A PLUS PLUS
With the a9 sony is being a lot more explicit about its intentions… namely weaning the users of high-end D-slrs off the reflex mirror. Comparable specs in a very much more compact body make for a convincing argument.
When Sony launched its A7 series of full-35mm mirrorless cameras, it was us media which mostly suggested what the implications were for D-SLRs. Without a fullyfledged lens system at the time, Sony stayed well away from any extravagant claims and let the products do the talking… which they have.
Now with the ‘FE’ mount lenses flowing thick and fast – currently at roughly one new model per month – Sony can afford to a lot bolder with the first of its next-gen A9 series mirrorless cameras. In the promotional material Sony states, “[the] A9 liberates you from the limits of conventional SLRs that rely on mechanical systems” and, just to push the point a bit further, “…freedom from mechanical noise and vibration opens up a vast new world of imaging opportunities”. These are references to the A9’s capability to shoot at 20 fps and 24.2 megapixels with continuous AF/AE tracking, no EVF lag or freeze, and completely silently… what Sony is calling the “full electronic revolution”. Not surprisingly then, in press briefings Sony’s representatives have been a lot more direct… the A9’s crosshairs are firmly locked on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and Nikon D5. Line up any of the key numbers – and not just the fps – and the A9 wins every time. It’s worth noting here that all the top-end D-SLRs can only achieve their fastest speeds
with the mirror locked up… so they’re effectively functioning as mirrorless cameras. However, the really big deal with the A9 is that it’s so much smaller… even than any of the top-of-the-line ‘APS-C’ format D-SLRs. This, of course, is a major attraction of the A7 models, but the A9 goes a whole lot further with no significant increases in either size or weight. That said, most of key high-end ‘G Master’ (GM) lenses – such as the 70-200mm f2.8 – aren’t very much smaller (if at all) than the comparable D-SLR system models, but the overall package most certainly is. A very simple illustration is to compare the body-only weights – 673 grams for the Sony A9 (with battery and memory card), 1415 grams for the Nikon D5 (albeit with two memory cards aboard) and 1530 grams for the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. Even the ‘APS-C’ Nikon D500 – perhaps the D-SLR world’s most potent antidote to the increasingly virulent mirrorless infection – still weighs in at 860 grams.
The Sony A9 has a magnesium alloy bodyshell with weather sealing and an alloy chassis. The styling is similar to that of the Mark II A7 models, but with a deeper, more sculpted handgrip. There’s a new, third dial on the top plate for setting the drive modes (including the self-timer and auto bracketing) and which has a selector at its base for the focusing modes.
As on the A7s, the other two dials are for the main operating modes (including video) and exposure compensation so, along with the various function keys, Sony has made all the essentials accessible via external controls – no doubt deliberately so – to reduce the culture shock when transitioning from a D-SLR. There’s no doubt similar thinking behind the appearance of a joystick-type ‘Multi-Selector’ for, among other things, more efficient selection of the autofocus point or area. The top-end D-SLRs have all had a similar control for quite a while.
However, for those already used to more contemporary ways of working, the tilt-adjustable monitor screen has touch controls and the ‘Quick Navi’ direct-access control screen. That said, the touchscreen implementation is fairly limited so D5 and EOS-1D X II owners will feel right at home. The monitor panel itself has a resolution of 1.44 megadots and is adjustable for brightness. The electronic viewfinder’s housing rises rather more sharply from the A9’s top panel than on the A7, but is still adorned with Sony’s ‘Multi Interface Shoe’ which is a standard flash hotshoe enhanced by a special electronic coupling along its leading edge for compatibility with various accessories.
The EVF is one of the A9’s many party tricks and employs a 1.3 cm OLED-type panel with a resolution of 3.686 megadots and Zeiss T* optics in the eyepiece. Coverage is 100 percent with 0.78x magnification (35mm equivalent) and, most importantly, refresh rates of either 120 fps with the camera’s focal-plane shutter or 60 fps with its sensor-based shutter. Either way, lag isn’t an issue and, Sony is keen to point out, there are no between-the-frame black-outs.
The EVF is adjustable for both brightness and colour temperature with a strength adjustment provided at the eyepiece.
