Sony a9 vs Canon 1D X Mark II for Action/Adventure Shooting

Sony a9 vs Canon 1D X Mark II for Action/Adventure Shooting

The release of the new Sony a9 this spring finally sparked interest in the mirrorless camera market for me. I have tested other Sony cameras but had hangups with their operation and how I specifically work as a photographer. When Sony announced the a9, their press release specifically addressed the issues that I had with previous bodies so I knew that Sony was listening to photographers like myself.

I decided to pair Sony’s a9 release against a formidable giant – Canon. Sony became the #2 camera manufacturer this spring by beating Nikon out of their historical #2 spot. I feel if Canon continues to design products with lateral upgrades, they too will give way to this hungry underdog.

This test realistically pitted David (Sony) v. Goliath (Canon). What I discovered was way more than I originally thought possible.

Disclaimer Before We Start Comparing Gear

I am going to state for the record that I was completely ignorant on the subject of the mirrorless camera prior to this test. Even more so when it came to Sony camera gear. I put this test idea together thinking that the lightest f/4 lenses were going to give me the best bang for the buck and the greatest weight savings between Sony and Canon. What I didn’t know was that the new Sony a9 is special.

The Sony a9 was designed to specifically work with Sony’s new G/GM series line of lenses that were released with the camera. My idea of less money and smaller aperture worked against the a9. There is a list of all lenses that work with the new a9’s features that I didn’t consult before creating this test. As you will read, I feel results will be even better for the new Sony a9 comparatively to the equipment that I tested in this article. Yes, even a professional photographer can screw up.

What We Tested: Breaking Down the Sony a9 and the Canon 1D X Mark II

For our Sony v. Canon test I chose:

Sony Alpha a9 Mirrorless Digital Camera
Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS Lens
Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Lens
Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS Lens

Canon EOS 1D X Mark II DSLR Camera
Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM Lens

As an adventure sports photographer I typically want to carry the least weight and take up as little room in a backpack as possible. I do want performance with my gear, however, so we went with the newest pro bodies that Sony and Canon currently produce. Even though our lenses are f/4 aperture, they are all fixed f/4 lenses through their entire zoom ranges.

Like I already mentioned, the Sony a9 is built for its brand new line of G/GM lenses that are mostly f/2.8 glass. If I did this test again I would run the new glass across the board.

Opening the Pelican Case

As I opened the Pelican case with close to $30K of photo gear inside, I had a vision of a scene from the movie Men in Black. It is the scene where Will Smith gets his first gun, the “Noisy Cricket”. The Sony a9 is the “Noisy Cricket”. In comparison to the Canon 1D X Mark II, the a9 is dwarfed. I was astonished by the fact that the Sony a9 is such a feature-packed, pro-level camera at this size.

Construction

The Sony definitely feels less sturdy than the 1D X II and time in the field would probably highlight this later. The a9 also has less weather sealing and more plastic. If you are a tool-bashing pro who photographs in bad weather like me, the a9 will probably be in the shop a bit more. I don’t know how good Sony’s repair program is, but I do know that Canon’s is top notch.

Weigh-In

I decided to weigh each lens and camera combination we had.

 With lens…
 

 

 16-35mm f/4 2 lbs 14 oz 5 lbs
 24-70mm f/4 2 lbs 10 oz
 24-105mm f/4 5 lbs 7 oz
 70-200mm f/4 3 lbs 9 oz 5 lbs 5 oz

Then we took the backpack that I use every day to haul my camera gear around, packed it with each kit, and noted down those weights:

• My backpack with the entire Canon 1D X Mark II kit equaled 15.5 pounds.

• My backpack with the entire Sony a9 kit equaled 13.5 pounds.

I was shocked that there was only a 2 pound difference here! The big caveat is the volume, though. The Canon 1D X Mark II body is so large (larger and heavier than my current first generation 1D X) that you need a much “bigger boat”, sorry, bigger backpack. Don’t worry, the movie references will end here. Maybe. I could easily fit the a9 with the lens attached to it in my daily mountain biking-only backpack that is 12L. I couldn’t fit the Canon in there without the lens removed.

It’s In the Volume

While I think the weight savings between the two systems is negligible, the volume savings is huge. Choosing the a9 would allow you to then choose a smaller pack, which would then increase your weight savings even more. Plus, with the a9, you can bring your camera almost everywhere with you. You cannot do this with the 1D X Mark II.

One other benefit to the Sony a9 is that the smaller volume allows you to be more stealthy. You are not whipping out some monster pro-body proving to the world that you are a “superior photographer”. If you need it, use it. But you know who I’m talking about out here.

Silence

Right from the first press of the shutter release with the a9, you can tell why you might want to add it to your covert shooting operations. The a9 is completely silent because there is no mirror! Even with the 1D X’s new silent mode, it is pretty loud. Actually really loud. Mechanical movement is still mechanical.

Viewfinder: EVF vs. Reality

Like I mentioned earlier, I am a mirrorless newbie. While the LCDs in both cameras are similar, the viewfinders are not. The Sony runs an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) and the Canon is showing you a visual reality because of its mirror.

