Review: The Sony a9 is the Camera of a Wedding Photographer’s Dreams

Until 2016, I had photographed weddings using nothing but Nikon cameras. First the D90, then D700, D3s, D4 and then the D4s (while dabbling with the D800, D810, and D750 in-between). I love/loved my Nikons and never regretted avoiding Canon at any stage.

From Nikon to Fuji to Sony

Then Fuji came on the scene with their X-T1. I liked the idea of a quiet, mirrorless camera, that was small. Having borrowed one for a trip to Romania, I discovered it wasn’t quite there for me in terms of performance. The Fuji X-T2 followed a while later. I bought it without trying it, along with the 23mm f/1.4 and 52mm f/1.2. If it were an X-T1 but better, then I was sure it was for me. I don’t think I had a real intention at the time for it to become my main wedding camera of choice, but it did come along with me.

The Fuji X-T2 took a bit of getting used to — it was a new toy and I was yet to really understand it, but having photographed my own family for a while I really began to really enjoy using it. The flip screen meant I could get in all sorts of crazy positions, the EVF (electronic view finder) gave me a real-time viewing of exposure so there was no guessing there. It meant I could ditch full manual exposure for the first time in my career and shoot aperture priority and auto-ISO also.

I took it to a few weddings and it was fun to use, but it wasn’t a Nikon D4s in terms of performance. It missed focus more than I realized while shooting, and the EVF, although good to see the live exposure, wasn’t the best quality and I preferred an optical viewfinder. The quality of the files was okay, but Lightroom seems to hate Fuji raw files and I never found a clean method of giving them the David Stubbs Photography look I give to all my images.

Focusing was okay, but not in low light and when you need to react fast to moments it just didn’t cut the mustard for me. I stress ‘for me’ as there are others who use it wonderfully. With moments missed, a higher rate of out of focus shots and files I struggled to work with, I sold the 58 f/1.2, and the X-T2 with 23mm f/1.4 were relegated to solely my family camera.

This does appear to be a common occurrence among wedding photographers. The dream of using a Fuji X-T2 was real, but in reality, it just didn’t perform well enough for them and went back to their original systems.

The X-T2 is a good camera, and I loved using it for the family. I would never take my big SLRs out to the zoo. The X-T2 was a step in the right direction, but a near miss. The power of a D4s/D5 in an X-T2 body is what I craved… then along came better.

Sony announced a new a9 body out the blue a few months ago. Full frame, mirrorless, usable electronic shutter with silent shooting, and no blackout. 20 frames per second and an autofocus system to die for, including face detection and Eye-AF. A Sony sensor (who make sensors for Nikon) with great ISO noise and color rendition. Throw into the mix a flip screen, the best EVF on the market, two SD slots, a battery that lasts 2500-3000 frames, built-in stabilization, and all in a case not much bigger than the Fuji… this promised to be it.

It is.

This is the best wedding photography camera on the market today.

My Sony Setup

At the time of this review, I have the following Sony setup:

  • Sony a9 body
  • Grip extension (not battery grip)
  • 24–70mm f/2.8 GM
  • 28mm f/2
  • 85mm f/1.8
  • 3 batteries
  • Godox flash transmitter
  • Godox TT350 flash (small one)

Here’s the gear that’s on the way:

  • 2nd Sony a9 body
  • 35mm f/1.4
  • 135mm f/1.8

The following is a more detailed breakdown of the camera and how I use it for my own wedding photography. The bits I enjoy and the bits I have found issues with.

EVF (Electronic View Finder)

The Sony a9 EVF is simply superb. So bright, clear and no delay. It is so good you forget you are looking at a small display in the eyepiece. What you see is what you get. Far better than the X-T2 which looks like you are playing Minecraft in comparison. Gone are the days of ‘guessing’ exposure with an SLR.

Although, overall it’s brilliant, I’ve found I need to over exposure the image I see in the EVF by a 1/3 of a stop to get the final image right. When I first started shooting, what I saw in the EVF was eventually a fraction dark in the final image. I reduced the brightness of the EVF by one nudge in the settings to help counter this but made little difference. So I always shoot a fraction bright than what I can see.

Flip Screen

Nothing new this, but SLRs have always lagged a little here. The D750 is a great camera, and it has a flip screen, but the focusing ability was not as good as that of when using the optical viewfinder. With the Sony a9, because it’s mirrorless, focusing is just as good regardless of shooting using the EVF or the flip screen.

