Keeping up with the big boys? Shooting pro sports with the Sony a7R II
On paper, the Sony a7R II is one of the best-specified cameras we've ever tested, and it is generating a lot of interest - not only from Sony fans but from users of other DSLR and mirrorless systems. We wanted to see whether the a7R II's impressive specifications live up to their promise in the real world, so we decided to subject it to perhaps the ultimate stress test: a professional sporting event.
I set out with the a7R II, three lenses and a generous pocketful of Sony batteries. My destination: a Seattle Seahawks preseason National Football League game at CenturyLink Field. While the a7R II isn’t marketed as sports camera, we've seen for ourselves how effective its hybrid autofocus system can be for things like candid portraiture. What we wanted to find out is: can it keep up with a SLR in a professional sporting situation?
Putting it to the Test
Since it first made it into our hands at the DPReview offices, Sony’s a7R II has been extensively tested both in our studio, and out in the real world, but I wanted to try something different: see how the camera stacks up in a scenario known to traditionally challenge mirrorless cameras. As I’ve done countless times before, I loaded into the stadium two hours before kickoff to set up the a7R II and plan my attack. Dozens of photographers, laden with multiple SLRs and long glass were setting up in the pressroom, deep in the bowels of CenturyLink Field.
As press photographers took their pregame warm-up pictures, I set the native Sony FE 70-200mm F4.0 G OSS into the body of the a7R II and opted to try out the WIDE autofocus mode. Shooting in Manual mode and wide open at F4 alongside of a sea of Canon, Nikon and television lenses, I trained my lens on the player entrance tunnel and framed up members of the Seattle Seahawks as they took to the field.
While the a7R II's WIDE autofocus mode has a mind of its own, sometimes you get lucky. Image cropped and processed to taste.
ISO 1600 | 1/1000sec | F4 | Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS at 122mm
When photographing sports, I almost always know what I want my subject to be for any given photograph, so being able to train my AF point on a specific player or detail in the frame is critical.
Sadly, the repetitive color palettes of player uniforms, overall flat scene contrast and the underwhelming reach of a 200mm from NFL sideline distance meant an impossibly difficult scenario for the a7R II's 'WIDE' autofocus mode. It really struggled, moving around the frame apparently at random as it tried to identify a subject. WIDE mode only uses distance information to subject track - which means it can be easily confused by other subjects at a similar depth as your initial target. To be fair, many DSLRs work similarly, but pro-photographers will rarely use a complete 'auto' area mode out on the field. Instead of sports, the a7R II’s WIDE autofocus mode is probably best used in a scenario where a single subject fills a majority of the frame, and where you don't need pinpoint precision.
The a7R II's 42MP files do come in handy for drastic cropping into distant game action. WIDE autofocus mode. Image cropped and processed to taste.
ISO 12,800 | 1/2000th | F5.6 | Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM at 400mm
By now, kickoff was several minutes past, and players had started rushing around the field. Finding myself quickly frustrated at the lack of creative focusing control I had over my frame while utilizing WIDE autofocus mode, I slipped back into my usual technique when shooting DSLRs - single AF point and continuous focus.
Flexible Point AF-C
Using the a7R II's Flexible AF point setting (with 'small' and 'medium-sized' AF areas) is much closer to a 'traditional' working method when photographing sports with a DSLR. Due to the a7R II's image playback/review blackout times however, tracking even the most predictable run of an athlete is difficult. Erratically moving subjects are even more of a crapshoot.
Overall, though, the a7R II’s Flexible Point setting proved to be the most effective way to target, track and focus on a subject in a sporting environment during my shooting with the a7R II. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that its practical use is hindered by the lack of direct AF point selection. It is also worth noting that the a7R II seems to have a strange bug when used in any continuous focus mode: when holding down AF ON and switching between subjects that are more than several meters apart in depth, all of the lenses that I tested on the camera occasionally refused to refocus. The only remedy was to let off pressure of the AF ON button and re-press to 'reboot' continuous focus when framing up a new subject.
