Wildlife shooters, what's your next camera body?

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Kev The Doc Senior Member • Posts: 2,402
Wildlife shooters, what's your next camera body?
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Hi All,

It’s been a while since I posted here, but there’s a reason….

One theme that keeps coming up in this APS-C form is “when is the next camera body / lens coming out?”, and “when are they going to release a flagship body”, or something along them lines. Sadly replenishments have been few and far between, whilst at the same time Sony continue to commit heavily to the FF format. Who knows what the future brings, Canon and Nikon getting into the mirrorless game might perk things up, but personally I wouldn’t bet on any big changes in Sony’s APS-C strategy moving forward, though I genuinely hope I’m wrong!

So what I’m going to dare post about in this APS-C forum is, gulp, the move to FF. Please don’t send me death threats….

The main advantages (imho) of APS-C vs FF is the physically smaller size (& weight), the value proposition (performance vs cost) is good, and for wildlife shooters the reach with the crop sensor. It’s a great entry point into interchangeable lens photography, and for some it’s a great long term solution based on their individual desires and needs. I was an APS-C shooter myself for several years so it must be a smart choice right?

So let’s start with what this thread is not about, it’s not about bashing APS-C shooters and telling them they’re wrong for shooting APS-C. What I’m presenting is an alternative path based on my own and many others experiences from the perspective of being previous APS-C wildlife shooters for several years. As per the thread title, I’m specifically talking about wildlife shooting in this particular thread, however some of what’s said may also apply to other forms of photography.

There are also some upfront qualifiers for this thread to be of relevance to you, if any of the following apply to you then you may want to stop reading now as it’s quite a long read:

  • Not willing to purchase a second hand camera body.
  • Not willing to accept the size and weight increase of a FF body?
  • Do not currently have and not willing to purchase FF long glass (>400mm?)

My first venture into FF bodies was a few years back when I got the A7Rii as my portrait / landscape body whilst still using my A6500 as my wildlife body. I always wanted two bodies so I could do both styles of shooting whilst on walks / hikes without constantly changing lenses back of forth. The A7Rii was an eye opener in terms of the image quality vs the A6500, and rightly so, when released the A7Rii was a $2,800 camera body vs $1,500 for the A6500. I knew then that FF was the ultimate goal, but the true wildlife FF body, the A9, was $4,000 msrp. I’ve been price watching the new and second hand prices of the A9 and A9ii for some time, and they were holding high prices for what seemed an eternity. But late 2021, finally, the A9 prices tumbled (the A9ii hasn’t yet) to an entry point I was happy with, but I still had niggling doubts in the back of my head:

  • I’d be losing 50% reach with still only 24MP to crop with
  • The A9 was released in 2017 so it’s a really old body design
  • I’d read that stacked sensors yielded relatively poor dynamic range and mediocre high iso performance

The reason I was more interested in buying second hand is firstly they stopped selling the new A9, but mainly because it was a bit of an unknown if this was the right path, and with the A9 already being a 2017 body I knew it would only be a stepping stone to another body pretty soon down the line anyway. Ultimately when buying second hand, if you don’t like what you buy or you want to upgrade again then you can easily re-sell it for a similar price to what you paid. So with this in mind I finally bit the bullet and grabbed an A9 + Sony Battery grip for just $1,850. The Sony battery grips sell for ~$200 second hand so that shows you can get the camera body for ~$1,700 -$2,000 depending on condition, which is what I’m seeing on ebay right now. So this is now getting into the realm of not being much more than a new APS-C camera, yeah I know I’m comparing new vs second hand, but the incremental in terms of what this camera body can deliver at this price point is pretty significant. Sadly the A9ii has not dropped in price yet so we’ll probably have to wait until the A9iii is released for that to happen.

So let’s talk about the beast…..the A9!

Camera Body

Size & Weight: Thankfully Sony have continued their compact body philosophy into their FF range so this means the A9 body, although larger and more weighty than the APS-C bodies is still pretty compact, and when wildlife shooting at least, the glass required remains the predominant factor in terms of size and weight anyway. The larger grip on the A9 is also welcome and Sony have continued to evolve this further with the A9ii body being significantly better still. Size and weight is a very personal choice and some may find the FF bodies too large / heavy, for instance when traveling and when using smaller lenses for general photography some people want more portability.

Dials and controls: The A9 is a big step forward in this regard, the whole philosophy of this camera is to never have to go into the menu once you have it setup, and it does a really really good job in this regard.

Firstly, all camera bodies ideally should have 4 dials for:

  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • Exposure comp

Sony’s FF camera’s generally have this but the APS-C line-up only have three, yeah there are workarounds and in some modes you only need 3 dials or less, but for instant access to all parameters anytime without going into the function menu, four dials is preferable, and hopefully this becomes an evolution in APS-C bodies.