Also here is a proximity sensor to enable automatic switching between the viewfinder and the monitor screen.
Dual memory card slots are provided – accessed via latch-released compartment door – with one exclusive to the SD format and the other compact with both SD and Memory-Stick Duo devices. Curiously, only the former is UHS-II speed compatible while the latter is restricted to UHS-I. The file management options are simultaneous recording to both cards (either stills or video clips), split JPEG and RAW or split stills and movie clips, copying and automatic overflow. On the other side of the body are the connection bays – three in all so only what’s needed has to be uncovered – which include a new Ethernet terminal (for FTP file transfer) and the good old PC flash socket (for the first time on a Sony mirrorless camera).
Sony’s sensor-making talents make a significant contribution to the A9’s speed, along with the latest version of its ‘Bionz X’ image processor. The CMOS-type sensor is designated ‘Exmor RS’ and it’s the world’s first ‘stacked’ back-illuminated full35mm imager.
SONY’S CROSSHAIRS ARE FIRMLY LOCKED ON THE CANON EOS1D X MARK II AND NIKON D5. LINE UP ANY OF THE KEY NUMBERS – AND NOT JUST THE FPS – AND THE A9 WINS EVERY TIME.
Put simply, the stacked design essentially incorporates a second silicon chip or layer behind the sensor chip and into which Sony has incorporated an integral memory (DRAM) and some signal processing capabilities. It’s a further development of the back-illuminated design which puts even more of the sensor’s circuitry at the rear to free up valuable frontal area for light-gathering duties. An optical low-pass filter is retained.
As the image data is very temporarily stored in the DRAM, it then allows for a much faster readout speed which Sony says is 20x faster than before. This allows not only continuous shooting at 20 fps, but phasedetection AF and AE tracking at 60 times per second, the elimination of rolling distortion when using the sensor shutter, and a full-pixel read-out with no pixel binning when shooting 4K video (so the camera is essentially recording 6K video at 6000x3376 pixels that’s then downsampled to UHD). For the full run-down of the A9’s video capabilities, head over to the ‘Making Movies’ panel.
RAW image data is handled with 14-bit RGB colour and subsequently processed by the ‘Bionz X’ engine at 16-bits per channel before being output as 14-bit uncompressed or losslessly compressed RAW files or, of course, 8-bit JPEGs. The one point to make here is that RAW capture at anything faster than 5.0 fps is with 12-bit colour… not that this is likely to be an issue with any of the typical applications which demand high-speed shooting.
The total pixel count is 28.3 million which gives an effective count of 24.2 million and a maximum image size of 6000x4000 pixels. JPEGs can be captured in one of three sizes and at three compression levels – extra-fine, fine and standard – plus there’s the choice of 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratios. There’s also the option of switching to the ‘APS-C’ format – when the maximum image size becomes 3936x2624 pixels – and, in fact, this happens automatically when E mount lenses are attached. RAW+JPEG capture is configured to the prevailing JPEG quality settings.
The sensor’s back-illuminated design is combined with gapless on-chip microlens architecture to help optimise sensitivity and the native range is equivalent to ISO 100 to 51,200 when using the focal plane shutter, expandable down to ISO 50 or up to ISO 204,800. With the sensor shutter, the maximum ISO available is reduced to 25,600.
Sony has promoted sensor-shift image stabilisation right from the start of its entry into interchangeable lens cameras back in 2006 and the A9 benefits from yet another upgrade to give five-axis corrections for up to five stops. The key advantage is that it’s available with every lens (although not always with the full five stops of hand-holding leeway).
The image processing options for JPEGs are pretty standard Alpha system fare, starting with a collection of 13 ‘Creative Style’ picture presets. Along with the usual suspects such as Standard,
Vivid, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape and B&W; there are more exotic offerings such as Autumn Leaves, Clear, Deep and Light. The adjustable parameters are for contrast, sharpness and saturation, with the B&W and Sepia presets simply bypassing the colour control. The six main presets are repeated as numbered ‘Style Boxes’ which means that any adjustments can be saved as customised ‘Creative Styles’.
