A Sony A9 Real World Review For Wedding Photography – after 10+ weddings with the system
The Sony A9 is a camera that has been met with a lot of hate and a lot of love. It seems that Sony always receive that reception, with some photographers heralding them as the greatest thing ever, a revolution or, the current most popular term to be thrown around at the slightest technological advance: a ‘game changer’. Others begrudge Sony the frequent releasing of new bodies and that their cameras possess no ‘soul’, whatever that means…
A little background and info to give my review some context. My professional wedding work has been with Canon (5d3 + 6d) and for the last 4 years or so, mainly Fuji, from the X-Pro1 right through most of their models to the X-T2 most recently. I also had a brief flirtation with Sony’s A7Rii and A7S for a few weddings, but stayed with Fuji at the time. I was a very early adopter of mirrorless for professional work and accepted the many compromises that the new systems had, as I felt that the benefits outweighed the negatives for my style of shooting. I am predominantly a documentary wedding photographer except for a smattering of portraits. So for 99% of the day I do not stage or direct anything, but have to react fast to what is happening around me. I also use very little flash, so low-light performance is very important to me. I work in close to the action, and that was one of the main reasons I moved to mirrorless so early.
QUICK DISCLAIMER: I don’t know Sony, they don’t know me, I bought the cameras with my own money and am completely brand-agnostic i.e. not a Sony shill!
Enter the Sony A9
After about 3 months and over 10 weddings photographed with the Sony system, I now feel qualified to give a long term review. I’m not going to go over specs too much, or go into laborious detail with ISO tests and brick walls, so if that’s your thing you’ll be disappointed. This is a real world review of the camera from a documentary wedding photographers point of view. I’ve been shooting with two Sony A9’s and a bunch of native FE mount primes; the 21mm f2.8 Loxia, the 28mm f2, the 35mm f1.4 ZA, the 55mm f1.8, and the 85mm f1.4 GM. I’m going to stick to the key areas which I feel are important to this camera. But first a quick obligatory dog pic…
Looked at as a whole, I think you can safely say it is one of the best autofocusing cameras out there today. Here’s why…
Speed: It’s extremely fast, especially in AF-C, which for some reason seems faster that AF-S. Move the AF box around with the joystick and hit focus and it just zips straight into place. No hesitation, no lag, no racking back and forth; it genuinely feels like near instant focus 99% of the time.
Accuracy: I’ve never had such a high amount of critically sharp images; it is so accurate. With the AF points being on the sensor, rather than separate like on a DSLR, there’s no need to fuss with AF calibration on lenses anymore either. It just works.
Spread: The Af points are spread from edge to edge. You can focus with complete accuracy right out to the corners, no problem.
Eye-AF: This is magic! Sure, sometimes it picks the wrong eye/subject, but you get a feel for which situations it works well in and when it does, it’s fabulous. You can just hold in the button and freely compose your shot and it just stays locked onto that eye. It can be incredible for portraits, but also very useful for documentary coverage too. It’s so good that I’ve tracked a child running toward me using eye-AF. It’s pure wizardry! One thing that would be great is if they could add the ability to quickly toggle between faces when using eye detect or face detect, that’d be gold.
Occasionally the lock on modes can jump over to the wrong subject unexpectedly. However it is very very good and very usable in many situations. As is usual for any camera, certain situations may sometimes trip up the AF – such as strong backlight, low light, low contrast – but the Sony A9 copes with these challenges admirably and does better than any camera I have ever used.
Most of the time, despite all the fancy AF modes on offer, I stick to single point AF-C and move the point over my subject with the joystick: it just works so well and so reliably. The A9 has made culling my images so much harder because almost everything is in perfect focus, tack sharp and ‘technically’ correct!
This is the most customisable camera I’ve ever used, and while that might not be as exciting as some of the more popular specs it is a big deal for me. With the sheer amount of customisation on hand, I hardly ever have to go digging into the menu system anymore. Which is good because they are pretty horrible!
For starters Sony has added extensive space to create your own ‘My Menu’ for any favourite functions you want quick access to. And if that’s not enough there’s a customisable Fn menu too. Plus you have 12 buttons and a dial that can be customised. And 3 memory banks accessible quickly on the mode dial, which you can save a ton of shooting settings to. And here’s a juicy one, you have something Sony call ‘Custom Shoot Set’ which you can save a bunch of settings to, and then assign to one of the custom buttons. This is very powerful; for example I could be shooting in AF-S with a single point, and with a button press override it to be in AF-C with a wide spread of points. Or pretty much any other combination of settings you can think of. Very, very useful customisations that can massively affect your real-world use of the camera.
