While the smartphone camera technology continues to improve, there are a few who argue that it could soon replace the standalone cameras. When looking at the quality of the photos produced by modern-day flagship smartphones, the argument seems plausible. Until you do a like for like comparison between the two images taken. The smartphone camera is still some way off getting close to the capabilities of the standalone camera. The real battle, however, lies between mirrorless and DSLR cameras. The argument isn’t a straight-forward one either, as there are numerous advantages for each over the competition.
In late 2018, Sony launched their latest camera, the Sony Alpha A9 (or Sony α9), a mirrorless camera aimed at wedding and sports photographers. This end of the marketed has predominantly been held captive by the DSLR camera thanks to its superior focus of moving subject matter and low-light quality. The Sony Alpha A9, however, aims to change things up a bit by offering better results for the above-mentioned, while also maintaining some of the more practical reasons for a mirrorless camera, being more portable and quieter during shoots.
Build and Design
Earlier in 2018, Sony launched their updated A7 series camera, which was well received by tech experts and the photographers alike. One of the first noticeable design elements of the Sony Alpha A9 is how closely it resembles the A7 series cameras. Even when viewed side by side in a shop’s display cabinet, you’ll find it quite tricky to easily spot the differences between the two, apart from the obvious logos. Sony has shifted its design methodology to represent their Alpha range as the same design DNA. The range was updated with a number of design and feature changes to bring the most out of aesthetics and functionality.
…the Sony Alpha A9… closely it resembles the A7 series cameras.
One of the more standout additions to the Sony Alpha A9, as well as the other range of Sony Alpha cameras, is the number of physical toggles for direct control of specific functionality. These dials and toggles act as shortcuts, which can also be found within the main menu on screen but easier and quicker to access and adjust without too much effort in locating it in the menus. Starting on the left-hand side, the first dial adjusts the shooting mode from a single shot to various burst shooting options. The same dial also doubles as a toggle for the AF modes, which can be adjusted via the ‘bell’ toggle. The right-hand side features two additional dials in the form of main mode and exposure compensation dials. Apart from the rightmost, exposure dial, users are required to press down on a central button that acts as a locking mechanism. While I understand its usefulness – to prevent unnecessary changing of settings while attempting to shoot – the buttons aren’t the easiest to depress, which creates a bit of an annoyance for dials that are supposed to act as a shortcut. On a cold day, it will prove most awkward, as there’s no way the toggles can be used with the locking mechanism while wearing gloves.
The unit isn’t the smallest but has a reasonable size and measures 126.9×95.6×63.0mm. In terms of weight, you’re looking at 673g. There are a number of ports and slots that also prove useful, the most useful of which is the addition of two SD card slots, which provides more storage for longer shoots. Additional ports include an Ethernet port, a flash sync port (as the unit doesn’t include onboard an onboard flash), headphone and microphone jacks, a mini HDMI port, as well as a USB 2.0 port, which also doubles as a charging option. The unit also includes a few wireless options, including Wi-Fi, NFC and Bluetooth, which can be used to connect to your smartphone to upload images if required.
The build is fairly solid, and with numerous shortcuts in the form of additional dials and a generous helping of ports, makes the Alpha A9 quite a handy unit.
Display and ViewFinder
The A9 features a moderately-sized, 7.5cm display with touchscreen support, which also includes peaking manual focus, as well as a host of additional features. The list includes WhiteMagic, grid lines with options (rule of 3rds, square grid, diagonal + square grid), as well as movie marker with centre/aspect/safety zone/guide frame support. The screen itself is adjustable, which rotates through 107° up and 41° down.
The menus onscreen have also seen an update over previous Sony models, which also offer tilting, coloured tab organisation, as well as customisable ‘My Menu’ option for all your favourite shortcuts. This is quite a nice feature, especially considering the smorgasbord of settings available from the menu. Users can also set three Memory Recall modes from the menu, which allows you to change through photo or video settings without having to make individual adjustments for each different scene. For the professional, even the physical buttons are customisable, too. It’s a bit more tricky to remember the custom controls once changed, so do use with caution.
The ViewFinder, however, isn’t perfect, as it sometimes suffers from a bit of pixelation, as well over-exposure on brighter scenes.
Interestingly, the menu is also available via the Electronic ViewFinder (EVF), which offers a 1.3cm OLED display. It also supports playback at STD at 60fps and HI at 120fps. Other inclusions are the digital level gauge, display info, graphics display and histogram, just to name a few. The ViewFinder has an automatic switch from the main screen by means of a proximity sensor just above it. The ViewFinder has a 3,686k dot resolution with zero to no lag during shooting, which makes it a useful indicator of the actual footage. There’s no screen blackout during the high-speed, continuous shots, which assists tremendously. The ViewFinder, however, isn’t perfect, as it sometimes suffers from a bit of pixelation, as well over-exposure on brighter scenes. These latter issues as a result of using a digital ViewFinder as opposed to an optical version, but there are a number of pros and cons for both.