While the Sony’s EVF is pretty amazing, it did take some getting used to compared to the traditional DSLR viewfinder of the Canon. In low light the EVF gets pretty noisy, which then makes it harder to focus on the scenes you are capturing. I almost immediately began relying on the back LCD during this process. This visual noise within the EVF isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I just think it would personally take me some time to get used to it.

Another cool feature of the EVF is no depth-of-field preview button. If you use a DSLR to see how your aperture will affect the look and focus of your photo, you typically need to press the depth-of-field preview button and your viewfinder gets very dark. The Sony EVF just adjusts accordingly without getting dark. This was so cool to watch.

One last amazing feature about the EVF is that it doesn’t go black when shooting now. This was one characteristic about Sony’s previous a7 series mirrorless cameras that I did not like. Hold down the shutter release and the a9 is silently blazing away with just a change in the photo being recorded.

Frames Per Second

The a9 shoots at 20 FPS with new G/GM labeled lenses and 15 FPS with the lenses that I tested. The 1D X II blazes away at 14 FPS with the mirror flipping up and down in the viewfinder, or 16 FPS in Live View mode. Both of these cameras’ frame rates exceed most photographers’ needs. I am completely happy with my 1D X at 10 FPS. All of those frames are just going to equate to more culling and editing anyway.

Yes, if you are shooting something that is really fast, like a top-fuel dragster or peregrine falcon in a top-speed dive, you may see the benefit of 20 FPS. So I think Sony has gone “plaid” with their “hyperdrive / warp-speed / ludicrous-speed” a9 frame rates. While it is cool, I truly don’t feel that it is necessary for the photography application. Sorry, movie references again.

Now here is something that I didn’t know prior to this test: the Sony operates so quickly because of the mirrorless electronic shutter. It does have a built-in mechanical shutter just like the 1D X II, but the mechanical shutter will only function at speeds of 5 FPS. Why does this matter? Even though the electronic shutter allows 20 FPS shooting it can only shoot down to a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second. Below this shutter speed, you need to activate the mechanical shutter in the Sony. You don’t need to deal with this if you are using the 1D X Mark II – its frame rates are based on the mechanical shutter only.

Autofocusing

Remember my disclaimer about the lenses for the Sony a9 from the beginning of this article? By choosing the f/4 lenses for this test I actually put the a9 into crutch mode. It will only shoot 15 FPS with the older f/4 lenses and autofocusing is not as fast.

The red dots represent focus misses with the 1D X Mark II.

I shot the same autofocus sequence with each camera. The Sony still beat the Canon for more frames in focus during this sequence test. If this is the case with the less compatible f/4 lenses, I cannot imagine the success rate with the new G/GM lenses specifically made for the a9.

I got fewer focus misses with a9.

The Sony a9 also gives you 693 autofocus points for almost complete coverage within the viewfinder. The Canon 1D X Mark II has 61 points that only cover a portion of the viewfinder.

ISO

I know that companies like DxO Mark test all of these cameras in a laboratory and give them a rating out of 100. Yes, I do read what they have to say, but I don’t follow their system to the letter because laboratory testing cannot mimic real-life use. However, they do rate the Sony a9 at 92 and the Canon 1D X Mark II at 88. This tells me that both of these cameras are pretty phenomenal.

I set out for a non-scientific approach to my ISO tests. I actually did two, one in low light and another in the bright, diffused midday light of my garage. The Sony crushed the Canon in the low light test and both were surprisingly similar with the diffused midday light test. In fact, the a9 picked up so much light in the low light test that the unprocessed photos looked completely different from the Canon photos of the same scene.

The a9 produced amazing photos at ISO 25,000 and higher ISOs still looked pretty good. The Canon 1D X II improved significantly from the first generation 1D X with photos looking great at ISO 12,500. Throw in a little noise reduction in Lightroom and you are pretty much wowed with results across the board here.

You can download ISO DNGs from my website if you want to play around with them yourself – for personal, educational use only.

One thing that bothered me was dust removal for the a9 in Lightroom. You have to use the clone side of the Spot Removal Tool. If you use the heal side, there is a weird color variation in every location that you clone out dust in your photograph.

One other issue with the Sony sensor…because it is never covered by mechanical shutter vanes it collects dust fast. Every lens swap adds to the sensor dust and it can become an issue if you live in an arid western climate like I do.

Video

I have never fallen in love with the DSLR video craze. It’s way too much setup and there are too many rules to follow for me to get excited about it. The a9 allows dummies like me to easily shoot video. Press the record button and the camera shoots video. I tried to intentionally mess settings up and find rolling shutter but the a9 video looks smoother than the Canon, even when I tried to sabotage it!

When I pulled the camera out to try a serious video clip of my wife riding her mountain bike along a roadside, the a9 tracked her moves effortlessly. It did this while writing to an archaic SD card with a 30MB/s write speed!

