Advertisement
Engadget has been testing and reviewing consumer tech since 2004. Our stories may include affiliate links; if you buy something through a link, we may earn a commission. Read more about how we evaluate products.

Sony A9 III review: The future of cameras is fast

The global shutter makes it fast and distortion-free, at the cost of some image quality.

Steve Dent for Engadget

After letting rival camera companies catch up for the last few years, Sony laid down a gauntlet with the 24.6-megapixel A9 III. It’s the world’s first mirrorless camera with a global shutter, a much-awaited holy grail feature. It completely eliminates rolling shutter distortion found on CMOS cameras by reading the entire sensor at once. It also boosts speed and removes the need for a mechanical shutter.

As a pioneering product, it’s not cheap at $6,000, but you can expect the technology to come down in price in the future. And there is a downside: Image quality is reduced compared to regular cameras, due to the nature of a global shutter.

Is it worth trading off image quality for extra speed and lack of distortion, especially compared to stacked sensor cameras that are already pretty quick? To find out, me and my pro photographer friends put a final production model through a variety of shooting scenarios.

Sony

Sony’s A9 III is the first mainstream camera with a global shutter, marking yet another leap in innovation by the company. The new technology brings some big benefits, especially speed and the lack of image distortion as the entire sensor is read at once. It also offers large benefits for content creators, with 4K at 120 fps, 10-bit Log and no distortion for whip pans, and other fast moving content. The main drawback is image quality that’s reduced compared to regular CMOS cameras.

Pros
  • Incredibly quick
  • Fast and accurate autofocus
  • Good stabilization
  • Excellent video capaibilities
Cons
  • Reduced image quality
  • Expensive
$6,000 at B&H Photo Video

Body and handling

The A9 III is Sony’s best handling-camera yet, borrowing all the latest features of recent models like the A7R V. It’s very light for a full-frame camera at just 617 grams. And the redesigned grip is more comfortable and secure, which is a big help to working pros, especially with heavy lenses. By comparison, Sony's A1 can be hard on one’s hands over a full day, according to my photographer pals.

There are three top control dials, making it easy to find primary settings in fully manual mode. It has a pair of dual dials, with one for video, photos and S&Q plus shooting modes, and the other controlling burst along with autofocus. You also get a rear joystick, control dial and no less than 5 custom buttons.

With everything well-placed, it’s a cinch to shoot manually. When you do need to delve into the menus, those are also well laid out. Settings are divided logically into categories, while the home menu shows key options (shutter speed, white balance, etc.) at a glance. Everything can be customized, and you can back up your settings to a memory card.

The high-resolution two million dot rear display is of course touch sensitive for focus and menu control. It flips out and tilts up or down to please both photographers and creators. The viewfinder is the best on any camera, with 9.44 million dots at 120Hz, or half that at 240Hz. That level of sharpness makes it easy to check focus and colors. Again, this is Sony flexing its tech muscles as the primary camera EVF supplier.

Battery life is a solid 500 shots, but you can double that with a new $400 vertical grip, which also gives you a better hold of the camera. It has a dual-card slot setup with both SD UHS II and CFexpress. As usual with Sony, the latter is the slower Type A variety, though. Those are less than half the speed of CFexpress type A, but their smaller size allows Sony to do the dual slot setup.

Other key features include headphone and mic ports, with the option to add Sony brand microphones or audio accessories to the hotshoe. There’s also a full-sized HDMI port, USB-C charging port, ethernet, live-streaming capability and more.

Performance

With the global shutter, dual Bionz processors and the same dedicated AI processor found on the A7R V,, Sony’s A9 III is the fastest full-frame camera in the world. Compressed RAW bursts can be shot at an incredible 120 fps with autofocus and auto-exposure, or you can dial that down to 60 fps or 30 fps.

Sony A9 III mirrorless camera review
Sony A9 III mirrorless camera review (Steve Dent for Engadget)

A big caveat is that the 120 fps mode only works with supported Sony lenses, while third-party lenses are all limited to 15 fps. Hopefully the company will address that in a future firmware update.

