Sony A9 review – one year on… (May 2018)
So, it’s been exactly one year since I first used the Sony A9 at a wedding. May Bank Holiday weekend 2017 to be exact. I had two weddings that weekend, one on the Friday and one on the Sunday. I’d read about the Sony A9, being an owner of the A7S and A7RII previously, so some initial reviews sounded promising? Although I’m rather ambivalent about many of the reviews you see out there – pictures of brick walls or flowers, the cat… You have to use the cameras yourself, for a good period of time, to really know if they fit how you want to shoot. The A7 cameras just didn’t do it for me, for my reportage wedding photography work at least and how I like to shoot. Whether it be the battery life or the responsiveness of the cameras – AF speed, focus point selection, etc. Since 2011 I had been using Nikons mostly. There were a couple of forays into using Fuji X cameras, but I never felt I could trust those cameras? Others love them and get fantastic results, but despite using them to photograph several weddings, I was never that convinced they were for me. I moved to the Nikon D5, after two years using the D750, but didn’t see a massive gain in quality really? Except in weight. In the end, it was that, how heavy they are to carry around for nine hours, that got me looking around for an alternative. Preferably a lighter one.
Mirrorless cameras seemed to offer this, but could they match the performance of the Nikon D750 say? Maybe I would just go back to the D750? After all, Nikon had come up with some outstanding glass, like the 105mm, plus Sigma had finally updated the 135mm for them – another great lens (albeit, like many Sigmas, quite heavy). To come would be the D850 and the 28mm/f1.4….little did I know?
There is an old adage, that it is the photographer that takes the picture, not the camera. This is true. How to upset a photographer? When admiring one of their photographs, tell them they ‘must have a nice camera!’. It’s like eating a great meal at a restaurant and then telling the chef that he must have ‘great pots and pans’… But, better tools do make a difference and when a camera comes along that adds something new to the mix, it can influence the images you are able to get.
( Disclaimer: This is not an in-depth, technical ‘review’ of the Sony A9 – plenty of those around. More, just some thoughts, after actually using this camera for twelve months )
I put the Sony A9 in the car boot, just in case…
So I fired the trigger – an expensive trigger, at £4.5K then for the A9. It arrived on the Friday, as I was photographing a sunny Sussex wedding, with the Nikon D5s. After a brief play with it on the Saturday, I charged up the batteries and popped it into the boot (with the manual) on the Sunday. Much of this wedding was shot on the Nikon D5 until it came to the meal. Generally, I don’t photograph people eating their meal, as that can be intrusive – just some interactions at the start, some at the end. But as I was sat in my car, one of the bride’s friends was sent out to ask if I could capture images of the guests serving each other – they had forgotten to mention this was happening. I picked up the A9, along with the 55mm (the first Sony lens I bought) to see how they worked?
Now the silence of the electronic shutter on the Sony A9 is quite disconcerting at first? You’re not sure if you are actually taking any pictures? It’s THAT silent. Add to that the eventual realization that you have to use the ‘low’ setting on the drive, which means you end up, in these early days, with a lot of images. (There is a trend in wedding photography for overshooting, but that’s another story) But aside from that, the AF was fast, it was locking on, in that barn – which are never the lightest interiors. Even the EVF – which I had my doubts about – was pretty clear. I went back to my car and ran through the images – this camera might be worth £4.5K? Well…..
But it was with the dancing – after getting some shots with the Nikon D5, where I began to see what the A9 could do? No flash, just ambient light. It wasn’t the lightest or the darkest, in the barn that evening, but the light was tricky enough to test the camera/lens autofocus on moving subjects – where often you are reacting to something on the dance floor. Something that you have to get across the floor quickly to capture and where you need a camera that can then respond quickly. The Sony A9 did just that here – as the bride led a wedding guest off the dance floor by his tie… Dim light, moving target – the A9/55mm combo had no problem.
This camera had promise?
