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Sony a1 Marries Stacked Sensor Tech With 50MP Capture


Sony has long been the class leader in mirrorless camera technology. Its notched many firsts and accolades along the way. Now it’s back with another, the first full-frame camera to combine high-speed Raw imaging and autofocus—up to 30fps—with one of the most pixel-dense sensors available at 50MP of resolution.

The new model, the Alpha 1 (a1 for short), doesn’t look that different from other Sonys on the outside. It works with the same E-mount lenses as others in the a7 and a9 family, and its outward appearance is similar too.

The body design is based on the a9 II, and while there are a few minor differences here and there, current system owners can mull an upgrade without having to worry about learning to handle a new body.


50MP Stacked Sensor

The differences are inside. The a1 sports a brand-new sensor, one that shares the Stacked BSI CMOS tech that allows the a9 to capture photos silently and without any blackout, but with more than twice the resolution—50MP. To deliver a clear view from the sensor, Sony has upped EVF resolution and size (9.4 million dots, 0.9x magnification) and improved its refresh rate to 240fps.

Sony a1

Sony a1 (Image: Sony)

Despite the increase in pixel density, the a1’s sensor reads out faster than the chip in the a9 and a9 II. The a9 was Sony’s first attempt at a full-frame stacked sensor, one that puts memory directly on the chip to improve readout speed, a must for Raw capture at extreme frame rates.

With the a1, the data moves 50% faster, upping the a9 II’s top 20fps capture rate to 30fps here. But a higher burst rate isn’t the only benefit. The camera is better able to track subjects, polling the autofocus system 120 times every second, and it reduces the skew effect, so you can capture tricky subjects like baseball bat and golf club swings using the silent electronic shutter without distortion.

It also makes the electronic shutter a bit more useful. It’s now possible to use the electronic shutter with a flash at useful shutter speeds, as quickly as 1/200-second for full-frame imaging. With the mechanical shutter, the a1 supports 1/400-second sync, competitive with medium format leaf shutter lenses, and it can rattle off shots at 10fps.

Sony a1

Sony a1 (Image: Sony)

Flash can be used in the multi-shot mode, too. Multi-shot shifts the sensor between exposures with extreme precision, sampling color more effectively for 199MP images, and relies on the electronic shutter to eliminate vibrations during capture. With the a1 you’ll be able to light these scenes yourself using strobes.

Moving so much data requires fast media. The a1 includes two memory card slots; each supports either a UHS-II SDXC or CFexpress Type A memory card. When working at 30fps, Sony says you can expect 165 JPG or 155 compressed Raw images before the buffer fills, good enough for more than 5 seconds of action. You do have the option of setting slower speeds—5, 10, 15, or 20fps—for many subjects, 30fps is overkill.


Silent and Connected

Many will look to the a1 as an electronic shutter camera—operating silently is a plus for photojournalists, wildlife specialists, and event photographers, and capturing photos without any blackout makes it just a little bit easier to track athletes in motion and birds in flight. It won’t scare an elk with a loud click, nor will it add its voice to the cacophony of shutter clicks at a press briefing.

Sony a1

Sony a1 (Image: Sony)

The Sony a9 II already included the most effective tracking autofocus system out there, one that tracks subjects with tenacity and is able to lock onto faces and eyes for human, dog, and cat subjects.

With the a1, Sony has tweaked autofocus performance, but not made ground-shattering advancements. It promises to be even more effective than the uncannily good a9 II. It’s now easier to go in and out of tracking, a feature requested by sports photographers, and eye detection has been added for birds, to the delight of ornithological enthusiasts.

But it’s of no small consequence that the a1 can do all this at 30fps, while promising to keep your subject in focus for every shot. Just how good the hit rate is will require some real-world testing, but I’ve seldom been let down by the a9 or a9 II in the field. To make the electronic more useful, Sony added an anti-flicker mode—it lets you fine-tune your shutter speed to avoid unwanted banding effects when photographing under artificial light or near digital signage.

Sony a1

Sony a1 (Image: Sony)

Like the a9 before it, the a1 is sure to find its way in the hands of professional photographers, and has some functions built just for them. Sony has put a lot of emphasis on making the a1 a connected camera. It includes dual-band 802.11ac 2×2 MIMO Wi-Fi, tech that promises to be twice as fast, and includes an Ethernet port for wired transfer.

Photographers working with wire services can FTP photos using either interface, and 5G support is available if you connect the Xperia Pro smartphone via USB-C. Sony is looking ahead to days when stadiums will be filled with crowds of people, all with smartphones in their pocket, clogging up the airwaves. The Xperia Pro’s 5G mmWave modem has the potential to work where earlier wireless tech sputtered.


Records 8K and 4K Video

The a9 and a9 II are stills-first cameras—while they offer very good 4K, flat color profiles and 10-bit recording are absent. The a1 is a much better example of a hybrid camera, one that puts as much into its video toolkit as its still capabilities.

The headline-grabbing feature is 8K. It’s not the first full-frame camera to support it, but Sony promises that the a1 won’t suffer the same recording-time limitations that plagued last year’s 8K-capable Canon EOS R5. There’s no active cooling here, but with its heat sink, Sony promises 30 minutes of continuous capture at up to 8K30 or 4K60.

Including 8K is good news for the future, but more videographers will look at the a1 to record footage for today’s 4K TV sets. It can push the frame rate to 120fps for slow-motion and offers both full-frame and Super35mm recording formats.

Internal recording has been improved to 10-bit quality and clean 16-bit output is available via the full-size HDMI port. If you’re working in 8K you’ll enjoy recording to either SDXC or CFexpress media with 4:2:0 color sampling. Dropping to 4K adds support for All-Intra compression and ups quality to 10-bit 4:2:2.

Sony a1 and Xperia Pro

The Xperia Pro connects via HDMI for live streaming (Image: Sony)

Having extra color data is important for cinematographers. The a1 supports a few different cinema profiles, including S-Log3, HLG for HDR, and S-Cinetone. These formats are recorded with lower contrast and saturation for more flexible color grading. You can also shoot video with with standard profiles for more ready sharing or live streaming, though you’ll need to connect an Xperia Pro for the latter.


Price and Availability

Sony is pricing the a1 at the same level as flagship SLRs from its competitors, $6,499.99 as a body-only configuration, with shipments slated to begin in March. Canadian customers will pay more, $8,499.99.


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