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 24mm f1.4 GM Lens
- Sony 28mm f2 Lens
- Sony/Zeiss 55mm f1.8 Lens
- Sony 85mm f1.8 Lens
- 5x Godox V350 Speedlights
- 2x Godox V860-II Speedlights
- 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. Pro-level camera bodies are costly, as are lenses, which are generally not compatible with other brands (adapters are available for certain combinations, but can be cumbersome to use and can reduce the usability of features). 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 high ISO 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 noise level at high ISO.
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 to Nikon 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: mirrorless cameras, primarily from 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, most of these camera bodies lacked what is a crucial image security feature for me, the ability to shoot to two memory cards simultaneously.
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. Later during this year, Nikon and Canon 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.
Fuji is the other mirrorless camera system that is widely used by wedding photographers, and I did consider it. The most tempting aspect of this system was that the camera bodies and lenses are generally a bit more compact and lighter that Sony's, but this is largely due to the fact that Fuji uses a crop sensor, and I preferred to stick with full-frame. And in addition to Sony appearing to have a more sophisticated and robust autofocus than Fuji, high ISO images are a bit cleaner (noise is roughly on par with the Canon 5DmkIV and the venerable Nikon D750).
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 sometimes implement that sounds good in a marketing presentation but 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 really 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.
This is the case as well when shooting portraits. For engagements and wedding day portraits of the couple, I like to do a lot of walking shots, and it's a delight to simply not have to think about optimum placement of the focus point as their position in the frame changes. The camera automatically locks on to faces or eyes, and tracks them flawlessly in continuous focus. Even for static subjects, I'm not a big fan of the focus/recompose method, because I feel it slows me down, and I've also sensed that it confuses the people I'm photographing, since they see me repeatedly moving the camera up and down. Of course, on any camera you can manually move the focus point around as the composition changes, but this also slows me down.
I almost always shoot in continuous focus mode now. My previous cameras had this ability too, but the limited spread of focus points in the frame reduced its usefulness, and I could only trust it in certain situations. It's very reliable with Sony, however, even in non-ideal lighting conditions. 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 inadvertently lock on to the brighter elements in the background instead of the desired subject. 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? With Canon and Nikon DSLRs, I would have to go through this process of setting up a focus target, and taking a seemingly endless series of test shots at various distances with every lens to get the focus adjusted, and then repeating this procedure with each camera body. And even then, after all that time invested in adjusting all my lenses and bodies, sometimes the focus would be off in certain lighting conditions, requiring a stressful and hasty on-the-fly tweaking of these settings on-site before the event began. But this has not been necessary with my Sony system (I don't even think Sony mirrorless cameras even have this capability, since it's not needed)... all of my lenses focus dead-on accurately and reliably straight out of the box, even wide open, with absolutely no tweaking required. 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 acclimation period 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, allowing you to spot potential problems and adjust your exposure as needed before you even shoot. 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. The EVF also gives you a truly accurate depth-of-field preview (unlike DSLRs, where the optical components of the viewfinder result in you seeing significantly greater DOF than the captured image will have).
You can also view your captured images through the EVF, which not only gives you the ability to more discretely check your images periodically as you are shooting, 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 considerably 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 they are 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. And Sony's recently introduced (and presently very hard to obtain) 24mm f1.4 has been highly praised for not only its optical performance, but its compact size and light weight compared to the Canon, Nikon, and Sigma Art 24mm f1.4 prime lenses.
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, with the first on having been released in late March and the other coming this 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 announced in the next year or two, new features will eclipse the current hardware capabilities of the current model, and it won't make financial sense for Sony to continue to devote development resources to the older camera. 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.
Hopefully this philosophy will continue, as it's the sort of thing that can breed deep customer loyalty.
Generally speaking, my default lens choices for weddings are the 24mm f1.4 on one body, and the 55mm f1.8 on the other.
The 24mm f1.4 GM is quite a bit more compact and light than you would expect an f1.4 prime to be, such as compared to the popular Sigma Art 24mm f1.4. Yet it's amazingly sharp, even shooting wide open. As of early 2019, this lens is still quite hard to find, and backorders can take a few months to be fulfilled.
I also sometimes use the 28mm f2, which is a wonderful lens to use for almost all phases of the wedding day. Small, light, and reasonably fast, it's 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 happens to bump against something while the camera is slung over your shoulder and down by your side. It's a good alternative if you need a wide angle prime lens but are not quite ready to fork over the price of the 24mm f1.4 (or can't fine one in stock!).
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 I've ever shot with, and it's almost always on one of my cameras unless I have a specific reason otherwise. Yes, the $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, and if it were lost or stolen I would immediately replace it with the same lens without hesitation.
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 medium size spaces I may choose the 85mm f1.8 (which I selected over the f1.4 GM version primarily 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 adequate space to work with. And during the later portions of receptions, it's occasionally necessary to swap out the 24mm for the 16-35mm f2.8 when the dance floor gets really packed or otherwise when shooting in tight spaces. I also sometimes photograph my group formals with the 16-35mm.