One Sony A9, one Nikon D5
The following wedding, a chance to really test the A9. This time, I shot this wedding in deepest Sussex, with an outdoor wedding ceremony, with the A9 and a D5. The Nikon was mostly with longer lenses, like the Sigma 135mm, while the Sony had the 55mm, a few with the old 28mm and a newly purchased 35mm f1.4 – a beast of a lens. Switching from the silence of the Sony A9 to the loud shutter noise of the Nikon D5, was startling. In fact, I used the A9 with the Canon 135mm, alongside the 55mm and 35mm, for the speeches – so nice not to have the shutter noise, clanging away, at this point of the day.
When I got home, I ordered a second Sony A9. The switchover had begun… It was the last time I used my Nikons at weddings…which was not an easy switch to make. (I’ve kept a D750 and a D810, plus much of the key prime glass I used for weddings – you never know? That new Nikon 28mm f1.4 – so tempting… But also, I have a long history with Nikons, so I’m keeping it. I may be back? Just can’t part with it. Still got one of my old D3S monsters – what a camera!)
A year photographing weddings with the Sony A9
So, what have I learned, over the last twelve months? Is the Sony A9, the perfect camera for wedding photography? Is there such a thing?
Well, it works for me!
In my opinion, which is all this is, Nikon and Canon have a hell of a benchmark to beat, when they finally enter the mirrorless market. Fuji started the ball rolling, Sony grabbed the baton with the A9 and seriously ran on with it. When I shot with an A9 and a D5, it was like in 2011, when I had a Canon and a Nikon D3S (still a favourite) – I switched after that wedding too. Will I switch again? Who knows? For one, it’s very expensive. So what would a Nikon mirrorless camera have to be, to make me switch? Assuming an A9S or MkII version, hasn’t already arrived by then? It has to match and then exceed the A9 in many departments.
- Speed: the camera has to be fast. In operation and in autofocus (with a good manual focussing system in place too) Autofocus that is very fast and, very important, accurate. Personally, with so many focus points, out to the edge of the screen (finally!) I tend to stay old school. I don’t use face detection and only use eye-af during something like the dancing maybe – I’d rather be in control of the camera, not let it make choices, But still, useful technology to have. So, need that too. You have to be able to trust a camera to respond, the A9 does. A minor criticism of the A9 though, the relatively slow startup time.
- High iso: got to be better higher. I’m greedy, this is key to my work. I like to use just the ambient light for as long as I possibly can – so the more the merrier. Surely Nikon can do this? This is key!
- Battery life: I use the grip, as it balances better with some of the big, heavy lenses, so always two batteries in the camera but the battery for the A9 is such a step up from the old A7 series ones. Not far off DSLR capacity. The more the merrier again.
- Silent shutter: This is extremely useful. To have a silent shutter that (on the whole) works. Yes, some artificial lights can defeat it and you get banding but the evolution on the old attempts at silent shutters is amazing. I had tried this with the A7RII. A small wedding, with a meal in a dark room, some candles, some tungsten, just a dozen people. So being silent was key. Hopeless just got banding. This was the problem, the times you are most likely to want silent operation, are often the worst lit – often by artificial light – ceremonies, speeches, etc. The A9 changed much of that. In the past year, I’ve had two ceremonies where I was not allowed to take pictures. Until I demonstrated the silent shutter. For one, in Southwark Cathedral, I had a meeting with the bride, just prior to the day, to discuss the details. Being clergy, they hated noisy camera shutters (and Nikon have never got ‘quiet’ right), so didn’t want the ceremony covered. I happened to have the A9 with me. Keen amateur photographers (common amongst my clients and professional too) I invited her to take some pictures with it. No noise…I was able to shoot the whole ceremony. For reportage wedding photography, this is so, so useful. Makes the stealthy Leica rangefinder seem noisy – no noise at all.
