Review: Sony α9

Do you often find yourself shooting at sports events and concerts? Situation where speed and accuracy are important? Then look no further than Sony’s full-frame mirrorless digital camera, the Sony α9  (model ILCE-9), which is designed to capture high-speed performance.

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The Sony α9 is the company’s new flagship full-frame mirrorless camera aimed for professionals, predominantly at sports, action and event photographers as the camera can shoot continuously at 20fps for up to 241 RAW / 362 JPEG images with no blackout between frames, as well as a whopping 693 focal plane phase detection AF points that cover approximately 93% of the frame.

 

Meanwhile, the Sony α9 has quite a job on its hands as it features the world’s first full-frame stacked CMOS sensor that offers a resolution of 24.2 megapixels, built-in 5-axis optical image stabilisation a wide ISO range of 100-1200 that is expandable to 50-204800.

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At the same time, it features 4K video recording which uses full pixel readout without pixel binning to collect 6K of information, the latest BIONZ X processor, a top shutter speed of 1/32,000 sec, uncompressed 14-bit RAW files, a Quad-VGA OLED Tru-Finder with approximately 3,686k dots and a magnification of 0.78x, a weather-resistant magnesium alloy design, an all-new battery with 2.2x the capacity of previous Sony full-frame models, an Ethernet port for file transfer, dual SD card slots, and built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC compatibility.

Prior to the launch of the Sony α9, it has been a challenge to get sports and action photographers to give up their Canon and Nikon gear. However, now, with the likes of the new Sony α9, would Sony have the potential to give its rivals a run for their money?

Let us find out where the Sony α9 stands.

 

 

Features

Among all of the features, the 24.2 megapixel full-frame stacked CMOS sensor is the main draw and the heart of the Sony α9.

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.

At the same time, the design has allowed Sony to push data through the sensor, not around it, resulting in a sensor that reads data 20 times faster.

This enables the α9 to shoot at 20fps for 241 raw files or 362 JPEG images.

The stacked sensor design also means it can perform an impressive 60 AF/AE tracking calculations per second.

Meanwhile, the sensor does not just have performance but it delivers better noise performance with the light-gathering elements of the pixels being closer to the surface of the sensor.

Another feature of the Sony α9 is its broad native ISO range of 100-51,200 where it can be expanded to 50-204,800.

With approximately 3,686,000 dots, the Quad-VGA OLED Tru-Finder viewfinder is the highest-resolution viewfinder Sony has ever incorporated in a camera.

It sports 0.78x magnification, a 120fps refresh rate, and a Zeiss T* coating that reduce reflections, as well as a fluorine coating on the outer lens to repel dirt.

With the new electronic shutter, it provides both vibration-free and shoots with complete silent (there is no shutter ‘click’ sound).

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Meanwhile, the camera is equipped with an innovative 5-axis image stabilisation system that gives a shutter speed advantage of five stops.

Being Sony’s mirrorless flagship camera, video recording features a 4K (3840 x 2160p) video recording across the full width of the full-frame image sensor. While shooting in 4K format, the camera uses full pixel readout without pixel binning to collect 6K of information, oversampling it to produce high-quality 4K footage. It is also available in Super 35mm size.

Additionally, the α9 can record Full HD at 120fps at up to 100Mbps, which allows footage to be reviewed and eventually edited into 4x or 5x slow-motion video files in Full HD resolution.

The mirrorless camera comes with two SD card slots. However, it is a little disappointing that Sony has decided to give one slot the faster UHS-II media support.

 

 

Design

The Sony α9 has a similar design to the Alpha 7-series full-frame mirrorless camera, however, the α9 is a little chunkier at 63mm.

What makes the most obvious difference of the α9 is the lack of an incorporated vertical grip, personally, it does not matter as the hand grip is at a decent size and weight, weighing at only 673g.

The Sony α9 is based around a durable magnesium alloy body that is also weather-resistant. That being said, various doors dotted round the camera body did not have any rubber seals to protect the camera from the elements – something to be worried about if you are sitting sideline of a sports pitch while being in the rain the rain with the camera.

