Sony Alpha 1 Review – “Music, Fire and Me” Mini Documentary and Hands-On Footage

The Sony Alpha 1 is now available for purchase, but our site sponsors tell us, supply is currently limited due to large backorders and high demand. I mean, would I invest in a $6.500 camera, that can shoot 8K videos and high quality stills? Well, to me the answer is rather clear. I would love to hear what you guys have to say, so let’s dive into it.

It’s January 26th and the tension in our CineD HQ is high. Sony is about to announce something big. How big? Big enough for Sony to keep all cards very close to their chest. This time, no rumors, no leaks, no product samples and no advanced briefing. Nothing, nada! “Silence of the lambs”…It seems as if Sony really wants no information to get leaked.

A few days later, and everybody and their mother already reviewed the newly announced full frame 8K camera. Some went very deep talking about specification, others filmed ducks and rivers. Somehow we took it easy, especially as the camera arrived here rather late. Why? No clue. Does it matter? Absolutely not. What really counts is the fact that we were finally able to play with a prime “camera of the year 2021” candidate and put it through its paces. So here I am, happy to share our first hand impressions with you guys.

Sony Alpha 1
Sony Alpha 1 – Image credit: CineD

Sony Alpha 1 – Digital Camera Masterpiece

The above headline can serve as the article title, or the conclusion. As a photographer you will learn to appreciate its high resolution sensor (full frame 50.1MP) next to a blazing fast reliable autofocus performance. Now, what about us filmmakers, is there a reason for joy? The short and sweet answer is “absolutely, yes”! With 8K recording and fast reliable autofocus capabilities, the Sony A1 camera is truly an enjoyable camera to use. Think of it as an advanced Sony a7S III with the advantage of being able to film in 4K in cropped Super35 mode (minus the crazy “night vision” capability and swimmable LCD screen). Oh and talking about an LCD screen, it seems as if Sony is using a better LCD screen on the A1 when comparing it to the a7S III. We currently have both cameras at the office and the one fitted on the A1 simply looks better (Less muddy and brighter).

Sonja at work. Stills from the timeline
Sonja at work. Stills from the timeline, captured in 4K. Image credit: CineD

Violin, Fire and Sony Alpha 1

Anne the opera singer from our Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro review was kind enough to introduce me to Sonja Schebec, a talented young musician who was looking to do (even) more beyond playing an instrument. Her inner curiosity led her to start playing with fire… Now, before continuing, I really kindly ask you guys to not try this at home. This is an extremely dangerous form of art and one has to be well trained and qualified in order to do this safely. (Not only eating fire, but also playing the violin…).

The day with Sonja was planned at four different locations. Each place would have helped me to get to know the camera a bit better and not any less important, allow me to portrait Sonja in an engaging way.

  • At first, we conducted the main interview at her apartment (next to filming anything that can be beneficial for the story, or help to get to know her better). Filming at Sonja’s place gave me the opportunity to see how well the IBIS works (all shot handheld, but the interview itself). Talking about the interview, I decided to run it entirely on “Continues Autofocus” mode. I also placed a larger playing instrument behind Sonja as it had some LED lights on it. This allowed me to see how well the AF functions, as every little focus change can be seen on the LED lights behind. (focus breathing). I’m happy to report that autofocus works like a treat with this camera when recording video, at least with the lenses I used (more on those below).
  • Then we filmed outdoor at a nearby park, where Sonja is normally practicing the violin next to “her tree”. The noon sunlight gave me the opportunity to test how well the camera performs in preserving skin tones in harsh conditions, next to evaluating the camera’s audio performance together with RØDE’s Wireless GO set (spoiler: I was pleasantly surprised from the captured audio quality).
  • From there, just a short walking distance away, we ended up at a “secret tunnel”. At this place, Sonja could “warm up her throat” and start eating fire while I was able to test the S&Q mode at 4K/100p XAVC-S I codec mode. Here I had a small disappointment as I could witness some aliasing raising its ugly head at the stairs behind her. From what I recall, I never had this type of issue with the Sony a7S III when working in S&Q mode.
  • I’ve saved the best for last: A nice hall, where Sonja could go “full swing ahead” and perform with absolute control with fire. As for me, I placed a single light (The trusted GODOX ML60), and played between 1250 to 4000 ISO values depending on the shot. Again just to mention that everything was shot hand held. From this filming session I’ve learned that the lowlight capabilities of the camera are absolutely fine (I didn’t go “crazy high ISO values” à la Sony a7S III), and, that IBIS works well as long as you try to imitate “tripod shots”. When attempting to move, the absent of “Active IBIS Mode” in 8K was noticeable. I guess that the camera lacks some computing power that’s required for processing additional digital “crop into the image” task .
Voice from the past. Sony HDW-750P
2007. my mobile fitness center, the Sony HDW-750P. Credit: Jeanette Handler

At the Field

It’s 2007 and I will never forget the day I was asked to shoot a full length documentary in Full HD featuring the world of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with a Sony HDW-750P. My balls were shaking just from the thought of shooting at such a “high resolution” format… “To be or not to be (in focus) was the main question”… Now, those who’ve met me in real life know that I’m rather short, but this is because of schlepping around this camera for a year…. Fast forward, and I’m still short but able to film in 8K with such a small device, which costs one tenth of that HDCAM and surely surpassed its video recording quality, which really excites me.