The Canon 1D X Mark II is another story. You cannot shoot more than 10 seconds of 4K video without a new CFast flash card. So if you want 4K video with the 1D X, you need a card that costs about $700 (as of this writing). This is in addition to your new $6,000 camera body.

I do like the fact that Canon added a switch to go between video and stills. Even here, though, the Sony is simpler. Just press the video record button and you are shooting video with the a9.

Microphone

This may make a difference for the real video shooters out there. The Sony a9 has a built-in stereo microphone but the levels are not manually adjustable. The Canon has a mono mic that has adjustable levels.

Controls

If you are arriving at the 1D X II from the 1D X you probably won’t notice the subtle changes. All of the buttons are in the same place. Even the menu screens are the same.

The a9 seems like it’s very similar to previous a7 models, too. The camera controls are significantly different compared to the Canon, though. While I liked having knobs and dials like old-school film cameras, my assistant for this project hated them. In my opinion, if the a9 had buttons similar to the 1D X II it would be really hard to change settings because of its really compact body size. So I feel the knobs and dials on the a9 benefited its design package perfectly.

GPS & WiFi

It’s as if these two companies conspired to be opposites in this area. The Sony is missing built-in GPS, but has WiFi. The Canon has built-in GPS and no built-in WiFi! You can buy yet another adapter for WiFi on the Canon. I couldn’t find an adapter for GPS for the Sony.

Price

If you were starting to build a kit from scratch and were considering price, you don’t need to worry. Pricing out both kits with the fastest lenses possible (unlike what I tested), including focal lengths from 16mm to 400mm, the Canon setup is only $400 more total. This is with Sony having a body that is basically $1500 less from the start. If you are just looking to replace your camera body, Sony users get better features for less money, in my opinion.

So Who Wins? Sony or Canon?

Does Sony win this battle? Well, that really depends.

The 1D X Mark II is only an upgrade to the 1D X user from a sensor-noise-resolution standpoint. Yes, Canon has increased file size by a whopping 2 megapixels to give you a 20 megapixel body and bettered their autofocus and frame rates a bit. They also added GPS to the body but also made a huge body even larger and heavier. I have trouble fitting the original 1D X in my pack. Now I have to make more room for this seemingly horizontal feature set?

Canon, did you get the memo? Hasselblad has a 50 megapixel mirrorless medium format body that is smaller and lighter than a 5D. I think it is time for a major overhaul of Canon’s product line.

The Sony is the “Noisy Cricket” even though it can be set to photograph in dead-silent ninja mode. It is a feature-packed, professional-level, 24 megapixel camera body that will literally fit in the palm of your hand. The weight savings is less significant than most tout. The price savings doesn’t lend itself to a huge difference, either. So should you, or even would you, switch? That is the $11,000 question.

You get a huge savings when it comes to gear volume with the Sony. This allows larger weight gains with a new, smaller backpack or more room for other gear in your current backpack. Its video crushes the Canon in my novice opinion. The autofocus speed was faster than the 1D X II with f/4 lenses, so with G/GM-designated zooms specifically engineered for the a9, there isn’t going to be any competition. Its ISO sensitivity is amazing. The viewfinder is weird if you are accustomed to the mirror in a DSLR. I also don’t think the Sony will take as big of a beating and keep on shooting. My current 1D X has been submerged in 4 feet of water and then shot a sunset that night without a hitch.

I probably wouldn’t switch from Canon if you didn’t need anything other than a new camera body at this point. If you needed some new lenses too, then I would probably switch. The expense is more justified with the need for new glass. Finally, if you are just starting out with photography, hands-down buy the Sony system. They are looking towards the future and I think the #1 spot is well within their grasp with the release of the new a9.

But Wait, There’s More

I have recently also tested the Leica SL system. I didn’t include it in this test because I didn’t test it at the same time. The Leica SL will fill in most of the blanks between the Sony and Canon. It is bombproof and the construction quality destroys both Sony and Canon. I won’t go into too much detail here, but you can read about it on my website.


Special thanks to Brendan Quigley, who assisted me during the tests.
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Jay Goodrich

Jay Goodrich is an internationally published adventure photojournalist living in Jackson, Wyoming. He started his professional career as a formally-trained architect. There was something about the corporate world within architecture that just didn’t work for Jay. Instead of complaining or continually living a life that didn’t satisfy, he built a business that opened doors to the world and is focused on the foundations of design and art that he learned while studying architecture in college. Find out more about Jay on his website.

4 Comments

  1. Only canon can make 4K 60fps

    Reply
  2. “Sony became the #2 camera manufacturer this spring by beating Nikon out of their historical #2 spot.”
    Well no not actually … first off, remember the claim came from Sony themselves nothing independently verified. Secondly, it was a very specific part of camera sales (full frame ILC cameras) over a very small time period (one month).

    Looks like you swallowed Sony’s cool aid supplied with that press release.

    http://www.dslrbodies.com/newsviews/sony-throws-some-smack.html is a good assessment of the claim!

    Reply
  3. What style Dakine backpack is that?

    Reply

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