At the start of the year I changed to a completely new camera system. I wrote a post about my reasons for switching over to Sony gear and you can see that post here.
In this post I’m going to give a bit of an update after using the Sony A9ii’s during a range of real life news work and highlight what I think so far. I’ll also highlight a few useful settings that I use that seem to help with efficiency of use.
The first thing to point out, and the short version is that making the change has been one that was worth doing. The cameras have been great once I got used to how they function and what they can offer.
Having a general understanding of the complex menu system is helpful to working out what is needed and what can be ignored. With a bit of trial and error and bit of online research this can be done fairly quickly.
Like most digital cameras these days the menu system is complex. There are menus for setting up a range of different configurations but not all of them are essential to what I would need.
What I found helpful was to think of what was a priority to me as a news photographer, which was to get the camera working at its fastest and most consistent and then what I needed to do to set it up in order to help with that.
So rather than go through all the button pressing step by laborious step I’m just going to list the features I have found useful. A quick dig through the menu and a bit of google searching should help if you need to find the specific menus on the camera for the things I mention.
So in no particular order…
The customisable menu is great. Once you know what you need the most then you can simply add it to this menu and it saves you trawling through every page to find what you’re looking for. Use it and you won’t regret it. A word of advice though, don’t fill it full of all kinds of stuff! If you get carried away and add a lot of things all you’re going to do is create another in-depth menu which defeats the object. Keep it tight.
With mine I have the Wi-Fi settings and ftp transfer function at number 1 and 2 on the list and it’s very useful for quickly setting up a connection to my MiFi for live filing.
On live filing, you can store up to ten ftp addresses if needed. I’ve used it a few times now to live file down to the Getty picture desk and every time I’ve used it it’s been seamless and works great. You can also continue shooting while it’s transferring so you don’t have to miss too much of what’s going on.
Obviously the better the connection then the quicker and more stable it works but no complaints there so far and a little green tick in the corner of the picture tells you it’s gone ok.
One of the downsides of the camera and tied in with transferring pictures live is the lack of ability to carry out a quick and basic edit in the camera itself. Hopefully this might be fixed with a firmware update as it would allow the photographer to make small changes before sending if time allowed. All I’m really referring to here is basically a crop. This means it lands at the desk a little tidier if it couldn’t be framed exactly right at the time of shooting. A small thing but it would be beneficial in some circumstances.
In the custom menu I also have card formatting, my shutter type (also set on the C2 custom button) so I can switch between electronic and mechanical shutter which is useful in really bright light if I want to shoot wide open but my shutter speed is maxed out and it allows me to carry on with faster shutter speeds or if I need to shoot silently. The self-timer is in there as well which is helpful if I’m shooting on a tripod.
The metering mode is on there as is the white balance, all of which allow me quick access to them when needed.
With regards to the WB I keep it on ‘auto’ most of the time and it works well. My general test for WB ability comes from political events/rallies where the lighting set-ups on any stage indoors doesn’t tend to be done with the photographer in mind so the light can be all over the place on occasions.
From the events I’ve done so far before coronavirus closed most things down the WB handled it well with skin tones remaining decent rather than looking like the speaker had spent 4 weeks on a tanning bed and the pictures looked fine.
The customisable keys on the body are also of great help if used sparingly. Some I have kept in use and others I have disabled for now but from the those buttons I can send a picture when live filing at the press of a button, quickly adjust the ISO, change my shutter type and change my focus area and voice tag images.
As an aside, on the voice tagging it has a ‘voice to text’ ability so that means if I leave a voice tag it will automatically turn that into a written comment when the metadata is viewed at the other end which can be helpful.
The auto focussing options are many with this camera and what I find works well for me is having two of the options visible. I have temporarily ‘removed/disabled’ the other options from the menu to make it quicker to get to what I need. So I now have Flexible Spot and Tracking Flexible Spot on my menu. All with small, medium and large options to them and I’ve found these two AF choices to be the must useful so far. Once I can get more practice with all the options available then I might tweak it but so far this is working fine for me. The AF is very fast and responsive and is really nice to work with especially eye AF.
I use the camera in manual mode all the time for setting exposures and I have the focus set to AF-C all the time. I’ve found this to be the most useful rather than switching between AF-C and AF-S. I have also recently assigned another custom button (the AF-ON) button which allows me to over ride the continuous high setting.
Continuous High gives 20 frames a second when using the electronic shutter (10 frames using the mechanical shutter). Now 20 frames a second is rapid by any standards! I don’t need that all the time but occasionally during some news events it is handy to be able to shoot a burst of pictures. So on some jobs, rather than turning the top dial between continuous high and single shot and having to take the camera from my eye assigning this custom button allows me to override the 20fps and shoot single shots.
