My week with the Sony A9

Only a seriously unserious photographer would spend 350 bucks to rent a camera like the A9 for a week and then use it as frivolously and haphazardly as I just did with it. My only defense is that I only wanted to establish one thing. I wanted to know whether the autofocus was great, good or as miserable as on my A7S. It’s not a good defense. Enough reports are out there to show that it’s much, much better than the A7S. In fact there is plenty of testimony for it being better than any of the A7 cameras and for it being at least comparable to high end Canon and Nikon DSLRs.
Well, call me Doubting Thomas. I needed to see it with my own eyes and experience it with my own hands.
Okay, big surprise, it’s really very, very good. Put the camera on center point focus and point it at anything inside or outside and it focuses instantaneously and flawlessly. Beyond that I did some tests with tracking and eye-focus of moving targets and it was pretty good. It wasn’t perfect or flawless but that could be attributed to my lack of understanding of which setting should be used when and my lack of technique for shooting sports or occasion subjects.
At this point you can see that there will be no big surprises or important information coming out of this post (unless you are a doubter like me and for some reason trust me more than the reputable reporters who’ve already sung the A9’s praises). What this is is a personal opinion about why the A9 is an important camera for Sony shooters.
As anyone who has been following my photography posts knows I have been a somewhat patient long-suffering Sony camera user. As an owner of the last full frame DSLR from Sony (the praiseworthy A-850) I have been waiting and suffering through the long chain of mirrorless cameras that Sony produced. From the NEX-5N up to and including the A7R II I have been disappointed by the incompetent autofocus and mediocre shooting experience of these cameras compared to a basic DSLR like the A-850.
Those days are over.
The A9 is a better camera than the A-850 in every way.
And here’s my take on why this is important. I don’t have to abandon Sony. I can keep my lense and buy into their overpriced stuff and at least I won’t have to sell it all in a fire sale and go over to Canon or Nikon. The features that the A9 has are remarkable. No black out shooting, excellent indoor and outdoor autofocus, low light capability, silent shutter, very short exposure time, you name it, it’s got it.
The only downside, $4,500 price tag. I am not that nuts. You see I’m a hobbyist. I don’t shoot weddings and I don’t work for CBS sports. I do not actually need 20 frames per second. Nor do I want to pay for it.
What I do want is that fantastic autofocus and the no blackout shooting experience. Well actually, I’d also like to get that bigger battery too. Unfortunately, it’s starting to get closer to most of the camera. Damn. Well anyway, I want an A7 III with all the goodies of the A9 but without the mortgage. Three grand? Sure. Thirty five hundred? Ahhhh, I dono. So come on Sony make it a Merry Christmas. After all I have been patient.

Close-Up Photography with the Sony A9 + FE 55mm F/1.8

So this is a bit of a joke.  The FE 55mm is in no way a macro lens.  Its closest focus is about a foot away and so with a 55mm focal length it’s basically a normal size image.  The twist is that because the A9 allows autofocus in a magnified view you can get incredibly exact focus on small things like insects from that 12 inches away and then you can crop the image to look like a macro shot.  What follows is a series of images followed by a crop of the focal point.  I found it pretty easy to get even hyperactive bugs like the bees and wasps to end up in focus.  This was my first day with the camera. These photos are just jpgs. I don’t have the latest Lightroom rev that works with A9 files so these are rough pictures and won’t be reworked to their fullest potential.  Tomorrow I’ll see if I can do anything more sensible with it.

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Plug for a Useful Video on the Sony A9

Tony Northrup is a well-known photographer/photo pundit.  He has used all the major camera manufacturers’ gear and has been a pretty honest critic of Sony’s mirrorless cameras over the years.  He is neither a shameless fanboy nor a Sony Hater.  He’s a good source of information.  In this video, he addresses several common allegations against the Sony A9.

I think he’s extremely convincing.  I have an A9 rental scheduled at the end of August for a family gathering but I already feel that he has put to rest the infamous “banding” uproar.  Good for him.  Anyway, if you’ve been following Sony for the last few years and were excited about the specs of the A9 (and the soon to be announced A7 III, A7R III and A7S III) you’ll be interested in getting Tony’s remarks on how these “terrible problems” turned out once he owned his own A9.

Check it out.

