Event Photography with a Mirrorless Camera

Group photo of volunteers at the closing ceremony of the BIL LA 2016 Conference

If you've been following me for a while, you know I'm primarily an event photographer.  

My photography career grew out of a decade spent shooting the infamous Burning Man Festival, and I continue to shoot events more than any other kind of photography.  I even made a course teaching event photography.

So after all these years of lugging a heavy DSLR kit around, with all that weight on my neck and shoulders, you can imagine that I've been quite eager to try shooting events with the new breed of smaller, lighter mirrorless cameras.

But until now, I just haven't felt that the cameras were ready.

You've seen my tests, as these cameras evolved, of the Fuji X100S, the Fuji X100T, the Olympus OMD-EM5, and the Sony Alpha a6000.

These are all great small cameras in their own ways, and they have become my standard for travel—but none of them was ready to replace my DSLR for professional event photography.

But the latest generation of full-frame mirrorless cameras, with their superior low-light performance, built-in image stabilization, and faster (though still not DSLR-fast) autofocus, seemed to finally have the potential to rival a DSLR for high-quality event photos.

So I decided to test drive one of them for a real three-day event photography job.

   My weapon of choice: A borrowed Sony A7S II Full Frame mirrorless camera

My weapon of choice: A borrowed Sony A7S II Full Frame mirrorless camera

My experiment had two goals:

  1. Transport all the gear (camera, lenses, flash, batteries) in one small camera bag.

  2. When shooting, leave the bag behind and only carry the camera with a lightweight lens.

I could have achieved more versatility, of course, by carrying the whole bag everywhere and bringing lots of gear with me, but that would put me back in DSLR-weight territory.  The whole point of this was to see if a small, light rig could do the job adequately.  

And the answer turned out to be both yes and no (partly because of limitations in the  equipment, and partly because of my own mistakes, which I will detail below).

Why I Chose the Sony A7S II

The A7SII can see in the dark.  Shot in a near-pitch-black bar at ISO 25,600, with no flash, just ambient light.  35mm, f/1.8, 1/25 sec with OSS (lens stabilization) and in-body stabilization.

When I saw the first generation Sony A7S, with its see-in-the-dark sensitivity, I thought, "If this thing just had built-in image stabilization, it might be the perfect camera."

Well, be careful what you wish for: Sony added 5-axis, in-body sensor stabilization in the Mark II model, so now I no longer had an excuse not to spend $5000 on a new camera system (roughly $3000 for the body, plus a few lenses and accessories, it adds up fast).

But, in a rare mood of fiscal responsibility, I decided to borrow one and test it during a real event before dropping that kind of money.

So I called on my good friend Mike Newton, who has switched from a Canon DSLR system to the Sony A7S II.

Mike generously let me borrow all his Sony gear for the whole weekend to shoot the BIL LA 2016 conference (you can see my photos using that link).  You may recall me shooting the BIL 2012 conference in my Event Photography course, and also the 2015 BIL conference last year, which I wrote about here.

One problem, though, is that Mike shoots mostly architecture and interiors, not events.  So all his lenses were high-quality primes suitable for that kind of photography.  

But for events, I really, really prefer a zoom lens.  So at the last minute Mike snagged a friend's Canon 24-70 f/2.8 and included his Canon/Sony lens adapter, so that I could mount it on the camera.  

However: testing at home revealed that the autofocus in the Canon 24-70 via that lens adapter was basically worthless.  And the lens itself was a heavy monster, making the whole rig as big and cumbersome as carrying a traditional DSLR, and that defeated the whole purpose of my experiment.

So I decided to leave the monstrous Canon 24-70 and its adapter at home.

And instead, at the last minute, I borrowed some Sony zoom lenses from my colleague Julie, who has a Sony Alpha a6000.  I didn't really think through the consequences of this choice, and it came back to bite me in the ass later, as you will see.

What I Took With Me

1. Sony A7S II Camera body  Price it on Amazon 

    Lens: Sony SELP1650 16-50mm Zoom Lens Amazon 

2. Sony HVLF20M Flash Amazon 

3. Extra camera batteries

4. Sony 55mm F1.8 Full Frame Prime Lens Amazon 

5. Sony SEL35F18 35mm f/1.8 Prime Lens Amazon 

6. Sony E 55-210mm F4.5-6.3 Zoom Lens Amazon 

7. Sony SEL16F28 16mm f/2.8 Wide-Angle Lens  Amazon 

8.  Lowepro Nova camera bag Amazon 

What I Left at Home

The stuff I left at home

  1. Canon 24-70 f/2.8 Lens Amazon 

  2. Fotodiox Pro EF-NEX Lens Adapter for Canon Amazon 

  3. Sony 35mm F2.8 Sonnar Full Frame Lens Amazon 

  4. Mike's Weird Old Soviet Helios Lens plus adapter

  5. Sony HVL-F43AM Flash Amazon 

Again, my goal in this test was to experiment with a small, light camera kit.  So with that in mind, I intentionally left home some gear that I thought was either (a) redundant, or (b) too big and heavy.  If I wanted big and heavy, I would have taken my traditional DSLR rig.  

