Sony A9

Sony A9 – one year on…

So, it’s been exactly one year since I first used the Sony A9 at a wedding. May Bank Holiday weekend 2017 to be exact. I had two weddings that weekend, one on the Friday and one on the Sunday.  I’d read about the Sony A9, being an owner of the A7S and A7RII previously, so some initial reviews sounded promising? Although I’m rather ambivalent about many of the reviews you see out there  –  pictures of brick walls or flowers, the cat… You have to use the cameras yourself, for a good period of time, to really know if they fit how you want to shoot. The A7 cameras just didn’t do it for me, for my reportage wedding photography work at least and how I like to shoot. Whether it be the battery life or the responsiveness of the cameras – AF speed, focus point selection, etc.  Since 2011 I had been using Nikons mostly. There were a couple of forays into using Fuji X cameras, but I never felt I could trust those cameras? Others love them and get fantastic results, but despite using them to photograph several weddings, I was never that convinced they were for me. I moved to the Nikon D5, after two years using the D750, but didn’t see a massive gain in quality really? Except in weight. In the end, it was that, how heavy they are to carry around for nine hours, that got me looking around for an alternative. Preferably a lighter one.

Mirrorless cameras seemed to offer this, but could they match the performance of the Nikon D750 say? Maybe I would just go back to the D750? After all, Nikon had come up with some outstanding glass, like the 105mm, plus Sigma had finally updated the 135mm for them – another great lens (albeit, like many Sigmas, quite heavy). To come would be the D850 and the 28mm/f1.4….little did I know?

There is an old adage, that it is the photographer that takes the picture, not the camera. This is true. How to upset a photographer? When admiring one of their photographs, tell them they ‘must have a nice camera!’. It’s like eating a great meal at a restaurant and then telling the chef that he must have ‘great pots and pans’… But, better tools do make a difference and when a camera comes along that adds something new to the mix, it can influence the images you are able to get.

( Disclaimer: This is not an in-depth, technical ‘review’ of the Sony A9 – plenty of those around. More, just some thoughts, after actually using this camera for twelve months )

I put the Sony A9 in the car boot, just in case…

So I fired the trigger – an expensive trigger, at £4.5K then for the A9. It arrived on the Friday, as I was photographing a sunny Sussex wedding, with the Nikon D5s. A brief play with it on the Saturday, I charged up the batteries and popped it into the boot (with the manual) on the Sunday. Much of this wedding was shot on the Nikon D5, until it came to the meal. Generally, I don’t photograph people eating their meal, as that can be intrusive – just some interactions at the start, some at the end. But as I was sat in my car, one of the bride’s friends was sent out to ask if I could capture images of the guests serving each other – they had forgotten to mention this was happening. I picked up the A9, along with the 55mm (the first Sony lens I bought) to see how they worked?

Now the silence of the electronic shutter on the Sony A9 is quite disconcerting at first? You’re not sure if you are actually taking any pictures? It’s THAT silent. Add to that the eventual realization that you have to use the ‘low’ setting on the drive, means you end up, in these early days, with a lot of images. (There is a trend in wedding photography for overshooting, but that’s another story)  But aside from that, the AF was fast, it was locking on, in that barn – which are never the lightest interiors. Even the EVF – which I had my doubts about – was pretty clear. I went back to my car and ran through the images – this camera might be worth £4.5K? Well…..

Very first use of the Sony A9 at a wedding

But it was with the dancing – after getting some shots with the Nikon D5, where I began to see what the A9 could do? No flash, just ambient light. It wasn’t the lightest or the darkest, in the barn that evening, but the light was tricky enough to test the camera/lens autofocus on moving subjects – where often you are reacting to something on the dance floor. Something that you have to get across the floor quickly to capture and where you need a camera that can then respond quickly. The Sony A9 did just that here – as the bride led a wedding guest off the dance floor by his tie… Dim light, moving target – the A9/55mm combo had no problem.

This camera had promise?

Sony A9 dancefloor

One Sony A9, one Nikon D5

The following wedding, a chance to really test the A9. This time, I shot this wedding in deepest Sussex, with an outdoor wedding ceremony, with the A9 and a D5. The Nikon was mostly with longer lenses, like the Sigma 135mm, while the Sony had the 55mm, a few with the old 28mm and a newly purchased 35mm f1.4 – a beast of a lens. Switching from the silence of the Sony A9 to the loud shutter noise of the Nikon D5, was startling. In fact, I used the A9 with the Canon 135mm, alongside the 55mm and 35mm, for the speeches – so nice not to have the shutter noise, clanging away, at this point of the day.