Then if the action picks up and I need a burst I simply release the button and I’m back to the higher frame rate again. It’s quick and saves filling up the cards which in turn will speed up the edit. If you’re in an environment where hosing your subject down at 20 fps isn’t going to be a requirement then clearly you can switch it back to single shot on the dial.
I shoot JPEG’s (Extra fine) for the vast majority of my work. I very rarely shoot RAW whether it’s for my work stuff or my own pictures. The JPEG’s straight out of the camera look really nice and need very little tweaking most of the time which is good because it’s quicker. With editorial photography image editing is strictly controlled through press guidelines and rightly so, so other than basic edits on the picture nothing else needs or should be done anyway so they work fine.
The ISO is good when cranked up high so I don’t have to worry too much about image quality dropping significantly when going higher and when paired with the faster aperture primes I can keep it a little lower than I might have ordinarily had to do.
I have anti-flicker turned on which is helpful at times and works by finely tuning the shutter speed to reduce the flicker from different light sources.
They’re full frame cameras which means a better quality image and I can once again see the full effect of the fast aperture lenses which I missed on the cropped sensor or the Fuji’s I had.
When shooting in electronic mode the camera is completely silent which does have advantages. Though it can be difficult to notice when you’re actually shooting as there’s literally no noise which can be a little strange at first. To assist with this you can alter the colour of the frame around the focus points and I have mine turned to blue as it seems to stand out more against varied backgrounds.
My AF tracking sensitivity is set to (1) ‘Locked on’. I initially had it set at the other end of the scale on ‘responsive’. My logic being that it would work better but I quickly discovered that when tracking one subject it was jumping to another subject that may have been nearer the centre of the frame. Why? Because it was being responsive!
So after changing it it now stays where I’m aiming it most of the time and isn’t ‘distracted’ by other things in the frame. But it’s best to have a play with this and see what works for you.
I have 2 bodies, both A9ii’s and on each I also have the vertical power grip. These are great! Offering capacity for 2 batteries and adding balance when the lenses are attached and offering the same button positions when shooting upright – Make sure you get the grips specifically for the A9ii though as the previous ones for the A9 don’t fit.
They add to the general ergonomics and feel great when holding them for a long period of time. The general feel of them is good with a responsive and well sized ‘joystick’ pad for moving the focus point around the frame and many of the important buttons are also a little larger with the A9ii so it’s a little easier to use wearing gloves.
Battery life is fine. They’re smaller batteries than the Nik/Can pro-dslr’s so they don’t last as long but with 2 batteries on board in the vertical grip they can generally see you through the day. I carry 4 spares with me as well so with 8 batteries in total I should be fine. You can also charge the camera directly from a USBC port on a laptop. It’s slower than the charger but at a push you can throw a bit of charge in the batteries if you’re desperate.
The ability to adjust the tilting rear screen is great. When I had that option on my Fuji cameras previously I wasn’t too excited by it initially but I quickly changed my mind. The Sony offers that same flexibility. You can shoot low or high. Holding the camera to the floor or above your head and still see the composition, exposure and what you focussing on. So it removes more of the ‘Hail Mary’ uncertainty of those kind of shots and opens up more creative options.
The weather sealing so far seems to be fine. They’ve both taken a good drenching at times when I’ve been out on a few jobs. Same with the lenses. Although clearly the mandatory chamois leathers are never far from hand which of course offers their complete and proven protection from any inclement weather!
One of the more recent firmware upgrades has brought in a little more protection for the sensor so you can now set it automatically close the shutter when the camera is turned off. So a little more protection is offered when swapping lenses although I always try and keep this to a minimum anyway and protect the lens and camera mount wherever possible. Inevitably dust will get onto the sensor but an added piece of protection can’t hurt.
As for lenses I have the 24 f1.4, 50 f1.4, 85 f1.4 and 135 f1.8 as well as the 100-400 f4.5-5.6. All G masters, apart from the 50 which is the Zeiss and the quality of them all has been really good.
The 24 seems to be ever so slightly soft wide open at 1.4 when shooting in bad light but that’s really splitting hairs as otherwise it’s great. The 50 is a new addition and aside from a few test shots I’ve not really used it on a job yet but first indications are looking good.
The 85 and 135 are really nice lenses. Fast focussing and great wide open. Nothing more to say really other than they’re good!
With the 100-400 I had some initial doubts about the slower aperture but this is a small price to pay for an otherwise great lens offering really good focal range and you can always crank the ISO up a little higher to bring the shutter speed up if needed.
