This is a question I am asked very often and it's completely understandable. I've shot with a DSLR for a lifetime and with that, only on one brand specifically. Canon.Why then change all of a sudden and endorse mirrorless and in that, Sony Alpha? Well, it's not a complicated answer and I'll explain in much more detail as you read through my post below.
I was too young to truly comprehend the changes photographers experienced when the change from SLR to DSLR took place. Sure I had a SRL camera and have been taking photo's from a very young age. My dad had his own safari company and was a keen wildlife photographer, but I think I had control of his camera more than what he did. I remember how often we used to sit in the living room with the projector running slide after slide of images that my dad took whilst on safari. This was the process every time he returned from a safari - get the images processed and watch the slide show with his kids. He would accompany each photograph with a story and my sister and I would be captivated!
That was a long time ago and I certainly had no idea what I was doing with camera in hand. I just knew that I loved it and that I loved being out in nature with it.
Fast forward many years later, and I now find myself firmly amidst the changes happening as we leave DSLR behind and move over to the new frontier in photography - mirrorless.
All of us as wildlife photographers are living in exciting times. You could be a beginner, someone who enjoys wildlife photography as a hobby or even a serious professional making a living from it. The fact is that we are all in truly exciting times in photography and camera tech. As I type this blog the biggest brands are in competition. The focus is on producing the very best mirrorless systems and the competition certainly is heating up. As we leave the DSLR era behind, the innovation in mirrorless and steps taken thus far is truly astonishing.
I think back to 2017.
I had some guests on safari and a lady had a Sony A9 and a 100-400mm with her. She also had a Sony A7R3 with her. I remember this well would love to explain why.
During that time period I was still very much of the opinion that mirrorless had a long way to go to compete with my DSLR system. One of the biggest factors for me was build structure and quality, and also lens choice. I felt there was alot to be improved on for the mirrorless systems and I had not even considered changing at all.
This was justified. I prefer to shoot on fixed telephoto lenses such as the 400 f2.8, and the 600 f4. None of those existed yet in mirrorless brands and it was a massive consideration for me. I seek that special telephoto effect that a prime of that quality brings, as well as the lowlight capabilities and image quality. Canon at the time had that aplenty and there was no reason to look elsewhere
I do however remember looking at the images that my guest took on that particular tour to the Serengeti, and I was massively impressed. The image quality alone was superior (in my opinion) to the cameras that I had. I remember helping her with editing and looking at the tonal range and sharpness, and also ease-of-editing, and being blown away. Still, there were a few concerns for me that simply had to be met.
- Not enough pro wildlife lenses to choose from.
- Small in hand, just did not feel comfortable.
- Build structure and weather sealing.
- Autofocus and possible lag time.
Fast forward a couple of years and in May of 2019 I got a call from a friend over at Sony. They proposed that I try out the Sony A9 and the A7r3. I was set to leave for a tour to the Pantanal in June and I gave the idea of taking Sony along some thought. The guys at Sony then told me that Sony would give me a Sony 400 f2.8 GM lens to take with, along with a couple of extenders.
Now this my dear friends REALLY got my attention.
At that point I've been listening to what Sony Alpha has been up to, and the quality & execution of the A9 coupled with the Sony 400 f2.8 could simply not be ignored. They were making some waves and many people were paying attention.
But still, I've not used this system before and I still had my doubts. The only way to truly immerse myself into the Sony Alpha realm, was to take it with to the Pantanal and to leave all of my Canon equipment at home. This was to be the only way for me to really use the gear and come to grips with it. I had to dive head first into the Alpha realm and trust in the reviews that I've read.
I took with me to the Pantanal a Sony A9, A7R3, 400 f2.8, 70-200 f2.8 & the 16-35 f2.8. It took me less than a week to understand the following to be true.
Sony would change the way the world viewed mirrorless cameras. Oh, and I was sold!
