First Impressions of the New Sony a9

There is no doubt that Sony has changed the game with their camera systems over the last few years – particularly with their mirrorless systems. Last month, Sony unveiled their newest in their pro-level cameras, with the Sony a9 – and we were among the first to be able to get our hands on it and give it a try.

For those who are unaware of the Sony a9, all signs point to it being a competitor to the Canon 1DX Mark II and Nikon D5 markets. With an incredible 20fps, the Sony a9 beats them out in speed, and with the nearly 700 focus points, the Sony could theoretically beat them in that market as well. But since we were able to get an afternoon with the system, it’s important to look at it and see how it actually stacks up.

Sony a9 Product Examples PhotosSony a9 Example Photos

At first glance, it looks like another Sony a7RII. I mean don’t get me wrong, The Sony a7RII is a great camera, Sony packed a whole lot into that small package that cannot be ignored. And before any further reading, if a really high resolution is a requirement, the Sony a7RII, Nikon D810, and Canon 5DS are still the real clear winners. But it’s clear that the Sony a9 isn’t designed to compete with the megapixel monsters listed above – it’s built for speed.

Sony a9 Stacked Dial

The first Full-Frame Sony Mirrorless cameras felt great in my hands, but accessing controls just wasn’t intuitive. The second generation of Sony Mirrorless Full Frame cameras saw boosted features like 4K video, 5-Axis Inside stabilization, competitive autofocus, but still kind of missed the mark with ease of use in my opinion. But the Sony a9 was a welcome surprise in that regard. The first thing I noticed besides the bigger battery (with twice the capacity of the embarrassingly wimpy NP-FW50s) was the dual memory slots. I’ll talk more on that in a minute, but two is better than one. One slot supports UHSII memory cards to take advantage of the cameras insane speed. The other slot only functions for UHSI cards. This is only a limiting factor when using slot 2 for Overflow. If you use one for Raw and one for jpeg, or one for video and one for stills, there’s no issue at all, and you can enjoy the full capabilities of the Sony a9. But if you were hoping to load both slots with high capacity cards, and shoot the 20fps til your heart’s content, you may run into some problems when it switches from the UHS-II slot to the UHS-I slot. Perhaps the biggest surprise though was the lack of an XQD slot – which is Sandisk’s answer to the now aging CompactFlash format. Though the absence of the XQD slot isn’t a huge disappointment, since the SD UHS-II can easily keep up with the transfer speed of 20fps at 24.2mp, it would have been nice to see them adapt the newest card format to make the eventual transition easier. Anyway, regardless of your preferred memory solution, you should be thinking High Capacity. Trust me; 20fps is addictive, especially when combined with some of the other new features, namely fast, accurate autofocus and tracking. The addition of the Drive and AF Mode layer-cake dials are a game changer. Finally, a more photographer friendly camera from Sony Mirrorless. The Multi-Selector joystick on the rear is a nice touch for quick AF adjustments, and of course, so is the touch sensitive LCD.

Sony a9 Memory Card Slot (compared to Sony a7rII)

But what’s really better on the new Sony system?… everything else. The 24MP stacked sensor brings in the incredible features of the Sony Cybershot Rx100 and Sony Rx10 cameras make things like super slow mo recording, 4K, and shutter speeds of 1/32000 possible. Like its predecessors, low light is a cinch. 693 phase detection AF points are covering 93% of the image area and 20fps with AF/AE tracking. Not to mention that 20fps shooting is virtually silent. Let all that sink in. Additionally, there is no blackout, not even at 20 frames per second. The Sony A7RII has 399 Phase detection AF points and shoots 5fps continuous for 22 shots, an impressive feat when initially announced. The Canon 5D Mark IV/1DX Mark II have 61 high-density points, with the 1DX having 14fps shooting. The Sony a9, as already mentioned, has 693 focus points and 20 fps shooting – numbers absolutely crushing the previous leaders in the field.

