The SONY a9: What the Pros Have to Say

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday June 28, 2017

In brief: What some of the world's top pros are saying about the brand new super-fast SONY a9 mirrorless camera.

Name:  SONY a9
Sensor: 24.2-megapixel full-frame stacked CMOS sensor with integral memory
Lens compatibility: SONY E-mount lenses
Burst rate: High-speed continuous shooting of up to 20fps with AF/AE tracking, no EVF blackout
Shutter speed rage: Mechanical Shutter:1/8000 to 30 sec, Bulb. Electronic Shutter: 1/32000 to 30 sec
Stabilization: 5-axis image stabilization with effectiveness equivalent to 5.0-stops slower in shutter speed
Focus: Fast Hybrid AF (phase-detection AF/contrast-detection AF)
Movie formats: 4K. XAVC S, AVCHD format Ver. 2.0 compliant, MP4
Metering: 1200-zone evaluative metering
Touch panel: Yes
Full specs: Here

I shot this Russian Orthodox church using the SONY a9 with the super spectacular and super sharp Sony Alpha FE 12-24mm F4 G Ultra Wide-angle Zoom Lens--possibly the best wide-angle zoom lens I've ever used. Exposure was 1/800 second at f/8, ISO 400. The camera is available now, the lens will be released next week.

Faster Than…Any Other Camera You’ve Ever Used

Eventually you knew it had to happen. Sooner or later cameras would get so good at what they did that basically your job as a photographer would be to look for interesting things to shoot and then try not to get in the camera’s way as it did it’s thing capturing them. I mean, imagine if a camera had pretty much flawless exposure capability, flawless focusing and could fire and focus so fast it never missed a frame? Of course, you’d still have to take it out for walks so that you could show it fun things to photograph, but once you gave it something that was truly picture worthy, the camera would capture, with ultimate technical perfection, just about anything you aimed it at. Give the camera a self-driving car and you might be unemployed.

In a lot of ways, I think that is how photographers are going to look at the new Sony a9. Unlike a lot of cameras in our past where you had to mentally compensate for the camera’s mechanical and electronic shortcomings, here’s a camera that will actually overlook your technical short comings. I’ve only had the a9 for a little over a week, so hardly enough time to get to know its intricacies, but I can honestly say that technically this is a camera that is like no other that I’ve ever used. Here are my top five reasons why this camera is so impressive and why, high ticket-price aside, I think that the a9 is going to change the way we look at cameras.  

Size: For a full-frame camera, this is an amazingly small body. In fact, when I took it out of the case I quickly went online to double-check that this was indeed a full-frame body.

Best EVF ever (3.6 million pixels). I have a kind of love them/hate them relationship with EVFs but they are starting to grow on me, big time and for this reason: When you change exposure or white balance with an EVF (unlike an optical finder) you see the changes immediately. I was shocked at how  little post production was needed to get either jpeg or RAW files to look their best. What you see in the viewfinder is what you get.

Insane burst rate:  There is a reason that SONY is marketing this camera largely to action and sports photographers and that’s because it shoots at an absolutely nuts frame rate of 20 fps. And the AF focus keeps up with it. The a9 can shoot 241 RAW files or 362 jpegs in a single burst. There is RAM attached to the sensor that is sort of a pre-buffer buffer that immediately takes images off of the sensor, puts them in RAM where they wait to be moved to the buffer and then ultimate to the SD card (and SONY has introduced a new line of G series cards to keep up with this amazing speed—just Google that and you can read more).

Super fast focus. The viewfinder has 693 faze detection points that cover 93% of frame and even at 20fps, the focus almost never loses a frame. Incredible. Read Katrin Eismann’s remarks about that below.

Double SD slots. The a9 has two SD slots and personally, I think that’s the best fail-safe tool you can have in camera.

What the Pros are Saying

But rather than let me ramble on about the beauty of this camera, I decided to call upon four of the world’s best shooters (all Sony Artisans) and get their opinions. Here’s what they had to say.

Photo Copyright Katrin Eismann

Katrin Eismann is one of the world’s most legendary Photoshop masters and a wonderfully talented photographer. She is also Chair of the Masters in Digital Photography Program at the School of Visual Arts. Katrin was impressed by several things with the a9, including the camera’s speed. “I know that SONY is positioning this as a sports camera, but I’m seeing it as a good camera for anybody that photographs people,” says Eismann. “In the sequence of shots of the mom and her daughter, I wasn’t even shooting in high speed and they were all shot in under a minute. I shot 22 frames of them and out of those 22 frames, only one was soft. I’m totally seeing the a9 being used for weddings, events, kids, obviously sports.”

Eismann shot this 22-frame burst in under a minute.

