The Strange Saga of the Sony a9, and other random thoughts on an unexpectedly open Friday.

I'll start with the Sony a9. Right off the bat you have to know that I have only held one for a brief time but I have read just about everything written about this camera so far on the web. I am certain that it's a wonderful camera for a very, very small subsection of photographers who have very special needs for their very particular kind of work. As I understand it the a9 is Sony's statement about what constitutes a really great, mirrorless sports camera. It's optimized for fast, fast, fast.

It's probably the fastest focusing of all the full frame Sony camera and it may be faster than the a6500. It has an incredibly deep raw buffer. And they made the battery twice as powerful as the long running npw50 that's used in just about every other serious Sony camera.

But here's the deal: Most photographers (who are not specifically sports photographers) tend to value image quality above speed. If we're spending real money and taking our time to shoot with purpose and passion we're generally trying to maximize the image quality of our work above all other parameters. In this regard the a9, when compared to the A7rii is a step backward on the quality timeline. It has lower resolution, much lower dynamic range and less ability to finely separate color tones. Why then all the interest in a camera that's 50% more cost? Why have Sony absolutely inundated the web-o-sphere with millions and millions of social influencers all touting this camera as the alpha and the omega of modern cameras?

Here is why I am profoundly uninterested in the a9, won't buy one and won't be "testing" one "in the real world" or anyplace else:

1. This camera is too expensive for the quality of file it generates.

2. This camera is optimized for speed over quality.

3. This camera is two steps backwards for anyone who values the ability to create video and stills with one picture taking machine.

4. Stories are emerging from many quarters about overheating issues with the camera (and one would think after dealing with the marketing splatter from overheating A7 series cameras and A6x00 series cameras Sony would have learned something...and implemented some way of dealing with heat..).

5. The sheer volume of people vying to review/dissect/promote this camera on social media makes me NOT interested in a big way.

6. Lloyd Chambers was first to bat with revelations about serious noise banding in shadows when pushing the shadows --- even at ISO 100!!!

The outright flogging and shilling of this camera has become downright embarrassing and, I think, counterproductive.

I would guess Sony is trying to build a two year cycle of momentum using the a9 as proof of execution in the sports camera niche in order to prepare the battlefield for the release of a much better camera 18 months from now to showcase at the Olympics. (is it true that viewship at ESPN has dropped by over 30% in the last two years? Will we still even want "sports cameras" by then?). The goal must be to have enough photographers sporting Sony gear and logos at the games that they are finally taken seriously by the new gathering community which will give them credibility and a certain glow (halo) with consumers in general. The ultimate goal being the snatching of additional market share from Nikon. And Nikon seems to be making it easy for them.

I think the a9 is the ultimate consumer-beta'd R&D camera. As the blog sites, websites and social media sites of all flavor relentlessly flog the a9 a certain number of buyers will hear the siren wail of marketing and part with an enormous sum of money in order to get a camera that will mostly be used by people who have photo interests similar to yours and mine; we'll use it to take walking around photographs, family images, headshots, product shots, real estate shots, concert shots, food shots and all the regular and routine things we do with our cameras 90% of the time. In that same span of time the people who buy the camera will do two things. They will decide that the image quality of the a7Rii, or the combination of price and image quality of the a7ii, would have been preferable to the a9 for them and, secondly, they'll be guinea pigs for Sony's engineers; finding and reporting on glitch after glitch so Sony can fix everything and put a great product out in time for the games in 2020.

It's hard not to believe that Sony stumbled onto some key methods of controlling and inspiring the legions of camera reviewers and have done what most marketers do when they suddenly realize they have a potent consumer driver in their hands; they turn up the marketing knob to 11 and go massively overboard. But like any other gimmick the public will soon tire of it and the intensity of the repeated assaults on the city walls of the consumer mind will result in rebellion, revolt, cynicism and other brakes to the a9 onslaught.

The very idea that many, many photographers desperately need to create work at 20 fps is just ludicrous. I'll take the insanely detailed of the A7Rii's sensor and its almost unrivaled dynamic range any day of the week, and I suspect that you would too.

The camera to watch, in my opinion, is the Panasonic GH5. That's a remarkable piece of gear by any measure.

Sony, me dost thinks thou market too hard. A little subtlety (any restraint at all) would be appreciated.

Just look what the inane repetition of the a9 mantra has done to DP Review's credibility...


Rufus said...

I disagree.

