As we usher in the new year, (and a new decade according to some, but not others; please feel free to argue about that in the comments below!) …we could say many things about how far digital cameras have come, and the amazing milestones in camera technology that we’ve seen over the last 10 years.

Today, I want to tell you why the Sony a9 is the most significant milestone of the past decade, specifically for wedding photographers. Because although it is aimed at sports and wildlife photographers, I think weddings are one of the most challenging professions that are more commonly attempted by aspiring pros.

Now before the Canon or Nikon fans grab their pitchforks and rotten fruit, let me also say this: Of course, legendary camera bodies like the Canon 5D Mk3 & mk4, as well as the Nikon D850 and D750, are all incredible milestones in terms of bringing high-end professional performance to a reasonable price range.

But, honestly? The last few years have simply left me feeling like the sun is setting on DSLR technology in general. (Sorry for the terrible pun setup…)

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Sony a9, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM | 1/2000 sec, f/8, ISO 100

If you own and love one of those (DSLR) cameras, this is NOT an invitation to start a flame war. It’s just my observation as a working professional who has actually done hundreds of weddings with EACH of those cameras. They’re all serious workhorses.

The reason I think the Sony a9 is a bigger deal than those other cameras is, simply the fact that those DSLRs largely stood on the shoulders of technology carried over from the previous decade. Indeed, the 2000’s were when we saw DSLRs make their greatest leaps and bounds…

Nikon D700 | Photo by SLR Lounge contributor J. Dennis Thomas

By the way, in case anybody is wondering, my absolute favorite wedding photography camera of the last decade was the Nikon D700. It broke similar ground in terms of providing new, incredible low-light image quality and flagship-level autofocus to an affordable point where even the “average” wedding photographer could afford such high-end performance.

Nowadays, 2007 seems “forever” ago, and 12 megapixels seems laughable, (let alone that SINGLE compact flash memory card slot! Oh no!!!) …but, do you want the truth? If you forced me to shoot the entire 2020 season of weddings with a “lowly” pair of D700’s, I’d easily get the job done without a problem.

Let alone, give me a Nikon D750, which in my opinion was the best wedding DSLR camera of the last 10 years, thanks to its balance of performance, dual card slot reliability, and incredible affordability. (Because as a wedding photographer, you MUST carry a backup camera; I’d rather have two D750‘s than one D850!)

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Sony a9, Sony 70-200mm f/.28 GM, circular polarizer | 1/1000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100

Also, remember: camera gear can only get you so far. You have to be a competent, skilled photographer in order to “get the shot” and make the best of whatever equipment you’ve got. No bell or whistle on the latest high-tech gear can make up for a lack of creativity, let alone a lack of due diligence in knowing how to actually accomplish that creative vision.  In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Focus on your craft, but do take note if you ever feel that your gear isn’t allowing for enough creative freedom.

With that said, let’s talk about why the A9 was and still is such a big deal…

Find the Sony a9 here: Adorama | AmazonB&H

The Sony a9‘s autofocus changed how I photograph weddings

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Sony a9, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM | 1/200 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

Okay, we just spent quite a while affirming that ANY pro camera from the last 10 years is “more than good enough” for wedding photography. So, why should you care about the Sony a9?

Here’s the thing: every now and then, new technology comes along that truly DOES change the game, and it can expand an artist’s creative potential. For example, during the 2000s, improvements in digital sensor image quality allowed photos to be made in extremely dark conditions. On full-frame sensors, even portraits by moonlight or starlight became possible. 20+ years ago, even the best wedding photographers out there would have laughed at a client who asked for a portrait with astary night sky in the background! Now, you can learn how to do it with almost any camera.

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Sony a9, Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 FE | 2 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

This is where we come to the Sony a9, and which game-changing improvements it offers to photographers. Which is, you guessed it- autofocus reliability, and face/eye detection, especially in low-light situations.

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Sony a9, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM | 1/200 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600

Simply put, when I first took the A9 to a wedding, I was astonished at how good it was on a reception dance floor. No matter how dark it got, the dang thing refused to miss focus. When conditions got too dark for an f/2.8 GM zoom, an f/1.4 GM prime offered even better low-light accuracy.

