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 wanted to use flash I would 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 the shutter 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.
More detailed EVF. The higher resolution electronic viewfinder of the A1 is noticeably clearer than the A9's (which was already great). This is useful both during shooting, and when reviewing captured images.
Dust protection. The A1 can be set to close 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 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. Though I was initially very excited about this feature, I decided to not enable it permanently for now. Instead, I have this setting in the quickly-accessible My Menu, and will enable it manually if I have to change lenses in a non-ideal environment. I very frequently turn my cameras off and on during the course of the wedding day, and having the shutter close and open every time seems like unnecessary wear on the mechanism. Though, in all fairness, I'm rarely going to use the mechanical shutter anyway, and even if I turn a camera off and on 100 times during the course of a wedding, it would take approximately 25 years worth of weddings for this to even reach 1/4 of the shutter's predicted life.
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.
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 indeed quite useful, as it still produces an amply high resolution 21mp file. This lets me, for instance, have 24mm and 55mm lenses mounted, but also have instant access to the field of view equivalent of approximately 35mm and 85mm. 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.
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. 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 a second or two (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 often prefer these smaller speedlights when shooting with my Sony gear, since they balance better with these smaller bodies (and smaller prime lenses), and I typically don't need the higher power of the larger flashes even when bouncing because I shoot with fast primes. But for some reason I got inconsistent TTL exposures when shooting with the V350 (and even the V860II) on the A9, but the round-head V1 works fine with that body. On the A1, however, the V350 works well (as do the V860II and V1), so it's nice to have the option of using the smaller flash when appropriate.
Image jump during playback. One thing I really missed about the various Canon and Nikon cameras that I shot with over the years was that when reviewing captured photographs, the rear wheel would scroll through images one by one, while the front wheel would jump in higher increments, giving you the ability to quickly skip back to view 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 jump 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 might not be not as good (maybe). There are some reports on the web about A1s really chewing through batteries at an alarmingly high rate (like dropping 10% in just a span of minutes), but although I’m still evaluating this for myself, it appears any difference (compared to the A9) in battery life is not significant for my usage.
It's impossible to nail this down with certainty without a side-by-side scientifically-conducted test (which I don't really have the motivation to do). But even though the A1 might be a little more power-hungry than the A9, which wouldn't necessarily be surprising since the A1 is doing quite a bit more work under the hood (running more continuous AF calculations, processing and writing higher resolution files, and driving a more detailed EVF), for my first couple of events with the A1, I reached the point of starting to think about doing a battery swap at about the 4-5 hour mark, which is when I usually would replace the A9s' batteries as well. With both the A9 and A1, considerable battery life – 30-40% – typically still remains at this point, but if I know based on the event's time remaining that I'm going to need fresh batteries at some point, I prefer to do it during a convenient lull early in the reception rather than when the party is in full swing or, even worse, waiting until the batteries are actually depleted.
But, in short, the A1 maintains what for me was the status quo with the A9... short weddings can be done with one set of batteries, longer weddings need two sets.
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 much slower, and reasonably-priced 12-18TB hard drives (or 1-2TB super-fast SSDs!) were only a fantasy, but times have changed, but the reality in present day is that 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 roughly one per second, compared to about two images per second with the same cards on the A9. But on the other hand, pop a pair of higher-speed UHS-II cards into the A1 (which wouldn't provide a benefit with the A9 if you shoot RAW to both slots, since only one slot was UHS-II), and despite these files being twice as large as the A9's, they are written at a rate of about three per second, so if you need more write speed, it's available.
All this being said, given that the A1's hefty 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. Sports shooters or photographers who are really machine-gunners in terms of how they photograph weddings might see a material benefit to those faster UHS-II cards, as would videographers shooting high bitrate footage (for which the even faster CFexpress Type A cards – the A1's card slots accommodate these as well – might be more appropriate, but at a much higher cost). But for the vast majority of wedding photographers, high-quality UHS-I cards are just fine (I use SanDisk Extreme Pro).
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, I'm not convinced that all of the A1's other features will be brought to the hypothetical A9iii, since just a higher resolution sensor might not be enough to differentiate the two models in terms of marketing, and if the 1/400-1/500 max. sync speed doesn't make it over, that would nudge me in the direction of favoring the A1.
And then there's the debate over whether there even will be an A9iii. Some photographers are of the opinion that the A1 itself is the A9/A9ii successor. There's some validity to that argument, as it seems that the stereotypical higher-end camera lineup of a higher resolution (but slower) body combined with a more modest resolution (but faster) body is turned on its head with the A1, since it is both high resolution and fast. But I tend to agree with those who say that not having a ~$4500 performance-oriented camera in the lineup leaves too big of a hole, though Sony could simply keep the A9ii around for another year or two.