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Sony a1 Review | PCMag

Sony a1 Review | PCMag

Sony a1 Review | PCMag

The Sony a1 ($6,499.99, body only) is a true do-it-all camera, one that’s equally suitable for high-resolution landscape work, demanding sports and wildlife photography, and pro video capture alike. It utilizes forward-thinking tech to fill out an impressive list of specs, including 50MP Raw photos at up to 30fps, next-generation 8K video, and support for ultra-fast CFexpress memory to keep up to speed with it all. Technical accolades aside, the Sony a1 delivers the goods for pros who rely on an interchangeable lens camera for work, and is a splurge worth taking for enthusiasts, especially those entrenched in the Sony system, earning it our Editors’ Choice award.

A Stacked Sensor Makes It Possible

The heart of the a1 is its sensor, a full-frame 50MP imager. It doesn’t have the highest pixel count and isn’t heads and shoulders above competitors at the extreme end of its ISO range. The simple truth is that the advantages of one sensor to another aren’t as vast today as in years past—you’ll enjoy similar image quality from the 42MP Sony a7R III, the the 45MP Canon EOS R5, the 45MP Nikon Z 7 II, and the 60MP Sony a7R IV. They’re all pretty fantastic.


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

So what’s different here? It’s the sensor speed—it reads through all of its pixels more quickly than others. Sony uses what’s called a stacked design, one that stacks its fast DRAM memory into the same silicon. This is its second-generation full-frame camera to leverage the tech; Sony has more than doubled the pixel count from the 24MP a9 and a9 II, and the readout speed is quicker, fast enough for flash sync.

Sony may have been first to market with the a9, but it’s not the only player in the space. We’ve not yet reviewed the 24MP Canon EOS R3 ($5,999), but we expect it to be a serious competitor. Its eye-control focus system is intriguing to say the least. Nikon also has a stacked model in the works, the Z 9—it’s set for release later this year, but we don’t know much about it yet. Nikon promises 8K video, so we expect it uses a high-resolution sensor, at least 45MP.

Get a Grip?

The a1 has a smaller body design than either the R3 or Z 9, models that incorporate a vertical shooting grip into their chassis. Sony offers an add-on grip for the a1 instead, the VG-C4EM ($399.99). It holds two batteries, but doesn’t come with one, so budget another $79.99 for a second NP-FZ100.

Sony a1 Without Grip, Three-Quarter View


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

Without the grip, the a1 is the same size and shape as a recent Sony a7 or a9 series full-frame, at 3.8 by 4.1 by 2.7 inches (HWD) and around 1.6 pounds without a lens attached. The grip adds a couple of inches of height and brings the weight to around 2.2 pounds.

Sony’s take allows you to pick whether or not you want a big camera with vertical controls. It’s good news for folks like me who prefer a smaller camera, but less good for grip fans. It adds cost to an already expensive camera, and isn’t quite as streamlined as an integrated solution. The visible line between camera and grip is an apt metaphor—it’s just not seamless.

Sony a1 With Grip, Three-Quarter View


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

The body is built for serious use, indoors and out. Its chassis and top plate are magnesium alloy and the body is protected from dust and splashes. Sony doesn’t go as far as putting the a1 through the IP rating process, though. We’ve only seen a few ILCs go that far—the Leica SL2-S and Olympus E-M1X are among the notables.

Handles Like a Sony

Grip or not, the a1 handles very much like an a9 or a9 II, and isn’t too far off from recent a7 models, good news if you’re mulling an upgrade to a higher class of camera. If you’re moving over from a Canon 1D, Nikon D6, or similar SLR, you’ll note Sony doesn’t include control buttons between the lens mount and handgrip.

Sony a1 : Top View, Drive Dial


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

Top plate controls are ample, but not quite crowded. Drive speed and focus modes are set by a nested pair at the left of the hot shoe. Mode and EV dials are to the right, along with flexible C1 and C2 buttons, the shutter release, power switch, and front and rear command dials. Drive, Focus, Mode, and EV all lock, but don’t use the same mechanism. The EV dial’s center post toggles its lock, but you need to hold the button on Drive, Focus, and Mode to turn them.

With everything up top, there’s no room left for an information display. Sony hasn’t put one on any of its mirrorless cameras. Canon and Nikon have opted to follow the ethos set by their gripped SLRs—the EOS R3 and Z 9 top plates aren’t as crowded with dials, leaving room for displays.