- Glass: Hard to beat Sony and Zeiss glass – apart from the size and weight perhaps? I use just prime lenses, so fast primes are key. It is so annoying not being able to use the Nikon 105mm f1.4 on the Sony A9 properly. Just not the adapters for it. The Zeiss Batis range is very lovely, expensive but really nice. I use them all. I have the 135mm Batis, which is very slick – I just want a faster (f2.0 or 1.8) version? But it’s the sheer size of some of the Sony FE glass that is a bit of a problem. They perform beautifully – but they are just big, too big really. Look at this picture below, the sublime 55mm (f1.8), sandwiched between the 50mm and 35mm (both f1.4). These are big lenses, even for DSLRs. The ideal is a smaller lens, that performs like the 55mm. An aperture of f1.8 is fine, even f2.0, like the 25mm Batis. Tweak the sensor to capture cleaner at higher iso, but keep the glass small, fast and light. I found on the Nikons, that the 1.8 range were great performers. Doesn’t have to be f1.4.
- Ergonomics: The A9 ain’t the prettiest camera, nor the ‘sexiest’ to handle. Unlike others, I haven’t felt the need, with these cameras, to add sugru to some of the buttons – definitely did with the Fujis. They don’t have the ‘feel’ of a Leica or the smooth curves of the Nikon F4S, a camera from yesteryear. Not that bothered personally – better ergonomics is nice but these work fine. Plus, you need that tilting screen – very useful on occasions.
- Cards: XQD, please? SD cards take so long to download from. I miss the XQDs from my Nikons. Plus they are tiny and weak. We need a mini-XQD range.
- Full frame sensor: for me, a given. For those who shoot Fuji, not necessary maybe? Let’s keep it full-frame though… 😉 As for size, 24Mp is enough – concentrate on the high iso capability of the sensor. Even 12 wasn’t half bad…!
Essentially, what I really, really want is the modern, Sony version of what a digital Leica should/could be? I sold my Leica M240 to buy an A7RIII and still use the Leica glass on it. But then again, if I had the funds for an M10… (The Loxia range of manual focus lenses, made by Zeiss, for the Sony, look very good too).
There are some minor problems with the Sony A9 – startup time, SD cards, etc but as a camera, it works with me, for the way I want to shoot. It’s a very impressive bit of kit. Just needs some new glass to come along. But then can Nikon or Canon trump it? A hard task indeed.
Here are a few Sony A9 images from the last twelve months. With a range of Sony and Zeiss lenses. Sunshine, rain, winter…snatched moments, quiet moments…no flash, some flash….it worked! (Look back through the blog posts for more!)
A9 + 55/1.8
A9 + 35/1.4
A9 +85/1.8 (Batis)
A9 + 35/1.4
A9 + 135/2.8 (Batis)
A9 + 25/2 (Batis)
A9 + 85/1.8 (Batis) – this was dark and against the light!
A9 + 35/1.4
Wet A9 + 135/2.8 (Batis)
A9 + 55/1.8
A9 + 18/2.8 (Batis) (Godox flash)
A9 + 55/1.8
A9 + 18/2.8 (Batis)
A9 + 35/1.4
A9 + 35/1.4
A9 + 25/2 (Batis)
A9 + 25/2 (Batis)
A9 + 55/1.8 (Godox flash)
A9 + 55/1.8
A9 + 35/1.4
A9 + 55/1.8
A9 + 85/1.8 (Batis)
A9 + 50/1.4
and as for the camera itself?
Sony A9 – the perfect camera for wedding photographers?
The A9 has certainly created a bit of a stir amongst wedding photographers. The silent shutter (with most banding now eliminated and no rolling shutter distortions) and the accurate autofocus, has seen many ditch their Nikons and Canons. The new, lower-priced, A7III, has added to this switch – if you’re not bothered about the silent shutter. Is the Sony A9 the perfect camera for wedding photography?
