The tradition of a large, heavy, noisy SLR camera hanging off the shoulder of a photojournalist could slip into lore if the next generation of mirrorless digital cameras takes off. Sony is betting they will with the introduction of the Alpha 9 camera this week.
At an announcement event in New York City, top brass from Sony were joined by veteran photographers to reveal the A9 that is being heavily marketed towards journalists, especially to sports photographers. The A9 as a flagship camera is a shot across the bow of the Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras that have been the standard for photojournalists for decades.
What could lead photographers make the switch to mirrorless?
Perhaps it will be the continuous shooting speed of 20 frames per second with no viewfinder blackout or that the camera is completely silent with no shutter or mirror noise. The same technology allows for a 1/32,000 second top shutter speed.
The A9 is also smaller and lighter than a DLSR, making it possible to travel with less or, pack more into the same travel case a photographer uses now. The camera’s electronic viewfinder (EVF) allows for image review in the viewfinder rather than the LCD on the camera back allowing for perhaps the most important cultural change in photojournalism - the elimination of chimping.
Some of the A9 features puts the camera in line with specs for the Canon 1D X Mark II or the Nikon D5. All feature full-frame sensors and similar megapixel captures and dual card slots. All have high ISO capabilities, though Nikon has the edge.The video capture for the three are similar. The A9 is easily smaller, weighing half of either the Nikon or Canon bodies. It is also less expensive, coming to market at $4,500.
The reveal was a big event for Sony as the announcement was live streamed from New York. Sony Electronics President Mike Fasulo opened the program with the camera sitting under a white cloth cover at the side of the stage. When revealed, the A9 was seen coupled with a new 100-400 mm G master lens at $2,500 pitched as the choice for sports and nature photographers. The hands-on demonstrations after the announcement featured gymnasts and MMA fighters in action as models.
The professional photographers speaking for Sony reflected the market for the A9. Brian Smith has a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1984 Olympics and was host of the panel that included photojournalist David Burnett and Ultimate Fighting Championship photographer Jeff Bottari. Environmental photojournalist Cristina Mittermeirer, Reuters contract photographer Rick Wilking and conflict photographer Ben Lowy filled out the panel.
The features of a mirrorless camera, combined with an increased sensitivity for the autofocus system, makes for a camera that gives photographers increased chances for success.
“It’s not cure all, but it gets people a little closer to what they’re seeing,” Burnett said after the program. “There are far fewer excuses to miss a picture.”
Burnett had not been a Sony shooter previously and he said learning the ergonomics of a new system did take some practice. But he particularly liked the EVF and said it was almost like seeing your photos in a theater.
“You can use the viewfinder as your eye,” Burnett said.
The camera’s silent operation was one of the most discussed features by the panel, citing coverage in courtrooms, golf tournaments, government hearings and anywhere a still photographer works side-by-side with video crews.
Mittermeirer’s work photographing in the wild can involve days or weeks waiting for the animals to appear and the sound of shutters often spoil the moment.
“You can see the ears go up, they arch themselves and they run away,” Mittermeirer said.
Those who have been using mirrorless cameras for the past few years know that sometimes subjects wonder if the photographers are really professionals because cameras are so much smaller. The panel was agreement that in most cases a journalist would rather not be recognized as a pro.
“How does someone know that you’re a professional photographer when you’ve got that camera? It’s like, God, I hope they don’t,” Smith said.
There are potential drawbacks that will give pause to some photographers. Smaller cameras have smaller batteries, leading to shorter battery life. Sony has doubled its battery capacity with the A9, but it still lags significantly behind Canon or Nikon. Also, there have been concerns about the durability of the smaller bodies though Lowy testified to their sturdiness for his globetrotting assignments. And, photographers who have used the larger cameras for a long time might feel uncomfortable with the ergonomics of a mirrorless camera.
The SLR design has been the mainstay of top-level 35mm cameras since the Nikon F release in 1959. During the shift from film to digital, camera manufacturers have been slow to abandon that design for professional gear but mirrorless cameras appear ready to test that market to see if the pros will make the switch.