The A9 also has additional dials for shooting mode (single shot, various burst speeds, bracket shooting, timer release etc.) and focus modes (AFC, AFS, MF, DMF etc), so again quick access to changes without digging in into the menu. This may all sound rather pedantic to some in that it only takes a few seconds to go into the menu/function menu and make changes, but in wildlife shooting those few seconds can be the make or break in getting the shot, and secondly it’s a much more pleasurable shooting experience having those controls more accessible.

EVF: This is a biggie, and I’m not just talking about the significant step up in the quality of the image with it’s much increased resolution and refresh rate, the even bigger upgrade is blackout free shooting in burst mode. I’d pay $500 for this feature alone, no hesitation, and that’s said by somebody who has Scottish blood (read tight). Not only does this enable you to keep fast moving subjects in frame much more reliably, like those jet fighter swallows, but again it makes the whole shooting experience so much more pleasurable as your actually watching your subject of beauty going through it’s motions in essentially high fps video rather than what looks like a laggy series pop up photo’s with blackouts in between. It was one of the caveats of mirrorless vs DSLR shooting for some time until Sony delivered the stacked sensor on the A9. To summarize I’d say the A6500 EVF is useable whereas the A9 EVF is a delight.

Camera programmability: Again, coming back to the theme of never having to access the menu, Sony has made the A9 very customizable, not only is virtually every button this thing programmable, and there’s plenty of buttons, there’s a few other really cool aspects to this, two of key ones are as follows.

So virtually all camera’s these days have Memory Recall functionality to quickly access a series of different camera settings for different shooting scenarios. The A9 obviously has this with three MR’s on the mode dial, plus another three that can be saved giving a total of six memory recall settings, nothing groundbreaking there. But the A9 takes this concept to the next level with what’s called “Recall Custom Hold”. It essentially does the same thing of moving from one set of camera settings to another and back again, but it does it in a better way. The best way to explain this is to walk through a shooting scenario. So if I was shooting a bird in flight with my A6500 and that bird then landed on a branch and I wanted to shoot it with different camera settings (as it’s now a still subject), I’d have to remove my right hand from the camera body, move the mode dial one notch to select a different MR (one more suitable for still subjects), grab the camera body again with the right hand, re-positioning the fingers and thumbs on the usual controls such as shutter and bbf button, then half press the shutter to get the MR screen to disappear and then I can continue shooting. If the bird then takes off and I want to get back into bif mode I’d have to do the same all over again to get the camera back into bif mode. This is how we’ve all been doing it for years, and it can be done, but it’s a bit clunky and there’s some lag time in getting settings changed. With Recall Custom Hold on the A9 I just have to press and hold one button I’ve programmed to switch from bif settings to still shooting settings and then release that button to get back into bif mode. It’s super fast and super effective, it’s one of them game changers in always being in the right settings no matter what’s happening, so instead of having that “one that got away” story at the bar, you’ll actually have the shot to show people at the bar, maybe 😊. You can program upto three Recall Custom Holds.

Focus Area Registration (FAR) is another programmable feature that reduces lag time in switching camera settings. This feature enables you to quickly switch from one set of focus settings (focus area, focus tracking etc.) to another in a similar way to Custom Memory Recall however there’s two key differences. Firstly Focus Area Registration gives you two options in how this is done, one option is to program a button to change focus settings when the button is pressed and held, where releasing the button changes the settings back. The other option is to program a button to toggle between settings, press once to change and then press again to change back. Secondly, this feature only changes the focus settings at the press of the button which can be useful in a number of circumstances. For instance, I have FAR programmed to change the focus to Expandable Flex spot with tracking on, so whether I’m in bif mode where I use “Wide” focus area and want to instantly switch focus to this EF spot L with tracking on because the background is too busy to use my default “Wide” focus area, or if I’m in shooting stills mode where my default is EF spot M without tracking but my subject starts moving around too much I can instantly switch to EF spot with tracking on at the press of the same button. It’s even more beneficial when you have deviated from your Memory Recall settings for a particular scene such as low light and say you’ve dialed down shutter speed for instance, and the only thing you want to change (and change quickly) is your focus settings, this function enable that change quickly and efficiently.

Both of the above customization options may again seem pedantic and overkill, I haven’t “needed” them in the past so why do I “need” them now, and clearly there’s some truth to this, but you could apply that argument to many camera developments. I personally embrace such developments. I don’t want to sound like a stuck record, but it’s this kinda stuff that makes this camera such a pleasure to work with.

Performance

I’m going to talk about image quality separately, so here I’ll focus on the other aspects of performance.

