Sony a9: Why being better might not be enough
The Sony a9 is an impressive looking camera. At 20 frames per second, it's able to shoot much faster than either of the professional sports cameras from the two big DSLR makers.
The Sony is also smaller and lighter than these cameras (even with a battery grip added, to get nearer to matching their battery endurance), and has autofocus coverage across a much wider region of the frame than a DSLR AF system can offer. On top of this, it’s $1500 cheaper than Canon's EOS-1D X II and $2000 less than Nikon's D5.
And, most importantly, my colleagues who've shot with the camera say that the AF performance is within the realms of that offered by the current generation of pro DSLRs.
So, game, set and match, Sony?
|Our initial impressions, as well as the underlying specifications, suggest Sony's a9 is a highly capable piece of kit. But is that enough for it to elbow its way to the sidelines of the world's sports pitches?|
Well, not necessarily. For moneyed enthusiasts, and wedding photographers (who are often owner/operators) the Sony looks like a pretty competitive option. Though, of course, the cost isn't just about buying the body. If you have to make a switch to a completely new system, the costs extend to every item you need to replace.
However, there are a number of factors that make it more difficult for a working sports shooters to change systems. We spoke to a couple of photojournalists at The Seattle Times about the factors beyond sticker price that might stand in the way of switching (not just to Sony but to any other system).
Lenses are one of the biggest factors in deciding whether to swap systems. Not only are lenses every bit as important as cameras themselves when making images but also, especially at the pro and sports end of the market, can easily cost more than a camera body. Often the bulk of the cost of changing systems lies in the need to sell your existing lenses and buy new ones, with the precise cost depending on which lenses you need.
Lens availability is another significant hurdle. Sony has been making strides with its GM lens series but there's a distinct lack of the long and fast telephoto lenses that sports shooters depend on.
'Go to any sporting event: the Olympics, the Super Bowl and it comes down to the same basic configurations: short zoom, long zoom, super telephoto. Essentially a 16-35, 70-200 and 400 mm F2.8,' explains Seattle Times photographer Dean Rutz.
'What all these companies lack is the super prime telephoto,’ he says: ‘I can't logically make the switch without a 400mm F2.8 or equivalent. At least a 300mm F2.8. A 70-200 equivalent isn't sufficient.'
Bettina Hansen, Rutz's colleague at the Seattle Times agrees: 'for sports I use a 16-35, 70-200 and one of either the Canon 200-400, 400 F2.8 or 500 F4.'
|Sony has introduced a 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM alongside the a9, but that's not the same as having a 400mm F2.8 available.|
Then, of course, there's the issue of who owns the lenses. If your employer has spent money on a particular lens system or the rental house with which you have an account and a working relationship only supports certain systems, then this can become a significant barrier to switching.
This is certainly the case for Rutz: 'my employer provides a generous amount of Canon gear for my work, which is predominantly sports related.'
'The Times owns everything [I use],' says Hansen. 'Changing isn't totally impossible, though. Our boss did say: "let us know what you want, next time we have to replace gear," but we tend to replace bodies one year and lenses the next. Those super-telephotos are used on a pool basis, so you can't necessarily change while everyone's on another system.'
|Sony has clearly looked at the needs of a range of pros, with the inclusion of features such as an Ethernet connector. 'That's how the wires do big events,' says Hansen: 'Olympics, World Series, etc - the shooters sit in designated spots and images transmit instantly to editors as they are shot via Ethernet.'|
The short flange-back distance of the a9 leaves enough room to fit an adapter to allow the mounting of any DSLR lens, but there'll be a significant change in performance associated with this. Sony only promises 10 frame per second shooting when adapting its own A-mount lenses, and we're told that both subject tracking (Lock-on AF) and Eye-AF will be unavailable when using non-native mount lenses (this has always been the case even with previous a7 bodies).
'Performance reportedly will degrade with the adapter,’ says Rutz: ‘I'd need to see the practical application of it before committing.'