It took me little time to come to grips with how the autofocus system worked. I made sure that I studied the menus and made sure that I customised the camera to suit my needs. That's a massive advantage - being able to set specific functions to just about every button on the camera. Within a week or so I felt completely at easy using the gear and certainly did not miss my chunky DSLR.
Let's take a look at the features that truly sold me on mirrorless and specifically, Sony. I'll list them below and we'll go over them together.
The Sony Alpha 9 mark ii versus the Sony Alpha 7R IV
I wanted to start with this because it's a question I get all too often. Which is the best camera to buy, and is one better than the other?
It's real simple.
I use the A9 as my main wildlife camera. Reason being is that it's very fast at 20 frames per second, has an incredible AF system and it best suited to action. It's that simple. This camera stays on my main telephoto lens and is always ready for action. It also does very well in low light and at higher ISO's.
I use the A7 on my second lens. It's either the Sony 70-200 f2.8 GM, or lately the Sony 135 f1.8 GM lenses. Either way, it's always by my side and ready to go. I use this camera largely for animals in environments and for landscapes. It's a 61 million megapixel monster yet still capable of shooting at 10 frames per second. It does not enjoy high ISO's (but still can push it over 3200 ISO) and is best suited for tasks as just mentioned.
So what I am saying, is that it is not a matter of one over the other. Both are incredible cameras and deserve to be at your side. They perform different functions and do very well at both. If you can afford to have both, by all means do it.
Accurate & Complex Autofocus System
Few things in a camera today, specifically catered to sports and wildlife, can be more important than the autofocus system.
This system will be the deciding factor between mediocre and award-winning, attention to detail or no attention paid at all.
For the most part in wildlife photography, subjects are relatively easy to photograph. Think along the lines of a herd of elephants on the move, a leopard resting in the fork of a tree or a pride of lions on the open plains of the Serengeti. What would these scenes require of you? Well, the obvious things such as good composition, sharp focus, good balance of tone etc.
But, what if you are faced with a tiger on the hunt, purposefully stalking (at pace) right towards you, quickly eating up the distance between it & you with every step and putting your focusing skills to the test. What about a cheetah readying itself to chase a gazelle on the plains of the Masai Mara, blistering speed about to be unleashed. Can your camera even keep up? What about a bird that's about to take flight, a stunning Lilac-breasted Roller taking off from its perch. Can you track it effectively and still get it sharp and in focus?
These are all questions you have to ask yourself.
Now I am NOT saying you always have to have the latest gear. As they say, many people have all the gear yet no idea. Think about that. A person that knows how to operate their camera fast & efficiently, will be able to capture incredible imagery. They'll be quick to react and they'll move between the buttons and functions of their camera without blinking an eye or missing a moment.
Yet still, as camera technology advances should we not be paying attention? Perhaps it's been a few years between new cameras, should you not be thinking of an upgrade. See, I am not talking about merely buying a new DSLR here.
I am talking about an entire new system, a new way of photographing! I am talking about mirrorless.
Please understand that I have not yet shot on the latest mirrorless cameras from brands such as Olympus etc, and I am by no means disqualifying them in what I am sharing and talking about. I can merely talk confidently about that which I know best, and one such camera system is the Sony Alpha 9 mark ii & Sony Alpha 7R IV systems.
- A focus system that reacts before you do. It's incredibly fast & intelligent.
- A focus system that can be modified to best suit the scene at hand, to focus well and ensure the best possible outcome.
- You'll have the ability to track a single subject within a pride, herd or group. The camera can identify & follow the one animal you want sharp and in focus, amidst animals of the same kind.
- If the animal's eye is presented it'll identify the eye, and lock on to it. It's not 100% accurate yet (no system is accurate for every single animal species), but Sony leads the way in this technology and it works on a variety of subjects, from rhinos to big cats, dogs and birds.
- The camera's autofocus system works hand in hand with the technology in the lenses. The fast lenses are equipped with linear motor technology (as opposed to traditional barrel focusing mechanisms), and the linear tech is faster and more silent & gets you the shots just about every time.
