Sony A7r3 or A9 for wedding photography

Introduction

In 2017 I made the decision to sell my Nikon gear and move to Sony. Why? Well Sony had just announced the A9 which is a full frame mirrorless camera with one very unique feature. Full silent shooting with zero blackout.

Now let’s be clear, silent mode isn’t a new thing. It’s actually quite a common feature on mirrorless cameras. I’ve had it on my Panasonic cameras for years and it’s been in most Sony mirrorless cameras too.  Even Nikon & Canon have their own implementations of ‘quiet mode’ which dampens the sound of the mirror slap on DSLR’s.

As a wedding photographer, being able to be quiet and discrete is a great advantage. There are many situations where you don’t want to be the centre of attention, distracting everyone with the clacking of your shutter.  For example, during the ceremony when the bride & groom are exchanging vows. Or the special moment when dad first sees his daughter in her dress.  You don’t want this moment being distracted with ‘clack! clack!’

Unfortunately the silent shutter’s in mirrorless camera’s have tended to struggle with fast movement and also suffered banding in certain lighting conditions such as cheap LED lights. Therefore I could never build up enough confidence to shoot a wedding in full silent mode. The last thing I want is to find my photos are ruined because of distortion or banding for moments that can never be repeated like the first kiss. It’s not worth the risk to me.

The sensor on the A9 was designed specifically to address these issues. Combined with the new battery and (finally) the addition of a second memory card slot meant that for the first time I felt that Sony had a camera suitable for professional wedding photographers to use.

So at great cost, I made the switch. Out went all my Nikon gear. In came the Sony A9 & lenses.

As typical with Sony, six months after the release of the A9 they announced another new camera. The A7r3 is essentially a tweaked A7r2 sensor shoehorned into the newer A9 style body. Sony have not included the same electronic shutter technology into the A7r3 and this is still only available on the A9. So you still do get blackout when taking a photograph and the same limitations when using silent mode are still there.

I’ve been asked quite frequently by other wedding photographers who are either considering switching to Sony or upgrading their older Sony camera, which they should buy and why? Do I prefer the A7r3 or A9?

Well here are my thoughts in no particular order:

42 Megapixels or 24MP?

Many people say that the 42MP sensor in the A7r3 is too much for wedding photography.  Yes logically I’d agree with that. I’d love to have seen a 24MP medium RAW option such like Nikon have added in their D850.  The 24MP in the A9 is perfect.  It strikes a great balance between able to still crop when needed and having a reasonable file size.

That said, I do love the ability to crop into the A7r3 files. Logically I don’t need to.  But those times I do, I get a weird sense of satisfaction knowing I’ve cropped way in and my files are still large.

In the future, I really hope that Sony will introduce a 24MP RAW option for the next R designated camera. Whether this is the A9R or A7r4.

Dynamic Range

The dynamic range on the A9 is great but the A7r3 is better. One of the things I missed the most after switching from Nikon was the dynamic range and ISO invariance of the D750 sensor. It made editing so much easier. The A7r3 gives me that ability back.  For creative portraits this is a lovely feature to have.  It’s not a big deal for documentary shots though.

Silent Shutter

As mentioned, both camera’s have silent shutter mode but Sony have wisely kept the anti distortion, anti roll shutter out of the A7r3. So whilst most of the time you’ll be OK with the A7r3, under tricky lighting conditions like with the cheaper LED lights you may struggle or if the subjects are moving. Just in case you are interested, here are both cameras in silent mode.

Demo of the silent shutter feature – (Note: your audio isn’t broken…it’s silent!)

Note. The A7r3 does have an ‘anti-flicker’ mode to reduce banding issues but it’s only available with the mechanical shutter and does not work with the silent shutter mode. A real shame.