Now, with a usable flip screen, the camera has access. No longer is shooting with your eye to the camera the way to go but instead using your arms. You can get the camera closer to subjects at weddings with your body a couple of feet back, allowing you to be more unobtrusive. What are the chances the best location of your camera for the best shot is head height in the middle of a room? Using the flip screen to have the camera on the floor, or above your head, or in a plant has just become so much easier, all with great focusing capability.

In this first photo, to get the reflection as clear as possible it meant the camera had to get close to the water. Previously I would have laid down in the puddle but using the flip screen here I got the camera so low the grip extension was in the water itself. (85mm FE f/1.8 @f/4)
I used the screen to locate the camera in this position without talking or directing the bride while she was having her makeup applied. I didn’t have to stand close to her as my arms were extended. (24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm 2.8)
When I saw this moment happening, using the flip screen I extended my arms so the camera could be much closer without having to intrude into personal space. (24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm 2.8)
Left is a photo walking along the beach taken from a typical eye-level position. Nothing wrong with this but the second photo is taken using the flip screen to gain height. Firstly it’s a variation on the first for the sake of having different photos, but in this example, it does tidy the background up giving a cleaner photo. (85mm FE f/1.8 @ 1.8)
Using the Sony a9’s flip screen in a church to get an elevated position. The camera was held high above my head. This photo is also shot at ISO 6400 for reference. (24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm 2.8)

Autofocus

Wow! I have a D4s (sports camera) and this is better at autofocus. I have used a D5 and this is comparable, if not better. Firstly, so so fast. Almost instant with the 24-70mm. I have a typical back-button focus setup. That is using AF-C (continuous, or al-servo for you Canon freaks), focusing is disabled from the shutter button, and you focus using the AF-ON button on the back. Use your thumb to focus, and finger to fire, so they are independent of each other. Nothing new here for most people, except it’s so fast and so accurate your hit rate will be higher. What is new though is a second back button focus button. The AEL button is located an inch from the AF-ON button and using the menu settings, this has been designated to ‘Eye-AF’.

Eye-AF is eye tracking focusing. Simply press and hold this, the camera will pick-up and track the eye nearest to the center of the screen. It’s like magic. Once that eye is locked, keep the button held down and their eye will always be in focus. I am yet to be in a situation where a person has moved fast enough to lose tracking. If the bride blinks, it matters not, if they are wearing glasses, it matters not, if they turn their head 90 degrees, it matters not, if a flurry of confetti impedes your view of the newlyweds, it matters not. If they turn all the way around or go out of sight… this matters, tracking is then lost.

Since the Sony a9 has several hundred focus points spread around the display, edge to edge, it will track them to the very very edge. Photographing weddings is now too easy. Lock them with Eye-AF, compose the photo, press shutter, keep pressing shutter every laugh, smile etc.

Eye-AF isn’t perfect. If there is a sea of heads, then it’s a bit random who it decides to lock onto – sometimes someone in the background too. Although it does lock when someone has glasses on, there are some people with glasses it just won’t. I was with my nephew at the weekend and it just wouldn’t Eye-AF lock on him – at all. Sometimes it can jump between eyes too which is annoying. Not an issue if shooting f/2.8 and their face is quite square on to you. But if shooting f/1.8 and they are at an angle, the wrong eye would be in focus – bit of a pain.

You do develop a 6th sense with Eye-AF. When you can and cannot use it. My advice would be, for a fast ‘you have 0.2 seconds to get the shot’ moment, then use standard focusing. If you are shooting the ceremony, a bride in a make-up chair, and speeches, this is wonderful. Speeches particularly. I sit about a yard from the top table most of the speeches, using flip screen and camera just above my head in front of me, 28mm f/2, Eye-AF lock on the subject. It doesn’t matter if they sway, or lean back with laughter, just hold Eye-AF and press the shutter. 20 fps if you like – you can’t miss the shot.

‘My camera has 9 of those cross type sensors’ – I’ve heard this before. ‘Mine has 693, you idiot,’ is now my reply. I never trusted anything but the center point on my D4s. I trust all 693 on my Sony a9.

Low-light focusing is very good. I would say it focused in low light equally as well as my D4s. The Nikon D5 is the king of low light focusing, and I would guess it was just behind it. But good enough for most dance floor situations.

The photos above were taken during a typical confetti run at a wedding. The best time to test the Sony a9’s Eye-AF capabilities. Just before they started I locked focus on the bride’s eyes and held the button down. They came through the confetti, I ran backward ensuring I kept a reasonable composition and that Eye-AF stayed as it should. It did. Camera’s frame rate set on M so 10fps, I held the shutter down and let the camera do the work. 150 photos over 20 seconds (a couple of mini shutter breaks mid-run). The camera missed focus on ONE photo only. There should be a keeper or two in there.