You see, with the above-mentioned technology found within the Sony A9 mark ii and Sony Alpha A7R IV, it's really hard to get it wrong. When you understand the camera and how it functions, you'll put yourself in a position to stand the best possible chance of getting the shot you want sharp, and in focus. I am not talking about the static "easy-to-shoot" scenes. I am talking about the high-pressure action sequences we all so love to get. Gone are the days where you struggled with trying to keep the crosshairs or focal points in the subject. The camera now does it for you with incredible accuracy.
And believe me. It is accurate. Far more accurate than any DSLR I have ever used.
It's important that you get comfortable with the camera and that you understand the different focus modes. I tend to use the following focusl modes on the Sony Alpha 9 mark ii and Sony Alpha A7R IV. Please remember that Animal Eye Autofocus will always be switched on & when eyes are presented (regardless of focus mode), the eyes will be tracked and locked on to.
- Wide - This is a great focus area when you have a single animal/bird against a relatively clean background/foreground. Let's say a bird on a perch about to take off for flight. Due to the clean nature of the scene (clear skies/clean background and not too many branches) the camera immediately locks on to the bird. When the bird takes off I promise you, the focal points will keep track of the bird regardless of where you are composing. You need not keep the focal points on the actual birds, the intelligent tracking system won't let go of the bird and will following it, given you are able to keep it in frame.
The same goes for an animal in a clean enough scene. Say a leopard, or a lion on its own. It's a perfect focus mode. Remember, it'll identify the eyes and regardless of how you compose, the eyes will always be tracked and you'll never worry about actually moving the focus point around in the frame, the eyes are being tracked and will always be sharp. Even if the camera loses the eyes temporarily, it'll still stay focused on the head.
This mode does not work well when there are too many subjects. You don't want to ask the camera to pick the subject as it may pick the closer one, when in actual fact you are interested in one in the middle. An example would be a pride of lions. The eye contact might come from one in the middle, but your camera in "wide" mode won't always pick that specific animal. Not to worry, the next one will take care of that.
- Tracking: Flexible Spot M - This is the mode my Sony A9 mark ii is set to the most. You simply can't go wrong, and it's a great all-round focus mode. This time you'll notice a square focus point in your viewfinder, similar to a traditional focus mode. What is the difference then? Once the focusing system identifies an eye, it'll pounce on to them and simply not let go. What makes this different to "wide" is that you can move the square over the animal you actually want to track (or use your finger on the back screen, it's touch sensitive). It's fantastic when the scene is busier or when you have more animals or birds in the frame. You want to isolate a specific animal and you move or hover the square focal point over that animal, press and hold the focus button, and now the camera has identified the animal you want to have sharp and in focus, and it'll track that animal even amidst the other animals in the frame. It's fantastic and incredible accurate. I am trying to think of a scenario where it has failed me, but can't have a single one come to mind.This mode works well for all-round photography.
A good tip is to always set your focus sensitivity to 2. It's rated out of a possible 5, with 5 being the most sensitive. For wildlife scenario's, you'll want to have it set to 2. This way the camera does not release focus too easily. Where does this help?
Let's say the lion is on the move and for a split second walks by another stationary lion. Your camera will in mode 2, likely keep the focus on the cat you're after and not instantly refocus on the stationary cat being passed. If it's set to a level of 5, it'll be super sensitive and it'll immediately adjust focus on whatever enters your frame. In so doing, you lose focus on your actual subject. Make sense?
I can assure you, few things are as important when considering a camera for wildlife photography than the autofocus system. I can tell you that there's nothing out there on the market right now, that can compete with the Sony Alpha 9 Mark ii when it comes to autofocus.
It is in a league of its own.
Animal Eye Autofocus
I touched on it in the previous segment, but this has changed the world of wildlife photography as we know it.
You now have the ability in the Sony Alpha 9 mark ii and Sony Alpha 7R IV, to keep track of the eyes of your animal without actually having to move the focus point to keep tracking the subject. See, the camera identifies with a vast array of subjects (listed below) and the camera is able to identify the eyes of these animals and will keep the eyes focused and sharp. This leaves you free of having to constantly move the focus points around within the frame, and you can focus on your composition and exposure. Incredible!
