The author purchased the Sony Alpha 1 camera, Nauticam NA-A1 housing, and various accessories used in this review from Backscatter.
The Sony Alpha 1 first hit stores in March 2021 with a flurry of media hype around it. With specs like a 50-megapixel “stacked” full-frame sensor, 8K video recording at 10-bit 4:2:2, and the ability to fire 30 shots per second in RAW (albeit lossy compressed), not to mention the hefty $6,500 price tag, it was clear it was aimed squarely at professsionals and deep-pocketed enthusiast shooters. And all of this packed into a camera body that looked suspiciously similar to all Sony’s other full-frame mirrorless cameras. It was as if Sony’s engineers had gone all mad scientist and frankensteined the best features from their different full-frame models to create one powerhouse mirrorless camera body.
Having made a switch over to Sony mirrorless with the A7R Mark IV a few years ago, I was dying to check out the new flagship—and find out for myself if the camera really was able to live up to all the hype. Earlier this year, I finally had the opportunity to get the camera in the water, in the Nauticam NA-A1 housing, and for the past seven months, I have been putting it through the wringer on back-to-back recreational and commercial projects spanning 10 countries. So, is the Sony Alpha 1, in Nauticam’s housing, as good as it sounds on paper?
Oceanic manta ray at San Benedicto Island, Revillagigedo Archipelago, Mexico (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 16–35mm f/4 at 16mm, dual Sea&Sea YS-D3 Lighting Mk II, f/16, 1/200s, ISO 640)
While the high-resolution headlines—50MP images and 8K video—set the Alpha 1 apart from the majority of cameras on the market (Canon’s EOS R5 and Nikon’s Z9 being the obvious exceptions), there is also an array of impressive features and capabilities that aren’t so immediately apparent. On the photography side, the 1/400s flash sync opens up unique possibilities for capturing fast action and for shooting in bright ambient light conditions, assisted by a 759-point phase-detection autofocus system covering 92% of the sensor.
On the video side, you have the ability to capture 4K/60p and 4K/120p 10-bit 4:2:2 video for smooth cinematic slow-motion playback, with various Log recording options and the ability to output 4.3K 16-bit RAW video to an external recorder. Serious filmmakers should keep in mind that the Alpha 1 uses pixel binning to record 4K video at 60p and 120p rather than oversampling like the Canon EOS R5, and unlike the full-sensor capture of the Canon, there’s a slight 1.1x crop when recording 4K/120p with the Sony. Along with the A7S III, the A1 is, however, only the second full-frame Alpha camera to offer digital stabilization (called Active Steadyshot) in addition to in-body stabilization, though the feature also incurs a 1.1x crop.
None of this would matter, of course, without a great housing to keep your Alpha 1 dry, and the NA-A1 boasts the rock solid build and excellent ergonomics that we’ve come to expect from Nauticam. In the water, the housing (with camera and battery) weighs less than the Alpha 1 does on land. Designed around the company’s N100 port system, the NA-A1 gives you a plethora of options when it comes to optics. The housing can be configured for either fiber-optic or electrical strobe triggering, and it sports both an M24 port for HDMI connectivity and an M14 port for a vacuum valve. Nauticam’s Vacuum Check and Leak Detection System comes pre-installed to give you some peace of mind. Last but not least, a feature that I personally love is that the housing can fit the Sony Alpha 1 or the Sony A7S III by just swapping the base plate.
Close crop (40%) of a sea turtle in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 16–35mm f/4 at 35mm, f/11, 1/250s, ISO 320)
|Sony Alpha 1
Soft corals at Monad Shoal, Malapascua, Philippines (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 16–35mm f/2.8 GM at 16mm, dual Sea&Sea YS-D3 Lighting Mk II, f/8, 1/250s, ISO 320)
1. A Dependable Workhorse No Matter How Tough the Task
Over these last months, I’ve had the opportunity to really push the Alpha 1 in a wide variety of environments to see how it holds up: freediving with sharks 10 miles offshore; muck dives hunting for tiny critters; reef dives; night dives; warm crystal-clear blue waters; chilly, zero-viz green waters; pitch-black starry nights; burning hot desserts; demanding commercial shoots; the list goes on and on.
