Sony is seemingly on the fast-track to world camera domination. In fact, the company made news last August when its key mirrorless lineup models become the top-selling full-frame cameras in the United States. The company still trails Canon and Nikon in outright camera sales worldwide — and by a significant margin, with Sony occupying just 13-percent of sales against Nikon’s 25-percent and Canon’s 49-percent — but the writing is on the wall. Mirrorless is the future, and Sony has a significant jump on that technology.
But what’s all that stuff even mean? Mirrorless? Full-frame? Briefly: Consumer and professional cameras are broadly lumped into two categories: full-frame and crop-framed, which refers to the size and quality of their sensors. Pros tend to go big, while consumers are usually happy with the smaller (and thus more affordable) sensors in their cameras.
Mirrorless is a further distinction. These models dispense with the traditional optical viewfinder and mirror — which blocks the sensor until the shutter is pressed — in favor of an electronic viewfinder that reads data directly from the sensor. It generates an image for the user in both a small digital viewfinder and a larger screen on the back of the camera, and it allows for real-time exposure previews, fine-tuning of camera focus and precise depth-of-field adjustment.
That’s a critical distinction, because the new system shifts the expertise advantage from mechanical engineering — i.e., making shutters that can flip up and down quickly and reliably for years — to electronics and computerization, which Sony excels at. As a result, Nikon and Canon have been playing catch-up for several years with regard to mirrorless cameras, only releasing their own full-frame versions (the Nikon Z7/Z6 and the Canon EOS R) late last year. Throw in the fact that Sony makes what are generally considered the highest quality camera sensors in the world, being used in most smartphones, countless industrial applications, and even in many competitor cameras, and it’s clear that Sony is here to stay.
But Sony makes all types of cameras, as do the other manufacturers. (Nikon and Canon are certainly no slouch, and their DSLRs still maintain an edge in terms of durability, weatherproofing and frame rate) But if you’ve decided to dig in with Sony camera gear, whether a point-and-shoot model or a more advanced interchangeable-lens camera, there are still many factors to weigh. Let’s parse out your options.
What Makes Sony Different?
Of course, cameras are already confusing enough just in terms of lenses and body styles, but each manufacturer also throws in its own twists with features, image-enhancement strategies, and, of course, the design of all the buttons and dials on the camera bodies themselves. Sony’s no different, but here are some key elements that you should know about when mulling Sony gear.
• Sensors: Sony’s sensors are exceptional. In my own experience, every time I’ve used multiple camera manufacturers at the same event or shoot, the Sony bodies have invariably produced the highest image quality. You’ll need to choose between full-frame, in which the sensor equals the size of the now old-timey 35mm film frame, and crop-sensor, with APS-C being the most common. Full-frame sensors, as with all manufacturers, produce higher-quality images, with better color and resolution, as well as better dynamic range — meaning the sensor’s ability to capture detail across a wide range of lighting conditions. APS-C sensors are more compact and cheaper, but they also “crop” the lenses, meaning the final image is essentially zoomed in relative to what the lens would otherwise be capable of generating.
• Focusing: Sony has been working to match the focus speed of both Nikon and Canon cameras. Among its most recent innovations: What it calls 4D focusing, which enhances the ability of specific camera models to track and maintaining focus on moving objects, including athletes and vehicles. It’s available on the A99 DSLR, the A9 and A7 III full-frame mirrorless models, and the A6500 APS-C mirrorless camera. Sony also recently introduced a unique twist on its automatic eye-detection and focusing technology — a key gremlin for photographers who know that many elements of a portrait can be out of focus, but the eyes cannot. The new twist: It now works for animals, too.
• Mounts and lenses: Unless you opt for an adapter — something that may or may not provide full functionality in terms of electronic focus and aperture control — buying a camera body locks you into the lenses made by either that manufacturer or a third-party lens maker, such as Sigma, which design products specifically for different brands. This is why photographers agonize over “switching to Sony”; they’ve built up large lens collections and find the prospect of starting over difficult to stomach. Also, Sony hasn’t yet caught up to the legacy brands in terms of the breadth of lens offerings, though that’s changing every year.
Even worse, lenses within a single manufacturer often aren’t usable all the way across the lineup due to different camera geometries and mounts. Sony uses two mounts for its interchangeable-lens cameras: the A-Mount and the E-Mount. A-Mount lenses are used on traditional DSLRs with mirrors, while mirrorless cameras use E-Mounts. The differences lie in the ability of mirrorless cameras to accommodate more compact hardware and shorter distances between lens elements and the sensors. It essentially means conventional lenses won’t work on mirrorless cameras, though you can buy an adapter that does allow them to work.
In total, Sony now lists 86 lenses on its website, covering both full-frame and APS-C sensors and ranging from affordable zooms up to premium prime lenses and zooms for the mirrorless line, most notably in its G-Master series. The gold-standard lens for any camera, however, is the venerable, versatile 24-70mm f/2.8. It can be pricey — Sony’s G-Master version lists for $2,200 — but the quality of the glass and the wide aperture, which allows for enhanced low-light performance and greater control over depth-of-field, make it an essential.