One thing I don’t like about the lenses or rather one thing that could be better is the rubber ring on the end of each lens hood. Now in principle this idea is genius. A rubber ring on the end offers a bit of buffer protection to bangs and bumps and absorbs the shock of an impact thus saving a hard knock to the hood and subsequently the lens. Great idea.
But I knocked my 85 (not especially hard) when walking through a narrow door frame a while back and it ripped off half the protective rubber breaking it away from its seal to the hood. It’s now held in place with gaffer tape. So while a great idea it would have been helpful to be secured to the lens hood in a stronger way. But this doesn’t affect image quality or lens use so I can live with it…and at the end of the day gaffer tape holding together press lenses and cameras are a timeless combination so you learn to live with it!
The lens hood security on all the lenses are an issue. Especially on the 135 which is quite loose. If I turn the hood it comes off without having to press the release catch in. This might just be the lens that I have rather than a general fault but it is a frustration sometimes and you can 100% guarantee that the next time I’m on a job where noise has to be kept to an absolute minimum it will fall off and go bouncing across the floor!
All the hoods are now taped on to prevent losing them or falling off.
One thing I don’t like is the lens drift on the 100-400. When carrying over the shoulder and even if the ‘Smooth – Tight’ torque control ring is set to tight it still drifts slowly out so it ends up at the 400 end just by walking around. Similar to the lens hood this doesn’t stop you from working but it does annoy me and I find I’m constantly twisting it back in as I walk along.
Other than these relatively minor and more cosmetic issues the lenses I have are really nice. Lovely contrast in the pictures and little distortion. They’re also weather sealed which is obviously a good thing. One thing I have found really useful is assigning the focus hold button on the lens barrels to ‘Eye AF’. So simply by pressing this button when holding the camera and lens the eye AF kicks in and can be really useful.
One function I find really useful especially with using prime lenses is the way I can assign a custom button to engage the APS-C function. This gives an immediate 1.5 crop factor to the lens that you’re using, prime or zoom and which can give a few more options. So the 24mm becomes a 36mm, the 85mm becomes 127mm, the 135mm jumps to 202mm and my 100-400mm becomes 150 to 600mm.
The original apertures remain the same. I guess you could argue that with the full frame sensor it could work just as well cropping in to the picture when editing and that’s another option but if you tie it in with live filing where no editing can be done before sending it might help to tighten the frame up a bit if you were shooting wider than you might want.
The downside of using the APS-C mode is a drop in file size. So you’re looking at around an 11Mb file once you engage it but really for press work and for speed of filing it when live this isn’t an issue. One to think about and see if it works for you and its another tool available if needed.
Having duel card slots these days is a requirement rather than a nice-to-have. So it’s good that the Sony has them. They can be a little fiddly sometimes to get your fingers in to the card to pull it out but the slots are protected with a weather sealed door. Slot 1 at the top is your primary slot and I’m running with x2 SanDisk 32 Gb 300MB/s Extreme Pro SDHC II cards in each camera.
Removing and replacing memory cards always makes me nervous. Unnecessarily so I’m sure but I consciously try and do it slowly and gently and treat the cards with great care. I know there are stories of cards working ok after inadvertently ending up in the washing machine when left in pockets or whatever so I’m sure they are quite robust but I really try and go easy with mine. Can’t hurt.
Currently I have my cards set up to ‘simultaneous’, so it records my pictures to each card at the same time providing an immediate back up should a card fail. So far they haven’t.
I’ll quickly look at video as well as I have had need to shoot a few clips on a number of jobs now. With the lenses I have the video quality looks great especially if you’re shooting wide open on the longer primes. My basic work flow for shooting video is to get it on the tripod – or at push a really steady hand hold using the tilted back screen opened out to compose as the camera hangs from my neck with with the camera strap supporting the weight.
I adjust the exposure as I want it and because I shoot fully manual I know it won’t change through the duration of the clip. Then I auto focus on a point in the scene before then turning from AF to to manual focus which stops the lens shifting focus. I then gently press the record button to avoid any shaking and shoot an approx 20 second clip length as per the requirements I need to shoot at for Getty or Bloomberg. At the end of the clip again gently press the button again to stop recording and then move onto the next shot. Repeat as needed. With a bit of practice it’s quick and reliable way of getting the clips recorded at a satisfactory quality level.
The tilting rear screen also comes in handy again here as well as you can rest the camera on the floor or a wall or whatever and use the screen to ensure the framing, focus and exposure are as you want and in fast moving situations you can, at a push get away without using a tripod.
