What do I Photograph Weddings With?
In terms of image quality, the brand of camera gear a wedding photographer shoots with is, these days, a relatively minor consideration, as you’ll find gorgeous images captured on Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Fuji equipment, and in experienced hands all these systems are perfectly capable of performing in a wedding environment as long as high quality bodies and lenses are utilized. Still, I do get asked this question every now and then by other photographers and even tech-savvy and curious clients on occasion, so here goes.
As of late-2018, I currently perform most of my wedding and portrait photography with Sony equipment. Here’s what’s in my kit:
- 2x Sony A9 Camera Bodies
- Sony A7iii Camera Body
- Sony 70-200mm f2.8 GM Lens
- Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM Lens
- Sony 28mm f2 Lens
- Sony/Zeiss 55mm f1.8 Lens
- Sony 85mm f1.8 Lens
- 4x Godox V350 Speedlights
- Godox V860-II Speedlight
- 2x Godox AD360ii Strobes
- Godox AD600TTL Monolight
- Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa 39"
- Various other softboxes and umbrellas
- Think Tank Modular Belt System
- Think Tank Streetwalker 2.0 Rolling Backpack
I also have some Nikon gear, which serves in a secondary and backup role.
How Did I Arrive at Sony?
Moving to a different system is an expensive proposition, and thus is not something that is done frequently or on a whim. Camera bodies are costly, as are lenses, which are generally not compatible with other brands (adapters are sometimes available, but can be cumbersome to use). The switch to Sony is the third time I have made such a move in my 14+ year wedding photography career.
For my first 4-5 years as a wedding photographer, I shot with Canon equipment. At the time, Canon and Nikon were pretty much the only options, and Canon was so far ahead of Nikon in low-light shooting capability that it was really a no-brainer. However, this changed with Nikon’s introduction of the D3, and later the even better D3s, which had leapfrogged Canon's offerings at the time in terms of low-light ability.
This characteristic, along with Canon’s apparent reluctance at the time to release a suitable full-frame camera body with dual card slots, and Nikon’s noticeably better autofocus system at the time, led me to switch in late 2009.
I happily shot with Nikon gear for the next 9 years, though during this time I still kept an eye on industry developments. As Canon and Nikon jockeyed for position in terms of features and capabilities, staying mostly neck-and-neck over the years, a different option began to emerge: the mirrorless cameras of Sony and Fuji.
This new technology looked promising, though lens selection was initially a bit sparse, and the low-light focus ability of the cameras was not quite to the level where it needed to be. Additionally, the camera bodies lacked what is a crucial image security feature for me, the ability to shoot to two memory cards at once.
Over time, more lenses became available, and the capabilities of the cameras grew. Around 2018, Sony’s A9 and A7iii were at a level where they met or surpassed my requirements, including improved low light shooting and the inclusion of dual memory card slots. During this year, Nikon and Canon had announced their own full-frame mirrorless camera bodies, but the fact that they only had a single card slot, in my view, made these cameras unsuitable for professional wedding photography. So I began to take steps to implement the move to Sony by adding one A9 body and a couple of lenses to my kit on a trial basis, which I would pull out toward the end of the night during receptions to test out, shooting alongside my established Nikon gear. It didn't take long to determine that I definitely wanted to commit to a full switch to Sony.
What’s so Great About Sony Mirrorless Cameras for Weddings?
My Nikon kit was working fine for wedding photography and portraits, so what motivated me to switch to Sony mirrorless? The biggest factor was the autofocus. The array of focus points on a DSLR is typically somewhat tightly clustered in the center of the frame. Over the years, Canon and Nikon have struggled to try to expand these focus points wider across the frame, but the optical limitations imposed by the component configuration of the DSLR mechanism was always a roadblock.
Enter the mirrorless camera body. Rather than a separate focus sensor module that a typical DSLR utilizes, a mirrorless camera detects focus using phase-detect focus points located on the main image-capture sensor itself. Because of this, focus points are spread across almost the entire frame! Having focus points available wherever I need them is of great benefit when trying to capture moving subjects, for example, the ceremony processional, or close-up shots of the couple's first dance during the reception.
Additionally, Sony offers a truly revolutionary feature, the ability to accurately track and focus on a subject’s eyes, even as they move around the frame. This sounds like one of those typical kinds of gimmicky features manufacturers implement that never really works like it’s supposed to, but that is certainly not the case here. The first time I used a Sony A9 during a wedding it honestly felt like I was cheating. Not having to put so much effort into achieving correct focus freed me up to concentrate more on composing the shot.
While focusing in low light is good, such situations where the subject is backlit (such as a dark dance floor, with bright uplighting around the walls or from the band/DJ), can, as with any camera, still be challenging and require extra attention to ensure the camera doesn't instead lock on to the brighter elements in the background. But in general, focus is fast and accurate.
And on that topic, do you hate the tedious and time consuming task of micro-adjusting all of your lenses? This has not been necessary with my Sony system (I don't even know if the cameras even have the need for this capability, because I have not had to look for it)... all of my lenses focus dead-on accurate straight out of the box, even wide open, with absolutely no tweaking necessary. This is another benefit of the phase-detect focus being on the image sensor, rather than a physically separate autofocus module as on a DSLR.
Another great feature of mirrorless cameras is the option of truly silent shooting. DSLRs in recent years have introduced “quiet” mode, which helps reduce the perceived sound of the shutter and mirror by slowing these mechanisms down a bit, but this pales in comparison to the absolute silence that a mirrorless camera is capable of.
