I've been shooting golf for a little over twenty years. Now, that's a long time, and there are certainly many others who have been doing it longer--and have seen more--than me. But i've seen a lot, and been through just about every technological innovation that 35mm still photography has seen on a golf course. I've gone from manual-focus Nikon lenses to an autofocus canon EOS system. I've run hundred-foot rolls of film through 80 frame-per-second hulcher cameras. I've gone from film to digital. I've seen mirrorless cameras get their start. All of these innovations have had an impact on what I do, and how I shoot, in their own way, for better or worse.
but I am hard-pressed, when thinking about how much things have changed over the past two decades, to come up with a piece of gear or technology that has, and is going to have, a more universally-encompassing, game-changing effect on the world of golf photography than the sony Mirrorless system.
In it, we finally have cameras (and, more importantly, now that Sony has released its own 400mm f2.8 lens, a total system) that reject the idea that creating certain kinds of images involves a compromise. We finally have a system that lets you make every kind of conceivable picture utilizing one camera system, without trading off image quality, lens availability, or ease of use. In terms of taking a creative vision and turning it onto a final still image out on the golf course, we have a system that delivers--in every possible situation.
Just as an example, let's look at one kind of golf photo that you're probably familiar with: one that, for years, has always had a bit of a taboo attached to it...this one:
The top-of-the-backswing picture has always been a dicey proposition. If player or caddie hears that click, you're toast. Yet sometimes it's the only way to make a picture that works--at least in terms of light, peak action, composition, and the ability to see the player's face. Sure, it can be done, but you'd better do it right. In times past, there were a few ways to get away with it: silence your camera somehow, make sure you're downwind, stand waaaaaay far away, use a long lens. Usually, it involved some combination of those.
Digital made things a little easier, in some cases, as the first mirrorless cameras--essentially digital point-and-shoots--started to improve in quality. They were hardly on a par with digital SLRs, mind you, but some of those earlier pocket cameras could, under ideal conditions, silently produce an uncropped file that held up for magazine reproduction. There was even one rather well-known photographer who went so far as to claim that he was the first to ever try such a thing in the mid-2000's by bringing a point-and-shoot to a golf tournament--the Masters, no less!—and wondered in a blog post why others who had come before him hadn’t figured this out.
Others had, of course, but he either didn't know that or hoped his readers didn't. While I certainly wasn’t the first, I know that I--and others--had been toting various Fuji, Konica/Minolta, Casio, Canon, Nikon and Samsung pocket cameras to golf tournaments for a while; their (for the most part) crappy files, low resolution, limited (if any) lens choices and tiny sensors were the price you paid for quiet, and you used them very, very sparingly. I remember the late, great Phil Sheldon showing me his first digital Leica point and shoot, and marveling at its silence, at the 2002 US Open at Bethpage Black. In the days of film (remember them?) people had been silencing SLRs by putting them inside ungainly Jacobson sound blimps since time immemorial. Fred Vuich made his famous “Masterpiece” Sports Illustrated cover (Google it; it's still, in my humble opinion, the greatest golf photo ever made, and certainly the frame against which all top-of-the-backswing frames will forever be judged) with a single frame on a Mamiya 7 rangefinder (that's a film camera for my millenial readers). Bottom line: It’s been done, it could be done, it had been done. But doing it was a real pain.
And even later on, as digital technology became better, there were improvements with cameras that made the backswing photo even more of a possibility. Casio came out with a digital camera that could shoot 60 silent frames per second. You could set the Canon 1DX to live view and single-frame “silent” and actually take a silent photo (as long as you kept the shutter button depressed, motor/shutter wouldn't advance). A Canon 5D Mark III, if you were positioned downwind of a golfer and sitting near, say, a TV tower generator, couldn't be heard.
