Sony A1 for Wedding Photography
After almost exactly three largely trouble-free years shooting weddings with my A9s, I’ve started the transition to a pair of new Sony A1 bodies as my primary wedding cameras. The A9s have served me exceptionally well, and will continue to do so, in secondary roles such as backups, for second shooters, and for portraits. Honestly, I felt no pressing need to upgrade, but my old Nikon DSLR gear (which was helping to serve in some of those secondary duties) was getting quite long in the tooth, so there was a need to add a couple of bodies, and I’ve been wanting to standardize on Sony.
I pondered this decision for many months. Though very impressed by the A1’s specs, I wasn’t thrilled about the 50mp sensor, as I felt 24mp of the A9 series was pretty much perfect, and my initial thought was to wait for the eventual A9iii (assuming there will be one), which would probably get most of the A1’s features with a 24-30mp sensor. But it will likely be sometime next year before that camera is released, and for various reasons I needed to make the purchase sooner.
So why not just go for a few more A9s (though these are now getting hard to find) or the currently available and very capable A9ii? I considered that, but if I was going to spring for two new bodies, I’d prefer to spend a little more and bring some additional capabilities to my toolbox, and some of the improvements of the A1 were just too tempting.
This is by no means a full and comprehensive review of the A1, just some some random thoughts on various aspects of this new camera.
My Favorite Features of the A1
The ability to shoot with flash while using silent shutter. With the A9, I would shoot with silent shutter almost all of the time unless I’m using flash, and when I want to use flash I have to switch to mechanical shutter. I have a flash preset on the main dial to quickly make this (and other) changes, but there are still times when I’d like to be able to simply turn on the flash and add a bit of fill. Also, although the shutters in these cameras are rated for a whopping half a million actuations, further reducing the need to use the mechanical shutter will increase the lifespan.
1/400 flash sync. Most modern cameras have a flash sync speed of 1/200 (maybe 1/250), so being able to shoot with flash at 1/400 (without engaging power-sucking HSS) is a very welcome feature. And if you’re shooting in APS-C crop mode, maximum sync speed is 1/500! The obvious usefulness of this is with outdoor portraits at wider apertures, where you might already be at your lowest ISO and every little bit of faster shutter speed (for keeping the ambient light in check) is helpful. But even with indoor wedding receptions it will come in handy from time to time, as there have been occasions when I’ve struggled with strong lighting coming from the band, not wanting to push my shutter speed into HSS territory, and having instead to reduce ISO (which means the flash has to work harder and recycles slower, since I’m bouncing almost all of the time). The only caveat here is that this faster sync speed does require the use of the mechanical shutter (maximum sync speed with the electronic shutter is 1/200, which will be appropriate for probably 90% of my wedding work).
Quiet mechanical shutter. When I first powered up the A1, I fired off a few test shots in silent shutter mode, then switched to the mechanical shutter. Pushing the shutter release, I was dismayed to hear just a gentle sound that is best described as a soft knock (like the shutter mechanism was trying to actuate, but was stuck and was not actually moving), and figured the camera was defective. Took me a few moments to realize that the camera was in fact fine, and that’s just how quiet it is! I don't expect to use the mechanical shutter much, but it's nice to know how discrete it is if I do need it.
Dust protection. The A1 thankfully adds the useful feature of closing the shutter when the camera is powered off, to help prevent dust from reaching the sensor when you are swapping lenses. The A9ii gained this feature via a firmware update, but sadly the original A9 did not. Of course, dust can still find its way into that area, so you should still be careful when changing lenses (back to the wind, face the camera downward), but this will undoubtedly help. And you need to be extremely cautious not to touch the delicate shutter blades.
Higher resolution. Yes, I know I originally viewed the 50mp sensor as a negative, but the more I thought about it, the more I warmed up to it, as I appreciate having more room for cropping. And as a mostly prime shooter, this higher resolution when shooting in APS-C crop mode is very valuable.
Faster UI. The A1 powers up instantly, and feels noticeably more responsive.
Menu navigation is improved. This won’t have a huge impact, since with the A9 I simply put my most commonly used items in the “My Menu” section, but still, there were occasions when I did have to go hunt down some obscure, seldom used setting.
APS-C crop mode switching always available. This new camera allows for APS-C crop mode to be toggled even while the buffer is clearing (which the A9 and A9ii cannot do, you must wait until the camera is finished writing to the cards). As mentioned above, I frequently use crop mode, since it increases the framing flexibility when shooting with primes. True, there’s no difference between shooting in crop mode and cropping a full-frame image in post-processing (aside from saving some card space), but aesthetically I prefer to see the crop in-camera for framing purposes. The only problem is that with the A9, I had to be cautious not to fire off too many shots in APS-C right before I knew I was going to need to switch back to full-frame (such as during the processional), as there would be a period of several seconds (as the buffer cleared) when I would not be able to change that setting.
