Conclusion

Pros Cons
  • Newly designed 24MP sensor offers incredible speed
  • 20fps silent burst shooting with 60 AE/AF calculations per second
  • 693 AF points, will focus down to -3EV with an F2 lens
  • No blackout when shooting with electronic shutter
  • Drastically improved battery life
  • High-res electronic viewfinder with 120fps refresh rate
  • Increased direct controls, better feedback on most buttons and dials
  • E-shutter offers 1/150s shutter rate, only 1 EV behind 1/300s mechanical
  • Banding in artificial lighting barely an issue over DSLRs, since e-shutter is only 1 EV behind mech shutters
  • Dual SD card slots
  • Ethernet, flash sync ports
  • Rolling shutter well-controlled
  • Oversampled 4K footage
  • Full HD at 120fps
  • Improved menus (including a My Menu), customizability
  • Improved overall responsiveness
  • USB charging
  • Base ISO dynamic range lags existing Sony full frame cameras
  • Battery grip all-but-required for comfortable use with larger lenses
  • Lock-On subject tracking still less dependable than Nikon 3D Tracking
  • Only one SD slot is UHS-II
  • Default color response improved, but still behind competition
  • Shooting uncompressed Raw drops burst speed to 12fps
  • No lossless compressed Raw option
  • Auto white balance can struggle under artificial lighting
  • Won't sync with flashes in e-shutter; max frame rate with flash is 5 fps
  • Poor solution for AF assist in dim light
  • No picture profiles or S-Log in video
  • Center Lock-On AF in video is archaic, unreliable and cumbersome
  • Cannot enter menus while buffer is clearing
  • AF-ON and AEL buttons need more travel
  • Memory Recall modes, while improved, are still not comprehensive
  • USB 2.0 for file transfer

Overall conclusion

Sony isn't being shy about the purpose of their new a9 sports camera - it's meant to go head-to-head with the sports-shooting establishment, the likes of the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. With that in mind, it's interesting to see just how far Sony has come with their a9, as well as what Sony, as an outsider in this particular subsection of the market, views as priorities versus the 'big two.'

Despite the fact that these three cameras share the same intended purpose, Sony is clearly thinking a bit differently - it has a decidedly different form factor than the others, offers (in some respects) unmatched speed, and comes with a significant MSRP discount. On top of that, it actually offers the most resolution of the group from its worlds-first stacked full-frame CMOS sensor.

Pushing forward - the Sony a9 offers incredible speed in a compact package.
Processed and cropped to taste from Adobe Camera Raw.
Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G @ 200mm | ISO 2500 | 1/2000 sec | F4

Only time will tell whether the a9 is enough to sway professionals to switch, but in the meantime, we know that the D5 and 1D X II are both highly regarded and highly rated cameras, so let's see how the Sony a9 measures up.

Body, design and controls

With a compact lens, the a9 is unsurprisingly leagues lighter, smaller and more comfortable to carry around for a full day of shooting than either the D5 or the 1D X II. Unfortunately, it can be a (literal) pain with larger lenses; when paired with those, the grip on the a9 is small enough to give you a hand cramp. If you're shooting all-day events with telephotos on the a9, it would be best to pony up for the battery grip - which brings it more in line with the form factor of its peers and doubles its battery life.

While Sony's larger G Master zooms can be a bit unwieldy on the a9, the FE 70-200mm F4 G is lightweight and balances well while giving great optical performance if you don't need a faster aperture.

Controls and dials are a big improvement over the a7-series cameras, offering better feedback and a less 'rubbery' feel. This means you can dial in settings more precisely and confidently. That said, the AF-ON and AEL buttons are surprisingly small and provide very little feedback, sometimes making them hard to find and activate quickly. There's a touchscreen which is disabled by default, probably because of how laggy it is (for our tastes, anyway). Speaking of the screen, we wish it were higher resolution to bring it more in line with the crisp retina-esque LCDs on Nikon's recent top-end bodies.

In keeping with its sports-shooting competitors, you can now assign a multitude of options to the press-and-hold of a button, including AF area, continuous versus single autofocus, and even your preferred shooting settings such as shutter speed or exposure mode - this makes it easy to adapt to changing situations with the press of a button.