If this all sounds rather complicated, it’s because it is. This is NOT a simple camera, but if you take the time to learn it and customise it to best suit you, you end up with a very powerful camera that can really feel like an extension of you. If another Sony A9 shooter picked up my camera, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be able to operate it straightaway; that’s how deep the customisation can go. Being able to leave the dials & menus alone pretty much all day and just use different buttons for different focus/shooting modes is amazing.
One of the headline features with this camera is it’s ability to shoot silently. Not just quietly, but in complete and utter silence, and yes, this is amazing. Other cameras have had this ability before, but it was always extremely limited in real world shooting because of rolling shutter distortion and horrible colour banding under most indoor lighting situations. I’m not going to go into this in detail (Google it!) but I will say that Sony’s advances with the electronic shutter mean that it is completely usable 98% of the time.
A couple of caveats: occasionally you will come across lighting that doesn’t play nice with the e-shutter and also you can’t use the e-shutter with flash. Now in both of those situations you just make a quick switch over to the mechanical shutter and carry on, it’s no biggie.
Shooting silently has had the biggest immediate impact on the way I can shoot on a wedding day, compared to any other feature on any camera. I no longer have to tread carefully during the vows or during a quiet moment for fear of shutter noise, I can quite literally shoot the shit out of it and no one is any the wiser. THIS IS HUGE. I would hate to go back to a camera without this ability. HUGE!!!
The viewfinder is bright, crisp and detailed, I haven’t noticed any lag, and in short it’s brilliant. Having no blackouts is an odd experience at first, but very immersive when you become used to it. There are a few options to let you know that you’ve taken a shot, which basically are boxes that flash up in the display. I won’t go into too much detail about the benefits of an EVF over an OVF as i think everyone is well aware of the differences nowadays. Basically though you are viewing the image as it will be recorded, which is a real benefit creatively and for judging exposure. I rarely need to chimp after shots as I know if I’ve got it or not when I take it.
20 Frames per second:
20fps… meh! Not fussed about this headline spec and not going to use it for wedding photography. It’s nice to know that the camera can handle that kind of speed, as it really shouldn’t struggle with the slower drive speeds that I use. I’ve heard chatter from people using other brands ridiculing the fact it does 20fps, and all I will say in response is that you do realise you don’t have to use it right? It has 3 other drive speed options…
Far improved and no longer an issue to consider whatsoever. I’ve used mirrorless for over 4 years so I’d become accustomed to carrying a pile of batteries to my weddings, and while it didn’t really bother me much (it’s just a quick battery change after all) I have to say it is very nice not having to manage so many batteries anymore. I work long days (anywhere from 10-15 hours is normal) and shoot a lot of images (usually between 3-6k) and I normally go through 2-3 batteries total, spread across 2 bodies. To give some comparison, when I was shooting Fuji I was using anywhere from 6-10 batteries per day. Also, the battery life percentage seems to be very accurate and doesn’t just suddenly drop off, so I’m happy working it right down to 5% or so, before I change it out for a fresh one.
The buffer is both fantastic and a bit rubbish. It’s a really deep buffer, over 200 frames in raw, which I’m almost certainly never going to fill in one burst. Fantastic! However the speed at which it writes the images to card is quite slow, and some functions are locked while it’s writing (don’t worry you can keep shooting, just menu access is limited). In real world use, it’s not been a problem at all.
In general the IQ is fantastic, it’s a very nice sensor. The colours are outstanding, the files are detailed and robust. 24 megapixels is, in my opinion, the sweet spot for wedding photography. And it would be easy to rent or buy in an A7RII or SII, if you needed high megapixels, or video, for a particular job.
The raws have plenty of leeway in post, but I suspect that the D750 & A7Rii have a nudge more dynamic range, especially in the shadows, but it’s really not an issue. I find the highlight recovery to be absolutely brilliant on the A9.
High-ISO performance is fantastic, and I’m perfectly happy shooting up to 12,800 if needed. Colours hold up really well and the noise is well handled.
The IQ isn’t breaking any new ground compared to the competition, but it is up there among the best and, quite frankly, it’s more than good enough.
I shot the A9 alongside an XT2 at one wedding, and the difference was big as you would expect for the difference in price. But something that surprised me was just how much better the image quality was, even just viewing on the back screen of the cameras you could see it. There was a crispness and clarity that was evident in the Sony images. I’m not sure how much of that is down to the excellent Sony and Zeiss lenses or if it’s down to the sensor, probably a combination of both.
This is where it becomes a bit of a mixed bag for me. The ergonomics are… variable. I have fairly large hands, but I find the grip is a good size for me when used with reasonable sized lenses. However if using some of the larger lenses, the space between the lens and the grip is quite tight, I’ve got used to it but my knuckles are pressed against the lens slightly which isn’t ideal. Also my pinky finger has nowhere to go, and just ends up curling in under the grip. I often use cameras one handed on the dance-floor with a flash in my other hand, and I find that doing this for extended periods causes a bit of strain. I am probably going to add an extended grip of some sort for this purpose only. I haven’t tried the full battery grip, and I’m sure it helps with the ergonomics.
