Hands-on with the Sony Alpha 1
The new Sony a1 has landed, and in our limited time with it so far, it looks to be an extremely impressive machine. We’ve taken a short break from our shooting and testing to give you an idea of how it handles and what it’s like to use.
To start with the externals, the a1’s grip is excellent and feels fractionally taller than that of the Sony a9 II and a7R IV; some of us find it easier to wrap all of your fingers around it snugly, as opposed to a pinkie finger hanging off the bottom of the other cameras. This makes the camera feel more secure in the hand (and, we have to say, it feels a little denser than an a9 II as well).
To the left of the Sony logo, you can see both the AF-assist lamp and the new, dedicated white balance sensor first seen on the Sony a7S III. We’ll be delving more deeply into how this new sensor impacts images as we progress through a full review. But for now… onwards!
Stacked and stabilized 50MP full-frame sensor
This is where so much of the magic comes. This 50MP sensor is the second ‘stacked’ full-frame sensor we’ve seen (the first was a 24MP unit in the Sony a9 and a9 II). By ‘stacked,’ we mean that there’s DRAM (dynamic random-access memory) built into the back of the sensor to help cope with all the data its producing; there’s also what Sony is calling a new ‘high-speed processing circuit with a new analog-to-digital method’, but that’s about all they’d tell us.
All of this means that this sensor has incredibly fast read-out speeds: less than 1/200 sec. This is about 1.5 times faster than the a9 / a9 II’s sensor, despite having double the number of overall pixels.
In practical terms? This allows for flash photography using the electronic shutter, with a sync speed of up to 1/200 sec, and very little rolling shutter distortion for fast-moving subjects (the Sony press briefing used lots of images of golf swings to illustrate this; slower-readout sensors make golf clubs look quite bendy when in mid-swing). This readout speed also allows for 30 fps electronic-shutter burst shooting, but only with lossy compressed Raws; using lossless or uncompressed Raws drops the max speed down to ‘only’ 20 fps. Oh, and it also helps enable 8K video recording. Not too shabby.
If you want to rely on the mechanical shutter instead, the a1 features an entirely new design that is impressively quiet and maxes out at 10 fps while allowing for 1/400 sec flash sync.
Top-plate controls and overall responsiveness
Sony has done a little tweaking on the a1’s top plate relative to the a9 series, which is the only other Sony full-framer with dials on the left shoulder. On the a1, the drive-mode dial has a new ‘H+’ setting which basically means ‘this is the 30fps mode’ if you’re using the electronic shutter. You can customize the speeds of the ‘H’, ‘M’ and ‘L’ modes in the camera’s menus. The AF mode dial (left, beneath the drive mode dial) is, as you can see, now operated with your thumb, whereas on the a9 II it made more sense to operate it with your index finger at the front of the camera.
Otherwise, things are pretty familiar; the mode dial has a non-toggle lock, meaning you have to press that center button and hold it while you change shooting modes. The exposure compensation dial has a toggle lock, so you can leave it locked or unlocked depending on your preference. The front dial is a bit more ‘clicky’ than the rear dial, but they’re both really nice to use, and the prominent C1 and C2 buttons are easy to find by feel. The taller handgrip also makes it easier to reach the C1 button without substantially altering your handle on the camera.
One final note, the a1 is by far the most responsive Sony camera we’ve yet used. We’ve complained for years (first-world problems, admittedly) of ‘interface lag’ on Sony cameras; you’d turn a dial rapidly, but the corresponding setting changes wouldn’t necessarily keep up. That is no longer the case; you’ll see your settings changes reflected in real time on the a1.
Despite the a1’s 8K video capability, the screen design is a nod to the fact that this is perhaps a more stills-oriented camera; rather than the side-hinged, fully articulating design we saw on the a7S III, we have a more traditional tilting one. This works great for shooting from the hip, but we’d have loved to see a ‘dual-hinge’ design such as the likes of the Panasonic Lumix S1R or Fujifilm X-T3 for greater versatility, especially for portrait-orientation shooting.
