The ranks of professional photographers using Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras grow larger every day. Like a snowball rolling downhill, gaining size and momentum, what some once considered a sideshow is now taking center stage. That’s because many pro photographers are understanding that mirrorless is the future and Sony has been leading the drive to mirrorless for more than six years. As traditional DSLR camera makers slowly roll out their mirrorless products, Sony is still the only option for professional full-frame mirrorless.
Despite the recognition that Sony full-frame cameras offer superior performance, making the switch from one camera system to another is no simple task for a working pro. After all, most are heavily invested in their DSLR systems, making abandoning kits full of bodies and expensive lenses a daunting task. But Sony Artisan and longtime pro sports photographer Patrick Murphy-Racey says switching to mirrorless cameras makes good business sense, leading directly to the bottom line.
Murphy-Racey is not only an elite sports photographer. He’s shot everything from corporate portraits and documentary assignments to video productions and weddings. He makes the case that any time you’re using better equipment and producing better images, it’s going to have a positive impact on your business. More than that, he says you can draw direct connections between the technology in the latest Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras and the image quality a photographer is able to produce, and the efficiency with which you can do it. Better work made faster is quite a competitive advantage.
“The culmination of all this technology,” Murphy-Racey says, “is once you learn how to properly harness it and use it to your advantage, your takes are going to be smaller and tighter and you’re going to have greater hit rates. If you sent a client 250 images from a Canon shoot from a year ago, let’s say that would be a B+ grouping. You’re going to send 100 images from a Sony shoot, and they’re all going to be A+ images. Your edit is going to be tighter; everything about what you’ve done is going to be technically superior. Not a little bit better, it’s going to be much better.”
Here’s what Murphy-Racey says are some of the capabilities that will change the way pros shoot with a Sony mirrorless camera system when they switch.
Continuous Tracking Eye AF
“If you take the time and really try to understand the width and breadth of the Sony autofocus system, which they call 4D” he says, “you’ll realize that the camera is much smarter than you could ever be in many situations. There’s one I call George Jetson mode, which is a synergy of three AF settings I use at the same time: Wide-Area AF, Face-Detection and Eye AF. So in my world, it means when I sit down at a basketball game and I want to shoot the coach who’s walking back and forth, I can literally put that guy in a wide angle zoom and he can be running back and forth and up and down and everything I shoot is going to be tack sharp because it’s following him perfectly.”
“When you’re using the Continuous Tracking Eye AF or Face Detection in portrait situations or in photojournalism,” he continues, “the camera is taking care of the most important part of focus. It’s got focus completely handled. So one of the huge changes from a DSLR to Sony mirrorless is you’re no longer stuck with your eye glued to the back of the camera. I shoot an enormous amount of portraits, and I probably shoot 50% with the camera at my waist just using the flip out LCD screen. I’m just using that to form the frame and compose. The camera is handling all of the focus.”
In talking about how he works differently in low-light since switching to Sony, Murphy-Racey describes a unique wedding that he worked. “I photographed a wedding where they turned off all of the lights,” he says, “and everyone had glow ropes draped over their shoulders during the reception. Back in the day when I was shooting Canon, if I had wanted to shoot that reception with available light there were hard limits. I could raise the ISO up, shoot wide open at a slow shutter speed and get things to register on the sensor, but at a certain point I would be facing a diminishing return and have to go get a flash. When I did that, I never really knew if I was sharp or not. When things were really getting going on the dance floor and people were moving fast, I would shoot rapid fire with a sports camera and bracket focus to make sure I had something sharp. Working that way, you’re wasting an enormous amount of time overshooting because you just don’t know what you have. You’re shooting and shooting just to make sure you’re covered. This has a cumulative effect since you’ll also be wasting time staring at the computer as you work through the edit.
“With the Sony cameras I used at that wedding, I had none of those issues,” he continues. “The low-light performance was so good that I was able to use available light and get the great effect of the glow ropes without blowing things out with the flash. And it’s not just that ability, it’s how having that ability changes how I think as I’m shooting. It’s not just getting extra stops, it’s enabling you to reimagine the images you can make.”
