2 years back, I experienced the fantastic Sony A7 II during a wedding shoot. It was worthy as a replacement to the DSLR, with a few exceptions, like the battery life, the auto-focus, and the whole organic feel of an optic equipment.
What struck me when the Sony Alpha A9 was announced back in April 2017 was the ability to shoot 20 full-frame images per second with complete silence, zero blackout, up to 360 JPG images. The other awe-struck fact is the size of the A9: it dwarfs when put next to the Nikon D7500 whose image sensor is smaller. Technically, they are both different categories in terms of design, but they serve the same purpose. It goes to show how far we have progressed in a short span of two-over decades in consumer digital photography.
Having journeyed through traditional film camera, then to digital SLR, and now settled on mirrorless system, does the A9 deliver any extreme advantages with such mind-blowing shooting specs? My answer may surprise you.
I won’t talk much about the overall camera operation, which feels similar to the A7-series. The Sony full-frame series are more solid and better ergonomics, with a hump on the top like DSLR, while the APS-C cousins are flat on the top like rangefinder cameras.
Apart from the jaw-dropping 20 fps with zero shutter blackout, the A9 has 693 phase-detection AF points, covering 93% of the frame. It is able to achieve AF/AE calculations up to 60 times per second, and the electronic shutter can capture up to 1/32000 sec. The 3686k-dot electronic viewfinder previews images at 120fps. Simply put, the A9 is made for speed-shooters.
Other pro-level specs that makes A9 droll-worthy: 5-axis image stabilisation, newly developed battery that is enough for about 480 still frames, wired LAN connection for FTPS file transfer. The camera can also record 4K movies with no pixel binning by oversampling from 6K before condensing.
The A9 review unit is still on V1.0 firmware when I did my test (I tried updating to the latest firmware but the process failed and I need to send the unit back for diagnostics). The AF did not perform as spectacular as I had imagined. The continuous AF was quite fickle and did not accurately track the subject that I selected to lock. In some occasions, the fixed-AF indicator was missing and only appeared after I restart the camera.
Image sharpness kind of depends on the lenses you fit in, but on the SEL85F18 (85mm f/1.8) lens, image is amazingly sharp at 100%. And the depth of field is creamy.
The main attraction for me is the 20 fps blackout-free mode, so I brought it to a birthday party at Splash @ Kidz Amaze SAFRA Punggol. I was also carrying another review unit, Nikon D7500, to test at the same time.
Different Approach in Image Creation
Coming from a traditional photographic background, shooting with the A9 burst mode feels excessive and wasteful. How so? On most DSLRs or mirrorless cameras, the movement of the mirror or an act of a brief screen blackout conveys a sense of efforted capture, and makes the photographer more aware of each image captured and stored by the memory card.
As I shot with the A9 in electronic shutter mode, I felt empowered that I could just fire away and hope for the best moment. In a single second, I saved not 1, not 5, but 20 individual 24MP images. The only indication that the camera is capturing images is the flickering of the border around the display.
Without the mechanical shutter feedback, the organic feel of capturing the moment is lost. Having said that, the process of photography today is nothing like the pre-digital times. A product like A9 enables new ways of image capture. When the camera provides a huge level of automation, it leaves the photographer to focus on other aspects. After all, the process of digital photography does not end with the trigger of the shutter.
And since technology is available, why not make full use of it? Surely there will be one shot out of the 20 taken within a span of 1000 milliseconds that will catch the ultimate moment of all.
But of course, one can revert back to the conventional mechanical shutter, tune down the fps, and do the traditional way of image capture. But it would be kind of wasteful on the A9 that is built for speed.
One Shot. One Kill. No More.
When you purchase a full-frame shoot demon like Sony A9, you are one who shoots without mercy. That is the only advantage of forking out S$6299. While I did not experience exceptional continuous-AF tracking, I read that firmware updates resolve this issue.
Do not let the old folks like myself detract you from the new ways of photography. One that knows no storage boundaries, one whose photographic production does not end with the click of the shutter. One that uses digital technology and post-processing software to create the most stunning image that is not achievable with just a single image.
Sony A9 review unit courtesy of Sony Electronics Singapore and AKA Asia.