The Sony a1 on paper looks like the “one” camera to rule them all. With high resolution (50mp), speed (up to 30 fps stills), and 8K 30p/4K 120p video, can this camera live up to being a jack of all trades AND master of all of them? After testing the camera in the waters of Bonaire and the Socorro Islands, the short answer is yes. Read on for the long answer on how that conclusion was reached. Sony,a1,Underwater,Camera,Review,test,video,photo,photography,a,1,alpha,α,footage,scuba

Sony a1 Underwater Camera Review

By: Jim Decker The Sony a1 on paper looks like the “one” camera to rule them all. With high resolution (50mp), speed (up to 30 fps stills), and 8K 30p/4K 120p video, can this camera live up to being a jack of all trades AND master of all? After testing the camera in the waters of Bonaire and the Socorro Islands, the short answer is yes. Read on for the long answer on how that conclusion was reached. Hi-Res, Fast Shooting, Great Image Quality Usually, these three things do not go together, they are in tension with each other. A high megapixel sensor camera used to be slow due to the amount of data to be processed. Even only a few years ago a 40+ MP camera doing over 5 frames per second was considered fast. A lower resolution camera at about 18-20MP doing 10-12 frames per second was considered fast for a “sports” camera. The Sony a1 is 50MP and shoots at 30 frames per second which is mind-boggling to think about. Sony has also massively improved the image quality of their high-resolution sensors in the last few years. While the noise and dynamic range of the Sony a1 will fall just shy of what the leading Sony a7R IV can do, that extremely small cost comes with the blazing-fast speed the Sony a1 possesses. The color, resolution, and image quality make for great wide angle photos.Sony a1 | Sony 28-70mm & Nauticam WACP | 1/160 | ISO 100 | ƒ8Dual Native ISO PerformanceLower Noise and Better Dynamic Range at Higher ISO Sony doesn’t list a spec quoting the camera as having a dual native ISO, but it behaves like it does. On the Sony a1 the next level kicks in at ISO 500. This means shooting at ISO 500 rather than 400 will have better image quality, lower noise, increased dynamic range. This works great especially for video, where ambient light wide angle type shots at a 180-degree shutter angle in 120p results in about a 1/250 shutter speed, which in turn leads to higher ISOs to make that shutter speed work. 1/400 Flash Sync SpeedA First for a Full Frame Camera Wow! That’s all I can say for this spec. Folks, we haven’t seen this before. Now we can shoot high ambient light shots (think sunballs) and use a higher shutter speed (which won’t affect strobe light) to pull in the exposure of the ambient light rather than being stuck with adjusting ISO or aperture (which affects BOTH ambient light and strobe light). This effectively means in these shooting situations one can shoot a higher shutter speed instead of a lower ISO or a more closed aperture and preserve 1 full stop of strobe light over what a Nikon Z7 II or Canon EOS R5 that only have a flash sync speed of 1/200. Some of you may be asking "how can I get an extra stop of strobe light out of a faster shutter speed"? Keep in mind ISO and aperture affect both the natural ambient light AND the strobe light, while the shutter affects ONLY the ambient light and not the strobe light. In underwater photography, any shot with strobes is all about balancing the ambient light and the strobe light. For example, in a shot where a Nikon Z7 II or Canon EOS R5 camera is maxed out at 1/200 F16 ISO 100 with strobes at full power, the Sony a1 can have the same ambient light exposure at 1/400 F11 ISO 100, but since the aperture is 1 stop lower the strobes will appear 1 stop brighter when compared to the other settings. Where these situations often occur is in bright ambient light conditions. Some examples are shooting directly into the sun for a sunball shot, a large foreground scene lit by strobes in shallow bright ambient light conditions, and macro shots in shallow sandy areas when trying to knock out the ambient light. Having a 1/400 shutter speed is a godsend when dealing with large scenes in shallow, bright ambient light situations. It effectively allows a 1 stop darker control of ambient light control with the shutter speed rather than aperture or ISO, which in turn gets 1 more stop of light out of the strobes when compared to the Nikon Z7 II or Canon EOS R5.Sony a1 | Sony 28-70mm & Nauticam WACP | 1/400 | ISO 125 | ƒ8 A faster shutter speed of 1/400 also helps with motion blur of fast-moving subjects. While the strobe will freeze any motion lit by the strobe, the ambient light motion blur is controlled by the shutter speed. If 1/400 flash sync speed isn’t enough for you, the Sony a1 will do a 1/500 flash sync speed when put in APS-C mode. This is especially useful for macro in bright conditions when using a more open aperture for less depth of field while maintaining a darker background. Don’t fret about the APS-C crop too much as even in that mode the camera will yield a file with a resolution of 21MP. The camera also can be set to ISO 50, which is 1 stop darker than the native ISO 100 of the sensor to help even more with strong ambient light. Even though ISO 50 is in the extension range of the ISO, the images coming out look fantastic, and I would not hesitate in shooting that low for a lower dynamic range macro shot. Combining ISO 50 along with a 1/400 flash sync speed allows a photographer to have better control of ambient light and makes it easier to shoot wider open apertures without having ambient light leaking into the image when shooting in bright, shallow conditions.Sony a1 | Sony 90mm | 1/400 | ISO 50 | ƒ14 A big note on shooting at 1/400 with flash. In the camera menu, there is a setting under “Flash" called “Flash Sync Spd. Prty.” From the factory, it is set at “Auto”. I was shooting a manual flash trigger and I was getting the black bar that normally shows up when the camera is exceeding its flash sync speed. I was perplexed underwater and thought I might have had a defective camera. I decided to hunt through the menu to see if there was any setting that could be changed, and