My Terrible Mistake

Many of you have already guessed the terrible mistake I made in selecting the gear.  (This is a great lesson in the wisdom of doing a thorough test shoot with the actual gear before taking it into the field, and a great reminder not to borrow untested gear at the last minute).

I did not realize, until I downloaded the first day's photos from my camera in my hotel room, that some of the lenses I brought with me were severely limited when used on a full-frame camera.

 The lens I used most: Sony SELP1650 16-50mm Zoom

The lens I used most: Sony SELP1650 16-50mm Zoom

Like most camera makers, Sony makes some lenses that are adapted to its crop-sensor cameras, and other lenses adapted to its full frame cameras.  But unlike some camera makers  (for example, Canon) Sony lets you mount and use either type of lens on its full frame bodies.

Now of course I'm not foolish enough to take a lens into the field without at least mounting it and taking some test shots on the camera.  And I did that with all of these lenses.  I took a few photos at home with each one, tested the autofocus and manual focus, etc., and reviewed the photos on the back on the camera to make sure they looked good.

But I did not download the photos to a computer and review them.  This was the big mistake.

Because on the camera's LCD screen, photos taken with crop-sensor lenses look just like photos taken with full-frame lenses.  But when viewed on a large-screen computer, you discover that those photos taken with the crop-sensor lenses are small.

They don't contain as many pixels as we've come to expect.

They look like photos taken with a DSLR from 5 or 10 years ago, before the megapixels wars brought the resolution up to modern standards.

If I wanted to crop this photo in tight on the speaker, I don't really have enough pixels to do it.

This problem is especially pronounced on a camera like the Sony A7S, because its sensor contains relatively few pixels in the first place.

To make a camera that can practically see in the dark, Sony made the pixels on the A7S huge, (allowing each one to gather more light), but this means fewer total pixels on the sensor.  That's why the A7S has only 12 megapixels, while the A7R, with same size sensor, has 36 megapixels.

And here's where the problem arises: When you shoot with a lens designed for a crop-sensor camera, it cannot spread the light wide enough to cover the full frame sensor.  So the Sony A7S sensor essentially crops itself down.  It only uses the central portion of the sensor—a smaller rectangle—to record the light when those smaller lenses are mounted.

So when you combine that smaller effective sensor size with the relatively low pixel count on the A7S, you get very small photo indeed.

For example, the pixel dimensions of my photos with the crop-sensor lenses was 2768 x 1848 pixels, or roughly 5 megapixels.  When I mounted a full-frame lens, the dimensions were 4240 x 2832 pixels, or roughly 12 megapixels.

Now, a 5-megapixel image is not exactly a disaster.  We all took photos of this size just a few years ago.  

And all those photos will be perfectly usable, given their intended use on the web.  A photo with 2768 x 1848 pixels is more than adequate for posting on the conference's Facebook page and in online galleries, etc.

But that pixel size is nevertheless limiting because (a) I can't crop the photos much, and (b) they can't be blown up to a large size, should such a need ever arise.

I like to be able to crop my photos.  Sometimes a mediocre photo can become a great photo by throwing 90% of it away.

But when you only have 5 megapixels, you can't really afford to throw many pixels away.

So, the vast majority of the photos I took at this event, when I was using the crop-sensor lenses, are usable but extremely limited in how much they can be cropped or expanded.  

Again, it's not a disaster, but it's an embarrassing mistake to have made as a photographer.

And the really unforgivably stupid mistake I made was leaving at home the full-frame 35mm f/2.8 lens, because I thought it was "redundant" given that I had 35mm f/1.8 lens already in the bag.  I completely missed the fact that one was a crop-sensor lens and the other full frame.  As a result of that blunder, all my nighttime photography from the event consists of 5 megapixel  rather than 12 megapixel images.  Really, really stupid of me.

Of course, I would not have been so cavalier in my preparation if this was a professional event-photography job.   

But this was not a "real" job.  I was shooting for free, as a charitable contribution to an event that I attend every year, and which is run by my friends.  And I told them at the outset that I was experimenting with a borrowed camera, doing a trial-by-fire test.