I personally have used the animal eye autofocus technology on the Sony Alpha 9 mark ii on the following subjects.
- Lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, hyena, jaguar, tiger.
- Rhino & buffalo.
- Vultures, eagles, herons and a number of other bird species where the eye is well defined.
- Lizards where the eye is well defined and subject is large in the frame.
See, the eye is very specific and the camera software will become more and more refined over time. If the eyes are not identified or "seen", then the camera will likely focus on the head. This is just about as good.
But honestly, the animal eye tracking technology in the Sony Alpha 9 mark ii is unlike any focusing system I've used and will blow your mind!
20 Frames per Second, no Black Out
A high frame rate and wildlife photography goes hand in hand. That goes without saying.
Now I know there are people out there who believe in shooting fewer frames and in the process try to get the right moment in frame and clicked. So in other words, a more old school approach where you shoot with fewer frames and where you are more selective. The fact is that when you have the possibility to shoot at 20 frames per second with the ability to walk away with far more frames from which to choose from, why not take that option?
At 20 frames per second, you will be able to choose an incredible array of images from a particular shoot.
Lets' say you were photographing a leopard hunt. That hunting sequence will be over within a matter of seconds, perhaps 3 or 4 seconds at best. Using the Sony Alpha 9 mark ii, you will be in a position to fire off 60 to 80 frames of that sequence and much thanks to the powerful autofocus system mentioned above (and when correctly applied) will walk away with the bulk of the 80 images being sharp and in focus.
The closest currently on offer (on a camera I've not yet used) is the Canon 1Dx mark 3, at 16 frames per second (shooting through viewfinder). Even then you'll not actually get 16 frames a second, but likely closer to 13 or 14 frames per second. It's got to do with available light, speed of the lens etc.
Then, on a DSLR you have to deal with the black out effect. Yes, at 16 frames per second the mirror is moving so fast that you'll hardly notice it but it's still there and it still has to move out of the way. So ultimately there's always a degree of mirror blackout on a DSLR.
On the Sony (in electronic shutter mode) you get 20 frames per second with absolutely no black out effect. It's a mirrorless camera and therefor no mirror in the way. It actually feels like you're just shooting a video, no lag and no distractions. It leaves you free to shoot the action sequence and you'll capture it all with absolutely no distraction.
Guys, this is a massive deal! It's game changing!
There are two shutter modes to choose from. For wildlife photography the electronic shutter is the way to go. For indoor and stadium photography, mechanical shutter is ultimately the best option (as I am led to believe). In so doing you avoid the "banding effect" caused by artificial lighting. I know Sony will release a far faster frame rate than the current on their newer models. It's currently 10 frames per second in mechanical shutter mode. It does however not affect me as I stay in electronic shutter mode for wildlife photography.
The Build Quality and the feel in your hands
To me, this was always a massive limiting factor for many mirrorless cameras. I was used to shooting on a tank called the Canon 1Dx mark ii. It genuinely is built to last. It's heavy (almost 1.5 kilograms) and is extremely well sealed. That was always the benchmark for me and everything else always fell flat on its face when compared to the Canon.
The Sony Alpha 9 mark ii and A7R IV changed the game for me. I'm not going to even compare it to the Canon 1Dx series. They are heavy, bulky and yes, built like tanks. But does that mean the Sony's are not well built Absolutely not!
The new A9 mark ii and A7R IV is extremely well put together. Both cameras have a redesigned outer case, both in construction and in weather sealing. In addition to that they also feature redesigned buttons and ergonomics. I have large hands and they work very well for me. I make use of the vertical battery grips on both models and I simply can not complain.
I have taken both cameras into extreme conditions. They have both faced extreme cold in the Himalayan winter. Temperatures dipped down to -35 degrees Celcius. They were exposed to that kind of weather for 11 days and were covered in snow and even wet conditions. No problem at all. Even the batteries lasted far better than what I was made to believe.
