Sony's Amazing a9: The Nightstalker
Tiernan Ray for Barron's
Photography outside of the studio is dominated by night and day. One has sunlight working in one's favor, or one has a flash.
Sony's (SNE) recently released " a9," the latest in a long line of a-series cameras, is an amazing device that brings handheld night shooting alive.
Sony lent me a unit and I took it out for night crawling. The camera, which went on sale in June, sells for $4,499. Sony included a 24mm - 70mm f/2.8 lens that retails for $2,199, and a $2,599 70mm - 200mm macro zoom lens. (Sony's site for the camera has links to where to purchase.)
Sony built the A9's sensor chip, which is a 24.2 megapixel part that's "full frame," or 35mm, with a key advance. They moved the wiring that interconnects parts of the chip from the front to the back of the chip, behind the photo-receptive layer, allowing in more light to hit the photoreceptors.
As a consequence, at high ISO levels, on the order of 25,600, it does gorgeously well, avoiding splotchy artifacts in pictures, so one can really go to town at night. The top end for ISO is 51,200, though I never shot with it that high.
The result are shots that, when shooting fully automatic, are magical on a dark night in the mist. The camera is not waterproof, but it showed no adverse effects of being carried around in the damp:
The a9 is wonderful for capturing delicate outdoor scenes even when it's extremely dark:
The full-frame quality shows up in nice night-time details of favorite after-hours spots:
Although I love the late-night abilities, I also found it did a wonderful job at daytime landscape pictures, with excellent balance of foreground and background, again, even when on fully automatic:
One caveat is that the camera can tend to saturate such shots, and even tint them a bit to the yellow end of the spectrum. Which means you may be better off controlling some settings if you want less hyper-realism and greater naturalism.
Of course, in some shots, that stark hyper-reality can create some thrilling effects, such as with architectural shots:
All the pictures here are un-retouched JPEGs, though the a9 of course will produce higher quality RAW files.
In addition to high ISO, the a9 aims to take on the likes of Nikon and Canon for responsiveness in action and sports photography. The a9 can shoot bursts of up to 20 frames per second, and Sony boasts autofocus and auto-exposure calculations at 60 frames per second. In my experience it was certainly quick to grab onto a shot, even when pointed out the window of a train at high speed:
Add to that the option of using an " electronic shutter," instead of the classic mechanical type. The electronic shutter eliminates shutter sounds and also means the screen never "blacks out" when the shutter button is pressed. Instead, the screen flashes a faint rectangle, in an unobtrusive fashion to indicate the shutter has been activated.
The electronic shutter enables shutter speeds up to one-32,000th of a second, which Sony says vastly outperforms mechanical limits of one-8,000th of a second, though I didn't actually test speeds that high myself. Sony says an added benefit is fewer incidences of distortion, given that the electronic shutter sends data to the image processing chip more rapidly than with a conventional mechanical shutter.
The mechanical shutter is still there if you want it, and I found it very responsive in its own right.
All that adds up to a small, lightweight, high-resolution, silent, super-fast camera with no downtime. I'm not qualified to opine on how it stacks up as a Nikon or Canon alternative, but Carey Rose, Rishi Sanyal, and Richard Butler over at DPReviewhave a nice rundown of the pros and cons. They deem it very worthy of consideration by pros as a serious alternative.
For my purposes, since I don't shoot sporting events, I found the a9 excellent for following a jazz set in a darkened club. In bursts of several shots, with automatic mode on, you can come up with some great moments, and the low-light support pays off:
Shots like this are typical of the experience I had with the a9: it's always ready to produce a quality picture at a moment's notice. Even if you find yourself in the disastrous situation of taking a portrait indoors, in bad fluorescent lighting, preposterously back-lit, you'll still get at least get a decent shot you can work with:
Action picture taking is also helped by the overall responsiveness of the camera. Turn it on and it's ready to start shooting immediately. The viewfinder and the back-side LCD display are both outstanding, crystal clear and super-responsive. That 60-frames-per-second autofocus is also a pleasure, quick and accurate.
Tiernan Ray for Barron's
And even in burst mode, as soon as one jumps to the gallery, the first shots are ready to be examined while the camera finishes processing the latter shots of the burst. (I used a a SanDisk " Extreme Pro " card that writes at speeds of 260 gigabytes per second. But the camera seemed to do very well with lower-speed cards as well; the camera features dual SD card slots so if you run out space while shooting you can keep going with the second card.) Switching settings such as metering or white balance, from the " fn," or Function button on the back side, is simple and quick, reducing the distractions of picture taking.
All that is combined in a frame that feels solidly built, with comfortable dials and a nice grip to it. The battery, I should also point out, has superb capacity. I went through a day or two of shooting, including with burst mode, generating hundreds of pictures, and had battery to spare at the end of the day. Sony says you'll get, on average, 480 shots on a charge when using the viewfinder, and 650 when using the LCD monitor. That certainly sounds at least consistent with what I experienced, if not a little modest.
Again, I'm no expert on pro choices, but as someone who likes to take pictures, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience with this machine. It's always ready to take a decent photo no matter the conditions. Having covered computing for years, the speed with which everything operates, from focusing to exposure to menu operations, was a joy. I would happily pick one up for myself.
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