Sony A9 - First Impressions from a Leica Perspective - Part I
Timing is often uncooperative. Normally, I am away from Hong Kong when new gear arrives. But on this occasion of receiving the new Sony A9, I wasn't. For once, I was in town! Unfortunately, timing wasn't going to let me off that easily. Of all the many weeks and weeks of no new arrivals, Anna had to pick this one to visit her folks. Such is the duty of a good daughter - I suppose - but what about me? What about her duty to this blog?
Never one to be pegged as unreasonable, Anna suggested a substitute. She was too busy basking in the unseasonably warm sun of the northern steppes to rush back right away. Besides, she was having too much fun. It was then she recommended her friend Yana to fill in during the interim of her noticeably prolonged absence. So it was thus, on a hot sunny day, I tested the Sony A9 with a little help from an unfamiliar new face.
Admittedly, I was anxious to get my hands on the A9. Based on its specifications, it was the mirrorless camera I've wanted all along. The A9 was going to be amazing. It was going resolve most of the issues I had with the A7 and its variants. And in doing so, it was going to be the mirrorless camera that the Leica SL should have always been.
It's no secret that I had some issues with the Sony A7II and its variants. I never bonded with it, because the A7 always felt awkward in hand, from an ergonomic perspective. By contrast, the Leica SL was the opposite. Both the ergonomics and EVF experience were vastly superior. But that didn't make the SL the mirrorless camera that it should've been. As good as it felt in hand, and as good as the EVF experience was, the SL was just too big to be portable, and its native AF lens system was just too heavy to carry around.
Given the issue of size and weight, adapting M-mount lenses was the only thing that made sense with the Leica SL. At least it was for a while. But then Leica came out with the M10, and eliminated the SL's EVF advantage, the minute they made the M10 compatible with the Visoflex 020. With improved live view functionality seen through the Visoflex 020, one could benefit from a similar EVF experience on the M10 without the girth of the SL. Essentially, that made the encumbrance of the SL completely a thing of the past - unless you needed faster frame rate, and a complementary AF system that adapted M-mount lenses.
This is where the Sony A9 comes into the discussion. And this is why I had been so eager to test it. This is why I couldn't wait for Anna to return. And this is why I'm happy that Yana is helping us out.
For this test, I decided to test the Sony A9 as a Sony product. For once, I didn't adapt Leica lenses on a Sony camera body, like I normally do. Instead, I went out and got the Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA. This way, both the rendering and the autofocus would be optimized for the A9. In addition, I also brought out a three stop neutral density filter. This allowed me to shoot wide open, in order to better evaluate the autofocus, under the bright noonday sun.
I also set the A9 on AF-S in order to enable focus magnification, in addition to wide focus area with unregistered face detection. The exposure was set either on Manual + AUTO ISO or Aperture Priority + ISO 50 to 100. As for white balance and metering mode, I'm pretty sure I left it on default, which is probably auto and center weight respectively.
If you're wondering why I set the A9 in this semi-automatic way, it owes greatly to the unpredictability of shooting in the crowded streets of Hong Kong at the 50mm focal length. Even with a willing subject like Yana, the constant threat of being photobombed made it necessary to include some automation in configuration. And with Yana constantly shifting her pose (which is needed for a more natural look), I didn't have the luxury of time to feather focus manually or determine the exact exposure, if I wanted to capture the decisive moment. I was shooting wide open, after all.
Having set the A9 in this way, what I noticed immediately was how easy the autofocus acquired focus. The face detection always seemed to lock onto Yana's face, even when she's wearing a pair of sunglasses. The only time the AF would miss focus was when Yana's face was turned away or when she stood too far from the camera. Unfortunately, this became a problem when I tried to capture Yana from head to toe, given her height. At six feet (182cm) plus low heels, she was much too tall to fit in-frame for me to stand close enough to get the AF face detection to work.
The autofocus experience on the A9 is definitely a far cry from of the lumbering experience on the Leica SL with the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-SL. Where the SL required deliberateness in effort, the A9 was effortless. In my opinion the autofocus experience was even better than Canon 1Dx Mark II or the Canon 5D Mark IV. And with focus magnification in AF-S mode, the A9 offered increased certainty of focus - without resorting to the left-hand-acrobatics required on the Leica SL.
As for the accuracy of the metering, the A9 appears to perform reasonably well within a stop of exposure. Even when I accidentally knocked the exposure compensation dial by three stops over, the automation in exposure didn't appear adversely affected. I expected to find a string of noticeably overexposed images. However, that wasn't the case. I cannot explain what happened.
In this review, I did not attempt to conduct a low-light high ISO test, given that my objective was to use the A9 under normal circumstances. Having said that, during the halfway point of the shoot, Yana and I had succumb to the blistering afternoon sun. Needing to find shelter, we ducked into an underground shopping arcade, where the air conditioning quickly provided us with immediate relief.
With reduced available light, I was able to crank up the ISO a little - up to 5000. At full crop, the grain did not appear to have impacted the sharpness significantly in the image capture. But under magnification, I am of the opinion that increased grain showed evidence of some reduction in details. Though to be fair, for more conclusive evidence, I would need to really crank up the ISO.
The dynamic range of the image files appeared to be rather flexible, with most highlights and shadows recoverable up to 3 stops if not blown or crushed respectively. Although a curious anomaly did occur in the color balance on some image captures. For some reason, a handful of photos under the right circumstances resulted in an overly orange-magenta skin tone which I couldn't fix in post. At first I thought that I had done something in error. However, I've heard some chatter that this may be a technical issue involving the firmware. In any event, I desaturated those images to black and white.
This is really just a quick review to offer my first impressions. Anna will be back next week, so I'm hoping to do a more comprehensive review. Overall, I do like the Sony A9 much more than I thought - which is high praise, because I already liked it even before I tested it. It checks off all the boxes that both the A7 and the SL didn't satisfy. It's portable, feels good in hand, and is a joy to use. It really puts the Leica SL to shame, and a huge improvement from the Sony A7II and its variants.
Still, the A9 is still inferior in one area. As much as I'm beginning to favor the A9, the SL still renders better. With native SL-mounted lenses, images shot from the Leica SL still looks better than the A9 with Sony FE mounted lenses. With regards to M-mount lenses... well, we will have to wait and see next week.
Even so, I don't think I'll be lugging around the Leica SL anymore. Especially now with the Leica M10 as my everyday camera, it would make more sense for me to pick an M-mount adaptable system with a camera of similar size, increased frame rate, and quick autofocus. Sounds a lot like the A9 to me. So, I guess that means the Leica SL stays in the studio - if I had a studio!
All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Some images have been cropped, since corner and edge sharpness is immaterial to this review.
Special thanks to Yana for filling in.