The Sony a9 is a masterpiece of technology. Even if you have no intention of ever dropping $4500 to buy one, you have to admit that its key specifications are impressive. Aimed squarely at action photographers, it’s much faster than the a7R II, with a more sophisticated AF system, but it can’t match the older camera for sheer resolution.
In this article, we’ll be comparing the a9 and a7R II directly, looking in detail at exactly where their differences lie. For some photographers, the a9 might meet their needs admirably, whereas for others, the older a7R II might be just as good – or better. Read on to decide for yourself.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between these two cameras is their sensors. The a9 offers a resolution of 24MP, putting it in the middle of the pack in terms of full-frame cameras’ pixel-count.
On the other hand, the 42MP sensor inside the 7R II offers the highest resolution of any Sony Alpha. In the entire full-frame market, it is second only to the Canon EOS 5DS/R when it comes to nominal resolution. And due to backside illumination (BSI), the a7R II’s pixels are themselves sharper than traditional frontside illuminated sensors, thanks to lower crosstalk. The a9 is also BSI, so at least its 24MP should be sharp pixels.
Having as many pixels as the a7R II at your disposal is great for certain kinds of photography, like landscape and studio work, but of course it comes at the expense of large file sizes, and reduced operational speed.
Our verdict: If you need the pixels, save some cash and buy an a7R II. If you need speed, read on…
The a9, on the other hand, features a significantly lower-resolution 24MP sensor, but one that’s been optimized for speed, rather than pure resolution. A maximum frame rate of 20 fps makes the a7R II’s 5 fps look prehistoric, and 60 fps live view is available even during burst shooting. You don’t need that kind of performance for landscapes, but for sports and action, it’s extremely appealing. Remember, that’s 60 fps with no blackout, perhaps making it easier to track subjects than the best DSLRs (there’s still some lag though to the EVF feed).
You can thank a stacked BSI-CMOS design, with built-in buffer memory for these tricks. In the image above, the sensor (1) sends data the signal processing circuitry (2) and on to a buffer (3) before pushing this data to a new BionzX processor with a front-end LSI (4).
But of course, a fast frame rate isn’t useful without…
…a decent autofocus system.
The a7R II impressed us when it was released, offering the best all-around AF performance of any full-frame mirrorless camera. Its 399-point on-sensor PDAF system is particularly capable with Sony’s generally fast-to-focus E-mount lenses, but also allowed for very good – albeit limited – autofocus with many adapted Canon EF lenses, as well as lenses from Sony’s own A-mount line. It even offered more frame coverage than any DSLR at the time.
The a9 takes things to a whole new level, offering 693 phase-detection points with a whopping 93% frame coverage (represented above), even making the a7R II’s previously impressive coverage look small. Sony claims 10 fps burst shooting with AF when using adapted lenses, up from the lowly 3 fps of the a7R II with Metabones or LA-EA3 adapters. Sony claims that autofocus acquisition has been improved by 25%, and eye and face-detection rates have improved by 30% compared to the a7R II. It can also focus in one stop dimmer light (-3EV with a F2.0 lens).
We’ve yet to formally test the a9, but impressions from our initial shooting are extremely favorable. While it’s too early to say whether Canon and Nikon sports photographers will be tempted to make the switch, it certainly looks like the a9 can hold its own when it comes to capturing fast action.
Perhaps most impressive: the camera makes AF calculations at 60 fps, or 3 calculations per 20 fps frame. Sony claims this is better-than-DSLR performance, allowing their AF system to need less prediction, instead just measuring and getting it right at the critical moment.
Furthermore, there’s now even more extensive button customization, with new a ‘Recall Custom Hold’ function that allows you to temporarily override a number of camera settings. What does this have to do with AF? You can assign a number of custom buttons to override the current AF mode (AF-S/C) and/or AF area (Wide, Flexible Spot, Lock-on, etc.), allowing you to instantly switch AF modes at the press of a button, allowing one to instantly adapt to changing scenarios (something we loved about the Nikon D5)
If autofocus performance and ergonomics is a priority, the a9 is the clear winner.
In terms of body design and handling, the a9 is a significant improvement over the a7R II. Cosmetically, the a9’s a bit heftier, but barely any larger. An additional grip extender will allow you to wrap all four fingers around the grip. The most important changes are in how the controls work and feel.
For starters, the buttons and dials on the a9 just feel nicer. Less mushy, more ‘clicky’. That’s important to pros that need to ‘feel’ the number of clicks they turned the dial, not constantly pay attention to the (often animated) OSD feedback that could cost them the shot. And there are just more of them, offering far more direct control over things like AF, AEL and drive modes than the a7R II. This, coupled with the reduced lagginess all-round makes the a9 a different beast – you can take a burst and immediately enter playback to check focus at 100% (the a7R II would just give you an error message if you tried to enter playback too quickly). The addition of an AF joystick will be appreciated by all – not just the sports and action shooters who absolutely require it.
