Using the Sony a9 III for Concerts as Dave Matthews Band’s Photographer

Dave Matthews

Like most photographers, I’ve never reviewed a piece of gear before. Also like most photographers, I tend to voraciously read reviews each time I consider upgrading. Many of these reviews parse through micro-level analysis of pixel detail, noise levels, and test charts but to me fail to answer the simple question: “will this help me get the shot?”

So when Sony offered to send me a pre-production a9 III to shoot the Dave Matthews Band tour finale at Madison Square Garden, I thought, “will this help me better get the shot?” I jumped at the chance to see firsthand whether these new features would help me specifically as a concert photographer.

First, we should talk about two common problems concert shooters face when using mirrorless cameras. This will help explain why I was very excited about the Alpha 9 III’s global shutter.

Dave Matthews Band

The first problem is banding. That occurs when your shutter speed is not synced up with the refresh rate of the lights. It’s more prominent in video but in concert photography it can happen as well. There’s a minimum shutter speed needed to freeze action and if the refresh rate is out of sync with that, you can get dark bands or lines across your photo. I solve for this currently by using the mechanical shutter only, disabling my e-curtain front shutter, and keeping my shutter speed no higher than 1/500 second.

For our stage setup these adjustments work well to negate most banding problems I have. However, if you’re shooting only the first three songs of a band you don’t typically shoot, especially in a small club with low quality lights, banding can frustrate you or ruin a great shot.

Dave Matthews Band

The second big problem with electronic shutters and concert photography is something called rolling shutter distortion. This happens when an object is moving in the frame faster than the readout of the sensor. As a result you end up getting a distorted or bent object. For me, this will happen with our drummer Carter Beauford. Carter is one of the world’s greatest drummers and he is always moving extremely fast. I’ve yet to find an electronic shutter that reads out fast enough to freeze his drumming in motion. It is another reason I use a mechanical shutter on my cameras, but in doing so, I lose some features that make Sony cameras so powerful.

The Alpha 9 III aimed to solve these two problems. So let’s dive into my experience with the features and see how it did.

Global Shutter

This is the feature that made me so excited to try the a9 III. With a global shutter, all of pixels in the sensor are read out at the exact same time, instead of line by line like a scanner, and the a9 III has the first CMOS global shutter that has ever appeared in a full frame consumer camera.

Having a global shutter also eliminates the need for the a9 III to have a mechanical shutter because now the electronic shutter is technologically superior to any mechanical shutter.

Dave Matthews Band

Other advanced cameras like the Nikon Z9 have eliminated their mechanical shutter, but they lack a global shutter. Without the global shutter, they can only can adjust for banding by tweaking their shutter speed until it disappears. This works, to a point. With the Alpha 9 III none of those workarounds are needed. It just captures exactly the frame you intend to capture at any shutter speed you want, up to 1/80,000 second.

Dave Matthews
This shot would not have been possible without the Alpha 9 III because these LED spots create banding on all my cameras, even with mechanical shutter.

With Dave Matthews Band (DMB), our lighting crew has helped to minimize banding by outfitting the stage with high quality lighting that has variable refresh rates. Even still, some of our spots and side fill lights can create banding, even when using a mechanical shutter. Having a camera equipped with a global shutter created for the first time an opportunity for me to photograph them in certain lighting situations from certain angles. When you photograph the same band every night, this unlocks many new possibilities.

Finally, with a global shutter, rolling shutter distortion is a thing of the past. Just check out these two photos of Carter. This first was taken with the a7R V with the electronic shutter:

Carter Beauford, drummer for Dave Matthews Band

And this image was taken with thea9 III and its global shutter:

Carter Beauford, drummer for Dave Matthews Band

With the global shutter, the stick stays straight and there’s no distortion on the cymbal.


I’ll file this under “features I did not know I needed until I tried it.” As photographers, we are probably quicker to react to situations than most folks, and yet we are still human and if we’re reacting to something, we are likely behind. This feature allows you to set the a9 III to pre-capture a designated number of seconds when you half press the shutter. When you follow through with pressing the shutter all the way, it writes those pre-recorded frames to the burst you’re capturing.

I found, for me, the sweet spot was one second of pre-capture with my frame rate, but you can adjust the time to your needs.

Dave Matthews Band

It should be noted that the pre-capture does cut into the buffer, but I found the buffer in my pre-production model was more than adequate.

This was so valuable because when I select the frame to publish, my decision is often based on small micro-motions or expressions of the band members. The pre-capture feature usually offered me a superior choice because it was already recording frames as I was reacting to whatever moment was caused me to raise the camera to my eye.

This, like the global shutter, is a game changer.

Frame Rate

The a9 III can capture up to 120 frames per second (fps), which is blazingly fast. I only used the high frame rate of 120fps once, just to try it. For me, it was unnecessary to capture that many frames and is a data management nightmare. However, for a photographer assigned to the Olympics, this will be a tool that can set them apart from their peers. I can’t wait to have more time with this camera to play with high-speed photography.

For the concert photographer, finally being able to use an electronic shutter and pick my frame rate was amazing. The a9 III allows frame rates of 1/5/10/15/20/30/60/120 fps. In my time with the camera, using a frame rate of 20, 30 or 60 allowed me to better see the nuances in the band’s playing when I went back through them.

Looking back at photographs of Stefan Lessard, I became aware of just how graceful he moved his hand up the neck of the bass and how much movement was in his wrist as he played. Being able to realize and see something new with a band you’ve photographed hundreds of times is extremely special.

