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Sony A9 Review

This camera changes the rules for sports photography

The A9’s continuous shooting performance is genuinely awesome. Individually, the frame rate, buffer capacity and zero viewfinder blackout are impressive – but when you put them together, the shooting experience is transformed.

For our shots of gymnasts, staged by Sony, the Zone mode was very effective because the movement of the subjects was predictable. For our own experiments, with faster, more erratic subjects, the Wide mode was just as effective, finding our subject and following it doggedly. 

The A9's autofocus had no trouble locking onto this gymnast's hands and its 20fps burst mode perfectly captured the flying chalk dust as he clapped his hands after his routine.

However, the AF system does seem to need a decent area of high-contrast detail to lock on to. Its speed of acquisition and continuous focusing accuracy when shooting moving cars was very good. We got sharp results even with instant ‘reaction’ shots. 

With ‘softer’ subjects, or small objects against a diffuse background, it ran into problems. The A9 simply couldn’t focus on a stormy sky, even though the clouds and clear sky beyond were well-defined, and struggled with small objects against the same sky. 

It also had a panic attack capturing the chromework and paint job of a classic car in sunlight with bright, specular highlights, and only managed to lock on after we pre-focused on a nearby object a similar distance away. Maybe it was the 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens we were shooting with.

This was annoying, but given the AF’s speed and accuracy with regular subjects, it wouldn’t put us off too much. All cameras have foibles. 

24 million pixels might seem a step down from the 42 million pixels of the Sony A7R II, but the A9 can still capture high levels of detail and offers great colour rendition and tonal depth.

It's also very good at high ISO settings. Shot at dusk at f/2.8 and ISO 25,600, these flowers have an impressionistic look, but the detail at the focus point is surprisingly crisp.

The 24MP sensor might seem like a step down compared to the A7R II, but the A9’s images are super-sharp and the resolution is easily a match for its main rivals, the EOS-1D X Mark II and the D5. 

High-ISO performance is competitive too. JPEGs taken at ISO 25,600 show noise and a loss of detail, as you’d expect, but the overall quality is good – the lower resolution and larger photosites really pay off here. If you shoot raw and use Adobe Camera Raw you get tight, hard noise but even better detail – and you can choose your own balance between noise reduction and definition.

Lab tests reveal dynamic range to be a whisker behind the EOS-1D X Mark II and similar to the D5, but in real-world shooting we found it to be fine. It’s possible to pull back highlight detail in raw files in Adobe Camera Raw and shadows seem to come up very well too.

Conclusions

With the A9, Sony has surely rewritten the rules for sports photography. Its 20fps continuous shooting speed is the headline specification, easily beating the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D x Mark II, the industry's top shooters, but there are two more less obvious features that could prove even more important.

First, its silent electronic shutter mode could at last allow pro sports photographers to shoot during the serve at a Wimbledon final, or on the tee at the 18th hole at a golf tournament.

Second, with no viewfinder blackout it's much, much easier to follow moving subjects, and both you and the high-tech autofocus system have a fighting chance of keeping even the fastest-moving subjects in the frame.

The A9 is a great, great camera for sports and wildlife professionals. All Sony needs now is some fast prime supertelephoto lenses to really take on Canon and Nikon at the top of the professional league.