July in Central Texas, 14 days of triple digit temperatures with no break in sight and someone had the bright idea to throw a music festival. It may sound like a level of Dante’s Inferno, but the Float Fest producers have it figured out, with a leisure float down the cool San Marcos river, on-site camping, a carnival, helicopter rides and stages headlined by Cage the Elephant, Weezer, Zedd and MGMT.
I packed two camera bodies to cover the fest – the ole a7RII and a shiny new Sony a9. With it’s mix of high resolution, high dynamic range and excellent low light performance, the a7RII has been a workhorse over the past couple years – my most proven and trusted digital camera. The a9 is still the fresh faced new kid and I’ve been anxious to put it to work in a music festival environment where it can be taxed and tested, exposing any weakness. On paper the a9 is a wunderkind but the only way to learn if a camera works for you is to shoot it in the field.
Tallying up my Float Fest images it became clear that the a9 was the camera I gravitated to the most over the course of the weekend by a factor of nearly 3-to1. The camera is simply a blast to shoot with. Mirrorless technology has advanced at a lightening pace over the past 7 years with improvements in autofocus speed, low light performance, etc., but what I have been waiting for is the camera that does it all without getting in the way of the photographer. With the a9, Sony made improvements to a perceived weak point of the a7 line – the user interface. The new menu system helps some but the additional physical controls (dials for focus and drive modes, a joystick and new custom buttons) make the camera pleasingly quick and intuitive to operate. After configuring all those new controls for personal preference and a short period of acclimation, muscle memory is set and fingers can move quickly to make the a9 do its work with no need to menu dive.
The a9 deserves its growing reputation as a speed demon – in fact the only time I felt a drag in my shooting was when switching between the a7RII and a9 interfaces. I’d grab the a7RII and move my finger to the joystick that didn’t exist! The second it took to realize the mistake and switch process was an inconvenience that made me think the unthinkable – is it time to retire the a7RII from event shooting and bring on a second a9 for continuity?
As wonderful as the a7RII is, a camera like the a9 with its plentiful physical controls, fast sensor readout, huge buffer and blazing auto focus is the sweet spot for event shooters – I’m looking at you wedding photographers. Sony has finally delivered the camera that is going to make dSLR users feel like they are gaining all the mirrorless benefits without losing any of their current functionality. The new battery is a great example; with the a7 series cameras I could use 2-3 batteries over a long day of festival shooting. While packing extra batteries was never a hardship it was a difference, a demerit in the eyes of dSLR shooters with their batteries that run for days. The new Sony Z- series battery Is vastly improved and it kept The a9 powered throughout the day and evening on Saturday and into Sunday afternoon before I swapped it out for a spare.
The other eye opener over the weekend was the autofocus performance. I am deeply impressed with this AF system and I’m not the only one – my fellow Nikon and Canon concert shooters who have recently switched to an a9 are in vocal agreement. The AF is as fast as you need it to be and locks on in low light like a bat targeting a mosquito. Add to that the tracking that doesn’t want to let go of your target even as it moves towards or away from you, and you have a powerful tool for grabbing the action. I’ve been using the Lock-on AF feature on Sony cameras for several years now and previously commented how it was “great, but just a taste of what was to come” – the a9 proves out Sony’s claim of a 30% improvement in the system’s speed and accuracy.
Beyond the major a9 features that have been extensively covered in user reports and reviews, there were a few happy surprises that sweetened the shooting experience at Float Fest. First, the camera has an intelligent auto shutter mode that defaults to the mechanical shutter for normal shooting but automatically moves to electronic shutter when either a faster drive option is selected or when the camera will overexpose at 1/8000. The later situation was a frequent occurrence when I had the FE 35/1.4 and 50/1.4 lenses mounted and shooting wide open under the Texas sun. Instead of overexposing at 1/8000, the a9 would automatically kick into electronic shutter mode up to 1/12800th of a second, enabling those shallow DOF shots in harsh sunlight without fumbling for a menu change.
The other a9 feature that had me excited was the 20fps high speed mode but not just for capturing high speed action. Yes, it did help nab the peak moment of a festival bro sailing off of a rope swing into the river, but it also opened up interesting options for moving portraits, otherwise known as cinema-graphs. These are short moving scenes composed of individual still frames that highlight slight or moderate movements. I expect that social media will soon be inundated with these moving portraits – brace yourself.
Earlier, I posed the question whether it was time to retire the a7RII from event work and replace it with a second a9 – the answer to that question is yes. The a7RII will continue to pull duty for travel and portraits but the a9 is just too proficient at capturing the action of a concert, festival, wedding or sporting event. What has me most excited about this camera is what it potentially means for future Sony models. As a Sony Artisan of Imagery, I’m often asked for any hints of what is coming next and when. The answer is always “I wish I knew” but I can’t imagine a world where Sony doesn’t use this excellent a9 platform as bedrock for future models. Stay tuned and click through for the full set of Float Fest recap photos below. Click to see ’em as big as Texas.