Sony A9 Reaction
The new Sony A9 has created a lot of excitement, but I find myself a little disappointed. I’m also wondering if Sony hasn’t just made a whopping miscalculation. I could very well be wrong, but I’m just being honest about my thoughts at this stage.
Like many, I have been eager to see what Sony would produce, because they have been making such incredible inroads into the (seemingly impenetrable) Full-Frame market, since the advent of the FE mount. Having established a very strong position with the original A7 and A7R and then the Mk II generation, the idea of Sony stepping into the high-end professional sector certainly had my brain cells buzzing. The recent Sony A99 Mk II DSLR suggested we might see something even more highly specified coming for the FE mount. And they have and they haven’t delivered. Let me explain why.
The new stacked sensor is unquestionably a huge milestone for high frame rates. At 20 fps and a blisteringly high data transfer speed, the camera is nothing short of remarkable. Assuming the AF system can really exploit the full 20fps, this isn’t a small step up. It is a giant leap, especially when combined with Sony’s new ultra-fast SD cards, the lack of viewfinder blackout and the vast number of AF points. However, I still think Sony has got this camera wrong.
Priced at an official retail price of $4500, it is somewhere between the likes of the Sony A7R II/ Canon 5D IV and high end pro models like the Nikon D5 and Canon 1DX Mk II. With 24MP, it is clearly in the sweet spot for general purpose photography, but if you do not need the frame rate, the A7R II (or forthcoming A7 III) would appear a much more sensible proposition (as would a range of competitors’ cameras). If you are casually into sports photography, it is unlikely you’re going to plonk down $4000+ on the new Sony A9, which seems to leave sports, wildlife, journalistic photographers (and other pros) as the target market. So what might they think about the A9? Well, here are what I see as the problems:
They’ve shoved a boat load of cutting edge technology inside the A9, but they forgot about the rest of the camera. Sorry if this seems harsh, but I am quite amazed by the route Sony has chosen to take. Yes, Sony has increased the size of the battery and added a joystick (which are both very welcome), but aside from that, the new A9 is quite clearly based on the $1600 A7 II chassis. It would be like Canon releasing a souped up EOS 6D with whiz bang internals and looking to charge $4500 for it.
The A7 II is fairly well made for a consumer/prosumer camera, but not remotely in the same category as a D5 or 1DX II. In fact, it isn’t even close to the 5D IV, or D810. The overall feeling in the hand and access to most buttons on the Sony A9 is going to be an evolution of the A7 II. It is far from a new chassis designed to suit the needs of sports, photojournalist and wildlife photographers. Many people felt the Sony A7R II was a great camera in many ways, but were unconvinced by the camera chassis itself at the given price point. The Sony A9 is considerably more expensive, yet brings only very limited changes to build and chassis design.
In my view, Sony should have designed a larger body that sat somewhere between the current A7 II body and something like the Canon 5D IV. Not only would this have provided them a blank canvas for truly professional weather sealing and solidity, but larger controls that would suit people sitting out on the cold with gloves on. This could then have been sustained as their high end line with a clear separation from the A7 bodies. Had it cost them another $500 to provide a body that has the same operability as high end Canon and Nikon bodies in tough conditions, I doubt any prospective purchaser would have cared. As it is, the A9 is neither fish nor fowl. It lacks the weather sealing, robustness and user interface most of its target audience are likely to need, yet is vastly more expensive than cameras with a comparable chassis. It doesn’t matter how good the frame rate is if you don’t feel comfortable with the camera when connected to larger lenses in the rain, dust and cold. Sony states that the camera is “well-sealed, around most buttons and dials.” I don’t know about you, but that does not fill me with confidence. It sounds similar to the A7/R II, which isn’t a bad thing at $2000, but at $4500?
The Sony A9 & Large Lenses
Have you noticed how FE lens releases have been getting larger and larger? The likes of the Sony 85mm f1.8 is fairly compact, but the f2.8 GM zooms and the 85mm f1.4 GM are all pretty large, as is the new 100mm f2.8 STM. These fast pro lenses need a bigger handle. The A7II is perfect with the 35mm f2.8 Sonnar, 55mm Sonnar and lenses up to the size of the 85mm f1.8 Batis. Go any larger than this and the body does not feel optimal (which is not to say it is unworkable). Adding a vertical grip helps, of course, but is is no substitute for a meatier body and bigger fatter controls. As everything gets bigger and heavier, diminutive and light controls are no longer appropriate. You need controls that are less twee and a bit more ‘solid’.
What’s also interesting about the release of the Sony A9 is that it frames the forthcoming A7 III. It would seem fair to expect the Sony A7 III to incorporate similar or lesser perks (such as the larger battery, joystick etc) and not take it up a level. I suspect I was not the only one who expected the A7 III chassis to be a mild evolution of the current one and that the A9 would take it up a whole level.
When a person buys a 1DX or D4/5 type of camera, or even a 5D III/IV, they know they’re buying something really solid and meant for hard professional life. This also translates into excellent resale value, even many years later and after the technology is no longer current. I suspect that buyers of the A9 will experience absolutely crippling depreciating. This would not matter to full-time professionals, but like I have said, I am not sure this camera will appeal to those people. It strikes me as perhaps perfect for well-heeled amateurs and semi-professionals who don’t need a really solid workhorse, but who will enjoy the 20fps. Unfortunately, they’re the ones who are most likely to be concerned by the inevitably vertical depreciation.
Sony A9 Conclusion
I applaud Sony’s incredible technological innovation, but this was an opportunity to bundle a new level of mirrorless performance into the first truly professional grade body. They haven’t done that, which strikes me as a real shame. In my view, this basic body and dial set up should have belonged to the new Sony A7 III, perhaps with a slightly increased price. The Sony A9 should have been on an altogether different level and it strikes me as a big opportunity missed. I just don’t see it making the splash it could have!
So who else might this camera appeal to? Wedding photographers are a big market and this camera hits some of the right points for them, but there is one open question: high ISO performance. The new stacked CMOS sensor with integral memory gives great speed, but I have read on Brian Smith’s website that high ISO is expected to fall somewhere between the A7 II and A7R II. This would mean that it is still a darned good high ISO camera, but wedding photographers rarely need 20fps making the Sony A9 something of a high priced luxury. If the new A7 III has a 24MP BSI sensor, dual SD slots and solidly upgraded AF, it is likely to be just as good a wedding camera as the new A9. In the end, as was the case with the Leica SL, I am not sure who this camera is for, or if that target market isn’t better served by alternatives. Time will tell.