Body, handling and controls

As with each successive generation of Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras, the a1's overall handling is comprised of a collection of iterations on those cameras that have come before. And in this case, more than a few of those iterations are targeted at higher-end users that Sony is really reaching out to with this camera.

Key takeaways:

  • Compact size, excellent build quality with claims of thorough weather sealing
  • Extremely customizable
  • Users have control over separate custom keys and settings between stills and video
  • Responsive, polished interface and menus
  • Truly excellent viewfinder
  • Good touchscreen response, but screen is on the small and low-res side
  • Compatible with both CFexpress Type A and UHS-II SD cards
  • Broad connectivity options, good battery life

Overall handling

The Sony a1's grip is just a bit taller than the a9 II, and it makes a significant difference in how solid the camera feels in-hand.

To start, the a1 remains an impressively compact camera given its specifications and build quality. Sony is claiming improved weather sealing on the a1 compared to other a7 and a9 series cameras, and it sports those cameras' good-sized grips. While users of large telephoto lenses will likely want to pick up the optional battery grip, those who prefer primes or shorter zooms will find the a1 to be really solid in the hand and reasonably well-balanced.

The a1 is also one of the most responsive Sony cameras we've yet used; it has none of the interface lag of previous models that made for a somewhat 'disconnected' shooting experience. You can turn the control dials as fast as you want, and the a1 will keep up with you.

On the controls front, the buttons on the a1 all have excellent travel and feel, and you should have no problem operating them with lightweight gloves in inclement weather. The drive mode, autofocus mode and shooting mode dials all have non-toggle locks, meaning you have to press a release button to change those settings (those actually may present an issue with thicker gloves). The exposure compensation dial has a toggle lock, so can be easier to access on the fly depending on your situation.

As is typical for Sony cameras, the a1 is extremely customizable. There are three custom banks on the mode dial, and the Menu, Playback and Fn buttons are the only three buttons on the camera that cannot be customized. The functions of the triple control dials can be customized as well.

Video handling and controls features

Helpfully for hybrid stills and video shooters, you can have different buttons perform different functions for each medium, and can also customize the Fn menu for each as well. Users also have the option to have the camera keep aperture, shutter speed, ISO value, exposure compensation, metering mode, white balance and picture profile settings separate between stills and video. Unfortunately, 'APS-C crop' is not one of the options you can keep separate.

But those options you can keep separate will be useful for users who might be photographing pro sports, and using a very high shutter speed and wide aperture for stills, but want to slow that shutter speed down and close the aperture down when switching to video. The option to share a custom white balance between the two modes means only having to set it up once for each shooting environment.

The touchscreen gives video shooters the option to tap-to-track a subject, which will automatically transition to face-and-eye tracking on a person, or they can tap to move a single AF area around the frame. Unfortunately, there's no way to pre-position an AF point for the camera to track.

Touchscreen interface and menus

Beyond just video, the Alpha 1 gets a far more robust touch-interface than we'd previously seen on Sony cameras (aside from the a7S III). The touch response mostly lag-free; there's a bit less 'smoothness' than competitors when utilizing the touchscreen in playback mode, but while shooting photos and video, users can navigate the on-screen Fn menu and main menus fluidly. We still would have liked to see a bigger, higher-res screen to more closely match the a1's competitors, and video-focused shooters may have preferred a flip-out, fully articulating design.

Jumping back to the menus, they also see the same updates bestowed upon the a7S III, namely a switch to a horizontally oriented layout for 'deeper' options and much more effective color coding. Almost every single option also has a helpful 'tool tip' attached, accessed by pressing the Trash button (don't read too much into that; the tips are mostly quite helpful, and not trash).

The updated menus are far more usable than previous Sony cameras.

The camera also hides some options depending on whether you're in stills or video shooting modes. For example, you can't change your JPEG / HEIF settings when in video mode, and you can't choose which video format you want to record in if you're shooting stills. We actually find this helps simplify things, and is likely to be appreciated by users who are more focused on one area or the other for their work.

Viewfinder

As covered on the previous page, the electronic viewfinder on the a1 is truly something to behold. With 9.44 million dots of resolution and 0.9x magnification, it ties the a7S III for the biggest and highest-resolution viewfinder currently on the market. You do have to choose between outright resolution and speed, though, depending on what you're shooting; you can't get all those dots at the optional 240 fps refresh rate. And if you have AF-C enabled, the resolution will drop while focusing, even with the 60 fps refresh rate and the display setting set to 'high.'

Auto ISO

Sony continues to use a really flexible Auto ISO implementation that ends up simplifying the shooting experience for lots of types of photography. You can set a minimum shutter speed threshold manually and even quickly access it via a custom button. You can also set upper and lower bounds for the ISO value. You can also have the camera control the shutter speed threshold automatically, which is useful for using zooms, and you can have the option to bias it faster or slower than 1/focal length.

Connectivity

Sony's crammed a lot of ports onto the left side of the camera; we get 3.5mm microphone and headphone jacks, a full-size HDMI port and a USB Type C port that can charge or power the camera and offers up to 10Gb/s transfer speeds. That, incidentally, is ten times faster than the camera's gigabit Ethernet port (an interface many professionals continue to use). Beneath the ethernet port is a flash sync port and beneath that is a USB 2.0 Micro-B port for accessory connections.

The a1 also comes with dual-band 2.4 and 5GHz Wi-Fi, with the latter taking advantage of what's called MIMO tech (multi-in, multi-out). Sony claims this will allow for 3.5x faster transfer speeds as compared to the Wi-Fi connection on the a9 II. In real-world use, we've found transfers to be noticeably faster and more reliable than previous models, where we'd see 'image database' errors more often than we'd have liked to.

Storage and battery

Hidden behind a latching door lie dual card slots, which are both compatible with UHS-II SD cards or CFexpress Type A cards. As we press on with our final review, we'll be looking closely at buffer clear times with each card type. For video shooters, you can shoot everything on a V90 and most things, including 200Mbps 8K, to a V60 card.

The battery is the familiar NP-FZ100, which provides a CIPA-rated 530 shots per charge using the LCD panel, and 430 shots per charge with the electronic viewfinder. As with all CIPA ratings, you can expect to enjoy far more shots than these numbers in most situations, particularly if you're shooting bursts, but it allows for a useful comparison between cameras. In this case, a rating of 430/530 shots should be enough to get through a weekend's worth of travel photography, and is probably more than enough for most sports matches where you can use the electronic shutter.