Sony's brand new A9 is the most advanced camera that the company has ever made. In a lot of ways, it's the most advanced camera ever. It's a hell of a lot of power in a relatively small and unassuming camera. It's built for the highest of high-end professionals, sports photographers with the need for speed and the need for quality. It can fire off 20 frames in a single second, before you even realise that you're pressing the shutter button.
I, however, am just some Guy With Camera; I do not deserve a camera of this quality and with this feature-set. Nonetheless, here's what I learned in my time with a $7000 camera and even more than that again in high-end lenses.
What Is It?
The Sony A9 is a $6999 (body only) pro-level mirrorless digital camera. It sits at the top of Sony's full-frame A-series camera hierarchy, simultaneously dethroning the trio of A7II, A7SII and A7RII as the best, and most expensive, body that the Japanese camera-maker offers. It's a substantial leap in features from the existing line-up too — Sony has gone all out with the upgrades in this new model. Everything from the sensor to the internal processor to the design of its buttons has been re-evaluated and iterated upon.
The centrepiece of the Sony A9 is its brand new 24-megapixel Exmor RS sensor, using a stacked CMOS layout that allows each pixel to read out its data phenomenally fast to an equally speedy and capacious buffer that then passes off data to its twin high-speed UHS-certified SD card slots (slot 1 is UHS-3, slot two is UHS-1). That sensor and buffer setup enables 20fps continuous high-speed RAW shooting for up to 200 frames, letting photographers snap 10 seconds of action photos without taking their eye from the viewfinder to wait for files to save.
And it does that without blackout, too. The A9's sensor and shutter and viewfinder are all completely electronic, and the fast refresh rate makes the OLED viewfinder look perfectly smooth all the while. Of course, it'll autofocus and auto-expose each individual photo before it captures it, because of course it does, because this camera is an absolute beast. Oh, and did I mention this camera's battery has 2.2x the capacity of the old one? You can shoot for hours with this thing.
What's It Good At?
I cannot understate how cool and technically impressive it is that the Sony A9 shoots 20 frames per second (RAW plus JPEG) without — if you want it — any indication that you're shooting frames in the first place. The A9's shutter is electronic only (although there is a physical shutter for specific situations like studio flash work, with a 1/250sec x-sync) so there's no noise while you're doing so either. It's almost eerie that you're taking photos without any feedback of that happening. It's certainly convenient in a lot of instances, too — camera shutters are generally obnoxious.
If you've used any of Sony's A7 series cameras, you'll appreciate the small and subtle — but substantial in number — upgrades in design and ergonomics that the A9 enjoys. It's better built, the buttons and dials are more precise in their haptic feedback, and the menu system's gone through a serious overhaul. It's still inscrutable to a first-timer, but it's less so — including through the use of a quick menu that can be customised with your most-used options — than previous models. Once you've learned it, it's every bit as powerful and versatile as the best pro-level DSLRs.
Sony's 24-megapixel stacked CMOS sensor is the heart of the new A9, and as well as enabling those stupidly high frame rates, it's able to capture images with excellent quality. You'll get better dynamic range out of the A7RII, sure, and a more versatile ISO range out of the A7SII, but the regular A7/A7II has always hit that versatile middle ground — and the A9 continues that trend. It'll capture objectively great photos in anything but the worst lighting conditions, and its legitimately amazing autofocus also ensures that even fast action will be in crisp focus even if you're using fast, shallow-DOF lenses.
Here's what you can capture in 1.5 seconds of continuous shooting with the A9:
Here's half a second:
And here's less than half a second:
In under an hour with these subjects, I snapped nearly 2700 frames. I didn't even realise it was that many until I just checked. Like I said, this thing is a beast.
What's It Not Good At?
Just about the only downside with the A9 is how phenomenally expensive it is. For the price of the A9, you could buy four A7 bodies or three A7IIs, and have $1000 left over for glass. If you want the A9's particular set of skills, you'll have to pay the price for it. It's hard to tell, really, whether the A9 is actually worth it — what price do you put on its weather-sealing and ergonomics and continuous high-speed 24-megapixel snaps? — and I'm hesistant to say that it's too expensive, but it's definitely... expensive.
I ran into a problem I wasn't expecting with the A9 when I was shooting with it. The combination of super high frame rate shooting and no viewfinder blackout makes it so easy to capture more photos than you know what to do with. A9 Culling those 24-megapixel frames in-camera with the A9 is a pain. Sony has included the option to enable a few visual markers when you're shooting continuously, which should help ease trigger-happy photographers into the world of blasting through 20 JPEGs and RAWs in a single second.
If anything, the variety and range of features built into the A9 is intimidating. Do you want eye-tracking autofocus, or is Flexible Spot continuous depth-tracking autofocus enough for you? Do you need to shoot at 20fps, or is 10fps enough? Do you want to save RAWs to one card and JPGs to the other, or are you happy filling up one SD slot before the other? This camera is overkill in so many ways, and that's awesome, but it also leaves you feeling like you've barely cracked the surface of its capabilities no matter what you do.
Should You Buy It?
The potential market for the $6999 Sony A9 in Australia is going to be small, there's no getting around that. It's a $7000 piece of photographic hardware that definitely requires some equally high-end glass. That's a huge investment even for a professional photographer that needs the A9's stupidly fast high-frame-rate shooting, and a huger investment still for any photographer that isn't already in Sony's lens ecosystem.
And that's entirely possible, too, given the fact that the A9 strikes deep at the heart of pro-level digital SLR's traditional strengths. It's a sports shooting monster, and in a lot of ways it's far superior to a DSLR for any task you could throw at it, thanks to the complete lack of viewfinder blackout while you're shooting. Just about the only problem is dealing with the huge number of frames you can capture.
If you've got the cash, then there's hardly any tangible downside to the Sony A9. Its battery life is phenomenal, it's incredibly well built and has a comprehensive suite of lenses and accessories, and it also shoots some amazing quality images. I didn't want to give it back when my time with it was up. I can't afford or justify one for myself, but I'll be incredibly jealous of anyone else that can.