Is Sony ready for high speed, high output, endurance event photography?

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Michael Stevens
Michael Stevens Contributing Member • Posts: 519
Is Sony ready for high speed, high output, endurance event photography?

My first race with the Sony a7S III was impressive, disappointing, and, at times, frustrating as hell. I'm not sure if it's the camera, some autofocus/tracking setting(s), or maybe even me.

Some background so you know what I'm doing. I'm a contract photographer for several companies, one of which, FinisherPix, has had the Ironman contract for many years. Before FinisherPix, Brightroom had it and before Brightroom was Action Sports International. All three companies with the same owner and all three companies I contracted with. We supply Ironman with teams of 8 or more photographers taking photos at several locations throughout the race courses and supply the athletes with images of their performance.

During an average Ironman event we shoot in the neighborhood of 150k images between all of us. At the 70.3 Championships in St George a few week ago we shot a little over 300k, 50k of which were mine alone. Yeah, we shoot A LOT of images!

In Muncie, Indiana, I brought the a7S III and an assortment of lenses to be put through the wringer during Ironman 70.3 Muncie and Ironman Indiana, both being held on the same day. I know the Sony is fantastic shooting video. That's why I started buying them. Stills? There SHOULD be no reason why they can't keep up, right?

I started out on bikes shooting a horizontally framed bike shot with a corn field in the background. Similar shot to what I shoot at EVERY race with my trusted Canon 7D II. I started out shooting with a medium spot, non-tracking. Seemed to go well until after checking several images in the viewfinder I noticed there were a bunch of a series that were out of focus. Shot 1 and 2 would be sharp, 3 to 6 would be soft, and 7 and 8 would be sharp. Or shots 1 to 5 would be soft, and 6 to 8 would be sharp. All the while I could clearly see that the focus point is clearly on some spot of the cyclist, either the bike or their head.

I tried other focus methods: zone, tracking. Different sized points. No rhyme or reason why focus would just go to crap partway through a series then back to sharp.

After switching back to a non-tracking spot mode I noticed that completely randomly the spot that was generally near the center of the frame would magically move somewhere in the viewfinder and start "tracking" something I was never aiming for. I'd have to stop shooting, wait for the camera to give the me "cancel tracking" option, hit the button in the center of the dial to cancel the tracking, then return to the spot I was using.

It did this continuously and randomly ALL DAY LONG no matter what focus mode I was in. I thought I'd outsmart it and set to to a tracking mode figuring it's gonna track that point even if it completely blows the focus like it had been doing on and off all day.

Even that didn't work. I would track a dozen or two bikes properly (with some random frames simply dropping focus) and then all of a sudden it would throw the tracking focus point to the upper left corner of the viewfinder and start tracking absolutely nothing.

I thought I might be accidentally hitting the AF On, or some other button, causing it to start tracking some point that I had no idea I had set as default. I would focus on keep my thumb between the AF On and AEL buttons but it would still randomly bounce the focus point around and start tracking nonsense.

If I had any reason to believe it would have been this big of a nightmare I would have brought my 7D II in case and I would have switched to it within the first hour of my four hour shift on bikes.

The camera losing focus was disheartening, especially for a camera that is SUPPOSED to have the best focus system around.

But, the focus point bouncing all over the place and magically changing from non-tracking to tracking modes infuriated me like I'd never been on an Ironman event.

The remainder of the event I shot the finish line upshot. Focus was DEAD NUTS ON for the remaining twelve hours. No magically soft frames at all. Perfect.

However, it still did have the random issue of the focus point jumping around and turning to tracking mode requiring me to stop and cancel the focus tracking time and time and time and time again.

So, the questions of the hour:

1. Why was the focus off for so many frames on the bike?

2. What was causing the camera to switch to tracking mode and pick a random point someone in the frame to track?

Not a single image from the sequence was in focus.

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 Michael Stevens's gear list:Michael Stevens's gear list
Sony a7S III Sony 70-200mm F2.8 G Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 Sony FE 24-105mm F4 Sony FE 200-600 F5.6-6.3 +4 more
Canon EOS 7D Mark II Sony a7S
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