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(Pocket-lint) - When Sony announced the A1 in 2020, it was hailed as "the everything camera". It's the top dog, the crème de la crème, the bee's knees. You get the point. This is the machine that's able to do it all, and then some. 

So what's the catch? Where's its Achilles' heel? The one obvious place to look is the asking price. Previous Sony A-series cameras have never been cheap, so it's no surprise that this one commands an eye-watering amount. Get it with a couple of worthy lenses - like the G Master 135mm f/1.8 and the 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom - and you're soon looking at dropping five-figures on a setup.

The surprising thing is that, for the right person, that's totally worth it. Read on to find out why the Sony Alpha A1 is the one camera to rule them all.

Design

  • Dimensions (body): 128.9 x 96.9 x 80.8 mm / Weight: 737g
  • 0.64-inch electronic viewfinder (EVF), 9.4m-dot resolution
  • 3-inch tilt-angle touchscreen LCD, 1.4m-dot resolution
  • Dual SD card slots - compatible with CFexpress Type A
  • Sony E Mount lenses

The Sony A-series of full-frame cameras has gained a lot of fans over the past few years, and it's led the way when it comes to delivering serious power in a compact, mirrorless body. The A1 retains that ethos. In fact, pick the body up on its own with no lens attached and it's surprisingly compact and lightweight.

Stick one of the aforementioned G Master lenses on it, however, and it soon becomes heavy and a little unbalanced. You'll need a shoulder strap or bag to carry it in, that's for sure. Chances are if you're looking at this camera seriously, you already knew that. 

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Despite the camera's compact body, it features a plethora of ports and buttons. To one side, there's a dual-stacked dial: the top dial allows you to switch between single, burst and timer modes; while the focus selection dial sits beneath that. 

The shooting mode dial sits on the other side, along with the customisable dial - which we set to adjust the aperture in Manual mode, but you can set as you please - and the exposure compensation (EV) dial to the right of that.

There's another dial at the front of the camera grip which we had set to adjust the shutter speed.

On the back, there's a rotating control that you'll use most for navigating the menu system, but can also be used to adjust the ISO sensitivity when shooting. 

There are other buttons, naturally. Sony insists on keeping the Menu button awkwardly on the left side of the electronic viewfinder (EVF), which might be handy when peaking through the EVF, but does make using the camera one-handed a bit of a challenge, when all the other controls are on the other side of the camera's rear. 

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There's also lovely, grippy joystick which is generous in size, allowing for more precise focus; a AF button that lets you quickly autofocus; plus four customisable function (Fn) buttons and a movie button (again, awkwardly placed right next to the EVF, but on the right side). 

For the most part, it's a well-spaced and practical set of buttons. Once setup in the way you like, it doesn't take long before using it feels like second nature. Just be prepared to do a lot of tweaking when you first power it up. We found ourselves wanting to change the dial functions immediately, but this will be down to previous experience and preference.

As well as the repositioning of the menu and movie buttons, there are a couple of other things we'd like to change. For instance, the shooting mode dials on the right and left are constantly locked, so you can't change your selection without pressing the top button to unlock it. We'd rather there was a way to click-to-lock then click-to-unlock, similar to the button added to the EV dial. We can understand this is practical in some situations where you don't want to accidentally change the shooting mode or focus type. But it made changing those settings quite fiddly when we did want to.

Then there's the touchscreen. It's a lovely, sharp monitor that offers a great canvas to be able to see what you're shooting. Sadly, however, it doesn't have the range of motion offered by some of Sony's recent cameras. It tilts up and down, but can't be flipped out to the side, and has barely more than 100-degrees rotation on its hinge. Hence, it's not the most versatile mechanism in the world.  

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As for ports, there's no shortage of those either. In fact, the A1 has practically everything, all under sturdy, well-constructed flaps on one side of the camera. 

You'll find 3.5mm ports for both headphone out and microphone input. Beneath that are the full-sized HDMI port and USB-C port (which you can conveniently use for charging). There's a power port for directly powering the camera from a socket, a multi-purpose Micro-USB port, and even an Ethernet port. 

There's no XLR, but with a digital multi-interface snapped onto the multi-purpose hotshoe on the top, you can quickly add XLR inputs if you want to, and Sony will happily sell you its own home-made adapter. 

Bursts of glory

  • 30fps burst in JPEG & Raw at full 50MP resolution
  • Mechanical/electronic shutter options
  • Silent shooting (electronic)
  • Real-time tracking

Undoubtedly, the headline feature of the A1 is its wondrous management of burst shooting. It can shoot really high bitrate photographs at ludicrously quick speeds, and without any screen or shutter blackout. Or at least, that's the claim. Specifically - it can capture 50-megapixel images at 30 frames-per-second. That's high resolution still images captured at the same rate as standard video recording. 

We tested it on a few occasions, shooting bursts of kids running and jumping, and various other snippets of motion, and were pretty blown away at its performance.

Looking at the screen while holding down the shutter button and it was almost impossible to tell that it wasn't shooting video - it's that fluid. There's no black screen at any point, just a subtle pulsing in our framing guide to let us know that it was indeed shooting a collection of fast bursts. And with the shutter being so so quiet, we could barely hear it working either. 

Considering the size and resolution of the sensor, and the brain power in Sony's image processing unit, that's just mind-boggling. It's doing so much tracking and adjusting focus between each image, and it's processing and shooting without skipping a beat. 

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With the real-time tracking following the subject, it made it pretty easy to get good shots without losing focus between each frame. This becomes more challenging if the subject is coming towards the camera quickly, and it'd sometimes lose focus during the odd frame here and there, but not often. 

