Sony A1 for Wedding Photography
After almost exactly three largely trouble-free years shooting weddings with my A9s, I transitioned 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 to my arsenal anyway, plus 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 a variety of 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 A9 was (and still is) an outstanding camera for wedding photography, but as with any product, there's always room for improvement. Here are my favorite features that the A1 added:
The ability to shoot with flash while using silent shutter. This is definitely what I was most looking forward to with the A1. 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 change (along with others, such as switching to manual mode and a higher ISO, since that's my typical flash settings), but there are still times when I’d like to be able to simply turn on the flash and add a bit of fill while staying in my ambient light preset (with aperture priority and auto ISO).
This feature also eliminates the minor idiosyncrasy with the A9 (at least when shooting with Godox flashes, as I'm not sure if this occurs with Sony flashes as well) where if the camera is in silent shutter mode when the flash is turned on, even then changing to mechanical shutter will not allow the flash to work... the camera must be in mechanical shutter mode before the flash is switched on. I assume this glitch is due to the flash being instructed to not fire because electronic shutter is on, but then not getting a subsequent message to resume firing when the camera switches to mechanical shutter (unless, again, the flash is power-cycled). But because the A1 can use flash even with electronic shutter, this glitch does not occur, so you are free to power up the flash at any time.
Lastly, 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 of the camera.
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 High-Speed Sync) means you have more control over how much ambient light contributes to the exposure. And if you’re shooting in APS-C crop mode, maximum sync speed is 1/500!
This really turned out to be a bit of a "sleeper hit" for me, as although I was pleased to hear about this feature and figured it would be useful occasionally, I wasn't particularly excited about it. I thought it would mainly come in handy for outdoor bridal portrait sessions, but I've ended up using it more than I expected I would during weddings.
The obvious usefulness of this is when using flash for outdoor portraits of individuals or couples in bright light 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 sometimes during formal group shots at weddings, there may be a need to bring down the ambient light as much as possible, which of course you can accomplish by stopping down the aperture further, but that's then going to require more light from the flash, and you simply might not have that power at your disposal. In short, a faster sync speed gives you more options for controlling ambient light without affecting your flash exposure, and lets you shoot at a bit larger aperture than you otherwise would be able to.
And even with indoor wedding ceremonies and receptions it has come in handy from time to time, as there have been occasions when an interior space has one area with a bloom of daylight in one spot blowing out the background, and more commonly, I sometimes struggle with strong lighting coming from the band or DJ bleeding onto the dance floor area, 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). In both cases, it's nice to have that additional stop or so of faster shutter speed to reduce the ambient light.
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).
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 the files to the cards before you can change this setting, even if it's assigned to a custom button). As I elaborate on below, 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 quickly switch back to full-frame (such as during the processional), as there would be a period of a few seconds (as the buffer cleared) when I would not be able to change that setting.
Higher resolution. Though I originally viewed the 50mp sensor as a negative, the more I thought about it (and shot with the camera), 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. It also makes the lovely Sony 135mm f1.8 lens a viable option for a long lens during church ceremonies. True, there’s no difference between shooting in crop mode and cropping a full-frame image in post-processing (aside from saving some storage space on the memory cards and computer), but aesthetically I prefer to see the crop in-camera for framing purposes. With a custom button assigned to toggle back and forth between APS-C and full-frame, I can instantly make this switch without having to go into the menu system.
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 would get inconsistent TTL exposures when bouncing with the V350 (and even the larger V860II) on the A9, yet, peculiarly, 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 initially 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.
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 most useful when reviewing captured images, less so when shooting, as the resolution is temporarily reduced when the camera is focusing in AF-C mode, presumably to ensure enough bandwidth through the system is maintained for the many focus calculations the camera makes.
Faster UI. The A1 powers up quicker, 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.
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 or otherwise damage the delicate shutter blades.
Though I was initially very excited about this feature, I decided to not enable it permanently. 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 hundreds of times during the course of a wedding, it would take a decade or two worth of weddings for this to even reach 1/4 of the shutter's predicted life.
Additionally, as currently implemented, the feature is not as useful as it could be, as the shutter does not close 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. In addition, I've also found that it also sometimes takes a few seconds for the shutter to close even if there are no images being written, while the camera is presumably going through some kind of shut-down process. Given that most of us are usually in a particular hurry when we're swapping lenses, I'm hopeful that they'll be able to improve this in a future firmware update so that the shutter always closes immediately upon flipping the power switch, as it will make this feature significantly more usable.
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, this might sound like a relatively insignificant thing, but I always found it extremely annoying to not be able to utilize this button, which occupies prime real estate, for other things on the A9 (the only thing the A9 allows you to do with this button is disable it). With the A1, you can assign it to something useful.
Clock can display and be set to seconds. A small but welcome change, helpful when synchronizing the clocks between cameras.
Aside from the steep cost, there are only two that I can think of so far.
Battery life on the A1 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 although it might be slightly worse, 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 and faster refreshing EVF), for the events I've captured with the A1s so far, I reached the point of starting to think about doing a battery swap at about the four-five hour mark, which is when I usually would replace the A9s' batteries as well. With both the A9 and A1, considerable battery life – 30% or so – 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 soon after the ceremony or early in the reception rather than when the party is in full swing or, even worse, waiting until the batteries are actually depleted. The A1s might have been at a bit lower percentage at this point, but not dramatically so.
