Cameras

Sony a9 II In-Depth Review

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The Alpha 9 II is Sony’s latest high-end sports camera and is capable of silently shooting 24MP images at up to 20 frames per second with no blackout between frames. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the a9 II’s predecessor was similarly capable, but this new version brings some refinements and enhancements to make for a formidable, yet compact, option for professional sports and action photographers.

One of the most significant of updates is a new mechanical shutter mechanism that allows for 10 fps bursts: this is significant because if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t use the electronic shutter for risk of banding or other artefacts, the older model could only muster 5 fps which is a bit uninspiring on a camera meant to specialize in sports and actions. Suddenly, this is a camera that will give you a solid burst rate in just about any setting, rather than being best suited for brightly lit outdoor venues.

Design & features

There’s a total of 43 features that are different in the Sony Alpha A9 II as compared to its predecessor, with only a few subtle physical differences that make the newer model an absolute pleasure to use.
One of those design changes is the larger and deeper grip that, even for those with small hands, makes the camera quite comfortable to hold and use for hours on end. The AF-ON button is now larger and more prominent, while the multi-selector joystick is now textured and thus more tactile, making it easier to find and use without taking your eye off the viewfinder.

While the drive dial remains unchanged from the A9, the exposure compensation dial on the top right corner of the camera now sports a locking button to prevent accidental changes. There’s also a redesigned lens lock button on the A9 II, along with better padding for shock absorption around the zoom lens mount. The digital camera also has better weather-sealing than the older design, with double-sealed sliders for ports, the card slots, and battery compartment rather than just hinged seals.

However, the biggest advantage the A9 II has over its predecessor is the ability to shoot continuously twice as fast – using the mechanical shutter, the Mark II can capture up to 10 frames per second, making it a better shooter to utilize under certain artificial lights. In fact, for sports photographers shooting in indoor stadiums, there’s a new anti-flicker mode that detects fluorescent lighting and adjusts publicity accordingly. It’s worth noting that the anti-flicker mode is not available while filming videos or when using the electronic shutter.

Design changes aside, it’s the improvements to the camera’s connectivity that really helps make this shooter one of the best options for pros. The most important among them may be the upgraded 1000BASE-T Ethernet port that is ten times faster compared to the 100MB/s terminal on the original A9 (we were able to transfer a batch of 300 JPEGs with a file size of about 11MB each in just under a minute and a half). Even the USB-C port is now the faster 3.2 Gen 1 standard, as the Wi-Fi supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz as opposed to just the 2.4GHz in the initial A9. These enhancements in connectivity will allow photographers to move files directly to FTP servers quickly. Up to 10 different FTP settings can be saved to an SD card and reloaded onto the A9 II, while Sony’s Imaging Edge mobile app can save up to 20.

Another really cool feature that many photojournalists will be glad to use is the voice memo. Vocal instructions of up to 60 seconds in length can be recorded for individual images or a series of shots – a huge help for teams waiting back in the office to use the images wherever necessary. The memos can also be converted into text that gets added to the JPEG file’s metadata, although this needs to be done on the Imaging Edge app.

A new low-vibration shutter design has improved image stabilization in the A9 II by half a stop, now rated at 5.5 stops. However, in real-world testing, we were hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two iterations, with the A9’s IBIS still rather impressive.

Another tiny tweak that can go a long way is the slight improvement in battery life – where the A9 was rated for 650 shots when using the LCD display and 480 while using the viewfinder, the second generation shooter can manage to spit out up to 690 and 500 respectively.

Autofocus

Sony have improved AF-algorithm. We were unable to test the camera in sports arenas as people weren’t comfortable with us publishing photographs of them on a public platform, so we tried the next best thing – wildlife. This kind of photography requires a fast and precise autofocus system, especially when taking photos of birds, and the A9 II did not disappoint.

