Shooting Experience

By Carey Rose, originally published April 23, 2017

Sony's looking to storm the sports photography market with its new a9 mirrorless camera.

When I started shooting sports for college publications, I was stuck working with 3 fps. Then I graduated to a new camera offering 5 fps, and gravitated towards weddings and events. Now that I've been with DPReview for a year and a half, I've gotten used to 12, 14, 18 and 24 frames per second for shooting just about everything.

To be blunt, past a certain threshold, burst shooting speeds don't net me appreciably more keepers in my usual style of photography. But that won't be the case with everyone, and honestly, it doesn't hinder my enthusiasm with regards to the new Sony a9, even though that's one of its headline features. Even setting burst speeds aside, this camera is among the best I've ever used. Here's why.

Background

During my time at DPReview, Sony's always left me feeling a little conflicted.

On one hand, the technology and features crammed into the company's cameras are always impressive; during my interview for this job, our own Rishi Sanyal showed me Eye AF on an a7R II, and I accidentally blurted out an expletive as my jaw dropped – it was something I'd never seen before. On the other hand, I've consistently found the usability of Sony's cameras to be a primary concern for me. The interface and general operation were laggy enough to be irksome, I got lost in the menus all the time (movie options should never be nonsensically shuffled among stills options), and there were times that I felt I was fighting the camera to get it to just do what I wanted.

Sony's RX100 V is an incredibly capable pocket camera, but the series hasn't seen any ergonomic or UI improvements in two generations.
Photo by Samuel Spencer

The list of qualms I have with the a7-series in particular is full of items that, on their own, are quite insignificant; but as the list grows, they all combine to make for cameras that I almost never choose for personal work or play. But the sheer volume of improvements and refinements in the a9 are having me singing a different tune.

So, what exactly has changed with the a9?

Despite similarities to the a7-series at first glance, a lot.

The buttons and dials all come with better haptic feedback1. The AF joystick replaces an eternity of clicks when moving the AF point. When you flip the screen out, the eye sensor is disabled, which resulted in fewer missed shots when working at odd angles. Boot-up time is shorter. Battery life is way better. The interface is more responsive. I don't get lost in the menus at all anymore. All of these changes add up to a camera that is more transparent, in the sense that it just 'gets out of the way' more than any previous Sony camera I've used, and lets me get on with taking pictures.

The controls, the feel and the operation of the new a9 have all been improved relative to Sony's a7-series of full frame mirrorless cameras.

Even if you don't use the full 20 fps (electronic shutter) burst speed, shooting anything you could want without any intrusive shutter noise (important for delicate moments during, say a wedding reception) without any blackout whatsoever is a revelation. Sure, the RX100 V and Olympus E-M1 II both also offer fully electronic shutters and silent operation, but neither has a full-frame image sensor, neither can show you a live view during bursts (only slideshows of images being taken), and the a9 suppresses rolling shutter so ably that it's one more thing that I almost never have to worry about.

I had a big hand in the reviews of Nikon's D5 and Canon's EOS-1D X Mark II, and while the optical viewfinder blackout on both of those cameras is incredibly short, I have to stress that the Sony a9 goes one step further in that it shows no blackout whatsoever. None. This camera makes it easier than ever to simply follow the action, and catch exactly the moment you want.

An additional plus - this camera has taken the crown for the best mirrorless autofocus system I've ever used - though it still needs a little bit of work to take the crown of best autofocus system I've used, period. At launch, we were given the opportunity to photograph hockey, figure skating and a full-on track meet, and the a9 rarely let me down, but during some extended time with our review unit, I found a few quirks. You can check them out later on in the review.

What's the catch?

Okay, there's a few catches here.

First of all, do you need 20 fps? I don't. There are, of course, those that will. But that feature, that incredibly fast readout speed of that new 24MP sensor, is something you're paying for if you shell out $4,500 for this new camera, even if you're only interested in the other (not insignificant) improvements outlined above.

I shot over 2,800 images during our shooting experience with Sony in New York at the launch of the camera. That caused me worries about card space (even with a 128GB card), cost me hard drive space, and cost me time during downloading and editing. I'm no pro sports shooter, so take this with a grain of salt, but I'm having a hard time convincing myself that I got an appreciably greater number of keepers because of the a9's burst rate than I would have with a slower-shooting camera. Heck, I even switched to 10 fps halfway through to save card space, and I still came away with images I was pleased with. And it's worth noting that the absence of any blackout whatsoever is still incredibly awesome, even at 10 fps.

This image is from the first occasion where I really soaked a camera in the name of a shoot; photographing the King County Search and Rescue team during a training exercise as part of my job for Puget Sound Energy. That D800 and 24-70mm F2.8 are still in good working order, though the rubber zoom ring on the lens had started to come a little loose.
ISO 1600 | F4 | 1/100 sec
Photo copyright Puget Sound Energy, image via Flickr

Also, Sony's made claims that the a9 is weather resistant, but after handling the camera and flipping out the port doors, battery door and memory card doors, I just don't have the same faith that it would survive a downpour that a D5, 1D X II or E-M1 II could shrug off. That said, this isn't necessarily a common requirement, but it's something to keep in mind. Were I to take a personal a9 into a rainstorm, I'd gaff tape the heck out of it.

And lastly, where are the XQD card slots? Yes, the a9 has an amazing buffer that I never once hit, but that buffer takes a good amount of time to clear depending on your settings - check out our Performance page for the details. Incorporating XQD cards would also have meant my download times would be appreciably reduced at the end of the day too, plus they're simply more durable for demanding situations. After having used them extensively on Nikon's D500 and D5, I'm sold: for sports cameras, faster media is the way to go.

The wrap

Looking forward - does the a9 have what it takes to steal the hearts of sports shooters around the globe? Only time will tell. Okay, time, durability and quality of professional service and support.

Professional sports and action photographers have demanding jobs, and it goes without saying that learning a new camera system is not usually something they're looking to add to their workload. But the a9 might just be worth it.

Sony says it's rolling out more robust professional support, with one-day turnaround for loaner units when a camera needs repair, and walk-in service centers in New York and Los Angeles (with more coming soon), and better support throughout Canada. That's promising, for sure, but in a chicken-and-egg dilemma, do you want to be among the first to adopt the Sony system and test the validity of those claims for yourself, or wait to see what other professionals who switch have to say?

For a professional wedding and event photographer who isn't spending hours in inclement weather, I'd say the Sony a9 is worth a look if you're used to Dx-series cameras from Nikon, and 1D-series models from Canon. With the a9, you'll save a ton of weight, have a higher frame rate (again, only relevant if you need it), and likely have an easier time following the action than with even the best DSLRs.

But it must be said, the cost of switching systems isn't something to be sneezed at – it's something we've already covered, and will continue to be a barrier to adoption of Sony's new action flagship.


1The extra haptic feedback allows you to dial in your settings confidently, without always having to confirm that you did indeed press that button, or turn that dial 3 clicks to adjust the shutter speed exactly one stop. The AF-ON and AEL buttons on the back, unfortunately, still need more 'clickiness' and need to be more prominent to easily find with your thumb.