But, in short, the A1 maintains what for me was the status quo with the A9... four hour weddings can be done with one set of batteries, five-six hour events are marginal, and my typical seven-eight hour weddings need two sets, and while I can squeak out a 10-12 hour wedding on two sets (which I've done on a couple of occasions so far), I'd still want a couple of extra batteries on hand for a long event like that. Furthermore, if I were shooting a particularly lengthy wedding, I would also go ahead and put that first drained set of batteries on the charger to give an additional margin of error.
I should note, however, that I'm quite aggressive in preserving battery life while shooting... I usually switch off whichever camera I'm not actively shooting with (or both of them, if I'm moving from one location to another), both to save power and to prevent inadvertent photos of my shoes with the cameras down by my sides.
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 reflexively recoiling in horror at the thought of higher megapixel 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, and the reality in present day is that accommodating these larger RAW files is not nearly as burdensome 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 on the A1, 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 is 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 quicker write speed, it's available.
And if fast buffer clearing is very important to you, you do have the option of using CFexpress Type-A cards. The Sony A1 ingeniously support SD and CFexpress Type-A cards in both slots, and the latter will give you a much faster write speed, clearing the buffer in less than half the time of even the fastest UHS-II SD card.
All this being said, given that the A1's hefty buffer accommodates over 150 shots (when shooting compressed RAW), I can't imagine a scenario in which a full buffer could ever possibly 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 mostly use SanDisk Extreme Pro).
I did, however, pick up some Prograde Digital UHS-II cards to use in one of the card slots in each camera, along with a couple of card readers capable of taking advantage of this additional speed. This doesn't result in the buffer clearing any faster (since the UHS-I card in the second slot is the limiting factor), but my intention was not to clear the buffer faster, but rather to speed up the ingestion of cards after the wedding, since along with a faster write speed these cards (when used in an appropriate reader, with a sufficiently fast USB 3.1 port) are two to three times as fast when reading compared to UHS-I cards.
With my particular setup and workflow at the time (a 2.3ghz i9 MacBook Pro), this did not work out for me in practice. When simply downloading the files from multiple cards at once, the cumulative speed is indeed significantly faster than UHS-I cards. But my workflow begins with batch converting the RAW files to compressed DNGs with Adobe DNG Converter (running multiple instances of the app so that I can convert the images from two to four cards simultaneously), and I do this straight from the cards to my RAW work drive, which is a fast SSD. But as it turns out, even when just converting from a single card, the CPU in that computer is nearly fully saturated, so with that being the bottleneck, the extra read speed of these cards could not be taken advantage of and resulted in no meaningful benefit in overall conversion time.
Again, simply downloading the RAW files was indeed considerably faster, but to take advantage of this speed would require me to download the RAW files then convert to DNG in two separate steps rather than my current method of converting directly from the cards, and I think any read speed benefit would have been canceled out by this extra step.
However, on the new MacBook Pro M1Max, with a version of DNG Converter optimized for Apple Silicon, the considerably faster processor enables me to utilize the additional read speed of these cards to convert them quicker. Running a test of the same set of 1,256 Sony A1 RAW files split across two sets of two cards (one set being SanDisk UHS-I cards, and the other set being ProGrade Digital UHS-II cards), the conversion from the UHS-I cards finished in 14 minutes 29 seconds, while the conversion from the UHS-II cards took 11 minutes 23 seconds, or about 22% faster.
While not a huge difference, the additional speed is certainly welcome, as this particular task of converting my files to DNGs is one of the few instances where I'm actually waiting on the computer to finish so I can wrap up the other tasks that need to be done before heading off to bed (running backups, setting previews to build, and sync'ing to Adobe Creative Cloud). 3 minutes might not sound like a lot, but for a bigger wedding the difference in time might be 5-10 minutes, and when you're tired and ready to go to sleep, that can feel like a considerable amount of time!
A FEW “MEH” ITEMS
Auto ISO minimum shutter speed can still only be specified in full stop increments… when shooting in aperture priority, 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 (such as a church ceremony). 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. I understand that Sony might have a desire to not make that menu item too long by adding 1/3 stop increments, but they could make it optional (give the user the choice of setting it to 1/3 or full stop increments).
Lastly, high-ISO image noise is a bit higher, which is not surprising given the higher pixel density. I hesitate to even mention this, because although, yes, if you view a high-ISO A1 image alongside an A9 or A9ii image at 1:1, you'll definitely see more noise in the A1 image, if you resample the A1 image to the A9's resolution (to make it more of an apples-to-apples comparison), and there's very little difference between the two. Additionally, because I shoot mostly with fast primes, I'm usually at ISO 1600-3200, though I'll shoot at higher ISO without hesitation – soon after acquiring my A1s, I photographed a surprise marriage proposal by candlelight with my 24 1.4 and 55 1.8, ISO 16,000 - 25,600, and a sparkler send-off at ISO 10,000, and the images were fine (definitely had some noise, but they cleaned up nicely in Lightroom).
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 and can easily get by without it.
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 lightning 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 end up keeping the A9ii around for another year or two to occupy this space.