I had a few hours to test the Sony a9. I hit the skatepark with the a9 and the Sony FE 70-200 f/2.8G OSS. I had some other great choices with me thanks to Sony’s increasingly competitive line of FE lenses, but I thought this was the best for checking out that autofocus. I’ve been impressed with the AF tracking of the Canon 5D Mark IV/1DX Mark II. The 1DX Mark II is the obvious competitor here, at 14fps, a sophisticated AF system with top of the line tracking and facial recognition. It’s a beast. Sony a7RII users might scoff at the $4500 price tag, but 1DX II users won’t. It’s built for sports/action photography and its smaller/lighter, cheaper, and faster than Canon’s flagship professional camera. Right off I was able to lock good focus. Using face recognition, tracking, I followed my subjects as they skated their lines at 20fps, recording Raw and jpeg simultaneously…in virtual silence, thanks to a sophisticated electronic shutter. Fast moving subjects tracked effortlessly resulting in tack sharp shot sequences every time. 64GB in each slot was gone pretty fast. It’s just so quiet and easy. Fortunately, I packed more memory. I concentrated harder on my shots using the low continuous and single shot modes. The bright EVF renders accurate color, live exposure preview, and AF activity apparent and easily adjustable with the Multi Selector thumb joystick. Sony showed us they were a contender with stacked features in their mirrorless cameras and their dedication is apparent with updated versions and support for their fleet, but Sony a9 solidifies their place as a leader in sports photography as well.

So is the Sony a9 all that it appears to be? In our initial testing, yes. Sony seems to have made a competitor to the top-tier camera systems from Canon and Nikon, at a fraction of the size and cost. Though the typical problems will arise when shooting Sony’s mirrorless systems – such as mediocre battery life (when compared to the Canon 1DX Mark II, and Nikon D5), limited lens options, and third-party options for accessories. That said, if you’re in need of a fast system with a robust build and unparalleled features, the Sony a9 might be your next camera system. I for one, am excited to get more time with the Sony a9 when they become more readily available.


Lynn Green & Zach Sutton

May 2017

Author: Lensrentals

Articles written by the entire editorial and technical staff at LensRentals.com. These articles are for when there is more than one author for the entire post, and are written as a community effort.

Posted in Equipment
  • Eddie Grant (ewg963)

    Tig is just like the rest of us who is curious about the Sony A9 but invested thousand of dollars of in Canon or Nikon glass. I would love to have a Sony as an addition to compliment my Canon 1DX and my extensive glass but if it’s not give you that fps they advertise for Sony glass it gives me pause because I’m not switching to Sony. At least not yet 🙂 I mean no disrespect Lotus

  • Eddie Grant (ewg963)

    Great question perhaps also trying it on an otter.

  • Eddie Grant (ewg963)

    I’m a Canon user but I hear that camera solved all the battery issues. I love technology and competition!!! Kudos to Sony maybe Canon and Nikon will step up there game!!! Time will tell.

  • MikeT

    Ya I’m thinking some haven’t been keeping up on the advances Sony has made across the board for action photography. If the AF sucked, sports shooters would not touch this.

  • Andrea Boyle

    So how is it for bird photography? Especially birds in flight? I can’t help but notice that Sony seems to be skirting our crowd with field results. We would like to know if their camera is better than the Canon (currently 1DX2) alternative.

  • Ian

    This is the logical successor to the A7. I think a lot of people are assuming it’s a more photo-oriented seperate model since it doesn’t have all the cinematic/pro features of the latter A7 models. That’s simply how Sony’s release strategy works.

  • Steven Kornreich

    I shoot mostly winter sports, Freestyle skiing and most of the events are at night under artificial lights.
    I have shoot with both the Nikon D3s, D4s, D5 and the Canon 1dx, I usually shoot with a 70-200/2.8 and a 300/2.8 and sometimes through on a 1.4x TC. Oh and btw I always rent this equipment from Lens Rentals. :-).

    My concerns with the A9 are how well the battery will hold up in very cold weather, and also since Sony stuck with the A7RII body style, good luck using the A9 with gloves on and just the overall handling of the camera using the 70-200/2.8 FE Gmaster lens.

