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Sony a9 hands-on review

Sony a9 review as seen through the eyes of a no-frills wildlife photographer. I don’t care about number of pixels and I really don’t care what most of the images look like at 200% because that’s unrealistic. Let’s face it, for most of us, if it’s good enough for the web then that’s all that matters.

*** HUGE DISCLAIMER!!! - I used this camera body with a Vello F-E Adapter and a Nikon 80-400 AF-S Nikkor lens (the good one, not the garbage older version). The autofocus still does not work well enough to track animals so I used the lens in full manual mode with peaking turned on to help with focusing. This review in no way reflects the supposed speed and accuracy of the new AF system of this camera or new Sony E-mount tele lenses. Autofocus with a 16-35 f4 Sony lens was fine, but that’s a wide angle lens and focus is not as critical or difficult to achieve. If I could afford the new Sony 100-400mm, I would have it in a heartbeat***

I recently got to borrow the new, and expensive, Sony a9 thanks to Backscatter in Monterey, California. I spent about two days shooting our local wildlife in a variety of conditions: sea lions in bright afternoon light, using a wide angle lens on a tripod at dusk, flying sea birds in the evening, sea lions at dusk, and whales and dolphins in choppy seas.

Feel - The edges and buttons have been refined just a bit over the boxy a7Rii. It feels just a tad bit bigger which is actually nice since my a7Rii isn’t the most ergonomic of cameras and feels a bit cramped in my hand. Every time I pick up my Nikon d610 it reminds me how un-ergonomic (is that a word?) the Sony mirrorless cameras are but the a9 is a step in the right direction.

Two card slots! You’re going to need this since at 20fps it’s very, very easy to shoot thousands of photos without even thinking about what is happening. For anyone that is touting this as an alternative to the ‘hard drive killing’ 42mp of the a7Rii, I can attest that you’ll consume just as much memory with this insane drive speed. Each file may be smaller, but you’re going to create a zillion. Of course 99.9% of the images are garbage, but it’s still worth considering when purchasing SD cards (you’ll need U3 class 10 by the way). Extra cards will be necessary and the second slot should be set up as an overflow rather than a mirror (in my opinion).

Buffer: ridiculous. I didn’t reach the buffer limit once even when shooting an entire dive sequence of a whale. However it does take a long time to write the info to the card. If you do a big burst, you are locked out from accessing the menu while the buffer is being dumped. You can change shooting settings via the knobs and keep shooting. Depending on how many frames you just fired off, this could be more than a few moments but honestly, if it was good enough to shoot 100 frames, then hopefully you’re dialed in and don’t need to fuss with things in the menu.

Electronic viewfinder - The viewfinder is far superior to what I’m currently using in the a7Rii or have used on the a7Sii. This is significant when it comes to telephoto shooting and very useful in low light. The image is sharper and brighter than in previous models without gaining too much grain in low light. In fact, I was shooting sea lions in post-sunset light and I could clearly see the sea lions in the viewfinder but barely at all with my eye. The high ISO will be very useful to capture unusual wildlife encounters in low light, for performance/concert photography, and when composing night shots on a tripod. This is a real improvement over the a7Rii and a7Sii

If you shoot bands, the combination of 20fps and high ISO capabilities are going to be extremely important to you. Stopping action in low light is key to capturing unique images that would have been impossible 5-10 years ago. This grainy shot of a sea lion at 25,000 ISO is nothing amazing, but imagine if it was a rare animal doing some unseen behavior. This could be the difference between feast or famine.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: There is no blackout when you take a photo. Think of this camera as a rangefinder camera with 20 frames per second. You can actually follow your subject non-stop without incurring any brief blackouts as the mirror flaps up or the sensor recycles. I can’t stress enough how much an advantage this will be when shooting action and wildlife especially through a telephoto lens. I have always hated using a telephoto with my a7Rii for just this reason and Sony has solved this problem.

Capturing just the right moment with the Sony a9
Pacific white-sided dolphins shot with the Sony a9

Battery Life: Sony has really stepped it up by extending the battery life in a significant way. I stress about batteries with my a7rii and often travel/carry 4. I can get 2 dives out of one battery if I stay away from video. With the a9, I shot over 3000 images over two days and the battery life dropped from 75% - 34%. I had the camera on my arm during a 4 hour whale watching cruise, shot 1,500 images and the battery level went from 100-76% which includes having to power the heavy VR system of my Nikon telephoto lens. Battery life has essentially become a non-issue once again. It will not last as long as a dSLR, but has set a new standard for mirrorless battery life.

In conclusion, this body is going to be revolutionary for some of us. If you shoot/track fast moving objects, especially in low light, then the no-blackout viewfinder and electronic shutter will change the way you shoot. I am truly impressed with this feature and it had me sold from the first time I actuated the shutter. Tracking movement will never be easier, I just hope the Sony telephoto lenses are accurate and fast enough to compliment this camera body.

Hey Sony, maybe you can let me borrow a 100-400mm and an a9 for the upcoming Arctic season. Dreamers gonna dream.

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