"Earth-bound Eagle" ISO 125, 85mm, f5.6 @ 1/1000 s

The SONY A9 A Camera For All Seasons

September 11, 2017 ·

Harvey Stearn
“Interaction” ISO 2000, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Interaction” ISO 2000, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s

Most people who have seen my photography for the first time inevitably ask, “What camera do you use?” My almost automatic response is that I use different cameras for different purposes. For landscapes, I have been using slower handling high-resolution cameras like the Pentax 645Z and the Sony A7r 2 models, and most recently, the Sigma SD-H camera. These cameras rank high in color accuracy and in overall image quality. I explain that for landscapes high resolution for large prints and ability to faithfully capture the scene are my overriding considerations. For wildlife images, the speed of handling and compactness are critical for me. The Sony A6000 and A6500 satisfied these criteria quite well.

I rarely indicate what cameras I use for other photographic subjects because that amounts to less than 20 percent of my photography, and gets considerably less public exposure. But, because I love all forms of photography, and have enjoyed success with my travel images, portraits, fashion shots and human interest images over the years, my choice of cameras for those areas of work is just as carefully considered. Compact Sony mirrorless cameras now serve these areas well for me. So, the Sony A6500 and the Sony A7rM2 have been the cameras that I carried around in the last year or two. Five months ago, I read the specs for the Sony A9 mirrorless camera, and like everyone else, salivated over it. I sold my A6500 and pre-ordered the A9. It arrived in late May, the day that I returned from a month of shooting in Washington and Oregon. Last week, I was reviewing my image library on Adobe Lightroom and noticed that all the images that I made in the past three months were taken with the A9, including landscapes and wildlife shots. That’s a first for me these past ten years.

It’s becoming apparent that the extremely high-speed imaging capability and overall high spec level of the A9 make it a natural multi-purpose camera that will produce excellent results for many diverse subjects. Sony’s primary intent in producing this camera was to penetrate the pro market for action photography including sports and wildlife. Their success is already well documented. But, there are other photographic fields that benefit greatly from this camera’s incredible speed and high image quality that have not yet received much ink. I think that photography lovers will find the following thoughts and images to be of interest.

Photographing Children

Young children are in continual motion even when they’re standing still. Their attention shifts rapidly, and their expressions change constantly. Inevitably, this causes great frustration for the photographer (usually a parent) trying to capture meaningful images. Moving the camera around to follow a child typically causes motion blur and out-of-focus, awkwardly composed images. Adding to the frustration is the typical finder-image blackout between exposures, during which time the child has moved completely out of the frame. Though many cameras will shoot between five to ten images a second finder blackout will often cause the photographer to lose contact with a subject that moves quickly and erratically. And, even at those frame rates, peak action often occurs between exposures. Not so with the Sony A9! At exposures as fast as 1/32,000 sec and frame rates up to 20 fps with no finder blackout to the human eye, a successful optimal image is almost guaranteed.

To test this, I decided to take my A9 with the new Sony 85 mm f1.8 G-Master telephoto lens to my great-grandson’s first birthday party. We were sitting on the covered patio of a festive Mexican restaurant with open sky to my back but no direct lighting on my great-grandson and his three-year old sister. I started shooting two hours before sunset at apertures of f2.0 and f2.8 to give reasonable subject depth of field but good bokeh in the background. I shot at 20 fps most of the time on electronic shutter setting which uses little battery capacity. Since the shutter was totally silent, my subjects hardly noticed me once they got used to seeing the camera.

The image shown at the beginning of this article is a nicely composed shot of my great-grandson interacting with his dad. There is no posing and no camera consciousness. Just an adorable one-year old reacting naturally and having a great time. Then I waited until my three-year old great-granddaughter was absorbed in what she was doing and took the next two images. (These are the two best of about fifty images that I ran off in a few seconds.)

"Pensive Moment”  ISO 400, 85mm, f2.0 @ 1/250 s
“Pensive Moment”  ISO 400, 85mm, f2.0 @ 1/250 s
“Exuberance” ISO 1000, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Exuberance” ISO 1000, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s

From the above data, the reader might guess that I set shutter speeds and lens openings manually and allowed the camera to set the ISO as variable lighting required. My wife brought a children’s book with a finger puppet of a mouse to give to our great grandson. This provoked several cute reactions.

“Surprise” ISO 400, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Surprise” ISO 400, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Fascination” ISO 500, 85mm, f2.0 @ 1/250 s
“Fascination” ISO 500, 85mm, f2.0 @ 1/250 s

Informal Portraiture

After shooting candids for most of the party, I decided to make some informal portraits. Their appeal made me realize that the Sony A9 is exceptionally well suited for this purpose, particularly in combination with the Sony 85mm f1.8 lens. It is worth stating that this lens is ideal for informal portraits. It is notably sharper than almost any other pro 85mm f1.4 lens including the Sony 85mm f1.4 GM lens. The bokeh is almost as outstanding, and the usability of this lens is better because of its compact design and light weight. It doesn’t have the pro-level construction or weather sealing of the GM lens. But, at one-third the price, it’s the bargain of the decade. In my opinion, the following three images are as good technically as studio portraits. They have the additional advantages of more natural lighting and a lack of self-consciousness on the part of the subjects. Best of all, the images were shot in a time-frame of several minutes during the same birthday party. Try accomplishing that in a studio!