    I wish Sony would have abandoned the A7RII body design for a little large body with built in Battery grip. This would have solved the handling issue and make it a better balanced camera when Sony releases a 300/2.8, 400/2.8 and 500-600/4 FE lenses which they have to if the ever want to compete with Nikon/Canon. Using A mount glass with an adaptor is a non starter for pros IMHO.

    I will be interesting to see at the 2018 Winter Olympics if there any Sony A9 shooters, my prediction is probably not though maybe a few for indoor events like Ice Skating, Hockey, etc.

  • Max Dallas

    What’s with the goofy 3 pages setup?

  • Don Farra

    Thank you for your first impressions write up on the Sony a9.

  • Athanasius Kirchner

    I’d say that bridge was crossed with the A6300 already. The lower-end Canons struggle with subject recognition. The Nikons do better, but are still limited by low-ish AF point number and metering sensor.

  • Leo

    I investigated the MC-11 and Sigma Art lineup on A7Rii recently because I’m disappointed by the 85GM performance and found out the the Eye AF doesn’t work at all on some Youtube tests. The f1.4 lenses are particularly affected by this given how thin the DOF can be. I really wouldn’t count on it for critical shots.

    I manual focus my a-mount 135ZA and it’s a nightmare. maybe only half the shots are nailed. I’ll be using my Leica system if I want that “ah-ha, this shot is actually in focus” moment. ;p

    However personally, the A7Rii eye AF worked very well on my 70-200 GM. It’s quite awesome when it works. I suppose it has something to do with the AF mechanism given GM utilizes direct drive SSM motors. Ring types don’t work that well with eye AF (presumably is PDAF + CDAF)

  • Roscoe Gore

    I use the A7RII with my a-mount 70-400G2 with LA-EA3 for wildlife shooting and have not had that problem. It is not a fast as my A99II but works great for me. The FE 70-300 OS is great on the RII.

  • Michael Ogle

    I wouldn’t compare this camera with your 7dII which is known for very inconsistent AF. This or any Sony camera will be a revelation for you.

  • PVC

    Use any of the adapters for a longer/faster telephoto until Sony develops longer primes. The LA-EA3 will do 12fps with A-mount glass.

  • Darden12

    The subject separation aka 3D pop, in some of these samples photos is really good/very appealing. Kudos to the photog(s) Lynn and Zach!

  • I had exactly the same experience. Gave up on the A7r2. But I’m very curious about the A9, if they really able to overcome all issues. The only concern so far – the low ISO DR is pretty bad, similar to the previous generation of the Canon sensors like (5dm3), which is very unusual for Sony.

  • Theoretically you should compare your 7DII with the A6500? They are in the same price league ($1400 🙂

  • The MC-11 offers the Eye-AF feature actually… But you’re right, it’s not always reliable. The a7r2 Eye-AF wasn’t very reliable neither, hope the A9 improved it.

  • I suspect 10fps won’t be the only issue. The ability to AF your Canon lenses will also suffer most likely. I had the A7r2 for a while and it was a real pain to use long lenses (tried 70-200/2.8 II, 200/2, 300/2.8 II and 600/4 II) with the Metabones mk4 adapter. In low light I couldn’t rely on it at all. I think it makes sense to buy Sony lenses as well, otherwise I feel like it will be $4.5k wasted…

  • Leo

    Well if you do manual focusing it’ll still be 20fps. To be frank, 10fps for adapted lenses is quite generous already given how difficult it would be for the focusing system to communicate with two levels of non-native protocols: guesstimation from the adapter to lens and the adapter to the body, both are likely to cause issues and result in slower focusing and inaccuracies.

    If you’re someone whose quest for hit rate can benefit from the additional 10fps, you’ll not want to be using adapted Canon glass given the AF can be unreliable. Even Sigma can’t make an adapter to their own EF lenses with 100% native experience. Your hit rate will suffer unless you go native on the Sony body. Plus, you lose the awesome eye AF which is pretty revolutionary if you shoot events or action… fast glass that can pinpoint eye focus is amazing.

