It’s been about a month since I got the Sony a1 (Alpha 1) camera and I wanted to give my first thoughts on it. I’ll start off by saying I’ve never had a bigger smile on my face after shooting with a camera than this one. For some one like me, a wildlife and landscape photographer, this camera takes the place of two camera bodies and I’m loving it so far. You’re probably going to think I’m exaggerating but I’ve been out shooting twice so far when some one else has had the Alpha 1 (two different people). And each time, we both had HUGE smiles on our face watching this camera perform.
CAMERA GEAR / SETTINGS: All photos were taken with the Sony Alpha a1 and either the Sony 100-400mm lens or the 600mm prime. You can’t see a visible difference in the lenses as they are both equally as sharp. The 600mm prime does excel with faster auto focus, and allows me to shoot at wider apertures (which means lower ISO).
Settings are lowest f-stop on the lens (usually f/5.6 to f/6.3 – mostly 1/3200th of a second – whatever the ISO was needed for a well exposed photo (usually 1600-3200). All photos were post-processed with Lightroom, Photoshop when needed for distractions, and finished with Topaz DeNoise AI.
Who Is the Sony a1 For?
Let’s get this out of the way first. Who is the Sony a1 for? Well, first it’s an amazing landscape photography camera. At 50 mp it’s right up there and close to the Sony a7R4 (61mp). And to be honest, I don’t miss the 11mp at all. In fact, I’m happy they’re smaller. I’ve always felt 61mp was a bit of overkill for landscapes. Plus, this has every bit as good dynamic range and image quality as any other Sony camera, so it excels for landscapes.
Next, it’s an amazing wildlife camera. I’ve always felt Sony’s Auto Focus system was among the best in the world. Add the Bird Eye AF in to the mix and this thing is a beast for focussing on wildlife. Combine that with 30 FPS and you’ve got one of the best wildlife cameras out there.
Finally, it’s (supposedly) an amazing video camera. I don’t shoot video and don’t have any plans to, but the video friends I have absolutely love this camera.
So, to me at least, it seems the Alpha 1 covers three big categories in photography: landscape/travel, wildlife/sports and video. If you’re only in to one of those areas, the camera may not be the one for you (though, there is no wildlife camera like it out there). But if you’re involved in 2 or more of those genres of photography, this camera gives me (in one body) what I’d normally need two different camera bodies for.
50 Megapixels – I bought this camera for wildlife and landscapes. But if I’m being honest, lately my landscape passion has moved more toward wildlife photography. In part because travel has been difficult, but it honestly started way before the pandemic. About 6 years ago I took my first trip to Costa Rica and that really started my love for photographing wildlife. Over the last 6 years it’s grown to the point that, if you asked me to pick any photo trip to go on right now, I’d pick something wildlife related and not landscape related. Wow… even writing that felt weird because the answer would have been WAY different 6-7 year ago.
Anyway, since I bought this camera for wildlife purposes, jumping to 50mp (from 24mp of the Sony a9 which was my previous wildlife camera) has been amazing. The crop-ability I now get let’s me get even closer to the action. And I have a very sharable and printable image, even after a big crop. And for landscapes, while 50mp is a slight downgrade from the Sony a7R4’s 61mp, I don’t miss it one bit. To be honest the only time I ever really needed to crop that tight on photos with the a7R4 was when I used it for wildlife photography. I don’t typically need to crop in that tight to my landscapes, so it was mostly wasted for those photos.
30 Frames Per Second – This is one of the main reasons I got this camera. Going from 20 fps to 30 fps is significant. You get so many more of those moments you’d possibly miss. Now, when an Eagle flies down to grab a fish, I get the moment the talons pierce the water, and the actual moment it grabs the fish, to some fun frames after when the Eagle looks down at it’s catch, etc… Aside from the geeky coolness of having 30fps, I find I learn so much about the wildlife from looking at my photos. All of those little nuances and moments that simply get missed when you don’t have this insiders view to the wildlife.
So for me, sometimes just enjoying those “in between” moments that I’ll probably never share has been as enjoyable as getting photos that I may not have been able to get without 30 fps.
To see what 30 fps looks like and info on how to achieve the 30 fps I have a video here (Click Here To Watch).