When you're working pro bono for three days, and spending another week post-processing over 2,000 photos for free, your friends will cut you some slack for technical imperfections.

But still, it's embarrassing to have made such a blunder.

The Results

So, after that long preamble, how did I actually like shooting with the Sony A7S II for three long days and nights?

To be honest, I loved it.

Do I look like I'm having fun?  Look at that tiny camera strap!  No weight, no worries.  Photo courtesy of Steve "Paynie" Payne

Carrying a camera that weighed about a third, or even a quarter, of my normal Canon DSLR event rig (the Canon 5D3 plus 24-105 f/4 L lens plus 580EX Speedlite) was a joy.  I didn't develop the neck and shoulder exhaustion that I normally do when shooting events.  I was able to shoot one-handed, when necessary, without traumatic stress to my wrist.   

I felt like a giant carrying a child's toy, instead of a man working a jackhammer.

And the camera itself, aside from the notoriously cumbersome Sony menu system, was surprisingly user-friendly.  It feels good in the hand (better than the first generation A7S), and the controls are reasonably intuitive.

Of course, you'll curse it every time you have to find something in the menus, but that is typical for Sony.

The image stabilization works invisibly and effectively.

And because the A7SII is able to shoot at very high ISO levels without much noise, you can set it on Auto-ISO and just let the camera do the thinking.

I love shooting with this camera in low light.   Here a touch of bounce fill flash keeps them from being silhouettes in the bright backlight.

I shot the entire event in Aperture priority, with Auto ISO, and a minimum shutter speed floor (in the Auto ISO settings) of 1/60 or 1/125, depending on how much human motion I expected to have in the frame.

The camera adjusts the ISO as needed to keep from going below your minimum shutter speed.

I find this a very satisfactory arrangement for event photography.

What I found less satisfactory was the lack of a good zoom lens.  Having left behind the bulky Canon 24-70 and its adapter, I fell back on Julie's Sony kit lens, the versatile but quirky Sony 16-50mm power zoom lens.

The 16-50 is an amazing little lens for its price and weight (it weighs almost nothing), but its quality becomes questionable at the extremes of focal length or aperture, and downright poor at the long end of its zoom range.  

The Lens I Wish I Had

Another photographer at the event was shooting with a first-generation Sony A7S, paired with the Sony 24-70mm F4 Full Frame Zoom Lens.  After swapping cameras for a few shots, we agreed that my Sony A7SII body paired with his 24-70 full frame lens would be the ultimate combination.  So we each suffered from gear envy.

 The lens I wished I had.

The lens I wished I had.

 

The Amazing Little Flash

I'll admit I was skeptical of the little Sony HVLF20M Flash.  That dinky little thing didn't look like it could light up a closet, let alone an event space.

 You turn this flash on by flipping it up into this vertical position.  When it's turned off it lies flat on top of the camera.

You turn this flash on by flipping it up into this vertical position.  When it's turned off it lies flat on top of the camera.

But my "small and light" rule prohibited my bringing the full-size Sony speedlight that Mike had loaned me.  So I left that one at home and instead took my chances with the little guy.  And I was glad I did.

When you're working with a camera that can shoot at ISO 20,000 without too much noise, you don't need a very strong flash.

For example, in the photo below, I'm bouncing the tiny little flash off a ceiling that is perhaps 20 feet high, and it still has plenty of power for the job.

f/2.0, 1/60, ISO 12,800.  Tiny bounce flash is more than adequate at this ISO.

By the end of the first cocktail party I loved that little flash, (a) because it weighs practically nothing, and (b) I found that you can turn it on and off by flipping it up or down with your chin, which is very convenient when shooting with a drink in one hand.

The HVLF20M is limited in that it cannot swivel from side to side.  Your only options are direct flash or ceiling bounce.  I always used it in bounce mode. Even in nightclubs with black ceilings, it always had plenty of power because I was working at high ISO settings.

The Raccoon-Eye Effect from overhead bounce when close to the subject.

Unfortunately, because it can only bounce straight up, if you are close to your subject, you tend to get the raccoon-eye effect that results from direct overhead light.  To mitigate this, if I used this flash again I would probably attach something to the flash (like a white index card with a rubber-band)  to flick some fill light forward to reduce those shadows.  Sony could improve the flash by building in a white fill card like you find in Speedlights.

But, How About the Autofocus?

This is the $64,000 question when it comes to mirrorless cameras.  So far, none have matched the lightning-fast, reliable autofocus of the best DSLRs.