Sony a1 : Top View, Grip Side


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

It’s table stakes for rear controls. The a1 includes a flat command dial with a central button, as well as an eight-way controller for quick, direct control of the active focus point or zone. They’re joined by a few buttons—the expected Delete, Menu, and Play are all there, as well as an AF-ON button, AEL, Record, Fn, and a programmable C3 button.

Most of the a1’s controls are configurable, so it’s easy enough to swap out a setting if you prefer. I set the rear center button to swap between Animal, Bird, and Human eye detection settings, for example. The on-screen function (Fn) menu is also flexible; each of its twelve panels can be set to a different function, and you can set up discrete menus for stills and video if you prefer. 

Sony a1: Rear View


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

If you’re upgrading from an a9, a9 II, or most a7 series cameras, you’ll be greeted with Sony’s freshly revamped menu system, first seen on the video-focused a7S III. It’s arranged a bit differently, using columns instead of tabs, is color coded for easier visibility, and is fully navigable by touch. The My Menu page is still there, too—you can populate it with your most-used settings for easy quick access.

Sony a1 : Menu System

All in all, the a1 handles in a similar manner to other Sony cameras, making it a natural fit for photographers who’ve been using a9 and a7 series bodies. On the other side of the fence, the Canon EOS R3 does a little more to push the envelope in handling by way of its eye-controlled autofocus system. A focus point that tracks your eye movements is intriguing on paper, but we’ve not yet had a chance to see how it performs in the real world.

Viewfinder and LCD

The a1’s eye-level viewfinder is one of the best we’ve used in any camera. The OLED display appears larger to your eye than most others—its 0.90x magnification betters competitors, including the EOS R3 (0.76x) and high-end SLRs like the Nikon D6 (0.72x).

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Bird in Partial Shadow)


Sony FE 400mm F2.8 GM OSS + 2.0x TC, 800mm, f/5.6, 1/800-second, ISO 250
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

The viewfinder’s color reproduction is faithful too, and it offers plenty of resolution for its size (9.4 million dots). It’s set for 120fps refresh by default, and the view is lifelike and clear. You can set it to 240fps, a plus for keeping up with the fastest subjects, or ratchet down to 60fps for the clearest detail. The quicker refresh rate is palpable—the 240fps view is nearly hyperrealistic—but it comes with an apparent drop in clarity. The EVF shows a sharper preview at 120fps, though I’ll admit my eyes couldn’t see a difference in clarity between the 60fps and 120fps settings (they both look great).

You have the option of setting it to show a preview of your exposure, complete with any filters you’ve set. It’s my preferred way to work, with real-time feedback of exposure, and for times when I want to use a vivid, monochrome, or similar Creative Look, a decent preview of the final image.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Bird in Tree)


Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports, 571mm, f/6.3, 1/320-second, ISO 1600
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

Exposure preview isn’t as good a choice for studio photographers who rely on strobes to illuminate a scene. An always bright, always color view is a universal option with mirrorless cameras, and is included here too.

I have no real complaints with the viewfinder—it’s a stunner—but once again, Canon is working on some oneupmanship with the EOS R3. The R3’s EVF uses an HDR display and promises to better match what you see through an OVF. I haven’t had a chance to see how the it compares with the a1, but DPReview has done a deep dive if you’re interested in the technology behind Canon’s HDR viewfinder.

Sony a1 : Tilting LCD


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

The a1’s rear LCD is more last-generation than next, but it gets the job done. The 3-inch touch panel offers a run-of-the-mill 1.44-million-dot resolution, and feels out of place on a high-end camera, especially when sharper displays are common among less expensive models; the $2,000 Nikon Z 6 II uses a 2.1-million-dot LCD.

The lower resolution is more of an issue for image review and manual focus—if you’re punching in to make sure you’ve got focus set perfectly, a sharper screen is beneficial. I’m a fan of the single-axis hinge for tripod and low-angle work, and the touch function is accurate and responsive. At default settings you’ll struggle a bit seeing details on bright days, but an extra-bright Sunny Weather mode is available for better visibility outdoors.

Power and Connectivity

The a1 is a fully connected camera, with Bluetooth, NFC, and dual-band Wi-Fi, as well as Gigabit Ethernet for wired communication. The camera works with the Sony Imaging Edge Mobile app to connect to Android and iOS devices, and supports the Transfer & Tagging add-on app for FTP transfer with voice memo and IPTC metadata support.