It was marketed at first, for sport and wildlife photography, it seems. The fast drive, silent operation, no blackouts in the viewfinder, etc. Can’t see it replacing cameras like the Nikon D5 pitchside, on a cold winter’s night, just yet. First off there is the fast long glass still to come. But for golf and tennis, a useful tool, with its silent operation – must be the same for film sets and the like? But as a silent camera for reportage – for decades the domain of the Leica M cameras – it’s very good.
But first, before the positives, what negatives? Above all, the price. They are not cheap. The price has only fallen by £200 in the last year. £4299, times two, for two bodies, is a lot of money – plus lenses – so switching systems can’t be done on a whim. Has to be worth it. Has to enhance how you take pictures and then allow you to gain something more for your clients. Being able to silently photograph wedding ceremonies, where a DSLR would be banned, is a good example. There have been a few niggles along the way, like the slow startup time, the overheating warning (fixed by firmware) and it feels quite clunky when using flash. Although I have used it for my corporate and editorial work and it performs nicely with my Profoto lights. But overall (touch wood) it’s been a slick and dependable piece of kit – even in the rain.
Clearly, there is no ‘perfect’ camera. They each have different attributes, different tools for different scenarios. My fantasy would be the Leica M10, with small, fast Leica glass, that is also blisteringly fast and accurate in autofocus, a sensor that allows silent operation, a quick drive, dual cards (mini XQDs) and a high iso capture capability in which 56,000 or so, looks like 800 today…;-)….small, neat, light, fast…the Sony A9 ain’t far off this.
Whatever comes next – whether it be from Canon, Nikon or Sony – has to beat this camera. The rumours suggest the fightback starts in a few months. Any significant advance (my request would be on the high iso and the glass) will be one hell of a camera. But what will they leave out? Will any new Nikon mirrorless, let me use the 105mm and 28mm perfectly? That would be a major draw, despite their size. Not completely silent shutter – if it could approach the sound of a Leica, I could live with that. Nikon really needs to work on quieter shutters. Interesting (and potentially expensive) times to come? At the moment the Sony A9 is the king of the pile (for me at least).
So what is next?
Shooting low light with the Sony A9
So this post begins in May 2018, twelve months after I first picked up the Sony A9. Since June 2017, my Nikons have stayed in their bag- two Sony A9 cameras (an A7III as backup) has seen me through the year….see that here
Canon and Nikon have since revealed their mirrorless responses….sort of. Despite the ‘singlecardslotgate’, it’s hard to know what sort of response they truly are? I’ve not used either. Some of the glass on offer looks good, some not. But it’s a bit telling to see both cameras in the secondhand sections of camera shops already? Nothing seems to beat the A9 yet?
But I’d thought I’d update this post on one aspect – shooting in low light with the Sony A9. If anything, above even the practical advantage of the silent shutter, this is the key feature for me. From any camera. It’s integral to how I shoot a wedding. Just using what light (or lack of it) there is in a scene. If at all possible my flashes (recently changed from Godox to Profoto A1 units, for 2019) and my led panels, stay in their bag.
The ‘darkest’ part of a wedding day is usually during speeches and the dancing. The sun may still be out on a summer’s evening, but the dance floor of a tipi will be dark. But the A9 eats this environment up. In particular the 55mm f1.8 lens and the 35mm f1.4. They lock on and you can be confident in them. (I have the full Zeiss set now – 18, 25, 40, 85, 135. It’ll be interesting to see how the 40mm performs. Certainly, the kit is lighter.)
So these first six images – the dance floor in a tipi in June but the DJ had some lasers and a bit of smoke – made a massive difference! Speedlights stayed in the car.
Want a full-on lowlight test of your camera/lens? Try a first dance, in Denmark, at 11.45 pm, outside, lit only…only by the few sparklers held by the wedding guests surrounding the bride and groom. Sony A9, 35mm @ f 1.4
And then a winter wedding, the light dipping outside, in a very dark venue…
The Sony A9 is a lowlight camera. It focuses, it locks, it captures. Can’t ask for anything more.