The measures 3.0″ and offers a resolution of 1.44M dots, both of which specifications are frankly looking a little low in today’s market. Many less expensive competitors use bigger 3.2″ screens, often with 2.1M dots or more of resolution. On the other hand, we are very excited to see…
Updated menus and touch interface
Oh, happy day! We’re big fans of the updated menus on Sony’s a7S III, and we’re pleased to see them make an appearance on the a1. With color coding, horizontally oriented ‘depth’ and well thought-out organization, you won’t get lost in the menus on the a1 too often.
Along with the new menus are additional options for using the touchscreen as a control point; with the exception of the a7S III, previous Sony cameras limited touchscreen use to placing your AF point and zooming/panning in playback, and they were a bit laggy. Now, you can do all that with a much more responsive performance, but you can also navigate the menus purely by touch as well, including the overlaid ‘Fn’ menu.
We should also emphasize that every option in the menus now has truly helpful ‘tips’ if you’re curious about what something does. You now essentially have a full glossary built into the camera to help you out when you’re in the field, so you don’t have to turn to the manual.
The rear controls of the a1 are also likely to be familiar if you’ve seen or used a recent Sony full-frame camera. We’re big fans of the prominent AF-ON button and AF joystick, and the movie record button has been enlarged a bit relative to the a9 II. Indeed, all the buttons have great feel and plenty of travel, so you should have no problem operating this camera with gloves on.
And again, as with other recent Sony cameras, the a1’s controls are extremely customizable meaning you can set it up just right for your style of shooting.
And that brings us to the a1’s electronic viewfinder (EVF). While its LCD might not be all that impressive in terms of resolution, the EVF absolutely is. It is a 9.44M-dot OLED panel, a resolution that we’ve only seen matched by the Sony a7S III.
It has 0.9x magnification, which is the largest we’ve yet seen on a digital camera, and a 25mm eyepoint. The a1 will also make good on all that resolution too, as long as you’ve got the ‘Display Quality’ set to ‘High.’ The amount of detail shown is truly stunning. If you want faster 120 fps or 240 fps refresh rates, the former will drop the resolution a little bit, and the latter will do so and will also place small black bars around the edges of the display (this is also available in a ‘Zoom Out’ option for glasses-wearers, as it increases the eyepoint to 33mm).
The 120/240 fps options will be great for peak action, and the high-quality mode should please studio and landscape photographers. Put simply, this is the best electronic viewfinder money can buy today.
All those ports
Along the left side of the a1 you’ll find its full complement of ports; we have Ethernet, flash sync, micro-B USB (presumably still included as it allows the connection of some Sony accessories), headphone and mic jacks, a full-size HDMI port (yay!), and an incredibly fast USB-C port that can charge or power the camera and is also capable of 10Gb/s transfer speeds. This is around ten times faster than the Ethernet port can muster.
The Sony a1 comes with dual card slots, and both take either UHS-II SD or CFExpress Type A cards. We’ll be looking more in-depth at how the fastest SD cards compare to the CFExpress cards as we press on with our full review, but we love the option to use both. Both card slots live behind a latching door.
Interestingly, 8-bit 8K video can be captured on a V60-rated SD card, and nearly all video modes will work with a V90 card, so you don’t necessarily need to invest in CFExpress cards right away if you don’t want to.
No surprise, the a1 uses Sony’s now pretty ubiquitous NP-FZ100 battery, which allows for a CIPA rating of 530 shots using the rear LCD and 430 shots using the electronic viewfinder. Obviously, this will vary in real-world usage, and most users will be able to get far more than this; you will not run out of charge in 18 seconds if you’re shooting 30 fps bursts. We promise.
There’s also an optional VG-C4EM battery grip, which slides into the battery compartment but provides space for a total of two batteries, effectively doubling the camera’s stamina while also duplicating some control points.
Hands-on with the Sony Alpha 1
And that’s a wrap for our tour of Sony’s new flagship interchangeable lens camera, the a1. It’ll be available next month for around around $6,500 / €7,300 / £6,500.
What do you make of the Sony a1? Do you have any questions that you’d like us to address in our final review? Let us know in the comments.
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