The Sony a9 features dual SD card slots, one of which is UHS-II compatible. Write speeds vary depending on your settings, but it's safe to say that even the fastest SD cards can't match XQD or CFast cards, and while the buffer clears, you can't access the menus or switch to shooting video. Thankfully, you can enter playback and check not only critical focus on the most recently written image, but also see how many images remain to be written. You can also adjust most exposure parameters and Fn menu items.

Baby Henry approves of Sony's decision to build the a9 from the ground-up with a fully-silent electronic shutter in mind.
Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw, Sony Zeiss FE 55mm F1.8
ISO 2000 | 1/125 sec | F1.8

Lastly, we don't torture test cameras at DPReview, but we do take a look at the telltale signs of weather-sealing. Sony claims the a9 is dust and moisture resistant to some degree, but the lack of robust rubber gaskets on the port, SD card and battery doors leaves us feeling uneasy about taking the a9 out in inclement conditions.

Image and video quality

The a9 appears to demonstrate that, despite how far sensor technology has come, there are necessary tradeoffs between absolute image quality and absolute speed. We've seen that it has better base ISO dynamic range than the Nikon D5, but falls just behind the Canon 1D X II due to a visually distracting pattern noise in deep shadows. In real-world terms, this means that relative 'pushes' of Raw files will result in noisier images than users may be used to from other recent Sony sensors, which are excellent in this respect. At higher ISOs, dual gain allows the a9 to exceed the performance of the 1D X II, and nearly match that of the D5.

Shooting available light at high ISO values isn't much of a problem for the a9.
Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G @ 70mm | ISO 12800 | 1/60 sec | F4

Raw files from the a9 look a touch softer than its competitors', but the sophisticated sharpening and noise reduction algorithms result in JPEGs that look a touch sharper than those same competitors. Low light (high ISO) noise performance is very good: it's similar to the performance of the a7R II which was already at the top of its class, and though the color has improved relative to that camera as well, there's still some room for improvement in that regard.

In the real world, the biggest issue you are likely to encounter is with the auto white balance under challenging - especially artificial - lighting conditions; the images often come out with an overly greenish cast, so it's best to utilize a custom white balance in those scenarios where possible. Daylight shooting showed no such issues. It's quite remarkable to note the camera's 1/160s electronic shutter rate - only 1 EV behind the 1/300s shutter rate of mechanical shutters - thanks to the high readout speed. This means that the electronic shutter in continuous drive is almost as good as a mechanical shutter in terms of avoiding banding at high shutter speeds under artificial light. Only under very unusual light sources have any problems arisen.

The Sony a9 may not be the 'go-to' camera for landscapes, but it works just fine in a pinch.
Sony FE 35mm F1.4 Zeiss | ISO 400 | 8 sec | F2.8

The a9 captures stunningly detailed 4K video as it's oversampling its 4K/24p footage using the full width of its sensor, and rolling shutter is very well controlled. Though the a9 still comes with video-centric features such as microphone and headphone ports and zebra warnings, Sony has held back picture profiles, including S-Log; these come in handy when you're planning on grading your footage in post. We're not sure why Sony did this, but we're hoping they show up in a firmware update later on.

Performance and autofocus

The a9 starts up quicker, shoots faster and keeps going longer than any Sony mirrorless full-frame camera to date. A new, higher-capacity battery means thousands of burst-shooting shots per charge, and the new sensor is capable of 20fps shooting with no blackout in the viewfinder. It's something you have to see to believe.

But what good is all that speed if the camera can't focus on moving subjects? The good news is that it can. Handily. While shooting at 20fps, the a9 is performing 60 autofocus calculations per second utilizing 693 autofocus points, resulting in a generally impressive keeper rate to go with the impressive speed. The fast AF rate means the camera can be less predictive and more reactive; hence, we see far fewer predictive errors even compared to venerable competitors like the Canon 1D X II.