Sony E-Mount Cameras
This little camera is Sony’s most affordable advanced camera, offering fast autofocus precisely controllable via taps on the rear LCD. It has most of the other features of the A6000, minus the rear viewfinder. That leaves just the rear LCD, which for most people these days—accustomed to shooting with smartphones—is really no big deal.
• A5100 ($350)
A6000, A6300, A6400, A6500
These compact, interchangeable-lens mirrorless cameras use a 24-megapixel APS-C crop-sensor but are still among the best ways to get into more advanced photography. The can use all the same lenses that the pricier models can; they are smaller and lighter; and they come with many higher-end features, including an electronic viewfinder and generous ISO performance for low light. Fortunately, Sony doesn’t phase out the earlier models often, so the original A6000 can now be had at a much lower price than it debuted with, and the step-up models are dropping similarly in price. The most recent — actually the A6400 rather than the A6500 — is targeted specifically at the vlogging community, with a flip-up screen, improved time-lapse performance, app enhancement and low pricing.
Though the A9 is pricier than any of the A7-series cameras, it’s also a relatively niche product. That means that the A7 series is in many ways still the company’s flagship lineup. There are three key variants — the entry-level A7, the video- and low-light-oriented A7S, and the premium all-around model, the A7R. It’s now into its third generation, the Mark III’s, though as with the A6000’s, the company is keeping the original models in the lineup to increase options and affordability. (Exceptions: The A7R has been discontinued, and the A7SIII won’t be out until later this year.) The cameras are renowned for their reliability and quality, with the A7R models providing substantial 42-megapixel sensors that allow for incredible flexibility in editing. The most recent releases now include dual memory-card slots, an enhanced buffer for greater continuous shooting, and a silent mode so you don’t disturb or startle your subject.
Even though the A7 cameras are exceptional models being used by pro shooters in a huge variety of situations, Sony released the A9 to target a uniquely challenging demo: Sports and action photographers. The camera dials down sensor sensitivity — and resolution — in order to bump up processing speed. The result is a 24-megapixel camera that can shoot at an incredible 20 frames per second while maintaining continuous autofocus. It also eliminates a the brief but distracting blackout in the viewfinder between frames during the high-speed bursts. It was also the first of Sony’s mirrorless rigs to include dual memory card slots—something pro photographers insist on for backup purposes.
• A9 ($3,500)
Sony A-Mount Cameras
Though Sony is running hard with the mirrorless cameras, it hasn’t abandoned the DSLR crowd. The full-frame A99II offers competitive performance along with compatibility with Minolta and Konica lenses, in addition to Sony’s own A-Mount offerings. It has the added benefit of 4D autofocus for high-speed tracking, built-in Wi-Fi for image transfers to mobile devices, a substantial 42MP sensor, internal stabilization, and 4K video capability.
• A99II ($3,200)
This is the step-down version of the A99II, with an APS-C sensor. It has many of the features of its big brother, including 4D autofocus and Wi-Fi, but it tops out at 24.3MP and 1080p video, rather than 4K. Still, it’s a solid entry-point for the prosumer Sony lineup.
• A77II ($1,200)
Subtract Wi-Fi and about half the light sensitivity (ISO 25600 for the A77II, 12800 for the A68) and you have this still very reasonable option. Go for it if you know you won’t necessarily be itching to expand your capabilities anytime soon, and just want a reliable workhorse.
• A68 ($600)
Sony Compact Cameras
The palm-sized RX0 is durable and rugged enough for adventurous use — yet it has more conventional-camera capability than the average action cam. It can shoot 15.3 megapixel stills at 16 frames per second and a shutter speed of 1/32,000 of a second. The new RX0II model can now record in 4K and it has a flip-up LCD screen that facilitates vlogging and selfies, and it has eye-tracking for sharper focus and it can be strung together with up to five other cameras for control via a central app.
These cameras — now in their sixth generation, with all models still available — represent Sony making the absolute best of a small sensor and a non-interchangeable lens. They’re light, compact, fast to focus and shoot, and produce rich, 20-megapixel images. With a 24-200mm zoom lens, it’s a point-and-shoot for pros.
Stepping up from the RX100 will get you into the RX10 line. Here Sony starts to fold in more advanced features, including faster and more precise autofocus, continuous shooting at up to 24fps, and improved image processing. The most recent model, the Mark IV, shoots 4K video and includes an epic 24-600mm zoom lens, for up to 25x magnification.
This is truly a professional’s compact camera. It’s he first with a full-frame sensor, and it includes Sony’s powerful BIONZ image processor — a variant of the one used in the A7 series.
• RX1R ($2,400)
There are multiple entry-level options for Sony cameras, all of which are under $500. At the lower end of the range — the W and WX models — you may be better off with just your smartphone camera, most of which can meet or exceed the performance and capabilities of these cameras. But the higher-end models, including the HX’s, offer some combination of significant optical zooms 4K video, and OLED digital viewfinders, among other features. Plus, they all will have stronger megapixel ratings than most smartphones, with up to 20. Ultimately, these might be great options for those who simply want an affordable camera with the power of the Sony brand behind it and a sensor that, while small, is still larger than any smartphone’s. If that describes you, take your pick from these pocket-sized shooters.