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Hands on: Sony A9 II review

The Sony A9 II proves that incremental updates become instrumental updates, when it comes to pro shooting

Hands on: Sony A9 II review
(Image: © James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

Our Verdict

The Sony A9 II is the fastest, most ferocious full-frame sports camera we've ever used. Its blistering speed and autofocus performance are matched only by its phenomenal connectivity, which promises to be a game changer for pro shooters. We would love to have seen Sony implement something akin to Olympus' Pro Capture feature, so that you never miss the critical moment. However, if our most damning criticism is that the A9 II is too fast for us to keep up with, surely that's nothing but mission accomplished for Sony!

For

  • Blistering burst shooting
  • Best AF system we've used
  • Unrivaled connectivity

Against

  • Menus remain obtuse
  • Isn't it time for CFexpress?
  • We missed Pro Capture

To understand the Sony A9 II, you need to understand that there's pro shooting and then there's pro shooting – and the latest Sony flagship full-frame mirrorless camera caters firmly to the latter category. 

It's not the highest resolution full frame camera you can get, but it's designed for speed, not resolution, and its performance as a high-speed pro sports camera that guarantees it a place on our list of the best full frame mirrorless cameras you can get.

All professional photography has its own challenges and requirements. Yet no matter how frenzied a wedding might be, it will never torture your camera's autofocus the way that photographing Olympic swimmers does – and while you might need a decent burst mode to photograph a dance troupe or catwalk model, decent just doesn't cut it when you're shooting champion kickboxers or divers. 

It's in the fire of these elite arenas that the Sony A9 II has been forged. For photographers who don't shoot fast action professionally, it may seem like an incremental update over its predecessor. However, put through the rigors of a professional environment, the A9 II proves just how instrumental its upgrades are.

This is unquestionably one of the best cameras for professionals you can buy for fast action sports photography. 

On the outside, the Sony A9 II looks the same as the original – but in use, it's night-and-day different

On the outside, the Sony A9 II looks the same as the original – but in use, it's night-and-day different

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

Specifications

Model number: ILCE-9M2
Sensor: 24.2MP full frame Exmor RS CMOS sensor with integral memory
Image processor: Bionz X
AF points: Hybrid AF, 693 points phase detection, 425 contrast detection
ISO range: 100-51,200 (exp. 50-204,800)
Max image size: 6,000 x 4,000
Metering modes: Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot, spot standard/large, entire screen avg., highlight
Video: 4K at 30fps, 24fps / 1080p at 120 fps, 60fps, 30fps, 24fps
Viewfinder: EVF, 3.69m dots, 0.78x magnification
Memory card: 2x SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS II)
LCD: 3-inch tilting touchscreen, 1.44m dots
Max burst: 20 fps electronic shutter, 10fps mechanical
Connectivity: Wi-Fi (5GHz), USB-C (USB 3.2 Gen 1) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, HDMI mini, LAN (1000BASE-T for FTPS), NFC
Size: 128.9 x 96.4 x 77.5mm
Weight: 678g (body only, with battery and SD card)

Sony A9 II with Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS (1/800sec, f/4, ISO100)

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

Key features

The camera uses the same 24.2MP sensor and Bionz X processor as the original Sony A9, yielding an impressive 20fps continuous shooting output with the electronic shutter, 14-bit RAW output, 4K video up to 30fps and 1080p up to 120fps, 5-axis in-body image stabilization and a remarkable autofocus system that makes up to 60 AF calculations per second.

For casual observers, the increased mechanical shooting burst of 10 frames per second (up from 5 on the original) might seem like the most notable improvement on the Sony A9 II, but if anything it's the least important thing here.

Let's start with that new mechanical shutter (now rated to over 500,000 actuations); thanks to a fast-response coreless motor it delivers ultra low vibration, which combined with the new chassis dampers and refinements to the IBIS algorithm results in improved stabilization of 5.5 stops.  

This also facilitates continuous shooting using external flash, and continuous shooting now features anti-flicker with AF/AE tracking. And the autofocus has also received a significant improvement to its algorithm, thanks to further development on the Bionz X processor. 

The AF has been performance-tuned to more reliably track fast, erratically moving subjects – ideal for subjects making acceleration changes, such as triple-jumpers, or quick changes of direction like footballers shimmying to shake off defenders.