"Great Grandson, Age 1" ISO 800, 85mm f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Great Grandson, Age 1” ISO 800, 85mm f2.8 @ 1/250 s
"Great Granddaughter, Age 3" ISO 800, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Great Granddaughter, Age 3” ISO 800, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
"Portrait of Grandson" ISO 640, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Portrait of Grandson” ISO 640, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s

The next two images were taken at another grandson’s high school graduation party. They are basically family album shots. But, considering the difficult artificial lighting, the Sony A9 performed incredibly well.

"Three Generations" ISO 6400, 35mm, f5.6 @ 1/250 s
“Three Generations” ISO 6400, 35mm, f5.6 @ 1/250 s
"Playing Host" ISO 5000, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Playing Host” ISO 5000, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s

Architecture

With the appropriate lens, the A9 can produce excellent exterior and interior images of buildings and grounds. My preference for this camera is the new Sony 12-24mm f4.0 zoom lens, which constitutes a very compact and light package that can handle almost any architectural shot quickly and easily. Because of the A9’s built-in 5-axis image stabilization, a tripod isn’t even necessary in most cases. Interior shots also benefit from low noise at higher ISO’s. The following three images illustrate this clearly. The first one is a 3-image digitally stitched panorama.

"The Campanile, Berkeley, CA"  ISO 100, 85mm, f8.0 @ 1/1000 s
“The Campanile, Berkeley, CA”  ISO 100, 85mm, f8.0 @ 1/1000 s
"House Exterior & Grounds" ISO 200, 16mm, f9.0 @ 1/400 s
“House Exterior & Grounds” ISO 200, 16mm, f9.0 @ 1/400 s
"Home Interior" ISO 400, 12mm, f5.6 @1/10 s
“Home Interior” ISO 400, 12mm, f5.6 @1/10 s

Low-Light and Nighttime Images

It’s hard to beat the Sony A7r 2 camera for taking high quality, low-light high-ISO images. Surprisingly, the Sony A9’s low noise and high color accuracy up to ISO 6400 comes close to the A7r 2 performance. If my primary goal is to maximize image quality under low light conditions, then I will use the A7r 2 for that series of images. However, if I want the flexibility of carrying an outstanding all-purpose camera that can produce solid photographs at sunset, or even at night when the occasion comes up, the A9 fills the bill nicely. The next three images are certainly acceptable. They consist of an early sunset, a late sunset, and an image taken at nightfall in that order.

"Laguna Beach Sunset" ISO 100, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Laguna Beach Sunset” ISO 100, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
"Sedona Sunset" ISO 1600, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
“Sedona Sunset” ISO 1600, 85mm, f2.8 @ 1/250 s
"Crescent Moon" ISO 6400, 85mm, f4.0 @ 1/60 s
“Crescent Moon” ISO 6400, 85mm, f4.0 @ 1/60 s

I am particularly happy with this last image. My reason for taking it was the beautiful black to blue tonal transition in the sky at the exact time that dusk was turning to night. I think that the A9 did it justice.

Landscape Images

Landscape photographers are generally very particular about their choice of cameras, and I’m no exception. Color accuracy, wide dynamic range and image quality, in general, frequently call for producing large prints, high sensor resolution is also highly valued. But, on this last point, I’m starting to change my degree of emphasis. When much of my output was aimed at gallery exhibition this made sense. However, most of my work today is targeted for Internet consumption and book production where a 51 MP medium format camera is overkill. Even the 42 MP Sony A7r 2 is more than I need for most purposes, although it’s nice to have the extra resolution when you need it. And my experience with Sigma Foveon sensors has me thinking in a different direction.

Earlier this year I bought a Sigma SD-H camera with an H-size sensor. As with previous Sigma cameras like the Merrill series, there is continuing the debate about the effective resolution of the SD-H. For this stacked sensor design the area-based resolution is estimated to be about 26 MP. However, Sigma claims that the effective resolution is more equivalent to the 51 MP output of a medium format camera like the Pentax 645 Z. For the first time, Sigma incorporated a menu choice that allows selection of a jpeg with 51MP output as an alternative to the usual 26 MP DNG raw file. On a hunch, I increased the DNG file size to a 51 MP TIFF file on Adobe Photoshop and compared it to the identical image outputted by the SD-H on 51 MP JPEG setting. There was no difference that I could see between the two images. This is most likely what the SD-H does to create this output. Therefore, what Sigma is really saying is that their stacked sensor design allows closer to 100% sampling of all the light rays passing through the lens to the sensor which eliminates the need for the camera processor to calculate values for the missing data. Consequently, the output file is cleaner and more vibrant with fewer or no artifacts.

