What do I Photograph Weddings and Portraits 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.
Since the Summer of 2018, I've used Sony equipment for most of my wedding and portrait photography work. Here’s what’s currently in my kit:
- 2x Sony A9 Camera Bodies
- Sony A7iii Camera Body
- Sony 24mm f1.4 GM Lens
- Sony 28mm f2 Lens
- Sony/Zeiss 55mm f1.8 Lens
- Sony 85mm f1.8 Lens
- Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM Lens
- Sony 70-200mm f2.8 GM Lens
- 4x Godox V350 Speedlights
- 2x Godox V860-II Speedlights
- 2x Godox V1 Speedlights
- 2x Godox AD360ii Strobes
- Godox AD600TTL Monolight
- Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa 39"
- Various other softboxes and umbrellas
- Aputure AL-M9 Amaran LED Mini Light (great for ring shots!)
- 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.
A Few Favorite Images
Here are a few of my favorite Sony wedding and portrait photographs:
Intimate Wedding Ceremony
A9 / 70-200 f2.8 @f2.8
A9 / 16-35 f2.8 @f4
A7iii / 70-200 f2.8 @f2.8
A7iii / 85 f1.8 @f4
A9 / 24 f1.4 @f1.4
Second Line Parade down Royal Street
A9 / 24 f1.4 @f1.4
Indoor Bridal Portrait
A9 / 85 f1.8 @f1.8
Wedding Day Portrait of Bride and Groom
A9 / 24 f1.4 @f1.4
Second Line Parade down Bourbon Street
A9 / 24 f1.4 @f1.4
Outdoor Bridal Portrait
A7iii / 55 f1.8 @f2.8
As is readily apparent, I very often shoot with primes wide open (unless I specifically need the increased depth-of-field). Confidence in the A9's autofocus accuracy makes it possible, without the need to stop down or massively overshoot to compensate for too many random out-of-focus images. But more on that later.
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 15+ 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, as Canon DSLRs could shoot at ISO 1600, or even 3200 in a pinch, while with Nikon even ISO 400 was quite noisy. 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 (the venerable Canon 5D only had a single slot), and Nikon’s noticeably better autofocus system at the time, led me to switch to Nikon in late 2009.
I (mostly 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 DSLR features and capabilities, staying mostly neck-and-neck over the years, a different option began to emerge: mirrorless cameras, with Sony and Fuji being the frontrunners.
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 otherwise intriguing cameras unsuitable for professional wedding photography.
So I began to take steps to test the waters on a possible move to Sony by adding one A9 body, a flash, and a couple of Sony 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) and use for portrait sessions. It didn't take long to determine that I definitely wanted to commit to a full transition to Sony, adding another A9 body as well as an A7iii, more flashes, and some additional lenses.
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 (image noise level 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 consider the 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, with some of the light being reflected by the mirror up to the optical viewfinder and a portion diverted to the AF module, a mirrorless camera detects focus using phase-detect and contrast-detect focus points located directly on the image-capture sensor itself. Because of this, focus points could be 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 offered a truly revolutionary feature, the ability to accurately track and focus on a subject’s eyes and face, 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, or as reliably as promised, and everyone just kinda forgets that it even existed, 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 DSLR cameras had this ability too of course, but the limited spread of focus points in the frame reduced its usefulness, and I felt I could only trust it in certain situations, so I ended up rarely using it at all. 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 strongly 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 the topic of autofocus, 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.
During my time with Canon and Nikon, I found that even with careful adjustments in a controlled environment, real-world AF reliability was somewhat poor, especially with fast primes. Some shots would be in focus, others would be randomly front-focused or back-focused for no apparent reason (which seemed to happen more often with wide angle primes), resulting in me feeling a need to overshoot to compensate for this, just to make sure I got the shots I needed. Additionally, shooting in warm lighting also seemed to introduce a shift in focus (I read an article many years ago that explained why this happened, though I can't remember the details), throwing out of whack all that carefully-performed focus adjustment work.