Sony A9 II with Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM (1/500sec, f/2.8, ISO2000)

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

It's not just autofocus speed and continuous shooting speed that has been improved, though; crucially for professionals, transfer speed has been improved dramatically. To non-pros this might seem like nothing significant but, when the aim of agency level sports shooting is all about who can send best image fastest, this is key critical for workflows. 

The ethernet port is ten times faster than the A9, now supporting 1000BASE-T for gigabit transfer. The Wi-Fi is also improved, both in terms of frequency (now offering 5Ghz) as well as range and reliability, perfect for pros who rely on a MiFi unit and no longer have to keep it unreasonably close to the camera. USB now supports 3.2 Gen 1, and you can save up to 20 FTP settings (ideal for freelancers uploading to multiple agencies), all of which results in markedly faster file transfer. 

Something else that would be completely overlooked by non-professionals is the voice tagging facility. Far from a frivolous feature, this enables you to create a 60-second voice memo that is automatically transmitted with the image data via FTP in an industry standard format that will work with every press agency system from Reuters to the Daily Mirror.

Even more impressively, the Transfer & Tagging function on the smartphone app can automatically convert up to 50 seconds of speech into a text caption, meaning that the receiving party doesn't have to manually transcribe the description – which means nothing if you're an amateur, but if you're the AP it gives you the ability to publish images almost as fast as (for example) Usain Bolt crosses the finish line at the Olympics. 

Sony A9 II with Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS (1/250sec, f/2.8, ISO400)

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

Build & handling

The Sony A9 II has been significantly improved in terms of handling and operability. Given that sports photographers will spend at least half the year shooting in the cold, the big thing is that the camera can be used really well while wearing gloves – something that couldn't always be said of its predecessor.

Crucially, size and location revisions mean that the key controls – AF-ON, the joystick and the shutter – are positioned identically in horizontal and vertical orientation. And crucially, the vertical shutter stroke possesses the same tactility so there is no difference in play (which, again, is also key when wearing gloves). 

In addition to a larger focus button and reshaped, retextured joystick, the shape and position of the rear dial has been modified for easier access and operability, and the exposure compensation dial now possesses a lock. The grip has also been beefed up for better purchase, with more room for pinkies and increased overhang for middle fingers.

Touch operation is now 1.5 times faster, and real-time touch tracking can now be engaged while using the viewfinder (rather than just controlling point selection). The Recall Custom Setting During Hold function has been improved, enabling you to quickly change your entire shooting configuration by depressing a button (for example, if you're shooting a panning shot of an F1 car and then hear a crash and need to immediately switch to shooting 1/1000 sec bursts). 

The A9 II is obviously dwarfed by lenses like the 400mm – it can be used handheld, but not for long!

The A9 II is obviously dwarfed by lenses like the 400mm – it can be used handheld, but not for long!

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

The Fn button can now be customized for independent function in movie and stills mode, and at last you can now access your customized My Menu options simply by pressing the Menu button, to help alleviate the patented pickle that is Sony's menu architecture. 

Best of all, you can now save and load up to 20 camera settings – ideal for transferring your settings across multiple bodies, whether you're unifying the settings on all cameras in an agency or applying them to loan cameras.  

Dust and moisture resistance has been improved, with the battery compartment cover and media slot now being double sliding rather than just hinged as on the A9. Speaking of the media slot, Sony has finally sorted it out so that the top slot is Card 1 and the bottom slot is Card 2! 

The A9 II uses the same battery as its predecessor (along with the same dual- and quadruple-battery grips), though CIPA performance has been improved to 690 shots using the LCD screen and 500 when using the EVF (compared to 650 and 480 on the previous model).

Sony A9 II with Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS (1/1000sec, f/5.6, ISO320)

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

Performance

It's fair to say that the Sony A9 in 2019 is a completely different camera to the Sony A9 that was released in 2017, thanks to the raft of firmware improvements. However, firmware alone can only boost performance so much – at a certain point fresh hardware is required, and it unquestionably makes night and day difference in the Sony A9 II.  