There’s a choice of eight ‘Picture Effect’ special effects which is actually a smaller selection than is provided on many other Alpha models, eliminating the gimmicks that are never likely to be used
AS WITH THE A7 MODELS, IT’S INITIALLY PRETTY HARD TO REALISE SOMETHING SO COMPACT IS PACKING A FULL-35MM SENSOR AND, IN THIS CASE, ALSO ‘BIG CAMERA’ SPECS.
by A9 pilots. Nevertheless, the most popular effects – such as Toy Camera, Retro Photo, Miniature, Partial Colour and Soft Focus – are on the menu.
Incidentally, on the subject of omissions, the A9 also goes without a multiple exposure facility, an intervalometer or a sweep panorama function… leaving room for the ‘A9R’ presumably.
On the corrections side, the A9 has both long exposure and high ISO noise reduction processing, ‘Dynamic Range Optimiser’ (DRO) processing and a selection of multishot HDR modes. The DRO options comprise auto correction – based on the contrast range of the scene – or five levels of preset correction. The HDR options also include an auto mode – when the camera captures a sequence of three frames with the correction applied automatically (again based on the brightness range in the scene) – and a selection of manuallyset exposure adjustments from +/-1.0 EV to +/-6.0 EV. In-camera lens corrections are provided for vignetting, chromatic aberrations and distortion.
Auto bracketing is available for the dynamic range expansion processing as well as exposure and white balance control.
Like Fujifilm and Olympus, Sony has recognised that autofocusing performance is the D-SLR’s last bastion and that mirrorless cameras have been less than competitive in the past. Consequently, the A9 steps up big-time with a total of 693 points using phase-difference detection which cover a massive 93 percent of the frame array (and constitute another of the ‘stacked’ sensor’s multiple layers).
The PDAF points are supplemented by 25 using contrast-detection which help out when the A9 isn’t in the continuous AF mode. Remember that the AF and AE measurements are happening at 60 times per second so, covering 693 points, this represents a huge amount of data processing.
Similar to the current top-end D-SLRs, the A9’s autofocusing functions take up three menu pages and include adjustable tracking sensitivity over five levels from ‘Locked On’ to ‘Responsive’. Both the singleshot and continuous modes can be prioritised for either achieving focus or enabling shutter release, or a balance of both.
AF point selection can be performed manually – which is where the joystick controller comes into its own – or automatically via one of five area modes called Wide, Zone, Centre, Flexible Spot and Expand Flexible Spot. The Flexible Spot options allow the focusing zone to be adjusted to one of three sizes to better suit the shooting situation.
the A9 steps up big-time with 693 points using phAse-difference detection which cover A mAssive 93 percent of the frAme ArrAy,
In the Expand mode, surrounding points are automatically selected if the subject subsequently moves. Continuous AF is supplemented by a Lock-On function which works with any of the area modes to provide more reliable tracking. Active points are highlighted in green and it’s quite remarkable to watch how rapidly adjustments are made with either single points or clusters as the subject is analysed. A focus point or area can be registered for immediate recall which is useful when shooting the same scene or subject on a regular basis. Additionally, it can be set to switch position automatically when the camera in turned to the vertical position. The face detection AF allows for face recognition, and is claimed to offer 30 percent better eye detection even if the subject is shaded or partially turned away.
Sensitivity extends down to -3.0 EV and, beyond this, low light assist is provided by a built-in LED illuminator.
Manual focus assist is provided by a magnified view (up to 9.4x) and a focus peaking display which can be set to red, yellow or white with three levels of sensitivity (high, mid or low). The focus magnifier can be set to operate continuously or for timed durations of two or five seconds. It’s also available with autofocusing.
Exposure control is based on 1200 points on-sensor metering with the choice of multi-segment, centre-weighted average, fully averaged, highlight biased or spot measurements. The spot meter’s size can be switched between standard or large, and either locked to the frame’s centre or linked to the active focus point(s). Not surprisingly – given the A9’s highend aspirations – there are no subject modes, but the camera’s iAuto mode does perform scene analysis to fine-tune the aperture and shutter speed settings. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see many A9 users straying from the ‘PASM’ exposure modes. The auto trio is supplemented by an AE lock, exposure compensation of up to +/-5.0 EV (although the dial is only marked to +/-3.0 EV so going further requires a trip to the necessary menu) and auto bracketing over sequences of three, five or nine frames. For the first two, the maximum adjustment per frame is +/- 3.0 EV while over nine frames, it’s +/-1.0 EV. Exposure bracketing sequences can be combined with the self-timer.