Features and Performance
The unit is fitted with Sony’s new BIONZ X chipset, which, even if you haven’t previously used any of Sony’s cameras, has a notable performance bump to it. The boot time is surprisingly quick while the image capture and processing is also quickly produced, even if you’re not always aware of it on your typical camera. Sony also mentions a few additional features the new chipset is capable of, such as video playback while it’s still being written to the SD card. These improvements are handy in comparison with your standard DLSR camera, which, on average, are often times much faster than its mirrorless counterparts.
In addition to the increased performance of the BIONZ X chipset, it’s also more power efficient, which means a longer battery life. Sony has also increased the battery capacity of the Sony Alpha A9, which the company claims has a 40% reduction in power consumption compared to the earlier-launched A7 unit. The company also claims that battery life is expected to last for about 650 shots per charge, which I found to be far more in the real-world setting. Even with all my tinkering and setups for most shots and tests, I managed to snap well over 1000 images and counting without the device running out of charge during the 3-week review period. The suggestions, then, would indicate a battery life of well over 2000 shots before the device requires its next charge. This is quite a significant number of images between charges, which would be more than welcome in the community.
What I also liked about the Sony Alpha A9 is how it was to switch from being a novice or amateur photographer to being a professional, all with small settings or a simple click of the button.
In terms of the more photography-based features, the unit includes a 24.2MP full-frame back-illuminated stacked CMOS sensor, 20fps burst-mode shooting, ISO between 100 and 51,200, 693-point autofocus, as well as 4K video recording support. Breaking some of these stats down, the 20fps results in 241 raw files or 362 JPEG images. The 693 points on the AF covers around 93% of the frame, which allows for a host of AF features to tie-in. The touchscreen option also makes it even easier to choose your POI in each shot. And as with many other digital cameras, half clicking the shutter button also allows users to change the focus of the subject matter, while also getting a glimpse of the focus in the actual shot. What’s great about the AF on the A9 is that it when you select the focus point of the image, it’s able to track said object as it changes location in the frame. This is all made possible thanks to the architecture of the sensor, which is able to perform 60 tracking calculations per second. The sensor is so good that it’s able to track specific regions of a bigger object, such as the nose on someone’s face and continue to focus on this area as the head moves around. This makes the camera more than suitable for moving imagery such as in sports, racing and the likes.
What I also liked about the Sony Alpha A9 is how it was to switch from being a novice or amateur photographer to being a professional, all with small settings or a simple click of the button. There’s also the in-between option for those a little bit more advanced, but still coming to grips with all the inner workings. With the A9, I found myself in the latter category – when you consider how many new features the unit included, I wasn’t completely in my element. I will note that, having tested most of the functionality on the A9, there were scenarios I came up short, assuming I had the greatest photo, only for the transfer to my laptop to reveal the sad truth. Even for a seasoned photographer, it’s not always easy switching things up with new features on a new device, which takes a few weeks to become familiar with.
At the maximum resolution, the Sony Alpha A9 is capable of snapping 24.2MP images at a ratio of 3:2. This isn’t the greatest resolution or aspect ratio, especially for landscape photographers, but is more than capable of getting the job done. The images taken are rich in detail, which is sufficient even for A3 prints and the likes. The image quality keeps a consistent quality across various lighting, from early morning sunshine to star-lit, moonless evenings.
When comparing the RAW and JPEG images exported from the camera, the biggest difference lies in the low-light images.
When comparing the RAW and JPEG images exported from the camera, the biggest difference lies in the low-light images. The JPEG file had some graininess, but the overall detail wasn’t as great as in the RAW images. The RAW images, on the other hand, had more grain within the image, but nothing some post-shoot editing cannot rectify with a simple click of a button on your chosen editor. When the results of the high ISO, low light images are compared against the more conventional DLSR camera, the results favour the latter. With the correct tools, such as a tripod, as well as some work on editing via computer software, the results align a little better overall, although the DLSR would still win purely based on native images. Overall, however, the A9 improves the quality of the mirrorless units substantially.
There’s quite a lot to take in when it comes to the amount of new features added on the Sony Alpha A9 camera, most of which are welcome inclusions. Sony has stepped up the capabilities of the mirrorless camera to compete against the strong points of the DSLR cameras, while also improving on what makes mirrorless photography great. As the lines become more blurred thanks to improvements such as on the A9, the choice becomes a matter of preference in the end. The only major drawback for potential buyers is the price, with the unit retailing for R59,999. With what the Sony Alpha A9 has to offer, however, there’s more than enough to justify the price, especially once you’ve crossed the line of becoming a professional photographer.
With the α9, Sony has stepped up the capabilities of the mirrorless camera to compete against the strong points of the DSLR camera.
- New 24MP sensor
- 20fps silent burst shooting
- 693-point AF
- 4K video recording
- Dual SD cards
- Physical shortcuts
- Numerous ports and connectivity options
- USB charging
- Not so great grip
- Clumsy locking mechanism
- Memory recall modes are cumbersome
- USB 2.0
- RAW video capture drops frame rate
- Ease of Learning 0%
- Ease of Use 0%
- Enjoyment 0%
- Design 0%
- Performance 0%
- Value for Money 0%