My Transition to Sony
The good the bad, the great and the really great.
So let me set the table a bit here. I was in my 10th year of being a professional photographer and I was quite happy with my work. I was just chugging along, making killer images and physically working as hard if not harder than anyone I knew. While mostly we photographed high school seniors, we were photographing larger volume jobs as well, as many as 600 students myself before lunch in some cases. I was taught by my father that hard work pays off. You know the old adage, “you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole”? Well it turns out that if you push hard enough, you can. In fact, the process is called extrusion and it’s how lots of plastic and metal parts are made. My father helped make me a push real hard kind of guy. Because of that my hands were already starting to fail me and I had no other plan but to just push through it. Some time in 2016, I saw a post by the incredibly talented Parker Pfister about using a new Sony mirrorless camera. He was calling the files, the best he’d ever seen from a digital camera that wasn’t medium format and he was loving all of the cool lenses he could adapt to create unique looks with the system. This peaked my interest and I started doing my own research.
Right away the smaller body size of these new cameras had me thinking this might be the answer to my problem with my hands. It turns out that it was an answer but not in the way I thought it would be. More on that later. After doing a lot of research, I decided to rent a Sony a7rii and try it out. I adapted my Canon lenses to use since at that time Sony e-mount glass was very limited. Well, my test was good and bad. First, unlike the systems I was used to working with, the Sony was set up to be completely customized. Out of the box, at least the a7rii at that point, wasn’t set up in a very user friendly way in my opinion. This amazing phase detect autofocus system people were talking about eluded me during my first test. The eye auto focus didn’t work, my lenses hunted with the adapter I was using and I ended up manually focusing quite often to get the shots I wanted. This was in studio and a lot of my work is run and gun portrait stuff. I was really disappointed because there was no way I could use that camera as my main image capture tool or so I thought.
For the rest of the season, I continued with my Canon 1Dx and worked the exact way I was used to working, numb fingers and all. It wasn’t until we slowed back down again that I started looking back into the Sony cameras. I watched come great videos by folks such as Gary Fong that showed how you could customize the camera to do some really intriguing things. The next time I rented an a7rii I was able to get a Sony 70-200 f/4 and use it on location. WOWZERS! What a difference! The first time I got eye autofocus to work, I was sold. Even if the files weren’t as good (they were better), even if the dynamic range wasn’t as good (news flash it was way better) and even if the rest of the camera’s functionality wasn’t up to professional standards the eye autofocus alone was going to save me from focusing and recomposing as many as a couple thousand times a day. With a heavy 70-200 lens and the rest of my camera rig, that was taking a toll on my body. With the eye af, I just hold a button and the camera retains focus on the subject’s nearest eye even if the subject or camera moves. It really is amazing, game changing and the best thing since sliced bread.
At this point I was all in. I decided to sell all of my Canon gear (it was a lot) and go completely Sony. All of last year I used an a7rii and an a9 as my backup. I can’t say I loved every minute. One of the main downfalls of the a7rii was the slow user experience. It focused slower than what I was used to but since I don’t shoot much action that isn’t staged I could cope with that issue. However, I don’t often meter. I shoot by eye and chimping often was something I was accustomed to. I would lock up my a7rii multiple times a day in the first few weeks of shooting because I was pressing buttons so quickly wanting to check an image. 42 MP files on a slow SD card interface takes a bit to load and I wasn’t used to that coming from smaller files in my old 1Dx. I was able to learn to trust the Sony more over the coming weeks and thus found myself chimping way less than in the past. Because the trends of portrait work now have most of us shooting at very shallow depth of field, my old canon gear required me to shoot so many shots just to make certain at least one would be in focus. Especially since I was a focus and recompose shooter. Heck forget shooting at anything below f/2 for me at least. Nothing was ever sharp with my old system. After the switch though, out of focus images were very rare. If I shot it, it was in focus. I went from capturing 700-800 images per senior session (we shoot more than 15 outfits typically) to now I often don’t go above 350 images. The only problem is now of those 350 only 20-30 aren’t keepers where as before the opposite were true. I’d only have 150 or so sellable images of the 700-800 in the past due to out of focus images. With the Sony system, I can just count on the equipment to do what I expect it to and I never could with my old gear and how I was attempting to use it.