Particularly important – the a9 inherits the same instant overrides top-end DSLRs provide: with ‘Registered Custom Hold’ assigned to various custom buttons, you can press just one button to instantly override camera settings like shoot mode (P/A/S/M), exposure parameters, metering modes, or AF modes and functionality. This could save your shot by, for example, instantly activating the correct AF mode. Furthermore, Memory modes now remember far more options, though we’re still waiting for true ‘Custom modes’ that remember all camera settings, including button customizations.
The a9’s menu system is finally vastly improved compared to the a7R II. Not only is it now organized, there’s also now (a long overdue) ‘My Menu’ where your most frequently used options can live. Why is this important? Well the a7R II had 22 AF options split across 11 different submenu pages under 2 different main menu headers – so finding that one setting buried amongst so many unrelated ones was cumbersome. With the a9, you’ll know exactly where any setting is – because you put it there yourself.
The a7R II’s viewfinder is really nice, but the a9’s is better. It offers greater resolution (3.7 million dots as opposed to 2.4M) and a higher framerate of 120 fps. This drops to 60 fps during continuous shooting, but a 60 fps refresh rate with no blackout during 20fps shooting is nothing to sneeze at, giving DSLRs a run for their money. If you want a high-resolution preview in your EVF though, if you’re a landscape shooter for example, then switch off the 120 fps Finder rate for a higher quality preview.
The a9’s rear LCD may sound like it only offers only a modest increase in resolution compared to the a7R II (1.44M dots compared to 1.23M) but there’s been a move from a 640 x 480 pixels to 800 x 600, which should be appreciable. The difference is that the previous panel had red, green, blue and white dots at each position, whereas the new screen uses three dots per pixel (red, green and blue, with some green positions replaced by white).
Furthermore, the addition of touch-sensitivity is a welcome (and again, overdue) upgrade compared to the older camera. However, it’s turned off by default, doesn’t function in the menus, is quite laggy, and has limited functionality in playback. Tap-to-track in video remains unnecessarily complicated. In fact, it’s likely the same touchscreen technology found in the a6500, which we only really found useful for rack focus in video.
So there isn’t necessarily a clear winner here. Neither cameras have a gorgeous ‘retina’-esque LCD like the 2.4M-dot one on the Nikon D5.
PC sync socket
Well now, this is interesting… the action-oriented a9 has an ethernet socket, which makes sense for pro sports photographers, but it also has a PC sync socket, while Sony’s high-resolution flagship studio camera, the a7R II doesn’t?
We’d be pretty confident that few, if any a9 buyers will ever use their camera’s PC sync socket. Many won’t use the Ethernet port either, but at least it’s an indication of the intended user-base. To us, the addition of a PC sync socket is a pretty good indication that a higher-resolution sister model is on its way. The a9 represents the third ergonomic iteration of the full-frame Alpha series, so it makes sense that physically, any future a9-series models will share the same basic chassis. Is there a higher resolution a9R in the works? If Sony’s past release schedules are any guide, we’d say it’s a near-certainty.
As well as being highly capable stills cameras, the a9 and a7R II both offer advanced 4K video specifications. In terms of sheer output quality, the a9 is likely to offer the best-looking footage, thanks to 2.4X oversampling from 6K with no pixel-binning, no line-skipping, and no crop factor in 24p (there’s a 1.24x crop factor in 30p). The incredibly fast readout speed of the new sensor means less rolling shutter than previous Alpha cameras – but it’s still noticeable, far more so than in stills shooting.
Autofocus in video is also improved, with impressive responsiveness (even in 120 fps slow-mo) and little hunting. The a7R II was prone to jump off to the background quite readily when shooting video. Unfortunately, there’s still no sensible or reliable ‘tap-to-track’ implementation: you can enable it (via ‘Center Lock-on AF’), but it’s cumbersome to and uses an old, unreliable subject tracking algorithm.
Both cameras offer headphone and microphone ports, plus HDMI and USB (the a9 is pictured above), although it’s a shame that even the a9 is still limited to an old-style micro USB 2 port. Despite the incredible speed of the camera, we’ll have to wait for a super-high-speed USB 3.0 interface.