As already noted on a few occasions, the A9 has a sensorbased shutter which, in addition to enabling shooting at 20 fps (silently if required), delivers a top speed of 1/32,000 second and ranges all the way down to 30 seconds. Sony is emphasising its anti-distortion capability which minimises the rolling shutter effect with moving subjects. The camera’s focal plane shutter – now misleadingly called the “mechanical shutter” (which it isn’t) – has a speed range of 30-1/8000 second with flash sync up to 1/250 second. Both shutter types have a ‘B’ setting for exposures longer than 30 seconds. There’s the option of combining the two shutters via the so-called “electronic front curtain shutter” which starts the exposure with the sensor shutter and finishes with the conventional shutter. The main benefit is some reduction in vibration and noise (by eliminating the action of the FP shutter’s first set of blades) while still allowing the use of electronic flash.
The auto white balance control offers the choice of three modes – Standard, White-Priority or Ambience-Priority. Alternatively, there are ten presets – including
four for different types of fluoro lighting and one for shooting underwater – fine-tuning over the blue-to-amber and greento-magenta colour ranges, and manual colour temperature setting over a range of 2500 to 9900 degrees Kelvin. Up to three custom WB settings can be created and stored plus white balance bracketing is available over a sequence of three frames.
Notice anything here? We could have just described the control systems and processes of any higher-end D-SLR. It’s deliberate. While the A9 may deliver some dramatic specs in terms of its speeds, elsewhere else it’s almost conservatively regular. Sony doesn’t want to scare the horses so there are a lot fewer frills here than on, say, the OM-D E-M1 II.
Familiarity is also undoubtedly the reasoning behind the A9’s more classical control layout and its significantly more comfortable handling compared to the A7 models. The better-shaped grip helps a lot here. It’s quite similar to Fujifilm’s X-T2 in feel and balance which, of course, is a great compliment and also means it’s very SLR-like… traditional 35mm SLR that is.
As with the A7 models, it’s initially pretty hard to realise something so compact is packing a full-35mm sensor (and, in this case, also ‘big camera’ specs), but then it quickly becomes a pleasant reality and the D5 et al just look like monsters. However, for anybody who likes a physically bulkier camera, there’s an optional battery grip which takes two of the A9’s battery packs to greatly extend the shooting range. The new NPFZ100 lithium-ion pack is claimed to be good for 450 shots when using the EVF and up to 650 when using the monitor screen for viewing. Our test runs in the field used a mixture of both and despite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the menus, and shooting hundreds of frames with image reviewing, the battery power display never dropped below 50 percent. The A9’s two main dials are locked in position until their centre buttons are depressed, and the AF mode selector ring also locks at its settings. There’s the standard front and rear input wheels – now more conventionally sized and shaped than on the A7s – and the navigator takes the form of a wheel with depressable quadrants for the up/down and left/ right actions (plus direct access to various functions). Single-function buttons are kept down to the bare necessities, plus there are four customisable keys (marked C1 to C4) that are user-assignable from a total of 19 pages of items.
The navigator’s rotating ring, centre button and four quadrants are also customisable so it’s very easy to set up the A9 to do everything that’s needed in the field via external controls.
Nevertheless, should a visit to the menus be required, these have been tidied up in terms of both their layout and navigation plus the pages within chapters are now numbered and there’s a set of bar-type indicators to additionally indicate the displayed page’s sequence with the chapter.
The new joystick control is also available for navigating the menus, and a new ‘My Menu’ chapter can be populated with up to 30 regularly-used items.