Stefan Lessard

Sony has also added a new custom button just inside the grip. In my pre-production model it was programmed to activate the full 120 frames per second, regardless of where the dial on the top was set. If you’re a sports shooter or photojournalist that’s a great feature to have should something unexpected or high speed arise.

It’s also worth noting that the a9 III has blackout free shooting for any frame rate you choose.


While obviously not a new feature, it’s notable that this camera combines the AI autofocus features of the a7R V with the focus area of the Alpha 1. Combining this with a high frame rate and fast processing, I found it was very hard to miss a shot. The focus locked quickly anywhere across the frame.

You can select various focus modes (human, animal, bird) as well as utilize a new “extra small” single focus point which helped me get this shot with a wide angle through the drum kit.

Dave Matthews Band

If you shoot concerts, you know that constantly shifting lighting plus moving musicians equals many missed shots. With the Alpha 9 III my hit rate was better than any camera I’ve ever used. Nearly perfect over two nights of use.

Dave Matthews Band
The articulating screen helps me stay (mostly) out of sight when getting shots on stage.

Ergonomics and Screen

With each generation of Sony cameras, the ergonomics and screen have gotten better. I think with the a9 III they’ve finally dialed it in just right. The screen is the same flip and twist situation we saw in the a7R V that I love. They’ve also rounded out the hand grip angled the shutter button down just slightly. Finally, they moved the custom buttons to a slightly different level than the shutter.

All of this combined made for the most comfortable shooting camera that I’ve used from Sony yet. To me, the grip feels a bit like an older pro DSLR from Nikon or Canon — I think that’s a good thing.


One of the things I love about the Sony Alpha system is the menus. I am aware that there are people who dislike the complicated Sony menus. For me once you learn them, the customization abilities are incredible. I’d even say it’s indispensable if you’re a photographer like me that shoots a certain genre repeatedly.

Because of the new features of the Alpha 9 III it is perhaps good to take a minute revisit some of the lesser known features that already exist in Sony cameras, because they help make the workflow with the A9III so much better.

Display as Group

This is such a useful feature to be able to see and if you choose delete a whole burst of images at once. Handy if you used those 120fps unwisely, or if the photograph you were trying to take didn’t materialize. With this feature you can scroll quickly through the burst, lock the image you want to keep, and discard the rest.

Dave Matthews Band
Focus confirmation allowed me to quickly look at the back of the screen and know that Dave’s face was in focus without having to zoom in.

Focus Confirmation (Focus Frame Display)

Another feature that most Sony shooters don’t seem to know about is the focus frame display which acts as a focus confirmation feature. This displays a small green rectangle during playback that tells you where the camera was focusing for the shot.

Again, extremely helpful to quickly scroll through your burst and select your favorite shot without having to zoom in on the image to confirm that it’s in focus.


There’s been a fair amount of conversation over whether the global shutter would handle noise as well as other current Sony Alpha models. Judging the high-ISO noise from a new camera is always hard because you’re working with pre-production firmware and restricted to shooting JPEG only.

When photographing the shows, I choose to set the ISO to AUTO, floating between 250 and 3200 ISO. While I did not have time to do a direct A-B comparison between my other Sony cameras and the a9 III in JPEG, I was very pleased with the performance considering the compromises made.

In my real world experience, the a9 III files held up exceptionally well to moderate cropping, color correction, and print. I felt the dynamic range of the JPEG file was good and I wasn’t hindered in my post production work by it. In real world use I didn’t see any noise or dynamic range issues as it relates to having a global shutter.

If you’re consistently shooting at the lowest ISO to have the cleanest files in a studio setting, this is probably not the camera for you anyways; you’d be better served with the A7R V.

Dave Matthews Band

Dave Matthews Band

An Impressive, Big Leap

I think the Alpha 9 III is an impressive jump in technology for digital cameras. It did everything I asked it to, and more. It allowed me to feel more secure during the show knowing that I could harness the higher frame rate of an electronic shutter without the previously inherent downside. With the global shutter and it’s amazing autofocus, essentially if I saw a shot, I also captured it. The a9 III not only helped me get the shot, but it felt like an extension of my brain during the show. The fact that Sony has stressed this is a pre-production model, and that they will continue to tweak and improve this camera for better final images, only makes me more excited to see the end result.

I feel the same way about the a9III as I felt when I got my first pro DSLR years ago. That it is a game changer and unlocks the ability for me to go places with my photography where technology was the limiting factor for reaching my goals. I can’t wait to get my hands on it again when it is released and try it out for sports and high speed photography as well as some studio work with that insane shutter speed. It’s the most capable all-around camera I’ve used yet.

I’d venture to say that if you are thinking about switching to Sony as a professional, there couldn’t be a better jumping in point than this camera. But, if like me you are already a Sony shooter, I think that this camera improves greatly on the previous a9 series cameras and serves as a compliment to the amazing a7R V or Alpha 1 for when you don’t need the resolution of those cameras or find yourself in the most challenging conditions.

About the author: Sanjay Suchak is an independent commercial and editorial photographer based in Virginia and Los Angeles. He serves as the photographer for the Dave Matthews Band and regularly works with a roster of national bands as well as music festivals around the country. 

When not on the road, he works with commercial and higher education clients to help tell their stories. He is also currently serving as a Fellow in Democracy at the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia, where he is working on a long term documentary project and helping to educate students on photojournalism and the importance of media and the free press. He’s mostly interested though in finding the best place in each city to get tacos.