Sony a1 : Ports


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

Both micro USB 2.0 and USB-C ports are included for charging and data transfer. They’re positioned on the left side panel, along with a full-size HDMI port, a PC Sync socket, and 3.5mm microphone and headphone connections. The hot shoe supports digital mics from Sony, as well as an XLR adapter for studio-grade audio equipment.

The dual memory card slots are on the right panel, protected by a locking door. Each of the a1’s card slots supports UHS-II SDXC cards and CFexpress Type A. You have access to all of the video features when using CFexpress cards, but you lose access to a couple of the highest-quality settings if you rely on SD cards.

Sony a1 : Top View


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

Power is provided by the Sony NP-FZ100 battery. It’s CIPA rated for 530 photos with the LCD or 430 shots using the EVF—you’ll get significantly more if you utilize continuous drive, but it’s a worthwhile benchmark to compare with other cameras. Video recording is battery intensive, too. A fully charged battery manages around 80 minutes of 8K video, or about an hour of S&Q slow motion at 4K120.

Seemingly endless battery life is standard for pro SLRs, but mirrorless cameras use more power for a variety of reasons. The EVF is a constant power draw, and one shouldn’t discount the processing power required for high-speed capture and autofocus. Still, the a1 lags behind other Sonys that use the same battery—the a7R IV gets 670 shots with its LCD and 530 with the EVF.

The Joy of Blackout-Free Photography

Even at the mid-entry $2,000 price point, today’s mirrorless cameras are unilaterally quick, with many tracking action around 10fps—more than enough for many disciplines. The a1’s stacked sensor supports higher capture rates, up to 30fps at full 50MP resolution in HEIF, JPG, or Raw, and it does so without any interruption in the viewfinder—a bright line flashes at the edges during exposure.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Egret with Fish)


Sony FE 400mm F2.8 GM OSS + 2.0x TC, 800mm, f/5.6, 1/1,000-second, ISO 160
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

It’s the sensor that makes the speed and the seamless view possible. Mirrorless cameras with standard sensors also offer silent capture, but show a stuttering view in the EVF. With the a1, the viewfinder always shows a smooth view of the world, and it never goes dark. It’s more similar to using a rangefinder or TLR than an SLR, and is a real benefit for capturing photos of subjects in motion.

The shutter readout speed is quick enough to freeze subjects in motion. I didn’t have access to an oscilloscope to measure the readout speed, but DPreview clocked it at 1/260-second, faster than the a9 and a9 II, measured by photo blogger Jim Kasson at 1/150-second, and much speedier than cameras without stacked sensors. A typical full-frame 24MP camera can read its sensor in 1/30-second—good enough portraits, but likely to induce distortion when photographing action.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Bird in Reeds)


Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/500-second, ISO 3200
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

The quicker scan speed lets the a1 sync with flashes at 1/200-second with the fully electronic shutter, and 1/400-second with its mechanical shutter. Third-party strobes are supported—I checked it with the Flashpoint Xplor 300 Pro TTL R2 off-camera and the Godox V1 mounted to the hot shoe, and both worked without issue.

There are some tools included to help make the electronic shutter usable in more environments. A menu option lets you set oddball shutter settings—speeds like 1/316.3-second instead of the standard 1/320-second—to avoid ugly banding effects when working at stadiums and other venues with digital signage. There’s also a flicker reduction option, available in burst shooting, to reduce exposure wobble when working under artificial lights, a plus for photographing indoor sports and night games.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Bird on Branch)


Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/500-second, ISO 4000
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

The a1 supports 30fps continuous drive with most Sony lenses, but is limited to 15fps with third-party glass from Rokinon, Sigma, Tamron, and others. Working at 30fps, indicated by Hi+ on the drive dial, is absolute overkill for many, so Hi (20fps), Medium (15fps), and Low (5fps) options are available as well. The slower speeds offer a bit better image quality, too—at 30fps, the camera saves Raw files in a lossy compressed format, but you have the option of lossless compression or uncompressed capture at 20fps and lower.

