One week with the Sony A9 – An honest hands-on review

Sony took us by storm when they’ve announced the much expected Sony A9. I was watching the live event (and live blogging about it) and soon after, on Internet started to appear footage with the shooting experience at the launch. I was once again blown away and couldn’t figure why Sony didn’t marketed the A9 as a wedding camera. But more on that …

One month later, I got my hands on the Sony A9

My phone ringed one day and the Sony representative gave me the great news:

We will have the A9 for one week, do you want it for a spin?

Hell ya! This is absolutely the best part of being a Sony Image Ambassador (especially that I am the only one in Romania), I get my hands on new toys way ahead of the selling date, even if some times the model is a pre-production unit, usually it’s feature complete. By the way, you can preorder the camera since the launch date and deliveries should start by the time of this article.

I was fully booked as a photographer for that week and involved in different projects: a conference, a travel bloggers project in Bucharest and luckily a wedding. I had no time to play and get to know the camera, I just grabbed it and started working, along with my beloved A7RII.

First encounter with the Sony A9!

Letting aside the much improved ergonomics, when you grab the camera in your hands and if you are accustomed to the A7 series, you’ll be impressed how tiny the difference is in size and weight. I’m so happy they’ve added the double capacity battery, so now people won’t complain anymore about the small batteries in the a7 series. I never complained, I get mostly 6-700 photos out of one full battery on my A7RII.

I have received the camera at around 5 pm, two bateries, the battery grip and the extender grip (this one). Plus two new Sony fast cards and the card reader. The lens mounted on the camera was the Sony 24-70 f/2.8 GM.

I was concerned that I haven’t received a charger for the new batteries and had to fill them up by plugging the USB cable to the camera.

One week with the Sony A9 and I’ve charged both batteries twice, and once again one battery alone for the presentation I had at F64 on my last day with the camera. (see the live session recording, in Romanian)

First good news – if you connect the grip with both batteries in, it will charge both when connected to USB, a perfect solution for night charge.

So how does it feel? The Sony A9 compared to the A7R II or other A7 camera

I’m in my third year since I’ve completely switched to mirrorless. I was a Nikon dSLR user tired of waiting for improvements in the dSLR scene so I’ve tried the little Sony a6000 first as a companion for my travel. I wrote the review in English (check it here) and my blog exploded in traffic 🙂 I was amazed by the little gem so from there I went all mirrorless: Sony A7s and now the Sony A7R II.

So I am well acustomed to the cameras from the 7 series. And then I got the A9 and with all improvements in ergonomics I felt like a first timer on the system :). It took me like 2 days to fully get accustomed to the little Joystick and to get used to the second wheel on the top left of the camera. Initially I was looking frantically where is the button to access AF-modes (single, continuous, DMF etc.).

And after I got used to it, in the sense to real feel at home and not to stop to think where is this and where is that, then whenever I took my A7R II I already felt missing those features.

Speaking about these two cameras

When I’ve tested the Sony A7R II for the first time (I called it the Detail Monster, read the article here) I was blown away by the continuous EYE-AF focus tracking. Reading about the Sony A9 it has improved in this area, I was curious how much better it is, so I’ve setup both camera one to another and had my daughter jump around, keeping both EYE-AF buttons pressed. See the clip and draw your own conclusions (the first part is in Romanian, but you can skip to the actual test itself, which need no language :D)

On the Sony A9 there was the 24-70 f/2.8 G Master lens and on the A7RII there was my old trusty 16-35 F4, both zoomed to 30mm. A9 tracks the eye even when subject is facing sideways (I saw some improvements to the A7RII since the last firmware update and it does it sometimes from the sides, too).

Also it tracks the subject until it disappears from the frame, or behind another subject like in this case

Or even when the subject is wearing glasses. I know he wasn’t moving too much, this guy didn’t understand what I wanted from him 🙂

Sony A9 meets birds in flight

The most heard argument I’ve encountered over the years was that mirrorless cameras are no match in tracking fast moving subjects like birds in flight (BIF) compared to dSLRs. So, the first moment I got some spare time I ran to check a nesting place near my hometown of some gorgeous birds: the Bee Eaters.

Sony A9 Hands On Bee Eater

I had only my very own 70-200 GM f/2.8 lens and no access at least to one of the two teleconverters already on the market. Not to speak of the newly announced 100-400mm beauty. So I just hoped for the best and tried to approach closer and closer to the birds.

Oh boy, what fun it was! I have zero experience in wildlife and especially shooting BIFs. In this scenario, the weakest link was me, not the camera, trying very hard to keep the birds in frame. But I tell you, as long as I locked focus on the bird (Expanded Flexible Spot Lock-on AF), then the A9 did it’s magic tracking the absolutely erratic flight of these magnificent creatures.

Now I understand why wildlife shooters are so addicted to their job, it’s like a drug. Once you try it and you get first satisfying results, then you’re hooked!