This is abundantly apparent in the autofocus. AF in the original A9 was good enough, and with all the firmware it was good. The A9 II's AF, however, is better, more reliable and more instant – in non-professional measurements it might only seem a small amount, but for sports photography it becomes an enormous amount. 

Photographing swimmers and seeing how quickly it will find and lock onto eyes demonstrated this point with crystal clarity – not to mention the fact that real-time Eye AF is now available when shooting 4K.

In terms of transmission, this is a completely different camera than the original thanks to things like the 1000BASE-T support. For example, transferring a batch of 60 images took 71 seconds on the A9, but now takes just 25 seconds on the A9 II. 

Sony A9 II with Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM (1/500sec, f/2.8, ISO5000 – cropped)

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

Again, non-pros wouldn't look twice at things like the voice tagging, but it's a game changer for this kind of photography. The fact that the app also enables you to manually input captions, as well as use saved glossaries (to save you misspelling the difficult names of European sportspeople), means that transfer can be done without even needing a computer – again making life that much faster and more efficient when trying to get an image to Getty faster than the other 400 shooters at an event. 

Even little things, like being able to change the focus frame color to white or red, or the option of the new 4:3 aspect ratio (much-needed by photographers shooting potential magazine covers) are a big deal here. Though the bigger things, such as the improved IBIS and less crunchy ISO performance (shooting comfortably up to ISO6400) are obviously much bigger headline getters.

In terms of actual shooting, we torture tested the A9 II in a variety of unique environments. When photographing volleyball, we were blown away by the robustness of the AF; the camera was able to acquire Eye AF on a player from one end of the court to the other. 

Sony A9 II with Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM (1/250sec, f/2.8, ISO640)

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

It was able to maintain and reacquire the eyes even when players passed in front of them on the far side (obscuring a small part of the frame), or even when they passed right in front of the camera (obscuring the entire frame) – and it wasn't even confused by the netting at half court. 

When shooting kickboxers, the A9 II was able to find and track faces and eyes even with rapid punches and blocks obscuring the subjects, and even when eyes squinted and faces winced. Tracking would reliably stay with targets even when they turned around or were partially obscured by ring ropes or completely obscured by grabs and clinches. 

The only time the AF struggled to keep up – and it really didn't struggle, more that the subjects were just inhumanly fast – was during swimming, when swimmers' heads literally only came out of the water for a second at a time, and on a few occasions focus wasn't acquired until just as the face started to dip back underneath the water. 

This was exacerbated when the swimmers were in backlit conditions, with faces in shadow, but the fact that the camera was still able to give us plenty of keepers even in these impossible shooting conditions was truly and honestly impressive.

Sony A9 II with Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS (1/3200, f/2.8, ISO100)

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

Early verdict

The Sony A9 II is the fastest, most ferocious full-frame sports camera we've ever used. Its blistering speed and autofocus performance are matched only by its phenomenal connectivity, which promises to be a game changer for pro shooters.  

As fast as the Sony A9 II is, however, there is one thing that lets it down: how fast the photographer is… or isn't. This camera is now faster in every conceivable way – from burst shooting to eye tracking to autofocus find and follow – but your reaction speed simply can't keep up with the speed of the camera.

Yes, you can shoot 20fps bursts – but only after you've reacted to what's happening and hit the shutter. If you aren't able to anticipate a movement (and let's face it; if a boxer can't anticipate the surprise right hook that lands on his jaw, the photographer has no chance) then you're going to get a 20fps burst of everything after the moment.

We would love to have seen Sony implement something akin to the Pro Capture feature seen on cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1X, which starts buffering 14 frames before you fully depress the shutter, so that you never miss the critical moment. For all the other tech that's been included to make sure you get the shot, it's a shame that the tech isn't here to make sure you don't miss it.

Still, if you've never used Olympus' pro cameras you won't feel its absence as profoundly. And if our most damning criticism of a camera is that it's too fast for us to keep up with, surely that's nothing but mission accomplished for Sony!

Sony A9 II with Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS (1/100, f/4.0, ISO12800)

(Image credit: James Artaius / Digital Camera World)

Read more: 

Sony A9 review
The best cameras for professionals in 2019: which pro camera system is best?
The best Sony lenses in 2019: top lenses for Sony mirrorless and Alpha cameras
The best Sony cameras in 2019: from pocket-size compacts to mirrorless