I don't see much evidence of the A9 being pushed or shilled more than any other camera. If anything, I think the Olympus EM1 mk2 launch seemed to be more overwhelming in terms of sheer bandwidth devoted to it, but maybe the Sony marketing just passed me by.

Why do I feel compelled to defend the A9? Two reasons:

I think the A9 is a genuine effort to make mirrorless cameras with an EVF overcome the traditional DSLR and its flappy mirror. DSLR's have until now been able to claim that they still offered better AF of fast moving subjects. A generation of sports shooters have clung on to their 7D and 1DX/D4, safe that their gear was still better for capturing fast movement. Not any more. Sony have managed to get mirrorless AF to work just as well, maybe even better, with the A9.

This is a BIG deal.

Secondly, Sony have been the first to bring something that is truly revolutionary - ZERO blackout. This is huge. Capturing the defining moment becomes a very different issue when there is no viewfinder blackout. Compare that to a DSLR, when the viewfinder is blacked out with the mirror up exactly when the defining moment may be just happening.

Because of the A9 we know it is now possible for a mirrorless EVF camera to do anything a DSLR can do, with none of the disadvantages.

These two factors for the A9 are potentially game changers. I don't think you give Sony enough credit for tackling the only remaining refuge for DSLR superiority and solving it for mirrorless.

Kirk Tuck said...

I'll buy that argument. But it's only applicable, in my opinion, for that small niche who do sports. Thanks for reminding me about zero blackout. That is an amazing achievement.

EDC Reader said...

"The Strange Sage..." Sage? Did you mean "saga"?

joel said...

Perhaps you're right but I'm betting against you on this one as I just bought the A9. I went back and forth over the contradictory reports (glowing or glowering). I haven't spent enough time with the A9 yet to really form my own solid opinions but It think the IQ issues are largely overblown for the purposes of staying relevant amidst the hype. If all of the reviewers are saying its great you don't get hits from agreeing your get hits by disagreeing.

From my (way too many) hours of research I think the core issue is that the A9 uses some very new tech for Sony. Certainly the read speed and AF points have contributed to some fixed pattern noise and occasional artifacts (both of which are found in other Sony models that never got the blow back this one is getting—including your A7RII). However the A9 uses deeper pixel wells and so handles mid-tones and highlights better. Since I'm rarely pushing my images over 4 stops in post (which seems to be when the fixed noise becomes visible and distracting) I'm not worried.

The flip side is the A9 addresses some operation pain points that kept me from buying an A7RII and improves the low-light, focusing, and lack of 4k that discouraged me from buying an A7II. Do I wish the camera was at least $1k cheaper? Absolutely! I actually think its a great events camera but priced out of the market. If a strange confluence of events hadn't resulted in me having the money to spend on a camera *right now* I would probably have been forced to wait and pray for the A7mk3 or deal with the frustrations I feel for the mk2 bodies.

Mosswings said...

Uhhmm...the A9 is a great example of how mirrorless cameras do things a bit differently than DSLRs, and some of those differences are useful. But for the most part, it's an example of Sony pushing its core competencies but not always coming up with things that are useful to most photographers - or, as Kirk points out, videographers. Right now, camera manufacturers have tumbled to the idea that in a declining market, mindshare equals marketshare, and Sony has the catbird seat with regards to sensor featuresets.

I've mentioned before that DSLRs accomplish amazing things with quite thin data streams by virtue of their optics and optimized sensors (image, AF, exposure). This translates into extreme power efficiency and, because of the optics, discrimination capabilities. Mirrorless implementations of these fundamental functions basically have to make do with vast quantities of lesser quality data (particularly AF), so try to make up for it with computation-intensive software/firmware behind the sensor and in the case of Sony packaging schemes that support the staggering data rates required. This approach offers useful side benefits - such as zero VF blackout through high-speed syncing - that DSLRs can't do, and really good target pattern matching that DSLRs haven't been able to do well until the advent of high-resolution exposure sensors.

Sometimes one has to back off and decide what one wants to target with a product, and create a thoughtful tool for it. Panasonic has done that with its GH5, G85, and FZ2500, recognizing that 10 bit 4:2:2 is more important for video than blazing fast burst rates and PDAF, and that most photogs want IQ and decent AF that are consistent and reliable. Sony seems to be swinging big technical bats around. Bats that need a bit of sanding to be good tools.

The A9 is a shot across the bow for the 1Ds and D5s of the world, but it isn't a square faceoff. I see it as a camera for Sony devotees who want to shoot sports, but not a replacement for existing tools. Perhaps in another generation or so it will be a square faceoff, but Sony needs to slow down and think a bit more about what will serve users best. But then that would blunt the shock and awe they're trying to create...