At one point, it was even in a sandstorm out at Eureka Dunes in Death Valley, where I swore it was going to be the end of this poor camera; but no, a quick wipe down back at the hotel and it was like it never happened—a true testament to Sony’s environmental sealing. No matter how tough the conditions, the Alpha 1 continuously exceeded my expectations. Whether I was freediving, snorkeling or scuba diving, shooting natural light or with strobes or video lights, the Alpha 1’s performance across the board has been remarkable.
Impressively, the Alpha 1 uses the same NP-FZ100 batteries as the other recent Alpha cameras from the last few years, which is great as it means one less extra thing to buy if upgrading from another Alpha camera. Sony rates its battery for around 530 shots using the screen or about 430 when using the EVF. On an average photography day, I found that the battery life was almost in line with the A7R IV, or only perhaps slightly less, giving me roughly three dives between charges. When shooting video, however, you’ll find yourself changing batteries more often, depending on how much you’re recording—after a single dive in extreme cases. Put the Alpha 1 in S&Q ALL-I mode (Sony’s in-camera slow-motion setting) and the battery drains quickest, but that’s not surprising given the amount of extra number crunching that’s required. Overall, considering the capabilities of the Alpha 1, the battery life is about as good as one can expect.
Freediving with dolphins off the coast of Bimini, Bahamas (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 16–35mm f/2.8 GM at 16mm, natural light with custom white balance, f/7.1, 1/250s, ISO 100)
The design and control layout of each new full-frame Alpha camera have closely followed Sony’s tried-and-true formula for years, and it’s much the same with Nauticam’s housings, which have undergone only minor incremental changes over time. The company’s ergonomics are famous. I love that I can basically control everything with my fingertips without ever moving my hands from the shooting position. This translates to quick changes in exposure settings without ever missing a shot—especially when combined with the Alpha 1’s super-fast focus and shooting speed. Even when working in difficult lighting situations, I was able to easily adjust my aperture and shutter while still tracking the subject and firing off shots. That alone, for me, makes the NA-A1 worth every penny.
Beyond the ergonomics, the N100 port system made for an easy transition to the Alpha 1 by allowing me to use all the lenses and ports I already had for the A7R IV. If you’re using a different Nauticam port system, like the N120, you’ll be stoked to know that they also offer an N100-to-N120 adapter, meaning you can keep using all your ports and domes. Plus, the NA-A1 can take a beating. During the last seven months, the housing has tackled everything from swimming pools and liveaboard dunk tanks to sand-filled shore dives and being tossed around on tiny fishing boats in the middle of nowhere, and after hundreds of dives, the housing still looks as shiny and new as it did the first day I received it.
Silky shark off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 16–35mm f/2.8 GM at 18mm, natural light with custom white balance, f/8, 1/320s, ISO 640)
2. Huge, Malleable Images without Compromising Low-Light Performance
As expected from Sony’s flagship Alpha camera, the A1’s image quality is impressive. With maximum image dimensions of 8640 x 5760 pixels, you can create photos of a very usable size even after radical cropping. That flexibility makes the A1 an ideal camera for shooting shy subjects you can’t approach closely or the very tiny subjects captured on blackwater dives.
The A1 delivers mind-boggling resolution with very low noise, especially considering 50 million pixels are packed onto its Exmor RS CMOS sensor. Colors appear very accurate, particularly at the lower ISO settings one strives to use. When pushing ISO up to 3200 to see the effects, there was never anything that couldn’t easily be cleaned up in post-processing. The dynamic range when shooting wide shots from bright surface waters to darker depths outshined any other camera I’ve used before. It is extremely easy to recover lost shadow or highlight details from the A1’s RAW files.