Processed and cropped to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
Sony FE 12-24mm F4 G @ 18mm | ISO 200 | 1/2000 sec | F4

That new AF system also comes with far better subject tracking than we've seen on any Sony camera before; Eye AF is more dependable than ever, especially during burst shooting. Lock-On AF can track impressively well, but unfortunately, still has an occasional tendency to jump subjects at random. Wide Area, where you leave the decision up to the camera, acquires focus incredibly quickly, and is a great choice for casual shooting, and shooting moving subjects where you have a clear subject isolated from the background. It's also a great mode to fall back on if all else fails and you need to quickly react to a subject appearing in the frame - especially since you can now assign a button instantly activate it (or any AF mode) as an override.

When shooting at full burst under challenging lighting scenarios, we found that the Nikon D5's 3D Tracking acquires your intended subject faster, is more likely to stick to it, ignore distractions and have more precise focus than the a9. But there's no getting around the fact that the a9's 20 frames per second often got us closer to the exact moment we wanted than with the 12fps the D5 offers, plus the 93% autofocus coverage with the a9 allowed us more compositional freedom with moving subjects.

We should note that the a9 is the first Sony mirrorless ILC where it's easy to revert to the 'continually recompose to keep your point over your subject' method during bursts. The joystick allows you to quickly move the AF point, and blackout free bursts make it easy to keep that point over an even erratically moving subject. Working this way results in a very high hit-rate. And the sheer refocusing speed, particularly with Direct Drive SSM lenses, is nothing short of impressive - the camera rarely plays 'catch-up', even with rapidly approaching subjects near the camera where many DSLRs struggle.

Processed to taste from Raw. Sony FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM @ 99mm.
ISO 1250 | 1/1000 sec | F2.8

When shooting video, you're still stuck using the older Center Lock-On AF algorithm, which is nowhere as reliable as the new Lock-On implementation in stills, and cumbersome to use. It's best to leave it on Wide, which is highly intelligent and just seems to work most of the time.

The final word

In creating the herald of what Sony is calling 'the dawn of the true digital age,' the company has gone to great lengths to maximize the camera's performance by minimizing its dependency on mechanical barriers; the a9 operates swiftly and quietly with its fully electronic shutter, with the added bonus that the a9 can remain impressively compact as it does away with the need for the highly robust shutter and mirror mechanisms that are hallmarks of its DSLR competition.

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Sony FE 12-24mm F4 G @ 12mm.
ISO 250 | 1/2000 sec | F4

It's also important to note that Sony isn't calling the a9 its new overall 'flagship' - because they have different flagships for different categories. The a7R II will still get you the best outright image quality and resolution, and the a7S II will get you amazing video in almost any lighting conditions. The a9 is their action flagship meant for speed, with the most reliable autofocus system of their mirrorless (and arguably overall) lineup. The speed, electronic shutter and more reliable Eye AF and subject tracking make it a great option not only for sports photographers, but wedding and event shooters as well.

While we've seen that there are still trade-offs versus high-end DSLRs, the Sony a9 is a fantastic and highly capable camera, and the fact that it's comparable to those DSLRs speaks volumes. The Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X II are both the result of decades of research and experience, and the fact that Sony has arrived with the a9 less than four years after creating its first full-frame mirrorless camera is nothing to be sneezed at.

If you're drawn to the ideas of silent operation, a compact package (with the right lenses) and you have a need for the type of speed the a9 offers with its revolutionary blackout-free burst shooting, you certainly won't be disappointed.

Scoring

Sony Alpha a9
Category: Professional Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Connectivity
Value
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The Sony a9 is more than just a refinement of the company's a7-series of full-frame mirrorless cameras; it's an evolution. With meaningful ergonomic and user interface improvements, the a9 is a polished and highly capable camera. It may not be a go-to camera for landscape and studio photographers, but its compact dimensions, silent operation, abundant speed and blackout-free shooting make it not only a step forward for mirrorless, but a compelling proposition for professionals who can't afford to miss a moment.
Good for
Sports, peak action, wedding, event and child photography, photojournalism
Not so good for
Landscape and studio photographers for whom resolution and dynamic range are important considerations
89%
Overall score

Sony a9 Samples Gallery

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Sony a9 real world samples gallery

118 images • Posted on Apr 27, 2017 • View album
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