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.