The camera isn’t perfect and does sometimes miss. It missed here with the back of the dog in focus.

A shame, as this could have been the best photo of the dog on this shoot. However, this was the hardest of conditions. A fast running dog, back-lit at low-light sunset, a dog with dark fur on his face, and I wasn’t using focus tracking here – maybe if I did it would have nailed it.

Straight out of camera – yes, really! The same dog charging at me, focus nailed, even in the heavily back-lit conditions

High ISO

Regardless of whatever it goes up to, what wedding photographers really need to know is how well it produces images at ISOs of 3200, 6400 and 12800. It does very well, beating my D4s and destroying the D750. Below are some basic high ISO tests to show.

The photo above is the scene I shot (at ISO 3200). The following four photos are cropped tight so you can see the noise at each ISO – 3200, 6400, 12800 and 25600 respectively.

Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is generally good for all modern cameras, and with an EVF there should never be a situation where you accidentally underexpose something by 2 or 3 stops. But if you did, or interested how much detail you can bring out of shadows, then have a look at the following shots.

A very contrast scene, a basic composition.

The first photo (on top) was taken very dark/under-exposed — ISO 100, f/4, 16000th/s. The second photo (on bottom) is the same raw file but with +5.0 of exposure (5 stops) applied to it in Lightroom.

This is no real surprise, and it seems comparable to the D750. It’s still a miracle a camera can do this though.

Electronic Shutter (E-shutter)

E-shutters are nothing new. But one you can actually use is. I once changed from mechanic to e-shutter on my X-T2 to try it out. Oh dear — everything was bent, distorted and unusable. A motionless camera with a motionless subject was the only way to use the X-T2 in e-shutter mode.

The Sony a9 is distortion free. In fact, you can only use the e-shutter as I think the mechanical shutter is a bit unsatisfactory. When you first get the camera and take a photo, you hear a sweet ‘click’ noise. WTF? Then you remember to turn the fake shutter sound off. This camera is 100% silent. If you are not sure what this means… this camera makes NO NOISE! It’s a bit weird at first. Although you see a small flicker in the EVF or screen, at first you don’t trust you have taken a photo and need to keep checking it has recorded. After doing this several thousand times and seeing an image every single time, you start to trust it.

As a wedding photographer using a Sony a9 with a silent shutter, there are so many benefits. I’m assuming wedding photographers are reading this so I’m not going to go over the obvious. Other than it really does make a big difference in parts of the day. On Saturday, the bride’s dad saw her for the first time at the bottom of the stairs in her wedding dress. With no one else except me. A big embrace, a squeeze and some tears from dad and daughter. They know I am there, but to have them lost in a moment, and not to distract the moment with a silent shutter was invaluable.

If I have had my D4s, which sounds like a cannon being fired, I would have come across their mind. This might have changed the situation – I will never know for sure. Same wedding, a church wedding, showing the vicar the camera was silent allowed me full access to the front of the church and allowed me to photograph the real signing of the register and not have to do a pointless fake one. I could shoot through the ceremony as much as I wanted. I didn’t have to pick just the key moments. I went to town on the guests behind the couple – nan, grandad, etc etc. I didn’t worry once about over doing it, people noticing me or pissing the vicar off.

A silent shutter is a truly wonderful thing for wedding photography. I will never go back!

The Banding Issue

There have been reports of a banding issue. I’ve read that this is where lines (12 pixels high apparently) appear in some highlights in photos when under artificial lighting. Shooting this extensively on 5 occasions, around 25,000 frames in and I am yet to see this exact issue.

However, I have been in an artificial light situation where the camera has struggled. See photos below taken only a second apart.

This is where the light appears to be ‘on’ in some photos, and ‘off’ in others. The bands you can see below are approx a 3rd of the height of the screen. This isn’t a new issue though and I have seen it happen on my SLRs. It is usually caused by the cycle rate of some light bulbs. At the time I slowed my shutter speed down and shot twice as many of each scene to give me more of a chance of getting the correct exposure. I didn’t change to my SLRs at the time to see if they would be better but have witnessed this with them also in other situations. I’ll report back on banding again after a few more weddings.

