Now it's time for "As long a review of the Sony HVL-f45rm flash as a wedding photographer time for in October!"
Good: It's freaking magical -- why is it so tiny, so well-balanced with small Sony cameras, with such little meaningful power difference? If I'm rocking a reception with a big flash at 1/8th power, on the tiny 45rm I'm *maybe* at 1/8th + 1/3rd, a negligible difference. Here it's hitting ISO 100 f/11 at well under full power, balancing the bright sun outside and highlighting how bad-ass Denise is. And it's the best TTL I've ever used, so good that … I even use it occasionally.
The bad: Weirdly fragile, in my experience. We are fairly good to our gear these days, and out of the four Sony flashes we own, four have been to the repair shop for hot shoe issues. Now we pack it as gently as we would a newborn kitten.
I have not seen or touched this lens yet, so this is in no way a review, but I've already placed my own order…
What’s the point, given that I have no more direct experience so far than you do? Well, just kicking this off, this shows a few important things:
1) This shows how important I consider this lens if it lives up to its potential — I could have probably finagled a small discount, and definitely didn’t have to pay sales tax if I took the time to fill out the paperwork, but it was more important to me to be able to place my order at 10:01 a.m. Because if waiting for all that paperwork meant the difference between having this lens at a wedding or two or not … and those weddings are such where it would make a real difference in the coverage (hello, pitch-black NYC dance floors!) then the extra cost is worth it.
(Of course, the lens is at least $800 less expensive than I thought it would be, so that helps, too.)
2) This should forever be inoculation against the idea that I am shilling for Sony, or anyone. Full cost, sales tax and all. No one’s even given me a single cocktail shrimp to affect my opinion of this item. All I am doing with my B&H contacts is basically telling them to get one in my hands as soon as possible, but no promises there, either. As always we come from a place of honesty and openness, because why not?
Lastly we’re doing some site re-organization so that all content will appear here on the “/blog” page including rolling reviews, with separate pages highlighting the different types of posts.
Ok, this is glib -- and very precise. There are plenty of ways to make compelling images with this lens. It just depends on your needs. We use selective focus rarely, as it is best in small doses, but have had a lot of fun with the new ways of seeing control over the angle of the focal plane can give you. We use it for details on occasion and need the control for creative use in portraiture or relatively static coverage such as ceremonies or getting ready.
The good news is that you can actually do this to some extent -- focusing on areas closer to you and farther away. The bad news is that it is a liberal definition of "focus." I did not expect critical sharpness but we need a certain level of it to shoot details, and on this lens even basic sharpness -- not necessarily reading words on a page but seeing that there are words to begin with -- can only be achieved in certain areas, such as the center or the closer side of the tilt. This takes away tons and tons of even the basic usage of a real tilt-shift for us.
Well, it was fun while it lasted. Astonishingly there are trade-offs when you cut nearly 90 percent off the price of a lens.
Over the course of my career using digital cameras, there have been two kinds of innovations that have marked a real step forward in daily work. The first were cameras like the Nikon D3, which simply did things relevant to my work as a wedding and event photographer that no camera had done before. The second were cameras like the D700, which brought many of these advances to a much lower price point, and thus wider audience.
Sadly, the cameras which have truly pulled off this trick are relatively rare — while cameras like the D850 certainly seem to fit the bill, often it seems that camera companies are understandably afraid to cannibalize the sales of their higher-profit-margin pro camera lines by not including features that could be there relatively easily and cheaply. Sony has often been described as cameras made by and for engineers — lacking the design panache of, say, much of the Fuji line — but this is often not a bad thing. They have often seemed almost eager to cannibalize earlier cameras, releasing follow-ups either soon after previous models or throwing whatever they can into a camera at a given price point.
We can often ignore the effects of price in camera reviews other than in a snippet at the very end, but price is a huge factor for nearly every consumer. In fact, the very first lesson my father taught me about buying a camera for personal use was “always buy second-best.” The TLR we had kicking around the house was a Yashica, not a Rollei. Our all-manual 35mm SLR was a Minolta SRT, not a Nikon F. The curve of diminishing returns is a powerful and near-universal law, so for the vast majority second-best will often be a far better way to get bang for your buck.
We have been using the A7III in our workflow for the past month by adding it to our three Sony A9’s — that class of camera that was designed to do things never done before, with a price to match. At this moment, the A7III costs 44 percent of what an A9 does. Is the A7III more than 44 percent as good as the A9 overall?
Spoiler alert: Hell yes. Most of the time. There are situations where the A9 shows why it’s worth its cost. But there are also situations where the A7III is actually the better camera, cannibalization be damned.
Body and Handling
Sony is in the apparent belief that they have found the Platonic Ideal of camera design, as each of their recent models differ in forms by the smallest of degrees.
