If you are in the market for a new camera, it can be difficult to choose between drastically different camera bodies that are both at a high level, like the Nikon D850 vs. Sony a9. Sony has recently broken into the professional photography world with its mirrorless camera bodies. And photographers are beginning to take notice.
Mirrorless cameras have certainly improved significantly since their introduction in 2008. However, not everyone is ready to abandon tried and tested DSLRs.
The Nikon takes great images and is one of the best DSLR options for videographers. But the Sony a9 has an auto-focus system with over 600 points and is significantly lighter. That makes it great for long trips or everyday photography. We will explore these elements and more of each camera below.
Here’s what we cover in the review:
Mirrorless vs. DSLR
Mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses have only been available since 2008. Since then, the manufacturers of these new camera setups have been driving innovation in the professional camera market.
This has prompted DSLR industry titans like Canon and Nikon to step up their game as well. That has resulted in great options in both technologies.
The main difference between these two camera systems is obvious – the mirror. DSLR cameras have a mirror in the camera body. It reflects light entering through the lens up into a prism or onto additional mirrors.
They show you the image in the viewfinder. (It depends on whether your camera is pentaprism or pentamirror.) When you take a photo, the shutter opens. That allows the light to hit the camera sensor and creates the image.
Mirrorless cameras do all of this electronically. So the image you see through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen is the actual image the camera is going to capture. This eliminates the need to take test shots and adjust settings multiple times like pro and beginner photographers alike have to do on DSLRs.
DSLR cameras tend to dominate in video. That is the case with the Nikon D850. It can record 4k video and 8k slow-motion video. Mirrorless dominates when it comes to additional features, however. That is shown in the Sony a9 having an innovative Eye AF autofocus feature that tracks a subject’s eye.
Far from a budget mirrorless camera, the Sony a9 is considerably smaller. It measures 127 mm x 96 mm x 63 mm and weighs 673 grams. That is vs. the 146 mm x 124 mm x 79 mm Nikon D850 which weighs 1015 grams.
The weight difference can come in handy for travel. It also comes in handy for everyday photographers who have to carry their cameras long distances. But the smaller size has actually been a point of criticism for some.
Photographers with smaller hands appreciate the size. However, other photographers think it is too small. They actually find it uncomfortable to use.
Sony has released a grip extension attachment. It screws onto the bottom of the a9 to make it more comfortable. However, photographers who like the weight and size of DSLR cameras may want to stick to what they are familiar with.
Both camera bodies are made of magnesium alloy and are weather-sealed. That prevents moisture or dust from getting inside. The Nikon has more buttons that serve a specific purpose.
The Sony has more custom buttons. This is one of several additional features that make the Sony a9 a particularly fun camera for photographers who like to experiment with their equipment.
The battery life on the Nikon still flattens the Sony, a9 however, with a charge lasting 1,840 shots vs. just 650 shots. This is one of the main differences between mirrorless cameras like the a9 and DSLRs like the D850. Photographers will have difficulty adjusting to it if they decide to make the switch.
A big area where the Sony a9 and other mirrorless bodies are still lacking is lens selection. The Nikon D850 has 287 lenses that are compatible with the F mount. However, there are only 83 lenses that are compatible with Sony a9’s E mount. Only 46 of those are full frame.
This is a problem for photographers who shoot in many different situations, such as photojournalists. They likely will run into a situation where Sony hasn’t yet created the lens they need.
To compare, there are 33 Nikon standard zoom lenses, and 9 Sony lenses. Only 7 of those are full frame, and 30 wide-angle zoom Nikon Lenses. That is compared to just 4 from Sony, with just 3 being full frame.
The lack of variety can definitely be limiting for photographers. But you can purchase adapters to convert your Nikon or Canon lenses. That way, they will be compatible with your Sony a9.
The Sony a9 also has a silent mode. So it doesn’t make the shutter sound when you use it. That can be nice for photographers who work in situations where the noise may be disruptive.
It also comes with an internal, 5-axis stabilization system. It works with any compatible Sony lenses or other lenses that are used with an adapter. The Nikon D850 doesn’t come with in-body stabilization. However, all of the compatible lenses have vibration reduction.
