2017 07 08 - Sony A9 - The most important camera of the modern age
The Sony A9 is the most important camera of the modern age. A bold statement to make. A statement that I know will inflame, however that is not my intention. This is based upon my real world, informed, opinions as well as my thinking out loud musings.
Let me preface this review by saying that although I have shot with Sony cameras for nearly 10 years I am certainly not a fan boy. There are many things that infuriate me about the Sony ecosystem, things that leave me bemused and in some cases irritated but for me these are outweighed by everything that they get right.
The numbers that surround the Sony A9 are mind boggling. 20 frames per second shooting in compressed RAW, 693 focal points covering more than 90% of the frame, calculating focus at 60 frames per second. 24.2 mega pixel sensor. Dual SD cards capable of sustaining a buffer of about 180 shots, or almost 10 seconds shooting at 20FPS.
But I don't want to talk about numbers. There are plenty of sites out there that will discuss this camera in any amount of detail that you want. I want to discuss how this camera fits into my photography. To further emphasise my point allow me to say that for my photography, unless I am photographing wildlife or a sports event that I don't want to miss a specific moment, I won't, and don't, use 20FPS. But, I know that it's there if I need it.
I don't very often make use of all of the focal points around the edge of the frame. But, I know what that they are there if I need them. I have never yet (except when messing about) hit the buffer. But, I know that it is there if I need it. So, what is it about the Sony A9 that makes me believe that it is the most important camera of the modern age? How can I back up that statement? What is it that transcends something from being "a thing", to a "good thing", to perhaps "a game changing thing"?
I want to try and avoid rhetoric here, sayings such as "the best". For a camera to be the best we have to understand what the best is. Do we mean fastest (whatever that means!!)? Most accurate? Widest dynamic range? Best colour rendition? Highest amount of pixels crammed onto the sensor? Even if we knew what that meant and could define it, to take the mantle of being the best it would have to be the best for you, me, and everyone else out there. So this article isn't about making wild claims that this is the best camera out there, because it isn't. It's just the most important.
Let me try and qualify this in some way by talking about this camera in terms of the types of photographs I take. If you have troubled yourself to glance at my portfolio you would have seen that I shoot landscapes, nature and mountain bikes. I rarely shoot people, portraits, or media. I have only ever shot "street" once. So, what kind of camera do I need? To use a tool analogy, it would be a multi-tool. A Jack of All Trades (and master of none?). I hold the opinion that there is no such thing as a sports camera, or a landscape camera. There are just cameras. Sony launched the A9 with fanfare, a scripted show involving shooting various sporting events. It was clear that they were putting their stall out to say that the A9 was a sports camera. What a nonsense. It's a camera that happens to be very good at shooting sports. Does that mean we shouldn't use it for Landscapes? Hell no!
What Sony have actually done as a side effect of trying to fill the void of not having a "sports camera body" was actually make a very good "camera body". I don't mean physically (because the body is certainly lacking in many ways), I mean conceptually. People who take photos at sporting events need fast and accurate autofocus. They need the ability to shoot RAW but to also shoot reliable JPGs. They need a good buffer, a bright view finder, and large dynamic range (Sports events are typified by bad light, often bright areas, back lit participants, faces in shadow etc). But guess what? Wildlife photographers need fast and accurate autofocus, a good buffer, a large dynamic range. And Landscape photographers aren't going to grumble about sharp images with great highlight protection and shadow recovery. Nor are street photographers....or that little known sport of Aisle Walking (Wedding Photographers).
I shoot landscapes at the beginning and the end of the day, when there is usually a lot of dark shadows. I shoot mountain bike photos in the woods, generally looking up into the riders faces. A side effect of looking up is that is where the bright light is. I shoot birds...in the sky. Generally back lit with dark shadows or blown highlights. So for me, I need all of the features described above (fast AF, good buffer, wide dynamic range etc) in all of my photography. And I don't want to own multiple bodies in order to do this.
This is where the A9 comes into its own.
It is small. Too small in my opinion, I have had to buy the battery grip, which I would have bought anyway, as I find it too small to hold without.
It is light. Too light in my opinion, without the grip. A consequence of f2.8 lenses are that they are heavy, meaning that the balance isn't quite right.
It is resilient. Yes, I actually said that. Sony has a long standing and misplaced reputation for being toy cameras. All of my many Sony cameras have taken a beating and survived. Sony were actually so worried about the "toy camera" crap that they removed the addon apps. bad move Sony.
The viewfinder is a marvel. The viewfinder is how we as photographers interact with the scene. If the viewfinder is bad, our photos will be bad. I bought the Sony A300, which had an optical viewfinder. Then I bought a Sony A77 which had an electronic viewfinder. I hated it. I hated it so much I switched systems to Nikon, buying the D750 which had a brilliant viewfinder and my photography leapt forwards. Then I made the switch back (yes, this cost me a lot of money) to the A7rII who's viewfinder was great but suffered from a lot of black out.
The A9 has a great viewfinder, the best I have ever used, and that includes the marvel that is the Canon 1dx Mk2, a camera who's viewfinder is incredible. The A9's electronic viewfinder is a different thing all together, however I forget that it is an EVF, it is just that good. It is light years ahead of my Sony A7rII. It is like looking at the world through bionic eyes. With all of the added abilities such as focus peaking, live view, focus zooming, playback in the viewfinder for clear reflection free reviewing, and looking as clear as an optical viewfinder, it really is a no brainer when I say that I believe it to be the best viewfinder out there. I haven't even mentioned the complete lack of blackout while shooting. Being able to track and shoot without losing the scene....wow! Knowing that I can shoot the moment and not miss it! Fantastic.
