Sony Alpha 1 Definitive First Impressions: Game Changer or Hype?

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

We got the Sony A1 surprisingly early, and here’s what we think about this camera!

Let’s talk about the design of this camera. I think, like a lot of you out there, I was hoping that Sony would update the design, especially with the A1. But after using the camera for a few days, I understand why Sony didn’t want to really change the game with this camera system. The reason is that this is a pro camera.

The price point, the feature set, it all leads to being a pro camera, and pros are used to a specific button set on a camera. They’re used to how it holds and how to use it. To relearn a camera system, especially when your livelihood depends on it, for capturing fast action for, let’s say, the Olympics or sporting events or political events for that matter, whatever it may be, where your livelihood is capturing that shot, you don’t want to miss it because you’re fiddling with buttons because the camera is new.

I think this is why we’ve seen Canon and Nikon really sticking to the same body design in their D series and 1 DX series, for that reason alone. So I can understand why Sony did it with this camera system but the consumer side of me wishes that it was a little bit different. And it is different; obviously, you have your high frame rate, mode dial and of course, various different focusing dials which are really well put together. You will notice that the camera feels a little bit heftier than the A7R IV, but it’s only slight. Probably the average person won’t notice a difference. Moving to the back of this, of course, we do have that display that everybody was hoping was going to be a flip-out rotatable display, it is not, it’s just the standard flip-up. This is the basic of basics, it’s has been in Sony cameras for a number of years. It’s touch-enabled, so there’s a little bit of difference to that. But yeah, and it’s only 1.4 million dots so it’s not the highest resolution display.

However, I understand why Sony did that because once you go to the EVF, everything changes. Got a 9.44-million dot EVF for this thing, it’s the highest resolution EVF out there, the same as the A7S III, but it can go up to 240 frames per second. That’s a high refresh rate, it’s basically what you get on a monitor display for gaming. So you’re essentially getting that optical viewfinder quality, but it’s an EVF.

It is beautiful and it’s 0.90x magnification so it’s very big when you’re looking at it. Whereas other cameras are usually 0.72 or 0.8 thereabouts, this is 0.90 so you’re almost getting a 1:1 ratio on it which is fantastic.

I applaud this and actually, I understand why Sony then had to make a choice. Do you go for high resolution and higher frame rate on the EVF which is going to take more battery? Or do you go with the display? And because this camera is designed to be used with the EVF majority of the time and my personal opinion? You don’t want to kill the battery life on this camera when you go with 30fps. You got to make some sacrifices, so I think they stuck with the basic monitor for referencing and for your menu, but if you really want to pixel peep, use the EVF to see your images and you’ll really see the quality out of that versus the display, which is just more for reference than anything else.

Let’s talk about battery life for a second on this. I don’t know the exact shots but I can say that if you are trying to max out the speed of this camera, along with video, you can get through a day with this camera on a single battery. But I would recommend getting the battery grip anyway because, you know, it just gives you that peace of mind that you’re not going to run out. But I would notice that I would start off the day around 10am at the zoo and the bird park, and by 4pm I was down to about 50 percent on the battery.

So, it’s not bad because I was keeping the High+ framerate mode on the entire time. But if you are in a profession where you’re going to need this for even more advanced or more strenuous shooting conditions that will really push this camera to its limits, definitely get the battery grip or a second battery. It’s got all the same ports that you saw on the A7S III, full-size HDMI port on it, USB-C which you can charge on and your headphone jack. This is designed for the pro user, consumers will buy this camera because they want the best of the best, but it has all the ports and all the functionality and connectivity for the pro photographer out there that needs to get their images to the editors to publish immediately.

Now, let’s talk about the internals and what’s inside. We’re not gonna go through everything in this camera system because there is a lot inside of this body, but we’ll highlight some of the things that stood out. First off, the sensor. It’s a stacked BSI 50-megapixel CMOS sensor. I have never seen a 50 megapixel sensor perform like this in any full-frame camera on the market currently. There’s nothing out there like this. In terms of low light performance, in terms of speed, in terms of all the things that the sensor can bring, this is phenomenal. And of course, we got dual processors inside of this camera system as well so the speed out of this with the autofocusing is even faster than the Sony A9 II.