Frame Rate

20 fps on the Sony a9 is overkill for wedding photography. 5 more and you will be shooting video. There is an easy access dial on top giving you the option of L, M and H. L is 5fps, M 10 fps, and H 20 fps. For most the day I used single shot though, as I did my old cameras. But times in the day I set it to M. Speeches – shooting through someone laughing. Every single frame in perfect focus with Eye-AF. Couples photos – shooting 10 fps through laughter and little moments between the couple. There is no shutter count on this camera, it is just a sensor turning on and off. It matters not to shoot more frames. It might take a few more seconds to download the files, it might take a few more seconds to select the best ones, but it some situations it might help you get just the right moment.

An example of this was an engagement shoot last night at the beach. The couple was walking along the beach, I used my flip screen to get the camera so low to the water the body grip extension was in the water. I set it to 20fps as their dog was running back and forth. I must have taken 200-250 frames of this trying to get the couple, and the dog just right. Yes, I could have timed my pressing of a shutter perfectly, one shutter. But this isn’t 1984 and today I have a camera that makes my life easier, so I use it.

Shutter Speed

One of the issues with the D750 is its shutter speed at only a max of 4000th/s. My D4s has 8000th/s which is great for f/2 in almost any lighting situation. The Sony a9, with it’s e-shutter does 32000th/s. 4 times faster than the D4s and 8 times than the D750. This means you could shoot f/1.4 in any light.

Image Stabilization

Sony is clever. Forget stabilized lenses. Why not make the sensor stabilized? Every lens on a Sony is stabilized by up to 5 stops because the body itself is stabilized. 85mm f/1.4, stabilized, 135mm f/1.8, stabilized. Every single lens.

It is as good as they say it is too. For fast-moving subjects, it matters not because if the camera is perfectly still they still move across the screen. But I’m a 24-70 f/2.8 fan. It means in the church with subjects not moving much I can shoot 25th/s 70mm if I want to. Which might mean in the darkest of churches using ISO 1600 instead of 6400 — a win for image quality.

Dual Card Slots

Essential for wedding photography. If a card corrupts through no fault of your own, you have a backup. What I don’t understand is why one of the slots are newer the faster SD type (SD XCII) and the other the old type? Knowing I was going to shoot way more than my typical 100gb data at a wedding. I got myself a super fast 256gb card for slot one for RAWs, and a 128 slower (and less expensive) card for jpegs for the second slot. It has never happened before but if the RAW card failed, I could edit the jpegs to just the same quality. In fact, I’m on the brink of editing JPEGs only for every wedding anyway. What I really want to see here is dual XQD slots, which are the fastest cards and created/made by Sony.

Ergonomics

Not much positive here to be honest. I am going to miss my D4s body. Although heavy, the D4s is designed so well and fits wonderfully in the hand. The Sony a9 is just a metal black box with dials on, with just a hint of (fake) leather on the grip. It’s okay to hold, but not wonderful. I don’t have huge hands but felt I needed a bigger grip. I got the grip extension (not to be confused with battery grip), just so the camera sat better in my hand. It does. Quite expensive for a bit of plastic but worth it, especially when using heavy GM lenses. With the 28mm f/2 and 85mm f/1.8, which are quite small, it is less important.

I have dropped the a9 already! While standing around for my son’s sports day to start, I was holding the camera in the same way I hold all my camera walking around between shots. That is, just by 3 or 4 fingers hooked on the grip, with my arm extended down with the camera swinging by my leg. Never once have a dropped a camera doing this. The a9 fell, though. Luckily onto long grass and had a relatively soft landing with no issues, but had I been on concrete I would have been in trouble. The grip is simply not pronounced as the SLRs I’m used to. I won’t drop it again — I hold it with more caution now — but it’s another fail for the ergonomics of this camera.

I’m not getting on great with the dials. Every new camera takes some getting used to, but I’m not making much progress. I have to look a lot to locate them, and some are hard to turn compared to my old camera. Like my X-T2, this has led me to shoot more in aperture priority using auto-ISO too. I only have one dial to turn then: exposure compensation. But it gets worse. That dial is noisy to turn! Makes a short sharp click noise. It might have the feeling of a film camera from back in the day, but I want something that turns easily and silently. All this silent shooting, to then have a noisy dial you are adjusting constantly, although it might only be me who can hear it.

And I suppose this bit goes here: there is certainly a delay to what you see in the EVF display when changing exposure settings. I bring my eye to the camera and see it is too dark by around a stop. I move the exposure compensation a stop brighter (3 loud clicks) and then take the photo. I sometimes take that photo before the new true exposure is displayed in the EVF – there is a lag. I wish this was a little faster. I can see a scene and know approximately how much brighter or darker I need to make it. Someone who is less confident doing this will have to wait for a split second for it to take effect, before confirming or re-adjusting.