It’s worthwhile to invest in fast CFexpress memory cards if you plan on utilizing high-speed drive options. With SDXC cards, the buffer fills up more quickly—about 80 Raw or 175 JPGs versus 200 Raw and 100 JPG for CFe. The clear time is more of a pain point—there’s an 18-second wait when using a 299MBps Sony Tough SDXC card, but it’s cut to a reasonable 6 seconds with a 700MBps CFexpress card. As fast as the a1 is, it’s still a Sony camera, and that means you can’t change gears and switch to video recording until the buffer has cleared to memory.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Bird in Tree)


Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/320-second, ISO 1250
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

The a1’s autofocus system works very much the same as other current-generation Sony models, with the addition of eye detection for birds—the a9 II and a7R IV offer animal eye detection, but it’s limited to cats, dogs, primates, and similar creatures (it also works for squirrels and deer in my experience).

Bird eye detection worked quite well with my local fauna. It had no problem picking out egrets and herons against uncluttered backgrounds. For birds in trees, it’s worthwhile to narrow the area of interest for the focus system—the expanded flexible spot is my favorite for finding subjects in branches. As long as you position it on the bird, the a1’s focus is smart enough to jump over and focus on the eye. It’s not quite as adept as the Canon EOS R5—its subject recognition is a little stronger in general, and doesn’t make you pick between animals, humans, and birds.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Squirrel in Grass)


Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/320-second, ISO 1250
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

Autofocus coverage is very wide, with all but the far right and left edges of the sensor covered by phase detection. It makes for extremely effective tracking. Sony’s Real Time Tracking focus is tenacious—once you’ve got it set, the focus box moves right along with your subject. You can set the camera to look for focus across the entire frame, or set a tighter area of interest. The a1 supports a movable zone (covering about a quarter of the frame), three sizes of spot, and an expanded spot.

Room to Crop

The a1’s full-frame sensor is all-new, and while it’s not quite as pixel-rich as the a7R IV, there’s still plenty of room to print big and crop in tight with its 50MP resolution. For working pros who need to file JPGs in real-time, 21MP and 12MP options are also available. There’s no reduced resolution Raw option, but you can capture 50MP Raw with lower-resolution JPGs (or HEIFs) simultaneously.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Landscape with Marsh and Power Lines)


Leica Elmarit-M 28mm F2.8, f/5.6, 1/800-second, ISO 500
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

In-body stabilization is included. It adds one benefit beyond reducing handshake-induced blur and smoothing out video footage. Sony leverages it for Pixel Shift Resolution, a tripod-needed mode that captures multiple images in succession, shifting the sensor slightly between each, for either 50MP images with improved color sampling, or 200MP shots with better color and more pixels. You’ll need to spend some time using Sony’s desktop software to put Raw images together into something you can process and print, and be prepared to deal with big files—the camera takes four photos to get better color at 50MP, and 16 shots for 200MP output.

The a1 supports a few different file formats. Raw output is available in uncompressed, lossless compressed, or compressed quality. It can also record ready-to-share 8-bit JPG or 10-bit HEIF images, though not simultaneously. The HEIF format isn’t well supported in the photo world, but retains a bit more data and is saved in an HDR color space.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Bird on Rock)


Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1,000-second, ISO 1600
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

The camera covers a wide ISO range, starting at ISO 100 and ranging up to ISO 25600 in its standard mode, and ISO 102400 in the extended range. ISO 50 is a low extended option. The sensor does an excellent job controlling noise through all the way through ISO 12800—the JPG output shows very little noise and strong detail. The output at ISO 25600 and 51200 is smudgier, but colors remain true. You’ll note some color shift at ISO 102400 and blurry results; consider it an emergency setting only.

See How We Test Digital Cameras

If you’re working in Raw format you’ll enjoy more flexibility to edit photos, and to apply noise reduction as you see fit. We use Lightroom Classic as our processor for camera reviews in the PCMag Labs—its default noise processing does a superb job of quashing color noise, and leaves some very natural looking grain at higher ISOs. It’s a fine pattern from ISO 800 through 12800, but gets rough at ISO 25600 and 51200. As with JPGs, the ISO 102400 leaves a lot to be desired. Raw images hold up well to edits. The files offers room to adjust exposure, pull in highlights, open shadows, and tone color to taste.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Bird in Branch)


Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1,250-second, ISO 12800
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

Sony doesn’t get as deep in the weeds with film looks and in-camera art filters as some others. If you’re working in JPG or HEIF, you can set the camera to standard, black-and-white, vivid, portrait, and similar Creative Looks. If you’re interested in in-camera film grain and filters in a high-end camera, the Fujifilm GFX medium format system is a better fit, but its larger sensor size makes it better suited for still capture than high-speed action and video.