The AF on the original A9 was practically perfect – fast and reliable in equal measure. At the time we thought it wasn’t possible to make it any better but, boy, were we wrong. All it took was a tiny tweak to the AF algorithm – made possible by the new Bionz X processor – to give the brand new camera’s autofocus performance a boost by improving subject tracking, even when using smaller apertures with Focus Priority switched on.

Tracking is precise and can keep up with erratically moving subjects as well (like birds flying and changing directions suddenly). The camera’s AF system does occasionally have trouble when the head of the subject disappears briefly and then reappears – we found that the AF program wasn’t able to lock back onto the subject’s mind, but was more than capable of tracking the body.

Even when an obstacle gets in between the subject and the camera, the Sony A9 II is intelligent enough to know it needs to stay locked onto the main subject. In our case, this was demonstrated when we were photographing a tower of giraffes at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. While we were focused on one animal, another ambled past between us and the giraffe we had been shooting, and the A9 II didn’t even blink, staying locked on to our main subject.

The biggest improvement to the AF system, though, is the addition of real-time eye-detect autofocus when recording 4K video, something that’s missing in the older A9 model.

A few other tiny tweaks have been made to the AF system as well, including adding the ability to move the focus frame even when the shutter or the AF-ON button is half-pressed. You can also change the colour of the focus frame to whatever catches your fancy. If you prefer using the rear LCD for touch-tracking, you can do so even though using the viewfinder to shoot.

Quality of Image

Like its predecessor, the A9 II delivers some superb results. The 24.2MP sensor delivers images that are sharp, with great colours and plenty of details. However, RAW files have more chroma (colour) noise as compared to JPEGs due to the camera’s high rate of calculations, but nothing that can’t be fixed during post-processing.

ISO performance is excellent with virtually no noise at the lower values and very acceptable levels when you climb up to 12,800 and 25,600, as seen in the below image of a bird in the water. The above shot was taken at ISO 12,800 and then cropped down by 20%. The uncropped image barely showed signs of luminance, with some grain visible only after cropping to zoom in closer to the subject. While sound becomes evident at 51,200 and higher, you should still be fine taking it around 102,400 although we’d advise going that high only if you absolutely have to and if you’re shooting JPEGs. The A9 II does have a decent dynamic range, although it’s still not quite a match for Sony’s megapixel monsters, but that’s only because the A7R series was designed for landscape photography. The A9 II holds its own when compared to the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II and the Nikon D5 (the latter is marvellous in low light), and a lot of details can be extracted from shadows when working on your shots later, even when just using a slider in the most basic photo editing apps.

Specifications

  • 24MP full-frame stacked sensor with 93% autofocus coverage across the frame
  • 20 fps continuous shooting with full AF (electronic shutter)
  • New mechanical shutter rated to 500k shots, allows for 10 fps shooting with full AF
  • 5.5-stop (CIPA rated) 5-axis image stabilization
  • Dual UHS-II SD card slots
  • 3.69M-dot OLED viewfinder (1280 x 960 pixels) with up to 120 fps update
  • 1.44M-dot rear touchscreen LCD
  • Oversampled full width UHD 4K/24p video (1.24x crop for 30p); no Log option
  • Gigabit ethernet, 5GHz Wi-Fi, 10 banks of FTP / camera settings
  • Support for voice memos
  • Battery CIPA rated to 690 shots
  • 678g (24oz)

Verdict

The A9 II was designed specifically with the photojournalist in mind. For the average user, this camera will likely be overkill, with most of the new features going unused and under-appreciated. For the target audience though, this is one heck of an upgrade over the original A9. It feels a lot more refined and a far more efficient tool for photographers in the field. Our only complaint would be the absence of XQD or CFexpress card slots that would see files saved to cards much quicker, and the limited touchscreen functionality – both of which remain the same as in the A9. Other than adding real-time eye-AF to 4K video recording, no other improvements have been made for shooting movies. There’s still no S-Log support and the camera can only record 8-bit 4:2:0 video internally. The only way to output 8-bit 4:2:2 video is external via the micro HDMI port.

Check Out: Best Lenses for Sony a9 II

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