I feel that the body overall is too angular, it should be more rounded and dare I say it, a little bigger. I’m mostly over the small-size thing with mirrorless, I don’t want them to be smaller at the expense of ergonomics. It’s more important to me that it is light & quiet (silent!) than small. I think that somewhere between the size/shape of the A9 and the size/shape of the Canon 5d4 or Nikon D750, you’d find the perfect body.
Saying all of that though, in general I have no major problem with the ergonomics, and have adjusted to them, but I do think that this is something that Sony could work on and improve in future models. I find the button layout to be mostly fine, and once you get used to it and muscle memory kicks in, it’s a lovely camera to use. The addition of the joystick is excellent. The amount of customisable buttons is superb. I’ve never owned a camera that I can operate as fast as this one, mainly due to the ability to so thoroughly customise it to suit your needs.
I’d like to take this opportunity to have a bit of a rant about exposure compensation dials! I hate dedicated exp.comp.dials on cameras! On the A9 I have exp.comp remapped to the front dial, which is my preferred location for it (I did the same on the Fuji XT2) as I find it way faster to adjust with it there and the front dial is silent to turn. The exp.comp.dial makes a clicky noise in use and is easily knocked when getting in/out of bags or when hanging on your side. So I’m left with a big dial, in a prime position, that is literally no use to me whatsoever, and is in fact taped in place so it doesn’t get knocked! It would be far more sensible if Sony (and Fuji) just replaced it with a customisable dial so users can make their own mind up what to use it for. It would make sense for manual shooters as they’d have a 3rd dial to set for the key aperture/shutter/iso functions. And anyone who wants it to be exp.comp, can still set it as that! It’s a massive waste of space! Rant over!
The tilt-screen is great. I use tilt-screens now for probably 30-40% of my shots. In combination with IBIS (in body image stabilisation) any lens you put on there is stabilised as well, so you can really get the camera to places that would be difficult with larger cameras. I’m talking about holding the camera up above people’s heads or down low; it’s so easy to do with the A9. Plus because it’s a mirrorless, the switch between EVF & tilt-screen is instant and seamless, unlike switching between OVF and live-view on a DSLR, which is clunky as hell in comparison. Sony have also added a nice little tweak to the A9; if you pull the tilt-screen out even a tiny bit it disables the eye-sensor that switches between the tilt-screen and the EVF. This means you can hold it really close to your body without triggering the eye-sensor by accident. Or you can map the display switch to a custom button if you want and switch it manually.
As good as the tilt-screen is, Sony really dropped the ball on the touch screen capabilities. It’s severely limited in scope and feels like they just added it on without giving any thought to making the most out of it. I switched it off completely.
Size & Lens Lineup:
The A9 is not tiny or terribly lightweight. It’s smaller than any DSLR that I know of, but if you want a truly small and lightweight mirrorless system you are better off looking at Fuji or Olympus, both of which are capable of shooting weddings, as my last 4 years with Fuji have proven to me. The A9’s size is quite changeable depending on which lens you put on it. It can be small/light when paired with the 35mm f2.8, the 28mm f2 or the 55mm f1.8 for example. But pair it with the 35mm f1.4 ZA or the 85mm f1.4 GM and it can hardly be described as small. However with that additional size over the Fuji/Olympus, you do gain quite a bit of capability in several areas.
One of the criticisms often levelled at Sony is that it has a poor lens lineup, however this statement is out of date and just plain wrong now. The lens lineup is full of incredible lenses and plenty of options that will cover most wedding photographer’s needs. There’s still a few gaps, but they are rapidly filling, and when one considers the fact that you can mount pretty much any lens on the Sony, you can normally cover everything that you need. YMMV!
For what it’s worth the 35mm ZA, the 85GM and the little 55mm f1.8 are three of the best lenses I’ve ever used. Especially that 35mm, it is stunning and has a beautiful way of rendering images that I love.
Start up time is okay but could do with being a bit faster. The batteries are so good now that I just leave it on most of the time, so it’s not a big issue for me.
The autofocus box in the display is a grey colour unless you are actively focusing, then it turns green. Sometimes you lose track of where the autofocus point is, Sony could do with updating the software to give an option to change the colour to something more easily visible. A press on the joystick re-centres it, or a quick focus press lights it up, so it’s easy enough to work around it.
