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.

Camera - - ON TRIAL -

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.

DI­ALLING UP

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).

STACK­ING UP

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).

Work­ing Up

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.

Sharp­ened Up

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.

Handed Up

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 VEr­dICT

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.

Paul Bur­rows Re­poRt by

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.

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