The Sony A9 II: The Best Wildlife Camera Body Available?

The Sony A9 is Sony’s flagship full-frame sports and wildlife body. It has been heralded as one of the best cameras for capturing action due to its high resolution, insanely fast burst shooting, and state of the art autofocus system. The A9 was released in May 2017 and many in the industry have been speculating a new Mark II version of the A9. The rumors grew even stronger this spring with the release of Canon and Nikon’s mirrorless models. I’m sure it won’t be long until Nikon and Canon put out their respective competing bodies to the A9, but as of now, the A9 is in a league of its own. 

Last month, Sony announced the A9 II and it appears all set to be another flagship Sony camera. Although many of the specs are similar, the camera was fine-tuned and should set the industry standard for sports/wildlife oriented camera bodies. Many are looking at the new A9 II and wondering what has changed, the new release is very similar to the A9, but there are upgrades. If you are a Sony shooter or considering a system switch, I don’t think there is a better wildlife combo than the Sony A9 II and the Sony 400mm f/2.8 (plus a tele). You pay for what you get, and that is the best wildlife combo out there. 

Sony A9 II – $4,499.99 (Body Only)
Estimate Shipping Date: November 6th, 2019

Product Overview

  • Sensor: 24.2MP full-frame Exmor RS CMOS sensor with integral memory
  • AF points: Hybrid AF, 693 points phase detection, 425 contrast detection
  • ISO range: 100-51,200 (exp. 50-204,800)
  • Max image size: 6,000 x 4,000
  • Video: 4K at 30fps, 24fps / 1080p at 120 fps, 60fps, 30fps, 24fps
  • Viewfinder: EVF, 3.69m dots, 0.78x magnification
  • Memory card: 2x SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS II)
  • LCD: 3-inch tilting touchscreen, 1.44m dots
  • Max burst: 20 fps electronic shutter, 10fps mechanical
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi (5GHz), USB-C (USB 3.2 Gen 1) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, HDMI mini, LAN (1000BASE-T for FTPS), NFC
  • Size: 128.9 x 96.4 x 77.5mm
  • Weight: 678g (body only)

Upgrades over the A9 per Sony’s Press Release

  • Upgraded BIONZ X™ image processing engine gains maximum benefit from the sensor’s fast readout speed; processor works with front-end LSI to enhance speed in AF/AE detection, image processing, face detection and accuracy, and more
  • Upgraded dust and moisture resistant design to meet the needs of professionals in even the most challenging outdoor conditions; stronger sealing provided at all body seams as well as the battery compartment cover and media slot
  • The latest developed image-processing algorithm reduces noise in the medium-to-high sensitivity range while improving subjective resolution and image quality
  • 5-axis optical in-body image stabilization system that provides a shutter speed advantage of 5.5 steps
  • Improved grip configuration for even greater comfort and sure hold; compatible with Sony VG-C4EM Vertical Grip
  • Improved button design and feel; increased diameter and feedback of the ‘AF-ON’ button; a refined multi-selector joystick design; an exposure compensation dial lock button; and a redesigned shape and new position for the rear dial
  • Redesigned shutter mechanism to suppress even the slightest movement that can cause image blur; tested for durability in excess of 500,000 shutter cycles
  • USB Type-C™ connector that supports fast USB 3.2 Gen 1 data transfer
  • Dual media slots that are both compatible with UHS-I and UHS-II SD cards, allowing higher overall capacity and faster read/write speeds
  • The digital audio interface has been added to the camera’s Multi Interface Shoe™ (MI Shoe), enabling the new ECM-B1M Shotgun Microphone or XLR-K3M XLR Adaptor Kit to be connected directly to the MI Shoe for a cleaner, clearer audio recordings

Body
The A9 II resembles the A9 in many ways, it also has a similar build to the A7-series cameras. Sony’s mirrorless camera bodies are just similar – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

However, there are some additions to the A9 II body that offer an improvement over the A9. The A9 II is marginally bigger and has a bigger grip. The biggest downside of the A9 II versus the premier sport/wildlife cameras by Nikon and Canon is the ergonomics. The A9 II blows all DSLRs away in terms of specs, but it still might not feel as great in the hands as a larger DSLR would. The A9 II sees the same button overlay as the recently released A7R IV. There are now dials for both drive and autofocus modes, there is an AF joystick and dedicated AF-ON and AEL buttons. The A9 II has better weather sealing too, with double doors covering the battery and card slots. The buttons might not have been repositioned, but there are considerably beefed up. Buttons are thicker for better touch performance, and the AF joystick has a new texture. Both are improvements when it comes to handling. 

