Sony A1 Underwater - Initial Thoughts & Review
Sony A1: One Camera to Rule them All
The Sony A1 was announced yesterday and its name says it all: The A1 is 1 camera to rule them all. Sony is promising a masterpiece. It's a camera that won't compromise. A true maestro of both photo and video. And although this might all sound like hyperbole, take a look at the specs. The Sony A1 is now the best full-frame camera (mirrorless or not) for underwater photo and video.
By all arguments, the A1 is Sony's first true flagship mirrorless camera with a new 50 megapixel stacked CMOS full frame sensor, and 8K/30p; 4K/120p recording capabilities. But we've seen all of this in the Canon EOS R5. What makes the announcement truly exciting is the novel technology introduced into the sensor and electronic shutter. And as a pleasant surprise, this technology has major positive implications for both underwater photo and video. In fact, it almost feels like the Sony A1 was created for underwater creatives, although deep down we know these are happy coincidences. Such is the nature of this camera, that we will be frequently updating this review for the Sony A1 with new information as it comes out. We will also make sure to be the first ones in the water with the new camera as soon as the first housing comes out. So check back with us and see for yourself what the Sony A1 can do underwater!
U.S. MSRP: $6,500
Sony A1 Body
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A quick look at a specs sheet would indicate that the Canon EOS R5 and the Sony A1 are very similar cameras with very different price points. But that's not the case. In fact, the R5 and A1 are very different cameras with different price points, you just need to dig deep to see it. Starting with the price point - the Canon EOS R5 is priced at $3900 whereas the Sony A1 is priced at $6500. The clear distinction is that Sony created the A1 to rival Canon's flagship, the Canon 1DX Mark III which is priced similarly - not the R5. This distinction physically manifests itself in the A1 with a wide range of video features, a quicker autofocus system, quick burst shooting, and new electronic shutter technology.
Although Canon boasted early on about the video features on the Canon EOS R5, they do fall short compared to the A1 in most regards. The Sony A1 goes a step further in its 8K video by oversampling 8.6K video with 15 stops of dynamic range. The A1 has the full range of video features associated with the Sony A7S III including Cine, HLG, and S-Log picture profiles, active steady shot image stabilization, 4K/120p recording (oversampled), and 16-bit RAW recording to an external recorder. The Canon EOS R5 does have the Sony A1 beat with internal RAW recording, but does not stand up well on every other front.
It is likely that the autofocus system will be quick on the Sony a1 vs the Canon R5 as it is now 30% more accurate than the system on the A9II. Currently, the R5 does hold the trophy for the best animal eye AF tracking, but Sony just might beat it. We can't wait to find out underwater.
Where the Sony a1 really shines over the EOS R5 is the updated electronic shutter system powered by a new BIONZ XR processor. The A1 is the first camera to have flash sync compatibility with the electronic shutter as well as significantly reduced rolling shutter and flicker. To finish things off the Sony A1 can also sync with a strobe up to 1/400 sec!
However, it was literally only yesterday that I was saying the Canon EOS R5 is the best camera on the market. Well, now it's the second best but it has a much more compelling price point of $3900 vs $6500. With only a moderate difference in overall capability between the two cameras, it is likely that most people will still choose the Canon EOS R5 over the Sony A1.