Additionally, there’s an ‘Fn’ button which accesses a customisable menu of 12 user-assigned functions which appears in the live view screen. It’s navigated conventionally which is also the case with the menus and the ‘Quick Navi’ control screen because the touchscreen implementation is limited to selecting or moving the autofocusing point (there isn’t even any operability in playback). Why bother then? Good point, but Touch Focus is pretty handy, especially when shooting video, and perhaps Sony noted that neither the D5 nor the EOS-1D X II offer much more so let’s not go over the top here. Maybe, but touchscreens can be switched off and it seems a bit self-defeating not to extend it to, say, the replay functions where it can really speed up browsing and reviewing efficiencies.
The monitor-based ‘Quick Navi’ screen includes not only a swag of status indicators, but also a real-time histogram, a dual-axis level indicator and an exposure compensation scale. The live view screen – as it appears in either the EVF or the monitor – can be configured with the real-time histogram and level display (but separately) plus a guide grid and a zebra pattern which indicates areas of overexposure. Zebra patterns work rather better than the standard flashing highlight warning as it’s still possible to see what’s happening behind.
In the field, the EVF is superb. There’s still an issue with dynamic range in very contrasty conditions, but everything else is as good as will be ever needed, including colour reproduction, detailing and definition. The live view image is stabilised which greatly helps with framing and composition both when shooting fast-moving subjects or when shooting from a moving platform. Most notable though, is the elimination of any lag or black-out when using the sensor shutter: The EVF just keeps up with the play which is a whole new experience in mirrorless cameras… and one that’s likely to convince some D-SLR users that it’s time to make the move. Big and bright, it’s the most comfortable EVF we’ve encountered, matching that of Leica’s SL.
The image playback modes include nine or 25 thumbnail pages, zooming up to 15x and a slide show with adjustable display times. The review screens include a thumbnail with highlight and shadow warnings, a full set of RGB and luminance histograms, and all the key capture info, including the ‘Creative Style’ preset and the DRO/HDR settings.
Not surprisingly, the A9 has built-in WiFi with the convenience of NFC touch-and-go connectivity, but it also offers Bluetooth connectivity which useful for quick image geotagging from a smartphone.
Speed And performAnce
With our reference memory card – Lexar’s 128 GB SDXC UHS-II/ U3 (Speed Class 3) Professional – loaded into the A9’s Slot 1, we shot a burst of 236 JPEG/large/extra-fine files in 12.071 seconds (using the sensor shutter), giving a shooting speed of 19.55 fps. Impressive or what? Additionally, all that data was transferred from buffer to card in next to no time. How much data? Well, the test files averaged 20 MB apiece and the whole sequence added up to 4.53 GB! Incidentally, the A9 would have gone on happily shooting at 20 fps until the buffer was full… we simply picked somewhere arbitrary to stop our timing sequences.
Even more astounding is the autofocusing performance. It is simply astonishing in its speed and accuracy. Nikon’s D5 held the crown here until the D500 did even better thanks to having the same AF module on a smaller image area (hence greater coverage), but they’re very effectively deposed by the A9. Its coverage is essentially full frame, but what’s more amazing is the way the subject is being continually analysed at every one of those 693 points so the tiniest change in anything’s position or composition – even a blink – is instantly registered as a flurry of switching focus points. With faster tracking, the rapidlychanging points display is almost so mesmerising that the subject is almost secondary. Of course, it’s the tracking speed itself that’s truly remarkable, and it puts the A9 firmly in the big league of sports cameras, solidly backed by 20 fps shooting and a 360+ frame buffer. Yet, the A9 isn’t only a sports camera, as that AF performance, speed and image quality make it attractive for virtually any application… especially when it’s advantageous to carry a smaller and lighter camera (and there are compact FE mount lenses too).
We tested the A9 with both the new GM series 70-200mm f2.8 and the much humbler 2870mm f3.5-5.6 standard zoom. Extra-fine quality JPEGs are richly detailed with very crisp definition and smooth tonal gradations.
The Term ‘game changer’ is Thrown around wiTh reckless abandon These days, buT sony is jusTified in using iT To describe The a9.