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Sony a9, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM, 2X wireless flashes | 1/200 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600

This was the first unprecedented capability that I noticed- previously, with DSLRs, it seemed that flagship, name-brand f/2.8 zooms were the sweet spot of low-light autofocus reliability. The name-brand DSLR f/1.4 primes, (let alone the f/1.2’s) all seemed to be slightly more hit-and-miss, due to how much glass the autofocus motors had to push back and forth. So, I’d stick with an f/2.8 zoom and try to use the AF-assist beam instead.

With the A9, and especially with its 2019 AF firmware update, the tables turned. Not only do I never need AF assist beams, (even with nasty flare in the frame) but also, if you give the sensor more light with a brighter lens, it rewarded you with an incredible percentage of in-focus keepers.

[Related Reading: Ultimate Setup Guide For Sony Shooting Wedding Photographers]

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Sony a9, Sony 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/200 sec, f/1.4, ISO 1600

Oh, and you can freely move the AF point almost anywhere around the viewfinder, instead of being constrained by the usual central cluster of reliable AF points on a flagship DSLR.

So, yes, shooting with the A9 has actually allowed me to capture images that I would have never even attempted before.  This type of new, expanded creative potential is what I actually need to see in order to call something “the best”, and recommend it to others.

Sony’s Real-Time Tracking

Sony A9 mirrorless camera of the decade low light dance floor wedding reception
Sony a9, Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 FE | 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600

The Sony a9‘s overall implementation of focus point control also deserves much credit, since it’s the most useful, versatile implementation of any mirrorless or DSLR camera. It has a useful, customizable organization of a wide variety of AF point selection and control options.

Other mirrorless cameras do have impressive face/eye autofocus, however, Sony’s ability to still manually control your AF point, and/or quickly switch to Real-Time tracking, is revolutionary. On DSLRs, the focus points are clumped in the center of the frame, and usually, the outermost AF points aren’t even very reliable, either.

With the A9, hybrid AF points (both phase-detect and contrast-detect) are literally all over the viewfinder, which allows me to lock onto subjects in very active, dynamic conditions and reliably shoot wide-open at f/2.8 or f/1.4 without worrying about the subject jumping outside the main AF point cluster.

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Sony a9, Sony 85mm f/1.4 GM | AF-C, Lock-On AF, Flexible Spot M, Face+Eye detection ON

Oh, and while the above animation is indeed impressive looking, you’d be smart to question whether or not the subject is ACTUALLY in focus. Because, hey, it’s relatively easy for a little green box to move around a viewfinder, but the real test is if the camera and lens are actually doing what it claims…

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Sony a9, Sony 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/200 sec, f/1.4, ISO 1600
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100% crop

When I first got the A9 set up this way, and after having updated to the 2019 AF firmware update that made Real-Time tracking and Eye-AF even better, that was the moment I said to myself, “I don’t think I’ll go back to a DSLR after this…”

DSLR autofocus is incredible too, but I was beginning to loathe AF micro-adjustment!

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Sony a9, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM | 1/640 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400

The last reason why I’m so glad to finally be able to switch from DSLRs to mirrorless cameras in general is, the sheer volume of times I’ve second-guessed an optical phase-detection AF system and wondered if my lens is having a front-focus or back-focus problem.

As a full-time wedding photographer shooting nearly 100 hours worth of weddings per month sometimes, I found myself having to double-check all my lenses AF fine-tuning once every month or so. In fact, my co-workers started coming to me and asking me to calibrate THEIR lenses, too, so often that I actually have been offering my AF Microadjustment services to a dozen local photographers for many years now.

With all of the latest generation mirrorless cameras that qualify as pro or semi-pro, (not just the A9) …autofocus micro-adjustment has been virtually eliminated. Yes, it still is an available option if you dig through the menus, however, due to the very nature of on-sensor autofocus, I have yet to need it once over the past year.

[Related Reading: Complete Guide to Wedding Photography – Tips and Tricks for Better Photos]

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Sony a9, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM | 1/160 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

This absence of frustration alone, to me, far outweighs any scientific lab test that might measure how a DSLR is a small percentage more reliable at autofocus in a select few shooting conditions.

