Viewfinder and Rear Screen and Card Slots
The A9 features essentially the same insanely large viewfinder that first debuted on the A7R II, but Sony has upped the resolution in the A9 for a clearer image. The panel is a 3.7 million dot finder with a huge 0.78x magnification, which provides an expansive view of the screen. The viewfinder has very quick refresh and is right up there with the very best EVFs on the market. In my time with the camera, however, the EVF was a joy to use, providing a crisp, clear and large image with which to compose my shot.
One of the biggest advancements with the A9, in conjunction with its high-speed electronic shutter, is that when using electronic shutter, there is no blackout of the viewfinder during exposure. This is the case even when shooting at the top burst rate of 20 frames per second. This makes following action incredibly easy. You get the through the lens look of DSLR and Mirrorless cameras, with the constant view of a rangefinder. It’s a wonderful innovation and improves immersion when shooting.
The A9 also gains a new rear screen, with a 1.4 million dot 3″ tilting screen that is also touch sensitive. Focus points can be changed using the touch panel, or you can scroll through photos like you can on any smartphone. I do like having a touchscreen, though with the focus joystick, it’s not quite as essential as it once was. The screen is crisp and clear with fairly good viewing angles.
The A9 is the first E mount camera to feature dual SD card slots, with the first slot allowing for ultra-fast speeds with SDXC II. The dual slots allow you to choose how they’ll be used: as overflow when the first card fills, with each card storing the same data for redundancy, or with one card storing RAW files while the other stores JPEG files. Whenever I use a camera with dual card slots, I choose this third option. The door for the card slots is considerably more robust than the door that is on the A7 II series of cameras, with a latching mechanism that maintains good weather sealing and prevents accidental opening.
The highlight of the A9 is, without a doubt, the new autofocus system. The new AF system features a whopping 693 focus points that cover 93 percent of the frame. The phase detect AF can do full subject tracking, even at the top burst rate of 20 frames per second. If that sounds impressive, that’s because it is. Tracking at high burst rates is a challenge for any camera, and the fact that it does so at 20 frames per second is remarkable.
Autofocus is fast and exceedingly accurate. It also can utilize face detection in conjunction with the phase detection, such that it can track faces and eyes anywhere in the frame, even with high-speed changes. Using face detect AF while my kids were running directly at me with the 70-200mm f/2.8 GM yielded around 90% accuracy dead on the eyes at 20 frames per second. This is simply remarkable.
While other mirrorless cameras have good continuous autofocus nowadays, such as the Sony A7R II, a6000 and a6500, the Fuji X-T2, T20 and Pro 2, and the latest Olympus and Panasonic bodies, the A9 is on different level, in my opinion, and really raises the bar for mirroless autofocus capabilities.
Electronic Shutter and Performance
One of the biggest changes to the sensor architecture of the A9 is the new stacked sensor design, which allows for significantly faster readout. This enables a much faster electronic shutter than the majority of digital sensors, and can reliably stop motion for all but the fastest action. I used the A9 to shoot golf , which definitely stresses such a system due to the speed of the clubhead during the swing.
I found that, with the exception of some slight effect of rolling shutter when a club was at the very bottom of the downswing, that the A9 was able to crisply capture golf swings. Due to the silent shutter, it also allowed for shooting at any time during a golfer’s swing, instead of only being able to shoot after contact with the ball when using a mechanical shutter. I go into greater depth in this article I wrote this summer, if you want to see more detailed discussion. In short, I found the electronic shutter to be an excellent feature on this camera.
As I mentioned earlier, the A9 is capable of shooting at a blazing 20 frames per second, with full resolution and with RAW capture. The camera also has an enormous buffer, allowing for the capture of well over 200 shots in RAW format before slowing down, allowing for a full 10 second burst at full resolution. On the down side, the huge buffer means a tremendous amount of data to clear, so clearing times to the card can take a while. However, given how big the buffer is, provided you shoot in the normal 1-2 second burst range, you’d almost never run up against the buffer limit. Shooting JPEG increases the buffer to well over 300 frames. Needless to say, it’s a camera that is ready for shooting action at any time.
One of the things that is definitely worth mentioning on the A9 is the new larger battery and overall battery life. As a whole, I found the battery life on the A9 to be excellent. It still probably won’t last as long as many DSLRs, but I had no issues shooting for an entire day on a charge, even when rattling off frame after frame. Even shooting golf at high-speed, rattling off around 1,400 frames in a day, dropped the battery only around 35%. More measured shooting won’t yield quite such efficiency, but it’s easily enough for a full event shoot, even one of many hours long.
Normally, I dedicate an entire page to image quality, but I’m not going to on this for two main reasons. First, the camera is frankly quite similar in image quality to the A7 II, and second, I did not get a chance to test the camera in the normal wide variety of lighting conditions that I regularly do in my camera reviews.
So let’s discuss that first point. The A9 has a new stacked sensor, with the same 24 Megapixel resolution as the A7 II. As you’d imagine, resolving power and detail are extremely similar to the A7 II. However, it also performs very similarly to the A7 II with regards to color response and dynamic range. This is generally fine, as the A7 II already has a very good sensor, but it’s also interesting that Sony hasn’t really broken any new ground in this department with the A9.
One are where the A9 does improve on the A7 II is in high ISO shooting, but the differences are fairly subtle. The A9 is around a half stop cleaner at higher sensitivities than the A7 II, yielding very clean shots to ISO 800, shots with low to medium noise from ISO 1600 through 3200, and still reasonably usable shots at ISO 6400 and 12,800. While 25,600 and higher can be used in emergency situations for smaller prints or online use with proper noise reduction, I’d generally avoid those sensitivities unless absolutely necessary.