I got even closer to them

And then I’ve remembered I can shoot at the amazing speed of 1/32000th of a second. Here it is

One thing worth mentioning – with busy backgrounds and fast moving subjects, it’s a little tricky to catch them in focus, but if you do, and it looks like a skill for the photographers, the camera won’t have any trouble in keeping tracking the bird. It just blows your mind. To quote someone that saw my presentation of the camera:

This is OFF-THE-CHARTS best af tracking ever.

And I must agree!

Sony A9 on a car circuit

During the event with the bloggers we had a day on a car circuit, but unfortunately only for a Defensive Driving course (at Academia Titi Aur). I had the chance though to see other cars on track, so I’ve checked to see if the advertised Anti-Distorsion shutter really does it’s magic.

Best thing to test was to check if the wheels of fast moving cars passing in front of the lens where distorted, as in oval shape instead of perfectly round. See the image below, with the closeup and my photoshopped perfect red circle on top of the wheel. This is amazing for an electronic shutter!

ISO 160 | 1/6500s | F4 | 35mm

And here are other examples of not so fast cars compared to previous one, but still driving very fast on the circuit. I’ve chosen a longer shutter speed for the panning effect and sense of speed.

I insist again on the amazing feature of keeping focus on locked items even if the object is not entirely seen, or completely hidden behind other objects. This shows a good predictive focus on Sony A9 part

There was no issue for the Sony A9 to keep track and perfect focus on the cars. Compared to birds it’s a piece of cake!

Is banding gone on the A9?

In Romania I think you can find the most different lighting types in one particular room than anywhere in the world. I mean if there are neons, then if you look at them they are from at leat 3-4 brands, and different temperatures in K, different age, etc. You get where I’m going. You don’t want to be a wedding photographer like I am, in Romania, trust me :).

But back to that, I’ve forced the electronic shutter at some stupid shutter speeds (not multiple of 50Hz how the electrical current fluctuates here, like the rest of Europe) so I got some pretty nasty results. Some may argue this is not banding, it’s just electrical flickr and I might agree, but only if I look at various colour temperatures from one picture to another, not in the same image.

Please judge for yourself

So, from the clip it looks the first case, with various colour temperatures from one photo to the next. But look closer at two of the images from the series. First there is Magenta cast in the upper part and green cast in the lower part, and the next image is different, green up and magenta below. Moving colours is due to flicker, but two colours in the same image, could be due to sensor read-out in electronic shutter? I don’t know!

Sony A9 and Canon mount lenses?

The last day I had with the Sony A9, I got the chance thanks to my friend Tudor to get for a spin the Sigma MC-11 adapter mounted on the Sigma 100-400mm lens. By far not the best combo for fast birds, but still I went for two hours to the Natural Park of Vacaresti, the only natural park inside a capital in the world as far as I know (read about this park more here).

I’m not a Canon user, never been, and I don’t know too much about their lenses, but this was a request from plenty of users to try adapted Canon mount lenses of the A9, so I did with the only occasion that arrived. Take it with a bit of salt!

The lens adapter combo focused pretty fast and well on the subjects, and what I liked most was the fact that once it locked focus on subject it kept it tracked even behind trees and vegetation. But at some points, the lens wont focus at all on the subject, had to manually twist the focus ring to get it auto-focus once again. It looked like the focus remained stuck on closer objects and not focus to further distances.

Here are some random captures I took with the combo described above. The way I was dressed, white shirt and blue-jeans, it’s a miracle I could even get this close to any birds 😛 (had no ideea I’ll make it to the park that day).

Oh boy how much things I still had to cover with the new camera, but with my full schedule and short time with it, this is most of the things I got to cover. I’ve wanted to test the Networking FTP feature of the camera but in the end I saw I won’t have time to do it so I left it apart.

I haven’t created some ISO test shots, nor I could photograph the stars to check for the dreaded “Star Eater” monstrosity that arrises with the last firmware of the Sony A7R II. Even if I wanted, for the whole week with the camera, the sky at night was clouded and even rained most of the time.

What bothered me so much about the Sony A9?

You might not guess it, but it was a feature that so many requested 🙂 – the dual slot and it’s implementation on the A9. Don’t get me wrong, I like it is there, but not the way it was developed. The issues could be very easy fixed in a firmware update, except the physical difference between the two slots, only one accepting fast UHS-II cards.

So what is wrong?

Well, I’m not a fatalist and I’ve never used dual slot cameras for security purposes like writing same content to both cards. I might use one card for photos and the other for videos, but most of the time I just prefer to fill the first card and then go to the next one available. So this is implemented in the Sony A9 as Standard. The problem is that it’s not behaving like it should, and I mean it won’t overflow to the next card when the first is full.

The camera will just tell you there’s no more room on Slot 1 and you wont be able to shoot unless you manually switch to Slot 2. Bummer!

Want more? If you set in the menu the Playback card to be Slot 1, guess what when you shoot on second card, Slot 2, if you want to see the last photo, you’ll just see the images from Slot 1. So the recording slot is not linked to the playback slot. Bummer number 2!