I have taken both cameras into extreme heat & humidity. The temperatures in Brazil's Pantanal soared and reached close on 50 degrees Celcius. To add the humidity levels were over 90% at times. Again, no problem at all. I did make sure that the cameras were not left in direct sunlight as they are known to overheat. It's a simple precaution that I did not mind taking.
I have also taken the cameras to some incredibly dusty destinations such as South Luangwa, Mana Pools, the Masai Mara and even Kabini in India. All very dusty. The camera stood firm and had no issues at all.
I have tested these two cameras in extreme conditions and they have not failed me even for a second. I have no doubt that these cameras are built for the task at hand - to create incredible wildlife imagery in any given natural situation.
Something that I find incredibly handy is the weight.
- Sony Alpha 9 mark ii - 678 grams
- Sony Alpha 7 R IV - 665 grams
- Sony VG-C4EM Vertical Grip - 290 grams
- Canon 1Dx mark iii - 1440 grams
Now I am a big guy and I will admit, I did enjoy a heavy camera body. It makes me believe that what I am using is something of quality. That said, the Sony Alpha 9 & 7 have changed that for me. I make use of the vertical grip (taking the weight up to 968 grams on the A9) and find that it is perfectly balanced in hand and not too weighty. It works out incredibly well.
The lenses I prefer using are around 3 kilograms each (Sony 400 f2.8 and Sony 600 f4), and when I add 970 grams to the back of that lens I find it all to be very well balanced. This is the opposite with the Canon setup I've used in the past. Their Canon 400 & 600mm lenses are also light in weight, but when you had a 1.5 kilo camera body to the back of that lens, it tends to drop down in the back and feels very unbalanced in hand.
I shoot largely hand-held, so balance is very important to me.
Perfect array of lenses available
Lens choice to me, is everything.
I come from a Canon background and it is no secret that they have a massive array of lenses. As a wildlife photographer I tend not to make use of all of their lenses, but I have a few that does the trick for what I require. The most important consideration for me would be the big 400 f2.8 and the 600 f4. Those are two of my favorite lenses and up until very recently, no mirrorless brand had such lenses within their arsenal. Many mirrorless brands catered for the weddings and events photographers.
Well, safe to say that Sony changed that.
In recent times they introduced to the markets their ridiculously good Sony FE 400 f2.8 GM, and the Sony FE 600 f4 GM soon afterwards. These 2 lenses are built to the highest standards. The 400 is the second lightest 400 mm, the Canon version only just beating it. Sony's 600mm is the lightest 600mm lens the world has ever seen.
- Sony 400 f2.8 - 2895 grams
- Canon 400 f2.8 - 2840 grams
- Sony 600 f4 - 3040 grams
- Canon 600 f4 - 3050 grams
Why share these stats? Well, it's simple. Canon's been in the game for a whole lot longer than Sony. If Sony then is able to achieve such magnificent lenses within such a short period of time, then well, I am a happy chap.
Please read the following, an outtake from Roger Cicala (LensRentals.Com).
"The Sony 400mm f2.8 G is exactly what we expected; a very solidly built lens that is everything construction-wise you would hope for in a big beast of a super telephoto that costs $12,000. It has excellent weather sealing, heavy-duty engineering between the barrel segments, a very solid chassis, and components that all appear up to the task.
Let’s be clear; I did this to start our in-house repair manual and look for weak spots in the mechanicals. I didn’t test it optically or electronically and hadn’t a clue if it’s the best telephoto optics ever made, or if the electronics will start smoking after 40 hours of use. But everything I saw today gives me confidence in the build quality.
I’ve been very willing to call Sony out on poorly engineered products in the past, whether it was poorly constructed linear focus motors, weak barrel construction in the 70-200 f/2.8 GM, or weather sealing gaps in cameras. So take my word on it: the Sony 400mm f/2.8 G has construction equal to any similar lens on the market. It gets my seal of engineering approval.
