Many things can happen in two years. Take the Star Wars franchise, for instance. Back in 2015, The Force Awakens birthed hope for a brand new epic trilogy. Unfortunately, that same hope was shattered by The Last Jedi in 2017. In the case of mirrorless cameras, the Sony A9II represents a new iteration of the vaunted A9 from 2017. Was the two-year-wait worth it, especially with the firmware updates so far?

A Mirrorless Upstart

The A9II is a full-frame mirrorless camera that caters to professional users. With features such as continuous shooting at up to 20 frames per second (fps), blackout-free shooting and electronic shutter speeds of up to 1/32000th of a second, the A9II excels in sports and news photography. Superior connectivity also makes it a reliable asset on the field. The A9II supports background FTP transfers for JPEG and RAW file delivery. Supporting this is the option of having up to nine FTP servers assigned in advance. Photographers can also add voice memos to their images. These memos can then be duly converted into text and appended accordingly using an app.

In effect, the A9II is Sony’s 2020 Olympic camera. While the likes of Canon and Nikon have traditionally dominated this arena, Sony’s latest offering is proof that the company is more than ready to step up. And the proof is in the pudding. The A9II’s improvements over its predecessor are a clear indication of how it has evolved to tackle the demands of fast action photography. 

Profile shot of the Sony A9II
Photo: Sony

Meeting Professional Demands

Increase in data transfer speed and 5GHz wireless connectivity aside, the ability to wirelessly send files while the camera is on standby and refinements in the Bionz X processor push the Sony A9II’s performance even further. Autofocus speed and precision have improved, as have the responsiveness of the electronic viewfinder and face detection capability. Image stabilisation is also half a stop better than the older A9 (5EV to 5.5EV). This is attributed to the ultra-low vibration (courtesy of a fast-response core-less motor), a new chassis dampener and IBIS algorithm refinements.

The A9II also boasts a slightly more ergonomic body, allowing single-handed operation, even when gloved during the winter months. Also of noteworthy mention is the improved weather-sealing, as seen with the Alpha 7R IV. Changes include a bigger lens mount seal, redesigned lens lock button and double-sliding battery and flash card compartments. While Sony doesn’t go into detail about the environmental conditions that the A9II can withstand, the A7R IV has excelled even in environments such as Alaska.

End-user support

Agency photographers may also favour the Sony A9II’s capacity for customisation, as it stores and loads up to 20 camera settings via memory card. Such flexibility is perfect for transferring settings across multiple bodies. This feature benefits professionals the most. Or rather, people who would have cause for owning several camera bodies. However, it puzzles how the A9II continues to lack CFexpress memory card support. While the SD card format may be more ubiquitous, it sacrifices much in the way of speed and storage.

How does the A9II benefit hobbyists, though? At S$6,299 for the body alone, it’s clear that casual users are not the primary target demographic. Camera fanatics, on the other hand, will no doubt drool over its spec sheet. There is no denying that the Alpha 9 II is an impressive piece of hardware. However, is it too much for the average Joe on the street?

Rear view of the Sony A9II
Photo: Sony

For Work And Play

A 24.2-megapixel, 35-millimetre Exmor RS CMOS sensor and 20fps continuous shooting output are plenty for everyday situations, but it doesn’t rewrite the zeitgeist. Neither does the two-fold increase in mechanical shooting speed, since it continues to lag behind Canon’s EOS-1D X Mark III’s 16fps rating. What does stand out is the new mechanical shutter, which has a stress rating of over 500,000 cycles. Considering that most mechanical shutters rate between 200,000 and 400,000 actuations, the A9II’s durability is well-positioned towards the top of the echelon.

The advantages of a mechanical shutter are enjoyed even in casual situations. Reduced rolling shutter distortion can translate into a clearer picture of your dog catching a frisbee mid-air. Similarly, faster flash synchronisation speeds mean that you won’t have to shirk from taking pictures with flash under the blaring midday sun. Continuous shooting with the A9II is now also supported by anti-flicker with auto-focus/auto-exposure (AF/AE) tracking reaching up to 60 calculations per second.

While the A9II serves well as an everyday-shooter (albeit an overqualified one), it is not for Sony neophytes. The menu architecture isn’t the most intuitive one around. For users transitioning between brands, navigation may prove puzzling, if only initially. However, there is plenty of room to make it one’s own. New users will be happy to learn that the Alpha 9 II supports up to five custom menu settings. Photographers will also be able to define specific menu layouts for different situations.

Point And Shoot

Fans of mirrorless cameras will appreciate Sony’s “4D Focus” hybrid AF, which addresses the biggest drawback with mirrorless setups. As opposed to conventional sensor-based AF, hybrid AF blends phase-detection and contrast-detection modules into the mix. While most hybrid AFs rely on height, width and depth for their calculations, 4D Focus takes an additional dimension into account – time. The 4D Focus algorithm allows the AF system to track speed and predict movement, achieving steadfast tracking. Due to this technology, extremely rapid and “sticky” AF becomes possible, even with wide-angle shots.

The Sony A9II handles low-light conditions remarkably well, possessing a native ISO range of 100 to 51,200, and an extended ISO range of 50 to 204,800. When it comes to the extreme ends of the ISO spectrum, however, understanding the difference between native and extended ISO becomes crucial. While switching ISO values will change your sensor’s sensitivity to light, moving into the extended range brings the camera’s processor into the equation. Extended ISO utilises the camera’s processor to amplify or reduce the exposure to the nearest ISO approximation. 

At the maximum native ISO value of 51,200, image noise remains remarkably low. Unsurprisingly, this deteriorates as one moves into the upper ranges of the extended ISO. That is not to say that shots taken at maximum ISO settings are unusable. There are simply more efficient ways of compensating for poor or low lighting.

A new contender

While the upgrades appear minor by themselves, the features found with the Sony A9II are testament to how seemingly small incremental changes can add up to pretty huge differences. The improvements in file transfer, wireless connectivity, weather-sealing and the new voice-tagging show that Sony has its finger on the pulse of things when it comes to what professional photographers need. In turn, this has led to the realisation of the A9 series’ potential as a professional action camera. The postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics may have rained on the A9II’s parade, postponing its opportunity to shine. However, there’s no disputing what Sony has managed to achieve: a hard-hitting contender that has a decent chance of shifting the status quo within the market for professional cameras, especially those aimed at sports coverage.

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