A9 Bottom Line

A week ago, I said it would be a week or two to evaluate the performance of the Sony A9 camera.  Well, it’s been a week and I’ve waded through a boat load of reviews, hands-on reviews and technical discussions.  It’s enough.  I’ve got the information I’m looking for.  But, you may say, it’s too soon.  We haven’t seen the raw files opened up in a legit version of Lightroom (or fill in your raw browser of choice).  True, it may be that once you look at the 20 frames per second exposures made with the electronic shutter in fluorescent light they’ll have banding and rolling shutter jello and polka dot noise and blah, blah, blah.  And someone else will discover that at 20 frames per second when the raw files are only 12 bit there is a 2% chance of producing artifacts if you exceed the dynamic range of the camera.  And I’ll say sure.  What else is new?  All this is the same as saying no camera is perfect.  Tell me something I don’t know.  But what I do know now is that Sony has figured out autofocus.  The A9 has very good autofocus.  Is it better than the Nikon D5 or the Canon 1DX?  Will it work perfectly in low light?  Don’t know.

What I do know is that Sony mirrorless cameras will have competent AF from now on.  I have been waiting for that for about seven years.  I absolutely do not need 20 frames per second.  I wouldn’t mind good tracking AF and a silent shutter is a big advantage when shooting an occasion.  I doubt that I’ll buy the A9 (although my gear lust is sorely tempting me right now).  I’ll definitely rent it this summer to calibrate the advantages it provides over my ancient A7S.  I want to see what it does in a normally lit house or a dimly lit restaurant.  I’d like to compare the 24 megapixel files of the A9 with the A7S 12 megapixel files in very low light.  ISO 12,800 is a good setting for astrophotography.  Can the A9 make a good Milky Way shot?  I’ll try to find out.

So, there it is.  Sony has finally crossed the Rubicon.  They have proven to me that mirrorless cameras can fully replace the DSLR.  I’d expect Canon and Nikon will now produce their own mirrorless lines to compete head to head with the A9.  May the best man win.  The web sites and magazines (both print and electronic) will expend millions of words “proving” that x, y or z is the top company and all other options will fall by the wayside and end up on the ash heap of history.  And who knows?  Maybe Sony will stumble and one of its competitors will emerge as king.  Completely possible.  But that’s a problem for another day.  As I said back a few weeks ago, the A9 will determine whether Sony mirrorless cameras can provide a full-frame camera with highly competent autofocus.  Based on what I’ve read it does.  Congratulations Sony.  You’ve succeeded in keeping me aboard.  Next stop, my next camera.

Reading the Tea Leaves – Reviewing the A9 Hands-On Reviews

I viewed the YouTube hands-on reviews by all the Sony guests at their demonstration.  I watched Max Yuryev, Patrick Murphy-Racey, Steve Huff, Jason Lanier, Tony & Chelsea Northrup and Gary at DPReview.  They seemed pretty positive.  But based on my previous experience of the difference between the first hands-on reviews and the performance of the camera in real life conditions I found them inconclusive on the most important point, auto-focus accuracy.

That’s why I was very encouraged when I viewed the video by David Schloss, the editor of Digital Photo Pro.  He’s written in the past ( http://www.digitalphotopro.com/gear/cameras/dslr-is-still-king/ ) about the inferiority of mirrorless autofocus compared to DSLR.

Then in this A9 review (  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVUsA_lSnBw ) he mentions that even the A-6500 autofocus which is touted as excellent is still not as good as DSLR autofocus.  This sounds like someone speaking the straight dope.  And he says the AF on the A9 is flat out incredible.

By the video discussion Schloss is seeing the A9 autofocus on sports subjects like boxers, hockey players and pole vaulters in motion.  Most likely the lighting conditions were optimal.  To my mind this represents a legitimate test of the AF.  This may not guarantee that the A9 can compete with the D5 or the 1DX but it should satisfy my needs for medium level DSLR level autofocus. So, this says to me that Sony has probably reached a very important milestone.  They have leveraged advanced processing and sensor technology to match the simpler DSLR autofocus technology of the older camera makers.  Now they have to make this technology cheap enough to incorporate in the A7 cameras.

