Reality check – Comparing the Sony A1 vs A7S III vs A9 II

Jan 28, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Reality check – Comparing the Sony A1 vs A7S III vs A9 II

Jan 28, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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So, Sony has announced a new camera – something they do with some regularity. But this one’s different. The Sony A1 is their first camera that’s truly worthy of the title “flagship”. It certainly seems to beat both the Canon 1DX Mark III and Nikon D6 in almost every aspect, but how does it compare to Sony’s other higher-end models like the A9 II speed demon and the recently released A7S III?

I wanted to take a somewhat objective look at the three cameras and how they compare on-paper – which is all we can really do for sure right now, as the A1 isn’t going to be out in the wild for at least a couple of months.

I am neither a Sony fanboy nor a hater, but as with all of the brands out there, they’re one that I consider whenever a new camera is announced if it fits specific needs I may have at the time that my current gear can’t give me, at a cost that I can justify (ie, it’ll earn its keep). It’s why I added five Panasonics to the collection last year despite being primarily a Nikon shooter for the past 20 years and not already owning any Panasonic gear. They fit a need, they do their job well and they’re happily making back their acquisition cost.

So how does Sony’s new A1 stack up to its in-brand competition? It’s both a speed demon and a pretty capable video shooter. So that basically boils down to two cameras. The Sony A9 II and the new Sony A7S III.

Let’s look at the basic specs first…

Sony A1Sony A9 IISony A7S III
MountSony ESony ESony E
FormatFull-FrameFull-FrameFull-Frame
SensorCMOSCMOSCMOS
Resolution8640 x 5760 (50-megapixel)6000×4000 (24-megapixel)4240 x 2832 pixels (12-megapixel)
Bit-depth14-Bit RAW14-Bit RAW14-Bit RAW
Mechanical shutter1/8000 to 30 sec1/8000 to 30 sec1/8000 to 30 sec
Electronic shutter1/32000 to 30 sec1/32000 to 30 secNot published
Flash sync speed1/400 Mechanical (1/500 APS-C)
1/200 Electronic (1/250 APS-C)
1/250 Mechanical Shutter1/250 Mechanical Shutter
Continuous shooting10fps (mechanical shutter), 30fps (electronic shutter)10fps (mechanical shutter), 20fps (electronic shutter)10fps (mechanical & electronic shutter)
Focus typeAuto & manual focusAuto & manual focusAuto & manual focus
Focus modesContinuous-servo AF (C), direct manual focus (DMF), manual focus (M), single-servo AF (S)Continuous-servo AF (C), direct manual focus (DMF), manual focus (M), single-servo AF (S)Continuous-servo AF (C), direct manual focus (DMF), manual focus (M), single-servo AF (S)
AF points759 phase detection, 425 contrast detection693 phase detection, 425 contrast detection759 phase detection, 425 contrast detection
AF sensitivity-4 to +20 EV-3 to +20 EV-6 to +20 EV
Stabilisation5-axis sensor-shift (5.5 stops)5-axis sensor-shift (5.5 stops)5-axis sensor-shift (5.5 stops)
Viewfinder1.6cm 9.44m-dot electronic viewfinder0.5″ 3.7m-dot electronic viewfinder1.6cm 9.44m-dot electronic viewfinder
LCD2.95″ 1.44m-dot tilting touchscreen LCD3″ 1.44m-dot tilting touchscreen LCD3″ 1.44m-dot articulating (flippy out) touchscreen LCD
Internal videoXAVC S – 8K 4:2:0 up to 30fps / 4K UHD 4:2:2 up to 120fpsXAVC S – 4K UHD up to 29.97fps (60-100Mbps)
1080p HD up to 119.88fps (60-100Mbps)
4K 120fps, 4K 60fps (10-bit 4:2:2), 1080p 240fps
External video4K 16-Bit 4K RAW over HDMI8-Bit 4:2:2 4K UHD & 1080p HD4K 16-Bit 4K RAW over HDMI
Memory card slots2x Multi-slot CFexpress Type A & UHS-II SD2x UHS-II SD card slots2x Multi-slot CFexpress Type A & UHS-II SD
ConnectivityWi-Fi, BluetoothWi-Fi, BluetoothWi-Fi, Bluetooth
Dimensions128.9 x 96.9 x 80.8 mm128.9 x 96.4 x 77.5 mm128.9 x 96.9 x 80.8 mm
Weight~737g~678g~699g body only

It’s interesting when you look at specs side by side because many of the specs seem pretty identical between all three cameras. Full-frame BSI sensor, 5.5 stops in-body image stabilisation, +/- 5 stops of exposure compensation, etc.