The buffer holds 200 RAW frames, so it fills up in less than two seconds at maximum speed. It takes longer to clear the buffer than it should due to the CFexpress Type A cards. If you use SD UHS II cards instead, it takes about twice as long to clear.

In any case, shooting at 120 fps is major overkill most of the time unless you like wading through thousands of photos later on. Sony does have a solution, though. You can shoot at, say, a still-very-fast 30 fps, then press the C5 button to enable the top speed at key moments. That way, you’ll get the shot you want without wasting frames.

The A9 III is also the first Sony camera to use a pre-capture mode that saves a second of photos when you half-press the shutter button. After you fully press it, those photos are saved along with any taken after.

Sony A9 III review: The future of cameras is fast
Sony A9 III review: The future of cameras is fast (Nathanael Charpentier)

Your photos will usually be sharp, too. The 759 phase-detect focus points allow for extremely rapid and accurate autofocus in most situations. For regular continuous AF, it can keep up with even the fastest action.

The AI-powered subject detection shines too. Face tracking works with subjects farther away and it follows someone tenaciously, even when they duck behind obstacles. Human tracking is fast and fluid, and you can easily see if it’s locked onto eyes, face or body.

It can detect birds, animals (or both), along with insects, cars and trains. You can also select any distinctive object and the system will usually track it reliably.

The bottom line is that it rarely misses focus, so it’s great for professional sports, wildlife, weddings and more. Of course it’s not infallible and can mix up subjects, but is better than any camera I’ve tried to date.

Sony A9 III review: The future of cameras is fast
Sony A9 III review: The future of cameras is fast (Nathanael Charpentier)

The A9 III has no need for a mechanical shutter because there’s no rolling shutter distortion, meaning you can shoot in complete silence at all times. With that, it’s perfect for sports like golf, as you can shoot a player in mid-swing without disturbing them, and a club in motion won’t be distorted.

It also allows for extremely fast shutter speeds up to 1/80,000th and it can sync with supported flashes all the way up to that speed. It also eliminates the flicker and banding from venue lights, another big aid for sports photographers.

Sony has also improved its in-body stabilization significantly, boosting it to 8 stops with supported lenses. That allows shots down to a quarter second or less, matching Canon’s EOS R3 and besting the Nikon Z9 and Sony’s own A1.

Image quality

As mentioned, the primary issue with this camera is image quality. So is how much does it fall below regular CMOS cameras? To test that, I shot in situations including gymnasiums, night scenes, bird shooting, an airport and more.

There’s no question that dynamic range is reduced compared to Sony cameras like the A1, at least by a stop. The reason is that the sensor has less light capacity due to the space taken up by the extra electronics.

It also has a smaller ISO range, both on the high and low end. Minimum ISO is not great at 250 and at the high end, ISO is limited to 25,600, half that of the A9 II.

In general, there’s more noise and less dynamic range at any given ISO setting than the A9 II. At the same time, the resolution is lower than rivals like the Nikon Z9 and Sony’s own A7R V and A1. So for landscapes, portraits and other types of photography where dynamic range and resolution is important (and speed isn’t), the A9 III isn’t the best choice.

Sony A9 III review: The future of cameras is fast
Sony A9 III review: The future of cameras is fast

That said, you’d need to pixel peep to notice any major difference in image quality between rival 24-megapixel cameras up to about ISO 6400. For the intended audience of sports, action and wildlife shooters, it’s more than sufficient.

Beyond that, images are noisier, but still usable up to the maximum ISO 25,600 with noise reduction (Sony appears to have more aggressive noise reduction for JPEG images at higher ISOs). I had no difficulty extracting good shots in dark scenes at ISO 6400 or even ISO 12,800. And as mentioned, you have more control with a flash than any other camera on the market – so that’s a solid option in low light.