- New Full Frame 50MP Exmor RS Stacked CMOS Sensor
- 15 stops of dynamic range with improved colors, tones, and gradation
- New BIONZ XR Processor
- Continuous shooting up to 30fps w/ electronic shutter and 10fps w/mechanical shutter at full resolution - AE and AF operable throughout
- Updated Carbon-Fiber Mechanical Shutter for a more quiet and vibration-free performance
- Records video up to 8K/30p (oversampled from 8.6K), 4K/120p (oversampled)
- Improved electronic shutter - greatly reduced rolling shutter and flicker under artificial light
- THE ELECTRONIC SHUTTER WORKS WITH EXTERNAL FLASHES (and strobes)
- FLASH SYNC SPEEDS: up to 1/400sec (mechanical shutter; 1/500 in APS-C mode), 1/200 (electronic)
- Lightning quick AF with its 759 phase-detection points with 425 contrast-detection areas - covering 92% of the sensor
- AF system recalculates 120 times per second - 30% more accurate than A9II
- Better animal eye AF that can track birds - we will be testing to see if it can track fish
- 5 axis IBIS with 5.5 stops of recovery
- New Active steadyshot stabilization (introduced with the Sony A7S III)
- 10-bit 4:2:2 internal recording with 16-bit RAW external recording
- Full range of Log recording options - Cine, HLG, and S-Log
- Viewfinder: Electronic (OLED) - 9.44 million dots
- Dual CFexpress Type A / UHS-II SD Card
- No built-in flash
- Native ISO: 100 - 32,000
- Extended ISO: 50 - 102,400
- Shutter speed: 1/8000 - 30 seconds
- ISO 100 to 32000 (Extended: 50 to 102400)
- Fastest built-in wifi - can transmit video files over 5G
- Sony E Mount
- Dimensions: 5.07 x 3.81 x 2.74 in (128.9 x 96.9 x 69.7 mm)
- Weight: 1.6 lb (737g)
Build, EVF, Battery Life, and Ergonomics
The Sony A1's body is very similar to the Sony A9 and A9II. However, there are slight differences in dimensions so we anticipate that the A1 will likely need a separate housing. The body overall looks pretty solid with familiar ergonomics. We're looking forward to using Sony's updated menu system that was introduced on the A7S III. The new menu made workflow underwater much easier.
The EVF on the Sony A1 is very high resolution at 9.44 million dots, as would be expected from a camera like this. The A1 is rated for a 530 shot battery life which should be enough battery for a full day of diving (4 dives).
High Resolution EVF
The Sony A1 can take 50 megapixel still photos with an updated stacked CMOS sensor. Sony is claiming that this sensor has improved color, tones, and gradations. We look forward to seeing how it performs underwater. With 15 stops of dynamic range, this sensor is capable of truly amazing things. We can't wait to see exquisite details in or sunballs all the way down to our shadows. Because this is a high megapixel sensor, we do think that the A1 could have difficulty performing in low light like the A7R IV did. If this is the case, serious underwater video shooters may still want to consider the Sony A7S III.
5 Axis In-Body Image-Stabilization (IBIS) and Steady Shot Modes
We expect the 5 axis IBIS in the A1 to function about as well as the Sony A7S III. The A1 will be equipped with an active steadyshot mode that was introduced with the Sony A7S III. Although we found the active steady shot to be effective for handheld video on the A7S III, the Canon EOS R5 and R6 has far superior IBIS. We hope that the A1 will still be able to come out with something new and truly impress us with its stabilization.
Although we have yet to put it to the test, it's looking like the autofocus system in the Sony A1 will be the best on this planet. It should be 30% more accurate than the A9II, which already had the world's best autofocus. The autofocus engine will recalculate an astonishing 120 times per second. Moreover, animal eye AF tracking has been updated to be useable with birds. Canon advertised the same thing when the R5 was released, and the R5 turned out to be even more capable. In our underwater tests, the R5 acquired fish eyes 20-60% of the time. We very much hope that this will also be the case with the A1, and it is looking more than likely that it will be.
Changes to the Shutter and Burst Shooting
New 50 MP Stacked CMOS Sensor
For underwater photographers and video shooters, Sony's engineering of the A1's sensor and shutter has resulted in a new door opening to creative expression. Although this new electronic shutter might not be a global shutter, it is the next best thing with an ultrafast readout powered by the BIONZ XR processor. The fast readout of the silent electronic shutter now allows for the electronic shutter to sync with external flashes like strobes! This means underwater photographers will be able to shoot silently underwater, other than the noise their strobes make. Every little bit of noise reduction helps to keep from scaring fish away.
The mechanical shutter was also updated with carbon fiber for better vibration and sound reduction. The mechanical shutter is now capable of syncing with underwater strobes at an amazing 1/400sec. Most modern cameras are only capable of a sync speed of 1/250, which means you can stop down by an extra stop if you need to. This will help underwater photographers shooting sunballs or attempting black backgrounds in macro photography. The electronic shutter sync speed is 1/200.
Sony advertised the A1's burst shooting capability as a top spec on this camera. 30 fps with the electronic shutter is impressive, but there are very few circumstances where strobes could keep up. That being said, the YS-D3s don't have a sync speed below quarter power, so we'd be curious how hard we could push them in cold dark water. Pelagic and ambient light photographers will surely be happy to use this amazing burst speed. Autofocus and autoexposure is supposed to be operable the whole time, so we look forward to confirming if this is the case. However, Sony did not specify if the camera would do 14-bit RAW at these speeds.