I won't claim that the autofocus is flawless. When shooting in the woods I tend to need to be up around ISO 6400 and shutter speeds upwards of 1/500th of a second. This is about the usable/trustable limit of the cameras lock on tracking. In bright light it is flawless. In near darkness it's just good. That being said, the camera will focus in more traditional continuous modes absolutely fine at very high ISO's (and noise is handled very well). This camera is usable in very challenging conditions, meaning I get to shoot longer. Is it "better" than the canikon offerings? I doubt it. Is it as good as?
Yes.The dynamic range of the Sony sensors has long been lauded as the best in the business. The shadow recovery is so good that, when not shooting JPG, I generally shoot at least 1 full stop down (if not more), knowing that the details will always be there for me. To go back to the terns, I was shooting very underexposed in order to preserve those fantastic clouds, and make sure I didn't lose the highlights on the white feathers. The two shots below show a straight out of camera raw conversion, and a +3ev conversion of the shadow areas so that you can see how much detail there is there.
So why is this so important? Well it allows me to keep my shutter speed high. It allows me to know that the highlights will be there, full of detail, and the shadows will recover, and also be over brimming with detail. Accurate, fast autofocus, coupled with high shutter speeds and lower ISO = sharper photographs. It's that simple.
This next shot again demonstrates my point. When shooting the mountain bike events I will generally shoot 3000 photos, all of which will be marketed for sale. I don't want to edit 3000 photos. I have in the past shot RAW and spent hours editing and converting. But now I shoot RAW + JPG so that if the JPGs are good I can just upload and sell them and still have the RAW to fall back on if I need to do any work. The next shots are a straight out of camera JPG, an edit, and a super crop of the straight out of camera jpg so that you can see the dynamic range.
The highlights are bright, but not blown. The scene, shot around 1pm, is full of contrast; bright light and dark woods. The mask would have been in near darkness, but you can see the riders eyes. Let me reiterate. This was taken using the in camera JPG conversion, using the dynamic range optimization function. Every single jpg was usable on this shoot. I edited nothing for the uploads. That is hours of my life that I got back. That, to me is invaluable.
So what else does this camera do? There is a built in crop sensor mode, turning my 70-200mm f2.8 into a 105-300mm f2.8 at the push of a button. Well almost. 2 pushes (come on Sony...fix that! Make it a toggle or hold and add it to the custom hold menu so that I can use it as a shooting set). Yes, I lose pixels, the camera drops to 12mp. But I keep everything else. And for most of needs, 12mp is fine. Stick the 2x tele-converter on and I am now getting a 600mm f5.6. That's 3 lenses from one lens and small, lightweight tele-converter (which by the way loses nothing in autofocus performance). Would I use this for shots that are intended for print or require high details? No. Would I use it for shots that I will sell for a few quid and end up on Facebook? Absolutely, and I do. And no one notices!
What else? Sony have introduced something called custom holds. This allows you to save your settings to memory and recall them. So what? The clever thing is that you can map those settings to a button. So I can have one button set to 1/2000th, f4, auto ISO, with spot focus. When I press that button those are the settings that I get. Another button next to it could be mapped to ISO 100, f2.8, 1/30th, wide area. So simply by pressing a button I get that set of settings. Meaning that I can set up for multiple shots. Which, when selling images, gives me a huge advantage. That doesn't involve switching dials, or entering menus. It's just there. On a button. Focusing and using the settings you want when you press it.
The camera is small and light. Meaning that I can take extra lenses into the field with me. Meaning that I am more adaptable, and so is my photography, meaning more sale opportunities, meaning higher earnings.
Silent shooting anyone?
Longer battery life than the A7rII? Two batteries now is a redundancy. I can shoot a full race day on one battery.
Improved dials and ergonomics over the A7rII. The addition of a joystick. Improved menus.
You will notice that I haven't needed to go on about the numbers, the focal points, the speed etc etc. I have only talked about what those numbers enable me to do, without having to think about it, worry about limitations. Like a faithful trail dog, I know when I whistle it will be there.
You will also notice that I haven't discussed many bad points. While there are negatives (missing SLOG, mixture of UHS1 and 2 SD Cards, not a fully articulated screen, APS-C mode not being a single press feature, no apps etc), none of these negatives impact on my photography and are things that the camera could do better. They aren't disablers.
To draw this to a close, I guess I need to justify my statement that this is the most important camera of the modern age. This camera is an enabler. It aids me to do what I want to do. It rarely holds me back. I have yet to lose my temper with it. My "keeper" rate is now in the range of 95%, and those that I ditch are down to my poor skills. But why is this any different to the canikons? The 1dx mk2 and D5 are epic cameras. But to me they feel that they have reached their level of epic-ness after years of development and hard work. The A9, to me at least, feels like Sony are just getting started. There is already talk that the autofocus technology will trickle down to their APS-C models, meaning wildlife photographers and keen enthusiasts will soon reap the benefits. That in itself will just establish a bar with the expectation that it will be improved upon and surpassed with the next models, and will also drive R&D at Canon and Nikon, pushing everyone forwards. As photographers, of whichever flavour, we will all benefit from that. Couple this with the fact that this camera allows users of Canon and, to a lesser extent, Nikon to migrate to it and use their existing lenses, is a game changer. It removes the risk of leaving a system. It opens doors. It enables.
This camera is important because it is different. It is proof that what people said couldn't and shouldn't be done, could and should be done. Mirrorless has often been derided as a gimmick, a flawed system. This camera proves beyond doubt that that simply isn't true. Sony stuck to their ethos and have pushed their system forwards relentlessly and should be applauded for that.
This camera is the beginning of something, not the culmination.
This is the most important camera of the modern age.