In the past we’ve felt that Alpha (and some Cyber-shot) cameras have been held back a little by their overly complex procedures for changing key settings, and while the overall design of the α9 follows previous models in the line-up, there have been a number of revisions to the handling.

Additionally, the Sony α9 sports a proper AF-On button– a requirement for many sports and action photographers.

Performance and Image Quality

 

The rattling off bursts of shots at 20fps with no viewfinder blackout makes the Sony α9 to be of firing a Gatling gun with complete silence.

It is almost a little uncomfortable initially, but in matter of time, you would see the stunning capabilities of the camera. Additionally, if you need to be reassured that you are actually shooting something, there’s an option to enable a subtle “shutter” sound.

And if the burst rate of 20fps is too much for what you are shooting, you have the options of two slower drive modes to choose from. At the same time, using a lens adapter will see the camera’s burst shooting performance cut to 10fps.

I have to say that the viewfinder on the Sony α9 is superb – 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, but the EVF on the α9 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.

Meanwhile, battery life is a little let down as the Sony α9 can only hit 480 shots before you need to swap batteries, especially if you’re going to be shooting at 20fps for long periods. It is understandably that you will need spare batteries – and more than one if you’re on the job.

Looking at the quality of the images the Sony α9 produces, its 24MP sensor is capable to deliver images rich in details, especially when equipped with some of Sony’s G-Master lenses.

When it comes to high-ISO performance, looking at JPEG files, even at ISO12800, the image quality still looks really good, although there is a slight hint of luminance (grain-like) noise, but, while detail has been compromised, the overall result is perfectly useable.

Additionally, RAW files at the same sensitivity see some chroma (color) noise appear, but detail is that bit better, and you have the option to apply noise reduction to taste in post-processing.

All told it’s very impressive, and while the α9 doesn’t quite eclipse the high-ISO performance of our low-light king, the D5, you have to really pixel-peep to see the differences.

The A9’s dynamic range performance is effective as it extracts more detail from the shadow and highlight areas in an image, without adding any unwanted noise or other artefact. This mode combines two shots taken at different exposures to produce one image with greater dynamic range than a single image would produce.

However, it only works for JPEGs and for still subjects, but it does produce some very effective results.

 

Autofocus

The AF system inside the Sony α9 comes with a staggering 693 phase-detect AF points that cover 93% of the frame.

At the same time, there are plenty of autofocus settings available to choose from to fit what you are shooting.

For general shooting, and to keep things as simple as possible, either the Wide or Zone modes will take care of much of the decision making for you, while Centre mode uses the central AF point.

There is also the Flexible Spot mode that enables you to use the camera’s joystick to position the focus area anywhere in the frame. And if you find it a struggle to focus, there is the Expand Flexible Spot mode where it utilises additional AF points to assist with the focusing.

Meanwhile, by flicking the AF mode to AF-C, there is where things get interesting. With the same focusing area options and shooting in the α9’s AF-S focusing mode, AF-C comes with the addition of a Lock-on setting.

With a half-press the shutter button and with your subject selected the AF will instantly snap into focus, while a dizzying array of AF points will light up the viewfinder as it tracks your subject round the frame. This is because of the architecture of the sensor where the camera is making 60 tracking calculations per second.

Meanwhile, the Sony α9 is also the first Sony camera to feature customisable autofocus tracking sensitivity. This allows you to instruct the camera how quickly you want the camera to refocus should a distraction obstruct your view of your tracked subject.

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Conclusion

At the end of the day, Sony α9 is one heck of a camera but it is not without its fault. It would be interesting how the weather-sealing holds up when it’s properly exposed to the elements.

Other than that, the α9 has made an impressive mark as the autofocus system is not only incredibly fast, but the tracking performance is something to be experienced.

At the same time, the α9’s rapid shooting speed and a large and bright electronic viewfinder that does not blackout when shooting is something different it has brought to the table.

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