Autofocus on the Sony A9 has proven to be extremely reliable; when focus is missed, it's usually for a readily apparent reason (a good example being the camera locking on to a bright background instead of a dimly-lit subject), with none of those mysterious "out-of-focus for no reason" shots, where conditions were not especially bad and the AF indicated that it had locked on just fine, but it turns out that it's front-focused. And thanks to the EVF showing actual depth of field (optical viewfinders show greater DOF than the image will actually have, making it harder to visually confirm correct focus), it's easier to tell when the camera has not locked on to what you expected.
In short, I can't tell you how much of a pleasure it is to be able to confidently shoot wide open with fast primes, only stopping down not for an autofocus safety net, but only when I actually need or want the added depth of field for a particular shot.
Now, there's one important caveat about how great the Sony AF system is. In a very low light shooting environment (like a dark reception venue), with no AF assist beam, you need fast lenses. In low light, AF works best with f1.4 - f1.8 primes, though you can probably get by with an f2.8 zoom in most cases depending on how dim the light is.
Taking that a step further, it's also important to understand how the aperture behaves depending on the focus mode being used. With regular (not live-view) shooting with a traditional DSLR, the lens stays wide open until the shutter is released, at which time it stops down to the selected aperture, captures the shot, then opens back up to wide open. With mirrorless, it's different. Imagine a scenario where you are shooting in low light with an f2.8 lens, and your shooting aperture is set to f6.3:
- In AF-S mode, the aperture will be at f6.3 while you are viewing the live image, and when you press the shutter halfway (or push the AF-ON button), the lens will open up to f2.8 to let more light in during AF, then stop back down to capture the shot.
- In AF-C mode, the aperture will stay at f6.3 the entire time, even when the camera is trying to focus. This can be problematic in a low-light environment, because the amount of light hitting the sensor is dramatically reduced.
So, there's a trade-off. If you must shoot at smaller apertures (for the increased depth-of-field), you are going to struggle in low light if you want to take advantage of the fantastic AF-C focus tracking. AF-S will (with most lenses) open up for AF, but you lose the continuous focus tracking.
The good news is that the A9's AF-C focus system is very accurate, so as long as the depth-of-field is sufficient for the subject(s) you are capturing, there's little need to give yourself "insurance" by stopping down. During most receptions, I shoot wide open at f1.4 - f1.8 almost all the time, and only very rarely have an out-of-focus image. I typically will only stop down when I need to capture an informal group shot.
Just be prepared to switch to AF-S mode if you find yourself in a situation where you need to stop down and the amount of light is insufficient for AF.
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 on most cameras cannot be used. For instance, shooting with flash requires the mechanical shutter with most cameras (including the A9). And some types of artificial lighting (certain LEDs and fluorescent sources) can interfere with the electronic shutter. However, the advanced "stacked" sensor of the Sony A9 has the ability to shoot in almost any ambient lighting condition (as long as your shutter speed isn't too high), even those lit with LEDs that would cause severe banding issues for the electronic shutter of other mirrorless cameras.
Similarly, though not typically of concern for wedding photographers, the A9's stacked sensor eliminates some pesky distortion effects that can occur when photographing fast motion. A common example is a shot of a golfer swinging a club. With most mirrorless camera sensors shooting on silent mode (electronic shutter), the club would appear to be curved in the resulting image due to the "rolling shutter" nature of these sensors (necessitating the use of the mechanical shutter), while on the A9, this effect does not happen noticeably even when shooting silent.
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 can sometimes be helpful during portraits, for instance, so I’ll often shoot with the traditional mechanical shutter, though even the mechanical shutter of mirrorless cameras is noticeably quieter than that of most DSLRs.
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. During wedding ceremonies that have sufficient light to not require flash (which I consider a last resort for photographing ceremonies), it's a beautiful thing to be able to shoot as much as I want without being self-conscious about the clack of the mechanical shutter reverberating through the church.
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.
Likewise when there are other intimate moments to be captured, such as when the bride is reading a letter from the groom (or vice versa) in a private and quiet space. The complete silence of the Sony A9 makes it easier for them to remain in the moment and not be distracted by my presence.
