Body and controls

If you were to wander into a camera store and take a passing glance at the Sony cabinet, you'd be forgiven for mistaking the a9 for just another a7-series camera. The entire range of Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras clearly shares a lot of design DNA, but the a9 makes some meaningful changes that a lot of people (including us) have been requesting for a while now.

The most obvious change is a general increase in the amount of direct controls; there are now dials for both drive and autofocus modes, there is an AF joystick (which is very nice to use) and dedicated AF-ON and AEL buttons. The rear jog dial has been beefed up some, the movie button has been relocated and the controls universally offer better feedback, and are more 'clicky' and less 'rubbery' than a7-series cameras.

From left: Sony a9, Sony a7R II

While those are all welcome changes, we still wish the mode dial locks were 'toggles' rather than the 'press-and-turn' type, and the AF mode dial's unlocking mechanism is a little fiddly and should, again, be a toggle. Also, we think the AF-ON and AEL buttons could use more travel when pressed: they're so small and offer so little feedback that you often can't find them or know that you've pressed them with your eye to the finder (especially in cold situations or with even light gloves).

Around the side, we get dual card slots, one of which supports the faster UHS-II format. Sony's also shoehorned a bigger 'Z' series battery into the a9, with more than double the capacity of the 'W' models. This larger capacity, coupled with a claimed 40% reduction in power consumption compared with the a7R II, results in a CIPA rated 650 shots per charge. In real-world shooting, though, we were able to shoot 2000+ images over the course of a day with some charge to spare.

The new 'Z' series battery for the Sony a9 comes with 2.2 times the capacity of the older 'W' models that power the a7-series cameras.

On the opposite side of the new dual card slots, we can see the full array of the a9's ports. Unsurprisingly for a serious sports camera, there's an Ethernet jack for instant FTP uploading during an event, and somewhat surprisingly given the a9's sensor is 'only' 24MP, there's a flash sync port that usually resides on more studio-oriented cameras. There are standard headphone, microphone and mini-HDMI jacks, and though you can still charge over USB, the a9 only offers USB 2.0 for image and data transfer, unlike the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X II.

The grip has been revised but not dramatically, so you'll want to be sure to pick up a battery grip or Sony's small (and pricey) grip extender for better comfort with larger lenses.

The screen is new, with a move to 1.44M dots or 800 x 600 resolution. That puts it well behind the retina-esque 2.4M-dot screen of the Nikon D5, meaning images don't look as crisp on the back of the camera as with the D5. The LCD is also touch-enabled, though it's essentially identical in terms of functionality (and quirkiness) to the unit on the a6500, which we just weren't impressed with. It's also disabled by default - probably not a coincidence.

Sony is claiming some degree of dust and moisture resistance on the a9, but obviously warns the camera isn't really 'waterproof.' And while we can't torture-test our cameras to really find the extent of the sealing, one glance at the port, battery and card slot doors shows a lack of rubber gaskets, whereas they're in abundance on Nikon's D5 and Canon's EOS-1D X II.

Although it doesn't look any different on the outside, the new viewfinder on the a9 is a marked improvement over previous Sony cameras. It offers greater resolution (3.7 million dots as opposed to 2.4 million) and a higher framerate of 120 fps (this drops to 60 fps during continuous shooting, but with 20 fps bursts and no blackout, it's still darn impressive). The EVF offers extensive contrast since it's OLED.

Menus, customization and operation

The Sony a9 is generally more 'snappy' to use than any a7-series camera. Everything is a tad more responsive, boot-up time is claimed to be 30% faster, and you can enter playback while the camera is writing to the card (the a7R II just gives you an unnecessarily cryptic error message when you try to do this). There's still some hints of lag when you change shooting settings, especially compared to the instantaneous feedback DSLRs offer, but the a9 is nonetheless improved over other Sony cameras in this respect.

Seeing this on the Sony a9 made us do a happy dance.

The menus have gotten a particularly effective refresh, with better titling, organization, colored tabs and (finally) a customizable 'My Menu' that you can populate with items of your choosing. When you go to assign your customizable buttons, you'll be greeted with better organized options there, too.

The Memory Recall modes (1, 2 and 3 on the mode dial) are now eminently more usable because Sony has increased the number of settings each mode can hold (see the full list here). We found it particularly useful to have one setup for shooting stills, one for 4K video and another for slow-motion 1080p video. That said, we're still waiting for true 'custom modes' that remember all camera settings, including button customizations.

The a9 inherits the same instant overrides top-end DSLRs provide: with 'Registered Custom Hold' assigned to various custom buttons, you can press just one button to instantly override camera settings like shoot mode (P/A/S/M), exposure parameters, metering modes, or AF modes and functionality. This could save your shot by, for example, instantly activating the correct AF mode.