Review: FIRST IMPRESSIONS SONY a9


Currently I have the Sony a9, together with a small collection of Sony lenses, in my possession. I'm borrowing the kit from Sony in order to find out if I want to make the switch from Canon. ...the brand with which I have happily photographed for the past 20 years. Why would I consider to switch to a different brand? Well, I have three main reasons why I'm looking at a different brand than Canon;

1. My Canon 1DX produces too much dust. Some pictures I can not even start to edit, because of the amount of dust spots on the sensor. I get my gear professionally cleaned twice per year and still have to clean my 1DX sensor before each trip, which is about 15 times per year. The mirror system creates small dust particles which end up on the sensor. The mirror system has been replaced and fixed by Canon, but still it creates a lot of dust. I use my 1DX as well for wildlife photography as for landscape photography. Most of the dust is created during wildlife photography, when shooting on 12 frames per second. The majority of these shots I will take at around f4, so the dust doesn't show on the pictures. But once I switch to landscape photography and start photographing from f9 and higher, the dust spots show in the pictures. From other Canon photographers I understand that this problem is even bigger with the 1DX mk II. Understandably, I don't want to switch to that camera. The Canon 5D mk IV doesn't have this dust problem, but lacks in speed.

2. The shutter system of the 1DX body is quite loud. In most cases this is not a problem. However, when I'm photographing very shy animals, such as capercaillie and wild reindeer, the sound of the shutter scares away the animals in some situations. Now with the mirrorless systems on the market, I would like to explore the new possibilities.

3. I have a quite bad experience with the service of Canon. I had a 1DX body with a faulty shutter and contacted the customer service via the CPS membership service. I have a Gold level membership and should get direct help. I sent two messages, on which I never received an answer. I tried to call them, but the phone got disconnected. In the end the store where I had bought the camera (Stavanger Foto) came to my rescue and sent me a replacing camera.

The reason why I'm interested in Sony, is because of the professional full frame cameras they have on the market and the new line of lenses which they have developed over the past one and half year. One big downside for me, is that there is no lens on the market which could replace my 500mm f4. This is one of my lenses which I use the most. It is possible to use the Canon lenses on the Sony with a Sigma built adapter, but you will loose focus points and focus tracking. However, now that Sony has announced a brand new 400mm f2.8 lens, this problem should get solved soon.

At the moment I have the Sony a9, Sony 24-70mm f2.8, Sony 70-200mm f2.8 and the Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6, to test. I do not get paid by Sony or Canon to get to the conclusions I will get to. I'm borrowing the equipment and have to return it in March. So my findings are completely independent. I do not gain anything from the results. Here is how I managed to get my hands on the kit:

On the 9th of December I gave a presentation on the Lowland Photo Festival in Antwerp, a big nature photography event. For those who don't know this event or who have never been there, I can definitely recommend visiting this event. This year about half of the talks were in Dutch and the other half in English. So it might also be interesting if you don't understand any Dutch. Anyway, after my presentation I ended up on the photo fair, which was part of the event, and wondered into the stand of Sony. One of the ambassadors, Gustav Kiburg, was also present. I knew him, since he had visited me some years ago to photograph musk-oxen. Great guy with a smooth talk. We talked a bit about their cameras and my thoughts of maybe switching to a mirrorless system. For my type of use, the Sony a9 seemed obvious. In the stand I got to test the camera, but of course the possibilities are limited in a place like this. Gustav told me that Sony has a few camera sets which they can borrow to photographers for one week at the time and that he would try to get me one of these sets for during my stay in the Netherlands for the holidays. And what do you know, the next day my phone rings and Gustav tells me I can pick up a suitcase with the Sony a9 and lenses and borrow it for one week. Awesome!

I had already read several online reviews about the Sony a9 and didn't doubt the image quality. I knew that the image quality on higher iso should be superior to my Canon 1DX, which is from 2012, compared to the Sony from 2017. And the resolution of 24 million pixels on the Sony, compared to the 18 million on the Canon, is also an advantage. If I would compare camera to camera, I should compare the Sony a9 with the Canon 1DX mkII, which I don't have. So for me the hands on comparison is difficult to make. I have to relay on reviews written by other photographers. Regarding the auto-focus performance, I have read different thoughts. Some say that the Sony is far superior and others say that the results are the same. After having read many articles and blogs, my conclusion was that the Sony a9 must be quite a good camera, if it has to take up against the Canon 1DX mkII and the Nikon D5 (the flagship cameras of the two leading brands) and the results in performance are in most cases similar. The conclusions I will make, will depend on my personal experience with the camera.

First impressions

The size

The Sony a9 is small! I'm used to photograph with the Canon 1D bodies, which come in at 1.35kg. The Sony is a lot smaller and only weights 673 gram, about 0.7 kg less than my Canon bodies. Some might see this as an advantage, but for someone who works a lot with big lenses and without tripod, it is actually a disadvantage. Luckily Sony gave me also the battery grip, which adds a lot to the body. Yet, the camera is still a lot smaller (thinner, less broad, less high) and lighter. I have rather long fingers, so not all buttons are as easily managed as with Canon.

