Gear of the Year: Carey's choice - Sony a9 II

Gear of the Year: Carey's choice - Sony a9 II

Photo: Dan Bracaglia We were being out-paced by a semi-truck on a dirt road off an Idaho interstate in a mad gambit to skip an hour's worth of stop-and-go traffic. As the 18-wheeler rounded a corner far ahead of us, leaving our sight, I felt a bit of humility.

Mostly relief. Though if we'd wanted, we could easily have kept up with the truck in the little Subaru we were bouncing around in.

It was nice to take comfort in the certainty that every photo I would take on this trip would be reasonably exposed and perfectly focused.

But earlier, we'd been tailing the truck a bit closer and all the dirt it kicked up made us feel like we were crash-landing on the Red Planet in a Martian storm. The subsequent realization that we'd left our cell phone reception back by the highway also encouraged a little more caution.

Visitors visit parts unknown in Craters of the Moon National Monument. Processed and cropped slightly in Adobe Camera Raw.
ISO 100 | 1/500 sec | F8 | Sony FE 100-400mm F4. 5-5. 6 GM @ 141mm.

We were on our way back from Bozeman, Montana, from a DPReview video shoot on a farm. In normal times, road tripping to parts unknown is one of my favorite activities, and the ensuing uncertainty is honestly part of the appeal. But the additional uncertainty of the pandemic weighed on me a little bit. Every rest stop, every carefully vetted Airbnb stay was a risk, necessitating masks and buckets of hand sanitizer.

So it was nice to take a small bit of comfort in one thing the certainty that every photo I would take on this trip would be reasonably exposed and perfectly focused. I had Sony's a9 II with me, and free from worrying about whether or not the camera would do its job, I came away with some of my favorite photographs I was able to take this year.

Why it matters

It may not have bird detection, but the a9 II's tracking is just solid.
ISO 100 | 1/1000 sec | F5. 6 | Sony 100-400mm F4. 5-5. 6 GM @ 100mm

Back when I wrote our review of the a9 II, I said it had the best autofocus performance money could buy. Canon's subsequent EOS R5 and R6 cameras have come close to closing the gap, and they have pretty awesome animal detection algorithms. But the a9 II's tracking just works incredibly well, pretty much all the time; it's tenaciously sticky and tracks anything I put the AF point over, and the camera can track human eyes that are absolutely tiny in the frame.

As a tool for the type of work I wanted to do, the Sony a9 II did the job.

It's also easy to forget that there are plenty of cameras out there for which we don't recommend using subject tracking all the time. Heck, even Sony's a7R IV, which, on paper, features the same implementation, can struggle with fast action. (Admittedly, this could be the massive resolution, but if the AF can't keep up, what's the point of all those megapixels?).

The clouds roll into Mount Rainier National Park. Processed in Adobe Camera Raw.
ISO 125 | 1/160 sec | F8 | Sony FE 100-400mm F4. 5-5. 6 GM @ 137mm

Shooting with a camera that has the most dependable subject tracking I've used really freed my mind to focus on composition and capturing a variety of moments. As the camera tracked my chosen subject and kept it in critical focus, I could easily experiment with my composition with my eye to the finder and end up with an image I was happy with.

No camera is perfect, but this one is pretty darn good

I have to admit, one of the great frustrations of my job is that in over five years of living, breathing and testing cameras, there isn't one camera that does everything exactly the way I want. Yes, I know that might be the most #firstworldproblem ever. Maybe I'm just too picky.

Great eye detection means the a9 II didn't get tripped up at all by the foreground elements in this Montana farm photo. Processed in Adobe Camera Raw.
ISO 100 | 1/160 sec | F2. 8 | Sony FE 24-70mm F2. 8 GM @ 70mm

The Sony a9 II, for all its impressiveness, still has some interface lag, convoluted menus and a handful of other quirks. It's overkill for many people, while others would value more megapixels or slightly greater dynamic range over the a9 II's speed and AF tracking. Oh, and the touchscreen kind of stinks.

You'll also notice that the images presented here are processed through Adobe Camera Raw (original JPEGs in the gallery below). Sony's JPEG engine has some of the best detail retention and noise reduction on the market, but I just felt like some images needed a more personal touch to really replicate what I saw in front of me as I hit the shutter button. That would admittedly be an issue were I a full-time sports shooter on a tight deadline.

The road ahead will always be windy and more than a little uncertain. Processed in Adobe Camera Raw.
ISO 100 | 1/500 sec | F8 | Sony FE 24-70mm GM @ 24mm

But as a tool for the type of work I wanted to do, it did the job. It may not be a camera that I fully enjoy the experience of using, but the confidence it inspires is hard to overstate. And that made all the difference on an uncertain road trip in these uncertain times.

And lastly, happy new year to everyone reading (and thanks for reading this far). Here's to hoping for some slightly more certain times ahead, and thank you for being a part of DPReview.

Read our full Sony a9 II review here

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