So, all this triangulating of reviews is just a game I play until the definitive information emerges in the next week or two.  Once Sony hands out the loner copies of the A9 we’ll start getting real results and informed opinions.  Until then I’ll comfort myself with the voodoo answers I’ve cobbled together here.  If you have a different analysis, feel free to leave a comment about it on this post.  After all I’m not actually Nostradamus or Sherlock Holmes.

Well, fellow Sony camera users, hang in there it can’t be long now.

A9 Bottom Line

The A9 Has Arrived. Halleluiah!

So, SonyAlphaRumors was right. The mythical A9 is real.  For $4,500, even I can become a professional Sony photographer and capture 20 frames of a hummingbird’s wing beat in one second.  I’ve not yet had a chance to go over in detail all the double plus goodness of the specs but I noted that it has a fully electronic shutter and a new type of stacked sensor.  And of course it has all the goodies that Sony has needed forever like dual memory cards and a bigger battery.  The auto focus has 693 phase detection points and supposedly re-focuses the lens 60 times a second!  The ISO maximum is 51,200 but is magically  extended to 204,800 when you want to take pictures in the dark.  It has a minimum exposure time of 1/32,000th of a second, a maximum of twenty frames per second with continuous auto-focus and it can cure the whooping cough in adults.  It is the ubercamera.

Will I buy it? Probably not.  But I will rent it.  My though process is the following.  I want to know if the auto-focus is very good.  The only way to determine that right away is to try the camera.  Once I know that I’ll be able to determine if I’ll continue as a Sony photographer.  If it doesn’t auto-focus as least as well as a conventional Nikon or Cannon camera (not the top of the line mind you, but just a regular old mid-range DSLR from the big two) then I’ll be exiting Sony.  If it does prove to have reasonable auto-focus then I know this improved feature will eventually find its way to the A7 series.  That fact will be enough to keep me in the Sony camp.

Sony has announced the release for June. I’m guessing the rental places will have it shortly after that.  That means I can rent it for a family gathering I have in July.  That should give me all the testing targets I’ll need to give it the thumbs up (or thumbs down).

So now that I’m through acting cool let me say how I feel about this camera viscerally. Man, this sounds like a great piece of tech!  24 megapixels is the sweet spot in my mind for resolution.  Even for landscapes I think it’s plenty enough.  If the auto-focus really is as good as their claiming it will be amazing.  And the 20 frames per second will make action photography doable even for old guys like me.  This could be the greatest technical innovation since sliced bread.  So, thank you Sony.  You finally put your cards on the table and now I can judge whether you have a full house or a busted straight.  For all of you Sony shooters out there, we are about to find out what the future will be for us.  Because over the next year or two, this new tech will begin trickling down to the A7 cameras and Sony will become the premiere camera company (or it will fail and they’ll be cast into the outer darkness along with the Delorean and Betamax).

My Sony Ultimatum

Well, here we go again. SonyAlphaRumors (SAR) has a post today recapping the rumors for a new full-frame camera coming out soon.  The latest development is a registration with the Chinese government of two new Sony cameras.  The Admin at SAR says based on the designations, one of the two has to be a full-frame Sony.  Also the Admin says it’s typically 1-2 months later that the cameras are launched.  These developments are added onto rumors that say that Sony will be releasing a full-frame camera that will have a high frames per second rate and extremely good auto-focus but with moderate resolution.  This identified it as either the legendary A9 or an A7S III.  In an earlier iteration of this rumor it was stated that this camera was going to be very expensive.  This would point to an A9.  The Admin was saying that it would compete with the Canon and Nikon professional cameras that retail in the $6,000 – $5,000 range.  Currently he seems to be undecided whether it could also be an A7S III and moderately more expensive than the current A7X II series cameras.

From a personal point of view I hope it turns out to b the A7S III. I currently use the A7S.  It has only two weaknesses.  It needs much better auto-focus (which is actually a general problem for all the Sony mirrorless cameras) and it could stand to have 18 or 24 megapixels of resolution.  If those two weaknesses were addressed it would be the perfect camera for my needs.

So if SAR is right (which is a big if), then sometime between the end of April and the end of May a fantastic new Sony full-frame camera is due to debut. So, do I believe this?  Well, actually kinda no.  Maybe it’s the delay in new products caused by the earthquake that occurred in Japan a couple of years ago or maybe I’m just getting skeptical.  But I don’t think Sony has the goods yet.  Believe me.  I’d like nothing better than to plunk down $3,000 to get my dream camera.  It would be right in time for summer and all the photo opportunities that that entails.  And I would love for Sony to reach up into the top bracket of camera-making companies.  After all, I’ve got a pretty healthy investment in gear at this point.