With some shots safely in the bag, I switched from Flexible Point to Lock-on AF - a sophisticated algorithm allowing the combination of phase detection and subject analysis off the image sensor to designate and intuitively track my intended, 'marked' subject during continuous focus. You 'mark' your subject by initiating AF with your selected AF point over it. This is a similar system in principle to Nikon's 3D AF Tracking, and in some Canon SLRs, iTR, or Intelligent Tracking and Recognition.
While this AF setting is effective in simpler scenes or with a single subject well isolated in depth frame (much like WIDE mode), a7R II users should steer clear of its use in sporting environments. With such complexity in a scene such as professional football, Lock-on AF didn't prove reliable enough in my testing to track my intended subject. I found myself re-designating my subject constantly – which was frustrating and distracting. Lock-on AF also tends to fall apart in continuous drive - as soon as you actually start shooting, the camera often reverts to depth-based subject tracking only which, as we witnessed in WIDE mode, isn't reliable either.
Reaction is just as important to watch for as action in a sporting situation. WIDE autofocus mode. Image cropped and processed to taste.
ISO 12,800 | 1/2000th | F5.6 | Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM at 400mm
As well as the FE 70-200mm F4, I also brought along the A-mount 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM, mounted via Sony's LA-EA3 adapter. Performance of this lens on the a7R II was a mixed bag. While the extra focal length was very useful, AF speed and tracking performance was disappointing by comparison.
Apart from the technical disadvantages of variable apertures on lenses like the 70-400mm, this combo is quirky, if not outright clunky. First off, for continuous AF to even function with adapted lenses, you cannot set the camera to its highest, 5 fps, 'Hi' continuous drive mode. And while I'd expect comparatively poorer performance from a longer, slower lens, it is safe to say that unless you are planning on shooting stationary objects with the a7R II and 70-400mm combo, you may as well leave this lens at home.
The 70-400mm and adapter combination hunts badly in continuous AF mode when acquiring focus on a subject more than a few meters away from the AF starting position. To describe the erratic movement, imagine framing up a subject from an out-of-focus state, turning your manual focus ring a little bit, waiting a half of a second, turning your manual focus ring a little more… And repeat. Sometimes, the lens will even do a full hunt in the wrong direction. Clearly, this is unacceptable autofocus performance for photographers aiming to capture images of split-second moments in a sports game. And while some of this may be lens-dependent, we can't help but wonder how much of the hunting is due to on-sensor PDAF's limited ability to acquire focus from extreme defocus - something DSLRs are born to do.
After wrestling with the 70-400mm, I eagerly changed over to a lens I am used to having in my hands: the Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8L IS II USM. The revelation that the a7R II's phase-detection AF system is capable of driving Canon EF lenses (with an appropriate adapter - Metabones EF Lens to Sony NEX Smart Adapter Mark III in my case) piqued the interest of many white-lensed sports photographers – myself included. I was keen to see how this combination performed.
Touchdown celebration in the end zone. Flexible Spot AF, small point, centered. Image cropped and processed to taste.
ISO 12,800 | 1/2000sec | F5.6 | Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM at 135mm
In my past experiences as a staff photographer at a number of news outlets, it is safe to say that the gear load-out for an NFL game is one of heaviest kits around. Photographers will often use three (sports-oriented) bodies at once: one with a 400mm to 600mm-ranged F2.8 lens on a monopod, a second body with a 70-200mm F2.8 hanging to their side and a third slung around the neck, with a wide-angle lens attached. Needless to say, sports shooters would be happy to opt for a lighter setup – assuming, of course, that there was no loss of capability over their trusty SLRs.
What I wanted to know was whether the combination of Canon EF glass on the a7R II would be capable of good enough performance to tempt a Canon shooter to switch bodies.
After pitting the Sony FE 70-200mm F4.0 G OSS against the Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8L IS II USM, their real-world performance, at least under the evening's conditions, appeared surprisingly comparable. While none of the lenses feel 'convincing' for the pace of NFL gameplay, I was impressed that there was no noticeable penalty to shooting with my (admittedly brighter) Canon lens compared to the Sony FE zoom. It is possible, too, that performance could improve with the recently-announced Mark IV version of the Metabones adapter. It could also get worse: we've noted that different adapter versions and firmwares can affect initial AF acquisition times both positively or negatively (we'll be trying it out as soon as we can).
