Using mirrorless cameras for nature photography (My progress over time)

I consider myself a nature and landscape photographer, but I have to admit I really enjoy the technology around taking pictures and video nearly as much as I enjoy being in nature.  I started with a little point and shoot canon and quickly got hooked on taking shots and on how to improve the shots that didn’t look as good as I wanted.  I started, and continue today, to use Canon cameras….point and shoot, then Rebel, moving up with my skills and as my budget allowed.  As with computers, I have never felt like I could only use one brand and have looked at different tools when they did the job easier.  I currently use both Canon and Sony cameras often one of each on a shoot but have recently been asked quite a few questions as people see me carrying Sony gear while shooting some challenging nature work.  

Size comparison of my Canon and Sony systems with equivalent 100-400 lenses.

Size comparison of my Canon and Sony systems with equivalent 100-400 lenses.

I’ll start with a bit of my progression since Sony was not a great choice for many reasons in the beginning but has become not only much better, but in some cases, the best choice for me in certain situations now.

First generation mirrorless Sony cameras had contrast detect autofocus only and were really only good for static shots of perched birds or maybe slow moving animals.

I first went mirrorless with Panasonic GF1 and later GX1.  The micro 4/3 system seemed to have a lot going for them with significantly smaller lenses for the reach you could get and the picture quality in good light was good enough for moderate sized prints. It was nice at the time to be able to get 600mm equivalent with the 100-300mm in a system I could carry in a small sling bag.

Panasonic GX1 with 100-300mm (600 equivalent field of view). A compelling system but autofocus tracking was my major limiting factor with this system. Maybe Olympus will change this with the new EM1 successor that is to come out.

Panasonic GX1 with 100-300mm (600 equivalent field of view). A compelling system but autofocus tracking was my major limiting factor with this system. Maybe Olympus will change this with the new EM1 successor that is to come out.

There were two issues with these cameras for the types of photography that I was doing at the time.  Since I shoot owls regularly and they tend to start being active at dusk and sometimes stay active just at dawn, low light noise is a major factor in the types of cameras I want to use. As you increase the sensor size (in general) for cameras of the same or similar technology you get better low light capabilities.  The second is that due to the fact that I would like to capture in-flight shots and interactions which means both a higher shutter speed (again low noise at higher ISO to achieve those shutter speeds) and good autofocus tracking.

The first Sony camera I got helped in low light even though the A7R had a fairly high number of pixels, when you reduced shots taken in low light to @20 MPixel you were able to have excellent low light shots.  This camera was also a great landscape camera and I used it mostly for those types of shots over it’s lifetime.  The problem was that the autofocus not only wasn’t better than the Panasonic it was actually considerably slower, even for single shot.  Then along came the A6000.

Sony A6000 and A7R, a really good start but Sony was going to quickly improve on these cameras

Sony A6000 and A7R, a really good start but Sony was going to quickly improve on these cameras

The A6000 was the first mirrorless camera that changed my way of thinking about autofocus.  I would rarely use anything more than 9 points on my Canon camera for continuous focus and more often than not, would only use center point and have to always crop my shot for the composition I wanted later.  With this camera I could use either all points or a slightly smaller (but still bigger than the full focus on my canon) box and I could watch the little green dots follow my subject in real time.  Along with 10 frames per second I was able to frame my shot in real time and (most of the time) keep focus on the subject.  The software was not perfect at this time, it would lose the subject where the background was complex and contrasty.  The ability to keep focus would drop off considerably as the light diminished. As an APS-C camera, the low light capabilities were good but not great.  The best thing was that I was sure this was a good sign of things to come for the next generation of full frame cameras.

That lead to the A7RII for me.  This camera at the time was nearly everything I was looking for.  The autofocus was similar to the A6000, it had more resolution than my A7R and it seemed to have better low light capabilities as well, even with the higher resolution.  With more and more lenses coming out I was finally able to get a 100-400 and a 1.4 teleconverter (whereas before the longest native lens I had was a 70-200). This combination finally became as usable as my Canon setup….but not necessary better.  There were things that Canon still did better and things now that the Sony combo was better at.

