Before SLRs were the predominant big-boy cameras, shutters were reasonably quiet. The leaf shutters in press and view cameras, as well as those in twin-lens reflexes like the Rolleis were unobtrusive. Even the focal plane shutters in the Nikon, Canon, and Leica rangefinder cameras weren’t that bad. Then the flapping mirror made its entrance, and cameras got loud. The motor drive ratcheted the din up by several notches. The motor stopped being an option and started to be in more and more bodies, not just the uber-expensive ones. Then digital came along and there were no economic impediments to machine-gunning away. Press conferences started to sound like firing ranges. Amateurs, too, turned their cameras up to continuous noisy and began to terrorize family members.
I’ve had lots of cameras with electronic shutters, but the scan times were so long that they were usable only in special circumstances, with relatively static subjects and the camera on a tripod. All that changed when I got a Sony a9, with its 1/160 second scan time. Instead of being something you turned to when your back was against the wall, the electronic shutter in the a9 became my default. My guess is that I’ve used it for more than 95% of the shots I’ve made with the camera.
The a9 has a mode – the default, in fact – that causes the camera to make a little click sound when the shutter goes off. You wouldn’t confuse it with a focal plane shutter, but it’s a bit louder than the leaf shutter in the Sony RX-1, so the photographer knows when the camera fired. If you’re close to your subject, she knows, too.
When I first got the a9, I turned the fake shutter sound off. I took a few shots and turned it back on. It was eerie to have no auditory confirmation of the exposure. It went against more than 65 years of my photographic experience, and it was uncomfortable, to say the least. When I was shooting in one of the camera’s continuous shutter modes, I had no idea how many exposures I was making. When the camera was set to bang off the shots at 20 fps, I ended up with more than I wanted.
It took me a long time to retry the a9 with no shutter sound. I did it when photographing a piano recital. After that, I got used to the idea and started to do family photography with no shutter sound. I noticed right away the changed dynamic. When I used the D5, which has a shutter sound in normal modes just this side of cacophonous, everyone within earshot was conscious of my image-making. Some looked over at me. The kids often brought out their “photo faces”, including the fake smiles that are good for a swift tap of the “X” key in Lightroom. Sometimes they wondered why I picked that moment to fire the shutter, and it showed in their expressions on the second and subsequent shots. With the a7RIII and its quieter mechanical shutter, things weren’t all that different. If the shutter was audible, it seemed to produce much the same reaction, and a noisier shutter just meant that it was audible more of the time.
But with the a9 using silent shutter, after a while they just ignored me. They knew I was taking pictures, since I wasn’t trying to be sneaky about that. But just raising the camera to my eye and putting it down again didn’t get a reaction without the punctuation of the shutter sound. It was a revelation.
I mentioned that experience on one of the boards, and got this response (lightly edited):
…when you say, “I can work without affecting my subjects or the situation much more easily. I can make images where I couldn’t have before” you’re making profound statement. There is a lot of psychology involved.
Up until now we, in the subject’s shoes, (if we are talking models, family members, anyone human) are so acquainted with hearing that shutter click which is a cue to let us know that we have had our photograph taken. Now, we’re dealing with absolute silence? As in no sound detectable? This could go either way.
On the one hand, it might make models less nervous, as they’re not waiting to hear the shutter click, so they feel more at ease. On the other, it might have one feeling more apprehensive. “Did you take the shot already?” “Are you still shooting?” “Oh, I thought we were done”.
This silent shutter seems like it could bring about a disconnection between photographer and subject. If you’re a model and like being photographed, hearing that shutter click is all a part of it! Now we are talking utter silence it is more like a feeling of being “watched” like CCTV?
The situations with models and family members are quite different. With family members, the goal is usually to get images of the people doing what they would be doing if the camera weren’t there. Invisibility, or at least unobtrusiveness, is a virtue, and you don’t want the subject to change her normal behavior. With a model, the act of creating the image is a collaboration between the photographer and the subject. Knowing when the image is captured is an important clue for the model. Often she’ll change the pose now that that one’s in the bag. Or she’ll use the number and frequency of the shutter releasees as feedback about what’s working and what’s not. A big silent period is an occasion to try something else, and frantic clicking is an invitation to do more of what you’re doing.
Isn’t it nice that you can turn the fake shutter sound on for those occasions when you want it?