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Sony’s new A9 is so fast it will make you giddy

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Full-frame, full steam ahead

Last week I got to spend a few hours shooting with the Sony A9. It’s the company’s newest flagship full-frame mirrorless camera, and it’s already made waves for its brawny specs and head-turning speed. I only wrote one note the entire time I was shooting with the A9, though, and it was about the electronic viewfinder.

It’s the company’s biggest and highest-resolution EVF ever, and it is an absolute joy to look through. There’s a lot to talk about with the A9 — its compact form, the high-speed shooting capabilities — but the thing I’m still thinking about one week later is how I want that viewfinder on all my digital cameras.

Some DSLR diehards have rightfully spent years extolling the virtues of traditional optical viewfinders, which afford a photographer a more accurate view of the scene in front of the camera. But the A9’s viewfinder, with its high refresh rate (options for 60 or 120 frames per second) and nearly 4 million dot resolution, is one of the best arguments for EVFs yet — especially because of what the A9 is capable of.

The Sony A9 captures 24.2-megapixel images as fast as 20 frames per second, in RAW or JPEG, for up to over 200 shots (or JPEG only for almost 400), and it does this with no EVF blackout. You never lose sight of what’s in front of you. Camera companies used to make special, partially see-through mirrors in order to make this possible for sports photography, but it always came with a trade-off, such as a loss of some light. If there’s a drawback to how Sony’s EVF is pulling it off, I didn’t notice it in my time with the A9.

That said, shooting so fast with such an uninterrupted view was, weirdly, unsettling. Other cameras — even some of Sony’s — are capable of similar speeds, and I find that shooting anything over 12–15 frames per second feels less like taking discreet photos and more like a blur of high-speed burst. The EVF still momentarily blacks out on those cameras, though, leaving the impression of individual images being captured. Shooting at 20 frames per second with the A9’s EVF is like controlling a video camera that is capturing full-resolution still photos. I’ve never really experienced anything quite like it.

Speed is important for Sony if the company really wants to woo sports and action photographers, who are the A9’s target market. That’s why Sony even held the shooting event I attended at a hockey rink. (You can see some unedited sample JPEGs in the gallery above.) Believe it or not, professional hockey and ice skating are some of the hardest sports to photograph: it’s indoors, under generally poor lighting, with fast moving action and the white ice that frequently confuses a camera’s autoexposure system.

In other words, it’s an ideal scenario to put a sports-focused camera to a test. Sony wants people to know that the A9 can hang with — or outright beat — top-tier favorites like the Canon 1DX or the Nikon D5, and that it can do this for $1,500–$2,000 less.

I’m not a sports photographer, and I can’t say after just a few hours whether or not the A9 will help Sony wrestle Canon and Nikon DSLRs out of the hands of those who are. Here’s what I can say. It’s fast enough to make you dizzy.

Take a look at this 73-image sequence of a figure skater:

That’s not a GIF from a video. That’s 73 full-resolution JPEGs (with a RAW copy saved, to boot), or just over three seconds’ worth of 20 fps shooting. And with the A9 you see an even better, more fluid version of this action as you’re shooting, because the EVF doesn’t blackout or stutter. That fluidity makes it easy to follow any action as you’re shooting — it’s why I felt comfortable tightening the crop so quickly when she tucked into the tighter spin.

The autofocus is also especially good. It missed here and there, but — paired with some of Sony’s best lenses — it snaps on to subjects faster than your eye can follow. The A9 has 693 autofocus points, and the camera uses these to calculate focus 60 times per second. That feels as impressive as that sounds, and it also means the A9’s AF works well tracking objects moving through the frame and ones coming right at you. I’m especially fond of Sony’s “Zone” focus area selection mode, where clusters of individual focus points dart around the viewfinder screen as they follow movement in the frame. It’s like shooting with a cybernetic eye, and it’s even better on the A9.

Combine that autofocus with being able to shoot 20 fps more than 10 seconds straight? Yeah, I can see how the A9 will be tempting to sports photographers. And while $4,500 is a lot of money, I could even see it tempting people who were already considering laying down around $3,000 for one of the A7 series cameras.

Here’s one more example of what it’s like to shoot with the A9. This is a little more than 220 frames taken in a row and compressed into a GIF. Again, this is not a video — each frame is a full JPEG with an additional RAW copy saved to the memory card:

Now, this GIF also happens to illustrate that there are still limits to what the A9 can do. By firing away throughout this entire sequence I left myself no room in the camera’s image buffer for when the player reached the goalie. And if you do fill up the A9’s image buffer, be prepared for other parts of the camera to slow down. You’re able to review images while it finishes writing all those files to the SD card, but you’re locked out of the menus, and you also have to wait to do other processing-intensive things like recording video.

But these are limits I think anyone would be happy to work with. And there’s a simple solution to the buffer problem. Just don’t shoot 20 frames per second for 12 seconds (even if it’s extremely fun to do so).

The A9’s AF handles can easily keep charging subjects in focus.

Finding something specific in Sony’s menus has always felt like trying to find a misplaced book in a library, and that’s still the case with the A9. The company has mercifully added a customizable menu page to the A9, though, that should help cut through all that noise. I could still take or leave its lenses — they’re expensive, heavy, and don’t surpass the quality of the glass you get from Canon or Nikon.

The A9 appears to be the ultimate realization of the work that Sony’s been doing with mirrorless cameras over the last five years or so. It has the best version of the autofocus system that Sony started growing with its A6000 and A7 series cameras. It has what I’d argue is a more complete version of the A7 body, with buttons and dials galore and — finally — an AF point joystick.

Sony recently moved into the second spot in the full-frame interchangeable lens camera market. What should concern Nikon, which used to be number two, and Canon, which is still number one, is that Sony did that without the A9. It struck me from the moment I picked up the A9 that this could be the best digital camera Sony’s ever made. We’ll find out if the feeling lasts when it launches in May.