Why I made the switch – from Nikon DSLRs to Sony Full Frame Mirrorless for Wedding Photography.

Many of you know that I have used the Nikon system for 10 years and represented the brand as a UK Ambassador so the fact that I have recently switched to the Sony Alpha Series has predictably resulted in many people wanting to understand the reasons why I would make such a big decision.   And I also offer my opinion on the question ‘which is the best Sony camera for wedding photography’?

Kate Hopewell-Smith - Sony Europe Imaging Ambassador
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A couple of behind the scenes images of me shooting with the Sony A9 – with the main image I am focusing and composing using the LCD screen rather than the EVF.

Over the years I have also given Canon and Fuji a try – largely because it is important that Brent and I understand the different systems for Training byLumiere.    Brent is primarily a cinematographer and he made the significant shift to Sony in 2017 investing in their PXW-FS7 (4K) camera body and the Sony 18-110mm F/4 G OSS PZ .   We approached Sony at the Photography Show and asked to trial the Alpha Series for the School – with both photography and cinematography in mind.  I had no idea what this conversation was going to lead to.

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Brent films predominantly on the Sony PXW-FS7.

We were loaned a Sony A7 III and a A7R III with a variety of lenses for about a month and during this time I shot a variety of commissions including weddings, portraits and a boudoir session.  So, I basically real-world tested it in the kind of shooting conditions that I work in regularly and Brent also filmed a wedding and put his second shooter straight onto the A7 III (she normally uses Nikon).

My main Nikon body was a D4S – Brent shot the D750s but I always preferred the D3/4/5 system and this is what I am making the comparison with.   For me to even consider something as significant as a switch to a new system it would need to offer me the same and MORE.   I’m also coming from the angle of wedding photography – if the system can deliver for weddings it can certainly perform across other disciplines.

And it does.  So much so that I didn’t want to give the Sony’s back and this led to a full scale switch of my Nikon gear for Sony.  All apart from my old D3S (body only) as something of a museum piece because the camera represents an important part of my photography journey.

Since making the move to Sony we have both been announced as Sony Europe Imaging Ambassadors.  Something we are delighted about because we believe this is a very exciting time for Sony in the industry.    Although we now represent the Sony brand this blog is written with complete honesty and without any agenda other than wanting to share my reasons for the switch.

Our Sony Wedding Kit – for photography or second shooter cinematography.

  • 2 x Sony A9 bodies
  • 2 x Sony A7III bodies
  • 4 x Sony VG-C3EM Battery Grip*
  • 2 x 24–70mm f/2.8 GM
  • 2 x 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS
  • 1 x 85mm F1.4 GM
  • 1 x 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS
  • 1 x Planar T* FE 50mm F1.4 ZA
  • 1 x 16-35mm F2.8 GM
  • 8 x batteries
  • 4 x HVL-F60RM Flash Units

The GM stands for G Master and these are Sony’s new lenses that have been crafted to keep up with the technical advances in the Sony full frame camera bodies.  The two most important factors being the incredible resolution of the glass (necessary when matched with the resolution of the sensors) and the bokeh that is truly beautiful.  This is an important point – really high resolution cameras need amazing glass and I had come to the point when I needed to replace my 2 Nikon bodies – if that move meant a higher resolution body then this in turn meant that I would need to begin re-investing in glass too.    Over the 10 years I had built a great selection of Nikon lenses – but would they take me into the future?  This dilemma was undeniably a factor in the decision to move to a completely new system.

*We use the battery grips to extend the battery life – having 2 batteries easily covers a full wedding day – but also for the ergonomics.  I prefer having some camera body to balance my little finger against – remember I’m used to a D4S so the overall camera is still smaller and lighter.   Don’t be concerned about the published battery life – they are much better than advertised.

Just to help people understand the Alpha series these are the main models that are available:

Click on each of them to be taken to the full spec on the Sony website.

A9 – Sony’s flagship mirrorless camera – all about speed and precision.