Color Accuracy & Better Skin Tones
“Another thing you’re going to discover is that your old glass is wacky as hell in terms of color,” Murphy-Racey says. “In my time with Sports Illustrated I shot a ton of sports portraits—we called them sportraits—and using the Canon to photograph African-American athletes was really difficult because there was all this red and yellow coming through and it was really an awful look. But with the Sony files and the Sony glass, the images are so much cleaner. The color is so different. It’s so calm and perfect with the Sony lens on the Sony body.”
Small Size And Low Weight
“The lack of weight is a huge advantage,” Murphy-Racey says, “I just don’t hurt anymore. I work really hard as a shooter, but I’m not in pain on a consistent basis. At SI near the end of my DSLR days, I was constantly using a Canon 400mm f/2.8 on an EOS 1DX DSLR. Now I’m using the Sony 400mm f/2.8 G Master on a Sony α9 and that combination is nearly four pounds lighter! That’s a massive difference on top of the better performance of the Sony setup.
He continues, “For other photojournalism, the size and weight savings are just as big. Photojournalists usually carry two bodies and four or five lenses on our person at all times. Sometimes it’s three bodies. And we have that for eight, 10 or 12 hours every day. So if you’re doing journalism of any kind, or even if your work is just informed by journalism like mine is, mirrorless just makes more sense even before you think about the superior performance of the Sony cameras and lenses.”
Low Noise And High Dynamic Range
“There’s one question sports guys will ask me a lot,” he says. “It’s, ‘What do you feel comfortable going up to in ISO with your Sony α9?’ I say, ‘I walk into a game situation and I think 1/2000-sec. is the minimum shutter speed I’m going to use. So I go to 1/2000-sec., I put the lens wide open, I look through the EVF, then I wind up the ISO to wherever the exposure looks good, and I stop. I have no idea what the ISO is, because I don’t care. Because for me it’s like a limitless dial. I’ve got 15 stops of dynamic range.’ For me, I’m in a whole other category where I don’t have to worry about what the limits of ISO are. Because with 15 stops of dynamic range, I’ve got tonality everywhere! To me, it’s a fallacy in the question. It’s a non-issue. It doesn’t matter.”
The EVF & The Power Of ‘The True’
“Something that happens with mirrorless is, you start to really harness the power of the true,” Murphy-Racey says. “What I mean by that is, what you see is what you get. Every time you put a DSLR to your eye, it’s lying. If you have the camera set to f/5.6 with a 50mm f/1.4, it’s going to show you an f/1.4 depth of field, but when you shoot it’s going to be f/5.6 and that’s completely different. The camera might be set for tungsten because you forgot that was your last assignment, but now you’re in daylight and you’re going to shoot off 15 or 20 frames of something before you realize you’re in bright sunlight and still at 12,000 ISO and tungsten white balance so everything’s blue and overexposed. With my Sony α9, as soon as I raise it to my eye I know exactly what I’m looking at. If the settings are wrong I know it right there and I can change it before I shoot.”
Making The Switch
Murphy-Racey says there are two ways to enter the Sony mirrorless camera world depending on which system you’re coming from. Canon users have the easier road, he says, with mount adapters that allow for the use of EF lenses on Alpha mirrorless bodies, while retaining autofocus and communication. Nikon owners, meanwhile, don’t have the same ability. While being able to adapt DSLR lenses to a Sony Alpha body is appealing in the short run, it’s a mostly a bridge to native mirrorless lenses, which offer significant advantages for a pro.
“A lot of photographers have said to me,” Murphy-Racey continues, “’I know you’re all into the Sony mirrorless system and I know it’s better in low light so what I’m going to do is just buy one body and just shoot it on my low-light jobs.’ And I say, ‘You’re going to be fine until you try one Sony lens. Because once you have the bright Sony optic on that camera you’re going to see the fullness and plentitude of all the technology come to bear. Then you’re going to be trying to get rid of your DSLR bodies and lenses as fast as you can. You’ll just be shedding your old equipment left and right.’ There’s a cumulative quality increase when you go all in on Sony full-frame mirrorless.”
“Waves that break on the beach start hundreds of miles from the shore,” he adds, “and this wave of Sony has been gathering speed and size for quite some time. I think it’s about to pick up the whole professional world.”