But the important thing to realize is that all of these things—from the sound blimp to the rangefinder to the point and shoot all the way up the line—involved a compromise. Want to use a blimp? Hit the gym because that sucker weighs a ton, it’s hard to see through and good luck with changing any of your camera settings (let alone a lens) while it’s strapped in there. A rangefinder? One frame at a time, a whole new set of lenses and, yes, it still actually makes noise so you need to be some distance away. Want to use that 60-fps Casio for a full swing sequence? You’ll get files that you can only print in a magazine at postage-stamp size. How about the 1DX live-view thing? Ok, but you only get one frame, have fun seeing anything on that non-articulating screen in bright sunlight and pleasepleaseplease keep holding down that button until the golfer hits and don’t let your finger slip because the second you let go of that shutter button it sounds like a firecracker going off. Masking camera noise with a nearby source of other noise--generator, road, etc--naturally means your positioning is dictated by that source, and not by where you necessarily want to be.
So here's the thing. Shooting golf--or at least, taking full advantage of photographic opportunities and, to borrow from the golfer's parlance, being able to hit every club in the bag--used to be all about compromises. You wanted a certain "specialty" shot? You had to compromise on your equipment somehow. Carry something extra. Set and use your camera in an unfamiliar manner. Move somewhere else. Not anymore. Sony's new flagship sports camera, the A9 (and its "bigger" sister, the A7rIII), has turned that whole notion upside down. You can now use the same camera for everything, for every conceivable shot, without having to worry about compromising on lenses, file size, image quality, speed, or noise level.
That backswing shot is a good example of what I'm talking about, and when people hear about the Sony A9's totally silent shutter option that's naturally the first thing they think about. But it's not just about that by any means. Having a completely silent camera (and again, one that can produce gorgeous 24mp files at even high ISO settings) opens up your world to images you would normally never even think of making. As a rule, golf courses are places of quiet, and even when a golfer is "away from the ball" it is invariably better to err on the side of caution and not take a picture if there's even the slightest question in your mind as to whether shutter noise will disturb the athlete. The A9 removes those constraints completely. If you see a beautiful shaft of golden light pop across a putting green, you can follow your instincts rather than rein them in, and push the button without fear of distraction.
We refer to this kind of picture as an "On-course portrait." As in, "Golfer X won't pose for us so we need you to get an on-course portrait of him/her." Which sounds like a simple idea until you realize that the vast majority of times that a golfer who is not playing a shot is actually standing still and/or holding their gaze in a manner that allows you to compose and shoot a portrait of them, is when another golfer is playing a shot. All of a sudden, the A9 in silent mode presents you with the ability to make those images, and to pounce on opportunities to capture quickly-moving light, or fleeting facial expressions without the worry of distracting your subject or his/her playing partners.
There's another "mode," this one reserved for on the A9, that sets the Sony system apart--high speed mode. 20 frames per second, to be exact. In the past, if you wanted to shoot a swing sequence on the course (and do it quietly) you always--whether you were shooting with a high-speed still camera or frame grabbing video--had to sacrifice file size or image quality. No more. 20 FPS gives you just about anything you'll ever need, in a 24-megapixel file..
True, it may be overkill in a lot of situations, and it certainly is not a replacement for timing and anticipation, as I've written about here--and trust me, if you are friends with your editors, you won't be friends for long if you leave the A9 set on 20 FPS all day. But in the right circumstances, being able to switch to high-speed mode can get you better images: a tee in the right place, a glint of a catchlight in the eyes, or perhaps even things going on in your frame that you can't see with the naked eye.
Now, take that silent mode, the 20 frames per second, and the ability to carry around a single camera system that covers every conceivable situation, and put them all together. At this summer’s U.S. Open, I was working for the United States Golf Association, which has an enormous social media operation. As such, a lot of what we do needs to be turned around quickly; when a request for an image comes in it’s because there is a plan and a schedule, and we need to provide the imagery necessary to execute it in an efficient, timely manner.
While following Tiger Woods during the first round, out in the middle of nowhere and miles from the clubhouse on the fifth hole, I got a request that, not even a year ago, would have made me howl with laughter. My friend and editor Fred Vuich sent me a text from the media center: “Social is asking for a down-the-line Tiger swing sequence ASAP.”