Maybe as an action sports photographer or a wildlife photographer, I would still prefer a Nikon D5 or a Canon 1DX mk2. For weddings, though? Hands-down, the worry-free operation is the biggest milestone of the last 10 years.

In fact, for my entire career as a wedding photographer, I’ve obsessively checked focus at 100% magnification, until the A9. Now, I usually check it once at the beginning of a new lighting scenario, and then after that I hardly ever bother magnifying any images. This equals more good photos captured for my clients.

Are the Sony A7iii and A7R-series as good as the A9 at autofocus reliability?

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Sony a9, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM \ 1/200 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

Before we move on, here’s another question that I hope you’re already itching to ask: Is the A9 really that good, or can I “just” use an A7iii, or an A7RIII, for wedding photography?

Yes, but also yes. The A9 really is that much better. It is just tenacious at remembering and following whatever you tell it to lock onto, even when hands and arms are incessantly passing in front of your subject. (See above! If you’ve ever been to a Hindu wedding, you’ll appreciate this scenario.)

And, again, it’s not just the face-detection; the Real-Time Tracking is just uncanny at locking onto any subject and following it around even in highly erratic, close-up and shallow-depth situations:

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Sony a9, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM | 1/200 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400

However, the 7-series autofocus is indeed good enough for professional work. Especially in most daylight conditions, The 3rd-gen Sony’s are reliable to use with their face and eye detection AF firmware updates that they both received in 2019.

Sony A7Riii, Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM | 1/3200 sec, f/1.8, ISO 100

Could a Sony A7iv come out in 2020 or 2021 and offer nearly as good autofocus performance as the A9? We’ll have to wait and see. If you’re one of those people who believes we’re still finishing up the last decade this year, you’re welcome to bring up this subject again at the end of the year!

There are a few other reasons why I prefer the A9 over Sony’s 7-series bodies for wedding work, though. First, of course, the A9 has a dedicated set of dials for autofocus mode and shutter drive mode on the upper-left of the camera, which I find very useful for the diverse conditions of a wedding.

Second, while I don’t need all those crazy frames-per-second for weddings, I do really appreciate the incredible viewfinder framerate, minimal lag time, and the ease with which I can switch between the mechanical shutter (for using flash) and totally silent operation.

Lastly, there’s the simple fact that we now have the Sony A9ii, which has made the A9 drop in price significantly compared to its ~$4500 initial debut. To me, the $3K range is the sweet spot for what a full-time professional wedding photographer should expect to spend on a primary camera. If you’re willing to shop used, you could even find a used A9 plus an A7iii (as backup) for about the same price as a new A9ii.

If the A9 is so good, why isn’t the A9ii the “best camera of the decade”?

Simply put, the original A9 is a bigger milestone. The Sony A9ii is a refinement of that milestone, and indeed it’s a better camera in every way. However, we’re not here to declare an absolute best camera for the job. We’re here to discuss which cameras have had the most impact, and have actually changed the way we shoot.

Sony A9 vs A9ii key differences ergonomics

I will mention that if you can afford an A9ii (and already have a backup camera ) then the ergonomics and other improvements are a dream. Yes, the grip is improved, but also, the main control buttons and AF point control joystick are much more refined.

Having said that, before we move on, I still cannot stress this enough: for wedding photographers, it’s all about reliability and backup. So, while even the A7iii does have dual card slots and amazing battery life, if an aspiring wedding photographer asked me which camera to buy, I’d still recommend the A9 as a primary camera, and the A7iii as a backup.

Oh, and the A9 grip isn’t too terribly cramped, even for my large hands, with most of the lenses I’d consider optimal for wedding work…

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Sony’s Battery Efficiency And USB Charging Are Revolutionary

One of the other biggest obstacles that used to plague mirrorless cameras was poor battery life.  If a battery only lasts for a couple/few hundred clicks, then getting through a long wedding day where you’ve got to shot 2,000 or 3,000 images is totally impossible or highly annoying.

With Sony’s NP-FZ100 battery,  the status quo changed. Not only did the battery provide a staggering increase in capacity, but the cameras themselves are better at power consumption.

I can get through an entire “normal” wedding with one Sony “Z” battery, or two if I have to photograph something ultra-long like a Hindu wedding.