Bird Eye AF – This feature (along with the 30 fps) is another main reason I purchased this camera. Sony introduced Eye AF years ago. Then they introduced Animal Eye AF which was great, but didn’t work on birds. This is their first camera with Bird Eye AF and I’m amazed at how good it’s been. As long as the bird is close enough, Bird Eye AF picks up the eyes amazingly fast. And it tracks them really well and at a speed you wouldn’t believe. If you want to see it in action (you’ll literally get to watch the AF points move around), I did a video on it here (Click Here To Watch).
While I haven’t confirmed this with Sony, I think my biggest surprise with this feature is that it seems something has changed in Sony’s AI system. Not only how it detects birds eyes, but also that it seems to detect their heads if it can’t lock on to the eye for some reason (usually too far or a wing is covering them). With the Alpha 1, it seems the group of AF points now focus around the head more often than not. I’ve had my r4 and a9 side by side with the a1 and the AF points don’t always gravitate around the head of the bird like they do with the Sony a1. So even if you don’t always get the eye (and in flight you probably won’t), you get the head. And at the distances and f/stops we typically photograph a flying bird, focussing on the head is just as good as the eye any day.
One thing I found (and mostly expected to find) was that Bird Eye AF tends to work when you have some stability so the birds eyes aren’t floating around all over in the frame. So what does this translate to? This directly translates to the magic question that EVERYONE seems to ask… how does Bird Eye AF work with birds in flight. If you watched the video I pointed to earlier, you’ll see Eye AF tracking is amazingly fast. Even when the birds head disappears in to the sand and comes back up. So we know that Bird Eye AF is fast.
However, it relies on you (the photographer) being somewhat steady. And if there’s one thing I know from watching people photograph birds in flight is that many people are ALL OVER THE PLACE. When some one shows me their series of in-flight photos it typically looks something like: bird is in the middle of the frame, then at the top, then at the bottom, then out of frame, and then back in… Well guess what? That’s not steady. So when the Bird Eye AF doesn’t pick up birds in flight, it’s usually user error or the bird was too far away, or a wing covered the eye. I find that when I’m photographing something very predictable (like a large Pelican) the BE-AF works great . But when I’m photographing an Osprey diving down to grab a fish, it’s not as predictable – nor am I as steady at keeping the bird in the frame.
But here’s the best thing about the entire AF system. If it doesn’t detect the bird’s eye, the auto focus system just reverts back to the same auto focus system I’ve used for years and every single frame is perfectly in focus. I have multiple series of photos where I just kept the shutter pressed for 10 seconds and I have hundreds of photos in focus and not one miss. So if I have any one thought after owning the camera for a month now, it’s that I thought the BE-AF feature would help me most for tracking birds in flight, but I find it’s actually more useful for perched birds or birds on the ground. Especially when I’m going back and forth between photographing the two, because now I don’t have to change focus modes for perched VS in flight birds, like I sometimes had to do. I’m going to do an in depth video on why I like this later so stay tuned.
New Menu System – I’m only including this because so many people knock the Sony menu system. But they’re all people that switched from another brand, so of course it seems foreign to some. You’ve shot another camera system for probably 10-20+ years and now you’ve purchased a complex and technical camera and it’s hard to find your way around. Anyone that has switched to Sony, and put in the time to practice to get to know their system, knows that it’ll become second nature and you won’t think about it.
Anyway, the a1’s menu system is like the a7s iii. Touch capability and reorganized. What can I say… it’s great. It works and I guess it’s easier. But here’s what you’ll find from most Sony shooters (and other cameras for that matter) who practice a lot with their camera. They don’t use the menus. Other than “Format Card”, I have my buttons on the camera set up to what I need to do, and I just don’t have to use the menu to change anything. And it’s not just Sony. I’d suggest that if you’re going through your menu’s (often) to do things on your cameras, then you’re not using this multi-thousand-dollar camera you purchased to it’s full potential. These cameras are made today to keep you from digging through menus to change settings while out shooting.
CF Express Cards – This camera takes regular SD memory cards, but also accepts the CF Express cards which have an increased read/write speed. So what does this mean? Well, for landscape, travel and other types of fairly static photography not much. I’ve never been on a landscape shoot and thought my memory card needed to be faster. But, with wildlife my buffer would fill after shooting a burst of photos and I’d have to wait for it to clear before I could shoot again.