The audio is acceptable and although not as good as having a proper mic and it is liable to a bit of wind noise but for my general requirements for shooting the clips it’s fine.
I also believe that you can pull out stills from video clips so if you’re shooting 4k video on the camera then you’re going to get something like an 8MP still frame. This might be useful at times but I’ve not worked out how to do this yet. But I’ll get around to researching it I’m sure.
Again this could be handy. Any photographer who has been asked to shoot both stills and video on a job understands that conflict between them and the worry of missing the shot because you were getting video or missing a nice sequence because you were on the stills. So while it will always be a juggling act between trying to do them both at least this might offer an option to pull out a frame if the shot of the day happens and you’re half way through recording your clip. Could get a belter of a shot and some great video too!
One area I do need to work on with the video is shooting a moving subject at a wide aperture like 1.4 or 2. I need to work out which focus option will give me that constant focus as I track the subject. I think I’m getting there but need to work on it a bit more. Other than that shooting video with the Sony produces good results.
*UPDATE – Further to this I have now added touch screen focussing/tracking to my custom menu so if I’m shooting menu I can quickly turn this on and use the touch screen ability when looking through the rear screen.
Couple of things that I find a bit annoying generally…when I turn the cameras on it seems to take a few seconds before they’re ready to go. Generally this isn’t a huge problem but occasionally when you’re stood around waiting for something to happen and then it suddenly does it can put you a little on the back foot if the camera doesn’t immediately come to life and there’s a chance you could miss the picture that matters.
Tied in with this at start up is the electronic viewfinder and WB. During use it’s great and without issue that I’ve seen. But again on start up it can seem to take a while until it works out what it’s doing and the image colour seems to fluctuate and shift around a little before it ‘settles’ to where it should be.
Other than that though it’s fine but worth bearing in mind if you’re doorstepping and hanging around and then need to get the camera working quickly. You won’t have that speed of response at start-up that the Nik/Can offers.
Sony are good at sending out firmware updates quite regularly too which is great and keeps them at their optimum so it’s worth checking every few months to see if there is anything new.
At the time of writing this I don’t have a flash I can use on the camera. I haven’t got around to getting one with the Sony fit. Partly due to juggling finances and partly because I don’t use on camera flash that often. What I do have though from my previous Fuji set up are a pair of Godox TT 685’s speed lights which have a fuji mount fit. All I’ve had to do to give me some light is to buy a Godox X1T trigger (£30 or so) to replace the Fuji one I used to use and this triggers the flash units when I use them off camera.
They can only be used in manual mode, which is fine because if I’m shooting flash off camera then I’m going to have them in manual anyway. This means I can use 2 flashes with my stands and brollies off camera and controlled by the Godox trigger even if the flashes are actually Fuji fit. This works fine and I even have 3 or 4 old Nikon SB’800’s kicking around somewhere I could bring into the mix if needed and use those on slave mode.
All I do need to do now is get at least one flash which is a Sony fit when the finances allow so I can use it in circumstances where I need on camera flash but initially for me the cameras and lenses were the priority.
One thing that does need to be addressed by Sony though is the need to bring the flash sync to 1/250th of a second. Another addition to my custom menu is there means to turn the Setting Effect ON/OFF in Live View Display. I turn it OFF when using flash.
So there we go, a few things I do and what I find useful or not and a general over view of how I’m finding the cameras for the work I do. Clearly there will be far more that they’re capable of and more knowledgable people than me will I’m sure know of and hopefully point out other things that might help.
But essentially I need robust, responsive and weather sealed equipment that works. I don’t need the frills and the fancy bits but at the same time it’s a precision instrument and needs to work as such. It needs to work first time, every time, it needs good ergonomics, it needs to produce good quality images under any light and any conditions. Such is the nature of this work. Generally press photographers don’t have the luxury of time so whatever the conditions or the light or the situation is when you are on a job then that’s what you need to work with and so far the A9ii’s are working well.
Below are a selection of pictures taken from a range of different jobs that I’ve shot since getting hold of these cameras to give an idea of the results.
Now I’m not trying to sell you Sony if you’re a Nikon or Canon user especially if you’re a press photographer. If you are and you’re reading this then you know what works for you and you’ll shoot what you want – I’m not on commission with Sony to sell this stuff! But as a press photographer who went from Nikon to Fuji when they first came out about 8 years ago or whatever it was and who has been shooting mirrorless ever since – apart from my Leica M9’s – I see a very noticeable improvement in the Sony over the Fuji’s I used to shoot and I have seen in my work that I am getting pictures now that previously I jut wouldn’t be able to get.
Images (c) Ian Forsyth
See more of my work at Room 2850
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