Sony Alpha 1 Overheating Warning
Sony A1 Overheating Warning – Image credit: CineD

So back to the Sony A1 and the question, if I had any issues or concerns while working with it? Besides the overheating warning symbol that I got during the interview I conducted with Sonja, nothing really. (And for the record, the camera did not shut down on me). If I’m picky, the following enhancements would be welcomed:

  • Brighter/stronger “enhanced record” square inside the EVF (currently too weak for my taste)
  • Auto gain audio recording settings (non existent in the Sony Mirrorless camera line)
  • Stronger IBIS performance (currently good to imitate tripod shots but less good for walking scenes)

When it comes to future enhancements (Future A1 model or imaginary Sony FX5)…

  • Tilted EVF (once you get used to working with a tilted EVF it is very difficult to go back)
  • Swivel LCD screen (the current one can only be tilted)
  • Stronger CODEC when recording 8K (XAVC S-I 4:2:2 as a minimum)
  • Better overheating handling
  • And I won’t mention internal ND filter and/or internal compressed RAW recording.
Sony A1 and 24,40 and 50mm prime lenses
Sony A1 and 24,40 and 50mm prime lenses. Image credit: CineD

The 24, 40, 50mm Trio – Sony’s new Compact FF Prime Lenses

Working with the Sony A1 gave me the opportunity to finally get my hands on the new Sony FE 24mm F2.8 G, 40mm F2.5 G and 50mm F2.5 G lenses. With time cameras got smaller and better, and I always had the feeling that lenses are lagging behind and no, I’m not talking about optical quality but rather weight and size. Some manufacturers reacted to the new emerging market faster than others, but all in all, the selection of true compact lenses was nothing to write home about, especially when it comes to lenses from Sony themselves.

Sony Three new  Prime Lenses
Three Prime Lenses one front solution, great for filter attachment. Image credit: CineD

With the introduction of these three new lenses, the situation has finally changed. And let me tell you, while optically speaking they are not “perfect”, in terms of usability they are truly a joy to use! I really like the fact, that they all have the same physical size and weight (270 grams), and on top, having a similar 49mm filter diameter. Unifying does not end here and if you look closely you will see that the supplied lens shader/protector is similar, too. And why is this important? Simply because it allows adding a variable ND filter to it, and then, with half a twist you can easily attach it to any of the three lenses. No more endless filter screwing.

Resolution chart - Sony 24mm F2.8 G at F2.8
Sony 24mm F2.8 G on a Sony A1. Image credit: CineD
Resolution chart - Sony 24mm F2.8 G at F4.0
Sony 24mm F2.8 G at F4.0 on a Sony A1. . Image credit: CineD

Sony FE 24mm F2.8 G

From all the three lenses, the 24mm F2.8 G was my main working horse during that day (apart from the 50mm lens) and I wanted to highlight what really worked best for me. Let’s start with the autofocus: as we know, it always takes “two to tango” and in that respect, the lens works very well with the A1. Couple that with good enough end to end resolution, when fully opened on F2.8 and minimal image distortion and there you have it: a very nice compact prime lens to work with, especially during run & gun situations. Oh, and needless to say that when closing the lens to F4.0, the edges get even sharper. Where this lens falls short is focus breathing but I guess you cannot have it all for the price of $598. More information about the three new lenses can be found in our article here).

Sony A1 together with 24mm lens
Sony A1 together with 24mm lens. Image Credit: CineD

Who this Camera is for and Final Thoughts

During the last 12 months I had the pleasure to work with two mirrorless cameras that can shoot 8K video, the Canon EOS R5 was the first (full review here) and now the Sony Alpha 1. By the way, on a different thread on our site there is a very interesting conversation about the necessity of filming in 8K. If I may drop my two cents, I’m in favor of filming at the best available resolution for different reasons – be it “future proof” archiving, quality export to lower resolutions or even the ability to crop into the picture when editing. Whatever reason one might have to film in 8K, one thing is for sure: the Alpha is the best all-round flagship mirrorless camera ever produced by Sony. Yes, it comes with a price, but it can easily replace two separate camera bodies. So in the end, it can makes perfect (purchasing) sense to content creators, who are equally dedicating time to take photos and videos. (And the proof is in the pudding as we are being told by our site sponsors that “within a week of it’s announcement, there were as many preorders for the A1 as for the a7S III). I’m sure you guys can agree, that Sony made an amazing leap from being a company who manufacturer “just another camera that can shoot videos and high quality photos” to one of the leaders in this field. Merging the Alpha team together with Sony’s professional division is certainly starting to show its footprint and us, the users, can only benefit from it.

Sony Alpha 1
Sony Alpha 1. Image credit: CineD

Technical Data: Shot with a Sony A1 camera, 8K/25p, XAVC HS 10bit 4:2:0 codec, PP9 (S-Log 3) picture profile. Slow Motion at 4K/100p, XAVC-S I at 10 bit 4:2:2. Edited on Adobe Premiere Pro latest version but in all honesty, no matter how many updates Adobe releases, this software is still very weak when it comes to working with original H264/H265 files. (So footage was converted to ProRes 422 HQ).

Point and shoot position
Point and shoot position.Find me if you can…Image credit: Antonio Chorbadzhiyski

Acknowledgements

Thank you Sonja for your time. It was truly nice working together! I would also like to thank Antonio Chorbadzhiyski (Fire Safety) and Daniel Masmanian (Violin music composer). Last but not least, our in house editor Luciano, who is able to take whatever I throw at him and come up with pure gold nice story!

Additional music theme and sound effects: Epidemic Sound. LUTs supplied by Lutify.me

What do you think about the Sony A1? Do you see yourself purchasing this camera for your creative work or is it the type of tool that all together, makes no sense to you? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below

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