But with the CF Express cards, it’s flat out amazing how long I can continue to shoot. If you watch that “30 Frames per second” video I mentioned, you can not only see how long I can shoot 30 fps, but more importantly, how quickly they clear the buffer AND how many frames per second I can still get while the buffer is filling. I hate to use the word “game changer”, but this is a HUGE feature for wildlife and bird photographers.
I’m trying to come up with bad stuff to say and it’s hard. See, I’m not a gear reviewer guy. I simply talk about the stuff I use. If you like it… great! If you don’t… well, as much as I like you and all, I wasn’t really thinking about you when I bought it 🙂
All of the people I watch on Youtube have a job to review all types of gear and come up with good and bad things to say because people want to hear it all. Which is why you get people complaining about the size of a button, or the way a memory card is inserted.
I shoot Sony. I switched to Sony back in 2015. I don’t shoot other cameras anymore, and I’m used to my Sony’s, their menus, etc… So I’m not trying to talk you in to buying a Sony. My goal is to give people who have a Sony camera, the information they need to know if the Alpha 1 is right for them. So when it comes to “the bad” about the camera, I don’t have much because I wouldn’t be shooting the camera if it were bad.
So the only thing I can really think of is the memory cards. While I LOVE the increased read/write speed of the Type A CF Express cards I have, it seems there are some less expensive alternatives that also come in larger sizes. Right now, I’m an early adopter of Type A cards weather I like it or not – because I purchased this camera. And I’m usually never a big fan of being an early adopter of technology. Not to mention these cards are ridiculously expensive.
My final thoughts are that this camera has put a smile on my face every time I’m out photographing birds with it. I used to have my a7r4 with a lens and my a9 with a lens on it. And I’d switch between the two depending on if I wanted (or needed) to have a higher megapixel photo (r4), or needed 20 fps (a9) and it wasn’t really fun making those decisions. And if my wildlife shoot turned in to a landscape shoot, I’d have to choose cameras once again.
Now with the Sony Alpha 1 I have the best of both worlds in one camera body. Yep, it’s definitely pricey at $6500. But, if you’re some one who was considering buying a landscape camera and a wildlife camera (it’s not easy to find both in one camera body), this camera covers both genres equally as well.
While I love it AF for birds it does not have Video AF & that’s a big let down
I enjoy your humor! “I wasn’t really thinking about you when I bought it 🙂” Anyway, thanks for everything, Aloha.
One of my favorites 🙂
Hi Mark just wondering if you have a share of your camera settings for the a1 for wildlife anywhere?
Hi Amy. (Mark here) 🙂 If you click the menu item at the top of the page “Birds” you’ll see a share some photo stories and each of them includes my settings. Nothing to outrageous there and I use pretty much the same settings all the time. Hope that helps and feel free to ask a follow up question if you have. Thanks
I am totally new to the concept of shooting Birds in flight, and my one of the purpose of owning the A1 was to make me come out of the comfort zone ( of A7 M3)! After having read your very informative and highly educative videos, I am now all set to capture BiF.Cheers, Matt.
Hello Matt, it’s all been said in previous comments, but the owl stands out, it would be of great interest to me and many of your followers i’m sure as to the post proccesing beginning to end, apart from telling us of the cropping this tells us very little of the the before quality of the image!
As a matter of interest do you close one eye when tracking?
Look forward to another post processing video!
Hi Ron. I showed you the crop so that you could see the image quality available in a 50MP file after a large crop (that’s the section of the review this photo appeared in). The processing for this one would be very boring. I nudged the Exposure and contrast slider a little bit and used Topaz DeNoise at it’s default settings. Not to say I always get it perfect (I don’t), but the light and positioning for this photo worked out great so there was very little to do. Even if I hadn’t used DeNoise, the photo was razor sharp, and the noise wasn’t anything you’d ever notice in a normally-cropped version of the photo. Thanks.
I have been strongly considering buying the a1, this article was perfect to convince me to go ahead. I have the 100-400 with 1.4TC, now just need to decide whether to suck it up and get the 600mm prime. My landscape kit is identical to yours.
I also have older Sony camera bodies “gathering dust”. What do you suggest as the best way to sell the older equipment (E-bay, etc.)?
We live in Louisiana and recently lost our camp to Hurricane Laura. We’re considering moving to Boise, ID to be close to our son, as we are getting older and no family here. He is a raptor biologist there, so I should have opportunities to go out in field with him there. Do you know of any photographers or photography clubs out that way?
Any plans to resume the Costa Rica trips or similar when Covid settles down a little better.
