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Sony Alpha 1 Review: A True Flagship Camera
Sony’s full-frame mirrorless camera lineup includes a variety of models aimed at the unique needs of different users. The Sony a7R series provides the highest resolution, the Sony a7S series has the highest sensitivity and pixel-for-pixel 4K video, and the Sony a9 offered the fastest autofocus and continuous frames-per-second shooting when it was introduced.
For my work, that meant I typically traveled with a7R series cameras for portraits and landscapes and an a9 for action. Switching between them was a reminder of the tradeoff between resolution and speed. Because of this, none of these cameras was a true “flagship” camera.
Sony Alpha 1 Slideshow: Camera Front
The Alpha 1 is built around a new 50-megapixel full-frame stacked Exmor RS CMOS image sensor. Improved sensor readout speeds enable up to 120 AF/AE calculations per second.
That’s the beauty of Sony Alpha 1. Its 50-megapixel sensor nearly matches a7R IV’s 61-megapixel resolution while at the same time offering extremely fast continuous shooting and, in my estimation, the best autofocus on the planet.
Sony Alpha 1: Resolution & Speed
With the Alpha 1, Sony shooters no longer need to choose between resolution and speed. The Sony a1 uses an all-new 50-megapixel Exmor RS backside-illuminated CMOS sensor capable of capturing fine detail yet with twice the readout speed of the previous best-in-class a9 II, virtually eliminating rolling shutter, so subjects like flapping wings won’t be distorted when using the electronic shutter.
The updated 30 fps electronic shutter offers silent, vibration-free performance and also supports anti-flicker shooting for working under fluorescent, LED or other flicker-prone types of artificial light, even while shooting at 30 fps. Alpha 1 also offers a newly designed 10 fps mechanical shutter. A large buffer permits recording up to 155 compressed RAW frames or 165 JPEGs in a single burst at 30 fps.
Improved processing power rarely grabs the headlines, but the BIONZ XR processors in the Sony a1 are like adding superchargers for lots more horsepower. With up to 8x faster image processing, this aids in greatly reduced rolling shutter and in enabling fast, continuous shooting speeds and AF calculations.
Chimpanzee at the Los Angeles Zoo, California.
Sony a1, Sony FE 600mm F4 GM OSS G Master with Sony FE 1.4x teleconverter at 840mm. Exposure: 1/80 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 500.
Autofocus & Tracking In Sony Alpha 1
Alpha 1 performs up to 120 autofocus and exposure calculations per second for faster, more responsive tracking and accurate results. At its top shooting speed of 30 fps, the camera is actually recalculating focus and exposure four times between every single frame—and considerably more at slower shooting speeds.
The Hybrid AF system covers 92 percent of the sensor with 759 phase-detection points along with 425 contrast-detection areas for quick and precise focusing under a wide variety of lighting conditions, with sensitivity down to -4 EV. Phase-Detection AF is active all the way down to ƒ/22, allowing you to lock onto moving subjects quickly with Real-time Tracking, which uses AI-based technology. The camera’s touchscreen LCD also enables touch tracking for manual selection of the subject.
You can fine-tune how the focusing system performs. Seven-step AF transition speed and five-step AF subject shift sensitivity controls let you refine how quickly focus shifts from point to point and how smoothly focusing shifts occur. This enables you to decide whether focus remains “sticky” on the subject if something passes in front of it.
Real-Time Eye AF For Birds
For a portrait photographer, Real-time Eye AF has been a game-changer. Previous cameras offered Eye AF for both humans and animals, but as Sony continues to expand Eye AF, Alpha 1 adds Real-time Eye AF for Birds. When Wide focus area is selected, Bird Eye AF will search the entire frame for a bird’s eye. I generally prefer to select Spot M, Expand Spot or Tracking: Expand Spot to tell the camera where to search. These modes allow you to select the bird to be tracked, and the camera will automatically detect the bird’s eye and track it, whether the bird is stationary or in flight. My only suggestion is to avoid Spot S—it’s simply too small.
Snowy egret at Malibu Lagoon State Beach, California. The a1 introduces Real-time Eye AF for Birds.
Sony a1, Sony FE 600mm F4 GM OSS G Master with Sony FE 2x teleconverter at 1200mm. Exposure: 1/1250 sec., ƒ/8, ISO, ISO 1000.