A7 III – amazing value for an impressive spec.

A7 RIII – a high resolution model.

A7 SII – a more niche model for photographers and filmmakers who work in lowlight.

So – these are the features that did it for me with example scenarios and images.

Sony Customisation

The Sony menu system is large but this isn’t an issue due to the amazing capacity to customise buttons and menus – from the outset you should be personalising the Sony cameras to work perfectly in line with your style.  The ability to customise nearly every button is hugely powerful and one of my reasons for falling in love with these cameras.

For example I have set the rotation of the control wheel to change my ISO – a huge improvement on any other camera I have used when it comes to the vital role of ISO in manual shooting.

Another hugely useful feature for wedding photographers are the Memory options on the mode dial. These enable you to save the settings for frequently used scenarios. On my A9 I have set them as:

  • Memory 1: As I enter a church on a 70-200 ready for the bride’s entrance (M mode. 250s, f 2.8, auto ISO with a max 6400, continuous servo, low frame rate, flexible spot, auto WB)
  • Memory 2: As I leave the church with the bride and groom (A mode. f 4.0, auto ISO with a min 100, continuous servo, low frame rate, flexible spot, auto WB)
  • Memory 3: The confetti run. (A mode, f 4.0, auto ISO with a min 100, continuous servo, medium frame rate, flexible spot, auto WB)

At a recent wedding I was preparing for the confetti tunnel (150 guests so a long tunnel of people) and I told the bride and groom to wait for my signal.  I was walking back down the tunnel towards them when I realised that they had set off (luckily my second shooter was on it) but I flipped straight to M3 and activated Eye AF (more below) and boom, every shot was in and correctly exposed.

Dual Card Slots

A total essential for a wedding photographer and obviously I use them in back up mode.    You only need to buy fast read/write cards for slot 1 which is SD UHS-I/II and slot 2 is UHS-1.  We use Sony SD UHS-II in slot 1 – 128gb, R 300 MBs and W 299 MBs and SD UHS-1 128gb, R and W 95 MBs.

Autofocus System

The Sony cameras are fast and accurate with 693 Focus Points – Edge to Edge!  I tend to use the flexible spot and keep my focus point small (you can choose small, medium or large) and move the multi-selector.  Just like with my Nikon bodies if you press the button in the middle the focus point jumps back to the centre.   I also use the Lock-on AF for the processional/recessional and first dance.

Eye AF – eye tracking focussing.

This function picks-up and tracks the eye nearest to the centre of the screen. Once that eye is locked, keep the button held down and their eye will always be in focus– even when the subject moves and as you shoot at high frame rates and even when the subject is wearing sunglasses…If the person moves their head it will jump to the other eye if that becomes closer to the camera.

You decide which button to designate as Eye AF – it is totally down to personal preference – but I use the ‘focus hold’ button on the side of the lenses. Without doubt this is one of my favourite features but please note you HAVE TO BE IN CONTINUOUS SERVO MODE. This has become such an important feature for me that I now keep my cameras in continuous servo pretty much the whole time.

I use Eye AF all the time now and it is particularly brilliant for confetti runs, speeches and the couple session.  It is just a brilliant feature for all people photographers.

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This was shot on an A7rIII and I was on a boat being thrown around and I activated Eye AF and it found Brent’s eye through the sunglasses and then held on regardless of how much I and the camera were moving!

Face Detection and Registered Faces

The face detection is crazy and as a result I keep it turned on –  it can pick up as many as 5 faces in the frame – once the autofocus is locked on the focus box turns green and the faces will be perfectly in focus.  Of course it might not always be the person you want – particularly if you are shooting super wide open.  That’s where the face registration function comes in – I always register the bride and groom’s faces in the morning (you can even prioritise who is most important) and from then on the camera will seek out these faces in a crowd.  Amazing.

