Using the Sony a9 II for Bird & Wildlife Photography: first impressions
30th June 2020
Earlier this year I had my first opportunity to use the new Sony a9 II on a bird photography and wildlife photography expedition. Up until then, I had used Canon DSLR gear from my beginnings with digital photography in 2003 and before that Nikon SLRs in the ‘age of film’. Here is a short review of my main impressions after using Sony’s flagship full-frame body (also known as the ILCE-9M2) paired with Sony’s new 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 zoom.
I deliberately decided to take the new equipment for a tryout on a bird and wildlife photography trip that I had done multiple times before, as I expected to face a steep learning curve and inevitable frustrations getting used to a new system. So I took it to Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia earlier this year on the Wild Images and Birdquest tours. That proved a good decision. There was an awful lot to learn and get used to!
This wonderful part of the world offers an extraordinary number of close-up situations with both birds and marine mammals, but also numerous opportunities at sea that are very challenging for a bird or cetacean photographer; ‘fussy’ sea backgrounds combined with one’s own motion on a ship, camera shake, fast-moving and often erratic birds or dolphins and frequently rather low-light conditions.
In recent years I had become deeply frustrated by Canon’s lack of technological progress in the autofocus area in particular. To be honest, my Canon 5D mark IV bodies only rarely manage to lock-on to subjects at intermediate or longer distances that are moving against ‘fussy’ backgrounds, as opposed to plain ones, and when you are a wildlife photographer so many backgrounds are fussy…
Folk were raving about the Sony a9’s autofocus abilities. Well, the fanboys always rave about everything, so the only sure way to find out if there was a real difference was to take this camera out into the field and try it out in many, many different situations.
After 3 weeks in the Southern Ocean, what do I feel about the Sony a9 mark II as regards its suitability for bird photography (especially in flight) and for wildlife photography in general? And what do I feel about using a mirrorless as compared with a DSLR?
Moving to mirrorless is a big step, even bigger than switching DSLR horses (say Canon to Nikon). First, what I disliked the most about using the Sony a9, then the things I liked the most. Pretty much in order of intensity felt.
THINGS I DID NOT LIKE ABOUT THE SONY a9 II
1. More Dust Bunnies
Oh my goodness, I had no idea how bad these would be on a full-frame mirrorless body in situations where you frequently have to change lenses, as I did in Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia, having only one body with me! The problem is way bigger than with a DSLR where the mirror and more especially the shutter curtain keep the sensor protected. With the Sony, and every mirrorless, the sensor is totally unprotected and vulnerable to any stray bit of dust, thread or whatever that blows into the open body, but with a full-frame mirrorless like the a9 the ‘target area’ for dust is much more extensive than, for example, in a camera with a micro four-thirds sized sensor.
At least you can see the dust bunnies in the electronic viewfinder. I had to remove them almost every day, often with a blower or a swab (as the built-in Sony mechanical cleaner seems to be less effective than the Canon one), and sometimes multiple times in a day!
Of course, dust bunnies are only a real issue if, like me, you do lots of photography in dusty places (Antarctica, for example, is a ‘cold desert’ and has plenty of dust and ice particles around, while, at sea, salty spindrift is often an issue). You are not going to think them a big issue if you spend your time mostly on land in western and northern Europe, to give just one example. If you visit dusty places a lot, you will definitely need two (or more) bodies so that lens changing is reduced.
2. The Electronic Viewfinder
Anyone interested in bird and wildlife photography who has been used to using the crisp, clear optical viewfinders on quality DSLRs is going to find using an electronic viewfinder, even a high-quality one like the Sony a9 uses, a big step down. Optical clarity is of key importance to bird photographers as our subjects are often pretty small in the viewfinder, and they may be partly obscured by branches, leaves, grass, rocks or whatever.
Yes it is pretty sharp, but not nearly the same sharpness and clarity as an optical, and even though the refresh rate on the a9 is high, the EVF still ‘freezes’ when you pan after a relatively close, fast-flying bird, leaving you with what seems like a long delay, but probably only half a second or less, before the EVF restarts – quite enough time for the bird to escape completely.
The other problem is the length of wake-up time after the camera has gone to sleep. I found this was causing me to lose some shots (there is nothing more frustrating than lifting the camera and seeing a black viewfinder, except a blurred shot of course…), so I soon switched the sleep mode timer from 1 minute to much longer, or even never. That eats into mirrorless battery life, which is not stunning, so having two or more spare batteries ready proved essential.
However, for the most part, the EVF worked well enough (few bird subjects fall into both the fast and close categories, and sleep mode can be adjusted for personal taste) and it is good to see your exposure settings reflected in the image you see in the EVF (see below).