Since Human, Animal and Bird Eye AF are three separate modes, you may want to assign this function to one of the many Custom Buttons on the camera since there’s no AI yet that switches between the modes. This is not entirely a bad thing. If a man, a horse and a bird walk into a bar, this allows you to pick the eye to follow.
For this review, I wanted to test Eye AF on wide variety of animals and birds, so I visited the Los Angeles Zoo as well as Malibu Lagoon State Beach. These locations gave me the opportunity to test out the effectiveness of the system on a wide range of animals and birds.
Sony Alpha 1 Feature Highlights
In-Body Image Stabilization
As with all Sony mirrorless cameras since a7 II, the a1 provides 5.5 stops of 5-axis image stabilization during handheld shooting of stills and video. Because the system is built into the camera, it enables stabilization with any lens—even adapted lenses. Additionally, the 5-axis image stabilization works in conjunction with compatible native and third-party lenses that include Optical SteadyShot (OSS) by allowing the lens to control two axes while the camera controls the rest.
High ISO Capabilities
Noise is in the eye of the beholder, and those of us who started photographing in the film era remember rather massive grain in anything over ISO 400. My best-known sports photo was shot on ASA 1600 color negative film with grain the size of boulders. Sony Alpha 1 actually looks cleaner at ISO 51,200.
Speke’s gazelle at the Los Angeles Zoo, California.
Sony a1, Sony FE 600mm F4 GM OSS G Master with Sony FE 2x teleconverter at 1200mm. Exposure: 1/80 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 500.
Whenever possible, I try to shoot at the native ISO 100 for lowest noise and widest dynamic range. It’s important to know that many recent Sony cameras have a second ISO point where gain is added to the signal. In my experience with the a1, this boost occurs at ISO 500. While this is not true “Dual Native ISO” like that found in Sony’s cinema cameras, ISO 500 has slightly lower noise and wider dynamic range than ISO 250. For this reason, I recommend jumping from ISO 200 straight to ISO 500 when you need more speed, and I have no qualms going up to 12,800 or higher if needed. You can clean up noise in post, but a hopelessly blurred image resulting from too slow of a shutter speed will remain so for eternity.
Fast Flash Sync
Alpha 1’s newly designed mechanical shutter is capable of flash sync up to 1/400 sec. in full-frame shooting or 1/500 sec. with an APS-C crop. Thanks to extremely fast readout speeds, electronic shutter flash sync is possible up to 1/200 sec. This is extremely welcome news to photographers who shoot outdoor location portraits with flash since higher flash sync speeds make it easier to overpower harsh sunlight.
In addition to allowing faster flash sync, this new mechanical shutter is also much quieter than previous generations. To my tastes, this strikes the perfect balance. It’s barely audible yet just enough to give that subtle feedback of each exposure. Though wildlife photographers will probably want to enable silent mode, I definitely prefer audible feedback when I shoot. So even when shooting with the electronic shutter, I generally disable the silent option, so that I hear a sound with each exposure.
Lossless Compressed RAW
Another user request that Sony engineers addressed is the addition of lossless compressed RAW. With the a1, you have three RAW options: Compressed, Lossless Compressed and Uncompressed. I find that in most instances, there is no visible difference between the three modes—other than file size. And that’s important because shooting 50-megapixel images at 30 fps can quickly translate to big storage consumption.
The Compressed format will yield a RAW file of approximately 51.2 MB, while a Lossless Compressed file will be only slightly larger at approximately 57.6 MB. Compare these to Uncompressed, which will produce a RAW file of approximately 98.5 MB. That’s nearly double the file size of the compressed formats.
Compressed allows the fastest shooting speed. Lossless Compressed is a good all-around balance when you don’t need the maximum 30 fps. (The max speed drops to 20 fps with Lossless Compressed and Uncompressed.) If you’re shooting star trails or extremely long exposures with heavy ND filters, you may want to choose Uncompressed.
El Matador State Beach in Malibu, California. The Sony a1 is an excellent choice for landscape photographers with its wide dynamic range and 50-megapixel resolution.