Improved AF. I have mixed feelings on the significance of this for me, as although better/faster AF is always a good thing, the A9’s autofocus was already superb and I rarely (if ever) felt hindered by it… it remains to be seen if I will actually notice the improvements in practice. But the A1’s AF system is reported to be even more sensitive in low light, and when shooting in continuous focus mode, makes double the number of AF calculations per second (120).
Movie button can be reassigned. Yeah, a relatively insignificant thing, but I always found it extremely annoying to not be able to utilize this button for other things on the A9 (the only thing the A9 allows you to do with this button is disable it).
Clock can display and be set to seconds. A small but welcome change.
Better compatibility with Godox V350 flash. I prefer these smaller speedlights when shooting with my Sony gear, since they balance better with these smaller bodies (and smaller prime lenses). But for some reason I got inconsistent TTL exposures when shooting with the V350 on the A9, so I tended to use the larger V1 speedlights with those bodies. On the A1, however, the V350 works fine.
Image jump during playback. One thing I really missed about Canon and Nikon was that when reviewing captured photographs, the rear wheel would scroll one by one, while the front wheel would jump in higher increments, giving you the ability to quickly skip back to images from an earlier portion of the day. At one point, in an A9 firmware update, Sony added what sounded like was going to be this feature, but it ended up being only being a way to jump through images that you had "rated" in-camera, and there was still no way to quickly scroll through regular unrated images. The A1 adds the ability to set the front dial to jump in increments of 10 or 100.
A FEW “MEH” ITEMS
Auto ISO minimum shutter speed can still only be specified in full stop increments… sometimes 1/125 is just a little too slow for comfort, but 1/250 is faster than I really need, which is not a big deal in good light, but means a higher ISO will be needed in low light. There’s a workaround (set the camera to M instead of Av, manually specify the shutter speed you want, and let auto ISO do its thing from there), but it would be nice to be able to do 1/3 stop increments for the minimum shutter speed setting.
The above mentioned feature that protects the sensor from dust during lens swaps by closing the shutter does not activate until the buffer is finished clearing. So, in other words, if you just fired off a dozen or two shots and switch the camera off to swap lenses, a message pops up and informs you to wait until the images are finished being written to the card(s) before changing lenses. I'm not sure why they couldn't have made this so that the shutter closes immediately upon flipping the switch.
Aside from the steep cost, there are only two that I can think of so far.
Battery life is not as good. With the A9, I can typically make it through about 5 hours of wedding photography before my cameras approach the point of being ready for fresh batteries, but the A1 is doing quite a bit more work under the hood (more AF calculations, chewing through higher resolution files, and running a more detailed EVF). I’m still evaluating this, but it appears that I’ll reach the point of needing new batteries at about 4 hour increments.
And, of course, memory card and computer storage requirements are roughly double that of the A9. Honestly, I think for many of us, the mentality of recoiling in horror at higher MP files is a holdover from the days when memory cards were extremely expensive, computers were slow, and reasonably-priced 12-18TB hard drives (or 1-2TB super-fast SSDs!) were only a fantasy, but times have changed, and accommodating these larger RAW files is not nearly as cumbersome as it once was.
Still, these large files do have a significant impact on how long it takes to clear the buffer. Shooting lossless compressed RAW, images can be written to reasonably fast UHS-I cards at a rate of about one per second, compared to about two images per second with the same cards on the A9. Pop a pair of higher-speed UHS-II cards into the A1, and despite these files being twice as large as the A9's, they are written at a rate of about three per second.
All this being said, given that the A1's buffer accommodates roughly 100 images, I can't imagine a scenario in which a full buffer would impact my ability to shoot, so I'm not at all concerned about it from that perspective. However, as noted above, you must wait until the buffer finishes clearing before the shutter closes to protect the sensor from dust. I don't think this will be much of an issue for me, but if it does turn out to be, the solution will be to break down and load up on UHS-II cards!
Is the Sony A1 the Ultimate Wedding Camera?
Yes and no. In terms of capabilities, I'd say absolutely yes.
But to be completely honest, if the choice was between the A1 and a hypothetical A9iii (with most of the other advancements and refinements of the A1, but a 24-30mp sensor, and priced $1500-$2000 lower), I would have probably gone with the A9iii. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the A1's high resolution will be useful at times, but in general I know that I don't need a 50mp sensor.
However, if the A1's 1/400-1/500 max. sync speed doesn't make it over to the hypothetical A9iii, that would nudge me in the direction of favoring the A1.