Now, it’s important to understand all of the things that need to come together for this to happen. First, “Down the line” means shot from behind the tee, seeing what the golfer sees down the fairway as he hits. So I needed to find a tee with a rope line behind it—in other words, a shooting position—where that was possible. Second, in order to see the fairway, and the golfer, and get a nice blue sky rather than a blown-out white one, said tee box needs to have the sun behind it. Third, in order to get the full effect of the speed and power of Tiger’s swing, ideally he needs to be hitting driver. And finally, the teeing area needs to be close enough to the rope line that you don’t have to worry about a marshal or TV camera man sneaking in between you and the golfer at the last second, ruining the shot. As luck would have it, Tiger’s group was approaching the fifth green, and I knew from having scouted the course during practice rounds that at this time of day (early morning), the sixth tee met every single one of those criteria.
But now let’s rewind about a year, before the A9 came out. I keep trying to think of all the possible replies I would have had to Fred’s text back then, and they all start with the phrase, “Are you kidding?” Or perhaps something a little less polite. I simply wouldn’t have been able fulfill this request, because in order to shoot a silent swing sequence on the course, I would have had to have gone back to the media center, gotten a sound blimp (which is so bulky and heavy there’s no way I would have carried it on to the course unless we had already established a pre-determined need for it hours beforehand). In the intervening time, Tiger would have teed off on 6 and we would have missed a golden opportunity. The next hole, 7 wouldn’t work (a par three), then 8 (no access behind the tee) then 9 (facing the wrong direction), 10 (ditto), 11 (another par 3), 12 (again facing the wrong way) and on and on. You get the idea. It would have been at least 2 hours before we would have been in a position to maybe—maybe—make the picture they wanted.
But this year, the answer was simple. A9, silent mode, 20 frames per second. I told Fred to give me 10 minutes. And 10 minutes after the request was made, I had transmitted in 40 frames of Tiger ripping a driver at the 6th tee.
This is what I’m talking about when I say there’s no need to compromise. The A9—the same camera I was using for everything else, without any special equipment or modifications—enabled me to deliver the content my client needed in a way that simply would not have been possible before.
While I'm at it, let's talk about this "same camera I use for everything else" idea. One of the things that first sold me on the Sony system was its adaptability in terms of lenses. Sure, Sony makes some really, really nice ones (they just came out with a 400mm f2.8 that sets a new standard in terms of sharpness and weight compared to anything else out there). But money doesn't grow on trees, and while the cameras themselves are game-changers it's not necessarily the easiest thing to drop a ton of cash on new lenses (that same 400 is going to run upward of $12,000) when you've already made a significant investment in glass. Since the design of a mirrorless camera by definition eliminates the need for the mirror box in you'd find in a DSLR, the camera's flange focal distance (FFD)--the distance between the back of the lens mount and the sensor--is decreased dramatically. This, then, gives enterprising engineers at companies like Sigma and Metabones room to play--they can make adapters which, because part of their purpose is to actually add distance between the sensor and the rear element of the lens (basically a glorified extension tube), not only work for various other lens mounts, but also focus to infinity and have no glass in them.
You name it, you can put it on a Sony. I've put my Canon FD, Canon EF, Leica M, and even Mamiya RZ lenses on my Sonys. You're pretty much out of luck with Nikon, but with their latest mirrorless release it looks like, well, someone finally figured out how to make a Nikon lens work on a Sony mirrorless body--albeit a body about 2 generations behind what Sony currently offers.
But I digress. I first started investing in my Sony system because of the bodies, not because of Sony's lenses--which I've only recently begun to appreciate for the razor-sharp gems that they are. And yes, by now I have pretty much dropped all of my old DSLR lenses in favor of Sony's native E-mount ones. But when I first started with it, I did it because I could use my old Canon lenses on it. That was the only way it made sense! I didn't have to buy a new 24-70mm or 70-200mm or 400mm f2.8 yet, but could still reap the benefits of silent shooting, and of amazing sensors. That fact alone made the transition economically viable, and I think it's a tremendous selling point. But beyond that, it also allowed me to incorporate not just my mainstay EF lenses, but just about everything else in my equipment closet, too. A couple of examples of adapted lenses shot on the Sony system:
Another thing the Sony system has going for it: incredible sensors with high-ISO sensitivity, and built-in image stabilization which works not only with dedicated Sony lenses but also with adapted ones (although in some cases, like with Leica M lenses, you'll have to input the working focal length manually). This one-two punch allows for hand-holding in situations you normally wouldn't have even considered before. And not needing a tripod gives you an invaluable flexibility to move around and document what's happening n front of you, even if the only light is coming from an as yet-unrisen sun or a worker'd LED headlamp.