8K30 and 4K120 Video

The a1 moves well beyond the 4K resolution offered by the company’s cinema cameras, including full-frame models that take the same lenses, like the a7S III and FX3. The a1 pushes resolution to 8K with a frame rate up to 30fps, and supports up to 4K60 recording with sound, and 4K120 in its silent S&Q off-speed recording mode.

There’s a litany of codec, bit rate, and other options. At its highest quality, the a1 records XAVC HS footage at 10-bit 4:2:0 at 8K and improves color sampling to 4:2:2 at 4K when recording internally. Raw capture isn’t available internally, but the Atomos Ninja V supports 12-bit ProRes Raw at 4.3K30 with the a1.

A pair of flat, ready-for-grading picture profiles are included, S-Log2 and S-Log3. The camera also supports HDR recording in the HLG space, and has the S-Cinetone look from Sony’s cinema cameras. The S-Cinetone footage is meant to deliver more filmic colors and tones, without the need for color grading.

The quality of video is superb, and Sony has managed to sidestep overheating issues here, something that’s plagued the 8K-capable Canon EOS R5. I recorded nearly two hours of 8K footage continuously, pausing only to swap batteries and reformat memory, without any issue. The sensor gets hotter when recording slow motion, but still managed 50 minutes of continuous 4K120 capture before overheating.

It’s tough to find too much fault with the a1 as a video camera—it does a lot, does it well, and you don’t have to babysit the camera to keep it from overheating. Support for CFe memory is also a boon—the buffer clears more quickly, so hybrid creators won’t have to wait as long for photos to write to memory before switching gears.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Bird in Trees)


Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/500-second, ISO 1000
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

I will say I wish Sony had gone a little further in separating video settings from those for stills capture. You need to take some care to change shutter speeds when switching between stills and video mode, and you have to disable your video Picture Profile if you want to use a for-stills Creative Look (or vice versa).

One Camera to Rule Them All

Sony is no stranger to making high-end cameras, but the a1 is a cut above what it’s delivered before. It’s a true do-it-all flagship, one that’s capable of action photography at 30fps, high-resolution landscapes, and future-proof 8K video. It’s an expensive proposition, even when compared with more specialized cameras like the landscape-friendly a7R IV, the video-first a7S III, and the high-speed a9 II. But if you need the features of all three, and don’t fancy the ideas of buying three camera bodies, look to the Sony a1.

Sony a1 : Sample Image (Bird on Reed)


Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/500-second, ISO 1250
(Photo: Jim Fisher)

If you go feature for feature, the a1 is peerless. Its autofocus intelligence and high-speed capture are well beyond what gripped SLRs—the Canon 1D X family and Nikon D6 specifically—are capable of. In the mirrorless world, the Canon EOS R3 is “only” a 24MP camera with 6K, but uses the same type of high-speed stacked sensor. We’ve not yet tested it, but expect Canon’s $6,000 competitor to deliver smarter subject recognition, and are intrigued by its eye-controlled autofocus system. We hope to review it soon to see how it compares with the a1 in real-world use.

Nikon has promised to bring its own stacked sensor flagship, the Z 9, to market this year, but we don’t know much about it yet. Nikon is playing its cards close to the vest—we know the Z 9 will support 8K and can infer a high-resolution sensor, likely in the 45MP neighborhood, from that nugget. Pricing is an unknown too, but we expect it to be cost about as much as the a1, give or take $500. Nikon has a larger hill to climb in terms of Z lens development—it’s lagged behind Canon in building out its young system. Sony retains a large lead in selection, simply because it’s been making full-frame E cameras for a much longer period of time—the first a7 was released in 2013.

Sony a1 : Front View, Model Badge


(Photo: Jim Fisher)

Some may lament its lack of an integrated grip, and we’ll admit that Sony hasn’t done as much as Canon to move the needle on design concept, but it’s just as easy to praise the a1’s comfortable controls, familiar to photographers stepping up from a7 and a9. And while its EVF is simply a bigger, sharper version of what’s come before, it’s of fantastic quality. The rear display isn’t as good—we expect better, especially for the price—but it’s not enough reason to dissuade potential buyers.

We’ll have more to say about the a1’s competition once we put those cameras through the paces. In the meantime, the a1 is absolutely killer. We love what the stacked sensor does to keep you in the moment—there’s something to be said about capturing a scene without any interruption in the viewfinder. There’s plenty of speed and resolution too, as well as a complete video toolkit. The a1 is the real deal, and our Editors’ Choice.

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