It should be noted that the effectiveness of the Sony autofocus system in dim light depends greatly on the maximum aperture of your lenses. For instance, during wedding receptions, when the venue staff turns the lights down very low, you might find it difficult or impossible to get a focus lock when shooting with an f4 or even an f2.8 zoom lens, but an f1.4 or f1.8 prime locks on just fine. This differs from my DSLR experience, where zoom vs. fast prime didn't seem to make much difference in AF performance in low light.
Also, when shooting in continuous focus mode (AF-C), if you are shooting at, say, f4, the aperture will not open up to the lens's maximum when focusing then stop back down to f4 when you shoot, instead it will just stay at f4 the whole time. But it will momentarily open up for AF if you are in single focus mode (AF-S). But because continuous focus works so well, I'm almost always shooting wide open in low light situations anyway, only stopping down when I need the depth-of-field (like for group shots).
My Bag and Belt System
So, how do I carry this stuff around on the wedding day? For many years, I've been a big fan of ThinkTank products, particularly their roller bags and modular belt systems.
My current bag is the Streetwalker 2.0. The great thing about this bag is that it not only rolls, but also has built-in stowable straps that allow it to be worn as a backpack. Of course, it's not especially comfortable in this role, though it doesn't have to be, as it spends most of its time on wheels. But occasionally I need to be able to shoot on the move, particularly for certain second line parades, and the backpack mode is a blessing for these instances.
The Streetwalker 2.0 has enough room for all of the camera bodies and lenses listed above, and most of the speedlights (for weddings and most portraits I typically bring four of the V350's, and one of the larger V860's), along with extra camera batteries, accessories, etc. A folded light stand and umbrella can be strapped to the front of the bag.
The bag also features zippers that have overlapping holes in them that allow for them to be locked with a small combination lock. Combined with a lightweight security cable that lets me tether the bag to a pipe or piece of furniture, this gives me a reasonable degree of confidence in leaving the bag unattended for a while (for instance, if I want to leave the bag at the reception venue before heading to the ceremony). Of course, a bolt cutter could make quick work of the lock and cable, or a sharp knife could be used to simply cut the bag open, but these measures are not intended to stop a prepared and determined thief, but rather just prevent a casual theft. In other words, it makes it more difficult for someone to inconspicuously slip a hand into the bag and make off with a lens, or carry the whole bag away unnoticed. That being said, when my bag is left unattended, it will typically contain only a minimal amount of equipment (just my backup camera body, maybe one lens, a few extra flashes, and some miscellaneous accessories), as I'll have all my important gear on my person.
ThinkTank's modular belt system is extremely useful. With it, I can easily carry at least three extra lenses along with a couple of speedlights, and a bottle of water, so that these items are always within reach when needed, without the worry of having to keep track of a bag. Because pouches can easily be added or removed, I can configure the system to carry more or less gear as needed. I'll usually have this belt on me during the pre-ceremony and ceremony portions of the day, and sometimes for the beginning of the reception.
Other Helpful Items
I also carry a few items that are not photography-specific. At the very top of this list are a variety of earplugs. Most wedding receptions are LOUD. The band or DJ might start out the evening at a lower volume as guests are mingling and eating dinner, but by the time the party kicks into high gear, the music gets cranked up. To make matters worse, sometimes the best place for you to shoot from might happen to be right in front of the speaker. Obviously, prolonged and repeated exposure to this kind of elevated sound pressure for weeks, months, and years will do serious damage to your hearing over time. Protect your ears!
My favored hearing protection product is EarPeace HD Concert Ear Plugs. These come in a set of three earplugs (so you have a spare), and include a cylindrical aluminum carry case. Made from a soft silicone material, they are comfortable to wear all night long. They also include three sets of filter inserts that allow you to customize the level of sound reduction. I actually carry two pairs of EarPeace HDs, one configured for normal reception sound levels, and the other with the more aggressive reduction inserts for those receptions when the music is especially loud. I also keep some cheap disposable foam earplugs around as emergency backups, just in case.
Another good thing to have, particularly for the warmer months of the year, are those inexpensive air-activated hand-warmer packs. A common problem wedding photographers encounter is that after shooting inside in a very cool air-conditioned space, when you go outside in high humidity, your cold lenses fog up. Wiping them with a microfiber cloth only results in them fogging right back up again. While on a hot, sunny day, the ambient heat will warm up the glass after a few minutes and alleviate this condition, it's a much bigger problem on a muggy evening of moderate temperatures. In many cases you'll find yourself having to go outside and immediately shoot a send-off or a second line in these conditions.
The solution, as I learned from a fellow New Orleans wedding photographer a few years ago, is to keep the lens warm well before you need to shoot with it. Pick the lens you want to use outside at the end of the night, and stash it in your bag with a hand warmer pack near it. This keeps the glass warm enough so that when you later go outside with it, it's not cold enough for condensation to form. This does require some planning ahead though, setting aside the lens you intend to use.