Update: A second full year of wedding photography with the Sony A9
So that had brought us to the end of 2018. A full wedding photography season with the A9 – since starting shooting with them from May/June 2017. So what about 2019? How did they fair, for another full season? A tale of more lenses and some ‘broken’ cameras…
Four key lenses – the first being the Zeiss 40mm Batis, as I mentioned before.
Zeiss 40mm F2 CF lens
The Batis range is expensive but very classy. Most of all, they are sharp and light. So the season kicked off with the 40mm. On the whole, it performed well – just the odd lowlight niggle? A firmware update came out but I’m not sure if it made a difference or not? Certainly, it was nice to have a slightly smaller but significantly lighter lens to replace my Sony 35mm f1.4 version. This is so important. It was also a lens that, on a darkish dance floor, captured one of my best pictures of 2019. The last one here… But later in the year, this lens would be replaced (for the time being) with a smaller Sony 35mm when it appeared in late summer.
Sony FE 135mm f1.8 GM lens
Spring 2019 and finally, a long-awaited lens, a Sony 135mm.
Would it meet expectations? This focal length, 135mm, is a key one for me. Having started with the Canon 135mm f2 on my Sonys, then the massive, heavy Sigma 135 ART version and the slim, slick Batis version (but only 2.8), it was time to trade in my Sony 85mm 1.4 and get this lens. For me a more useful focal length than 85mm, for various aspects of a wedding day…the ceremony, any portraits, speeches and ‘in-the-crowd’ shots. I didn’t want to carry around both the large 85 and this 135, so the 85 went – still have my favourite 85mm, the Batis version, if needed. So, the Sony version – sublime.
Not small, not overly light but very sharp and very fast. It’s strange after over two years since switching from Nikon, that there is still no updated 135mm in the Nikon range? Also strange that a lens I once considered one of the best and sharpest out there, the Canon EF 135mm f2, now is outshone by a lens such as this Sony 135mm. If Sony can do this, how good could a 100mm be from them? But more on that later…
I actually thought I’d use this lens just in lowlight situations, where it was asking a bit much of the Batis. But ended up using it all the time. The Batis has now become a travel lens, or where I want to have a lighter lens and the light is good.
A few examples with the Sony FE 135mm f1.8 GM lens…
Lens number three – quite an odd one…
In August 2019, I bought a lens that I had bought before, then returned to the shop within 48 hours. For one reason, its size… this lens is a monster but it gets really nice, crisp results…
Sigma 105mm f1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for the Sony E-mount
This focal length, 105mm, very hard for me to ignore… I’ve spoken about this focal length before, how a Nikon AIS lens got me through my photojournalism course and was a go-to lens when I worked at The Times. See this blog post about the 105mm here. The recent version by Nikon almost kept me with Nikon (especially as they then released a fast 28mm) and I still own it with a few other Nikon lenses. Unfortunately, there is no adapter that lets you use Nikon glass sufficiently well on Sony E-mount cameras.
Sigma has been very busy in recent years, producing some fast glass. They are very sharp but there is one feature that is a handicap, they are very big and very heavy. It kind of defeats one of the advantages of a mirrorless system. I tried the Canon EF mount version of the Sigma 105mm on my A9, with an adapter, but just didn’t seem right? Then they came out with a version for the Sony – essentially the adapter built onto the lens. Heart overruled head and I bought one… But when I got it home, was it too big? It’s that big and heavy, would it damage the camera mount, as it was hanging off my shoulder? I bottled it and took it back. But in the summer, I had a couple of small, intimate weddings that I fancied using a 105mm focal length, rather than 85mm. I bought a near-mint version of the Sigma 105 and shot with it the next day. It’s sharp! It’s big!
Yes, it’s big and heavy – I take the large tripod collar off and the big lens hood (a protective filter on the front) – but it is some nice glass in a dark room. One ‘problem’ with it, once on a camera, it has to stay there. It’s too big to swap over and put in a lens pouch, so I’m selective over what weddings I use it for.