Pretty much a full set of lenses for me, 16-35, 24-105, 100-400 with or without the 1.4 teleconverter (and a 70-200 for video). Pretty much matches my Canon setup except for the 500 f4.

Pretty much a full set of lenses for me, 16-35, 24-105, 100-400 with or without the 1.4 teleconverter (and a 70-200 for video). Pretty much matches my Canon setup except for the 500 f4.

The A7RIII came out and I wasn’t sure that it was worth upgrading even though the autofocus was considerably better, 10 frames per second was pretty compelling, and that new battery was a big improvement.  The A9 also came out and I thought that might be the perfect nature camera, especially with the silent shutter that is actually good enough to capture moving subjects without any distortion.  However, the cost of that camera had me sitting on my money as I could have picked up a used Canon 1DX for that kind of money and I wasn’t convinced, at that time, that it was in the same league.

This is when Sony did something very unexpected.  They came out with the A7III with the same resolution as the A9, 10 frames per second, excellent autofocus, the new battery, 2 cards slots,  and a price that had up until that time been relegated to “budget” full frame like the 6D or D610. I almost forgot, it also had some pretty good video specs as well which was something I was starting to get more interest in at that time.  So instead of replacing my A7RII with the A7RIII or blowing my budget on the A9, I kept the A7RII and picked up the A7III as well.  Now I had a combination that I felt matched most of my Nature shooting and I found I was leaving my Canon equipment at home more often (unless I needed the 500mm).  I could hike with 2 cameras and 3 lenses (16-35 f4, 24-105 f4, 100-400 f4.5-5.6) that were all interchangeable and I had high resolution as well as speed and excellent high ISO capabilities.

This is the current state for me.  I’m sure with the new mirrorless cameras that have come out from Canon and Nikon (and Fuji for that matter) we are in for even better cameras in the next couple of years.  

I really love the A7RII for landscape photography.

I really love the A7RII for landscape photography.

What do I expect?  In the next generation of cameras, I’m expecting some fantastic things for  nature photography.  We are very likely to see fast silent shutters make it down to more affordable cameras, likely with Sony taking the lead on this.  Autofocus is improving very quickly as processors get faster at looking at the live image and actually using that data in near real time. I’m also expecting to see usable eye autofocus for birds and animals in the next generation of cameras.  Tracking objects is improving steadily, and algorithms are getting more robust.  I expect Canon and Nikon to put out something before the next Olympics that will be interesting, and possibly catch up to Sony on some of these fronts.  The next couple of years are likely to be exciting as these companies jockey to gain/keep their hold on the market and I expect that there is going to be some fallout, just not sure who is going to make a mistake or decide they can’t compete.  

Video is going to be more and more important in these systems, and Canon and Sony have a bit of an edge to start but Nikon and Fuji have now put out some surprisingly good products.  Panasonic and Olympus seem to be the bigger question and we shall see as one sticks their foot in the full frame game and the other looks to try to compete in the sport/nature game but stick with the micro 4/3 platform with the EM1 successor.

For nature shoots I commonly carry the canon 5DS with a 500mm and have a sony (either a7III for faster subjects, or A7RII for environmental shots) hanging from my shoulder.

For nature shoots I commonly carry the canon 5DS with a 500mm and have a sony (either a7III for faster subjects, or A7RII for environmental shots) hanging from my shoulder.

Next I’ll cover some questions that I get asked about using Sony out in the field.