If you are the type of shooter that uses flash a lot, like throughout the day, it’s probably not so great. You lose a lot of the benefits like the e-shutter, the EVF preview, and a flash up top probably doesn’t balance nicely for extended use without a battery grip. Plus mirrorless cameras don’t work with infra-red assist, and options like TTL etc are a bit lacking or basic compared to what Nikon offer. I’m not interested in any of that, but you might be. If you only shoot manual flash, it’s fine.
There are a load of benefits if you are keen on using manual glass, or tilt-shifts or prisms or any of that jazz. The ability to see your final image as you are shooting makes all of that kind of work so much easier. Especially when you take into account mirrorless features like focus peaking and IBIS. The A9, and all the Sony A7 bodies, do an amazing job of acting as a digital back for mostly any lens you want to throw on there and a growing assortment can be mounted with adaptors that even allow AF. This is one of the biggest advantages it has over DSLR’s, which don’t even come close for this.
Sony seems to avoid committing completely to things like weather sealing, but I’ve shot a few weddings in horrible rain and had no problem. I’m not worried about it personally. It would be nice if Sony could make the next model a completely weather sealed and rock-solid unit, like a smaller D5 or 1Dx, along the lines of the OMD-EM1 bodies.
Another benefit of the electronic shutter is that you have shutter speeds a full 2 stops faster than most DSLR’s (3 stops>D750). It goes right up to 1/32000 which gives you the ability to shoot at wider apertures, like f1.4, outside in bright sunlight. A nice addition to your creative options.
One silly niggle is that you have to have both SD cards in before you can shoot… it locks you out until you put them both in. You should be able to shoot on just one card if you want to.
A couple of silly decisions were made by Sony that I just can’t comprehend. Firstly, they have removed the access to in-camera apps that previous Sony A7 cameras had, except for the remote control. So you can’t download the time-lapse app for example. Silly. Secondly, they decided to remove S-LOG profiles from the video features of an otherwise brilliant video camera. This kind of decision by Sony, that is surely just firmware based, is quite frankly annoying and stupid, and does nothing other than piss users off. Luckily I don’t have any need for either of these features, but even so… grrr!
Should I buy it?
Who knows! It’s certainly an expensive bit of kit, it’s cheaper than a D5 or 1dX but a bit more expensive than a D850 or 5d4 and considerably more expensive than something like a D750 or XT2 or even an A7R2, which can do a fine job at weddings. It can also be very expensive switching over your existing lens lineup, so consider that too.
Cost aside, I think if you are looking for a mirrorless camera that can keep up with the best of the DSLR world in every aspect, then yes, you should buy it. If you are a very fast paced, in the thick of it, style of shooter, who likes to shoot with AF-C that can keep up with anything that moves, then yes, you should buy it. If you are a centre point only & recompose type of photographer, then no, it’s probably a waste of money. If you are a very slow contemplative shooter, then no, it’s probably not worth it. If you are perfectly happy with what you are already using, then no, don’t do it.
In my opinion this camera allows a freedom of shooting like no other on the market at the moment. The combination of silent shooting, superb AF speed/coverage/accuracy, seamless switching between EVF & tilt-screen, and extreme customisability in a relatively small & light package provides a wonderful shooting experience. It really does get out of the way and allow you to focus on the important aspects of an image – moment, light, composition. There are so few drawbacks and they are very minor.
Has it changed or improved my images? Yes & no. My style has remained the same, it’s not magic, it hasn’t suddenly made me a better photographer overnight. The photographic vision is still, obviously, up to the photographer. BUT, it has given me more confidence. Confidence to get really close because of the silent shutter. Confidence that my images will be sharp and in focus because of the awesome AF. Confidence that the IQ is there to support the images. Any tool that gives you confidence will allow you to create more freely, and focus more on the work.
It is incredibly versatile; I love it for weddings but I also know it would be incredible for concert, press, sports, street, portrait, family, etc; it is a true all rounder.
When I was using the Fuji XT2 it felt like the camera was often slowing me down, with the Sony it feels like I’m the weakest link not the camera. This is how it should be. Before this camera using mirrorless systems always had compromises when compared to a DSLR. I was happy to make those compromises because I felt the benefits outweighed them. However now we have all of those benefits, plus a few extra, and as far as my shooting style goes, none of the compromises. If this camera keeps working and proves itself reliable over time, then it may well have cured me of g.a.s!!
It’s not a game changer – all of these features have been brewing in mirrorless cameras for some time now – but it’s an evolution, a refinement. It’s a maturing of the mirrorless camera. It’s certainly not perfect, but it comes fairly close, for me at least.
IN MY OPINION, THE A9 IS THE BEST CAMERA ON THE MARKET FOR WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS RIGHT NOW!
Here’s some more images taken on the A9, feel free to ask questions in the comments.