There are dual card slots on the A9 II, which both support UHS-II SD. On the A9, only one card slot supported UHS-II SD. The battery is the same, but performance has been improved – it is estimated that one can capture 690 shots using the LCD screen and 500 when using the EVF (The A9 was at 650 and 480, respectively). The LCD has remained unchanged and offers a very limited selection of touch features, which is disappointing considering some of the awesome touch screen LCD options in other mirrorless cameras. For the price point, it should have that feature. 

Connectivity
This camera was designed for press, sports, and wildlife shooters. Those genres can include shooting a ton of images, having quick turnaround times, and having to transfer large amounts of files. The connectivity upgrades could be the biggest improvement to the A9 II and should excite many who experience the issues above. The A9 II includes a built-in 1000BASE-T Ethernet terminal, which is a huge plus for connectivity and transferring images. It permits gigabit communication for high-speed, data transfer. Another plus – images can be transferred using SSL or TLS encryption (FTPS), which maximizes data security. 

Per Sony, PC remote (tether) shooting performance is improved, with a decreased release time lag and reduced live view screen delay when using the ‘Remote Camera Tool’ desktop application. The speed of the camera’s built-in wireless LAN functionality has also been increased, adding a stable and fast 5 GHz (IEEE 802.11ac) band, in addition to the 2.4 GHz provided in the Alpha 9. IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac standards are all supported.

These features maybe do not make the greatest impact for wildlife shooters, but there are some of the biggest upgrades when compared to the previous A9. 

Image Quality and Autofocus
In terms of resolution, the A9 II has the same state of the art 24.2 MP Exmor RS CMOS stacked image sensor. The sensor is the exact same as the A9. What’s funny, is the sensor was ‘state-of-the-art’ when it was released in the A9 and it is still “state-of-the-art’ three years later, whether that is good or bad, you decide. The A9 II can shoot 20 FPS continuous and silently, with no viewfinder blackout. That means 361 JPG files or 239 compressed RAW files. No blackout is still a critical feature, that means no interruptions if you are tracking an animal and waiting for that perfect moment. There is no EVF interruption either. Again, these features are found on the A9, too…the differences are minimal when it comes to image quality and sensor features. The one big difference though – mechanical shutter speeds on the new A9 II- has been improved. Users can expect 10 FPS, which is twice the speed of the old A9. 

 

We have covered it, spec-wise not much is changed, the hardware is very similar to the A9. Sony has made huge improvements in software though over the past 3 years and these improvements have been implemented into the A9. New autofocus algorithms allow the camera to function while continuously calculating Auto Focus and Auto Exposure at up to 60 times per second. These algorithms provide great precision and accuracy when it comes to autofocus, especially when the subject might be moving erratically (hint: wildlife). In a nutshell, the new algorithms offer incredible tacking capabilities, better than any other camera.   

The A9 II still has simply the best focusing system on the planet. It has 693 focal-plane phase-detection AF points covering approximately 93% of the image area, as well as 425 contrast AF points. The Fast Hybrid Autofocus system is super accurate, and it performs exceptionally in all light conditions. Sony introduced Real-time Eye AF and continues to fine-tune it in the A9 II. It is the best Eye AF system, and Sony even has algorithms that enable Eye AF for use with animals, which is incredible. 

Although the improvements are minimal, the A9 II is reliable and is the best performer in one of the most important aspects when it comes to wildlife photography: autofocus and burst. Many upgrades in the A9 II are software-based, but there is still not a better camera when it comes to AF coverage, acquisition, and tracking. 

Closing Thoughts
The Sony A9 II release was a disappointment to some. Many were hopeful for higher resolution and faster burst performance. But, the A9 was an incredible innovation when it was released. Is it possible Sony pushed the A9 so far that they simply are not in a position to make the camera that much better? Who knows. They needed to release a Mark II version and they did. Similar hardware specifications to the A9 have made people wary about how much of an upgrade the A9 II really is. But, the leaps taken by Sony in the software realm will really make the A9 II shine. It is a great camera and it is the best wildlife camera available. Pair the A9 II with a high-quality G2 lens and you will never look back. The 400mm f/2.8 or 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 are good options. I am interested to see what Canon and Nikon release to compete with the A9 II. There is no doubt that Canon and Nikon have many more lenses available that can be adapted to their mirrorless bodies, and that can make a huge difference. I personally have spoken with many who use the A9 and could not be happier. I am sure that A9 II will be no difference. The A9 II is at a premium price, but you 100% get an absolute machine for wildlife and action shooting. 

Matt Meisenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com