Manual Mode – Focus Magnifier

This little feature is super useful – it enlarges the image before shooting so that you can check the focus.  Further enhanced by turning on the focus peaking – which we set to red so you can easily see the outline of what is in focus.   An obvious benefit for any Macro work but was essential at a recent wedding when we place the bride and groom the other side of a backlit fountain!

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This is the scenario – bride and groom the other side of a backlit fountain – the constant movement of the water makes it almost impossible to use autofocus.

 

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This is shot on an A9 with the Sony 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS using Manual Focus. The Focus Magnifier function zooms in to show you what is in focus – further enhanced using Focus Peaking in red.

 

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Same scenario as above image.

EVF – Electronic Viewfinder

This is probably my favourite feature of the Sony system.  With a DSLR the viewfinder is a great tool for composition and of course I used all of the exposure information that was displayed to dial in my TEST exposure.  As a manual shooter 95% of the time I worked in zones – constantly deciding if the frame would be around 0 or a +1 or -2.  I was constantly chimping to check I had the exposure that I wanted (often not the exposure the camera would give me in auto mode).    If I looked at the thumbnails from a wedding you would see the blips (over or under exposed frames) where I got the test shot wrong and made the necessary adjustments before carrying on.  When you look through the Sony EVF you see the exact exposure you will get if you press the shutter.  I don’t think I can actually communicate how amazing this is at a wedding where we are constantly dealing with changes to lighting and exposure AND when you shoot like me and have a crazy love for high-contrast images.  The other real benefit of the EVF is the ability to review your images rather than relying on the LCD – particularly important when you are shooting in very bright conditions as we often are at weddings and recently on a portrait shoot on the beach it was a godsend.

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Out shooting on the South Coast with the A9 in very bright conditions – reviewing shots using the EVF was a godsend.

 

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Shot in St Albans Cathedral – in a shaft of sunshine – so easy to expose for using the Electronic Viewfinder.

 

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Shot in St Albans Cathedral – in a shaft of sunshine which I exposed for before they reached it using the Electronic Viewfinder.

 

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We were told by St Albans Cathedral where we had to shoot the confetti and the only option was into the sun. Towards the end of the tunnel of guests the couple hit shade from the overhanging tree. I could see it coming and adjusted my exposure through the EVF as I walked backwards shooting.

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All wedding photographers know that interior car shots are harder than they look due to the couple being in shadow – often resulting in underexposed images when shooting under pressure. Not so when you have the EVF to show you exactly what you will get!

The LCD tilt screen

Nothing new for many photographers but new for me and it has definitely had a big impact on the way I now shoot – I find myself using the LCD screen more and more – taking the camera anywhere from the ground to arms-length above my head. Touch screen focussing is very accurate and fast on the LCD which is a critical factor to how useful they are.

Louboutins for a wedding. Shot on Sony A9
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I am using the LCD tilt screen more and more – it makes getting different angles SO much easier.

Sony A9 Wedding Ceremony - St Albans Cathedral
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Again a lower angle is simple – I just put the camera on the floor of the Cathedral and pulled the LCD screen out and used this to compose and focus the shot – also judging exposure with it.

St Albans Cathedral Wedding Photography
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St Albans Cathedral is huge and I didn’t have a lot of room so I used the Sony 16-35 and lifted the camera above my head with the LCD screen tilted down so I could see what I was doing.

Dual shutter systems – Mechanical and Electronic

Recent pro level camera releases often incorporate 2 types of shutters. In a rolling electronic shutter, the camera activates one row of pixels at a time across its width. If your camera has Live View functionality, it has an electronic shutter.  The benefit for stills photography is that you can shoot without the noise of a mechanical shutter.   The Sony Electronic Shutter is completely silent and can shoot as crazy fast as 32000th/s.  It is quite something to adjust to but luckily you see a slight flicker through the EVF or on the LCD which is the signal that it has actually taken a frame.  Complete silence during a wedding ceremony or an emotionally charged moment is totally amazing.  I LOVE IT.