There are some tangible differences, though, with things like the resolution, shooting speed, ISO range, flash sync, etc. but there are also some that don’t really mean much to most of us, like Dual Bionz XR processors and upgrading USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbps) to USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10Gbps). After all, it doesn’t really matter to us what processor’s inside it as long as it can do the job and does the USB speed really matter? Is anybody actually going to use their A1 as a memory card reader?

So has the A1 just made both the A7S III and A9 II obsolete? Well, yes and no, but perhaps the A9 II more so than the A7S III, but the A9 II is a little older, having been released in 2019, and Sony’s made some nice tech improvements in 2020.

Stills Resolution & Speed

We’ll talk about resolution and speed first because these are two big ones when comparing to both the A9 II, which is geared more towards fast stills shooting and A7S III, which is definitely more heavily video-focused.

On the stills side, the A7S III, A9 II and A1 have full-frame sensors offering 12MP, 24MP and 50MP resolution respectively. If stills is your primary use case, then the A7S III doesn’t look all that impressive by today’s standards, although it does offer the highest ISO capability. If you’re mostly shooting for online content, but you need that super low light capability, the A7S III does have the advantage.

But many working photographers are printing images large, and appropriate viewing distances aside, they want them to be able to hold up to close scrutiny. Neither the A9 II nor the A1 quite matches up to the 60-megapixel resolution of the Sony A7R IV, for example – although the A1 is probably close enough that it won’t matter to most people.

24-megapixels on the A9 II certainly isn’t terrible and will likely suffice for the vast majority of people, but for those huge prints, the more resolution the better. For wedding, portrait, boudoir, fine art photographers, etc. the A1 is definitely going to deliver solid results with a 50-megapixel resolution, even when compared to the A7R IV. Of course, the A1 is almost double the cost of the A7R IV.

If, however, you need both the resolution and the speed, the A1 hammers just about every other camera Sony makes. Despite being 10-megapixel smaller than the A7R IV (which really isn’t a massive difference once you’re at the 50MP+ range), it can shoot those images blackout-free with the electronic shutter at an insane 30 frames per second. This is due to both the Dual Bionz XR processors inside the A1 and the super-fast CFexpress Type-A dual-format card slots.

When it comes to the mechanical shutter, though, which is arguably preferred in many instances, all three cameras top out at 10 frames per second. This falls somewhat short of the 14fps of the Nikon D6 and 16fps of the Canon EOS 1DX Mark III when using the optical viewfinder, but it isn’t any worse than other Sony cameras on the market.

Hopefully, Sony can find a way to improve this at some point. Either that or just give us the damn global shutter CMOS sensors already!

Video

Although not everybody uses DSLRs and mirrorless cameras for video, it has become a big selling point. And it’s here to stay whether you like it or not. Not including video features at this point wouldn’t make your camera cost any less to purchase. And the A1, on-paper at least, is pretty impressive.

While not completely useless when it comes to video, though, I don’t think there’s much point really including the A9 II in this bit. The A7S III raised the bar so highly vs Sony’s previous cameras that the A9 II doesn’t really even come close. Sure, it’s “good enough” for many people, but it’s not got the advantages the A7S III and A1 offer.

But how do the A7S III and A1 compare when it comes to video? Well, the A1 offers something that some had expected in the A7S III, something also offered by the Canon EOS R5, and that’s 8K video. Sony claims that the A1 will shoot 8K 30fps video at either 200Mbps or 400Mbps for up to 30-minutes at a time. It’s 10-Bit, but only 4:2:0.

The A1 also shoots 4K UHD, but it’s able to do it internally as 10-Bit 4:2:2 footage between 24 and 120 frames per second with bitrates of from 50Mbps to 280Mbps depending on frame rate or 10-Bit 4:2:0 with bitrates varying between 30Mbps and 200Mbps.

The A1 and A7S III also both offer 16-Bit RAW 4K DCI video output over HDMI, to record into an external device like the Atomos Ninja V or Blackmagic Video Assist. Both cameras offer higher quality “All-I” compression, too.

When it comes to 8K, the A1 stands alone in Sony’s lineup.  As I mentioned, Sony says you can shoot for up to 30 minutes at 8K resolution. They haven’t yet stated how long it takes for the camera to cool down after that half an hour is up – which we know has been a problem with the EOS R5.

Even if the cooling down wait times are similar, though, the Sony A1 does have one advantage over the 45-megapixel Canon EOS R5 for 8K shooters, and that’s that the Sony has a 50-megapixels sensor which produces 8K by oversampling 8.6K. This means that you’re theoretically getting better sharpness and definition in that 8K footage over the Canon.

If we set aside the 8K, which I think we have to do for now until the camera is in the hands of users to make sure it doesn’t suffer similar overheating fates to the Canon EOS R5, both models look pretty comparable with seemingly identical specs and compression.