Then we get into “up to 30 frames per second”. Now there’s an asterisk to that because there’s a lot depending on the type of lens that you’re using, your settings inside the camera, all these things which we’ll talk about in terms of usage in just a bit.

You’ve got two dual CFexpress Type A cards as well, along with UHS-II slots in there if you want to opt for that, but go for the CFexpress. Honestly speaking, the UHS-II cards are there as a backup. But the CFexpress Type A cards are what this camera needs to perform at its maximum. But I’ll talk about those cards later on in terms of usability because there are pros and cons to those cards.

Honestly, it’s what everybody’s saying. It’s three cameras in one without compromise. I have got essentially an A7R IV, not 61 megapixels but 50, with better low light performance in this camera system. I’ve got a camera system faster than the A9 II up to 30fps 50 megapixels. The A9 II has 24 megapixels. This is 50, and it’s faster, or as fast in some regards. Then you have the specs that match or beat the A7S III, with 8K video recording in this camera, and 16-bit RAW recording externally.

I mean, Sony put the kitchen sink in this camera system. It’s all in here. Sony gave us a camera that I’ve never seen on the market before. I thought the R5 was it, but this camera’s the real deal.

So let’s talk about what this camera is like to use. We have to talk about one thing that I didn’t mention in terms of features inside of this camera, I wanted to wait for this because it was really important, it’s the electronic shutter. With the A9 and A9 II, Sony really redefined what you could do with an electronic shutter inside of a camera system. And with the A1, they pushed the boundaries again. There is no warping, there is no banding, there are no odd shapes when you’re capturing fast motion. It performs like a mechanical shutter, but its speeds will blow your mind.

And one thing I realised is that this camera is meant to be shot with the electronic shutter the majority of the time. I would say to use the mechanical shutter if you want a faster frame rate in terms of, you know, flash photography because it can go up to 1/400ths of a second for flash now. With the electronic shutter you can use flash as well, 1/200th of a second, which is quite amazing to actually be able to use an electronic shutter for flash photography. I didn’t get to test that, of course, because I had limited time and I didn’t have access to a studio because of the holiday season here.

But I took thousands of shots, all with the electronic shutter. And as you can see through some of the sample shots throughout this video, they’re beautiful. There are no odd shapes, there is no warping, there is nothing even under various different lighting conditions. You can fine-tune the shutter to compensate for that flickering that you might get with tungsten lights or, you know, or artificial lighting sources so this camera, people will want to compare to the camera systems out there.

But when you talk about the electronic shutter, there’s nothing out there that competes with this. I would say this is about a year and a half or two years ahead of everybody else out there. Now, maybe someone will come out with an electronic shutter that’ll blow our minds, but I’ve only seen that in RED cameras thus far, I haven’t seen it in a photography camera, but this is as close as we’re getting to a global shutter in 2021.

Now, let’s talk about speed for a moment because one of the big things that Sony is touting is up to 30 frames per second. I wanted to talk about this because through my testing, I never was actually hitting up to 30 frames; it was 25, 26, even 22 depending on the lens and the lens is a big factor in this. There have been some other reviews out there in the market that really have, you know, compared this to other cameras and I don’t want to do that here because this is still pre-production firmware. That’s what Sony told me as well, even though it’s pretty much final or close to final. There will always be a few adjustments before it releases.

Anyway, in terms of its speed, it depends on the lenses. Now, if you’re using the 70-200mm or the 24-70mm or the 85mm f1.4, those are older GM lenses, and while there are updates, they’re not designed to maximize the speed of this camera system. I got the 135mm f1.8 on this which I’ve been using for quite a bit, as well as the 100-400mm GM lens which I used for, I would say, 80% of the shots that I’ve taken over the past few days because I wanted to test animal tracking and bird tracking and all that fun stuff. And those lenses perform beautifully on this, and you can get to that 30 frames, but you have to also set up the camera in a certain way.