Bassman said...

While only a few people might need and buy an A9 for its sports capabilities, having it available as part of the system increases the likelihood that other photographers might buy into the system. They will know that, if they ever need the speed, they can add it to their system rather than replacing their system.

milldave said...

"Strange SagA of the Sony a9", not Sage??
Rufus makes a good point IF the camera was pitched at, say, $2000 all up.
But not at the price they're asking for it.
Insane, in my humble opinion.

Kirk Tuck said...

Definitely "Saga." Damn that spellcheck. Damn them.

atmtx said...

Other camera companies also get outsized coverage. Leica is a bit player, though with a legendary history. Very few people will ever buy one, need one, and in reality less expensive cameras will do just as well, or better, in most cases.

It's like how car enthusiasts or magazines cover Ferrari and Lamborghinis, which always seem to be on the front covers. In the world or Accords and Camrys, those expensive ultra-niche cars really don't matter.

But, just like the Leica M10, or exotic cars, the A9 makes for good shiny news. I really don't think many of the places that are covering the A9 really care about them. They talk about it because they believe the A9 coverage will attract eyeballs.

The death of DSLRs is a fun topic. Heck I even talk about it from time to time on my blog. The A9 is the latest to threaten the last stronghold for DSLRs.

tnargs said...

I'm one of those you mention who value image quality over speed, BUT, I include being better focused as better IQ. Isn't that right? So let's turn the A9 down to SLOW speed, say 3 fps or 5 fps, and shoot some really fast-moving objects. Which SLOW camera has the better IQ: the one with less pixels, more (subterranean) noise, and sharper focus, or the one with more pixels, less noise and less focus?

That's right.

So let's remember, the A9 is an extraordinarily high-image-quality camera, too.

TMJ said...

It isn't about the A9, but it is the "Anchoring Effect" *.

In a declining ILC market, even if your market share is increasing, you need to make more profit on each item you sell. Once you establish a price, in this case for the A9, that price becomes the anchor and it is then easier to sell other products at higher prices. Of course, I may be completely wrong.

*(Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science (New Series), 185, 1124-1131.)

Craig Yuill said...

It is very, very unlikely that I will ever by a Sony A9, or any camera that costs as much new as it does. But I think that the A9 is important camera because it is proof that FF mirrorless cameras can operate at speeds comparable to the fastest DSLRs, and that larger-sensor cameras can produce video and stills with negligible rolling-shutter effect.

Don't think that speed is prized only by a small handful of pro photographers. There are quite a few amateur wildlife and sports photographers out there who buy DSLRs like the Nikon D7200, D500, and D810 and Canon 80D, 7D II, and 5D IV. I take a fair number of birds-in-flight photos, and photos of my children sledding, cycling, and engaged in other activities involving fast or relatively-fast motion. For those times I tend to use my DSLR rather than one of my mirrorless cameras.

As for the rolling-shutter issue, one of my current guilty pleasures, YouTube vlogger Casey Neistat, started using the GH5 a month or so ago over his fairly-new Sony A6500. I noticed that the video footage of him in motion looked a lot less "Jello-y" after he adopted the GH5. Unfortunately, the GH5 doesn't have an AF system that nails focus quite as well as the Sony A6500 does. The A9 indicates that we might finally see an end to rolling-shutter effect in video and stills, especially from cameras with larger sensors.

Like you, I feel there is definitely a lot to like in the GH5, including the ability to capture 4K video footage at 60fps. It may very well prove in the long term to be a more important camera than the A9. I hope that Panasonic works on improving its AF system.

bpr said...

Absolutely agree with the beta testing line. It's very clear that those of us who adopted the first iterations of the A7 series were in that role. In the end a lot of great features but not fully coherent, all round cameras.

The real kick in the teeth, for me as an A7r owner/beta tester (and I did questionnaires and a Sony focus group/panel) was the huge price hike for the A7r2 which put it out of my reach.

neopavlik said...

Yeah I think its more of a symbol/harbinger than fully realized camera at this time.
Doesn't it have a super silent shutter or something ? I thought you'd be really interested in that. I just keep chugging along with my D600 and wait for the D810 replacement or a used D810 as I stockpile just about every lens I could want, waiting for my old 300/2.8 to be delivered any minute now.

Anonymous said...

Seems from reading reports from far and wide that the a9 is not the ultimate camera. Not even close.