3. The Small Body Size
I have large hands and, to me, the Sony a9 seems unnecessarily small and cramped, even with a battery grip attached. Personally, I would gladly sacrifice an extra 100 grams (a bit over 2 ounces) to have more space, especially around the forward projecting hand-grip area (the bit where the shutter button is). I can barely curl my fingers into the space between the grip and the lens, and with gloves on it is impossible.
THINGS I LIKED ABOUT THE SONY a9 II
1. The Autofocus & Tracking Abilities
There is one simple word that can express my feeling about the Sony a9 Mark II’s autofocus and tracking abilities when it comes to bird and wildlife photography: AWESOME!
They are even better than I imagined or hoped.
Sure, the recent addition of ‘animal eye’ tracking is still pretty hopeless for bird photography or indeed wildlife photography in general unless you are close to a mammal with big eyes. Fine if you have a close Tiger, useless for all birds or mammals with little dark eyes (which means most of them).
Also, the Sony a9 mark II does not work miracles. If the bird or mammal subject is small/far off against a ‘fussy’ background, it will rarely lock-on to it.
The extraordinary ability of the Sony a9’s autofocus only becomes apparent when the subject is at closer range.
At closer ranges, the ability to lock-on, and stay locked on, to birds in flight (or running creatures) is simply awesome (yes I have said it again). My Canon 5D mark IVs often lock-on at closer ranges, typically when the background is unfussy, but they have an annoying habit of losing focus once the bird or mammal moves against a fussy background or out of the central area of the viewfinder (something that often happens if you are photographing seabirds from a boat). They are also none too reliable with backlit subjects. With the Sony a9, it almost always locks-on and then tracks the subject all over the viewfinder, no doubt helped by its huge number of focus points that extend over an unusually large percentage of the image view. It even picks up the subject, most of the time, against fussy backgrounds, or alternatively does not lose focus when the bird flies suddenly against a fussy background (for example, when tracking a raptor against the sky and then against a wooded hillside). Backlit subjects are no problem at all.
At fairly long distances with larger subjects, or at intermediate ranges with smaller subjects, the Sony a9’s abilities are more mixed but still impressive. I don’t know how Sony’s software engineers work of course, but for years I have been moaning about my Canons’ frequent inability to puzzle out that a smallish moving object that the photographer keeps at the central focus point is much more likely to be the intended subject than the bloody great mountainside or seascape that fills up the background! On the contrary, the Sony a9 mark II seems to ‘understand’ exactly that need, even if it sometimes takes a moment to work it out, and I get a far higher percentage of sharp keepers in such situations than I do with my Canon 5D mark IVs.
Even at longer range, with small subjects, the percentage of keepers is significantly higher than with the Canon 5D mark IV. I noticed that I often ended up with a sharp image even when the autofocus seemed to have failed (i.e. the autofocus point was still showing grey, not green). Somehow, in that instant one pressed the shutter button, autofocus was often achieved.
2. The APSC feature
I don’t suppose Sony even thought of this use for the APSC (‘crop-sensor’) function that I am about to describe and celebrate when they built it into their full-frame cameras like the a9. Certainly, they only talk about it as a function that allows users to use APSC-only type lenses on their full-frame bodies.
However, for many bird photographers of small or distant subjects, for whom ‘reach’ is a holy grail, it has another use. The Sony a9 is immensely customisable (see below) and I programmed the C2 button to toggle between full-frame and APSC. Now, at the touch of a button, my 200-600mm becomes a 300-900mm f6.3 (and a 600mm f4 prime becomes a 900mm f4)! No need to fiddle around with a converter, putting it on, taking it off again when a subject is too close, and so on; nor is there any need to reduce shutter speed or raise ISO, nor any reduction in maximum aperture. With APSC engaged you get a 12MP image of about 4000 pixels across, compared with 6000 pixels across at full-frame. More than enough providing you are not intending to crop these APSC images too fiercely. (If you use a Sony a7R mark IV, another top-end model, you can even set your body to toggle to APSC and get images that are 26MP in size!)
Of course, this is a matter of personal preference. As someone who started bird photography long before the digital age, I like getting images as close to looking ‘right’ (as I regard them) in-camera as I can. Nor do I love the fiddle of converters, especially with cold or wet hands, nor the light reduction, reduction in maximum aperture or (admittedly often minor) increase in softness they cause. I am not suggesting this will be an appealing feature for everyone, especially for those who don’t care if they have to greatly crop numerous images with small subjects in post-processing, or who do not mind putting on and off converters, or pushing up ISO or reducing shutter speed, or tolerating reduced maximum aperture in return for those extra pixels.