There are some situations where the silent electronic shutter cannot be used. For instance, shooting with flash requires the mechanical shutter. And some types of indoor lighting (certain LEDs and fluorescent sources) can interfere with with the electronic shutter (though the advanced sensor of the Sony A9 has the ability to shoot in almost any lighting condition, even those that would cause issues for the electronic shutter of other mirrorless cameras). And there are scenarios where I sometimes still prefer shooting with the mechanical shutter... the audible feedback that it provides to both the photographer and the subjects is helpful during portraits, for instance. So, by default (for portraits and receptions), I’ll typically shoot with the traditional mechanical shutter, though even the mechanical shutter of mirrorless cameras is noticeably quieter than that of a DSLR.
Where the electronic shutter is of most benefit is during times when I’m striving to be as inconspicuous as possible, such as during the ceremony itself. Being able to quietly and discretely capture beautiful photographs without making a sound is, in a word, glorious! Another good example is during the couple’s first look. This is one of those times when I want their attention focused on each other as much as possible, and not having a constant “click-click-click” makes it considerably easier for them to forget that I’m there.
Another benefit of mirrorless cameras is also the one thing that takes the most getting used to for some shooters, the electronic viewfinder (EVF). It can be a bit of an odd experience at first looking through the viewfinder and seeing an electronic screen as opposed to a traditional optical viewfinder, but once you get past that initial reaction and get used to this kind of view, there are numerous positives. For normal shooting without flash, the EVF shows a reasonably accurate pre-exposure live display of what the shot will look like. When shooting flash in spaces where there's not much ambient light, the viewfinder image is brightened significantly so as to aid the composition of your shot. In a dark reception space, this is a tremendous advantage over a traditional dim optical viewfinder. You can also view your captured images through the EVF, which not only gives you the ability to chimp more discretely, but it also makes it significantly easier to review shots when you're outside in bright sunlight.
One other notable advantage of mirrorless cameras is that they are generally smaller and lighter than traditional DSLR gear, which helps me be more agile and mobile during a busy and fast-moving wedding day. True, with full-frame mirrorless, staple wedding photography zoom lenses like the 16-35 f2.8, 24-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8 are essentially the same size and weight as on DSLR systems, the bodies themselves are significantly smaller, and in my view the more compact f1.8-f2 primes have better build and image quality than their Nikon and Canon counterparts.
Announced Spring 2019 A9 Firmware Updates
Sony's autofocus system was already top notch, but a pair of upcoming firmware updates to the A9, announced in January 2019 and coming this Spring and Summer, promises to make it even better. It includes some tweaking abilities for face and eye AF, but more significantly it introduces a new real-time tracking mode that uses other factors of your subject beyond just eyes and face, including colors, shapes, patterns, etc., and enables the LCD to be used as a touch-pad for selecting AF area.
The updates also incorporate a large number of other features and usability improvements, and some of these features (though, most notably, not the new real-time tracking mode) will also be coming to the A7iii and A7Riii.
What impresses me the most is that Sony is providing this massive A9 update for free. With Canon and Nikon, firmware updates are typically sparse, consisting primarily of bug fixes, lens compatibility additions, and just very minor usability improvements. Some of this is due to hardware limitations, with the separate focus/exposure modules of a DSLR limiting what can be done with software updates alone.
But still, Sony's decision to devote resources into so dramatically improving an already superb camera that's been on the market for close to two years, rather than just saving these new features for the next model, is extremely impressive and will serve them well with building customer confidence and loyalty. You're not just buying a one-and-done camera that will essentially always remain the same as when you first purchased it. It's a platform, one which Sony has demonstrated a willingness to improve on after it's out in the field, to the extent that they can.
Don't get me wrong, I have no expectation that substantial A9 firmware updates will still be coming five years, or even one year from now, as there will almost certainly be an A9ii in the next year or two, and new features will eclipse the current hardware capabilities of the A9. But it's remarkable that Sony is giving existing A9 owners a free upgrade to what is essentially a new camera, an intermediate successor before the next pro-level model is eventually released.
Generally speaking, my default lens choices for weddings are the 28mm f2 on one body, and the 55mm f1.8 on the other. The 28mm f2 is a wonderful lens to use for almost all phases of the wedding day, small, light, and fast, and a good focal length that falls between 24mm that sometimes feels too wide, and 35mm that quite often isn't wide enough, especially during receptions. Just be careful, as the lens hood has a tendency to pop off if it hit something while the camera is slung over your shoulder and down by your side.
The Sony/Ziess 55mm f1.8 is an absolutely amazing lens... compact and light, yet sturdy, fast-focusing, and with uncompromising image quality, it's by far my favorite lens, and it's almost always on one of my cameras unless I have a specific reason otherwise. Yes, it's $1000 price tag might seem a bit on the high side for an f1.8 normal focal length prime, but if you enjoy shooting at this focal length, it's absolutely worth every penny.
Of course, I do vary from these lens selections when appropriate. For instance, during a large church wedding ceremony I'll usually replace the 55mm with the 70-200 f2.8 (which is razor-sharp even wide open), while for ceremonies in courtyards, hotels, and other small to medium size spaces I may choose the 85mm f1.8 (which I selected over the f1.4 GM version due to focus speed) depending on the size of the space and the lighting conditions. I also sometimes use the 85mm during portions of the reception when I want a little more reach than the 55mm offers, such as capturing candids of guests mingling, or the couple's first dance if I have a bit more space to work with. And during the later portions of receptions, it's occasionally necessary to swap out the 28mm for the 16-35mm f2.8 when the dance floor gets really packed or otherwise when shooting in tight spaces. I also photograph most of my group formals with the 16-35mm.