Wedding photograph taken by Sony A9 in silent mode during ceremony

Photograph taken by Sony A9 in silent mode

The A9’s silent shutter performs so well, I’ve started to shoot a lot more frames. This is not by accident but through choice. I’m not being intrusive anymore so I can anticipate the moment and shoot through it. Take ten frames instead of say one. Yes that does mean I have more images to cull but it also means I have more chance of capturing that decisive moment rather than making do with the moment before or after.

Unexpected moments are a breeze to capture using the Sony A9’s silent shutter

Flash Performance

I got used to the way the A9 handles flash. It’s OK. It doesn’t fill me with excitement and many people complain about the ‘lag’. Shooting in AF-C with medium speed helps and fire bursts. The A9’s mechanical shutter is 5fps maximum which is acceptable for weddings but personally I feel that on a flagship camera like the A9, this really should have been 7fps at least. I also find the mechanical shutter is also quite noisy and is unavoidable when using flash.

The R3 on the other hand has a max speed of 10fps and works with flash if your speedlight can keep up! The mechanical shutter feels instantly much snappier. If you use a lot of flash, the R3 is the one to look at. The shutter also sounds a bit more solid and quick.

In short the A7r3 feels much more like a traditional DSLR when using flash whereas the A9 does not perform like you’d expect from Sony’s flagship camera.

Which has the quicker auto focus? The A7r3 or A9?

This is a common question.  The answer is that I honestly couldn’t tell you. Both are blisteringly fast. I’ve read online a few saying the A9 is quicker. Personally there’s so little in it, I don’t notice.

It is worth mentioning though that the A7r3 AF points ‘only’ covers 68% of the frame whereas the A9 covers 93%. In practice I’ve found both are plenty.  Coming from a DSLR you are completely free from having to focus & recompose now. What once felt perfectly normal will now leave you thinking “Why on earth have I been putting up with that for so long!?!”

Face Detection / Eye AF

A killer feature for Sony users.  The ability of the camera to detect and focus on the eye. Just like the AF speed, I haven’t been able to see which is more accurate. Both just seem to work. I have never thought “The A9 would have got that.” or vice versa.

There is a noticeable improvement for both cameras over previous generations. So if you are reading this article because you are upgrading from an older Sony body then you are in for a treat.

Low Light Performance

Again…I don’t really see a difference. Even DXO mark has given the A7r3 a score of 3523 and the A9 3517.  That’s practically level pegging which is an amazing performance by the A7r3 given the 42MP sensor.

All I will say is that I am happy to let Auto ISO (Yes I use it!) float to 6400 without concerns. Above that I like to control it. I’ve shot at 8000 and 10000 on both. They’re OK….not something I want to do if I can help it though.

ISO performance shouldn’t really a deciding factor for either camera really. You will be happy with either.

Memory Cards

Each RAW from the Sony A7r3 is around 43MB compared with the 25MB from the A9. This has meant that on occasion, I’ve actually filled an entire 128GB SD card when shooting with the A7r3 as the primary camera. Yikes! Whereas I’ve yet to do it with the A9. I refuse to get 256GB cards. Forget it.

The buffer on both are great. I’ve never filled the A9. I have hit the buffer limit a couple of times on the R3 when I am utterly gunning it. Usually for the confetti shots.

The huge RAW’s on the R3 do take longer to clear but it’s not something I worry about as I can leave it running in the background and the camera lets me take more when I need to.  This is a massive improvement on the A7r2 which used to pretty much just lock up until the buffer was cleared.

Tip!

I’ve now tweaked my workflow to convert all my RAW’s to lossy compressed DNG’s to save disk space. I’ve not noticed any decrease in quality.

Another benefit of doing this is that Sony for some reason insist on embedding a small JPG preview into the RAW’s unlike Canon/Nikon who both store full size JPG.  As a result if you are using a tool such as Photo Mechanic to cull, it is hard to see all the detail because the small JPG looks awful on modern monitors such as my 5K IMac screen. By converting to compressed DNG, the converter can replace the JPG with a full size one.

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