Now remember I said that my hand troubles cleared up after I switched? Let me explain. I’m mostly a big lens shooter. While the Sony mirrorless bodies are much lighter than DSLR’s the a7 and a9 series are both full frame. This means that the lenses are still as heavy as the lenses for DSLR bodies. Now with my new gear I did shave off a bit of weight but not really all that much in the grand scheme. Why was my hand trouble clearing up then? Well two reasons. The first was that I was no longer flipping my wrist 10s of thousands of times a week like I was when I was center point focusing and recomposing portraits. Now I would just start the frame composed as I wanted and hold down the button I had set for eye autofocus. The camera did the rest without me really evening thinking about focus. The second reason was one that I really wasn’t expecting, at all. If your aren’t familiar with him, Jason Lanier is a professional photographer that uses Sony gear and has a very successful YouTube channel. I had watched some of his videos in my research and honestly was very turned off not by his work or his messages but by the way his videos showed him working. He would, in a nonchalant way, hold his camera at waist height and just look at the back of the camera at the LCD and shoot. Never even so much as holding the camera up to his eye. I’ve never met him, I’m sure he’s a talented shooter and a great guy. His following and loyal fans certainly support that statement. BUT, I would never shoot like that, it looks so weird, why would anyone do that? Boy was I wrong. It turns out because it’s a better way of shooting. It did take a few weeks but slowly I started catching myself using the LCD instead of that amazing Electronic View Finder. I wasn’t bending down as much to get the camera at the appropriate height and I was often laying my camera on the ground to get really cool perspective shots that in the past required me to get dirty, wet and on the ground myself. This camera was making my job physically easier. Now I don’t feel my work was getting better in a general sense, that was my job, but the camera was a tool that was making it easier to digitally collect my vision in ways that other cameras didn’t and really couldn’t.
Yet another benefit that I didn’t see coming was that I started shooting more TTL exposures. I had been a manual flash guy since I started. TTL never gave me great results. It isn’t a flawed technology but in rapidly changing compositions, tonality can require you to make lots of adjustments to the TTL meter. That was often slower than just manually setting the flash. The Sony systems, however see a face because of the Eye AF. Since they see the face, the TTL metering is smart enough to know to ignore the other elements of the frame such as a black or white shirt and instead to concentrate on the face to meter the power level of the strobes. Wow, it is rare that TTL doesn’t nail the exposure with the Sony gear. This sped up my shooting tremendously and if you’ve ever seen me shoot or know someone that has, they will almost all comment on the speed that I work. Well, now I’m faster. Because I use all Sony lenses, and I don’t shoot much that would require me to use a focus hold button, I have the focus hold button on all of my lenses programmed to “shot result preview” which shows the true exposure and DOF of the shot with my exposure settings. I can tap that button and check the exposure that my ambient is producing at my current camera settings. *Note: If you are a natural light shooter, you wouldn’t want to do it the way I do and instead would likely want the lcd and viewfinder to show that way all of the time.
Everything I’ve shared here is based on my usage of the a7rii. In October of 2017, Sony announced the next version of that camera the a7riii. I picked one up as soon as I could get my hands on one. Nearly every single thing about the a7rii that I felt was a sacrifice that I had to put up with moving from my 1Dx was addressed in the a7riii. It’s faster in every way including image review. Battery life is no longer an issue like it was with the a7rii and the camera feels more like a professional body that can take the bumps and scrapes that daily use will bring. I could go on and on about how much I love this camera and how I’m still even today refining how I use the what this camera offers to create my images. That friends is for another day though.