As many have noted, this form seems entirely driven by engineering without, say, Fuji's care for aesthetics. That's not necessarily a bad thing as the point is to take pictures with, not of, the camera, but then of course the physical operation needs to be as close to ideal as possible.
The first thing you notice when you're used to the A9 is that the buttons are less "clicky" and more "squishy." This is purely aesthetic and I'm not even sure which I prefer yet, but is noticeable in every aspect of its physical operation.
The lack of a drive dial on the upper-right of the A9 is something I anticipated missing a lot more than I actually did. While the high-speed of 20fps makes it highly specialized and something to be switched in and out of as needed, on the A7III I have been able to turn it to high-speed drive from my function menu and pretty much forget it, and it never takes a series of photos when I meant to take one, unlike high speed on the A9.
In keeping with Sony tradition, the menus are a bit of a train wreck, with categories sorted almost seemingly at random. Luckily there are enough customizeable buttons and a completely customizeable function display, meaning you don’t have to delve into the menus often, and there is a “My Menu” function. I highly recommend taking the time to go through and customize all of these things so that your time delving through each of the menus wondering where they put a specific function is minimized.
One of the differences from the A9 that is a straight-up downgrade is the EVF, which is a couple generations behind in resolution, the same 2.36MP as the A7II. This is noticeable in general use, but usually only if you’re really looking for it. The only time I ever really noticed it had more to do with the increased sharpening Sony has seemed to use to compensate, which put some noticeable halos on contrasts areas. (This, of course, has no effect on image quality.)
But it is still more than good enough to function in the ways that I need. A lens like the Mitakon 50mm f/0.95 might have a hit rate of 5 percent on even bright, large DSLR viewfinders, since they don’t fully show the shallow depth of field except with Live VIew.
I am in general a strong believer in EVFs especially as they get better and better, not least because the limiting factor of sensitive sensors in dark situations is the not-as-sensitive human eye. It’s a bit disappointing that the EVF is not class-leading but has been far from a deal breaker and something I forgot a vast majority of the time.
First, you have all of the general advantages of autofocus on mirrorless cameras, which is autofocus points *everywhere*. It’s incredibly helpful to only have to focus and recompose in the rarest and most quickly-changing of situations, and even in tricky situations like through a concave shaving mirror you can hit autofocus at the very edge of your frame:
Conversely the major disadvantage of at least Sony mirrorless cameras is that they don’t allow infrared AF assist beams. This is not a giant problem in terms of autofocus other than in the darkest situations, but after 10 years I have learned to use the beam like a laser-guided targeting system, being able to precisely compose dance floor shots without ever looking through the viewfinder. Newer Sony flashes come with visible-light LED panels which can be used, but they call a lot more attention to yourself. We put red gels over them but the beam isn’t nearly as precise, so other than the darkest situations (too dark to see with the naked eye) we use AF-C.
But the big question is: Is it as good as the autofocus on the A9? And after a lot of testing, the answer is absolutely. In fact, I would say that if you see any marked difference between the two, it’s a lot likelier that the difference is in your own psychology. Both of them have incredible AF systems that change the game compared to previous generations of mirrorless cameras.
I had to test it a lot before I was sure about this, and finally became so sure that I changed my entire setup. No matter what, I do not allow gear testing to negatively impact my professional work in any way, particularly with weddings. I always shoot weddings with two camera, one for wider lenses and one for telephoto. So with the first few weddings with this camera I used the A7III for my less AF-critical long lens work, giving most of the interesting photojournalism to the A9.
Then we shot a South Asian mehndi filled with incredible dance performances, and I realized that at some times I wanted to use flash as quickly as possible. The new Sony flashes are great — amazing TTL great refresh rates, and even the smaller HVL-F45RM has very good power while being well-balanced with the smaller bodies. The A7III, unlike the A9, can use this up to 10 frames per second. It is rare for me to shoot flash that fast, but at times on this job it was incredibly helpful in getting the right moment, so I’ve swapped it completely: The A7III is now my main camera for wide lenses.
Reception dancing can be incredibly taxing on autofocus — the motion is erratic and it happens in the dark. After a while, I have learned setting that seem optimal on the A7III or A9. Counterintuitively, you should usually turn face-detect off: look above. See all those faces in the background? So does the camera, and it really likes to change focus to them. Then I usually use zone focus in AF-C, since nearly always with dancing I am focusing toward the top of the frame, and it lets me move the AF point far more quickly, just one or two presses to the left or right.
Also completely comparable to the A9 is the Eye AF -- which is great because in an often-wide aperture job like blur-out-the-EXIT-sign wedding photography, reliable Eye AF is way better than sliced bread.