Sensor, focussing and stills

  • 50-megapixel full-frame Exmor RS sensor (35.9 x 24.0mm)
  • 5-axis stabilisation - 5.5 stops
  • Bionz XR image processor
  • 759 phase-detection points
  • 425 contrast-detection points

We alluded to the sensor already, but it's worth reiterating what this camera is equipped with. It's got a 50-megapixel, full-frame Exmor RS CMOS 3:2 sensor. Combine that with Sony's powerful Bionz XR image engine and there's little it can't do. 

Then of course there's the usual fantastic autofocus and real-time tracking. Part enabled by the clever brains of the camera, part by the sensor with its combined array of 759 phase-detection and 425 contrast-detection points. 

Set the touchscreen to 'touch to track' mode and you can just tap on a subject and watch as the camera keeps it in focus - even as you record video or shoot continuous bursts.

As you'd expect from a high-end Sony camera, that works quickly without any excessive hunting, keeping the subject generally locked in. It might struggle at times with really fast-moving objects, but it's rare for the A1 to drop a frame unless the subject isn't easy to distinguish visually from the background. 

You can also set the camera to focus on faces or eyes - be that people, animals and birds. Although, yet again, you do need to set it to one of those settings manually before attempting it. Want to shoot your pet? Better make sure you've got 'animal' selected in the AF settings menu. 

With the right lens attached, the results are nothing short of delicious to look at. Images are so sharp, that details look really life-like, while human faces are very natural looking. Colours are superb and you can get some lovely bokeh when stopped down. It's been hard to shoot a bad-looking picture with this setup.

The beauty of this sensor though as that - because it's such a high-resolution one - you can crop into it without really losing any noticeable detail. As you can see from the 100 per cent crops in our sample collections, above, the detail is still there. That gives a lot of flexibility to shoot and crop until you have the framing you want. It also means you could snap a close-up photo without having to shoot an additional shot. 

Video capabilities 

  • 8K (7680 x 4320) 10 bit up to 30p
  • 4K (3840 x 2160) 10 bit up to 120p
  • Slow & Quick modes from 1fps to 240fps 
  • 48kHz 24bit audio recording

With the A1 being all about that sensor and the impressive burst rates, you could almost forget it's more than well-equipped for video too. Sony enables 8K recording up to 30fps on the A1, with a wide array of bitrates and frame-rates available in 4K and 1080p resolutions too. 

At 4K, you can shoot 10-bit video at 60fps, while 1080p goes up to 120fps. Given that the Sony A7S III also shoots 4K at 60fps in 10-bit, it almost seems a waste to get the A1 over it if you're primarily a videographer. Those extra pixels in the sensor don't really benefit you here, except in enabling 8K recording. Which is - as of right now - not supported on very many screens at all. 

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Still, the autofocus and powerful engine makes light work of any video work you might want to try, while those ports on the side mean you get the versatility to use it any which way you please - including plugging in professional sound recording equipment and external monitors. 

The 5-axis stabilisation also means that shooting handheld is a mostly shake-free affair, with any minor wobbles easily dealt with, and those that aren't not being very severe. Or, at least, easily fixable in post. 

Performance and battery

  • Wi-Fi 2.4GHz/5Ghz support
  • Wired LAN + Bluetooth 5.0
  • NP-FZ100 battery - up to 530 shots/90 mins video
  • Charges via USB-C with Power Delivery support 

The A1 is a beast when it comes to performance. Perhaps what's most surprising is that it doesn't chomp through its battery life. We had just one battery during testing and rarely felt the need to take a battery pack with us when out shooting. 

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In its spec sheet Sony says you'll get anywhere between 430 and 530 shots with a full battery, which isn't bad. Or up to 90 minutes of video recording. That's a solid amount of longevity from a full cell. Obviously, our uses are less intense than a studio photographer or professional. If you're one of those who can easily rack up 1,000 shots in no time, that's where a battery pack and the USB-C charging capability will come in handy. 

Combined with the performance and ease at which the camera handled everything we threw at it, the A1 is one of the most effortless cameras available. It's a real workhorse. 

Verdict

There aren't many cameras on the planet capable of doing everything the A1 can. It's a magnificent machine. From 8K video recording through to intense 50-megapixel bursts at lightning speed, all without breaking a sweat, it's got pretty much everything.

It's safe to say this is a real investment, and those likely to buy one aren't just your casual amateurs or wannabe vloggers and photographers. The people who'll gravitate toward the A1 are those who know exactly what they need from a camera in a professional setting and will see the price pay for itself over time, given the results.

If you're after primarily a video camera (without 8K) then we think Sony's A7S III is a much more sensible choice given its screen design, shooting options and price point. The A1, we feel, is a camera for those who need to capture fast-paced action in still photos.

Sure, the Sony A1 is niche and out of reach for most. But those who do reach out and take the plunge will be highly rewarded with a magnificent beast. It really is the one camera to rule them all.

Also consider

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Sony A7S III

As mentioned, if you're after a video camera primarily, the A7S III makes arguably more sense. No, it's still not cheap, but it's considerably less painful to the bank balance than the A1. It's great for low-light too, thanks to the large pixels in the relatively low-resolution sensor. 

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Panasonic Lumix S1

For full-frame goodness without as big an outlay, the Lumix S1 represents great value for money. It's not as fast as the Sony, and doesn't feature the same number of ports, but if you're looking for a stills camera first and foremost then the Leica lens mount means quality is guaranteed.

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Writing by Cam Bunton. Originally published on 8 June 2021.