I photographed a Christmas Eve church service a couple of days ago. My initial plan was to take a D5 with a variable aperture 80-400 mm lens and a D810 with the 14-24 f/2.8. But then I got worried about the acoustical shutter noise. I knew people would be too polite to make it an issue, but I didn’t want to disturb anyone. So I went with Plan B. Two Sony a7RII bodies, one with the Sony 70-200 f/4 OSS zoom, and one with a Loxia 21mm f/2.8. I would use silent shutter.
A battle plan never survives first contact with the enemy. I took a few test shots before the service started, and here’s what I saw:
See those bands? Oops! The lighting looked incandescent, but turned out to be LED. Forget the silent shutter. If I had known that was going to happen, I would have brought the Nikon gear, but now that I was there and the service was about to start, I needed to soldier on with the Sonys, use the machanical shutter and EFCS, and not trip the shutter at quiet moments. A photographer doesn’t have much freedom in an event like this. There are only a couple of places I could stand, and I couldn’t move around except at infrequent breaks. And it was pretty dark. Fortunately, ultimate use of these images was for the church’s web site and Facebook page, and at the resolutions required for that, noise wasn’t going to be a problem.
I’ll show you some representative images now, then I’ll talk about my camera-use strategies at the end of this post.
I started out with an establishing shot of the parishioners with the 21, handheld using IBIS:
And one from the back of the church:
Next up, an establishing shot of the celebrants:
With the zoom on a tripod, I took several shots of the choir:
And of the organist and the church’s fancy new tracker organ console:
Then a few of the key participants with the zoom. There’s some subject motion evident. Does it help or hurt the image? I don’t know, myself.
At the end of the ceremony, they turned out the lights and everyone lit candles. I set the exposure compensation to -3 stops to save the highlights, and boosted the shadows in post. I could have brought up the shadows more, but I think I would have lost the candlelight feeling.
It’s pretty amazing what a modern digital camera can do in near-darkness.
Art it’s not. But I think these, and the 40-or-so other keepers, will be what the church wants.
A few technical notes. All told, I made about 450 exposures, and kept about a tenth that many images. I took two spare batteries, and didn’t need either of them; the camera’s were about half-charged at the end of the evening.
So, although the a7RII is not my go-to camera for events, it performed credibly in this situation. I retain my dislike of the Sony AF point selection system and its lack of the direct access that both Nikon and Canon provide. With the manual-focus Loxia 21, the most aggressive focus peaking setting proved too weak for use in fully-magnified view, and the weakest setting was too strong for use in full frame view. It would be very nice to be able to set the peaking strength separately for all three magnifications: full frame, mildly magnified, and highest magnification.
Using the camera mode that automatically magnifies the finder image when you twist the focusing ring was not the best way to go, since it disables a way to get an idea of the focus depth by observing the peaking in full frame mode.
I used aperture-mode autoexposure exclusively, monitoring the shutter speed selected by the camera to make sure it was fast enough, and manually adjusting the aperture as necessary. I ended up using mostly f/5.6 and f/8 for the Loxia, and F/5.6 and f/4 for the 70-200 zoom. Since the a7RII is essentially ISOless above ISO 640, I set the exposure compensation control to either -2 or -3 stops, depending on the scene. That gave me highlight protection, and allowed me to push in post to compensate for the “underexposure” with no noise penalty. If I had used the D810, I would have used the same exposure strategy, but with the D5, I’d probably dial down the exposure compensation less.
I have programmed my a7RIIs to use manual switching between the finder and the back-of-camera LCD display, and that was great. For the Loxia, I used the EVF all the time. With the tripod-mounted zoom, I mostly used the LCD display. The LCD display and live view with the D5 provide roughly equivalent experiences, except for the fact that the manual-focusing aids on the a7RII are far superior. In the dim light of the church, the optical finder in the D5 would not be as easy to use as the EVF on the a7RII, and of course manual focusing in dim light with the D5’s finder would have been a cruel joke. And, just for the record, I am still not a fan of the way the Loxia 21’s mechanical design makes mounting and unmounting it such a PITA.
Knowing now that the a7RII silent shutter mode won’t work with the LED lighting in the church, if I had it to do over again, I’d probably take the Nikon gear, but it would have weighed a great deal more. On the other hand, if I needed a greater variety of lenses for an event job, I’d be tempted to take a7x gear to make the load manageable.