Sony A9 reportage

Sony A9 wedding photo

When I got home, I ordered a second Sony A9. The switch over had begun… It was the last time I used my Nikons at weddings…which was not an easy switch to make. (I’ve kept a D750 and a D810, plus much of the key prime glass I used for weddings – you never know? That new Nikon 28mm f1.4 – so tempting… But also, I have a long history with Nikons, so I’m keeping it. I may be back? Just can’t part with it. Still got one of my old D3S monsters – what a camera!)

A year photographing weddings with the Sony A9

So, what have I learnt, over the last twelve months? Is the Sony A9, the perfect camera for wedding photography? Is there such a thing?

Well, it works for me!

In my opinion, which is all this is, Nikon and Canon have a hell of a benchmark to beat, when they finally enter the mirrorless market. Fuji started the ball rolling, Sony grabbed the baton with the A9 and seriously ran on with it. When I shot with an A9 and a D5, it was like in 2011, when I had a Canon and a Nikon D3S (still a favourite) – I switched after that wedding too. Will I switch again? Who knows? For one, it’s very expensive. So what would a Nikon mirrorless camera have to be, to make me switch? Assuming an A9S or MkII version, hasn’t already arrived by then? It has to match and then exceed the A9 in many departments.

  • Speed: the camera has to be fast. In operation and in autofocus (with a good manual focussing system in place too) Autofocus that is very fast and, very important, accurate. Personally, with so many focus points, out to the edge of the screen (finally!) I tend to stay old school. I don’t use face detection and only use eye-af during something like the dancing maybe – I’d rather be in control of the camera, not let it make choices, But still, useful technology to have. So, need that too. You have to be able to trust a camera to respond, the A9 does. A minor criticism of the A9 though, the relatively slow startup time.
  • High iso: got to be better higher. I’m greedy, this is key to my work. I like to use just the ambient light for as long as I possibly can – so the more the merrier. Surely Nikon can do this? This is key!
  • Battery life: I use the grip, as it balances better with some of the big, heavy lenses, so always two batteries in the camera but the battery for the A9 is such a step up from the old A7 series ones. Not far off DSLR capacity. The more the merrier again.
  • Silent shutter: This is extremely useful. To have a silent shutter that (on the whole) works. Yes, some artificial lights can defeat it and you get banding but the evolution on the old attempts at silent shutters is amazing. I had tried this with the A7RII. A small wedding, with a meal in a dark room, some candles, some tungsten, just a dozen people. So being silent was key. Hopeless, just got banding. This was the problem, the times you are most likely to want silent operation, are often the worst lit – often by artificial light – ceremonies, speeches, etc. The A9 changed much of that. In the past year, I’ve had two ceremonies where I was not allowed to take pictures. Until I demonstrated the silent shutter. For one, in Southwark Cathedral, I had a meeting with the bride, just prior to the day, to discuss the details. Being clergy, they hated noisy camera shutters (and Nikon have never got ‘quiet’ right), so didn’t want the ceremony covered. I happened to have the A9 with me. Keen amateur photographers (common amongst my clients and professional too) I invited her to take some pictures with it. No noise…I was able to shoot the whole ceremony. For reportage wedding photography, this is so, so useful. Makes the stealthy Leica rangefinder seem noisy – no noise at all.
  • Glass: Hard to beat Sony and Zeiss glass – apart from size and weight perhaps? I use just prime lenses, so fast primes are key. It is so annoying not being able to use the Nikon 105mm f1.4 on the Sony A9 properly. Just not the adapters for it. The Zeiss Batis range is very lovely, expensive but really nice. I use them all. I have the 135mm Batis, which is very slick –  I just want a faster (f2.0 or 1.8) version? But it’s the sheer size of some of the Sony FE glass that is a bit of a problem. They perform beautifully – but they are just big, too big really. Look at this picture below, the sublime 55mm (f1.8), sandwiched between the 50mm and 35mm (both f1.4). These are big lenses, even for DSLRs. The ideal is a smaller lens, that performs like the 55mm. An aperture of f1.8 is fine, even f2.0, like the 25mm Batis. Tweak the sensor to capture cleaner at higher iso, but keep the glass small, fast and light. I found on the Nikons, that the 1.8 range were great performers. Doesn’t have to be f1.4.

Sony FE lenses

  • Ergonomics: The A9 ain’t the prettiest camera, nor the ‘sexiest’ to handle. Unlike others, I haven’t felt the need, with these cameras, to add sugru to some of the buttons – definitely did with the Fujis. They don’t have the ‘feel’ of a Leica or the smooth curves of the Nikon F4S, a camera from yesteryear.  Not that bothered personally – better ergonomics is nice but these work fine. Plus, you need that tilting screen  – very useful on occasions.
  • Cards: XQD, please? SD cards take so long to download from. I miss the XQDs from my Nikons. Plus they are tiny and weak. We need a mini-XQD range.
  • Full frame sensor: for me, a given. For those who shoot Fuji, not necessary maybe? Let’s keep it full frame though… 😉 As for size, 24Mp is enough – concentrate on the high iso capability of the sensor. Even 12 wasn’t half bad…!