Perhaps more significantly, and this may be a user issue rather than a technological phenomenon, I get the impression that the autofocus locks-on more easily with small moving subjects at a distance if I boost up the apparent size of the subject by toggling to APSC. As I said, this may be a user thing in that I simply get the selected autofocus point onto the subject more quickly/more accurately. I am not at all sure the camera autofocus points work more rapidly with the larger subject. If any reader knows anything about this technical issue, then please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
3. The Very Fast Burst Speed and the Silent Shutter
At 20 frames per second and with no rolling blackout (this is a mirrorless after all), combined with its stunning autofocus and tracking abilities, the a9 mark II is amazing at capturing action. There is nothing that can match it in the DSLR world. Even better, the electronic shutter is completely silent. This is irrelevant when photographing birds in flight, or jumping dolphins, but a key feature with close, wary animal subjects. Even if a bird, mammal or reptile does not retreat at the sound of a noisy shutter, its behaviour is likely to be changed.
4. The Extent of Customization
The level of potential personal customisation on the Sony a9 is much more extensive than on the Canon 5D mark IV. You can make most buttons or dials do whatever you fancy. I tried out various combinations before settling on what I preferred. In theory, something works, and then you get into the field and discover the flaw in the plan. An example is the manual focus toggle on the side of the lenses – just where I put my thumb when hand-holding that fairly bulky 200-600mm zoom. Well, no problem, just turn the function off or move it elsewhere.
5. Seeing the Settings Effect in the Viewfinder
On a DSLR you can only see the effects off your exposure settings in ‘live view’ in the LCD, or during a quick review of the last images in the LCD, but on a mirrorless you see them in real-time in the viewfinder. This is, of course, nothing unique to the Sony a9; it is simply a general advantage of mirrorless camera technology.
6. The Articulating Rear LCD Screen
Not something I use every day, but when you can get down low and close it is so very useful to be able to get the camera right down to ground level, or hold it low out of a car door, and yet still see exactly what you are photographing rather than using trial and error. It now amazes me that such screens are not standard on high-end DSLRs.
There are plenty of areas where I felt the two cameras were pretty similar, or where the advantage of the one over the other (in terms of bird and wildlife photography) was not marked, so I won’t bore you by going over all these. This is meant to be a short review of more significant features of interest for bird and wildlife photographers. A typical example is the Menus. Sure the Sony Menus are longer and more involved than the Canon ones, but that is because the Sony a9 has more bells and whistles. In time you learn which menu items are of interest to you personally and how to locate them. Or you just set up a ‘My Menu’ area for ultra-quick access.
OVERALL IMPRESSIONS ABOUT THE SONY a9 II
After 17 years using Canon, and after all that investment in big prime and other glass, it is hard to contemplate switching to any other manufacturer, and even more so to some ‘jumped up’ newly-arrived interloper into the Cano-Nikosphere who just a few years back had absolutely nothing that would tempt professionals and ‘pro-ams’ to jump ship.
Yet, suddenly, and with a clear purpose (to eat Canon’s lunch, in my opinion, otherwise why all those big white lenses appearing?), the small furry Sony animal has turned into a great big Cheetah that has raced to the front of the pack through a breathtaking series of technological advances. You had better watch out Canon and Nikon. That technology of yours is looking dated, at least as regards the needs of bird and wildlife photography.
For me, as someone who does mostly bird and wildlife photography, the number one issue is autofocus. A blurred shot through autofocus failure is a ruined shot. A sharp one makes all the difference in the world. The Sony a9 mark II is, for me, better than anything Canon has in its DSLR lineup and Canon’s first attempts at mirrorless were far behind Sony (both as regards body capabilities and the dire shortage of long focal length native lenses). In consequence, I have decided to say ‘Sayonara’ to Canon after so many years. And yes I will gladly put up with the extra dust bunnies (but with two bodies it will be less of an issue) in return for those amazing autofocus abilities.
And I fully expect Sony, who are innovating so fast, to come up with useable small ‘bird-eye’ autofocus technology before too long. These are people who really do appear to take note of what their audience needs, and deliver it. And there is the rub: I don’t feel confident that Canon will match Sony in autofocus developments and other innovations relevant to bird and wildlife photography in the future, so that tipped the scales for me when I agonised over whether to switch or not.
The Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 is one sharp lens! Sony do not even give it the highest G-Master rating, perhaps because the strategy is to encourage sales of large primes, but for someone who only wants to carry one telephoto (that is neither very bulky nor very heavy) or who cannot afford big primes (that is, most people) it is a fantastic option for bird and wildlife photography. Of course, if you can afford the wonderful 400mm f2.8 or the brilliant 600mm f4 then go for it!
The only weak point on the 200-600 is the tripod foot. It is too brittle and the sides of the ‘socket’ that attach the foot to the lens are too flimsy. My foot broke off after a minor trip-up when I was carrying the lens (and camera) on a tripod. Something to work on Sony if you want to attract more professionals and other serious photographers.
30 June 2020