Focusing: Sony changed the game in terms of mirrorless focusing performance with the A6000 and it continues to evolve nicely, the A6500 was a nice step forwards and I feel it focuses faster than my A7Rii. I also believe the A6600 took another step forward and I’m sure the next APS-C will be better again! However with the A9 being launched as a pro camera body and priced accordingly the only real surprise today is how good this camera body is considering it was released in 2017, which really shows how far ahead of the game this camera was when released. The speed of acquisition is faster, focus reliability is better, and tracking is also better. In terms of focus speed, the biggest difference I’ve noticed is when I have the 1.4TC attached to either the 100-400GM or the 200-600G, I noticed a bigger drop off in performance with the A6500 than I do with the A9. In terms of focus accuracy/reliability, one regular example is birds sitting on rippling water where my results weren’t as consistent as I’d like in this situation, but they have somehow transformed with the A9. Also focus reliability when bif shooting is quite a step forward, particularly in low light and when there’s busy backgrounds. Animal eye AF is a bonus, however I’d say animal eye AF on the A9 leaves a lot to be desired tbh, so I wouldn’t set your expectations too high with this one. I’ve read that the A9ii and in particular the A1 have evolved this significantly.

Burst shooting: When shooting at 20fps I can shoot for ~ 12 seconds continuously capturing a total of 240 shots before the buffer fills. In terms of clearing the buffer it takes ~45 seconds. It’s worth noting that the camera caps the writing speed to the slot 1 SD card (UHS-II) at 150mb/s so SD cards faster than that don’t improve buffer clearing time. The camera also has a second SD card slot but it’s only UHS-I, I personally use this card slot for recording video, but some people us it to record a backup of your photo’s captured, or for instance you can save raw to one card and jpg’s to another etc. Shooting at slower fps such as 10fps can be done virtually indefinitly.

Image Quality

It goes without saying that larger sensors generally bring some notable image quality improvements to the table. Here’s what I didn’t do, I didn’t do a scientific side by side comparison of the two camera bodies shooting the same scene. The differences in image quality were apparent enough to me that I didn’t need to convince myself any further. After several years of shooting with the A6500 I’d say the A9 brings:

  • More detail – generally speaking this is quite noticeable. This may not be the case if you don’t have long enough glass and the subject is small i.e. you need to post crop a lot, this is where the reach of APS-C comes into play. Personally, I rarely encounter this as I have a 200-600G and a 1.4TC when I need extra reach. Even with the 100-400GM + 1.4 TC I’ve rarely encountered this, but when moving to FF the focal length of your glass is a key factor to consider.
  • Color – richer more natural colors, more punch
  • Contrast – more contrast and micro contrast
  • High ISO performance – more detail / less noise at higher iso’s. This improvement is substantial and continues to impress me.
  • Pulling detail from shadows – more detail, contrast, and color is retained when doing this vs the A6500.

Overall the rendering is nice and I find myself spending much less time processing images. To round off the comments though I’d also say that the image quality gap between the two bodies narrows under good lighting conditions and the APS-C lineup is still a highly capable system, particularly in the right hands.

FYI: I shoot RAW and process in DxO Photolab.

Buying Guide

The A9: With this being an old camera design there’s a wide range in terms of “camera condition” out there in the second hand market, some bodies being more recently purchased and still mint, others may literally be 5 years old and heavily “used”. If you’re wanting a long term keeper then I’d pay close attention to what year the body was purchased and pay close attention to the physical condition of the body, looking at typical areas of wear and tear such as lens mount, controls, LCD screen etc. What about shutter count? Well shutter count can be very very misleading because for 90 – 95% of shooting with this body is in silent shooting mode. With these fast readout stacked sensors you only use mechanical shutter for particular applications like shooting with flash. Reading forums & A9 Facebook pages etc, reliability issues seem to be few and far between, and the few instances that have come up appear to be mainly around failure in controls such as the dials popping off etc.

The A9ii: I view the A9ii is an evolution of the A9 and not a game changer like the A1 is. Although there’s lots of improvements in the A9ii that collectively make this a clearly better camera, the current price gap of ~$1,000 doesn’t justify the upgrade to me. I’d happily pay an extra $500 for the A9ii vs the A9, but I’d struggle to convince myself to pay more without actually getting my hands on one to evaluate in more detail.

Photo’s

Here’s some example shots, as you’ll see I haven’t necessarily picked the best shots as this can be misleading, instead I’ve picked shots that told me something about the camera / image performance that was relevant to the discussion or different to the A6500.