When doing astrophotography or shooting nightscapes, I’ll sometimes find myself pushing ISO 6400 when there’s no moon or ambient light, and I still found the A1’s files quite easy to clean up in post. There was certainly a little more noise than, say, Sony’s low-light and video champion, the A7S III, but when you consider the A1 packs in almost 40 megapixels more, that’s a pretty great accomplishment. Sony seems to have found a good balance between resolution and noise levels with the A1.
Fish eggs on whip coral in the Visayas, Philippines (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 G,
Sea&Sea YS-D3 Lighting Mk II, f/9, 1/250s, ISO 320)
Towering school of jacks cruises by a wall in the Visayas, Philippines (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 16–35mm f/2.8 GM at 16mm, natural light with custom white balance, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 1250)
3. Lightning-Fast Autofocus with Both Wide-Angle and Macro Subjects
With 759 phase-detection points covering 92% of the sensor, you can expect the Alpha 1 to not only be sensitive but precise. On paper, it also locks focus insanely fast, processing 120 autofocus calculations per second even during 30fps bursts. That amounts to double the calculations that Sony’s speed demon, the A9 II, can perform.
In use, tracking and autofocus were very snappy and on point. The A1 nailed focus with lightning speed and tracked different subjects with ease, producing significantly fewer throwaway shots than my A7R IV, which handles wide-angle subjects well but struggles to find focus sometimes with the Sony 90mm macro lens when shooting the small stuff. With the A1 and Sony 90mm, you are finally able to quickly lock focus on your macro subject and track it precisely as it moves. The camera also performed quite well in dark environments when shooting with strobes without a focus light, locking on to a subject even when blackness was all I could see on the LCD.
Among the less headline-grabbing specs, but extremely consequential for underwater photographers, is the A1’s “world’s fastest” flash sync speed of 1/400s—twice as fast as most other full-frame mirrorless cameras, which cannot sync beyond 1/200s. When shooting fast action with strobes, this ultra-high sync speed allows you to minimize ambient light motion blur for a crisp, well-defined subject. When shooting in shallow, bright ambient light situations, a shutter speed of 1/400s makes your strobe power count for more when balancing natural and artificial light for big reef scenes, allows you to achieve sunbursts with well-defined rays more easily, and makes it possible to shoot macro with wider apertures for creamy bokeh backgrounds.
Oceanic whitetip shark off the coast of Cat Island, Bahamas (Sony Alpha 1, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, dual Sea&Sea YS-D3 Lighting Mk II, f/8, 1/250s, ISO 100)
Frogfish posing in the Visayas, Philippines (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G, dual Sea&Sea YS-D3 Lighting Mk II, f/10, 1/250s, ISO 250)
4. Accurate Custom White Balance for Great Ambient Light Color at Any Depth
With the benefit of a pop of strobe light, my A7R IV produces the same rich, satisfying colors as any camera in the Sony full-frame Alpha line, and the A1 was no different. But the results from the A7R IV are less than impressive when shooting ambient light and relying on custom white balance, where color accuracy begins to fall apart past around the 40 feet mark. So how did the A1 compare?
Fortunately, the Sony A1 produces gorgeous colors at almost any depth (down to at least 80 feet), with blue backgrounds looking true blue and none of the shifts to violet or teal hues of the A7R IV. Sony’s white balance implementation is also very usable, with three slots for setting custom white balances at different depths, and it’s easy to execute a custom white balance by assigning a custom button. This is especially convenient for shooting while freediving, when you don’t have all the time in the world to fiddle with settings as you change depth.
Even more amazingly, I’ve never used a camera where the Auto White Balance actually works quite well underwater. I know—underwater photography 101: Never use auto white balance for natural light. But the Alpha 1 actually throws that rule out of the window in some cases. I found it worked best in shallow water, but even when shooting wide reefscapes, it pulled out a lot of the colors that I would have never expected. I still recommend doing your own custom white balances, but it’s definitely super cool to see a camera that can actually automatically white balance underwater and it look realistic. I also found it a great option for filming in the upper 10–15 feet of water while freediving, as there was no need to be constantly tweaking back and forth.