The overall sharpness is just stunning with the smallest of details beautifully resolved, and without any noticeable sharpening artefacts. The dynamic range is excellent, giving plenty of latitude for dealing with both the shadows and highlights post-camera. The colour reproduction with the Standard ‘Creative Style’ preset may be a little muted for some tastes, but it’s actually simply more real colour than memorised colour (to quote Fujifilm’s ‘Film Simulation’ differentiations), and both the saturation and contrast can be tweaked as desired. As it happens, the Vivid ‘Creative Style’ delivers a really nice balance of the real and the memorised without any need for further adjustment.
Keeping the pixel count under 30 million on a full-35mm sensor –combined the various measures taken to optimise the sensitivity of the photo-diodes – translates into exceptional high ISO performance. This is the first time we’ve been able to state that noise is still very well controlled at sensitivity settings above ISO 6400 which really has been the workable limit for most current full-35mm D-SLRs and mirrorless cameras. Sony says it has revised its noise reduction processing algorithms for the A9 in the knowledge that many users will be shooting at very fast shutter speeds with small apertures (to optimise depthof-field) and, consequently, will need to use higher ISOs. At ISO 12,800 some slight chroma noise is evident in areas of continuous tone, but neither saturation nor definition are diminished by much, and even at ISO 25,600 everything is holding together far better than we saw with either the D5 or the EOS-1D X II. In fact, the ISO 51,200 setting is also useable provided big enlargements aren’t required (but a 8x10-inch print still looks pretty good). All hail the new king of high ISO performance!
The term “game changer” is thrown around with reckless abandon these days, but Sony is justified in using it to describe the A9. It builds on what’s been achieved so far by Fujifilm, Panasonic and Olympus in mirrorless cameras; taking everything a little bit further to really leverage the potential derived from eliminating the reflex mirror and prism viewfinder. Of course, this is mostly down to the designs of the ‘Exmor RS’ sensor and ‘Bionz X’ processor, but the way Sony has brought everything together is what makes the A9 particularly different… the “full electronic revolution” as the company describes it. That the sensorshutter and sensor-based AF also play key roles is also significant.
Yet as uncompromisingly digital-era as it is on the inside, the A9 is resolutely analog-era on the outside… matching Fujifilm for its wholesale adoption of a dial-based control layout with old-school operability. So all that performance is accessed in a completely intuitive – and hence efficient – fashion.
So what about that $7000 price tag? Well, it’s still less than either the D5 or the EOS-1D X II, and because the A9 is so compact, there’s the psychological tendency to believe it should also have a more compact price. Yet on the inside – in performance terms – the A9 is at least as big as either of these pro-level D-SLRs, if not bigger. And that it packs such a punch in such a portable body is actually the true value of this camera. Right now, Sony’s A9 is the best interchangeable lens camera any money can buy.
A9 styling is similar to that of Sony’s Mark II A7 models, but the magnesium alloy bodyshell now has weather sealing.
Customisable keys (marked C1 to C4) are user-assignable from a total of 19 pages of functions and settings. Monitor screen is adjustable for tilt and has touchscreen controls for autofocusing (but nothing else). New joystick type control allows for quicker movement through the autofocusing points and can also be used for menu navigation.
New, third dial allows for direct setting of drive modes while the selector switch below sets the focusing modes. Hotshoe incorporates Sony’s ‘Multi Interface Shoe’ connections for fitting dedicated accessories such as an external microphone. Main mode dial includes positions for three customised camera set-ups. Dial for setting exposure compensation is marked up to +/-3.0 EV, but up to +/-5.0 EV is available via the ‘Quick Navi’ or ‘Fn’ menus.
Live view screen components include a guide grid, level indicator, camera settings and a real-time histogram.
Sony’s ‘Exmor RS’ stacked and back-illuminated CMOS sensor incorporates an integral memory (DRAM) which allows for a much faster read-out speed.
The dual memory card slots include one that’s exclusively for the SD format (with UHSII speed support) and one that’s multi-format for SD and MemoryStick Duo.
The old and the new… Ethernet terminal shares the same bay as the classic PC flash socket (actually appearing for the first time on a Sony mirrorless camera).
Standard 3.5 mm stereo minijack connectors are provided for audio-in and audio-out.
Sony’s A9 is capable of shooting at 20 fps with full continuous autofocusing. Here’s just a quick grab of 12 frames, all pin-sharp.