Lastly, more of a concern for sports photographers, using the electronic shutter reduces (or, in the case of the A9 and a few other bodies completely eliminates) viewfinder blackout when shooting. With a DSLR, the image you see in the viewfinder is reflected up from the mirror, but because this mirror needs to flip out of the way to enable the light to reach the image sensor behind it, the viewfinder will black out for a moment until the capture is complete and the mirror drops back down. Using the mechanical shutter with a mirrorless camera improves this a bit, since only the shutter needs to close (and then reopen), with no mirror to have to flip out of the way. But silent shooting is even better in this regard, reducing the blackout to a barely perceptible blink, or getting rid of it completely.
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 that you've been using for years or decades, but once you get past that initial acclimation period and get used to this kind of view, there are numerous positives.
For normal ambient light 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 with 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. On occasion when I shoot with one of my DSLRs, I'm shocked at how dark the view is... it feels like I'm walking around in a dim room with sunglasses on.
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). And similarly, when doing macro shots with manual focus, you can set the camera to automatically magnify the image so that you can see precisely what is in focus and what isn't – a great help for ring shots.
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.
During wedding receptions, I like to shoot with the auto-review feature on, which briefly displays the image that was just captured on the EVF (or the LCD monitor). While some people don't like to shoot this way, as "chimping" (repeatedly lowering the camera to view captured images, then raising it back up to shoot again) can be distracting from the task at hand. But the EVF makes this significantly less of an issue, since you can view the images without lowering the camera. This way, if, say, I'm capturing a series of closeup shots of the couple's first dance, as each shot is taken, I instantly see it in the viewfinder, and I know that I "got the shot", with eyes open, good facial expressions, etc. A quick half-press of the shutter button dismisses the image, and I'm ready to shoot again, all without removing the camera from my eye.
Size & Weight
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.
While it's true that with full-frame mirrorless systems, 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 24mm f1.4 (which was very hard to obtain for quite a while) 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. The same is true of the recently introduced Sony 35mm f1.4.
The more compact nature of the Sony system also allowed me to move to a slightly smaller main camera bag as well, and the overall weight of my kit is lower.
No camera system is perfect. Here are a few downsides I've discovered with Sony, along with how I deal with them.
Battery life. With most of the cameras I've shot with over the past decade or so (Canon 1DmkIII, Nikon D3s, D750, D850) I could easily make it through most wedding days without changing batteries. With Sony, however, though I can shoot a 4 hour (maybe even a 5 hour) wedding on one set of batteries, a typical 6-8 hour wedding day will require a battery change for the camera bodies at some point. I'll generally do this between the ceremony and reception, or right after the couple's first dance and parent dances, as even though there may still be ample power remaining in those batteries at that time to comfortably shoot for another hour or two, I'd rather swap batteries during that lull instead of having to scramble to deal with it later in the reception once the action has ramped up. The reason why the battery life of mirrorless cameras typically isn't as good as DSLRs is that, unlike a DSLR which is largely "idle" when you're not actually in the process of capturing a shot, a mirrorless camera spends much more of its time working, reading the scene from the sensor and displaying it on the EVF. However, advances in the energy efficiency of the processors in these cameras will undoubtedly improve battery life.
Hot shoe. Unlike the flash system of Canon and Nikon, with large pins and sturdy metal feet on speedlights, the Sony "Multi Interface" shoe system is designed to also be used with other (primarily video-oriented) accessories such as microphones and add-on viewfinders. As a result, the pins are much smaller and possibly more fragile. And although Sony does have one speedlight model that has a metal foot, most speedlights (whether Sony or other compatible brands) for this system have plastic feet, which could be easily broken if you have a camera slung over your shoulder and the flash hits something as you're walking. I've (surprisingly) never actually broken one of these when used on-camera, but have clumsily broken two of them when they were attached to light stands. With a Sony-branded flash, this would be an expensive repair, though with Godox flashes, a replacement foot assembly can be found for around $20, and it's a quick DIY job to replace it. It should be noted that some photographers feel that the plastic foot is a good thing, since if a flash mounted on a camera takes a hard impact, the foot is the weak point and will break away rather than causing even more costly damage to the camera itself, which is certainly a valid point.