The a9’s buttons are too small. I have Surgu-ed my focus buttons which have made them so much easier find and use. You can see my efforts with Sugru on the back buttons here:

Shooting Flash

I don’t shoot much flash at weddings. I can go several wedding without using it at all, or when I do it’s on the dance floor where it is disguised.

At my Indian wedding on Saturday with a long ceremony in ISO 3200 light, I did use a bit of flash (set on 64th power) on a stand to lift it a stop. To use flash you must take it out of e-shutter and into mechanical shutter. You now have a horrible camera. It sounds terrible, it feels terrible and you just want to throw it away. But with flash, it’s the only possible way. Now what you see isn’t what you get as you can’t see the effect of the flash. It’s now back to getting exposure like before but that’s no biggy. On the dark dance floor, this is when you ideally need an optical view finder. There also seems to be a bit of a lag between pressing the shutter and it taking the photo. I didn’t enjoy using flash with it as the mechanical shutter feels horrible, it seems slow to react (lag) and viewing dark dance floors on a screen is difficult too.

Other Annoyances

Minimum shutter speed when in auto-ISO. You can only select whole stops of shutter speed – 125, 250, 500 etc. I used 320 on my Fuji but can’t select that on the Sony a9. I started my wedding with it set on 250th. I could have it just set on 500th, but then for photos indoors, it increases to ISO 3200 and 6400 too quickly when I could have stayed a stop of ISO lower.

Also a pain regarding this: it will drop the shutter right down to 250th before increasing ISO, which is what you expect, but not very good for real world shooting. If it’s a bit gloomy outside, I’d prefer to be ISO 200 1/500s than ISO 100 1/250s as you can get movement shooting 1/250s. The Fuji was good at this. it would increase the ISO before the shutter dropped near the minimum. I now have minimum shutter set to custom button 4 for quick access this and change this throughout the day. I’d like to see a firmware update where this is just a little more clever. Maybe set a minimum shutter per ISO setting?

Changing lenses isn’t the smoothest of operations. I generally shoot with one body and change between 2/3 lenses. With Nikon’s it’s fast and flawless and feels you can throw them in and out. With the Sony a9 is feels more fragile and precise. I need to take more time with it to ensure it goes in ok. There were several times over the weekend where I hadn’t turned it fully round before hitting a small ‘click’ and therefore the camera did not fire. I am sure I will get used to this.

After you change a lens in a hurry to get a particular shot, if you try using the camera immediately after using the change you encounter a small lag you must wait for. If you try taking a photo in this short period (half a second maybe) you don’t get the little green box in the center when trying to focus as normal, but a large rectangle around the edges when firing the shutter. I’m not at this stage certain what this means as the photos seem in focus and usable. However, it’s almost like the camera is saying to wait a moment before using it. This happened regularly and shows how fast I like to change lenses and then get the shot off. I really don’t want to be waiting for this. Will update on this after this weekends wedding.

There are loads of other features this camera has, but I have never used. Some of these features are:

  • Touch screen for shooting and menus
  • Quick menus for easy access
  • Joystick for moving focus points
  • Video
  • Manual focusing and a new DMF mode

A Quick Lens Review

24-70mm f/2.8 GM. Superb and as good as the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 VR I had before. Similar weight and size.

85mm FE f/1.8. Superb again. I bought both the f/1.4 and the f/1.8. I tested side by side and put the f/1.4 straight back in the box. The f/1.8 version is just as good in every single way but just doesn’t go to f/1.4. It’s much lighter and costs £1000 less.

28mm f/2. A nice little cheap lens to fill a hole for me now. Works great, is small and light. I think I will invest in the 35mm f/1.4 just before winter but it’s big, expensive and weighs quite a bit.

The Verdict

What a camera. So, so good. This is everything a wedding photographer has been dreaming of. I can’t go back and shoot with an SLR now. Silent shooting, the best focus system, eye-AF, 32000th/s, in-camera stabilization, fantastic EVF, 20fps if needed, smaller and a lighter than a D4s (similar to D750), two SD slots. It’s expensive, but I conclude that this is the best digital camera available today for wedding photographers.

5 years from now we’ll laugh how a camera made a click at something as solemn as a wedding, anyhow. The Sony a9 is truly a groundbreaking camera, and to think as the years pass there will be even better technology available is just crazy. Thank you to Sony for creating such a wonderful camera for wedding photographers.


About the author: David Stubbs is a professional wedding photographer based in the UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He was an official photographer at the London Olympic Games. You can find more of his work on his website. This article was also published here.

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