Oddly though, the a9 lacks S-Log, and does not feature any of the Picture Profiles found on previous a7-series cameras (an example of what ungraded S-Log footage looks like is shown above). This limits its usefulness as part of a professional video rig, because it reduces the potential for those post-processing their footage to capture high dynamic range scenes. Sony says this is because the a9 is offered primarily at stills photographers, but then why add 2.4X oversampled 4K video at all? In fact, Sony engineers told us the a9 has the ‘Highest 4K movie image quality of any full-frame ILC’, so the lack of log gamma is somewhat ironic.
Whatever the explanation, we’re hoping that S-Log will be added via firmware. Unless, of course, its exclusion leaves room for an a9S or some other, more video-centric model?
Our verdict: If you can live without S-Log, the a9 will capture better full-frame 4K video. Oh, and there’s something else it has to offer, too…
The a9 offers twin card slots, one of which supports UHS-II media. This is an obvious improvement over the a7R II’s single slot, and one that might prove to be a big deal depending on the kind of photography you do. Having two slots is always useful for redundancy if nothing else, and for mixed stills and video shooters, it’s handy to be able to record movies to one card, and stills to the other. Or Raw to one, and JPEG to another.
We wish the a9 offered two UHS-II slots, so you’re not limited by the write speeds of the second card slot when mirroring images (make sure if you’re shooting Raw+JPEG to write Raw to the UHS-II slot and JPEG to the UHS-I slot). We also would’ve loved support for the much faster XQD card format, but we suspect that if it comes at all, XQD will arrive in the next generation of Alpha bodies. For now, two slots of any kind are definitely better than one.
Oh happy day – we had almost given up hope. One of our perennial complaints about the a7-series was battery life. The weedy little FW50 inside the a7R II provides enough endurance for a couple of hundred stills, but for video work its low capacity of 7.7Wh meant frequent battery swapping during a typical day of filming.
The a9 is introduced with a new NP-FZ100 battery, providing more than twice the capacity (16.4Wh). The boosted battery capacity, and a claimed 40% general reduction in power consumption compared to the a7R II should mean that the new camera will last a lot longer on a single charge. In fact, the better characteristics of the battery were apparently required to power the new sensor.
The introduction of a vertical grip with the same ergonomics (AF joystick, etc.) of the a9 is incredibly welcome and will double your battery life to boot. Meanwhile, a separate external 4-battery power pack, aimed at videographers and compatible with the a9 and all previous a7-series bodies is good to see, too.
For some immediate perspective: at a recent press event over the course of an entire day we shot over 4000 Raw+JPEG image pairs, and a whole bunch of 120 fps slow-mo and 4K video, all while studying the camera’s menu system extensively and… guess what? We were still only on our second battery which was at 69%. With a grip – you’ll likely go through a full-day’s worth of intense shooting and never need to replace a single battery.
The a9 is faster in all respects than the a7R II. Judging by our initial impressions, it should be a very capable tool for sports and action photography, certainly compared to its predecessor. Whether it can compete against the likes of Canon’s EOS-1D X Mark II and the Nikon D5 is another matter of course, and we’ll be testing that soon enough.
From a more general user experience point of view the a9 is improved, too. Finally, a full-frame Sony camera with a menu system that doesn’t make us want to scream, and an AF point-selection joystick along with instant camera function overrides via custom buttons! Wonders will never cease…
Is there anything the a7R II can do that the a9 can’t? Not much, but the differences are important.
Having almost 20 million more pixels means the a7R II can produce bigger prints, which might be a big deal for landscape and studio photographers. The a7R II’s autofocus system isn’t as good as the a9’s, but it’s still very good, and 5 fps is enough for most everyday shooting. For general photography (and more specialized high-resolution work) the a7R II will do the job admirably, for a lot less money than the a9. For now at least, the option of shooting in S-Log might makes the a7R II a more attractive camera for video professionals shooting in high contrast scenes in crop mode (the a7R II’s full-frame 4K footage suffers from line skipping, lowering resolution and noise performance), despite the better resolution and noise performance offered by the a9’s oversampled footage. Its lower capacity battery life is still a limitation, but the release of the NPA-MQZ1K Multi-Battery Adaptor Kit will definitely help.
Ultimately, for Sony shooters that really need quick adaptability, autofocus and speed, the a9 is clearly a better camera than the a7R II. The option of 20 fps continuous shooting with a 60 fps live view feed should prove addictive for anyone shooting fast action. The a9’s customization options allow it to finally rival the likes of a 1DX II or D5 in terms of quickly accessing camera features, something the a7R II pales at. The faster processor and front-end LSI mean no more error messages when you’re trying to view – or verify focus on- your last shot image. The a9 also looks like a better camera for 4K video too, thanks to 2.4X oversampling from 6K and full sensor readout, and a new – larger – battery.