Though the typical Bayer sensor camera creates some artifacts in producing the RAW file, you don’t see this effect until you enlarge the file beyond native resolution. However, the Foveon sensor allows for a doubling of the file size with no apparent decrease in image quality. What this means for me is that in the few instances when resolution higher than 24 MP is needed, the file size can be substantially increased in Photoshop while retaining the quality of a print made from the camera’s native resolution. The Sigma SD-H is much smaller and lighter and costs about one-fifth of what a Pentax 645 Z does. However, the SD-H is quirky and slow-handling. More than most cameras, it requires tripod support to reap the full benefits of its sensor.

Now I’ve found that the Sony A9 also allows very usable file enlargement with no apparent loss in image quality. Possibly, the new technology employed in its sensor which utilizes some stacking for faster data transmission may reduce the amount of in-camera file interpolation required to produce a complete file. So, the A9 produces beautiful landscape images that can, when necessary, be digitally enlarged for larger prints. This makes the A9 more versatile, as its image quality is very close to that of the A7r 2 for ISO’s below 3200. Following are three A9 landscape images. I think that my A7r 2 would not have performed much better.

"Earth-bound Eagle" ISO 125, 85mm, f5.6 @ 1/1000 s
“Earth-bound Eagle” ISO 125, 85mm, f5.6 @ 1/1000 s
"Soldiers Pass" ISO 100, 85mm, f8.0 @ 1/1000 s
“Soldiers Pass” ISO 100, 85mm, f8.0 @ 1/1000 s
"Sedona Cloudburst" ISO 100, 12mm, f8.0 @ 1/100 s
“Sedona Cloudburst” ISO 100, 12mm, f8.0 @ 1/100 s

There is another currently unsung photography category for which the A9 is a solid choice. This is the field of Travel Photography, for all the above reasons. Travel photography encompasses many of the same subjects covered by most other photographic fields. The only difference is that travel photography images are typically made in places other than where you live. The small size and weight of the A9, even with a complement of three or four compact lenses will be a joy to carry when touring in another region or country. I haven’t had time to do this since I bought this camera. However, I’ll be leaving for Rocky Mountain National Park in two weeks to photograph elk during rutting season with the mountains displaying fall foliage. That probably qualifies as travel photograph though I go to Colorado at least once every year. Certainly, it qualifies as wildlife photography; and I’m looking forward to putting the A9 through its paces. There is no doubt in my mind that this camera will easily handle any photographic challenge that I’ll encounter there. It is true “a camera for all seasons”.

Postscript

Every one of the images in this article was taken handheld. They are all tack sharp at maximum resolution though exposure times varied from 1/10 s to 1/1000/s. In the short time that I’ve owned this camera my confidence level for “nailing the shot” has never been higher.


Harvey Stearn
August 2017

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Harvey Stearn

Harvey Stearn has been a dedicated outdoor photographer for over 60 years, starting with his own darkroom prints and moving exclusively to digital capture and printmaking in 2001. His images have won many awards and have been exhibited in galleries, museums, offices and public buildings. They have been published in magazines and have appeared on billboards. His images are represented in private collections through much of the United States. Following a successful business career including the development of the cities of Mission Viejo and Aliso Viejo in California, and extensive public service including the chairmanship of the California Arts Council, Mr. Stearn and his wife Bobbie moved to Sedona, AZ in 2002 to fully pursue their respective artistic passions of photography and painting. Highlights 1980 – 2000 (While primary profession was the management of three major development companies.) - Annual Orange County Fair Photography Competition & Exhibit: Awarded two gold medals, one silver medal, one bronze medal and eight blue ribbons for art photographs submitted in three-year period. - Commissioned by Registry Hotel at John Wayne Airport in Southern California to make large monochrome print for the hotel lobby. - Photograph of a Bristlecone pine tree exhibited at the Laguna Beach Museum of Art for four months. - Photographs of Lake Mission Viejo appeared on billboards and in magazines throughout Southern California. - Served nine years on the California Arts Council (a California State agency) including two years as Chairman and two years as Vice Chairman. - Founding Chairman of the John Wayne Airport Arts Commission for the organization of airport art exhibits. 2000 – to present time - Taught digital photography for eight years at Sedona Arts Center (SAC). - Fashion photograph featured on cover of Apparel News (12/2003) - Photographs of Brins Mesa fire featured in Emergency Management Mag. (2006) - Awarded first place in professional photography division of 2008 SAC show. - Selected as one of five Sedona Masters of outdoor photography for 2010 Photofest. - Full page landscape in 7/2010 Sedona Monthly Magazine article on Sedona Masters. - Winter portfolio published in Winter 2011 issue of Sedona Magazine. - Published art photography book “In Search of the Old West” in 2013, featuring 110 of H Stearn’s images of landscapes, wildlife, western events and old structures. - Guest lecturer (photography) on a South American cruise in 2014. Visit Harvey's Website www.CameraStops.com

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