I’m sure it’s a miss from the engineering and development of the dual-slot functionality and that it will be fixed, but still it’s such a nerve-wreking situation on terrain.

I’m also sad that PP are gone (Picture Profiles) and more than that, the fact that Apps are gone bothers me even more. I love Timelapse, Smooth Reflexion and StarTrails.

I know you have the new mode S&Q (slow and quick) where you can do in-camera 1s interval timelapses, but for more professional work you need a series of images you can edit and create your own timelapse, not an HD clip that came directly from camera.

Speaking of the S&Q feature, here are some random clips I shot with the A9

Oh wait, no Wedding shots with the A9 you might ask… and then I’ll tell you this:

Why Sony A9 was not presented as a wedding camera?

Because it isn’t!

When Sony announced the new A9, everyone must have asked themselves why no word about the wedding photographers? It is blazing fast, it has great battery, completely silent shutter and black-out free, vibration-free, great ergonomics, perfect focus tracking! So it looks like the perfect combo, right?

Well, if you already have the A7R II as a wedding camera like I do, you’ll see that after you shoot a full wedding with the A9 (like I did during the weekend) the many advantages of the camera are gone due to not needing them.

I’m not shooting bursts at weddings, with minor exceptions maybe at the party when crazy dancers appear on stage and you might not know what the “next move” will be :).

Silent? Well, the A7R II is silent too if you need it let’s say at Church ceremony. Then, if you are a flash user, the electronic shutter is out of discussion because Flash won’t shoot unless you are using the mechanical shutter, which then goes to 5 fps as the A7R II.

Battery indeed is a big improvement, I’ve shot the wedding starting at 8am Saturday and finished at 4:30 on Sunday morning (welcome to Romanian weddings 😉 ). I’ve shot close to 3.600 frames (testing too much the 20fps :D) and I’ve used one battery and a half until the end of the event. I need 4 batteries on the A7R II for the same amount of photos.

Black-out free viewfinder? It’s nice in good light, but if you drop your shutter to longer than 1/125s it’s gone. So inside, I prefer using slower shutter speeds to get the ambient and freeze motion with flash. Again a great feature not so useful for my style at shooting weddings.

So I’ve only got a few of real advantages over the A7R II (not to consider the loss in resolution and some might add loss in Dynamic Range, but I have not tested for it) and those include: better battery, great ergonomics and button layout (yes movie recording button included :D) and perfect focus tracking, though A7R II it’s still enough for my style of shooting. To pay the difference and use such a little from the new features of the Sony A9, it’s a no go for me. At least not if I’m only shooting weddings 🙂

And since I’m not shooting only weddings and the drug of chasing birds in flight got into my blood, you might see me switching one day :). Who knows!?

Author: Alin Popescu

Inginer ca formare, grafician ca meserie, fotograf ca mod de viata, Alin este pasionat de tot ce inseamna tehnologie si scrie articole detaliate pe intelesul tuturor.

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  1. Thanks so much for this thorough review, I love bee eaters and your photos are fabulous. I also loved your wedding photos, what a gorgeous church and the getting prepared photos are terrific!

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  2. Great reivew but I’m confused at your conclusion. You say it’s not a wedding camera, but really you mean it’s not a wedding camera for you because you have an a7rii and don’t want to pay the difference. Was there any point, aside price, where the a7rii is a better wedding camera? It seems to me, you article shows it is a better wedding camera than the a7rii, but not for you because the a7rii is good enough and cheaper.

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    • Not really, maybe you’ve skipped to the conclusion. I’ve mentioned all the features that I won’t normally use at a wedding, so just for those I use I don’t see the urge to pay for the difference

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  3. I found your review thorough and likely very accurate, an unusually good real-world test of the A9 capabilities. Having shot weddings since the 1960s, I started in an era when none of the conveniences of modern digital cameras were available – and still got good results.

    I believe there may be a cultural gap between your conculusion and your review. For you, the many features of the A9 simply weren’t necessary or useful TO YOU and the way you are accustomed to shooting weddings with your A7RII – at least, not useful enough to merit paying to replace your A7RII with a more costly A9.

    I rarely shoot weddings any more, surely not as more than a backup photographer. I have never shot bursts except to test a new camera or lens ability or track moving subjects. And when I shot a dual-slot Nikon before moving to Sony, I used one slot for stills and one for video. Nevertheless, I can see how some of the A9 features you don’t need might in fact be useful to other wedding photographers. Example: when the couple turns away from the altar and begins walking through the guests. I might then use the burst modes and tracking to capture otherwise-missed moments and expressions of interaction – moments easily as fleeting as a BIF challenge,

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    • You are perfectly right. I might missed the opportunity to explain in my hands-on that the experience and conclusions are solely true to me and my style 🙂

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  4. Wanna know how it compares to the a6500 @ sports … is it a hugh update (beside 20fps) ?

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