But if 8K is high up on your list, then I’d hold off on making a decision until there’s some real-world footage and actual customer reviews out there.

ISO Range

I briefly mentioned this above, but the A1 has the lowest ISO range between the three cameras. When you see them side-by-side, it’s not a massive difference at the low end, but at the higher end, the gap becomes quite obvious.

Native RangeExtended Range
Sony A1100-32,00050-102,400
Sony A9100-51,20050-204,800
Sony A7S III80-102,40040-409,600

As you can see, the A7S III is the low-light king of the three, offering a significantly higher ISO range than the other two. It’s also able to focus at a lower level of brightness, too. The A1 even trails behind the older A9 II.

While it does still offer a somewhat impressive ISO32,000, I suspect it doesn’t perform as well as the other cameras with larger pixels with greater light-gathering abilities at that level. I think it will still be pretty impressive, but the A1 doesn’t appear to be the one to go for if very low light is a priority.

Autofocus

There’s a battle going on in the world of autofocus now, primarily between Sony and Canon. Every time one of them seems to get ahead, along comes the other with something just very slightly better. And this time it’s Sony’s turn.

The Sony A1 comes with seemingly the same 759 phase-detection point AF system as the A7S III, but with a slightly lower sensitivity range, dropping down to EV-4 as opposed to the A7S III’s EV-6.

But you get the Eye AF, for humans with left/right eye select as well as Animal AF when shooting stills. The Animal AF is typically just for dogs, cats and other four-legged mammals. Both of these are already better than the A9 II’s 693 point AF system (which is still very impressive) and also has human and animal Eye AF when shooting stills.

The A1, though, also comes with Bird AF, which will be a fantastic benefit for wildlife photographers, especially with that high resolution and 30fps frame rate.

When it comes to Eye AF with video, all three cameras only Human Eye AF, with left/right eye selection.

Of course, you get the usual AF-S, AF-C, DMF and Manual focus options, with the usual wide, zone, centre, flexible spot, expanded flexible spot and tracking focus areas.

For bird and wildlife photographers, the A1 seems like an obvious choice. But for everybody else, they seem mostly fairly evenly matched when it comes to autofocus, with the A9 II lagging just very slightly behind due to fewer AF points and a slightly older (2019) overall system.

Shutter speeds

The shutter speeds are about what we’d expect. The mechanical shutter goes up to 1/8,000th of a second – fairly standard on a camera of this level – and the electronic shutter goes all the way up to 1/32,000th of a second. Both have a maximum duration of 30 seconds.

An interesting new development on the Sony A1 is that the mechanical shutter syncs with flash all the way up to 1/400th of a second. That’s extremely fast, and if you have to go over the typical 1/180-1/250th sync speeds of most other cameras on the market, that can gain you an extra stop or more of light out of your flash due to not having to go into High Speed Sync mode. And in APS-C mode, the sync speed goes up even further to 1/500th of a second.

Not only this, but you can actually use the electronic shutter at up to 1/200th of a second now (or 1/250th in APS-C) with flash. Such speeds have mostly been impossible with electronic shutters so far – if the camera even supports flash with the electronic shutter at all.

The flash benefits of the new shutter are obvious for portrait, event and other photographers who regularly use flash with their work, particularly outdoors where 1/400th and 1/500th of a second shutter speeds are not uncommon.

EVF & LCD

The Sony A1 sees the new 9.44m-dot OLED electronic viewfinder as the Sony A7S III, which is a significant upgrade over the 3.68m-dot OLED EVF of the Sony A9 II. The A1, however, has an extra trick up its sleeve, offering a blistering fast refresh rate of 240 frames per second. If EVFs give you headaches, this increased framerate is likely to help ease, those, and offer a smoother flicker-free viewing experience when looking through the camera’s viewfinder rather than shooting from the LCD.

And when it comes to the LCD, Sony has gone back to the tilting touchscreen for this one. It doesn’t have the new flippy out LCD of the Sony A7S III or the Sony A7c. This is surprising and a little disappointing. Sure, nobody’s going to be buying the A1 for vlogging, but those who get the A1 anyway might also use it for that, and being able to see yourself is pretty important.

But for all types of filmmakers, something the A1 is arguably aimed at given its 8K video capabilities, a flippy out LCD is definitely a bonus, especially when you’re flying it on a gimbal with arms that might be obstructing the standard position of the LCD on the back of the camera.

Left: Sony A1 / Middle: Sony A7S III / Right: Sony A9 II

It’s a relatively minor thing for many photographers and even filmmakers, but it is something to take into account if you were hoping Sony would continue the trend started with the A7C and A7S III.

Conclusions

So what are the main benefits of the A1 over the A9 II, A7S III and even the A7R IV?