Plenty of cameras have great high ISO these days. The D5 perhaps still my favorite of the cameras I’ve used, but in practical usage the A7III is just about as sensitive as you would ever need in most situations. I sometimes use bounce flash in conjunction with high ISO to give just a tiny kiss of light to the ambient, and while I rarely need higher than 3200 for that use, above I was able to use ISO 6400 and not only keep noise low but retain great color and dynamic range between white shirts and dark hair and dresses.
One of the touted image differences over the A9 is increased dynamic range in the shadows at base ISO. This has been basically the next “HIGH ISO quality” in desired image advances over the past few years and for good reason: It’s not just about fixing things if you get your exposures wrong. Mostly it is about being able to take photos in a single shot that look more like what you see with your eyes, which can easily see both deep shadow and bright light at the same time.
Here is an image from a corporate shoot where they wanted a very specific composition … but at the time of day available to shoot the subjects were in shadow and the cityscape was in bright sun. The A7III handled it beautifully:
One thing I’ve been noticing in the picture below and others is that the highlight transitions as it nears pure white seem to have a smoother roll-off than the A9. The above is probably the perfect scenario for comparison, as I would have expected some clipping to adjust for with the A9 but the transition looks more like negative film to me. (Not *exactly* like, lest I get nasty comments from film buffs. More like.)
The photo below gives you a bit of a sense of the dynamic range after mild processing. I only underexposed the skin about 2/3ds stop instead of a dramatic underexposure for the highlights on an extremely bright, cloudless summer day. The direct sun on the marble is clipped, but I am impressed that the sun on the pavement and grass was not totally blown out.
The A7III's shutter "only" goes up to 1/8000th versus the A9's 1/32000th, but even with superfast lenses I have almost never needed more than that. Here I am shooting with very bright sun directly on my subject's white shirt at f/1.4, and it is still well within the dynamic range of the sensor.
Data Readout: Why the A9 Costs So Much
Almost all of this, so far, is great news … except for people like us who have bought multiple A9s. Why bother when this camera does so much for far less money?
The biggest reason is that the A9 is absolutely specialized at silent shooting in ways that the A7III is not. Firstly, the A9 has automatic shutter — flash work needs a manual shutter, so turn it on and it automatically switches. On the A7III though, the flash simply won’t fire — and worse, for new users, it won’t tell you why. Even when you know the camera inside and out, it’s annoying to have to press the extra buttons.
One thing that is a distinct difference is the way that the silent shutter is treated in the menu: simply the lack of an "auto shutter". On the A9, you can be shooting silently and the shutter will automatically turn mechanical when a flash is turned on; on the A7III the flash simply will not work until silent shutter is turned off. Once you know you can adjust for this, but it is at least an annoyance as it means a button press, and can lead to frustration for shooters newer to the system.
Worse, the data readout on the A7III is much slower than on the A9, which can have several effects on images. First, very occasionally you will see slight distortion in your images — usually with quicker motion but not always. The distortion here is subtle but absolutely nothing changed between these two photos, except the couple becomes noticeably wider on the right. They say the camera adds some pounds, but that’s not the effect you want.
Banding: Worst case scenario
More dramatically, the slower readout on the A7III can lead to banding — sometimes extreme — under some lighting when shooting silently. Generally even the worse banding I see on the A9 (other than extreme cases that even show up on DSLRS) is more of a variance from one image to the other than an uncorrectable series of stripes across an image. Now, I general the A7III is pretty good, noticeably better than the A7rII I used for more than a year, but in cases the banding is quite noticeable. Of course you can turn on the mechanical shutter, which actually works faster than the A9’s, but we love the silent shooting for a lot of reasons — especially since one of the places you often see terrible, banding light is in churches. This test shot, right near a highly banding makeup light, is by far the worst shot I’ve seen in thousands of images.
Of course, it should be pointed out, in situations where banding is noticeable a) you see it in the viewfinder so it’s not a nasty surprise later and b) when you turn it off what you are left with is a 10fps full frame camera for $2,000.
If I had one camera to buy for my work, it would be the A9. But if I had a second one? It would probably be the A7III, particularly if I were in a place where the money would make a meaningful difference in other equipment — using native Sony and Zeiss lenses versus adapting lenses, for instance. There are advantages and disadvantages, but the A9 is more expensive for a reason, and having the A7III as a 2nd body would also allow me to make it a primary in places where it wins out, such as outdoor portrait sessions.
Personally I am keeping the A7III for professional use, and would have been happy to have a 2nd one as a backup for Tatiana’s, saving some money over out three A9 setup. But I’m still happy to have the more expensive cameras in our workflow — being able to shoot silently in every type of lighting is just too big an advantage for wedding photography, and so the A9 will mostly become my long-lens camera, including the lion’s share of photos at indoor ceremonies. But I am surprised and impressed that there is no meaningful drop in autofocus quality. In short, Sony has delivered a camera with a price to performance ratio that is shocking, and says great things about their philosophy for packing as much in each camera as they can.