The karate school that I attend has over three hundred students. It’s a very busy school with classes every day of the week, belt tests quarterly (for those that have earned their stripes), and a couple of in house tournaments a year. With that many students, it takes a lot of volunteerism to help the school succeed. For my part, I photograph a lot of the events and publish the pictures on the school’s Facebook page. It’s great for the general morale of the students and families – as well as a great way to market and advertise the school on social media.
Everyone knows that time is always a precious commodity. Personally, I want a photographic workflow that is as easy as possible. Specifically, I want the images to look great out of the camera (no editing), and to have a high amount of the shots I take to be in focus.
The reason that I bought an a9 for shooting sports, as opposed to another sports camera, was because it’s actually more affordable than the competition. Furthermore, I really enjoy using mirrorless cameras as opposed to DSLRs (most of the time). I purchased a new Sony a9 from Adorama, with a Sony grip, and an extra battery for $3800. Also included with the camera, was a promotional offer of a free Shure VP83F microphone. $3,800 is indeed quite a bit of money, but compared to the competition, it’s a bargain. At the time of this writing, a new 1DX Mark II with rebate retails for $5,500, and a new Nikon D5 is $6,500! None of this is chump change. I wanted to make sure that if I ponied up this much money for a camera, that it would be one that would do everything I needed to do for many years to come.
I’ve paired up the a9 with the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens. That focal length does just about everything I need for close to mid range sports photography. The GM Sony is a sharp lens with excellent performance. I bought my copy used, and it’s probably one of the best lenses I’ve ever used. I’ll let you judge from the pictures later in this article. All the photos were shot at f/2.8 except the portraits which were shot around f/4 to f/5.6.
I’ve now had a chance to shoot three karate events with this combo. Two in mixed lighting conditions during the day (natural and artificial light), and in the evening one using only artificial lighting. Unfortunately, the lighting conditions in the karate school are less than ideal for photography – regardless as to the time of day. As far as karate training goes, the lighting is fine – no complaints, but they weren’t designed for an ideal white balancing experience.
The school has two main “floors” (they’re on opposite sides of the dojo, but two distinct training areas). During testing, both floors are utilized. Floor 1 has different lighting conditions than floor 2. The walls are different colors, some are red, others are grey. This causes the reflected light to be quite different depending on where a student is standing. Moreover, the school is quite long. This means the lighting conditions towards the front of the building (by the windows) are different than towards the back of the building (no windows). Also, as the position of sun changes throughout the day, or weather conditions change, so does the light outside that is streaming in. Thus, the white balance needed for proper shots changes often. Adding to this challenging lighting, is the fact that floor 2 but has a different white balance to it than floor 1. Unfortunately, auto white balance doesn’t do the trick.
Before each event, I set custom white balances for each floor. I have a button on the camera programmed for easy white balance switching. Thankfully, the camera has three white balance presets. I set floor 1 to preset number 1, floor 2 to preset number 2, and preset number 3 is set to the area with a red wall as a background that is used for portraits of students after the test with their instructors. Sometimes as lighting conditions change outside, I’ll reset the white balance throughout the test.
I shoot in manual mode. The exposure settings I use are ISO 3200, f/2.8 for action shots, and then I ride the shutter dial for controlling exposure. Usually it’s between 1/250 and 1/500. When I shoot the portraits with instructors, I usually lower the shutter speed to 1/100 (give or take), and have the aperture set to or around f/4. The in camera picture profile I have used the last two times is the Clear picture profile. I prefer to lower the saturation to -1. Also, I shoot RAW+JPEG. Even though I pretty much always use the JPEG, there have been a few times when the RAW file helped saved a shot.
Regarding my focus settings, I pretty much always use the “wide focus area” in continuous mode (at default settings), face detection on, and quite often I hold down the center button on the back for eye detection. It’s not always the best way to go, but more often than not, it does the trick. Sometimes, I’ll tap the middle of the joystick to set it to focus and track a particular subject.
Now that I’ve shared my settings, here’s a list of pros, cons, and findings during my last three events or close to 8,000 photos snapped. Bare in mind, there has been a new firmware announced that will improve autofocus performance more, but at this time, it’s only been demonstrated at trade shows and away from the hands of mere mortals like myself.
First, let’s discuss the Sony a9.
- Low noise images even at ISO 3200. I could probably even push it more, but haven’t had a need to.
- The battery last for hours and near a thousand shots (+/-).
- I have yet to fill the shooting buffer.
- Lotsa frames per second!!! In fact, I have had to dial this back because I was taking too many images resulting in longer culling time.
- Two card slots means not having to change cards in the middle of an action sequence.
- Fantastic and intuitive autofocus.
- EVF doesn’t black out.
- Good controls and feel in hand once you get used to it.
- It’s a workhorse machine, and one that I can see using for many years to come. From a photographic perspective, I really don’t know what I would need in a newer camera that would really make this one obsolete – it’s that impressive.
- Mirrorless – great EVF and responsiveness / no lag operation.
- Charge both batteries in the battery grip through the camera’s USB port.
- The video mode has been artificially crippled by Sony. There’s no good reason why the a9 doesn’t have all the picture profiles of the a7R III or a7 III.
- Not fun to use. The a9 feels very utilitarian, it’s a tool, it works great, but it’s not fun. I would consider the Nikon Z6 fun to use, as well as the Nikon D850, Fuji cameras in general, Leica M cameras, and Micro 4/3 cameras. Sony cameras are great, but they just seem all business to me. Maybe this is a silly thing to put down under the cons, but it’s for this reason that I own other brands as well. For serious stuff though, I have no qualms about using Sony.
- It would be cool if the battery grip was built in and the camera was the same shape as the D5 and 1DX Mark II. As it is, I leave the battery grip attached.
- The auto white balance stinks. Other cameras do auto white balance much better than the current lineup of Sony cameras.
- Touch screen implementation is so bad, that I disabled it.
On to the photos. These are straight out of the camera – no edits. I gotta say, I’m quite pleased!
Regarding video, it’s quite capable, with good autofocus, and it’s stabilized. I’m quite annoyed that there’s not HLG or S-LOG profiles. It’s an artificial limitation that they shouldn’t have put into place. In between shooting photos, I switched over to video mode to capture some of the action – the results are below. In hindsight, I should have changed video settings completely from what I was doing photographically, but the results are OK.
I did another test video at home, where I also talk about it’s video capabilities. It’s a little blurry because I had the shutter speed at 1/30 due to the LED bulbs I was using. I have since got rid of the LED bulbs in my den and gone back to incandescent because they don’t flicker or have wavy patterns when using various shutter speeds.
Bottom line, it’s a great stills camera with decent 4K video. It’s good, but lacks advanced creative options. If you’re in the market for a sports focused stills camera, then the a9 is awesome!