The Sony Alpha A9 has quite a job on its hands. While the loves of Fujifilm’s X-T2 and Sony’s personal Alpha A7R II have got tempted some benefits, particularly studio and landscape photographers, to trade-in their DSLR kit, it’s been a harder challenge to get sports and action photographers to give up their Canon and Nikon gear.
Rather than being cosseted in a comfy camera bag, the gear of those action photographers will probably get bashed about on a daily basis, while the performance demanded from their camera bodies means we haven’t yet seen a mirrorless rival to the likes of Canon’s EOS-1D X Mark II and the Nikon D5.
Until now. The new Alpha A9 from Sony offers those two swiftness merchants of the camera world firmly in its sights. So will it fall at the 1st hurdle, or can it give its rivals a run for their money?
Sony Alpha A9 Price, Deals and Bundle
The key piece of tech at the heart of the Alpha A9, and one that’s had a knock-on effect on the performance of other components, is the 24.2MP full-frame stacked CMOS sensor.
While it has substantially fewer pixels than the 42.2MP Alpha A7R II, it does offer a slight resolution advantage over the 20-odd megapixels of the Canon 1D X Mark II and Nikon D5, but it’s the architecture of the chip that’s the key element here.
The stacked design means the integrated DRAM memory modules, a high-speed processing circuit and the BIONZ X image processing engine are all lined up behind the image sensor.
This design has allowed Sony to push the data through the sensor, not around it, resulting in a sensor that reads data 20 times faster than would otherwise be possible, enabling the Alpha A9 to shoot at a blistering 20fps for 241 raw files or 362 JPEG images.
How does that compare to the EOS-1D X Mark II and Nikon D5? Very well in fact, comfortably beating both the EOS-1D X Mark II’s 170 raw data files at 14fps and the D5’s 200 raw files at 12fps – although if you’re planning to hold down the shutter for that long you might want to re-evaluate your technique.
The stacked sensor design also means the Alpha A9 and may perform an impressive 60 AF/AE tracking calculations per second (we’ll get onto the nuts and bolts of the AF shortly).
Designing the sensor this way doesn’t just have performance benefits – it should also deliver better noise performance, thanks to the light-gathering elements of the photosites (pixels to you and I) becoming closer to the surface of the sensor.
The Alpha A9 features a broad native ISO range of 100-51,200, and this can be expanded to 50-204,800. That said, for those who shoot regularly in low light, famous brands the D5 offer an extra four stops on the A9 here, with an expanded ISO ceiling equivalent to 3,280,000.
Build and handling
As the likes of the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and Nikon D5 are probably some of the bulkiest and heaviest cameras you’re likely to pick up this side of a medium format model, the Sony Alpha A9 is noticeably more compact.
It follows a similar design aesthetic to Sony’s Alpha 7-series full-frame mirrorless cameras, but the A9 is just that bit chunkier, at 63mm versus 60.3mm.
One of the most obvious variations between the Alpha A9 and its pro-spec DSLR rivals may be the lack of an incorporated vertical grip; whether this is a good or a bad matter will depend on your personal preference.
The hand hold itself is a decent size and pretty comfy, but your little finger will overhang the bottom of the camera. An optional GPX1EM grasp extension is available, as well as a VGC3EM battery grip.
On its own, the Alpha A9 balances nicely with lenses like Sony’s 24-70mm f/2.8, but it feels very front-heavy when a 70-200mm f/2.8 is certainly attached – the VGC3EM battery grip will certainly help on this score.
Appropriately plenty of for a camera that has designs on being a tool for jobbing pros, the Sony Alpha A9 is based around a durable magnesium alloy body that’s also weather-resistant. Having said that, looking closely at the various doors dotted around the body of the Alpha A9 there don’t look like any signals of rubber seals to protect the camera from the components – we’d perhaps be a little nervous, then, if we were sat on the sidelines of a sports pitch in the rain with the Alpha A9, which we wouldn’t become if we had been shooting with a 1D X Mark II or D5.
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Raise the camera up to your eye and start rattling off bursts of shots at 20fps with no viewfinder blackout, and the Sony Alpha A9 really does feel like the product of witchcraft.
It’s almost a little unnerving at first, but you quickly embrace the stunning capabilities of the camera. Helpfully, there’s a subtle ‘shutter’ sound to reassure you that something is actually happening, though you can switch to a fully silent operation via the menu if required.
If a burst rate of 20fps is overkill for what you’re shooting, you also have two slower travel modes to select from, while those looking to use a lens adapter (something that’s likely given the limited selection of longer focal size lenses) will see the Alpha A9’s burst shooting performance cut in half to 10fps.
The viewfinder itself is excellent – the 120fps refresh rate and the clarity of the 3,686k-dot resolution combine to provide a beautifully clear and large view of what you’re shooting. Whether you have a preference for this over the big and bright optical viewfinders on the A9’s DSLR rivals will come down to you; optical viewfinders still have the edge in high-contrast and poorly lit scenes, however the EVF on the Alpha A9 provides a real-time look at how the camera is going to capture the scene – and you can’t ignore that blackout-free burst shooting.
Battery life has been bumped up from the Alpha A7R II to deliver 480 shots, but when put up against the EOS-1D X Mark II’s 1,210 photos and the D5’s staggering 3,780 pictures this looks just a little paltry, especially if you’re going to be holding the shutter down at 20fps for long periods. It goes without saying then that you’re going to need spare batteries – and more than one if you’re a working photographer.