Scalloped hammerhead at Darwin Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 16–35mm f/4 at 35mm, natural light with custom white balance, f/9, 1/200s, ISO 250)
A large aggregation of schooling mobula rays glides through midday light rays off the coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico (Sony Alpha 1, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, natural light with custom white balance, f/9, 1/250s, ISO 640)
5. A 4K Filmmaker’s Dream Camera with Pro-Level Video Tools
The Sony Alpha 1 can shoot 10-bit video at up to 8K/30p and 4K/120p, both in 4:2:2 color. As well as S-Log2, S-Log3 and S-Cinetone picture profiles, it boasts pro-level video tools like focus peaking and zebra striping found on video-oriented cameras like Sony’s A7S III. One thing to note is for 8K/30p 10-bit 4:2:2, you’ll need to upgrade the firmware to the latest version, as this is a new feature that was released in June 2022.
I really enjoyed shooting video on the A1, and the quality of the footage is first rate. I usually shoot at 60p or 120p in order to slow the action down in post and it was great to be able to get that cinematic effect in 4K. I was also really impressed with the results using Sony’s S&Q mode, which lets you create in-camera slow-motion clips, but I used it sparingly as it tends to drain the battery quickly.
I had my three memory slots set up for 4K/24p at 1/50s, 4K/60p at 1/125s, and 4K/120p at 1/250s. This way, I could quickly jump between frame rates by just twisting the mode dial. Another cool feature is Shockless White Balance, which allows you to control the speed at which the white balance changes when filming. It works great when you’re changing depths and white balance underwater, producing a smooth color shift.
The demo reel below is all unedited footage from recent projects in Mexico and the Philippines. The nudibranch, octopus, and school of jacks were all shot either at 4K/120p or in S&Q mode using Kelvin 8XR video lights. The whale sharks (4K/60p) and sardines (4K/24p) were shot using natural light. Note that the sardines were shot in shallow water using Auto White Balance, so you can get an idea of just how surprisingly well this works.
Demo reel shot in 4K in the waters of Los Cabos, Mexico and the Visayas, Philippines with the Sony Alpha 1 in Nauticam NA-A1 housing using Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G, Sony FE 16–35mm f/2.8 GM, and Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lenses and Keldan 8XR video lights. All clips are unedited straight from the camera
6. Lenses for Every Subject
Sony offers a wide range of optically excellent lenses for E-mount cameras like the Alpha 1, though regrettably, the company has yet to produce a native fisheye lens for their full-frame cameras. The three main lenses I’ve been using for underwater work have been the Sony FE 16–35mm f/2.8 GM, the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, and the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G. About 98% of my photography is wide angle, with my macro lens only making a handful of surprise appearances throughout the year.
For rectilinear wide angle, I’d highly recommend the Sony 16–35mm f/2.8 GM lens. As expected with any of Sony’s G Master lineup, it’s a phenomenal lens with lightning fast focus and great optics. I use this lens for both underwater and astro, which also saves me some luggage space. It does come with a bit of a higher price tag, but it’s worth it, in my opinion. If you’re looking to keep costs down, check out Sony’s 16–35mm f/4 Zeiss lens. It’s slower but a solid lens for a good price.
If you’re looking for a fisheye, the options are either the now-discontinued EF-mount Sigma 15mm or the Canon 8–15mm with an adapter. While the Canon is a great lens, I’ve personally seen a fair number of issues with the adapters—the most common being that the lens doesn’t always communicate properly with the camera or it struggles with focusing. However, I’ve heard some people haven’t experienced any problems. Still, because of this, I personally use the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 with the Sigma MC-11 adapter—which is actually recommended by Sony. In the four years I’ve been using it on the A7R IV, I’ve never had any issues, and it’s been the same experience on the A1. The autofocus performance might not be quite as fast as a native Sony lens, but it’s still quick and it produces great color and detail.