I changed the “Flash Sync Spd. Prty.” to “ON”. That fixed the problem. Otherwise, the max shutter speed will be 1/320. Don’t ask me why this setting is in the camera to make it fail to shoot 1/400, just be aware and set this option on your menu and thank me later. Being able to have a greater shutter speed range makes it easier to shoot in changing light conditions without having to change aperture or ISO as often. The makes changes in the middle of the action a lot faster to accomplish, which will lead to more keepers. It truly is a game changer. Top Level Tracking AF PerformanceForget Out Of Focus Shots and Using Manual Focus Anyone familiar with Nikon’s 3D tracking or Sony’s AF Tracking in continuous AF will never use another way to autofocus ever again. The hit rate on autofocus accuracy is near perfect. The autofocus tracking has improved over the Sony a7R IV with quicker, more accurate tracking and 1 stop improvement in low-light conditions. While wide angle focus tracking worked well with the Sony a7R IV, macro was another story. However, the specs only tell one part of the story. In practical use, the AF tracking on the Sony a1 was even more impressive. Previously on Sony α series cameras, focusing with the Sony 90mm macro lens was so slow as to be unusable for macro shooting. A Canon 100mm IS with a lens adapter like the Sigma MC-11 outperformed the Sony 90mm for focus speed. Even with the Sony a7R IV’s improved autofocus over previous Sony cameras yielded great results for wide angle type shooting, macro with the Sony 90mm still suffered from such sluggish performance and focus hunting that made autofocus in all practicality, useless. That has all changed with the Sony a1. The new autofocus system with the Sony 90mm macro is now the best autofocusing macro lens I have ever used. The lens focuses quickly and accurately without the massive focus hunting on previous models. The tracking is very impressive, locking onto the head of coral gobies and blennies I was shooting. Even more impressive is that when the camera locked onto the head of a goby or blenny, the focus square then switched to a smaller square and tracked the eyeball! It still did this even with a wet mate macro lens which is just about the worst autofocus test for a camera ever. Probably the most challenging autofocus test for any lens and camera combination is macro at around minimum focus, then to make it even tougher, add on a wet macro lens. The Sony a1 autofocus was able to lock onto and track the eye of this goby, which I’ve never seen a camera do before. Sony a1 | Sony 90mm | 1/400 | ISO 100 | ƒ22 This autofocus system is a godsend for people who have eyes that cannot see critical focus through a viewfinder. On previous Sony cameras, we recommended using focus peaking with manual focus to see critical focus, which is certainly an advanced move for a lot of people. Now all you have to do is make sure the green square is over the area you want to focus on and the camera tracks the rest with precision. With 50mp of resolution, nailing focus is absolutely critical as at this resolution even being slightly out will show. The new AF system allows even the most difficult shots to be composed with perfect focus. Movie Performance4K 120p and 8K 30p, Plus Lots More In addition to great still photo performance, the Sony a1 has some very impressive movie performance as well. It has the same video codec spec and the more video-centric Sony a7S III—4K 120p at K 120p at 280mbps with 10-bit color in a 4:2:2 color space. The Sony a7S III will hold a slight advantage by using the full width of the sensor without pixel binning at 120p, but what the Sony a7S III can’t do because of limited resolution, is 8K 30p. Video for 8K and 4K 24p, 30p, 60p are taken from the full width of the sensor with no crop; 4K 120p is taken from a very minor 1.13x crop. There are a lot of other current cameras from Nikon and Canon that cannot shoot full width 4K 60p let alone 4K 120p at all, so the Sony a1 is probably the best spec’d hybrid video/photo camera out there now. All of the video specs are for recording to an internal card without the need for a larger external recorder. Check out this demo reel of the the Sony a1 shot at 4K 120p in Socorro by Backscatter Photo Pro David Serradell at Nautilus Liveaboards. When shooting video in 4K 120p I ran into an overheating issue where the camera shut down. It was towards the end of a dive, and the camera was ready to shoot stills after about 2-3 minutes of cool-down time and did not run into an overheating issue again. I was a “hybrid” shooter on that particular dive, switching between stills and video. There is a menu setting in the camera called "Auto Power OFF Temp.” that from the factory is set to “Standard” and can be changed to “High” to allow more shooting time (which I was unaware of at the time). The user manual says “Standard” is for handheld use so that the camera does not get too hot while holding it. I suspect the legal department put this setting into the camera in case your newborn baby was snuggling the camera against their bare face while shooting 4K 120p. It got warm but nothing that I would consider injurious. Other reports from the field with the menu setting on high are saying the heat issue did not occur again. Set on high in our studio, we recorded over 30 minutes straight before the overheat warning came on. The camera cooled down enough within 3 minutes at which point I was able to record for another 8 minutes, then with a 3-minute cool-down, shoot until the battery was exhausted. (Note that I started with the battery at 72%). This is much more usable than the Canon EOS R5, which in our tests suffered from such great heat operation issues to the point where it was something that had to be actively managed shot by shot and cooling recovery on surface intervals was small. A great feature to make it easier to frame shots, especially in video, is the Clear Image Zoom feature. When activated the camera allows for a digital zoom up to a 2x crop of the sensor. While shooting it acts just like a zoom lever on a camcorder. This makes it super simple when set up on a macro critter on a tripod to activate a little zoom