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Sony's new a9 is aimed squarely at the sports and action DSLR market

April 21, 2017

We may finally have the first real mirrorless camera in the Sony a9 that has a fighting chance to take on the DSLR in the area of sports and action photography.

The a9 boasts an amazing 20 frames per second, completely uninterrupted viewing during shooting and continuous auto focus - all the while, operating in total silence!

Mirrorless has held the promise of taking on the exclusive reign of the DSLR at the top of the market for sometime. Every manufacture has claimed their latest and greatest camera was able to compete head to head with the established market leaders in the area of sports and action cameras. At the same, time the market leaders Canon and Nikon have not fully committed to mirrorless for the sports and action professional market and one can only hypothesise that they don't believe the technology is ready yet to take over this last beachhead of the market.

Sony on the other hand pretty well controls the market for digital sensors, has made huge inroads into the mirrorless market with both full frame and cropped sensor sizes and now sits in the number 2 spot just behind Canon as leading supply of full frame 35mm cameras.

So we know Sony is gunning for a larger slice of the market and we know they want to exist at the top end or halo section at the same time. They have proven that they can create new markets and that they are not afraid to kill off the old in order to roll out the new.

Sony's a7 line of full frame mirrorless cameras currently have no competition at all in the marketplace and we have seen Sony take over the medium format sensor market  in just 3 years. Sony likes to win and they don't hide this simple fact.

So is the new a9 Sony’s shot across the bow of the DSLR battleship that has ruled the waves of sports photography for the last 20 years?

We know they want a direct hit, but is the shell that finds its target?

So want makes this camera such a game changer and why is Sony prepared to take on such a high risk game gunning for the market leaders in an area where there very well may not be the huge returns in sales volumes?

First off, let's talk about what Sony has achieved and why this is important.

  1. Frame Rate: Sports cameras have been marketed on this key factor for years and Sony has really upped the anti by hitting 20 frames per second while their closest competitor is still at 14, held back by the laws of physics and a big mirror moving up and down in front of a sensor.
  2. Silent Shooting: There are complete areas of sports and action/news photography where high frame rate shooting is required, yet noise produced by such cameras is so objectionable that shooting is restricted or sometimes outright banned. A camera that makes no noise can open up new doors for those using it.
  3. No Blackout: Simply stated there is no way a mirror based camera can beat this feature when shooting in burst mode. This will enable a much easier tracking experience for the photographer.
  4. 693 Auto-focus Points: With 93% of the image area covered by identical detection AF points and an extremely fast tracking system that can identify subjects in motion the a9 should bring a much higher hit to miss ratio to the photography and enable tracking right to the edges of the frame.

Of course a specification sheet doesn't really tell us how any of this is going really perform in real life applications. But we do know for sure that Sony have done an amazing job with their A7 line in the less than 4 years it has been out. This is the life expectancy many of the major DSLR's in a line while in that same time frame Sony has released 6 models in the a7 serious. At the same time, they have keep up their relentless pace in the A6000 series of APS-C format cameras. With all this in mind we know that when Sony puts their muscle behind a mission, they go all out to achieve victory. With the a9 we know exactly what they want and there is a very good chance they can win.

So the obvious questions are what's missing for Sony to take over as the market leader and how does Sony make inroads into what could be called the DSLR's last stand?

First off we need to state the obvious - Sony is the market leader when it comes to sensors. Pretty well everyone but Canon uses Sony's sensors. Sony controls this market.

Second, and this is not based on any facts other than a keen eye on how Sony have behaved since entering the camera market with their acquisition of Minolta in 2006. Sony has stated they want a share of the market since day one and have gone about doing everything they can do to keep this growing. They were not afraid to basically start over with a the new E mount only 4 years into the game. They saw the future of mirrorless and have put huge resources into it. So much so that now there are even medium format mirrorless cameras that use Sony's sensors! So the take away is Sony is into this for the long haul, they can see the future and are prepared to take risks.

The risks they have taken have paid off and now they are one their final push to replace the DSLR in its last stranglehold - sports and action photography.

With this happen overnight? Of course not. Will DSLR's shooters just up and jump ship to Sony? A few will and a few more will add a Sony body to their kit for specific uses. The long game will be with new photographers entering the sports market who have used Sony or are familiar with the brand.

I expect Sony will be also pushing very hard to get the new a9 into the hands of well known and respected pro's that cover major international events. I would be shocked if Sony didn't make a major push to get their brand highly visible at the next winter and summer Olympic Games.

This is the exactly the tactic that everyone else uses so that is not need to re-invent the wheel. If what Sony has is as good as it sounds all they need is the right push to gain a good foothold in this new market.

They archived this with high resolution and high sensitivity in the a7 series so I see no reason for them to not believe they can do the same with the sports market.

So what are the missing links that could be stumbling block? The simple answer is glass.

What has been a huge benefit to Sony with the a7 series has been the ability to mount pretty well any type of lens with an adapter to these bodies. This has been so popular it has spawned an entire new industry to create both smart and dumb adapters to meet this huge demand.

So while these adapters and 3rd party lenses will most likely work fine on the new a9 series - will they enable the focus performance that a sports photographer requires? We won't know the facts until the cameras ship but this is going to be very important for anyone expecting to use a current inventory of high quality, high value lenses from the old systems on the new Sony. If they work well, moving to the Sony system becomes a very low risk proposition for current DSLR sports photographers. If legacy lenses don't live up to expectations then uptake of the new system will be much slower as new lenses will not only have to be purchased, but new lenses will have to be developed as the current Sony E mount lineup has some huge gaps in it for the sports photographer.

Minolta had a pretty good range of sports lenses at the point when Sony acquired the brand and Sony continues to manufacture them re-branded in A mount format. I'm pretty sure Sony knows they are going to have to get a wide range of E mount sports lenses on the market fast in order for the a9 to be adopted by industry pros in time for the Olympics. I would expect they will wow us with some fast releases and it shouldn't be impossible as they a few of the key lenses already in the A mount line like the 300mm F2.8 and 500mm F4. If they add in a 400mm F2.8 and 600mm F4 they will have the major bases covered. Of course they could really innovate and come out with something long at F2.8 with zoom that doesn't weight as much as a car and cost as much as a house! I'm pretty sure they can apply some of their great minds to the lens line just like they have with the new a9.

All in all this is an exciting time to watch the end of a era while at the same time see some great improvements to cameras systems that only new disruptive technology like mirrorless can bring.