Autofocus: Frisbee and cycling

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G @ 200mm | ISO 1000 | 1/2000 sec | F4

So by now we've taken the a9 to hockey, figure skating, track and field, BMX and skateboarding and dressage, as well as put it through our bicycle run and taken it to a soccer game. But we're nothing if not thorough, so we've taken the a9 to an Ultimate Frisbee game and a Criterium cycle race.

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As with our soccer shoot, we primarily used Lock-On AF: Expand Flexible Spot, which is most analogous to Nikon's 3D Tracking and Canon's iTR subject tracking systems, though after spending some time with it, it seems almost a mix of the two. Lock-On AF still lacks the absolute 'stickiness' of 3D Tracking, but fares better than iTR and uses a similar-looking 'cloud' of AF points on your subject. We also experimented with using the 'Wide' AF area as well, to see both how it copes with well isolated subjects and multiple subjects in the frame. Lastly, we kept the AF Tracking Sensitivity set to '3,' or 'standard.'


The a9 has proven to be supremely capable across a wide range of scenarios, so it's no surprise that it turned up a good performance with frisbee - here, you have players criss-crossing back and forth, and many of them are wearing similar-color jerseys, which can trip up tracking systems. They are, however, well-isolated from the background, so the a9 had very little trouble keeping the scene broadly in focus and almost never shooting off to the background.

But it's not flawless.

Focus on left player Focus on right player

These images (click through for full size), shot as part of a 20 fps burst, show just how fast the a9 can be to focus - even when it's not doing what you want it to. I had initiated focus on the left player, but as the player at right started picking up speed, the a9 decided it should focus on her instead.

Now, there's not a huge difference in depth between them, but there's enough separation relative to where they are in the frame that the a9 should really have stuck to my original subject instead of jumping off to another.

So, Lock-On still has some issues with initial acquisition and 'jumpiness,' and though it is definitely improved over previous models, that's something to keep in mind; if you're shooting something that you absolutely cannot miss, it'd be best to keep a chosen AF area over your subject yourself.

Next, knowing that the 'Wide' area works almost uncannily well on other Sony cameras, I decided to give that a try:

Though the subjects here aren't moving drastically in terms of depth or distance from the camera, one of the biggest things to notice from that burst is how well the camera continued to track even after both zooming out and then zooming in (this is something mirrorless cameras have historically struggled with). Sure, there were a few shots that were misfocused just after zooming, but take a look for yourself how accurate focus looks just two shots after I finished zooming in.

Morale booster.
Sony FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM at 147mm | ISO 320 | 1/2000 sec | F2.8
Photo by Carey Rose

Here's a selection of bursts you can download yourself to inspect, including all full-size images from the long-run video. All are out-of-camera JPEGs re-saved at JPEG quality '8' for size considerations.

So, besides a few issues with Lock-On jumping off to nearby subjects, frisbee wasn't much of a challenge for the a9 quite like low-light soccer was. On to cycling.


Processed and cropped to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G @ 200mm | ISO 800 | 1/1000 sec | F4

The Ballard Criterium is an annual bicycle race in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood; we photographed the women's 'Pro' division, which was nearly an hour long, providing plenty of opportunities to see just how good the a9 could 'lock on' to rapidly moving subjects.

The a9 overall did quite well, but Lock-on AF proved to be more finicky than with frisbee, not only jumping subjects but jumping to the background and not performing as well at focusing-while-zooming. Part of this could be due to the cyclists moving both more quickly across the frame and relative to the background, and also moving relatively greater amounts in terms of distance from the camera than the frisbee players often were.

I'll be honest, when I initiated tracking on the lead rider, I was hoping she would be in better focus than the porta-potties in the background. Also, you should probably never have porta-potties in the background of your sports shots.
Sony 70-200mm F4 G @ 70mm | ISO 1250 | 1/2000 sec | F4

The a9 also had a tendency to hunt during long bursts, resulting in a series of out-of-focus shots before the camera reacquired focus on the subject - showing that while you capture more frames per second than its direct competition, you may not always end up with a proportionally greater number of keepers. In any case, Lock-On AF is still demonstrably more reliable than Canon's iTR, if not quite to the level of Nikon's 3D Tracking.

As with frisbee, the takeaway from cycling is this: For most advanced amateurs and even some professionals, the a9's subject tracking will work well the majority of the time. Unfortunately, if you need absolute reliability and you simply cannot miss a shot during a crucial play, we still have to recommend using a flexible spot (zone), following your subject yourself, and therefore steering clear of subject tracking. All manufacturers have been making impressive strides in their subject tracking abilities, but as with the
Canon EOS-1D X II, Olympus OM-D E-M1 II and even Nikon's D5, subject tracking on the a9 still isn't so reliable as to be counted on 100% of the time if you just need to get the shot.

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G @ 200mm | ISO 4000 | 1/2000 sec | F4

If you'd like to check out a few sample cycling bursts with your own eyes, we've made them available for download here. All bursts are full-resolution JPEGs processed through Adobe Camera Raw with all default settings, and saved out at a quality of '8' for size considerations.