Full-frame cameras for pro sports and wildlife photographers are the last bastion where dSLRs still rule. But the Sony A9 looks like it has the chops, if not to bring their reign to an end, at least make significant inroads into the territory held by theand series models. In addition to a maximum continuous-shooting speed of 20 frames per second matched by a 693-point phase-detection autofocus system, the A9 brings in-body image stabilization, something those dSLRs lack.
Preorders start Friday, with shipments expected in May (US) and June (Europe). The body will cost $4,500, which may sound like a lot but is actually pretty reasonable. And it’s effectively a lot more expensive in the UK, where it will be £4,500; Sony Australia hasn’t provided price or availability information (though it’s definitely coming), but the US price converts to about AU$6,000.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
As I see it, the A9 offers these advantages over a traditional dSLR:
Size: This one’s a no-brainer: given similar capabilities and quality, smaller is better. The E-mount lenses are substantially more compact that those for full-frame dSLRs, making the whole kit and caboodle much more manageable.
Speed: For action photography, frame rate is important but so are autofocus and autoexposure speed and accuracy, as is the speed with which the camera can write to the card. Because it uses an electronic rather than a mechanical shutter, Sony’s 20 fps outpaces its dSLR competitors. Typically Sony cameras have awful write times, and I think the A9’s crammed full of buffer memory so that you don’t notice. It can also do in-camera slow or fast motion; not nearly as extreme as the RX series, but more than the dSLRs.
Price: The A9’s body costs significantly less than the dSLRs.
Video: Shooting video with mirrorless cameras — especially the Sonys — is such a better experience than using a dSLR. You have live view with the ability to see color and exposure in the viewfinder; you can actually use the viewfinder for video!
Mirrorlessness: Canon and Nikon go to a lot of effort to keep the mirror — the “reflex” in dSLR — from thwacking up your photos. Mirror movement, typically the bounceback, causes vibrations. It also makes noise, and using the quiet settings on a dSLR frequently requires a slowdown so the mirror mechanism can gently return to position. It also contributes to the durability; one less set of moving parts to worry about. Sony didn’t provide any shutter durability specs, but it’s likely at least as good as the lower-end models, which is 500,000 cycles. Since mirrorless models can rely more on electronic shutter, the mechanical one doesn’t wear out nearly as fast.
Sensor-shift stabilization: Also a no-brainer. It works with any lens, obviating the need for extra-cost stabilization in lenses.
But the A9 has some drawbacks as well:
Price: It costs a lot less than its dSLR buddies, at least until you start loading it up with the grips and batteries to bring it up to par.
Battery life: Mirrorless cameras typically have awful battery life, and the A7 series’ is among the worst. Sony’s made a big deal about the battery in the A9, which isn’t new but is more than double the capacity of the A7x’s. Those viewfinders suck a lot of juice. But if you look at the rating for the A9, that doubling of power only translates into approximately 30 percent more shots with the viewfinder, to a subpar total of 480 shots. Even without the viewfinder it’s only 650 shots.
At 20 fps, you’ll go through that in no time. It’s true that your mileage varies significantly when it comes to battery life, but it’s just not promising. You can buy the new battery grip, which holds two batteries and in theory brings your viewfinder-shooting duration to a more reasonable 1,440. And as one of the members of its Sony Artisans program which the company trotted out for the announcement said, she’s used to carrying a bunch of batteries around anyway.
Build quality: Canon and Nikon’s bodies are built like tanks, with dust-and-weather sealing that’s been honed over time. They feel like they could survive being kicked around like a soccer ball in a monsoon. The A9 has build and sealing that’s a little better than the A7 series’. Good, but hardly in the same league.
Storage: The camera has dual card slots, which is essential, but only one of them supports fast UHS-II SD. Even if the camera doesn’t fully utilize the fast cards to speed up shooting, you definitely want them for downloading. But never fear: It still supports Memory Stick.
Lenses: As this is Sony’s first foray into pro E-mount territory, it doesn’t have nearly as many fast supertelephoto options as other systems. Sony did announce a 100-400 millimeter G Master option in conjunction with the A9, however. You can certainly use other lenses with adapters, but they’re big (see “defeats the purpose”) and you take a speed hit when you use them.
There are also lots of unknowns for the moment:
Quality: This is the first stacked-CMOS version of a full-frame sensor, so we really don’t know what to expect. Sony also won’t say whether it has an optical low-pass filter on it or not.
Autofocus accuracy: There are myriad ways to configure the autofocus, and some produce significantly better results than others. Sony has the most faith in its lock-on group autofocus, but it’s oddly more difficult to use with subjects moving quickly than traditional servo autofocus systems — you have to center the group autofocus point over the area of interest and press a button to lock it in. That’s a little harder to do with fast-moving subjects. And there’s a little lag while it catches up with where it’s supposed to be next. It remains to be seen whether the types of AF people want to use sync up with what’s optimized.
I could go on, but I won’t. Regardless of whether or not Sony manages to make a dent in the market share for pro cameras, it’s definitely injecting a much-needed bit of competition to shake up the somewhat complacent two-party race in sports photography.
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