Of course, the Sony A1 is the best camera on the market for underwater photography, and likely will be for the remainder of the year. Technological advancements in sensor and shutter technology are opening new doors with silent underwater photography available for the first time with strobes. We can't wait to use the 1/400 flash sync speed when photographing sunballs and macro critters. We anticipate the detail from the 50 megapixel sensor to rival the Sony A7R IV, and perhaps surpass it given that Sony has updated it. With underwater strobes like the Sea & Sea YS-D3 becoming faster with every new model, the A1's amazing burst speeds will surely be utilized more and more in the coming future. Finally, it will be a matter of underwater testing to truly determine if the Sony A1 is faster and more accurate than the Canon EOS R5 - especially when it comes to animal eye AF tracking. As we mentioned before, keep checking back to this page. We can't wait to get in the water with the Sony A1 and show you what it can do!
For underwater video, the Sony A1 is essentially a higher resolution Sony A7S III with 8K recording. We're excited to shoot in 8K for underwater macro video so that we can crop down our footage to capture the smallest supermacro detail. At 120 frames per second in 4K, we can't wait to stabilize our video in the heavy currents we face on the west coast of North America. Sony has always had the best set of log profiles for color grading video in post processing, and we can't wait to see how the files look with the new A1 sensor.
In recent years, Sony has gone from having a limited supply of lenses for underwater photography to one of the best repertoire of native lenses for full-frame mirrorless cameras on the market. Sony A1 users have an excellent set of choices for shooting macro, wide, mid-range, and fisheye.
The Sony 16-35mm F4 lens is the top wide-angle lens choice for photo and video. If you’re looking for something even wider to get nice close-focus wide-angle (CFWA) shots of reefs there are a couple of options for shooting fish-eye. The 28mm prime lens with a fisheye conversion lens will give the widest possible angle of view. The fisheye conversion lens can be used behind a large or small dome port, while the Sony 16-35 mm F4 lens is recommended for use with an 8-inch dome or larger.
Wet wide-angle lenses are a great option with this camera. We recommend the Nauticam wet wide-angle lens or the Kraken KRL-01 wet wide-angle lens with the 28mm prime lens. All of these options are very sharp and will result in stunning wide-angle photos.
For underwater photography, the Sony 90mm macro prime lens is the best choice for small fish and macro subjects. It is exceptionally sharp and produces high quality images. A 50mm macro lens is another great option, though it doesn't focus as quickly as the Sony 90mm.
The Sigma 105mm f/2.8 DN DG Art macro lens is a new lens that we tested during this review. We highly recommend it for the Sony A71, though there is some focus breathing that video shooters should be aware of. Check out our full review of the Sigma 105mm here!
This elusive longfin sculpin was easily captured with the Sigma 105's quick AF speed. This photo was taken with a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 DN DG Art Macro lens, Sony A7S III, Ikelite A7S III housing. f/18, 1/160, ISO 200
Canon lenses can be attached to the Sony A1 with the Metabones, Sigma MC-11, or Photodiox adapters, but auto-focus is generally better with Sony lenses. Lenses like the Canon 8-15mm, 16-35mm, and 17-40mm work well. You can also use the Canon 100mm macro lens.
We did our review with a Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens and a metabones adapter, behind the Ikelite 8 inch compact dome port for close focus wide angle. Unfortunately, we noticed that the autofocus with this set up is very slow. We only recommend using the Canon 8-15mm if you intend to shoot slow scenes or plan on shooting with manual focus.
Currently there are no housings available for the Sony A1. However, due to the anticipated popularity of the camera, we anticipate a model housing from all major housing manufacturers - including Ikelite, Nauticam, Sea & Sea, Aquatica, and Isotta. We intend to get in the water with the Sony A1 as soon as the first housing becomes available, so please check back with us to pre-order or inquire about housings. In fact, if you email email@example.com, you can already pre-order a housing!
The Sony A1 is no doubt a groundbreaking camera. Sony has come a long way from their first full-frame mirrorless camera and the A1 is really a culmination of almost a decade of hard work. With every new model, Sony births a new set of technology that gets passed on through each subsequent rendition. Very few manufacturers go all-in with their cameras, and it's a breath of fresh air to see a camera with no compromises. Although the price reflects this, we think that those who need the best of the best now have it.
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