Birders in the modern digital age have access to a fantastic array of SLR type digital camera bodies from numerous manufacturers. Mostly you will hear people talking about products from Canon and Nikon and hear friendly banter over who makes the more suitable camera. As each successive body is released there are jumps in technology that make our lives as birders much easier.
For those that can afford it, you have the two leaders in the DSLR realm being the Canon 1DXmkii and the almost as impressive Nikon D5. These are both Full Frame 35mm equivalent digital speed freaks that can focus and set exposure continuously while firing off well over 10 frames per second.
Then again from these manufacturers you can get cheaper crop bodies in the form of the Nikon D500 and the Canon 7Dmkii with the Nikon slightly edging out the Canon. Again these two bodies also achieve around 10 frames per second burst shooting with full auto focus and exposure control.
These DSLR bodies have been leading the pack for many years now however a new camera has just been released that make knock these two off their perch?
Enter the newly announced Sony a9!
One thing that makes this body different is the fact that it is a mirrorless body and is almost entirely digital. As it has no mirror it is not restricted by the lag waiting for the mirror to bounce around inside the body. In a traditional DSLR the mirror must move out of the way of the incoming light to enable the sensor the capture the information. The mirror in case you were not aware is what bounces the light coming in from the lens up to the viewfinder, helping you track your fast moving falcon.
With the Sony a9 this transfer of light is handled by an electronic view finder. Now in the past I have been staunchly against EVF or electronic view finders simply because they could not refresh the image fast enough for certain birding photography situations. In the case of the Sony a9 they have not only increased the EVF to have 4k output but it refreshes the screen at 120FPS! This makes following fast moving subjects much much easier.
I think now is the time to mention some of the specifications of this new camera:
20FPS with full AF and AE
241 RAW shots in a burst at 20FPS
693 AF points with 93% coverage
35mm 24MP Full Frame Stacked CMOS sensor
1/32000s electronic shutter
60 AF/AE calculations per second
120FPS 4k EVF
Larger battery than before (an old complaint on EVF systems was poor battery life but it looks like Sony have addressed this with the a9)
What is not mentioned above is that you can take 20FPS with full AF and AE and experience absolutely NO BLACKOUT through the view finder!
Imagine photographing small fast moving forest birds and you never lose sight of the bird because you always see what you are looking at. This is because unlike the DSLRs the mirror doesn’t temporarily block your view. Now another point here is that because you are using an electronic shutter there is no noise. You can set the camera play a quiet shutter noise if you really want to but lets face it, if you are in a forest and have access to a silent shutter, I am quite sure you would take it!
Is this new Sony a9 going to cause everyone to change from Canon and Nikon?
I suspect this is a game changing mirrorless camera for birders.
It is light weight, with a small compact body, it has features that have put it well ahead of the DSLR based competition and I think we will start to see many bird photographers start to switch very soon or certainly start to think very seriously.
Are there negatives?
Yes, in my mind despite the amazing videos of the new Sony a9 producing amazing results in a controlled environment, bird photography is probably THE most demanding on camera gear. I still would like to see this body being used in the field.
Another point to consider is the availability of lenses at the super telephoto end. Sony have just release a fast 100-400 designed for this body but if you want a 300 2.8 or a 500mm you will have to use an adapter to A-mount glass and drop down to 10FPS… (ok maybe that is not so bad?). However I am sure Sony will bring out the right glass in this mount.
Now, if any kind Sony staff are willing to lend me a Sony a9 and a 100-400 I will very willingly go and do some real world testing for you!