  • MBond

    I owned the Sony A7RII…I found that continuous AF would fail often in low light or at telephoto focal lengths, with moving subjects within about 25 feet of the camera. I loved the camera otherwise, but the on sensor PDAF just wasn’t on par with my Canon 5DSR. if the new Sony AF has solved these problems, I think the upcoming line of sony mirrorless is going to reset the competition.

  • DV

    You still get dead silence and no blackout. Just not 20 FPS.

  • Thom Hogan

    1. While Sandisk was in the original group that designed XQD, they dropped out and developed CFast instead. The primary developers of XQD as it came to market were Sony and Nikon. Lexar eventually joined them, but Sandisk has stuck with CFast.

    2. Are you sure that raw+jpeg to different slots doesn’t impact the camera in some way? In every camera system to date with two slots, when both slots are active, the slowest slot dictates things. That’s because of the way the cameras run through the data table and directory checks before doing anything on a card. It very well may be that you didn’t see any difference in your use. But I’d be surprised if there were no difference because that would mean Sony is doing something different in the card checks.

    As others have noted, I’m not at all sure about your mediocre battery life claim. Initial impressions are that for burst sports shooting the A9 achieves way above CIPA standards, in the thousands of images per charge.

    The real issue for me is that I’m stuck at 200mm f/2.8 for sports with the A9. I carry a 200mm f/2 with the Nikon, and I have f/2.8 options out to 400mm, f/4 beyond that. For sports, shutter speed is the variable you are usually trying to maximize, which means the variable you run out of first is aperture. And then you start spiraling up in ISO. The higher you go in ISO, the more sub-optimal your data is. So I want to start with fast lenses to keep me from boosting ISO until I have to.

  • Justin

    Re: “Mediocre battery life” Other reports from shooters were that they were getting thousands of frames per battery. Like 2-4K. That sounds very much not “mediocre.” Did you test how many frames you were able to grab per charge?

  • Tig Tillinghast

    The use case I’m addressing is not someone changing systems, but rather someone – me actually – adding the A9 body to an existing Canon system. The downside to this proposition is having to spend $4.5k. The upside is gaining something I don’t have now: 20fps and shutter silence (underrated feature). Except I don’t gain those, it seems. Not sure. I hope if this body doesn’t grant those features, a future one does, as it would be nice to have those options.

  • Lotus Eater

    It says a lot when photographers nowadays are disappointed with 10fps.

    If I was changing systems, I’d just be thankful that I could use my existing glass at all on the new system.

  • Lotus Eater

    “Until the mirrorless systems can match the PDAF autofocus performance of (say) my $1400 7D mk II…”

    I’ll stop you right there. This new model shows that that has already happened. This camera competes with, if not, betters the Canikon flagship sports cameras. It is not unreasonable to assume that cheaper Sony mirrorless cameras are imminent that will easily compete with cheaper DSLRs.

  • I’d recommend giving the a9 a try before you give judgments on it’s autofocus system. While we’ve only tested it with Sony glass (which is something they’re developing faster than anyone else), but preliminary results look like it matches that of its competition

  • Greg Dunn

    “Though the typical problems will arise when shooting Sony’s mirrorless systems” – let’s not forget autofocus. Until the mirrorless systems can match the PDAF autofocus performance of (say) my $1400 7D mk II, they are non-starters for me and many other sports shooters.

  • Tig Tillinghast

    I read that the A9 went down to 10 fps when using an adapter for other lenses. I shoot Canon, and one selling proposition to me for this body is that I could use my glass collection, adopting the A9 as a speedy sports body to complement my nerfed 5D Mark IV.

    If the lower speed is true, it would be disappointing, as the idea of using it as a specialty body with my Canon glass would go poof.

    It would also make the Sony paucity of lens options more dire.

    That said, I love them for pushing the competition to higher levels.

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