Sony a9 III First Impressions: The Global Shutter Era Has Arrived

In what is perhaps the most significant Sony camera announcement, well, ever, the dominant force in the mirrorless market has introduced the a9 III, the world’s first full-frame camera with a global shutter system, which promises massive benefits for high-speed photography.

As Sony feels a bit of heat from the likes of Canon and Nikon in the mirrorless space, especially concerning the sports, action, and wildlife photography space, Sony’s new a9 III announcement has come at just the right time, although it won’t land on store shelves until “spring 2024.”

The Most Impressive Features

To recap some of the a9 III’s key specifications, it sports a newly developed 24.6-megapixel full-frame stacked CMOS image sensor, the world’s first global shutter sensor of this size. Plus, the sensor is paired with the latest Bionz XR image processing engine which Sony says is eight times more powerful than the processor in the a9 II.

Thanks to the new global shutter sensor and the faster processor, the a9 III can shoot with full autofocus and AE tracking at up to 120 frames per second, all without any rolling shutter.

Sony a9 III

While a deeper dive into global shutter sensor technology is warranted (and we’ll be getting into that soon), the primary takeaway in the context of the a9 III is that all 24.6 million pixels on the global shutter sensor in the camera are exposed simultaneously. In contrast to a typical scanning readout of a focal plane shutter, which scans one horizontal line of the sensor at a time, albeit very quickly, a global sensor is an “all at once” system.

This has two significant advantages. A global sensor entirely eliminates rolling shutter distortion, as no “rolling” occurs at all. This also means there is no concern with syncing flash to a rolling shutter, meaning that the days of 1/250 second or 1/320 second flash sync are gone. The Sony a9 III can sync with flash at breakneck shutter speeds.

Speaking of shutter speeds, the a9 III can shoot at up to 1/80,000s in its single drive mode and 1/16,000s when shooting continuously. Alongside artificial lights, this enables photographers to get very creative with high-speed, action-freezing photography. For sports shooters, the global sensor also means flicker-free shooting. Sony has long employed technology and features to reduce flicker and minimize rolling shutter, but now, with the a9 III, these distortions and artifacts are wholly eliminated.

Sony a9 III

Not to be a broken record, but it is imperative to emphasize this point: the Sony a9 III can sync with flash at any shutter speed.

That is something that no camera has achieved, save for camera’s that use leaf-shutter lenses, but even those leaf shutters are often capped at 1/2000 second or maybe 1/4000 second, so the a9 III leaves those in the dust. It will take time to see how creators put this exciting new feature to use but it is, at first blush, a complete game-changer.

Some real-world examples where this matters include photographing sports like tennis or golf, where there are fast-moving rackets, clubs, and balls. For golf in particular, a common issue with rolling shutters, and especially with the electronic shutters often required to shoot at a camera’s fastest shutter speeds, is that the club appears warped. The same distortions apply to baseball bats, hockey sticks, and vehicles during motorsports. To these problems, Sony says, “adios” with the a9 III.

It will be fascinating to see if Sony incorporates a global shutter system on a prospective a1 II or if that camera’s combination of speed and resolution is something that cannot reasonably be achieved with a global sensor — at least not yet.

What Wasn’t Said

There are also a few things of interest that did not make it into Sony’s presentation. Notably absent from the announcement, including Sony’s press release, is any mention of ISO.

After getting some hands-on time with the a9 III, the camera’s “native” ISO range is 250 to 25,600 when shooting stills. This is an unusual range and is significantly different from the a9 II’s native ISO range of 100 to 51,200. While the a9 III can get to ISO 100 and 51,200 with extended ISO options, it is fascinating that a successor camera has a narrower native ISO range. Presumably this is related to the global sensor technology, although Sony has been relatively tight-lipped about that so far.

Sony a9 III

Sony also didn’t discuss image quality or dynamic range. Based on limited hands-on time, and no ability yet to download and peruse any images captured with the camera, it appears that high ISO performance is quite impressive. In general, image quality seems good. Although, there is a massive asterisk here because image quality is very tough to evaluate on the back of a camera, and the move to a brand-new sensor technology brings with it some level of skepticism. The fact that Sony did not bring up image quality during its presentation also gives pause.

With camera technology at large, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and every impressive new feature often comes with some compromise or tradeoff. These compromises have long held global sensor technology out of the hands of photographers, so it will be fascinating to see if there are any noticeable compromises during real-world testing.

It may be quite some time before in-depth real-world testing is possible, of course, given that the a9 III that PetaPixel has tried is a very early pre-production unit and the camera’s memory card is locked away from our prying hands. However, PetaPixel will be able to test the a9 III later today and tomorrow.

Sony a9 III

There is also a slight caveat concerning high-speed shooting that was not fully divulged during Sony’s announcement. While the company did mention that the camera cannot shoot faster than 1/16,000 second during continuous shooting — which is still exceptionally quick, by the way — it turns out that the camera also can’t shoot faster than that limit when using an aperture faster than f/1.8. Initial expectations are that this cap is related to bokeh, but Sony dismissed that assertion and said that it cannot disclose more information at this time.

Now to a bit of hands-on impressions: Unsurprisingly, the a9 III’s autofocus system appears spectacular, and the camera was practically glued to fast-moving subjects in Sony’s carefully curated demo area. The autofocus felt so swift and accurate at times that it almost felt like it was psychic and knew something about the subject’s movement before it happened. In all fairness, Sony claims that its “AI” system does include some predictive pose and movement technology. It is also worth mentioning that the a9 III’s autofocus system is rated down to -5 EV, a two-stop improvement over its predecessor.

The camera’s EVF, which is the same as the a1’s, remains excellent in use. The biggest and most pleasant part of using the camera is its refined front grip design. It feels fantastic and is undoubtedly the most comfortable Sony camera I have ever held. The control layout is excellent, and the improved shutter release feels great.

Sony a9 III

Sony’s new vertical grip is also superb, offering a like-for-like experience, whether in landscape or portrait orientation. The optional VG-C5 ($400) will be available to order at the same time as the a9 III, on November 8, 2023, and begin shipping next spring.

There is much more to learn about the Sony a9 III, and it is still early days as we come to grips with the camera’s primary features and what it will enable professional photographers to achieve. Jordan Drake and Chris Niccolls, also on hand at Sony’s event, have created a first impressions video which is available at the top of this article.

Image credits: Sony