Otherwise, images are typical for Sony, with accurate colors and skin tones. The 14-bit RAW files are easy to work with and allow some pushing and pulling, particularly in highlights.

Video

Sony A9 III mirrorless camera review
Sony A9 III mirrorless camera review (Steve Dent for Engadget)

Sony took advantage of the global shutter to make the A9 III its most capable mirrorless camera for video. 4K at up to 60 fps is supersampled using the full 6K sensor width, while 4K at 120 fps can also be shot using the full sensor, albeit with pixel binning. That mode supports full 120 fps playback as well, or slower playback modes via the slow and quick (S&Q) setting.

RAW 4K capture at 60 fps is also possible using an external recorder. All of those modes are available with 10-bit S-Log 3 recording to expand dynamic range in challenging lighting conditions.

That’s just the start of the A9 III’s video powers. Autofocus is as fast and accurate in video as stills mode and has all the same AI features. That means you’ll be sure to keep even fast-moving subjects sharp, whether they’re people, birds, animals or vehicles.

Those who prefer to shoot manually can employ Sony’s handy focus map feature. It has the auto-framing seen on previous Sony models like the ZV-E1 that lets YouTubers move around while filming themselves. You also get the digital zoom feature that reduces focus breathing for supported lenses, with some loss of quality.

Sony A9 III review: The future of cameras is fast
Sony A9 III review: The future of cameras is fast (Steve Dent)

Airplane propeller distortion in video is a telltale sign of a rolling shutter camera, so naturally we had to test the A9 III at an airport against Sony’s stacked sensor A1. Our findings? While the A1 still produces bendy propellers, they’re of course dead straight on the A9 III. That trivial test has large implications. You can shoot things like whip pans or a fast moving train that you’d never try with a rolling shutter sensor. And since everything is exposed at once like a film camera, it’s more cinematic.

The A9 III does have some video competition, as RED just launched a pair of full-frame global shutter cinema cameras last month.

It has the same excellent video stabilization capabilities as the ZV-E1. Regular optical stabilization is good for handheld shots without much movement, or you can kick in the dynamic active mode for walking. That provides near gimbal levels of smoothness, though there’s a considerable zoom and loss of sharpness.

Much as with photos, video quality isn’t quite up to other full-frame cameras, with more noise in general. I shot in S-Log3 most of the time to maximize dynamic range and was satisfied with the results. In low light, I was forced to use some noise reduction.

Quality is still better than any APS-C mirrorless or cinema camera. I think the global shutter advantages, particularly the elimination of rolling shutter, will be worth the tradeoff in quality for a large number of videographers.

Wrap-up

Sony A9 III mirrorless camera review
Sony A9 III mirrorless camera review (Steve Dent for Engadget)

Sony launched its first full-frame mirrorless camera, the A7, years before rivals, and was first to market with backside illuminated and stacked sensors. Lately though, rivals (especially Canon) have been catching up and the field has leveled. With the first global shutter camera, Sony has taken a leap ahead once again.

Image quality has held global sensor cameras back, but Sony clearly felt that the time was finally right. It was a wise calculation — the A9 III is far better than I expected for a first-gen product. It offers mind-blowing speeds and incredible video capabilities, with a relatively small cost in image quality..

Its primary rivals are the $4,800 Canon R3, Sony’s own $6,500 A1, the $5,650 Nikon Z9 and $3,800 Z8, all stacked sensor cameras. The latter three offer much higher resolution and better picture quality, plus shooting speeds that are still darn fast. They all have some rolling shutter, though, along with flicker and flash sync issues that don’t exist on the A9 III.

Whether it’s worth risking that kind of money on new and unproven stacked sensor tech depends on the buyer. Action photographers and videographers won’t blink at the cost if they advantages of global shutter will help them make money. Unless you really need those benefits, though, Nikon’s Z9 and Z8, along with Sony’s A1, are more versatile cameras — and the Z8 is significantly cheaper.