Hi Ron. I don’t have experience selling my equipment through any other channel then letting my audience know (which I do realize isn’t an option for most people). So I’m not the person to answer the first question. Next, I don’t know of any clubs out that way. Lastly, my Costa Rica trip for June 2021 is indeed on. I think we have one opening if you’re interested. Right now, I don’t have any plans for a next one. Thanks!
I have my 50 year medical school class reunion in June, otherwise I would be interested in Costa Rica.
This is a wonderful article. Do you ever share your settings on your A1 so other people can upload them right into their camera ? I now a few other photographers that do that.
This is great information that you shared on the A1. I just received mine todaysnd I am really looking forward in truing this camera, as I sold my A9II to buy this one. I love yur comments and your photography is just incredible. Did I read that you were going to post some information on how you set up your camera? This would be wonderful information for me as my passion is photographing wild horses. And I just so happen to have a 10 day shoot coming up in May. I would love to find out some information on set up.
Hi Matt and thanks for the brief first thoughts whilst using the new A1.
As a Canon user, I think the speed at which Sony are raising the bar is good for all manufacturers. Canon, Nikon, Olympus, et al must keep pace with Sony if they want to keep their users happy.
I personally can’t wait for the new EOS R1 and the RF400f2.8 to be released (maybe later on this year as Canon have the stupid rule of only releasing pro models in the Olympics year). When I get it, I’ll have as big a smile on my face as you do holding your A1!
Thanks for your assessment. I have both the A9 and the 7riv. Do you see any difference in low light performance between the A1 and the A7riv, especially regarding AF in low light?
I do mostly wildlife and landscape, so I may get the A1 soon.
Hi Kurt. The a1 is better in both areas. Honestly it’s just superior in every way.
Great post Matt and I’m also sporting a smile every time I take the a1 out. I agree with all the comments you make regarding shooting with the a1. I’m waiting on the backordered Sony 600 f/4, so I am using the 200-600 f/5.6-6.3 with impressive results. Thanks for all the great info!
It’s hard to explain to people just how fun this camera is. The 200-600 is great. 600mm won’t necessarily get anything sharper but auto focus is fast and smooth on it 🙂
Hey Matt: Your post is a welcome breath of fresh air! Thanks for the spectacular shots and your straightforward narrative.
It’s what I have come to expect and very much enjoy from your courses and your You Tube channel.
You’re really ‘bitchen, don’t ever change!
Great shots, Matt. Terrific detail …clearly those extra pixels are worth having. You do a very practical and honest review Matt, one that people can trust.
I really appreciate what you are saying about the details you never see unless you are using a camera with a fast frame rate and how it makes you enjoy and appreciate the creature even more. I’m a zoologist by training and have spent 70 years studying birds and wildlife, but I am continually amazed by what these cameras can capture for us to appreciate! Long may it continue.
Thank you for all you do Matt, Glen
Thanks, Matt. Informative and commonsensical as usual.
I love to photograph birds, other wildlife and landscape – much as you do, it seems.
My question: I have the a9 ii and the a7R iv. Which of those 2 bodies should I keep as my backup if I get the a1?
Hi Bill. Tough to say. You’d have to decide. Do you do more landscapes or more wildlife. I’m actually selling both. I’ve had a backup for years and never needed it. I have an a6600 if I ever really need something but no reason to have a $3000 camera just sitting there collecting dust ya know. If you’re a pro then that’s a different story – it’s your job to have a backup.
by the way, you are a great teacher and writer. i still use your book layers (2nd edition), very good explanation of the layer problems, regards, don
great bird photos matt, indeed, can you tell something more about the lenses you use, regards from the (very cold) netherlands, don
Hi Don. It’s a mix of 100-400 and 600mm. You’d never know the difference from just looking at them. The quality is exactly the same. I do get a bit faster auto focus and lower f-stops with the 600mm prime. But it’s not any sharper.
This is a great post. I appreciate how in-depth it is but you didn’t mention lenses. Do you have a favourite for landscape and also wildlife?
Hi. It’s a mix of 100-400 and 600mm. You’d never know the difference from just looking at them. The quality is exactly the same. I do get a bit faster auto focus and lower f-stops with the 600mm prime. But it’s not any sharper. For landscapes I carry the Sony 14-24mm, the 24-105mm and the 100-400mm. Thanks!