I’ll go through some of those settings, but I would definitely recommend watching a video by Mark Taylor, who is a Sony image ambassador, he’s out of Australia and he’s a well-known photographer there. But really what you want to do is that when you program the camera, you want to have the shutter release button set for release and not for autofocus. So, the camera will automatically focus, you don’t have to program it to focus, it will automatically do so, but it’s sort of like opening the floodgates for it to actually maximize up to 30 frames per second when you can do so.

But I’ll be honest, you’re not going to be using this setting all the time. Because firstly, it’s going to drain your battery and secondly, you’re going to fill up your CFexpress Type A cards really quickly because you can only max them out at 160GB per card, versus Type B which is up to 512GB and even higher. However, you will find that if you want to hold the shutter release button down you’ll get to about 5.5 seconds before the buffering starts kicking in. Now, it does clear relatively quickly, but it will slow down the shutter speed because I think it’s also considering the speed of the cards. Case in point, the CFexpress Type A cards only go up to about 700MB for write speeds, but Type B is around 1800MB or so, which means it’s almost double the speed as Type A.

Let’s talk about autofocusing for a moment because you’ve got human eye tracking, which Sony is renowned for, it’s best in the business. There’s also animal eye tracking now, and it will capture relatively well, and it’s pretty accurate I have to say. Once in a while, you’ll see that you’ll get the fur around the eye and the eyeballs out of focus. But I would say eight times out of 10, the iris is in focus, especially when you’re a distance away from the animal. It’s really good in that regard, with birds. Now birds might be, I wouldn’t say it’s the weakest of the three, but it’s the one that probably could use a little bit more improvement. The reason being, it does work well, but even with the birds facing you, there are times the AF will miss the eye, but it will capture the bird’s body because it’s such a thin, shallow depth of field. But I found that my hit rate with birds was actually pretty impressive and this is going to get better over time. I mean, I think Sony is going to work on this. So that’s in terms of autofocusing.

Now, in terms of image quality out of this sensor, as I mentioned before, this redefines what a 50-megapixel full-frame sensor can do. You know, Sony has been constantly improving their colour science and that’s something everybody always complained about. I’m shooting JPEG because unfortunately, programmes can’t read RAW files at this time. But the colours are beautiful. Then, of course, you can use S-Cinetone as well.

You can use it for video and also for photography, and you get a very nice cinematic look; the skin tones are beautiful and that magenta tone that you used to get on Sony cameras is gone. These files are very easy to edit, the colours are very easy to edit. Sony has done a great job of the colour science and I was someone who complained about the colour science on older cameras, but not on this. Even friends of mine that tried this camera over the past few days were like, wow, the colours are beautiful out of this thing. That colour issue is a thing of the past.

Okay, let’s talk about the formats this camera can shoot. Of course, you have RAW, you got your extra fine for JPEG, but you also have HEIF files, eight-bit and 10-bit.

Now, asterisk next to this because I’m using a Mac and it can only read the eight-bit files, like, even if you shoot in 10-bit, it can only read in eight-bit and Lightroom, nothing, nada, zilch. So, here’s a little tip, if you get this camera and you’re trying to use it on your Mac. What I would do is take the files, put them onto your desktop, then save them again as a HEIC file in Apple’s format, then when you import into Lightroom, Lightroom can see the image. Again, it’s only eight-bit, it’s not 10 bit, so we’re gonna have to wait for the OS to sort of update their systems to read 10-bit, but it’s there and we also faced this with Canon previously as well.