for a better composition rather than trying to move the whole tripod and risk not getting the shot. It can also be used to make a short sequence of medium then tight without losing depth of field or having to refocus. It will still maintain 4K resolution while zooming, however, this feature is unavailable in 8K. Clear Image Zoom is like having a zoom button for a fixed focal length lens. It will allow for up to a 2 sensor crop worth of zoom, allowing more versatility in shots, and making it easier to frame a subject without having to continuously move a tripod for perfect positioning on a moving subject. This clip was shot with the Sony a7S III but works the same on the Sony a1. Mirrorless cameras in general have an advantage over SLRs in video because of in-body image stabilization (IBIS) and an electronic viewfinder for shot framing. The image stabilization on the Sony a1 has both IBIS and Active Steadyshot, which is a digital stabilization that comes at a penalty of a small 1.1x crop. Stabilization is key underwater as it is easy to bobble while hand holding a housing. While IBIS is available in all video modes, Active Steadyshot is not available in 8K or 4K 120p. White Balance—Massively Improved Over Previous Sony Cameras To say that the custom white balance capability underwater of the Sony a1 has improved over the Sony a7R IV would be a gargantuan understatement. It can now execute a great-looking white balance down past 80 feet. This mirrors the white balance performance we saw with the Sony a7S III. With this improvement, I can easily say that the Sony a1 is now the best performing hybrid stills/video camera out on the market today. Even at depths exceeding 80 feet, the colors look fantastic. Previous Sony cameras and other poor-performing custom white balance cameras typically render the water a magenta color, which is near impossible to fix in post. This is a major upgrade and makes the Sony a1 a truly viable underwater video camera. There are 3 custom white balance banks to store different white balances at different depths or with video lights. In practice underwater doing wide angle ambient light custom white balances, it looked a little better to perform a custom white balance slightly shallower (5-10 feet) than where one is shooting. Executing a manual white balance is an easy process and white balance access can be assigned to a custom button, I prefer C1. Contrast this with the Canon EOS R5 where it is a major pain with many multiple steps to execute a manual white balance. This massively improved white balance now puts Sony squarely at the same level as Canon’s legendary professional-grade underwater color. I would not hesitate in recommending this camera to a pro-level shooter who needs the best color for broadcast or cinema work. Speaking of pro-level broadcast and cinema, the Sony a1 has all the same pro-level features as the video-centric Sony a7S III such as zebra striping, focus peaking, and log profiles. Electronic Viewfinders — A Blessing and a Curse As with anything in life, there are positives and negatives, and there’s no exception to that with electronic viewfinders. The Sony a1 has a hi-res 9.44MP OLED electronic viewfinder with probably the best viewing experience of any electronic viewfinder. It’s very large, and the dynamic range is better than just about anything other than an optical finder. Also on the positive side is the ability to see playback in both the viewfinder and the rear LCD screen. In clear, bright water with lots of glare, the LCD screen can be hard to see to review the image during playback to make sure you nailed the shot. Switching to the EVF for playback and having all the playback options to see histograms, highlight warnings, and zoom in to see critical focus in shallow water is awesome. With macro shooting, especially super macro, it’s very handy to not have to move at all to review the image and risk losing the macro critter in the finder. Framing wide angle shots like this with the hi-res electronic viewfinder is no problem for the Sony a1.Sony a1 | Sony 28-70mm & Nauticam WACP | 1/160 | ISO 200 | ƒ8 The downside to mirrorless is shooting in wide angle, especially with a backlit scene, which to be frank, is most underwater wide scenes. With a backlit scene, the viewfinder or screen compensates for the overly bright background and makes the foreground appear dark, making it hard to see what is in the foreground. Sunball shots are the worst, where it’s nearly impossible to see where the sun is or making out what is in the shadowed foreground. In general, for macro shooters having an electronic viewfinder is a really good benefit over an optical finder. Easy to see focus peaking and not having to move for playback is gold for macro shooters. Wide angle shooters might be a little more frustrated with the difficulty of seeing backlit scenes, especially ones with sunballs. I bring this up as I know there are a lot of SLR shooters who may not have had the experience of shooting through a mirrorless viewfinder and who are considering a move to mirrorless. Conclusion So is the Sony a1 truly the jack and master of all trades at the same time? Is this truly the 1 camera to rule them all? The answer is pretty much yes. Let’s review to see why. 1/400 Flash Sync Speed Being able to get a full stop more from the shutter when shooting flash is a complete game-changer. For the underwater photographer, this is probably the #1 feature to get this camera. You can get 1 more stop of light from your strobes when compared to other cameras such as the Canon EOS R5 and Nikon Z7 II. Macro shooters in bright sand and wide angle shooters with large scenes will benefit greatly from the faster shutter speed. And it can go to 1/500 in APS-C mode. Combine that with the ability to go to ISO 50, no other camera can knock out as much ambient light as the Sony a1 without completely killing strobe output. Image Quality and Resolution The image quality and resolution are second only to the Sony a7R IV but only by a small amount. The difference between 50MP and 61MP for most folks won’t matter unless doing some REALLY large prints, and even then it will be a small difference. Even shooting in APS-C yields