Sony a1, Sony FE 12–24mm F2.8 G Master at 12mm. Exposure: 0.8 sec., ƒ/22, ISO 50.
21-Megapixel APS-C Crop Mode
When shooting with APS-C crop, the Sony a1 yields a 21-megapixel image. That’s another advantage of the sensor’s native resolution—you still get a relatively large file even when cropped. This can be handy when you need an extra 1.5x magnification beyond the reach of the lens you’re using. If you wish to apply this on the fly, assign this mode to one of the custom buttons on the camera or the customizable focus hold button on the lens.
Pixel Shift Mode
Landscape photographers seeking the highest resolution will want to check out Pixel Shift Mode. Working in conjunction with the sensor-shift image stabilization, this mode slightly moves the sensor while making 16 consecutive exposures that can be merged together using Sony’s Imaging Edge desktop application into a file with approximately 199-megapixel resolution. It also offers greater color accuracy and detail than possible with a single exposure, since the fractional movements of the sensor allow each pixel to capture red, green and blue signals separately. You’ll get the best results when both your camera and subject are completely still, so use a tripod and understand that it may not work well on a windy day or with moving subjects.
The Sony a1 offers 8K 30p and 4K 120p video in 10-bit color. S-Cinetone can be used to deliver distinct colors and healthy-looking skin tone rendering that matches the Sony FX9 and FX6 cameras and is based on technology from the professional Sony Cinema Line cameras, such as the VENICE. This color profile offers natural mid-tones, soft colors and well-controlled highlights. The camera features a passive cooling heat sink to help prevent overheating when shooting extended clips.
Groundbreaking Electronic Viewfinder
Alpha 1 features a 9.44 million-dot QXGA OLED EVF with 0.9x magnification for exceptionally bright, clear and detailed eye-level viewing. It has an incredibly fast 240 fps refresh rate for smooth motion rendering and blackout-free viewing, producing a viewing experience that’s as close to a true optical viewfinder yet in an EVF.
Gorilla at the Los Angeles Zoo, California.
Sony a1, Sony FE 600mm F4 GM OSS G Master with Sony FE 1.4x teleconverter at 840mm. Exposure: 1/400 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 500.
New Menu Interface
With the a7S III, Sony introduced an update to their user interface with a more intuitive color-coded menu system, which is used in the a1 as well. If you’ve felt lost in Sony menus in the past, this will come as very welcome news. For longtime Sony shooters, it may take a little time to find where Sony has moved some of the settings, but the changes quickly make sense. The menu system also works in conjunction with the touchscreen LCD.
Anti-Dust Shutter Close
Sony reports that many photographers have requested the option to close the shutter to cover the sensor when changing lenses in dusty conditions. Sony has resisted this in the past because shutters are very delicate and expensive to repair, while sensors are easy to clean, but with that warning, Sony has added an Anti-dust Function menu setting that closes the shutter when the camera is powered down. With shutter close enabled, the camera goes into a shutdown mode when you turn it off, and the shutter will close three seconds after it’s powered down.
Dual Memory Card Slots
The a1 can accept either CFexpress Type A or SD-type memory cards, and both of the card slots are rated to support UHS-II memory cards for optimal transfer speeds. CFexpress Type A cards offer the fastest transfer speeds, allowing the buffer to clear more quickly, and are required to get the camera’s maximum continuous shooting rates. You can choose simultaneous redundant recording to both card slots, set recording to roll over from Slot 1 to Slot 2 or split files between the two slots for options like recording RAW to one slot and JPEG to the other.
Giraffe at the Los Angeles Zoo, California.
Sony a1, Sony FE 600mm F4 GM OSS G Master at 600mm. Exposure: 1/1250 sec., ƒ/4, ISO 500.
Durability & Weather Sealing
As you’d expect from a $6,500 flagship pro camera, Alpha 1 has excellent build quality, with a magnesium alloy chassis for rigidity, durability and stability while remaining lightweight. The lens mount has been improved to better support heavy lenses, and the grip has also been improved.
The camera includes extensive weather protection, including enhanced sealing around the battery cover, terminal cover and chassis joints to resist dust and moisture for reliable operation in harsh weather conditions.
Check the current price of the Sony Alpha 1 at B&H.
See more of Brian Smith’s work at briansmith.com.