Essentially, what I really, really want is the modern, Sony version of what a digital Leica should/could be?  I sold my Leica M240 to buy an A7RIII and still use the Leica glass on it. But then again, if I had the funds for an M10… (The Loxia range of manual focus lenses, made by Zeiss, for the Sony, look very good too).

There are some minor problems with the Sony A9 – startup time, SD cards, etc but as a camera, it works with me, for the way I want to shoot. It’s a very impressive bit of kit. Just needs some new glass to come along. But then can Nikon or Canon trump it? Hard task indeed.

Here are a few Sony A9 images from the last twelve months. With a range of Sony and Zeiss lenses. Sunshine, rain, winter…snatched moments, quiet moments…no flash, some flash….it worked! (Look back through the blog posts for more!)

A9 + 55/1.8

A9 + 35/1.4

A9 +85/1.8 (Batis)

A9 + 55/1.8

A9 + 35/1.4

wedding guests kissing

A9 + 135/2.8 (Batis)

A9 + 25/2 (Batis)

A9 + 85/1.8 (Batis) – this was dark and against the light!

party hat

A9 + 35/1.4

Wet A9 + 135/2.8 (Batis)

pub wedding

A9 + 55/1.8

A9 + 18/2.8 (Batis) (Godox flash)

A9 + 85/1.8 (Batis)

A9 + 55/1.8

A9 + 18/2.8 (Batis)

A9 + 35/1.4

A9 + 35/1.4

Keeping the bride dry

A9 + 25/2 (Batis)

A9 + 25/2 (Batis)

A9 + 55/1.8 (Tiltscreen)

A9 + 55/1.8 (Godox flash)

A9 + 55/1.8

A9 + 35/1.4

A9 + 55/1.8

A9 + 85/1.8 (Batis)

A9 + 50/1.4

and as for the camera itself?

Sony A9 – the perfect camera for wedding photographers?

The A9 has certainly created a bit of a stir amongst wedding photographers. The silent shutter (with most banding now eliminated and no rolling shutter distortions) and the accurate autofocus, has seen many ditch their Nikons and Canons. The new, lower priced, A7III, has added to this switch – if you’re not bothered about the silent shutter. Is the Sony A9 the perfect camera for wedding photography?

It’s close.

It was marketed at first, for sport and wildlife photography, it seems. The fast drive, silent operation, no blackouts in the viewfinder, etc. Can’t see it replacing cameras like the Nikon D5 pitchside, on a cold winter’s night, just yet. First off there is the fast long glass still to come. But for golf and tennis, a useful tool, with its silent operation – must be the same for film sets and the like? But as a silent camera for reportage – for decades the domain of the Leica M cameras – it’s very good.

But first, before the positives, what negatives? Above all, the price. They are not cheap. The price has only fallen by £200 in the last year. £4299, times two, for two bodies, is a lot of money – plus lenses – so switching systems can’t be done on a whim. Has to be worth it. Has to enhance how you take pictures and then allow you to gain something more for your clients. Being able to silently photograph wedding ceremonies, where a DSLR would be banned, is a good example. There have been a few niggles along the way, like the slow startup time, the overheating warning (fixed by firmware) and it feels quite clunky when using flash. Although I have used it for my corporate and editorial work and it performs nicely with my profoto lights. But overall (touch wood) it’s been a slick and dependable piece of kit – even in the rain.

Clearly, there is no ‘perfect’ camera. They each have different attributes, different tools for different scenarios. My fantasy would be the Leica M10, with small, fast Leica glass, that is also blisteringly fast and accurate in autofocus, a sensor that allows silent operation, a quick drive, dual cards (mini XQDs) and a high iso capture capability in which 56,000 or so, looks like 800 today…;-)….small, neat, light, fast…the Sony A9 ain’t far off this.

Whatever comes next – whether it be from Canon, Nikon or Sony – has to beat this camera. The rumours suggest the fightback starts in a few months. Any significant advance (my request would be on the high iso and the glass) will be one hell of a camera. But what will they leave out? Will any new Nikon mirrorless, let me use the 105mm and 28mm perfectly? That would be a major draw, despite their size. Not completely silent shutter – if it could approach the sound of a Leica, I could live with that. Nikon really needs to work on quieter shutters. Interesting (and potentially expensive) times to come? At the moment the Sony A9 is king of the pile (for me at least).

So what is next?

 

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