Important note – beware of LED lighting dimmed using PwM (pulse width modulation) because they can result in underexposed bands running across the final image.  For those who want to know more this is a very good explanation of what is happening and worth a read: https://www.mikewoodconsulting.com/articles/Protocol%20Summer%202011%20-%20Rolling%20Shutters.pdf.

Brent has always been aware of the problem with filming so he is very adept at spotting the banding through the viewfinder – I’m getting better at it and will always check carefully before switching into electronic shutter mode. This is not a problem with the Sony but an issue with lighting and the A9 definitely copes much better than the A7! You also need to be aware that you can’t use flash with the electronic shutter so with both of these factors taken into consideration I shoot by default in Mechanical Shutter mode. The Sony mechanical shutter sound is quite frankly lovely – very subtle and so much quieter than my Nikons were.

Frame Rate

The A9 offers Low (5 fps), Medium (10 fps) and High (20 fps). For weddings the 20 fps is overkill and this is why the A7III’s 10 fps is more than adequate.   I really like the fact that in L frame rate you can trigger single shot if you press once or multiple frames if you hold your finger on the shutter button.

ISO performance

Wedding photographers are generally very interested in real time ISO performance in low light – not the dizzy heights cameras are capable of but the reality of sensible ISO levels that retain fantastic quality images.  I have  shot the A9 at 6400 and 8000 with very clean images that require minimal noise reduction.  All of these firework images were shot at 8000 ISO, f 4.5, 200th.

Fireworks at an Ashridge Wedding - Sony A9
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Fireworks at an Ashridge Wedding - Sony A9
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Skin Tone

Is just lovely and the RAW files are easy to work with. The A9 has 24.2 megapixels so the RAWs are larger than I’m used to but there is plenty of detail in there. Not all workflow software is brilliant with the Sony due to the low quality of the preview jpeg files.  This has meant a move away from Photo Mechanic for me – but a small loss in comparison to all the amazing gains.   I’m moving across to Capture One and finding my feet with the very useful website https://learn.phaseone.com – so it is all change here!

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The auto white balance is great and skin tones are always lovely in natural light shots like these.

Sony A9 Bride Portrait
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Shot in natural light on the Sony A9 and Sony 24–70mm f/2.8 GM – a very beautiful lens and a wedding essential.

Sony Flash

A big factor for us making the switch was testing the Sony flash system.  We HATE shooting in bad light and do not position ourselves as documentary photographers who can use this as the reason for not moving clients or improving the situation.  So the ability to use fill flash for weddings is essential. We have been very impressed with the flagship HVL-F60RM Flash Units.  They are so easy to use and the TTL system is very accurate.  It is mad to see the exposure you will get with the flash before you fire.  On this point if you want super subtle flash then you need to keep the flash unit turned off whilst you get your base exposure – or just as with any flash it will over compensate for your underexposed image and punch out more flash than you want.   We are loving the very clever Quick Shift Bounce rotating head mechanism with the main unit tiltable from horizontal to vertical. On top of this there is a built in dimmable LED light. It also functions as an AF assist light to ensure accurate autofocus operation in dim lighting. The LED can make manual focus easier in dark situations too.

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A backlit image with some subtle fill flash – TTL -1 flash exposure compensation.

Here are a handful of images shot on an engagement shoot at Kew Gardens – more images from the session are on our byLUMIERE blog here.

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You can see some lens flare here – shot on the Sony 24-70 2.8. I don’t mind flare and I was shooting directly into the sun at a time in the day when a lens hood does nothing!

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So which is the best Sony camera for wedding photography?

To some extent it is down to personal preference but if the question is which is the best and most affordable then hands down the Sony A7III.  Not the R – you just don’t need the resolution for weddings.  And you don’t actually need the speed of the A9 either.

We can’t wait to get started with the Sony team and be able to let you get your hands on some of the kit and actually try it out.  At the end of the day I had read reviews but it wasn’t until I had them in my hands that the love affair began!

 

 

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