Menu system. The sprawling menu system of Sony cameras is legendary and often discussed with great disdain. After using it for a few months, I got used to it and felt these criticisms were perhaps a bit overstated, but still certainly valid. Fortunately, because the physical controls are so highly configurable, along with the typical My Menu screen and the Function Button screen where you can place your frequently-used items, the everyday impact of this is minimal, as there's rarely a need to dive into the full menus.
Card formatting. Sony cameras take a little longer to format cards, because an image database is created in the process. With Canon and Nikon, I would routinely simply erase cards on my computer when they were ready to be put back into circulation for reuse, and they'd be instantly usable as soon as they were popped in the camera (though most people recommend reformatting in-camera anyway). Sony, however, will perform a database creation routine on freshly inserted cards (even if you've completely cleared them on your computer), which can take 5-15 seconds (an eternity if you suddenly find yourself with a full card right in the middle of some action that you need to capture). This has little impact on me, as I always shoot with adequately large cards in both slots so that I never have to handle cards until the event is over, but it's still something you should be aware of.
Setting the clock. Inexplicably, the A9 and A7iii (not sure about other Sony mirrorless cameras) do not have the ability to view or set the seconds when setting the clock. This causes difficulties when you need to sync the clocks of multiple cameras, a ritual most wedding photographers perform before every event. With two cameras, it's not a big hinderance, because you simply set them both to the same hour/minute, and when you hit the OK button, they're sync'd down to the second. With three or more cameras, however, this is trickier, since you can't simply watch the seconds tick by on one camera and hit the button on the other camera when they match, nor is it easy to press the OK button of three cameras simultaneously. So, if you need to sync more than two cameras, you either need help (do a 3-2-1 countdown), or bring up a clock display (with seconds shown) on your phone, which you can then take a picture of with each of the cameras at your leisure, and later adjust the capture time in Lightroom to match the time seen in the clock photos (which is also a helpful method for those instances when you've already started shooting before you realize you've forgotten to sync the clocks).
Non-Configurable Video Record Button. I have virtually no use for this button (which occupies prime real estate near the thumb), as I don't typically use these cameras for shooting video. Unfortunately, it cannot be reassigned to a different task. The most you can do is disable the button in still photography mode so that you do not end up recording unwanted video clips by inadvertently pushing the button. For those of us who never shoot video, it would be great to be able to put this button to work by assigning some other useful function to it.
Cannot Access Settings During Buffer Clearing. If you fire off a rapid series of shots and want to make a quick change in a menu, you have to wait until the buffer has finished clearing and all images have been written to the card. This is even the case if you simply have a button assigned to toggle APS-C crop mode... pushing that button while the buffer is clearing will give you the same error message.
No Speedlight Focus Assist Beam. In practice, this is not a significant issue for me, but on the Godox speedlights I use, the focus assist beam does not activate at all. I've seen some reports that Sony flashes do have an AF assist beam that works, but it's it's a bright LED light that conspicuously illuminates the subject as opposed to a more subtle red pattern, and it also only works in single focus mode, not continuous focus. The downside to any AF assist light, but especially a bright LED, is that it draws attention to the photographer, alerting your subjects to your presence, and potentially ruining the capture of a good candid moment. For this reason, when I was shooting with Canon and Nikon DSLRs, I would try to shoot without AF assist whenever possible, though I sometimes would have to use it. But so far, my Sony system has worked great even without AF assist. This is largely due to the fast prime lenses I typically shoot with, which enable the focus system to operate in lower light (DSLR AF systems do not benefit as much from fast primes). The only time the lack of AF assist has been a problem is when I've tried to do outdoor portraits at night with a lit building in the background (the camera will tend to lock on to the background). In these instances, using a small video light (or an iPhone light) provides enough illumination on the subject for focus.