However - buyers beware: just because AF-enabled glass can be adapted to the a7R II doesn’t mean that you'll get the full range of autofocus modes that you would with a native FE lens.
There are real downsides to using adapted glass on the a7R II. As mentioned earlier, the highest continuous frame rate you can shoot with AF is 3 fps. Continuous AF does not even function at 5 fps. Furthermore, you lose a lot of continuous AF functionality: neither eye AF, nor lock-on AF, nor zone, nor 'Expand Flexible Spot' modes function. Essentially, any mode that involves subject tracking utilizing the image sensor is greyed out. We’ve asked Sony if such features could be 'unlocked' in the future, as it seems to us that image-sensor based tracking should not be any more difficult with adapted glass versus native glass. We remain hopeful that this might be added via firmware.
The game concluded and I walked off the field. While my load-out for this event was considerably lighter than any game I had shot before, I was still exhausted. That's normal, but there was something else on my mind. I couldn’t help ponder something that had never crossed my mind when shooting countless sporting events in the past with powerful, responsive SLRs: did I get anything? Would there be any in-focus images to illustrate my findings? As I loaded up my car, I reflected on other challenges of using the a7R II in a sporting environment.
Not all the action takes place on the field; features tell the story in their own way. WIDE autofocus mode. Image cropped and processed to taste.
ISO 3200 | 1/1250sec | F4 | Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS at 200mm
From an ergonomic perspective, the a7R II presents an interesting paradox for sports shooters. The alpha-series is missing a major, physical control point that is indispensable for sports (and arguably all) photographers: a multi-controller direct toggle for dedicated focus point relocation while shooting on the fly. In the era of shrinking cameras, the a7R II inhabits a middle ground that feels great when equipped with short glass, yet awkward when paired with longer lenses. The Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM is especially uncomfortable. The coupling of a long 'throw' for moving from 70mm to 400mm and a stiffly-damped zoom ring pushes the lower right corner of the a7R II’s body design into your palm's pressure point.
An optional two-battery VGC2EM grip greatly improves handling, removes this palm pressure point and doubles the battery life. I made it through the game in three, fully charged batteries with 700 total images shot. That frame count is a clear case of 'undershooting' in terms of sports shooting, especially in the age of 10 or more frames per second on pro-bodied SLRs. So while the vertical grip would certainly have helped, I may have still struggled with battery life.
Back-button autofocus users – arguably a majority of sports photographers – will discover a quirk that occurs when programming the a7R II’s rear C3 button for shutter-independent operation of continuous autofocus. While C3 is held down, any shutter speed or aperture changes will not be recorded. This poses a problem if a photographer wants to continuously focus on a subject moving through differing lighting scenarios, such as a player running into a patch of brighter light or darker shadow. The autofocus-engage button must be released to allow exposure adjustments to be made. Only then may the AF may be re-engaged. Hopefully this can be fixed in a future firmware update, too.
Most electronic viewfinders, no matter how high resolutions go or how fast the refresh is, are a hard sell for sports or action photographers. Image playback blackout in the a7R II can be lengthy, as the last image shot is displayed in lieu of a live feed during the continuous 5fps drive (3fps shows a live feed between blackouts). This leads to a detached experience that just doesn’t feel right when photographing fast action, especially pro sports. That said, this might largely be remedied by EVFs with a live, uninterrupted feed, similar to the Nikon 1 J5 that can shoot 20 fps without ever blacking out. But a simple firmware update is unlikely to fix this.
Disruption caused by playback blackout works against the photographer when trying to anticipate a moment when shooting in continuous burst. Much like my fellow DPReview writer Dan Bracaglia did when pitting the Nikon D5500 head to head with the Sony RX10 II for autofocus testing at a soccer game, I too found myself longing for the 'reality' of an optical viewfinder.