For the small stuff, it has to be Sony’s 90mm Macro G. Combining it with the A1’s 50 megapixels gives you a lot of reach to play with as well as the option to crop in later without any loss in image quality. For the larger tiny critters, the Sony 50mm Macro will do the job. Also worth a look are the Sony FE 14mm f/1.8 GM and the Sony FE PZ 16–35mm f/4 G with power zoom.
A diver exiting “The Secret Cave” at Wolf Island in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 16–35mm f/4 at 16mm, natural light with custom white balance, f/10, 1/320s, ISO 640)
Slightly cropped (20%) portrait of a pygmy seahorse in the Visayas, Philippines (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G, dual Sea&Sea YS-D3 Lighting Mk II, f/16, 1/250s, ISO 320)
7. Topside Bonus: Awesome Astro and Nightscapes
You could argue that when you’re spending this much on a camera, you should be making use of it out of the water as well. For topside wildlife, the Alpha 1 doesn’t disappoint: Its quick autofocus and tracking allowed me to nail more shots than before—even compared to my beloved A7R IV.
The A1’s impressive performance topside became readily apparent while teaching an “Above & Below” photography workshop in Baja California Sur, Mexico with the mobula rays. At sunrise, the rays begin to launch themselves out of the sea. You never quite know where one is going to pop up, so your head is on a swivel trying to quickly catch them in the frame, focus and fire within a fraction of a second. Now imagine trying to do this on a dark, cloudy morning, where you're really pushing the camera to find that focus. I couldn’t believe the number of shots I was getting with the A1. Plus, the camera’s low-light capabilities allowed me to push the ISO while maintaining a super-quick shutter to stop the action with barely any noticeable noise. The A1’s giant images also mean you can crop in a bit when your lens isn’t long enough. To top it off, with the A1’s video capabilities like the ability to shoot in-camera slow-motion clips from 4K/120p combined with solid in-camera image stabilization, I was able to create some really incredible slow-motion breach videos.
Now, I know most of you aren’t here for the night stuff, but I feel like I have to mention it. With built-in interval timers, solid dynamic range, and great low-light sensitivity, the Alpha 1 produces beautiful nightscapes and astrophotography—which I believe is also a great sign for anyone shooting underwater. If it can rock it in pitch black, you know it’ll have no problems shooting natural light underwater even on cloudy days. For those shooting at night, you’ll love the Bright Monitoring feature, which allows you to frame your shot in the dark, as well as focus peaking to help you find pin-point focus. The best part is that with the almost endless options for customizing buttons, memory modes, and menus, it’s super easy to swap between underwater and astro—or just about anywhere else.
A Munk’s devil ray leaps from the water off the coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6 GM at 400mm, f/8, 1/1250s, ISO 1250)
The Milky Way rises behind Mobius Arch in Alabama Hills, California, USA (Sony Alpha 1, Sony FE 16–35mm f/2.8 GM at 35mm, f/2.8, 10s, ISO 6400)
8. Final Thoughts
The Sony Alpha 1 is an absolute beast of a camera in a perfectly sized mirrorless package—perhaps the ultimate all-around tool for pros and hardcore hobbyists. Assuming your budget allows for it, justifying the eye-watering price tag probably comes down to whether you’re going to be shooting often, but with its long list of capabilities, even recreational shooters would quickly find value in the Alpha 1.
For pros, you’ll love that you can push the limits in difficult environments as well as the opportunities the camera opens up for creativity. Plus, you’ll appreciate how you can beat on it and the camera just looks back at you, like, “Is that all you got?”
A curious gray whale checks out the camera in Bahia Magdalena, Mexico: Shot in natural light, while hanging over the edge of a small whale watching boat (Sony Alpha 1, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, f/3.2, 1/250s, ISO 100)
About the Reviewer: Jay Clue is an award-winning professional photographer based in Baja California Sur, Mexico. His passion for marine conservation led him to the world of photography and storytelling in hopes of bringing the remarkable beauty of our planet’s oceans to more humans across the globe. His work spans from underwater to aerial, wildlife, astro, and conservation photography. When not shooting commercial projects, he spends time teaching photography workshops and leading specialized ocean wildlife encounters around the world. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.
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