The Sony a6500 utilizes the same hybrid AF system as the mid-level Sony a6300 and performance is identical. The touchscreen make it a little easier to select points, though it is not nearly as responsive as we'd hoped. That said, the combination of excellent AF system and deep buffer make this a seriously appealing sports camera. You can read more about actual performance of the AF system in our in-depth tests with the a6300, but we'll provide a quick overview of the system below.

Autofocus modes

As with recent Sony cameras, the a6500 has seven main AF area modes and then 'Lock-on' tracking versions of those same modes. Sound excessive? Well it is. 'Wide' and 'Lock-on: Wide' appear to do the same thing, as do all 'Flexible Spot' Lock-on modes. Meanwhile, 'Center' is just a special case of Flexible Spot. And you'd think that Flexible Spot could be its own mode that you can then grow the size of using a dial or touchscreen, but, no, there are three separate Flexible Spot sizes dedicated as modes.

The a6500 has eight main AF area modes: Wide, Zone, Center, three sizes of Flexible Spot and Expanded Flexible spot mode. It then has 'Lock-on' variants of all these modes.

In addition to these area modes, there are several AF functions, such as Face Detection, Eye-AF and Center Lock-on AF functions that over-ride your chosen focus mode. 

The a6500's touchscreen just adds another layer of complexity. Tapping the screen will also over-ride your chosen AF area mode and will do so differently depending on whether you're shooting stills or video and on whether you have the 'Center Lock-on AF' function engaged. All in all, Sony would benefit from a complete rework of all its AF area settings and modes, many of which are confusing and, worse, redundant

Autofocus performance is excellent. And the new LSI processor gives the a6500 a deep buffer. ISO 6400, 1/1000 sec at F2.8. Edited to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
Photo by Dan Bracaglia

Despite all this complexity, Sony's AF system remains simplistic in at least one regard: its E-mount cameras still fail to offer any sort of customization of AF behavior. Most peers allow shooters to tailor the AF-C behavior, from how easily the system is distracted by nearer objects to how constant or erratic you expect your subject's acceleration to be. The a6500 offers no such options and, like all cameras to-date, its performance isn't so good that it wouldn't benefit from such customizations.

AF Performance

Like the a6300, AF performance from the a6500 is impressive when using a native lens. It's remarkably quick to focus, and features an enormous AF region over which it can follow subjects around the frame. It can even prioritize, and track, eyes and faces with uncanny precision. That said, once you try and take control and specify your subject, you may be disappointed in the camera's ability to stick to it reliably: both Eye AF and the Lock-on AF area modes can to jump to other subjects. Initial subject recognition in Lock-on AF also isn't as quick as the best DSLRs, or even the a6500's own 'Wide' mode where the camera automatically chooses a subject. In fact, in this latter auto mode and single-point AF modes, the camera's AF ability is nothing short of some of the best DSLRs - even at 11 fps. Though we mainly stuck to 8 fps, because this frame rate provides a live view of the action.

There are some caveats though: lack of cross-type points means the camera isn't as robust as it could be in challenging light, and low light AF performance depends significantly on how fast your lens is. One very impressive feature is the ability to autofocus third party lenses. However, you lose access to all Lock-on AF modes, and burst rates are limited to 3 fps with AF. Face detection and subject tracking in Wide area mode - where you lack the ability to specify your subject - work quite well with 3rd party lenses though.

To read more about the continuous focus performance, read our in-depth analysis and testing in our a6300 review

Video AF

The extensive frame coverage of the phase-detect pixels, combined with a touchscreen should make for a formidable video camera, especially if you desire or require autofocus. Tapping on your subject in a Flexible Spot area mode leads to quick and decisive focus, and you can adjust the speed of the rack in 3 increments: Fast, Normal, Slow. Fast tends to overshoot and is best avoided, but Normal and Slow lead to very smooth refocusing.

In completely auto (Wide) area mode, the camera does a decent job retaining focus on faces, or other subjects near to the camera and center of the frame (oddly, it didn't perform as well in complete auto mode as the RX100 V, which was generally less jumpy). However, in if you set [Movie] AF Tracking Sensitivity to 'Responsive', it can get distracted, momentarily shooting off to the background or a foreground element. This behavior continues even in the camera's 'tap-to-track' mode, possibly due to the subject tracking algorithm momentarily losing the subject. View a demo reel of the camera's video AF capabilities from 1:18 onward in our video below:

Our biggest complaints around video AF are around usability. Many of the focus modes you'll use in stills shooting are unavailable, and you'll have to do some work before you can simply 'tap-to-track' as you can in stills mode. The camera's default behavior when you tap the screen while in 'Wide' (auto) area mode is immensely confusing: you get a flashing 'spot focus' message on screen with no indication of where you've just placed your AF point. What is spot focus? It's essentially a Flexible Spot override with the manual focus ring engaged, similar to the way tapping the screen in Wide mode in stills momentarily switches you to Flexible Spot mode if you had 'DMF' mode active. The idea is presumably that you can tap to refocus during video recording and manually fine-tune the focus, but it's not clear to us why there's no AF point indication and why it can't just be more like stills shooting.

Furthermore, it's remarkably difficult to simply engage tap-to-track, a well-desired feature you'd think would be as straightforward and simple as most competitor brands have made it. On the a6500, you'll have to first enable the 'Center Lock-on AF' function in a menu, since the easier to use and more reliable 'Lock-on AF' area modes are unavailable in video. And when you return to stills shooting, you'll have to remember to disengage 'Center Lock-on AF', as it takes over the touchscreen, meaning you lose the ability to tap to specify an AF point in any Flexible Spot mode. That also means that to get back to 'spot focus' mode in video, you'll also have to disengage 'Center Lock-on AF'.

Much like in its stills mode, the video AF modes really need a complete rethink. However, when you get it to do what you want it to do, performance can be impressive.