insane burst shooting speeds would be a huge asset while photographing some of the world’s premiere golfers.

The totally silent shutter and the full-frame sensor in the a9 has created a camera that essentially allows a photographer to capture viewpoints that in the past simply weren’t allowed

I was also pretty excited to use the completely silent shutter on the a9. During a golf tournament there are key moments that most photographers aren’t allowed to shoot unless they are a substantial distance from the golfers—tee off for example, as a loud shutter clunk going off behind a golfer would be a huge distraction. The totally silent electronic shutter and the full-frame sensor in the a9 has created a camera that essentially allows a photographer to capture viewpoints that in the past simply weren’t allowed.

I own an a6500 and regularly shoot video for one of my clients using an a7, so I’m familiar with the menu organization and the autofocus systems on these cameras. The day before the event I went through and customized the settings on the a9 in a way that is similar to how I shoot with my a6500. I spent the bulk of my day shooting with the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 G Master lens, with the camera switched to Shutter Priority mode (to catch the fleeting moment of the golf ball in frame) and swapping between two of the continuous autofocus area modes: Wide and Flexible Spot.

Despite being accustomed to Sony cameras the AF system still has its quirks—especially when dealing with a busy frame. As The Presidents Cup kicked off I was shooting in Wide AF mode and found the a9 occasionally having trouble locking onto the subjects I wanted it to. My images of former President Bill Clinton and George Bush in conversation behind the first tee are all slightly soft as the Wide focus mode wanted to grab focus on either the photographer in front of them or the white wall behind them. It was difficult to tell that this was happening while I was shooting (it looked so sharp through the EVF) and a real disappointment once I had a chance to download my cards after the event.

It may have missed the mark on the former Presidents, but Wide AF mode worked great for capturing the throngs of American-flag dressed fans in the stands though. The new design of the AF joystick was a dream while shooting in Flexible Spot mode though – it’s similar to the one on my DSLR making it quite fast to move the AF spot as the golfers maneuvered around the green during play.

The totally silent shutter on the camera took some getting used to. Early in the day there were a number of times that, as I was framing my shots, I found I was actually shooting frames without realizing it. However, as I grew accustomed to shooting without a shutter clunk I found the shutter noise from other photographers on the green quite distracting. Overall, I think this feature (especially when paired with the fact that the a9 has no optical blackout while shooting) is a huge benefit.

While the ability to shoot silently was particularly helpful on the golf course I can think of a number of other scenarios where this would be useful—weddings, on the set of film shoots, inside the studio with musicians and even photojournalism. The ability to silence the shutter makes it that much easier to become invisible as a photographer and capture your moments. The Sony a9 essentially makes it easy to follow the action and capture the exact frame that you want.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the features that I was most excited to check out was the a9's ridiculously fast burst speeds. Although 20 fps is impressive, for shooting a sport like golf you probably won’t need quite that much speed. I spent the bulk of my day shooting at a lower frame rate out of fear of filling my cards before the day was over—I’d shot just over 2,000 frames when our day of ended. I’d love to see what those 20 fps could do during a faster moving sport though.

Unfortunately, there isn’t currently a way to rate the frames you like. This makes editing in a program like Photo Mechanic a bit more cumbersome. Another quirk is that although the a9 has two card slots, if one memory card hits capacity it won’t automatically switch to the second card. This is obviously going to be a drawback for professional level sports photographers documenting clutch moments of a sporting event.

The playback feature also isn’t intuitive. At one point during our day of shooting I thought I had lost a few hundred images. Thankfully it turned out that they were just recording to my second card and I was seeing playback from the first card. Sony says they are aware of all of these drawbacks though, and are working on solutions for them through future firmware updates and upcoming models.

I likely could have photographed the entire event with a single battery, which was an
unexpected surprise

As someone who occasionally shoots with Sony gear my expectations for this camera’s battery life in the field were low – the Sony system just isn’t known for having the longevity that a DSLR does. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the stamina of the new Z battery. I only swapped my battery once towards the end of the day and even then, it still had roughly a 20% charge on it. I likely could have photographed the entire event with a single battery, which was an unexpected surprise.

It’s not unusual for sports photographers to travel with multiple bodies and lenses, and the after shooting with the a9 for the day I certainly didn't envy the folks rolling around with multiple Canon EOS-1D X's. Even with a 100-400mm lens and an extra battery grip the Sony a9 remains relatively lightweight. For the most part the ergonomics of the camera are quite nice – it’s easy to switch between drive modes and shooting modes, and the movie record button has been moved to an area where you won’t accidentally press it.

My one complaint about the layout of knobs and buttons is the placement of the exposure compensation knob. Multiple times throughout the day I’d look at my camera and see that this knob had unexpectedly clicked off the "0" position. Apparently some photographers have taken to taping this down to prevent it from moving—I think on future shoots with the a9 I would do the same.

Obviously no camera is perfect, and although the a9 has its quirks, shooting during The Presidents Cup with it was an incredible experience. The burst speeds allowed me to photograph fleeting moments that I don’t think would be possible with my normal setup.

There was a bit of a learning curve at first, but as the day moved on I found myself quickly adapting to the a9. That completely silent shutter and the lack of blackout are the real gems of this camera though, and are features that I think a variety of photographers would find to be game changers in their work.

Sony a9 Presidents Cup Sample Gallery

Jeanette D. Moses is New York City based photographer and videographer specializing in music, events and portraiture. Her work has been published by The New York Times Magazine, SPIN, PASTE, Billboard, Breakthrough Radio, Popular Photography, American Photo Mag, Brooklyn Vegan, Flavorwire, Impose and PopGun. She currently runs Blood Sweat and Beers, a photo site dedicated to documenting New York City's vibrant DIY music scene.