The biggest area where the Nikon D850 wins here in terms of which is better is max sensor resolution. The Nikon has a resolution of 46 MP, allowing you to heavily crop your photos and still have a high quality, sharp image. The Sony only has 24 MP, which severely limits your ability to crop an image.
The Sony a9 was clearly created with sports shooters in mind though, which is part of why speed was prioritized over megapixels. The resolution will be more than sufficient for a sports and wedding photographer camera as long as you have a long enough lens and don’t need to crop significantly.
The Sony has a better max ISO, at 51,200, vs. the Nikon’s max ISO of 25,600, but the Nikon wins with minimum ISO at 64 vs. 100. This lower minimum comes in handy for getting high quality photos with lots of detail in the highlights and shadows (be sure to invest in a speedlight to fill in shadows on a sunny day).
LCD Screen and Viewfinder
The LCD Screen on the Nikon D850 is slightly bigger, at 3.2” vs. 3”. It also has a better resolution, with 2.359k dots on the LCD screen, vs. 1.440k dots on the Sony a9. The Sony a9’s LCD screen and viewfinder have the potential benefit of being electronic however.
While some photographers feel like the viewfinder isn’t as vibrant as the pentaprism on the D850, having an electronic viewfinder has the benefit of showing you exactly what your image will look like, eliminating the need for test shots. The image you see changes as you adjust your settings.
You can even see a histogram through the viewfinder, or view photos you’ve taken through the viewfinder if you want to check your composition, which is a huge benefit when you are in bright sunlight and can’t see images on the LCD screen as well.
The Nikon and the Sony both have articulated LCD screens, meaning they hinge so you can see them better if you are taking photos on the ground and need to use the screen to compose a shot for instance. The Sony does have the added bonus of using the same sensor-based system when composing an image through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen, making it just as fast in both situations. The Nikon will perform a little slower when composing an image in live view.
While DSLR’s used to have the clear advantage in this category given their phase detection technology, which means they quickly measure where two beams of light converge, mirrorless cameras now combine contrast detection and phase detection to work just as quickly. Today, both types of technology offer quick, reliable autofocus, so it really just depends on which system you prefer.
The Sony a9’s autofocus system does have 673 focus points, giving you practically full coverage of the scene you are shooting. The Nikon also has a very robust system, using Nikon’s flagship AF system with 153 points. Photographers have found that both systems are pretty comparable.
While the Sony has 340% more auto-focus points than the Nikon, both work quickly and accurately, and both still captured the occasional mis-focused or blurry image in low-light shooting scenarios (note: the D850 has actually scored worse in low light than the D810). The a9 does have a bonus feature called “Eye AF”, which can track a human eye and keep the focus on the front eye of your subject, which many photographers find very helpful.
The autofocus on the Sony a9 does slightly outperform the Nikon D850 in video, as it accurately tracks subjects even in 120 fps. Many DSLR’s struggle to autofocus at all in 120 fps, so this is quite an upgrade.
Both cameras can record video at 4k, but the Nikon can shoot slow motion sequences in 8K and the Sony cannot. When shooting 4k, Sony does crop the sensor at 30 fps or higher, and only maintains full sensor video up to 24 fps. It does maintain full sensor up to 120 fps at 1080p, however.
Both camera bodies have microphone and headphone ports, which allows videographers to capture higher quality audio and monitor it as they record it. They also both have dual SD storage slots, allowing you to either have one photo and one video card or two of either. This is a very useful feature for photographers who commonly switch back and forth between video and stills or shoot in a large file format and don’t want to worry about image storage space running out.
The verdict between these two is a draw. While there are features on both that make them better in certain situations, like the continuous shooting speed on the Sony a9 or the better lens selection on the Nikon D850, they both perform quickly and create reliably excellent stills and videos.
The question of which you should purchase comes down to which meets your needs better and whether you prefer the feel of the traditional DSLR or want to try the smaller, more compact and extra feature-loaded mirrorless body.Back to Top