Continuous shooting speeds on the a7R II are mediocre at best, topping out at 5 fps, and only 3 fps if you want continuous AF with adapted glass. Even when on HI mode, the aforementioned image playback blackout kicks in to work against the maximum burst shooting speed offered by the a7R II. Three frames per second is so slow that it's not really useable – and certainly no fun – for fast action. The seconds tick by when buffering (while the a7R II is set to Raw + JPEG), even when using a 1000x SD card. In addition, the buffer must completely clear before viewing images in playback mode. It is also worth noting that as of late 2015, long lens availability on the a7R II is minimal, with the most importantly absent being the sports action standard field of view offered by a 400m F2.8. Adapted glass is an option, but you'll lose Zone AF, Expand Flexible Point, Eye AF, and Lock-on AF.
Flexible Spot AF, medium sized, centered. Image cropped and processed to taste.
ISO 6400 | 1/2500sec | F2.8 | Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8L IS II at 135mm
Final Thoughts & Conclusion
The a7R II is a highly-specc’d piece of photographic technology, with some new and exciting abilities. It's the first camera of its kind to ever even attempt to use its native phase-detect AF system to focus non-native, even off-brand lenses. And to do so, technically, with potentially more accuracy than those off-branded lenses might focus on their native DLSR bodies*. And with a wider spread of phase-detect AF points than any DSLR too, which allows for more creative framing while maintaining continuous AF.
But do these technologies add up to performance that can compare to the best of the a7R II's DSLR competition? In some ways, yes, but overall, no. The devil is in the details of the implementations: while shooting in single point, continuous tracking autofocus modes the A-series’ focus can keep up with certain sporting subjects – it’s just whether or not the sluggish, in-EVF image playback during continuous shooting will allow you to make the image you desire when shooting a burst.
Would I rely on it for a second or third body at a sporting event with money and a client on the line? No, not yet – but I’m looking forward to the day that I would. And that day might not be far off. All things considered, pro-SLR autofocus technology draws from three decades of research, whereas the a7R II is still an infant in only its second-generation of existence. Not too shabby for a sophomore effort, Sony.
WIDE autofocus mode. Image cropped and processed to taste.
ISO 1600 | 1/800sec | F4 | Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS at 77mm
While the a7R II’s laundry list of autofocus options and algorithms is impressive, in practical use at a nighttime NFL football game, the camera struggled. This was a tough test, but in an environment like this, SLRs still reign supreme – arguably one of the few remaining situations where this is still the case.
While many of our sample images are usably sharp by sports photography and news publishing standards, the issue at hand became more about what was in focus – and why the camera chose which target it tracked. There is no doubt that the a7R II delivers exceptional autofocus performance relative to the mirrorless market, but given the drawbacks of AF mode / area implementation, a lack of direct AF point control, cramped ergonomics and distracting screen blackout, next time I shoot the Seahawks, I'll take my trusty DSLRs.
Let's be fair though. For portrait shooters, wedding, event, and newborn photographers shooting moving subjects with fast, shorter primes, the a7R II is a gem, leading to typically higher 'hit' or 'keeper' rates than DSLRs even. Eye and face tracking autofocus options can ultimately lead to a superior way of focusing that doesn't require you to keep your selected AF point over your subject, which would otherwise drastically reduce compositional freedom and creativity.
That said, the a7R II’s intelligent tracking capabilities certainly don’t spell success for all shooting scenarios: it wasn’t convincing in this case of professional sports. To compensate, I felt forced to fall back on ‘tried and true’ DSLR methods I’m used to – and even that was difficult to do. The Sony’s a7R II is an outstanding product that introduces some extraordinary innovations to its market segment. But while excellent in a great many respects, it still has a way to go before satisfying the demanding needs of sports and action photographers.
FOOTNOTE: *Phase-detect systems in DSLRs have inherent inaccuracies that are hard to compensate for without proper calibration; this is simply a reality of their design that (1) embodies a separate optical path from the image sensor, and (2) is susceptible to residual spherical aberration.
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