Image stabilization is not just for darkness, though. Its also good for things like, oh, putting a camera on a 20-foot pole in high winds as in the photo below, or in the one below that, hand-holding a 400mm f2.8 lens at 1/1000th of a second:
You might notice that I mentioned above a couple of images made using the camera on an extension pole. Now, this is another idea that's been around in golf for a long time, but the Sony system takes it to another level. Time was, you'd stick a camera on a monopod, attach about a 15-foot cord to your motor drive port with a button on the other end, prefocus, hold the whole contraption up over your head, and pray. Later on, there were gadgets that connected to the camera via USB, created a wifi network, and allowed you to see the frame on your phone. This was a significant improvement, but it still required you to carry a small wifi brick and a couple of cords with you, and the reliability was a bit sketchy. The Sony A9 and A7rIII have this functionality built into the camera; on one smartphone screen, via a free app, you can not only see your frame but control all aspects of exposure and trigger the camera. The advantages of such a setup for remote shooting--whether it's on an extension pole or hidden under a bush--can't be overstated.
The ability to see your frame edges, control your exposure, and then trigger your camera, all from your phone, adds another weapon to a photographer's arsenal--made even more effective when especially when you're talking about putting it on top of a 20-foot carbon fiber pole. Better yet, because of its lens adaptability, the camera sitting on that pole can weigh as little as half a pound when combined with something like a Leica M-series lens, as in the photos above. Again, one camera system. The same system that made the action photos at the beginning of this piece. And the course photos below...
So now let's bring everything together, with my favorite picture from this year's U.S. Open:
I stumbled on to this picture. On Saturday at the U.S. Open, the tees at Shinnecock Hills' notorious par-3 seventh hole were moved forward--far farther forward than they'd been, either in practice rounds or the first two days of competition. As we followed Brooks Koepka and his group to the tee, we expected that our little group of photographers and writers would turn right after getting through the crowd, and take up a position facing the players, who would then be hitting back toward us. Instead, we turned left, and as soon as we did, were forced to stop dead in our tracks as Koepka, no slow player he, had already teed up his ball and was getting ready to hit, about 50 feet directly in front of me. If I had been using my old DSLR system, I would have still been fumbling to set the camera to live view, single-frame, and then struggled to see the screen on the back of the camera in bright sunlight and frankly, would never have been able to get everything set before Brooks got over the ball. With the Sony system, already set to silent, I simply picked up my short zoom camera (with a 24-70mm f2.8), and was ready to go. No fuss, no muss, no problem. Another example of a picture that quite literally would not have happened with another system.
A couple of months ago, I was talking with another photographer whose work I really respect and admire, and we were chatting about the various camera systems. He's a Canon guy (as was I up until I switched), has been forever, and is, shall we say, perhaps a bit resistant to change. "What's the big deal?" he said. "So it does 20 frames per second and it's quiet." Well, for starters, I kind of think that speaks for itself, at least when it comes to shooting golf. But I hope what I've written above gives you more of an idea that it's not just those raw, advertising-copy-ready aspects of the Sony system that are important, but that it goes beyond that. It's about how you can capitalize on them to improve your images and the service you can provide to clients as a golf photographer. Sony has created a game-changing system for shooting golf. It's not too shabby with other sports, either, but golf is my specialty and therefore I was really eager to test the system out in the space where I make a good part of my living. I'm happy to report that it passes with flying colors.
But look, I get it. Photographers are a loyal bunch; I mean, the Canon-vs.-Nikon debate has raged on for years and years and despite one or the other getting the upper hand in their back-and-forth battle, people seldom switch. And personally, I don't care what you use, as long as you're making pictures that make you happy, and make your clients happy. And yes, cameras are merely tools, each with their own strengths and weaknesses that suit particular situations and workflows. But ignore the new Sony system at your peril, because it can do things--which means the person standing next to you shooting with it can do things--that the others can't. And it does them really, really well.