I mean I know this is the future, it’s going to take over JPEG in the future but right now, a lot of computers can’t read them so just be wary of that. But I’ll tell you what, extra-fine JPEG, which I’ve been shooting the majority of the images you’re seeing here in this video with, is beautiful. I can edit them, there’s a decent enough dynamic range and I could honestly say I’m not a person that shoots JPEG. I mainly shoot RAW because I like that versatility and the dynamic range I have in a RAW file to really pull from highlights and shadows, but if I’m a working photographer and I need a really clean solid image, I would have no issues submitting a JPEG file for this. It’s really, really good, sharp and has great detail and great dynamic range. As you can see, they’re beautiful and these images have been edited quite a bit.

So let’s talk about the video for a moment. Now I didn’t tap in too much for video on this system because I’m more into the photography side of things of course, but 8K reads relatively well on a computer; it’s not as intensive as Canon’s variant from the R5 which would shut down computers. Sony’s is much easier on your computer system, so it’s easily editable and it looks fantastic as well. You’ve got 4K 120, you’ve got 10-bit 4:2:2 in this, but now people are saying, well isn’t the system pixel binning versus the A7S III?

Honestly, folks, we have pixel peepers out there for photography, and we got pixel binning peepers out there for video. And the majority of you out there watching these videos on YouTube, or watching online, you’re not going to notice the difference. If you’re a cinematographer and you’re working with $100,000 camera systems, yeah, or if you’re projecting onto a movie screen, yes, these things matter a bit more, but for the majority of us, this camera system and what it can do with video is way beyond what we need now, and probably in a years time from now. It’s future-proofed, and that video footage is beautiful. And then you can use S-Cinetone to make it even more beautiful. So, no issues at all, plus there’s S-Log 1, S-Log 2, S-Log 3, it’s all in there, no compromises whatsoever.

And that’s pretty much what this camera is like to use. Coming to low-light performance, normally with a high-resolution sensor, you don’t want to push it beyond, you know, 3200 ISO, and at 6400 ISO it gets really noisy. I’ve taken images with this at 12,800 ISO that are beautiful. Noise reduction’s turned off, low light, but still very usable images. If you want to turn on the noise reduction inside the camera system for your JPEGs, it does a great job at reducing the noise. We are seeing the next generation of higher megapixel sensors that are going to be able to handle low light almost as well as a 24-megapixel sensor that we were previously used to using, you’re now seeing that here in the A1.

But you are going to get great low light performance in photography, as well as video. And there are videos out there comparing it to the A7S III and saying this even does a better job in some aspects than the A7S III, and it’s 50 megapixels. I don’t know what to say. This camera just impresses you with what it can do. And the more videos that come out with this over time, the more people use it, the more people really get their hands on it for a long term review or usage, they’re going to discover even more. But this camera has impressed me every single day I’ve had it.

And I don’t say that about a lot of cameras. As you know, I’ve been quite critical of Sony at times, but this is my favorite Sony camera I have ever used to date.

It just blew me away in terms of specs; the camera, as a whole, is on another level. And I don’t think we’ve ever seen a full-frame camera system like this yet on the market. It’s something that you really have to play with to understand its capabilities and the potential you have with the system. Now, there are some things to take note, of course, that Sony does have some older lenses, we mentioned the 70-200mm f2.8, the 85mm f1.4 and the 24mm f2.8, and while you can get third party lenses that will cover those focal ranges, of course you won’t get the optimal speeds with the A1 with those lenses as of yet. Hopefully, Sony does update those lenses in the near future and I think that’s something that they can work on because they arguably have the best full-frame camera on the market now. All they need are lenses to match what this camera body can do.

In terms of the CFexpress Type A cards, I do hope that Sony comes out with larger capacity cards. 160GB I feel is okay for consumers and hobbyists out there but if you’re a pro user, and you’re capturing a football game or NBA game or, you know, the Olympics, you’re going to need a higher capacity card, and also in terms of write speed, I feel that the Type A needs to be faster. I think that this will open the capabilities of this camera even more, and also future-proofing. I don’t know Sony will be doing this in the near future, but I’m hoping that they will, and seeing that Sony is out to win this whole frame game, I think that will happen.


Content by Bobby Tonelli