As well as bodies and lenses, changing systems incurs a range of associated expenses, Hansen points out.
'Rain gear is important for sports like football,' she says: 'We use Think Tank Hydrophobia rain gear, which isn't cheap. That's pretty popular among photojournalists.'
'The other thing is cards: we've invested heavily in Compact Flash,' she says. 'That might not seem like much, but we have nine photographers at the moment, so it really adds up. Then there's cases. We've got bags that are designed to perfectly fit a pro level DSLR and everything you need to shoot a football game and get it on a plane. Are we going to have to replace those, too?'
Some of these expenses are likely to be small, but it's all a question of unknowns.
Professional gear tends to be built pretty tough, but it's not indestructible. Focus motors fail, lenses get dropped, sensors need cleaning. Working professionals, particularly photojournalists and sports photographers need a good degree of support if anything goes wrong: since neither the news nor a big game will wait for their gear to get fixed.
|This is what the competition looks like: Canon Professional Service's loan stock for the 2016 Rio Olympics.|
As a results, Canon, Nikon and Sony all have 'Pro' support schemes that promise a certain level of service, usually including a defined repair period and loan equipment being available in the meantime.
'CPS is huge to us,' Hansen stresses: 'For instance, say I am shooting a Seahawks game, I break a lens, shear it off at the lens mount or it gets stuck on the camera: I can send it in and have a loaner pretty quick. Canon also has a rep in Seattle so we can just go to him if we need something, he'll often come to the games.'
|Sony's Pro Support program has been expanded to include more countries, but can it offer the degree of service that pro sports shooters have come to expect?|
Sony has said it's beefing-up its Pro support system, opening two walk-in support centers and extending coverage to Canada. The program is also available in Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the United Kingdom, though the service level may differ across territories.
This is a key requirement, says Rutz: 'the challengers need better pro services and outreach, as well as big primes, to be able to push the other companies off their perch.' One thing in Sony's favor? If you mostly use the electronic shutter, your mechanical shutter will have a longer life. That's something, at least.
Then, beyond the practical concerns, there are the personal aspects. Canon and Nikon's pro cameras have been carefully iterated, generation to generation, so they include the improvements asked for, while also maintaining backwards-compatibility so that users who have spent years with one brand will find the latest model immediately familiar.
Rutz gives just a small example: 'I think most sports photographers rely on back-button focus to balance framing and frame rate in a rapid-fire sequence. Canon has a big, fat button on the back of their cameras that's easy to find, on the fly but most other cameras have made that button too flush to be as instinctive. That's an area that needs to be addressed.'
Interestingly, Hansen highlights exactly the same thing: 'Back button focus is one of the first things you learn when you're getting into photojournalism and sports photography.'
Sony has clearly heard about this need and has added a dedicated AF-On button on the a9, so it'll be interesting how our pros get on with it, once they've had a chance to use the camera.
|The Sony a9 has a dedicated AF-On button, but is it pronounced and well-positioned enough to ensure your thumb hits it without having to think?|
That said, if the performance gain is sufficient, most pros will take the time to learn new tricks and work around any oddities. 'The quirks of these new systems can be mitigated - honestly - if there's less difference in fundamental performance than what you're already used to,' says Rutz.
'It does take time to get used to these new cameras,' he says: 'but most [professionals] I know are geeks and they're more than willing to play with the assets until they get the swing of it.'
Hansen, having already moved from Nikon to Canon, agrees: 'If you're in the field, you're always experimenting. Learning a new system isn't so hard. You find the menus that are important to you and you learn those.'
'Familiarity helps, though,' Rutz says: 'At a point photography is reflexive and the camera has to fit into that, versus you having to adapt to the camera.'
A question of inertia
Overall, then, there are a series of factors beyond just the cost that contribute to the inertia that acts against working professionals changing systems. As such, even being better might not be enough for Sony's a9 to make a significant dent in the pro sports market.
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