a 21MP image with the Sony a1, which is still very printable. While the Sony A7rIV will win over the Sony a1 for image quality and resolution, it’s by such a small amount that in most situations one would never notice. Autofocus The autofocus system has improved a lot, so much so that the Sony 90mm macro lens that we had written off as unshootable in AF is now the best focusing macro lens I’ve ever used. The tracking is so good it will track the eye of a goby through a macro diopter. If your eyesight isn’t once what it used to be, this is the easiest autofocusing system out there to use without needing to see absolute critical focus or switching to manual focus. Video and White Balance The Sony a1 is the best spec’d mirrorless camera out there to date. With 8K 30p and up to 4K 120p, this camera can do it all. The only other camera to offer these specs currently is the Canon EOS R5, and we have noted the limitations with that camera regarding heat. Other handy video-centric features are Clear Image Zoom, in-body image stabilization (IBIS), Active Steadyshot, Log shooting profiles, zebra, focus peaking, etc. It is a professional-level video tool with very few wants for movie features. With the advent of a much improved white balance that can match the legendary underwater color of Canon, this is a no-compromise video solution. Is it too good to be true? What’s wrong with it? There are only 3 knocks I have with this camera: lack of a native fisheye lens, obscure menu settings, and the price. The lack of a native fisheye lens isn’t so much a knock on the camera, but Sony in general for not having one. There is a Sony 28mm prime that can take a fisheye converter, but that lens is so soft in the corners behind a dome as to be unusable. A Canon 8-15mm fisheye with a Sigma MC-11 adapter can be used on Sony cameras, and at this point is the best option until Sony makes an 8-15mm fisheye themselves. There are a lot of features on this camera which is certainly a benefit, and because of that, the menu system is pretty vast. Some of the names of features can be confusing as to what that setting will do. Who would’ve thought you need to change an obscure setting deep in the menu to shoot with flash at 1/400 or allow it to record video without shutting down due to an overly conservative heat warning? However, these are minor annoyances and are way better than not having these features at all. To get the most out of this camera, a shooter will need to take some deep dives into the menu system. Luckily this camera is such a hoot to shoot, it’s worth it to get intimately familiar with. And lastly, there is the price. At a price tag of $6500, it is one of the most expensive cameras on the market. No one should expect all of this performance to come cheap. The funny thing about the Sony a1 is that a lot of the features that are in the camera are not new to the marketplace. The new part is that all these features can now be found in 1 camera. Previously if you wanted speed, resolution, image quality, top-end video specs, pro-level underwater white balance, and killer autofocus, that in reality was 5 different cameras, and the Sony a1 can be considered the best choice in some of those areas. When thought about it that way, and if you really need all of those features for your style of shooting, the price point of the Sony a1 is a bargain. It truly is a jack of all trades no compromise photo and video hybrid camera for underwater shooting. ProsThe holy grail of megapixels, speed, and quality8K 30p and 4K 120p movies with no overheating in practical usageAwesome tracking AF means you’ll never miss a shot1/400 flash sync speed is amazing and is 1 full stop faster than either the Canon EOS R5 or Nikon Z7 IIIt white balances at depth for great-looking ambient light videoConsLacks a native fisheye lens solution, but a Canon 8-15mm fisheye will work great with an adapterIt’s pricey but worth itAlternative Options to the Sony a1 Is the Sony a1 too expensive or already have glass from another camera band? Here are some alternatives: Sony a7R IV--$3499 Best alternative for a stills photographer with only a passing interest in video. The Sony a7R IV has the best image quality of any full-frame camera on the market today, but it falls short in the video area by only having 4K 30p and a relatively shallow underwater water white balance capability. However, the autofocus of the Sony a1 is the next step above the Sony a7R IV.CHECK OUT THE a7R IVSony a7S III--$3499 Best alternative for a video shooter. The Sony a7S III is the top pick for a video shooter looking for 4K 120p. The sensor was designed with this in mind and as such is only 12MP, the perfect size needed for 4K, but is pretty low resolution for still images in this day and age.CHECK OUT THE a7S IIICanon EOS R5—$3899 Good alternative for a Canon shooter. If you already have Canon glass the Canon EOS R5 is a good choice for still shooters. Although it has the same 8K and 4K 120p capability as the Sony a1 and great underwater white balance, heat buildup is an issue for video shooters. If you have EF glass you’ll need an adapter for the new Canon RF mirrorless mount. If you have Canon EF glass and want to use the Sony a1, you can use the Sigma MC-11 adapter and the Canon glass will work great on the Sony a1.CHECK OUT THE R5Nikon D850—$2999 Best alternative for a stills shooter who wants an optical viewfinder. The Nikon D850 has been the most loved camera in our staff demo fleet and has circled the globe on Backscatter trips many times. It is great for photos with excellent image quality and the best autofocus right behind the Sony a1, but ahead of the Sony a7R IV. It falls short in the video department with only 4K 30p and a relatively shallow underwater water white balance capability.CHECK OUT THE D850Why buy direct from Backscatter?Free lifetime tech support with every purchase. We will beat any advertised price. Free shipping to USA and Canada and low-cost international shipping. CAMERA & HOUSINGSSony a1 Camera $6,499.99ORDER NOWAquatica Sony a1 HousingORDER NOWIkelite Sony a1 and a7S III HousingORDER NOWNauticam NA-a1 HosuingORDER NOW Sea & SeaMDX-aU HousingORDER NOWSeacam Sony a1 HousingORDER NOW