Comparing it to the Canon 400mm f/2.8 IS III, there are really only minor differences I can see, none of which are significant. I like the Sony feature that allows you to turn off tripod rotation clicking. I don’t like the plastic cover they put over it. (It will seal out weather just fine, but those Sony ‘plastic arrow’ cover inserts tear off frequently and often.)
I’ll call this one a draw, and a draw is a win for Sony. Canon has been doing this for a long, long time; this is, I think their 8th generation of 400mm f/2.8 lens. It’s Sony’s first and to have made a product equal to the gold standard of engineering is an amazing feat."
Read the FULL review by CLICKING HERE.
So below you'll find a list of the lenses that I currently use from Sony, the one's that are currently in my bag.
- Sony FE 600 f4 GM
- Sony FE 400 f2.8 GM
- Sony FE 70-200 f2.8 GM
- Sony FE 135 f1.8 GM
- Sony FE 16-35 f2.8 GM
That's what I am packing right now.
I have fallen in love with the Sony FE 135 f1.8 GM lens. It is incredible sharp and has 2 linear motors for super fast focus. I use it on my Sony A7R IV and it has produced epic results. In fact, I may keep it on my second body as opposed to the traditional 70-200 combo. Really love that setup.
Lenses are incredibly important and Sony has everything a wildlife photographer would need for getting the job done.
I know many wildlife photographers love the Canon 200-400 and the Nikon 180 - 400, but I am pretty sure that Sony will join that market in the nearby future. Or maybe change it. But I have never been a big fan of these lenses and prefer to shoot on the fixed telephoto's.
Flip Up Screen
I have found this feature incredibly handy. Coming from a bulky robust Canon 1Dx mark ii with no flip screen, this has been a very welcome change. I find myself using the screen on the back of camera more & more, especially when I am on the back of the game viewer with little space. I can now drop the camera down low on to my feet, flip the screen up and see exactly what I am getting in frame, all the while enjoying the light weight lens & camera body setup. It makes all the difference.
I find that it's well constructed and I have not faced any scenarios where I felt like the flip screen would possibly break.
It takes some getting used to but trust me, once you do, it changes the way you photograph for the better.
Ability to custom the camera
Now this is a massive one!
Both the Sony Alpha 9 mark ii and the A7R IV are very, very custom-friendly. There are 4 dedicated custom buttons on the camera that will allow you a vast array of options. It's fantastic. It's allowed me to amend the camera and set it up to the exact way that I would want, the most important functions now only being a click away.
Yes, the DSRL's also have this ability but, but not to the extent of the Sony.
I currently choose to shoot in M mode, with ISO set to Auto.
- Custom Button 1 - ISO (ability to change from Auto to Manual with a turn of he dial)
- Custom Button 2 - Focus Area
- Custom Button 3 - APS-C S35/Full Frame Select
- Custom Button 4 - Focus Sensitivity
You see, this allows me to be fast & efficient, no time wasting and no need to dig in to the menu, losing valuable time in the process.
I'll explain the setup in a different blog & video tutorial but trust me, the ability to change & custom my cameras in this manner makes all the difference.
Then, the fact that the design and bodies on both the Sony Alpha 9 mark ii and Sony Alpha 7R IV are identical (apart from one button on the top), means you are working with the same camera setup and avoids confusion when you change between cameras.
You win all the way, of that there's no doubt!
Below I'll share a few images, examples of just how stunning the content is that you can capture with the gear I've described above.
I think if you've read this far then I need not ay anything else in here. For me it's very clear why I've come to love Sony over the traditional DSLR's that I've used in the past. It's just too good and has allowed me to shoot better and faster.
I've had to actually think about my photography again, think about what I was doing and in many cases, do things even better. It's been truly refreshing!
Thank you for reading this far. If you have any questions on the Sony Alpha systems, or any questions on mirrorless in general, please leave them in a comment below and I will get back to you in no time.
Thanks so much and until next time,