In early October, Sony introduced the A9 Mark II, a camera intended for photojournalists and professional photographers with fast sports as the main subject. What’s new about the Mark II, and what does Sony want to achieve with it?
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TEST RESULTS Sony A9 II:
READY FOR THE CHALLENGE
At first glance, the differences between the A9 Mark II and the original A9 from 2017 aren’t that significant. Those who only rely on specifications such as resolution and series speed may even have the impression that nothing has changed. After all, the A9 Mark II has a stacked 24-megapixel CMOS sensor, just like the original A9. The sensor has built-in DRAM memory in which the sensor’s data is temporarily stored, so that the sensor can be read out extremely quickly. The A9 Mark II – like the A9 – can thus capture up to 20 images per second in full resolution, without the viewfinder image going dark between shots. To understand what has changed about the A9 Mark II, keep in mind the target audience for this camera. These are primarily professional sports photographers and photojournalists, who might otherwise opt for the Nikon D5 and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. For this target group, higher resolution is not the most important thing: 24 megapixels is more than enough for press photography. And the 20 frames per second that the A9 Mark II achieves is still the fastest speed in this category (apart from the announced Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, which should also reach 20 frames per second).
So it was not a priority for Sony to make the Mark II even faster, let alone to increase the resolution. It is much more important for sports and news photographers that they can get their images quickly to the client (a press agency, photo editor or news website). The time to go through the images after a match is long gone: websites want images of important matches and events in real time. If you cannot forward them immediately, they will use the images from a faster fellow photographer. For them, more megapixels only means bigger files that take longer to transmit.
The improvements of the A9 Mark II are therefore primarily intended to make that workflow faster and more convenient. That’s why the A9 Mark II got faster interfaces: 1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet, and a USB type-C connector with support for the faster USB 3.2 Gen 1 standard. The wireless connection has also been improved by adding a 5 GHz (IEEE 802.11ac) interface, in addition to the existing 2.4 GHz (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac) interface. This allows images to be transferred to a mobile device faster or sent via a mobile MiFi router. Photographers who need to send their images to an FTP server can store up to 10 settings for different FTP servers on a memory card.
Another useful feature for the target audience: the Alpha 9 II now (like the Nikon D5 and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II) has a Voice Memo function that can add spoken information to images. For example, a sports photographer can record which player scored a goal and forward that information along with the photo to a desk editor, who then turns the voice note into a caption.
Sony goes a step further: with the smartphone app Transfer & Tagging, it is possible to automatically convert these voice memos to text, and to add that text in the form of IPTC metadata to jpeg images. This does require an internet connection, because the speech-to-text conversion uses Google services.
In appearance, the A9 II looks like the twin of its predecessor, but there are important differences that benefit usability. The grip has a shape that fits better in the hand. The AF-ON button became larger, and the multi-selector button (to select the AF point) has also been redesigned. These frequently used buttons can therefore also be operated with gloves, useful for winter sports. The exposure compensation dial now has a lock to prevent accidental rotation.
Furthermore, the A9 Mark II is more resistant to moisture and dust. In that respect, the original A9 had to compete against the solid rivals from Canon and Nikon. In particular, the bottom of the housing is better sealed, as are the battery compartment cover and media slots. Both SD card slots are now compatible with UHS-II; on the original A9, only one of the two slots was available for this fast card type. The electronic viewfinder in the Mark II is the same as in the original A9. With 3.7 million pixels, this viewfinder is less sharp than that on the A7R Mark IV, with 5.7 million pixels. The reason why Sony did not opt for the sharper viewfinder: the refresh rate of that viewfinder is not high enough for the fast autofocus and frame rate (20 frames per second without viewfinder blackout) of the A9. An understandable argument, but a pity nonetheless. Hopefully the A9 Mark III will get an even sharper EVF in a few years.
Because the A9 Mark II has the same sensor and image processor as its predecessor, the image quality is identical. What I noticed positively during testing is that the autofocus has become much better compared to the original A9, and that was not bad at all.
Better AF performance is due to the clever Real-time Eye AF and Real-Time AF Tracking algorithms developed by Sony, which are also available for some older models via firmware updates.
This makes following athletes in full action child’s play.
Anyone who calls the Sony A9 Mark II a “huge disappointment” (the title of a column on photo website Fstoppers), because it does not shoot roughly 30 images at 46 megapixels per second, has not paid close attention. That was not on the wish list of the target group for this camera: the improvements to the workflow that Sony has implemented were. Together with the now proven autofocus algorithms, they make the A9 Mark II a camera that will certainly appeal to news and sports photographers. We have to wait and see what the currently announced D6 and EOS-1D X Mark III can offer against it…
LOOKING FORWARD TO TOKYO
It’s no surprise that Sony is launching the A9 Mark II now. After all, the Olympic Games will take place in Tokyo in the summer of 2020. For decades, the summer games have been the place where Canon and Nikon put their new pro cameras through their paces. Both have already reported working on new top models (D6 and EOS-1D X Mark III).
Sony clearly hopes to take market share from Canon and Nikon with the A9 Mark II.
Sony is now better positioned to do this than when it released the A9 in 2017. Back then, Sony didn’t have the professional super-telephoto lenses that belong in the arsenal of every sports photographer and agency. These gaps have been closed with the FE 400mm F2.8 GM OSS and the FE 600mm F4 GM OSS.
In recent years, Sony has also expanded Pro Support for professional photographers and is present at many sporting events with a repair and lending service, following the example of Canon’s CPS and Nikon’s NPS. The competition next to the field could therefore be just as fierce in Tokyo as the competition on the field…
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