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Not just for stills!

- Sony α9's potential as a movie camera -

Seiji TANAKA / Cinematographer

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A sensational mirrorless camera, Sony’s α7SII, is used widely as a movie camera. Many filmmakers already either use it or own it
I myself have also been one of them to use the α series extensively over the past few years. The recent development of Sony’s E mount mirrorless camera has beem eye-opening. It’s used as an action camera when shooting professionally, or sometimes for music video as the main camera.

On April 21st, 2017, Sony suddenly released the “α9,” the best model of the mirrorless camera in Japan. Because the timing of this announcement was just before ‘NAB Show 2017,’ of course I expected new functions for shooting movies. However, it was released with the advertising slogan that one would expect for a still camera, pointing out Blackout-Free Continuous Shooting at up to 20fps and the high performance of AF. Thus, it seemed that the α9 wasn’t for the movie industry. But now I feel it is the future of E mount mirrorless cameras.

Testing as a main camera

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I visited Hollywood as a cinematographer for the interview of Cine Gear Expo in Los Angeles at the beginning of June. My job was mainly for stills, and it was a one-man operation, but since the job included an interview, I brought the α9 as my main camera, which I bought personally, and the α6500 as my sub camera. The α series are light and convenient, so they have a big advantage when shooting in foreign countries.
I bought the α9 on release day. I brought it as my sub camera to film several companies’ VPs, and that’s when I discovered its potential.
Moreover, when I visited Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley in the desert area of Arizona after the interview at Cine Gear Expo, I came to appreciate the possibilities when shooting with the α9.

In my job, I use the E mount camera a lot. I bought the α7RⅡ, theα7SⅡ, and the α6500 from the α series, and the PXW-FS5 as my cinema camera. I’ve been a fan of this series since the Minoltaα in the film era, so even though times have changed to mirrorless cameras with a new sensor, I’ve kept using the α series since the α7 because they’re E mount cameras, which were fascinating because they mixed new and old optical lens technology. The first α series developed to the α7, the α7S, the α7R, and the Mark II. The α9 soon followed. On this trip to America, I thought the α9 made huge strides in basic performance, and it shouldn’t be for stills only.

Evolving as a mirrorless camera

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What I look for in a camera are of course resolution, color depth and codec. In addition, the completion of an EVF, battery life, durability, and stiffness are essential.
Although the mirrorless camera is very compact, it still creates great image quality; however, the battery life is an issue. I think it’s one of the fatal weak points that α7 has.
But, the α9 has improved on this; its new battery, the NP-FZ100 has 2.2x the capacity of the previous NP-FZ50. Actually, I felt the battery lasted about 3x the α7SⅡ during my travels. Without using an external battery, I shot a movie interview that lasted over an hour with only this compact body. That’s so useful.
At some shoots, the initial plan was to put α7SⅡ on Freely’s MoVI M5 3-axis gimbal stabilizer; however, the plan suddenly changed, and we had to shoot for a long time. Then, I decided to use the α9, and that saved me. Therefore, the innovation of the battery life was the camera‘s strength.

Wanting to shoot with this EVF

The aspect of EVF is enhanced. Its resolution is about 3700k-dot, and it’s Quad-VGA OLED. Compared to the α7SⅡ with 2360k-dot, the α9’s EVF is much more high definition. I was surprised by the quality when I looked through it myself. The ZEISS T* coating for the ocular lens reduces reflections. As for luminance, it’s 2x the α7SⅡ. So, the EVF quality is enough to be ready for shooting. The PMW-F55 as a 4K cinema camera has DVF-EL100 OLED EVF; however, sadly, though I own it, I feel that the α9’s EVF is better than PMW-F55’s when I’m focusing during 4K shooting.
I think the best EVF is LEICA SL’s in-camera EVF, but I can say that the α9’s is a close second. LEICA SL’s EyeRes viewfinder has about 4400k-dot resolution. Undoubtedly, the quality makes me think, “I want to use this EVF to shoot!” but the α9’s EVF also has ‘the thing’ to make me think the same thought. On that point, I want you to use and try it out yourself. Thanks to those two good points, the battery and the EVF, the α9 has enough wealth of use as movie camera.

Normal performance even in the torrid and dry desert

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On this interview trip, we were going through the desert area by car. Sometimes, I shot stills while riding on the rear deck of the dune buggy. Because of the dry air, a strong and hot blast of sand was constantly whipping around us. The outside temperature was over 40 degree Celsius. True desert weather. We shot stills and movies in these awful conditions, but the α9 bore up against the heat and tiny particles of sand. It provided us with 9 days of trouble-free shooting and held up under the heat without issuing any temperature warnings. The slogan of the α9, which is ‘dust prevention and drip-proof design,’ seemed a bit restrained to me, but its potential was proved via the trip, during sandy wind or squall. In fact, I feel the reliability as a camera is improving immensely.

Longing for the addition of Picture Profile

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About the specs, it’s close to the α7RⅡ or the α7SⅡ. I won’t explain the details here, but what I highlight is that it’s in XAVC format, which means it can record 4K/30P and 120P. The ISO and color balance are the same as before.
One thing that I want to say to the maker is that the Picture Profile was gone. That’s the really depressing thing. When I use the α7SⅡ, I customize the Picture Profile. Because the α series can record 8bit, I personally rarely record with Log. Nevertheless, since the Picture Profile cannot be used anymore, it’s hard to customize it when I am making a Look.
But, even when I accepted that fact, the basic performance of the α9 still fascinates me when I’m making a movie. So, that’s way I miss it so much. At Cine Gear Expo, I had time to spend with the makers, and strongly requested that “when next firmware updates, support the Picture Profile.”

As a body, there are refinements in detail: adding slow and quick motion for movies on the shooting mode dial, moving the recording button to next to EVF (I never understood why they had it in a different spot before), and obviously improving stiffness thanks to the increased number of screws in the mount area. I can say the α9 is not only for stills but for movies as well.
Along with an increase in reliability and usage of the α series’ equipment and accessories, of course, the α9 in my mind broadens the possibilities of movie productions on set; therefore, I definitely have high expectations for the next α9.