Electronic viewfinder

This is one of the features I was the most afraid of. I do not like the idea of not having the optical viewfinder, but a digital image instead. It just doesn't feel natural to me. When I look through the viewfinder, it doesn't feel the same as I'm used to. Hopefully this will change during the period that I'm using the camera. At the moment I have encountered two advantages of the electronic viewfinder. 1. In low light it is easier to see what you are photographing, since the display in the viewfinder brightens up. And 2. There is an overexposure warning which you can turn on, which warns you which areas will be overexposed, before taking the picture. With my Canon cameras I always checked for overexposure after having taken the picture. Now I can adjust the exposure to the right level and be sure to not overexpose any areas I don't want to have overexposed, before actually taking the picture. This means I do not have to take my eye from the viewfinder and look back at the taken image.

Foldable screen

The screen folds out, which allows you to take certain shots, without the photographer having to get in strange and uncomfortable positions. I didn't feel like I missed this feature on my Canon bodies, but now that I have it, I actually use it. For instance, I photographed from a low angle how my dogs were running. But it was very muddy, so I didn't want to lay down. I just flipped the screen open and photographed on live view. Worked perfectly.

Placement of the buttons

I still need to get used to the new camera. I would have had the same problem with any other brand than Canon. I'm happy with the turning wheel and the little "joystick" on the back. The AF-on button is positioned about the same distance from the side as on the Canon 1DX. This is quite important to me, since I photograph with back button focusing. Yet, due to the slimmer shape of the body, my thump doesn't lay automatically on the button, which it does on the Canon 1DX. I need to bend my thump to press it. I have to see how this will feel during long photo sessions.

There are three large turning buttons on top of the camera. One for the different AF modes and also the number of frames per second. The second one for the photo modes (M, S, A, P, movie, etc). And a third one for the exposure. This is completely different from the Canon 1D bodies. It seems handy, but I'm not sure how this affects the weather sealing. And I'm not sure how easy it will be to operate these in the cold, when fingers have started to go numb. I guess I have to find out myself.

Autofocus points

I'm well impressed with the coverage of the autofocus points. The 693 points cover 93% of the sensor! This allows you to put the subject right in the corner of the shot and still have active autofocus tracking on the subject. This is something I absolutely love, since this is what I missed with my other cameras.

Autofocus performance

To test the auto-focus of the camera I headed out into the woods with my two dogs and the Sony a9 with the 70-200mm f2.8. There are quite many autofocus settings you can chose from and I won't go into detail of each setting. I just wanted to find out how the focus responds to moving targets and how well the focus manages to stay with the target. I have to say that I'm very impressed by what I have experienced so far. The focus is really fast, if you allow it to be fast. I put the AF tracking on the highest sensitivity when I photographed my dogs running straight towards me. The focus managed to stick very well to the head every single time. I have heard that the hit-rate of the a9 is lower than on the 1DX, but I didn't have this problem. I always shoot in short bursts and keep the focus tracking the subject with the back-focus button. With the 1DX these were bursts of 2-4 pictures. But since the Sony a9 takes 20 frames per second, my bursts ended up to be 3-7 pictures.

I had read in a review of the Sony a9 that the photographer had the feeling that the camera was able to pick up moving object and lock the focus on it. I had to test this. So I let my dogs run in the forest edge, with many trees, branches and a fence in the background. I took some distance, because I didn't want to make it too easy for the camera to track the dogs. I had them quite small in the viewfinder. But the autofocus tracking had no difficulties to pick up the running dogs and tracked them without jumping to the background. When I stopped moving the camera, the autofocus points kept on following the dogs. I tried several times in several different settings to fool the autofocus, but it really seems to pick up the movement of the dogs and lock on to them instead of the surroundings.

To test this even further, I went into a very messy part of the forest with loads of small branches and trees. I let one of my dogs run around me and I tried to photograph it while it went between and behind the obstructing objects. Of course the focus jumped away from the dogs in many occasions, but it managed to find the dog again quite easily after it had lost focus. Also here is seemed like that the camera picked up the movement of the dog and tried to follow this, rather than the trees and branches. It impressed me for sure!

High iso performance

As I knew before I had the Sony a9 for the first time in my hands, the high iso performance of the Sony is superior to my Canon 1DX. Additionally to being able to photograph on higher iso, it also seems like there is much less color noise. I can't say how this directly compares to the Canon 1DX mkII.

The lenses

I'm well impressed by the three lenses. All three are razor sharp and fast. It is too bad that they don't all have the same filter size. Some 82mm and some 77mm. I have adapter rings which solve this problem, but it would have been easier if they all would have had 77mm or 82mm. Just a slight discomfort.

Sadly, for now this is all I can say about the camera. The conditions I could test the camera gear in, were far from what I normally photograph in. I'm impressed by the camera, but I still have no clue if this camera will be able to handle the conditions I photograph in. And If I will like how it handles when using it for a longer period. I told this to Gustav and he managed to put some sweetened words in for me at Sony. A week after I received the suitcase with camera gear, I suddenly had an appointment in the head office of Sony, where I received word that I could take the full set with me to Norway to keep on testing the gear. They were especially interested in seeing how the gear will perform during my musk-ox tours in January and February. For each tour I will stay out in the mountains for 4 days, with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius. I'm looking forward to see how the equipment will perform in these conditions and if it will convince me to make the big switch from Canon to Sony.

I'm sorry for not adding any pictures to this review! I have had an extremely busy program and just have not had the time to also edit some of the RAW files. For the coming reviews, where I actually will be touring with the photo equipment, I will add pictures of course. I will take the gear with me the coming months, to Tromsø and Senja to photograph whales, landscapes and northern light, to Dovrefjell to photograph musk-oxen and to the Lofoten for landscapes and northern light. During this period I should get a good overall idea of how the camera gear performs. I will post my findings on my blog after every tour.

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