Related Posts

Canon R5 vs Canon R5C Underwater Review - The best underwater video camera?

Canon underwater shooters are spoiled for choice at the moment between two great full-frame mirrorless cameras with the Canon EOS R5 and Canon EOS R5C. While these cameras appear similar in both name ...

Read More

Sony a7 IV Underwater Camera Review

The Sony a7 IV boasts an all-new sensor and other significant performance upgrades from the previous Sony a7 III camera. The “middle” child of the a7 series, the base model has often been looked over....

Read More

OM System OM-1 Underwater Camera Review

The OM System OM-1 camera is the latest top-of-the-line flagship Micro 4/3 camera from OM Systems, formerly Olympus. We took the new OM System OM-1 mirrorless camera underwater to the Digital Shootout...

Read More

Nikon Z9 Underwater Camera Review

The Z9 is Nikon’s first foray into a pro-body mirrorless camera. Unlike the company’s pro body DSLRs which mainly concentrated on speed at the sacrifice of resolution, this is the highest resolution p...

Read More

Nauticam Lens & Port Charts

Most Nauticam housings offer interchangeable ports that allow for the use of a variety of lenses, however different lenses may require different ports and extensions rings to maintain or correct for u...

Read More

Nikon Z7 II Underwater Camera Review

The Nikon Z7 II is a relatively minor - but very welcome - upgrade from the original Nikon Z7. The second generation of Nikon's full frame mirrorless camera has the same image sensor and will pro...

Read More