Startup time. I shoot with two bodies almost all the time, and I have a habit of switching off the camera body that I'm not actively using. This was the case even when I shot with DSLRs, as the camera flopping around down by my side would sometimes result in the shutter release button being bumped multiple times, producing a bunch of random pictures of the ground and my feet that I'd have to cull later. I continue to do this with mirrorless cameras, not only for this reason, but to also save battery life. So, startup time is important. While the Sony A9 is among the fastest starting mirrorless cameras, it's still slower than most DSLRs. According to camera review sites, the startup time is just a little over a half second, but in the real world, I've observed that it sometimes feels like it takes longer before it's ready to shoot (a second or two).
Sensor Dust. This is, of course, an issue with all interchangeable lens cameras, even DSLRs, but unlike DSLRs (which have the mirror/shutter assembly in front of the sensor), when you remove the lens from a mirrorless camera, the sensor is completely exposed. Canon's EOS R mirrorless camera has a feature that closes the shutter to at least somewhat protect the sensor when swapping lenses, as does the Sony A9II and A1, but the original Sony A9 does not. So, be conscious of this whenever you need to switch lenses, especially outside. Face the camera downward, and turn your back to the wind so that it's less likely to carry dust onto the sensor, and have your other lens ready to mount so that you minimize the time the sensor is exposed. It's helpful to keep a penlight and a small Rocket blower in your bag so that at the beginning of your wedding day coverage (or at any other time you feel it necessary), you can do a quick inspection, shining the light across the sensor to easily see any dust specks that are present, and dislodge them with the blower.
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 one having been released in late March and the other later in the year, have made 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 the updated A9II arrived in late 2019, and new features will eclipse the current hardware capabilities of the A9. Plus, it won't make financial sense for Sony to continue to devote development resources to the older camera. But it's remarkable that Sony gave existing A9 owners a free upgrade to what is essentially a new camera, an intermediate successor before the next pro-level model was released.
Hopefully this corporate philosophy will continue, as it's the sort of thing that can breed deep customer loyalty.
In early October 2019, the Sony A9II was announced. It's a relatively minor upgrade from the already amazing A9 (same exact sensor), probably not enough for most A9 users to upgrade to unless their camera is in need of replacement anyway. And even then, the current ~$1000 price difference between the two makes the original A9 extremely attractive for those who do not specifically need any of the added features and improvements. So, what's new with the A9II?
The headline added feature, improved network (wired and wireless) communication, is something that will have very little impact on wedding and portrait photographers, and is geared more towards sports shooters who need to transmit their images to editors quickly as they shoot. The new camera also adds the ability to record voice memos, and the hotshoe can accept an external microphone, also not of much use for our line of work.
But there are some other features that are potentially more useful for us, which I will discuss here:
Both slots are now capable of utilizing the additional write speed of UHS-II SD cards (on the A9, one slot is UHS-I/UHS-II, while the other is just UHS-I). Since most wedding photographers shoot simultaneously to dual cards, that means the regular UHS-I slot is a limiting factor in buffer-clearing speed on the A9, as no matter how fast your UHS-II card was, the camera would still have to wait on the UHS-I card in the other slot.
However, in the hundred or so weddings I've photographed in my first couple of years of shooting with Sony, not even one single time have I ever had an instance of not being able to shoot because the buffer had filled, thanks to the A9's massive buffer of about 240 shots, and selecting UHS-I cards that still have a decent write speed (Sandisk Extreme and Extreme Pro). Furthermore, even if I were to buy an A9II, I would still likely not benefit from the added UHS-II slot, as taking advantage of this would require me to toss all of my existing UHS-I SD cards and replace them with much more expensive UHS-II SD cards. I like to maintain a HUGE stockpile of memory cards, as this gives me the ability to shoot several months' worth of weddings without having to erase and reuse cards. Replacing all of them with UHS-II cards would be a massively expensive endeavor, with no real advantage gained (since, again, I never have buffer issues even with UHS-I cards).
Now, to be fair, there is one specific aspect of a faster write speed that would potentially be beneficial to me. As I mentioned above, the A9 does not allow the user to access the menu system while images are being written. I'm not sure whether or not the A9II has the same limitation, but even if it does, the quicker the buffer clears, the sooner I can get into the menu if I need to. But again, taking advantage of this would require that all my existing cards be replaced with substantially more expensive UHS-II cards. Perhaps as my stockpile of cards wears out, I'll begin to phase in UHS-II cards, but for now it's not worth the expense.