Osprey: This is my first example because it’s literally the first set of shots taken with the A9 and this was done before I spent anytime setting the camera up. Literally within 5 minutes of stepping outside from my home I looked up and there it was, so this camera brings good luck! These are my only comparison shots between the A6500 and the A9 and I’m able to do this because I found some shots that were taken of the same subject, with the same lens / TC config, with similar lighting, similar subject positioning, taken by the same photographer (me), and lastly it takes into account the crop factor where I had to post crop the A9 shot to have the bird a similar size in the frame. I’ve therefore tried to eliminate as many variables as possible for a fairer comparison.

Otter: This was the first shooting experience where I noticed how good the focus system was of focusing on the intended subjects in the presence of busy foregrounds and backgrounds. I’ve noticed this repeatedly when shooting birds sitting on rippling water where I rarely have a shot out of focus with the A9 whereas there would often be a few shots with the A6500 where the shots were slightly out of focus. Also I discovered this otter within 5 minutes walking distance from my house, somewhere I’ve walked hundreds of times, so a second example of good luck!

Kingfisher: So firstly this is hardly a gallery worthy shot! The only reason I kept these shots is that I barely have any Kingfisher shots. This was the first time I was shooting in low light with the A9 and it was quite a rugged test because not only was it in low light conditions but there’s also a busy background and these kingfishers are small and quite fast. I was catching entire flight sequences back and forth with the vast majority of shots being in focus. To give an idea of lighting conditions I was @ 12,800 ISO and I still needed to bump up exposure in post processing.

Lesser Kestrel: Let’s throw in a stationary subject. This one to me demonstrates the overall rendering of the A9, the colors, contrast etc. Minimal post processing was done on this shot, I typically play around with three or four sliders in my raw converter and that’s usually it.

Green Heron: Do you need 20fps? By default, I’m in 10fps mode when shooting wildlife, however I quickly change this upto 20fps when shooting something fast to give me a better chance of catching those magical moments. For instance, if I was shooting a Kingfisher or an Osprey that I’m hoping will take a fishing dive I’ll most definitely by in 20fps mode. Here this Green Heron was about to take a plunge and as they move extremely quickly it’s good to have 20 fps to catch the right moment(‘s).

Brahminy Kite: Action shot showing good focusing with a busy background, plus good detail, contrast and colors despite being somewhat backlit, and it shows good high ISO (12,800) performance imho.

Nutria Rat: This is an example of the 200-600G with 1.4 TC to show that decent results can be obtained with this modestly priced kit yielding 840mm FF FL. This is a mamma Nutria Rat just 1 -2 weeks before giving birth to six baby Nutria, I’d guess she probably weighted something in the region of 20lbs. A bit of trivia, the famous orange teeth are caused by the iron in their tooth enamel apparently!

Red Kite: This shot again is hardly a gallery shot, it was one of those grey days and despite shooting at +0.7EV, the out of the camera shot was dull and the subject was badly under exposed. When experiencing this with the A6500 I’ve found it challenging to extract a decent end result in post processing, whereas here I could just about salvage something worth keeping considering I don’t have many Red Kite in flight shots. The first shot is processing the RAW file with no exposure or contrast adjustments, the second one has been enhanced.

Swallow: Another meh shot tbh, but with the A9 I can now at least keep these Swallows in the frame and in focus quite repeatedly, whereas I really struggled to do this with the A6500. The next step is to do this with one of my longer glass configurations and under good lighting conditions.

Baby Armadillo: I live in Texas so there has to be an Armadillo shot right? If I recall correctly this was a time I was using focus tracking as this lil fella was running along the ground and I had the camera low to the ground and viewing via the LCD screen on the back, so tracking did a decent job considering I probably wasn’t doing a good job of keeping the subject in the right focus zone.

Closing Comments

Firstly I hope that some of you find this useful either by confirming that APS-C is right for you or by opening your mind to at least consider a move to the A9 yourself. Secondly there’s tons of professional reviews out there of the A9 already, so my objective here wasn’t to provide yet another review, but to provide the perspective of a hobby APS-C shooter moving to the A9 and what the key differences are.

My shooting with the A6500 had become a bit status quo so this came at a good time for me. The arrival of my A9 has made me a better photographer because it encouraged me to explore the capabilities of this camera body via the customization options to the point where I’m much more aware and proficient of what settings to use in what circumstances to get the best results. It’s also such a pleasure to use, to the extent that it created a new dilemma for me, I was taking it out daily and each time it was producing too many good shots, literally, so I’ve had to learn to be quite brutal with culling / deleting shots so that I’m not overwhelmed with post processing backlogs.

Please don’t hesitate to ask questions and I’ll try to help, also please try and keep the dialogue constructive!

Respectfully,

Kevin

 Kev The Doc's gear list:Kev The Doc's gear list
DxO One Sony a7R II Sony a9 Zeiss Loxia 21mm F2.8 Sony 1.4x Teleconverter (2016) +6 more
Sony a1 Sony a6000 Sony a6500 Sony a9
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