But for some reason I don’t think they’ll put out the cameras that are mentioned above. I think they’ll put out the A7 III.  It will have some number of megapixels slightly less than the current A7R II and will have some new gimmicks built in that will appeal to the mass of people (something with the word selfy associated with it).  It will claim to have the state of the art of auto-focus technology (but it won’t).  It will be just another iteration of the A7 cameras that Sony has been putting out for the last few years.  And, if that turns out to be the case, that’s going to be a problem for me.  I’ve been a loyal and patient Sony fan going back to the A-850 DSLR.  I’ve owned four Sony mirrorless cameras and a ton of lenses.  But I’m just about out of patience.  I haven’t owned a Sony mirrorless that could auto-focus half as well as the A-850. And the A-850 was far from the best auto-focusing camera out back in its day.  So I guess what I’m saying is that Sony is about to be judged by me.  If they don’t come out with a full-frame I’ll stay in waiting mode.  But if they do, I’ll be deciding whether I have a future with Sony mirrorless or not.  So listen up Sony.  It’s either my way or the highway (that’ll scare ‘em).

Sony Photography – January 2017 Perspective

Back in August 2016 I gave a retrospective of my 5 years as a Sony photography equipment shooter.  Well it’s about six months later and I guess it’s time to update my opinion and look ahead.

Since then, Sony has not issued another full frame e-mount camera.  In fact, the last full frame e-mount announced was the A7S II back in September 2015.  As a sort of qualifier, I will note that a full frame A mount camera (Sony A-99 II) was launched in late 2016.  This launch combined with the damage to Sony’s factory in April 2016 probably explain this slower release schedule.  During this time, Sony released a couple of APS-C e-mount cameras that exhibited many interesting improvements in auto-focus ability and other important features.  In addition, Sony has announced an impressive number of very good full frame lenses for the e-mount.  So, taking all these mitigating circumstances into consideration you could completely excuse Sony for this slower schedule.

Well, maybe you could but I can’t!  As a certified Sony fanatic, I excuse nothing.  I consider that Sony owes me the impossible each and every day!  Okay, rant over.

Basically, we are still at about the same point of Sony mirrorless evolution as we were back then.  Granted, the APS-C cameras claim to have improved moving subject auto-focus greatly.  And more powerful processing chips have been added to the A-99 II.  But until Sony provides a full-frame that matches the auto-focus of the top end Canon and Nikon cameras from even 5 years ago I don’t think Sony can declare themselves a legitimate option for professional photographers.

In fact, lately it sounds like some of the other mirrorless manufacturers (Fuji and Panasonic) have really solved the auto-focus issues for mirrorless.  Now granted these are not full-frame cameras but it highlights the defect of the A7 cameras in this department.  On top of this I saw an article on a popular rumor site that stated that Sony lost quite a bit of sales ground to its competitors this last year.  Taking this all together it sounds like Sony needs to play some catch up to be seen as a competitor for Canon and Nikon.

Sounds sort of bad.  Well actually, I think Sony has learned that they need to stop churning out cameras with only minor improvements.  I think they are preparing to launch a significant upgrade to the A7 line.  Whether they will launch this series simultaneously with an A9 (professional model) is unclear.  From the perspective of maximizing overall sales I think releasing the A9 later would make sense.  But to get this high-end product out quickly into the market place I rather think launching the A9 at the same time is much more exciting.  Plus, assuming that an A9 would be greatly more expensive I don’t see that these cameras would interfere with each other’s sales.

So what insider knowledge do I possess that allows me to predict the imminent release of these new cameras?  None!

I’m going strictly on gut feeling that Sony knows they have to bust out a really compelling camera (or cameras) now to stay relevant and profitable.  So, there you have it.  I am putting my incredible reputation as a soothsayer on the line and predicting that Sony will announce a ground-breaking full-frame mirrorless camera in 2017.  It will have professional level auto-focus and all the other required characteristics (dual memory cards, good battery life, weatherproof construction) that a professional camera requires.

If I’m wrong may I be forced to take no other photos but selfies with smartphones for a year!