The body of the camera changed, it's a bit bigger now, especially in the grip area. Though I personally find the A9 comfortable to shoot with, those with especially larger hands might benefit from the larger grip of the A9II. The larger AF-ON button is a welcome addition (my thumb does get a bit sore by the end of the night!), as is the improved weather-sealing.
The mechanical shutter has been improved, capable of shooting at a faster continuous rate now (10fps vs. 5fps). I do not see this aspect of the shutter as having a substantial impact on wedding photographers, as I'll typically be on the already speedy silent shutter for those times when shooting in continuous mode, and when shooting with flash with the mechanical shutter, flash recycle time is going to be the limiting factor anyway. However, the new mechanical shutter is also said to be quieter, with a faster, less laggy feel to it, so this could certainly be a meaningful improvement for reception coverage and other instances where flash is needed, and is probably the only feature of the A9II that I would see any direct benefit from over the A9.
The A9II gains anti-flicker mode (only with mechanical shutter, though). This is useful for shooting in fluorescent lighting or in the lights sometimes used in gymnasiums, where the cycling of this lighting can cause exposure variations fully or partially across the frame depending on when during the lights' cycle the shutter happens to fire. Anti-flicker mode makes a quick analysis of this cycling, and times the shutter release to minimize the effect.
A small improvement in the in-body stabilization system is also noted, and there is some anecdotal evidence of even better AF tracking due to a faster processor.
In short, while it's great to see the company continue to improve an already fantastic camera, for someone who is beginning to transition over to Sony right now for weddings, it would be difficult to not just opt for the original A9, as the substantial difference in price ($1000-$1500 as of the time of this writing) is hard to justify for the relatively small improvements of the A9II. For someone equipping themselves with a primary kit of two bodies, that $2000-$3000 would buy one or two good lenses! However, it's unknown how long the A9 will continue to be available.
That being said, even if the current additional features of the A9II don't strike you as particularly important for the type of photography you do, just as the A9 recently received a substantial firmware update that drastically improved the already great autofocus performance, future updates to the A9II might possibly add features and improvements that could be more meaningful to you, and it's doubtful that the A9 will receive any further significant updates.
Obviously at some point my pair of A9 bodies are going to be replaced, either with the A9II (if it comes down enough in price), but more likely its eventual successor or perhaps the A1 that was introduced in early 2021, but I will not be selling my A9s... they'll move to backup and secondary roles.
Sony Pro Support
Another good aspect of shooting with Sony gear is that the company has a fairly robust Pro Support program... maybe not quite to the level of Canon's CPS Platinum, but certainly better than Nikon's NPS. In terms of benefits and value, I'd label it somewhere between CPS Gold and CPS Platinum. It's the same price as CPS Gold ($100), but offers the distinct advantage of free next-day shipping both ways (CPS Gold only gives free return shipping).
Turnaround time is great. Mid to late Summer is a typical slow season for weddings (at least in the South!), so I like to pick a period when I have at least a few weeks off during which to send my cameras off for routine servicing and sensor cleaning (even though fast turnaround is promised, I prefer to leave a margin of error just in case it takes longer). I called Sony Pro Support, and they emailed me a FedEx next-day shipping label shortly thereafter. Shipped my A9s out on Monday, Midwest Camera Repair (who does the servicing work for Sony) received them Tuesday, and they were on the way back to me on Wednesday, arriving at my door on Thursday, very well packed and sparkly clean.
Other benefits are comparable to CPS Gold: expedited turnaround for service, a 20% discount for out-of-warranty repairs, complimentary sensor cleanings, a dedicated tech support number, and equipment loans for evaluation (or for repairs that are expected to take longer than three days). I've also begun to see indications of a "priority delivery" program for new product releases, similar to what Nikon Professional Service offers.
- Tips and Information on how I set up my A9 bodies for photographing weddings
- Lens selection for weddings and portraits
- Godox lighting gear
- Other useful gear that I typically bring with me on weddings