Well, vs the 24-megapixel A9 II, it’s faster and higher resolution with pretty killer video capabilities. And if a lot of detail in your images is more important to you than trying to save storage space while still having the speed to keep up with sports, action and wildlife (particularly birds), then the A1 clearly seems the best way to go. If you’re shooting for press or media, not that interested in serious video, and all your images are going to go on the web and printed newspapers and magazines, then the A9 II will probably still do you just fine.

Compared to the 12-megapixel A7S III, the 50-megapixel Sony A1 only has a single real benefit when it comes to video and that’s 8K. When it comes to stills, though, as above, the higher resolution and shooting speed offer major benefits. But if your primary interest is video, and you don’t need 8K, then the A7S III comes in at a hair over half the price of the A1. If you need an A cam, a B cam and a backup, that’s about 9 grand saved on three cameras if you go the A7S III route.

And what about the one we haven’t mentioned much, the A7R IV? Well, as with the A9 II, if video is your thing, then you’re better looking at the A1 or A7S III, but for stills, the A7R IV is higher resolution than the three other cameras in this post. But, you only get 10fps, which falls quite short of the A1’s 30fps with the electronic shutter. If you’re shooting landscapes, still life, products, portraits, fine art, etc. where resolution is important and your subjects aren’t moving all that much in fast or unpredictable ways, the A7R IV is still probably your best option.

Final thoughts

It will be a difficult decision for many Sony shooters to make, I think. The lure of new and shiny is strong in the Sony-loving population, and some will want to upgrade simply because it’s Sony’s first genuine flagship mirrorless camera. But do they really need what it offers? And does it really provide any benefit over what they have for what they shoot? I expect the answer for the majority of people who will buy the A1 is “Well, no, not really”.

I think the other existing models in Sony’s lineup would likely stand up to the task just as well, or possibly even better, for many (or even most) photographers, depending on what they’re shooting. There’s no doubt that the A1 is an extremely impressive looking camera, but it’s not the best at everything – even just looking at Sony’s own cameras and forgetting what the other manufacturers offer.

What I’m most curious about, though, is how well the 8K video performs when it’s out in the wild. It’s not that I’m particularly interested in shooting 8K, except for the occasional shot where more resolution is definitely going to benefit (effects shots, or scenes where I want to pan or zoom in post, for example), but cameras with the ability to shoot and process 8K means that the cameras can do better at other things, too.

A camera with processors and other hardware fast enough to shoot 8K 30fps can shoot 4K 120fps comfortably (1/4 the resolution and 4x the frame rate essentially cancel each other out). It can process and clear the stills buffer more quickly, too. It can just do more at once.

It’s a little bit like having a car that can drive 180mph. Sure, you can’t (legally) go more than 70mph outside the Autobahn, but you know want to go 70mph, you’ll get there comfortably and have power to spare for when needed. If you get a car that maxes out at 75mph, you’re pretty limited for options once you hit 70mph.

Remember when cameras couldn’t even output Live View to the LCD and the HDMI socket at the same time? Even if you don’t need 8K video, a camera that has it is generally going to be better at the other stuff, too. So, bring on the superfluous advancements, I say!

The Sony A1 is available to pre-order now for $6,498 and is expected to start shipping in March. The Sony A7S III is available to buy now for $3,498. The Sony A9 II is available to buy now for $4,498.

If you were starting over from scratch and considering Sony, which of these bodies would you go for?

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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One response to “Reality check – Comparing the Sony A1 vs A7S III vs A9 II”

  1. Chriscopix Avatar
    Chriscopix

    My case for the A1

    My work demands both photography and video. I currently have an A7 III, A7R IV A7 S III and FX-9. I have ordered an A1 for the following reasons:

    • Some of my shoots require me to travel light and the A1 can cover everything in one body, with no compromise in terms of resolution or speed.

    • While the A7S III is a great B-cam for my FX-9, I most often shoot in S-Cinetone and, unfortunately it is missing on the A7S III. The A1 would make for a quicker workflow.

    • All of my Alpha cameras have different menu layouts. I feel Sony has finally got it right with the A7S III (and now A1). I see myself as shooting primarily with the A1 and having an A7 IV as a backup, (when it is released). I think the predicted lower, 30mp resolution (than the 50mp A1) will be ideal for a lot of my work). I would be surprised if Sony doesn’t stick to the most recent menu layout, though obviously the A1’s control dials are not likely to be there.

    • I don’t generally need the A1’s shooing speed but the lack of rolling shutter and excellent electronic and mechanical shutter flash sync specs. will be an asset, as will the 1/32,000th shutter speed for controlling high light levels with large aperture lenses. I am sure the boosted AF system will show its advantages too.

    My current Alpha bodies have been doing a great job but the appeal of the camera I have with me being able to cover all situations so capably is too strong to ignore, despite the cost.