Gear Reviews

Sony a9ii v Sony a1: Battle of the speed kings

Which high-performance full-frame Sony mirrorless should you buy?

If you’re passionate about sports and wildlife photography then Sony has you covered. Not only does the brand offer the a9ii, which was launched back in late 2019 and replaced the original a9, but now Sony has gone even further and has just released the a1, also called the Alpha 1, which is more money, but offers even more advanced professional features. The question is though, which of these full-frame E-mount cameras is right for your photography needs? To help you make the correct buying decision, we’re taking a detailed look at each model…

Design and build:

Let’s start with the older of the cameras and the a9ii is built around a CMOS 24.2-megapixel full-frame stacked image sensor that is paired with a BIONZ X image-processing engine. This decent resolution serves up a maximum file size of 6000 x 4000 pixels, which should be more than enough to create prints up to A3 in size, or allow the photographer to crop in a little without compromising image quality. Meanwhile the new Alpha 1 is also a full-frame mirrorless, but takes the resolution further, offering a huge 50.1MP stacked CMOS sensor that is paired with Sony’s new BIONZ XR engine, Sony explains can boost speed by up to 8x. This is more than double the resolution of the a9ii and delivers a maximum file size of 8640 x 5760 pixels. This huge resolution will enable photographers to make huge prints and have even more tolerance to crop in on frames.

Because both cameras are very much professional level, it’s no surprise that both cameras feature weather sealing, enabling them to be used in harsh conditions which will be of great interest to wildlife photographs who often have to work in the field in poor weather. When it comes to size, the a9ii is a little lighter than the Alpha 1 at 678g, with the new model tipping the scales at 737g. However, both cameras are still lighter than their rivals as the Canon 1DX Mark III weighs a bulky 1250g while the Nikon D6 tips the scales even heavier at 1270g. In short, the D6 is nearly double the weight of a9ii.

Both the a9ii and the Alpha 1 offer an Electronic Viewfinder and LCD, giving photographers the choice of how to line up their images. The touch-sensitive LCDs are the same size at 3-inch and feature a tilting design, which will help when setting up awkward low/high compositions but there is a difference between the Electronic Viewfinders as while the a9ii features a 1.3cm 3.6 million-dot resolution EVF, the Alpha 1 goes further with a 1.6cm 9.4million-dot EVF.

In wildlife and sports photography, there’ll be times when you may need to shoot in low light conditions, so it’s good to hear that both the Alpha 1 and the a9ii feature a vast ISO range. In fact, the slightly more dated a9ii actually offers the higher native ISO of 100-51200 (expandable to 204800), compared to the Alpha 1 which features a native ISO of 100-32000 that can be expanded to 102400.

Features and performance:

As you’d expect from premium sports and wildlife cameras, both the Alpha 1 and the a9ii are packed with cutting edge features. Let’s start with the IBIS (In Body Image Stabilisation), which both cameras feature. The advanced 5-axis system corrects for changes to yaw, pitch and roll and both models offer up to 5.5-stops of compensation, although this can go further if the cameras are paired with lenses that also feature image stabilisation technology. The really important features about these cameras, and arguably the real reason professionals buy them, are the focus and burst rate specifications.

Let’s start with speed and the a9ii does a fantastic job of offering a maximum burst rate of 20 frames per second (FPS) which, even though the camera is two years old, is still blisteringly fast and should cover split second moments that wildlife and sports shooters chase down. However, the Alpha 1 has pulled in some big headlines since its launch and for good reason, because this amazing camera can shoot up to 30 frames a second in its maximum burst rate and this should make a real difference to professionals who desire those split second moments. What’s more, despite the big 50-megapixel resolution, the Alpha 1’s big buffer means it can capture up to 155 full-frame compressed RAW images or 165 full-frame JPEG images in one single burst.

When it comes to autofocus, there is a big point of difference too, and one that will make a big difference to wildlife photographers. While the a9ii offers an impressive autofocus system featuring Sony’s Real Time Eye AF for humans that helps photographers lock onto subjects, it also puts 693 AF points in the hands of the photographer. However, Sony has had two years to build on this technology and the Alpha 1 increases the AF points to 759 while also becoming the first for a Sony Alpha camera to feature Real Time Eye AF for birds and this should make a big difference to wildlife photographers in the field who love to line up feathered subjects through the Electronic Viewfinder.

Both cameras feature a 3-inch tilting LCD, but the Alpha 1 boasts the higher resolution Electronic Viewfinder.

Video:

Along with big resolution, fast burst rates and impressive autofocus, a lot of photographers will select both these cameras because of their video specifications. Why? Well, because the a9ii and the Alpha 1 are true hybrid cameras  that could easily become part of a videographer’s set-up and be used to create big film productions. The a9ii features ultra high quality 4K footage at 30p, but it’s the incredible Alpha 1 that is the true video king as it is able to shoot 8K video at 30p for up to 30 minutes, which will deliver huge file sizes, but also insane quality to videographers using the camera.

The a9ii and Alpha 1 are packed with video features, though only the Alpha 1 can shoot 8K video.

If you don’t need that 8K, the Alpha 1 can also shoot  4K footage up to 120p in 10-bit 4:2:2 and features Sony’s S-Cinetone colour profile technology. Both the Alpha 1 and the a9ii also feature ports for headphones and an external microphone enabling enhanced audio to be both captured and monitored. 

Other features and verdict:

One of the biggest niggles with mirrorless cameras and a potential barrier that stops DSLR shooters from crossing over to mirrorless is battery life, but both the a9ii and the Alpha 1 do well in this area. While the newer Alpha 1 can deliver 430 shots on a single charge using the EVF or 530 using the LCD, it’s the slightly older a9ii that comes out on top, offering 500 shots (Electronic Viewfinder) or 690 shots using the LCD. For most photographers, this could well be enough for a day’s photography, although if you need more you can always pick up additional batteries to suit your needs.

Both the Alpha 1 and the a9ii offer fairly slim profiles and are lighter than their rivals.

While both the Alpha 1 and a9ii feature dual SD card slots, the Alpha 1 can also take CFExpress media, too and both cameras feature Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology so that images can be shared quickly. The Alpha 1 features a much higher flash sync speed than the a9ii, (1/400sec v 1/250sec), which should open the door to much more creative lighting options, including being able to use flash with moving subjects and both cameras feature anti-flicker technology to increase image quality of photography captured under artificial lighting.

In summary, both these cameras are at the top of their game with the a9ii being Sony’s flagship camera before the launch of the new Alpha 1. While the a9ii offers better battery life and a higher ISO range, the newer Alpha 1 is faster and offers more resolution, additional autofocus features and AF points, along with that all important 8k video. Both cameras will be brilliant additions to your camera bag so any buying decision may well come down to your own budget.

The a9ii and Alpha 1 use Sony’s E-mount, meaning there are plenty of lenses (both from Sony and third-party brands) available on the market.