It was perfect for an indoors, dark winter wedding, the last of my season. Going forward, I can see it getting a lot of use. I’m not set in my lens selections and tend to adjust them for particular weddings – the only constant tends to be the Batis 25mm and the 55mm. I only use prime lenses and like to switch between 3 or 4, rather than just a 35mm and an 85mm – I want some variety in my coverage.
Lens number four – back to a sensible size…
Another widely anticipated lens from Sony, in fact, continually called for in the photography forums. A small, fast 35mm.
Sony FE 35mm f1.8 lens
I have to admit, for all this online chatter, I wasn’t too bothered about this lens. The 40mm Batis was working okay. But size matters. I don’t really want massive, heavy lenses (after talking about the Sigma 105!), so when I spotted a good price for this new 35mm, I bought one. It’s replaced the 40mm ever since. Primarily for one reason, it’s size…here it is sandwiched between the Sony f1.4 version and the Batis 40mm.
In the summer I took my Leica M10 and few Leica lenses, on a short break in Rome, with my wife. It reminded me about the beauty of small, fast, sharp lenses. This Sony 35mm may not beat the f1.4 version, in those online lens tests you see, but it performs well enough. The only real problem I have with it is that it’s very similar in size to the 55mm, when you are quickly reaching into your lens pouch, to swap lenses over. Going forward, I think I’ll swap between this and the 40mm, as the mood takes me.
Problem with the Sony A9 (in 2019)
I was processing some images, in the summer, from a wedding with clear blue skies and noticed some red dots in the sky. They weren’t massive but once seen… Easy to clone out when set against a plain blue sky, not so great when it’s across someone’s face. Not so great also, when you have 400+ images to work on. I’d seen this before, the previous year, on one of my A9 cameras. Under warranty, I sent the camera off to Sony support. They termed it ‘a sensor problem’, replaced the sensor and sent it back fixed. All good. A small blip with a camera that had performed so well for the previous twelve months.
This time, I found the red dots on both A9 cameras. Guess what, the warranties had expired just days before!! (We got one less year then, in the UK, I believe compared to the EU and that’s before the Brexit madness! The new Sonys seem to have a longer warranty) I sent one camera in and Sony confirmed it as laser damage. Brief tutoring on not to shoot near lasers…check out youtube.
The damage came from shooting images like this… DJ lasers!! Makes for images, kills camera sensors.
The bill, to replace the sensor on the A9, from the Sony service center in Wales? £ 1850.
With the second camera confirmed as the same, laser damage – those DJ lights again – getting both fixed was not far off £4K!!
Having played with the new Nikon Z6 mirrorless, maybe time to switch the system again? Still had good Nikon glass, that by all accounts worked well on the Z6? Were the A9s worth replacing, if this happened? Never encountered this before?
This is where the guys over in Sony Pro support in Europe pulled out the stops – emails, phone calls, a genuine interest in the case. Finally to my surprise, they agreed that with the repair before, no mention had been made about ‘laser damage’, so no warning. They agreed to fix the sensors for free, but if it happened again, being out of warranty, I would be billed. I was stunned and very grateful. A £4k repair bill is not to be sniffed at. The first A9 came back and the second one went off. As it turned out, the courier lost this second camera, so I got a replacement A9 sent to me.
From now on I stand behind the lasers!!!
So what next? There has been an update to the A9, a version II – but from what I can see, not enough changes to drop £10K on two, with grips? Maybe the next incarnation? Lens wise? Maybe if a 100/105mm comes from Sony – that’s smaller than the Sigma – otherwise, I’m pretty happy with what I currently have. So, the start of another year of wedding photography with the Sony A9.
The Sony kit I photograph weddings with.
The Sony cameras and lenses that I mostly use for my reportage wedding photography featured on the website Shotkit. Link to the article here.
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