Tech Review: The Sony α9 Really Does Feel Like the Future

“The future is now yours.” The Sony Alpha 9’s slogan sounds so esoteric and science fictional, but with 20fps continuous blackout free shooting, 693-point AF coverage and full frame mirrorless sensor, the Sony a9 definitely sounds like the future to me. With so many professionals in my industry – weddings – jumping ship to Sony lately, I now understand what all the hype is all about – and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to follow suit.

Sometimes I wish I could take today’s technology back in time a decade and watch the faces of the pros when I show them what’s to come. Mirrorless cameras have really changed the game on fast shooting, and the a9 is all over it – 20 frames per second would make any wildlife or sports photographer drool. Plus, the electronic viewfinder refreshes at 60fps standard or 120fps on high and doesn’t black out while you shoot so you’ll never lose a moving subject while tracking it again, and the tilt-adjustable touch-sensitive LCD is bright and sharp, making high or low angle shots far easier to execute. I’m no wildlife or sports photographer, but being able to tap the screen to focus and shoot while my camera is literally on the ground or high over my head definitely makes life easier.

The a9 takes dual SD memory cards with options for sorting JPEG and RAW or still and movie files, simultaneous recording (still, movie, or both) or standard. When it first arrived into my eager hands, I found out the hard way that the camera will not shoot without two memory cards inserted if set to one of the simultaneous recording modes. Still sporting the settings of the previous reviewer, I thought at first that the camera just wouldn’t operate without two cards at all, but when I switched it to standard recording mode things because much easier.

Shot on the Sony a9 80mm, f2.8, 1/30 sec, ISO 2000. Click to see larger version on Flickr!

I come from a Nikon D-SLR background, so learning my way around a mirrorless body from a different manufacturer comes with a learning curve. I’ll admit it took me an embarrassingly long time to find the a9’s ISO control – I was genuinely dismayed at the idea of having to dig into a menu to change such a basic setting, and shot for around an hour one evening before I noticed the little “ISO” text located on the right side of the direction wheel on the back of the camera. Once I found it I was all-systems-go, but I did still miss the presence of my beloved top-of-camera status screen for at-a-glance settings switches and avoiding the glare of a bright LCD when shooting after dark. I also find that a quick glance at my hip to check settings helps me to stay engaged with my client when shooting portraits, whereas looking at the screen appears far more closed off from conversation. Now that Panasonic are introducing a status screen onto their mirrorless G9 body, I have high hopes that other manufacturers will follow suit.

Shot on the Sony a9 152mm, f3.5, 1/2000 sec, ISO 2000. Click to see larger version on Flickr!

The folks at Adhesive PR very kindly sent me a 70-200mm f2.8 lens with the a9, which is some incredibly fast and sharp glass, but it’s also very close and quite heavy, so it’s difficult for me to attest to the camera’s weight (or lack thereof). The Sony website assures me the body weighs a mere 673g, including battery and memory cards, which is a decent 300g lighter than my current workhorse bodies, so the dream of leaving a 13 hour wedding shoot without aching arms, shoulders and fingers seems more achievable than ever.

I was more than impressed with the way the a9 handled low light thanks to its back-illuminated BSI stacked sensor – and low light handling is one of the biggest considerations for me as someone who often has to shoot in dark hotel rooms, function rooms and straight up outdoors after dark. I found it to be usable up to ISO 25600  if you weren’t planning to print it too large, and a bit of noise reduction in post would get you through if you did have to.

Shot on the Sony a9 78mm, f2.8, 1/30 sec, ISO 2000 Click to see larger version on Flickr!

Testing the a9 out for video capability was a little difficult with a 70-200, and my arms weren’t up to the task of handheld video shooting but I still popped it on a tripod and enlisted my partner’s kung fu skills for an after-dark test – which you can see a little of in the video at the top of this article. I’m not a cinematographer by any stretch, but I found it easy enough to use – the low light handling came in handy once again (I did say I like to shoot in the dark!) and the option for full frame 4K video shooting at 24/25fps or cropped at 30fps is very nice. I love the inclusion of audio meters on the screen, so those who need great audio can stay on top of clipping, background noise and wind noise without difficulty.

Silent shooting with the a9 freaks me out a little, simply because I’m not used to it. It’s perfect for sensitive shooting situations that journalists or wildlife photographers might run into, and I also made use of it when shooting in a church recently – churches are notoriously difficult about allowing photography during moments of sacrament or prayer, which of course is understandable. It’s the no-blackout part that scares me, because it means there’s almost no indication that I did, in fact, take a picture besides a subtle flash of the focus point. I’m sure that, over time, I’d get used to shooting completely silently, and the idea of being a photo ninja appeals to me to no end, but I’d definitely be reserving silent mode only for the situations that call for it.

Shot on the Sony a9. 71mm, f3.5, 1/2000 sec, ISO 1250. Click to see larger version on Flickr!
Shot on the Sony α9. 70mm, f7.1, 1/8 sec, ISO 2000. Click to see a larger version on Flickr!

For those who want file sizes to rival medium format, you might need to look elsewhere, but if megapixel count is not the most important camera feature to you, and it isn’t to me, then the a9’s 24MP will be plenty. After a couple of weeks of playing and taking it along on several shoots for clients, I’m still so impressed with what the a9 can do.

Score: 9.5 out of 10
Highlights: Incredibly sharp, fast autofocus, suitable for many photography styles, amazing low light handling
Lowlights: No status screen
Manufactuer: Sony
Price: RRP $6999 (body only)
Available: Now