“Also I really think it does a great job on skin and tonalities because in that screen trap of that burst of shots, I didn’t retouch a screen capture. Those are just the straight RAW files, I didn’t touch them. I think the a9 does a fabulous job with skin and I’ve spoken to other photographers who have noticed that too. That new sensor is really sweet and I think that’s what’s giving it that really beautiful dynamic range and I’m noticing that I’m not processing my pictures as much. People think of me as the Photoshop Diva, but give me a choice, 30 mins of photography or 30 minutes of computer and I’ll take the shooting any day.”

Eismann offers this tip for fast shooting: “A really important tip for anyone that wants to use the a9 at high speeds is that they should get the newest fastest G-series SD cards from SONY. I put a brand new card in when I first shot with it because this is a high-performance piece of equipment and you want it to work like it’s supposed to.”

Photo Copyright Andy Katz

Andy Katz is a globe-circling travel photographer based in Healdsburg, California who was shot everywhere from Namibia to New Zealand to India and has published more than 14 beautiful coffee table books of his work (go look on Amazon). He says that the camera offers a lot of potential for travel shooters. “When you’re shooting travel there are things that move and at 20fps you can capture things that you just can’t get with any other camera,” says Katz. “That’s the beauty of this camera. I really like the build on the camera, too, I like the way it fits my hands and it’s got this ridiculous bonus and you don’t have to make any sacrifices to get it. Here’s the way that I look at it, if I use that speed once a year and I get an image that I otherwise would not have gotten, that pays for the camera right there. That’s fantastic. And if you’ve shot before with a SONY camera, you’ll feel comfortable with this right away.”

Photograph copyright Pat Murphy-Racey

Pat Murphy-Racey has seen it all photographically in his 25 years of being one of the country’s top pros: he started out as a newspaper shooter, then did a long stint as a contract sports shooter for SI (he still does a lot of sports work) and now shoots a lot in the corporate and industrial world of annual reports and advertising. He says that the a9 has solved a lot of problems for him, particularly in sports shooting: “The a9 has become my one answer to a variety of assignments that I would normally have taken different bodies to just a couple months ago,” he says. “I can now have two or three a9 bodies that serve my needs for sports action and photojournalism, video production, wedding work, high end portrait shooting, and even nature and street photography. I can now move into a situation where I use one battery and one camera type for 95% of my work. Also, I’m getting a little older now and nailing perfect focus on eyes with fast primes is made easy with the Eye AF function of the a9. Even in low light, it almost never lets me down.”

“Second, the NBA and NCAA have been adding more and more padding to protect the players from our remote cameras over the past few years. The a9 is so tiny that it will literally fit into small recessed areas on the goal and backstop that pro cameras have never been able to fit into. The a9 is helping sports shooters take advantage of new remote positions never before utilized in the past. In terms of golf photography, if you don’t have an a9 you are at a massive disadvantage all the time. 20 fps and no noise? Are you kidding me? Anyone still humping on the back nine with a DSLR may as well be taking a steam locomotive to the PGA Tour stops.”

Racey-Murphy also offers these tips: “Set your AEL back button for Eye AF, turn off the default motor drive sound and go silent—and make sure you get the super fast G series cards from Sony in order to really experience the speed of capture and buffer. Also, keep track of when Sony updates their firmware not just for the bodies, but the lenses too. To truly understand and experience the speed and accuracy of the AF system, try one of the two G-Master telephoto zooms with the dual motor technology. That combination of a9/GM, and G series SD card will rock your world into the next century.”

Photo sequence copyright Robert Evans.

And finally, I spoke to world-renowned Los Angeles-based wedding shooter Robert Evans. Evans told me about his experience shooting a wedding with for the first time (watch the short video above): “I like working with available light in a church because it’s the way that your eye sees it, you can capture the wedding the same way that everyone else experiences it. So for this wedding I decided to just shoot it in available light so I turned the ISO up to 25,600 and I was shooting at 1/60 second at f/2.8 and I shot it with a 24-70mm Sony GMaster f/2.8 lens. To get this sequence, I just backed up down the aisle with the couple and I just let it go ands the pictures are great. I even made one small mistake, I set the camera up to shoot that fast, but I forgot to put the camera on continuous autofocus and instead it was on single-shot autofocus. And I was just holding the button down. From those shots I created a file of 118 images of them walking down the aisle. It’s 118 continuous images and the video I created of them runs just about three or four seconds. The video is very smooth and it’s great.”

And Evans also says, “I’m really impressed by the fast focusing that can keep up with 20fps shooting. For me that’s what the a9 is all about, to have that speed capability but also to have the super fast focusing is very important. Even if I wasn’t shooting 20fps but I was shooting the couple coming down the aisle or dancing or whatever, that fast focusing ability is extraordinary. I just think it’s a great all-around camera for me as a wedding photographer because it alleviates the need for me to have three different bodies on me during a wedding. I can just have the one that will do all of the things that I need. I’ve got the high ISO, the burst speed and focus speed when I need it and the file 24.2 mp file size.”