And while the Sony A7SII is a step forward, with reasonably fast and reliable autofocus, it still can't match a DSLR.  

The focus is sometimes slow, and it sometimes misses the subject and focuses on the wall behind it instead.

So if you shoot anything requiring fast, foolproof autofocus—sports, dance, racing, wildlife, and other fast-moving subjects—you'd better keep your DSLR.

And if I was a professional wedding photographer, I wouldn't dream of giving up my DSLR's snappy autofocus for mission-critical events, like the wedding ceremony.  But later, at the reception, when the light gets low, I might switch to the Sony for its low-light magic.

An Alternate Viewpoint on Autofocus

My friend Judd Weiss shoots events with the Sony A7SII, and he argues persuasively that it's the ideal camera for the job.

But Judd is doing a different kind of photography from what I do.  As you can see from his photos, he's mostly shooting a kind of black-and-white art photography, typically close-up portraits with extremely shallow depth-of-field. 

He uses an extremely fast (f/1.1) 50mm fixed lens, and always focuses manually, with help from focus peaking highlights.  He argues that he can focus very quickly this way, and indeed he can.  But it's still nowhere near the speed of good autofocus.

Judd's stated purpose is to make the people at his events look "cool" and he does an excellent job of it.

Photo of me by Judd Weiss at the 2015 (previous year's) BIL conference.  Looking much cooler than I normally do.

But I'm doing something different when I do event photography.  My goals are (a) to document the entire event thoroughly in a journalistic style ("This is what you would see if you were here"), and (b) to capture fleeting moments of human interaction, especially those that make the event look joyful.

Those fleeting moments are, by definition, fleeting.  And for me, fast, reliable autofocus is essential to capturing them.  I think if I were to focus manually, as Judd does, I would simply miss too many of them.

Furthermore, my journalistic style requires a zoom lens, because one moment may require a wide shot of a room, and another moment a close-up of a person.   I can't be tied to a fixed 50mm as Judd usually is.

So while I love his photography and think he's bringing something uniquely valuable to the events he covers, I don't think his style, or his equipment choices, would suit my journalistic event-photography goals.

The Lack of Intimidation Effect

Finally, one drawback of shooting events with a small camera is the lack of what we call "The Intimidation Effect."

When you walk into an event with a big, professional-looking DSLR rig, everyone knows "this is the official event photographer" and they tend to snap into line and cooperate with you.  They get out of your way instead of blocking your shot.  They happily pose when you point a camera at them.  They hold critical moments until you are in place to get the shot.  

 People take you more seriously when you carry a big rig.  Photo of me last year at BIL 2105 with my Canon DSLR.  Courtesy of Judd Weiss.

People take you more seriously when you carry a big rig.  Photo of me last year at BIL 2105 with my Canon DSLR.  Courtesy of Judd Weiss.

But when you shoot with a small camera, you may be mistaken for just another civilian photographer, or another "uncle Bob" getting in the way of things, instead of a pro doing your job.

This is a real drawback if you are in fact a pro doing your job (or want to be perceived as one).

But it cuts both ways.  A big camera rig can be a liability when you want candid shots.  It's hard to be sneaky with a full-size DSLR sporting a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom lens.  You might as well be pointing a rifle at people.  They are going to notice.

A smaller camera like the Sony A7SII is a lot less conspicuous for snapping candid shots, and I enjoyed this aspect of it.  

Summary of the Sony A7SII as an Event Photography Camera

Pro

  • Small and lightweight (depending on the lens) — the big win
  • Great performance in low light
  • Great performance at high ISO settings
  • In-body stabilization works with all lenses
  • Lightweight bounce flash with the Sony HVLF20M
  • Real-time exposure in the viewfinder or LCD (as with all mirrorless cameras)
  • Less conspicuous than a DSLR for candid photos

Con

  • Autofocus speed is still no match for a good DSLR
  • Sony menu system is confusing, as always
  • Lacks the Intimidation Effect

Features I'd Like the Camera to Have

  • Touch screen
  • Swivel screen (instead of only tilting)
  • Built-in flash

So, Am I Ready to Give Up my DSLR?

The short answer: No.

But the long answer is... maybe soon.  These mirrorless cameras are getting really, really close to DSLR-level performance for event photography.  

And the A7SII beats any DSLR currently on the market for low-light photography because of its incredible sensor and in-body stabilization.

When the autofocus speed and accuracy can match that of a DSLR, I may be willing to switch to mirrorless for all events.

But until then, I intend to continue using my Canon 5D Mark III for important or professional event photography work, and using my mirrorless cameras for travel and "easy carry" use.

 

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