But, that’s not all! Sony offers efficient USB charging in-camera that can rapidly recharge batteries via USB when the camera is off, and better yet, you can operate the camera directly from USB power if you’d like! This means that if I have any downtime at all, I can plug a USB battery into the camera and essentially never have to reach for that 2nd Z-battery, even on the longest days. If you’re a videographer, this is even more beneficial! Just velcro an Anker 10,000 mAh battery to your Smallrig, and you’re done!

Unfortunately, Canon or Nikon mirrorless (or DSLR) cameras don’t offer this direct USB power feature. You can charge them via USB, but it’s not as fast with generic USB cables in my experience.

The bottom line is that in terms of technology milestones for the decade, the Sony a9, and all of the latest-generation Sony cameras, offer the biggest leap forward in terms of power management.

How Close Are Canon and Nikon To Catching Up To The Sony a9?

Good news, everyone! I think that although Nikon and Canon may have been late to the party, they’re going to catch up quickly. It’s only a matter of time before we see a “mirrorless Nikon D1-series” and a “mirrorless Canon 1D-series”…

Whether or not we will see one or both of those mirrorless flagships in the next 12 months, I don’t know, but I do suspect we’ll see both of them before we see a Sony A9iii.

Also, I believe we can expect their first-generation flagship mirrorless cameras to be huge milestones, with things like autofocus and other performance specs that impress both flagship sports DSLR hold-outs, and even Sony a9 users.

If you’re a Canon or Nikon DSLR user, and are still totally happy, then just keep an eye out over the next couple years; you will eventually see something pop up that is worth investigating. Both mounts are shaping up to be very impressive.

Having said that, when anyone asks me right now which camera and system are the absolute best choice for wedding photography, the Sony a9 and FE lenses get that title.

Yes, Sony’s Ergonomics and Menus Are Worth Getting To Know

Yes, picking up a Sony a9 will feel like climbing into a fighter jet cockpit. There’s no denying the sheer cliff of a learning curve that you’ll face.

However, I spent a large part of of 2019 getting to know the A9, as well as the rest of Sony’s current lineup, and I have to say, the reward is worth it. Why? Because Sony’s bodies now offer more versatile customization than any other camera body out there. So, the more you like to customize a camera, the more delighted you’ll be once you get to know a Sony.

For a more in-depth article on how I customize most Sony cameras to work best for wedding photography, read this article HERE. Suffice it to say, for wedding photography in particular where I am constantly changing my ISO and Kelvin WB, as well as my AF point selection mode and drive mode, I find that Sony is, in fact, the EASIEST to customize.

Admittedly, the menus themselves are still ridiculous. I don’t go into them at all while I’m out shooting; I carefully programmed every single item I need to either a Fn button, the Fn menu, or one of the 5 “My Menu” pages. However, once that task is done, the user experience improves tenfold.

Conclusion

Sony a9, Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM | 1/200 sec, f/1.4, ISO 1600

I’m not sponsored by any camera brand. I get equal access to whatever camera gear I want to review, and I enjoy the challenge of mastering ALL new equipment. After 10 years of experience reviewing cameras, I could sing the praise of, or scathingly critique, all three of the main brands almost equally.

However, it is very rare that I encounter a piece of gear or technology that truly changes how I am able to shoot.

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Sony a9, Sony 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 6400, hand-held

The Sony a9, plain and simple, has made my job as a wedding photographer much easier and more hassle-free, while also allowing me to push my creativity in challenging shooting conditions. That’s the honest truth. I miss fewer moments in “normal” conditions, and I nail far more shots in “impossible” light.

I still love DSLRs. In fact, when doing photography more casually, I prefer to raise a camera to my eye and see the real world through an optical Prism. I’ll probably always own a DSLR. However, when I have a job to do, when I need to work effectively, think creatively, and “deliver the goods” in the diverse array of conditions that a wedding presents, to me the future is clear.

You’re welcome to disagree with me, but I would strongly encourage you to at least keep an eye on mirrorless technology in general. Rent a camera you might be curious about. Invest the time in actually getting to know it and master its operation, too, before jumping to a conclusion.

In another 10 years, I think the realm of professional photography equipment will change even more than it has in the last 10 years.

Find the Sony a9 here: Adorama | AmazonB&H