Autofocus - many questions here

Sony started with autofocus that was accurate but so slow it was only good for static subjects (on the mirrorless front, the SLT cameras are a different story).  Each generation improved both the technology (on sensor phase detection, increasing the number of points, speed of detection) and the software (ability to detect objects, tracking algorithms, eye AF) with the current version 3 having mostly caught up to Canon and Nikon and in some areas actually surpassing them.  The challenge with any autofocus system is learning it.  It took me years to get the most out of the Canon system and to know when to use what methods.  Likewise it took time to learn the Sony system.  I have found that I don’t use the same methods for the same subjects.  I will use all focus points and let the camera do the work of tracking with the A7III for most bird in-flight shots, whereas with the Canon I will most often use 9 point in the center for those same conditions.  Using all points on the Canon I would often lose focus to the background, and using small cluster of points on the Sony seems to limit my composition unnecessarily.  I have not used all of the track and follow methods of the Sony yet, my first trials were not as successful as I had wanted.  Single point in lower light is still not as good on the Sony as on the Canon. The state of focus tracking on all systems is so good compared to what I started with 15 years ago, most of the time missing the target is more often human error than the camera.

This will likely be the subject of another post on its own and hopefully I will put out a video showing some techniques as I get better at documenting things while they are happening.

Weather sealing - I personally have used (and am comfortable with) all the Sony cameras in the same places that I use the Canons.  I would never, on purpose, shoot any camera in the rain and will use rain covers like Lens Coat when I’m in bad weather.  My main experience with challenging weather is in very hot and humid conditions or very cold conditions.  In humid conditions I have only ever had 2 issues with a photography equipment, a canon xti in which the SD card failed in Costa Rica, and a Tamron lens that fogged on the inside in the rainforest in Northern Australia…that lens is still working fine today and only needed to be in a dry area for a few days.  I regularly use all cameras in the swamps of South Carolina and Georgia, in very salty conditions on the coast (we do product shoots for a sailing catamaran company). I also regularly shoot in very cold conditions ( < -30 °C) searching for hours for owls.  I guess the point is that the weather sealing is good enough for me for these conditions and the way I ensure my equipment stays safe.  I will leave actual tests of the failure points of each one to people who can afford to break their equipment.

Build quality - After saying what I did above, I have dropped my Canon 1D IV on volcanic rock in Maui, fallen with it down a scree field, bounced the camera of the side of a rock face while shooting bouldering and still managed to sell that camera last year with only a few scratches.  I do not believe any of the Sony cameras I have would fair as well.  The build quality is solid on these machines but they are not in the same class as a 1D, I would put them equivalent to the 6D or 80D which are still very good. 

Battery Life - After using a 1D for 5 years pretty much any other camera that I have falls significantly short.  2 batteries would last me an entire week in the woods.  On the other side of the spectrum is the A7RII.  I have 4 batteries and will use 2 a day easily when shooting it as primary.  I definitely need to be within reach of power every 2 days with that camera.  This changed significantly with the A7III.  This camera last about the same amount of time as my Canon 5DS and both of these cameras can usually go 2 days per battery.  This is the one major reason I will upgrade the A7RII at some point.

Lenses - I have been using Sony mirrorless since the beginning so have had to deal with the early lack of lenses.  Since I was doing mostly landscape with these cameras at first the 24-70 f4 and 16-35 f4 were good (well the later was good the former just good enough). I was also able to use all my Canon lenses for landscape easily with the metabones adapter since autofocus was not a huge issue.  In the last year I was able to pick up the 100-400 and the 1.4 teleconverter to which was also my go to combo for the canon system for years before I was able to get a 500 f4.  There are some fun lenses I would like to pick up but now that I have the 24-105 f4 in place of the older sony/zeiss 24-70, I have all I regularly use on any given shoot. Quality wise, I have the same lenses on Canon and am equally happy with both systems.  

Ergonomics - This one is very personal to almost everyone.  Personally I find both Canon and Sony cameras very easy to use.  They both take time to learn well enough (and to customize to the level I’m happy with) that I can do most of what I need without thinking and rarely in the field need to go to the menus.  Unlike many complaints I have seen, since I use long lenses a lot the size of the camera is not really relevant because most of the weight is on my left hand and my right hand guides the camera.  Now that the Sony has a joy stick, I don’t have anything to complain about for Canon or Sony.  I do like how small and light I can go with the Sony A7RII and 16-35 for long hikes to landscape locations…it may only save me a pound off the equivalent in Canon land but it is nice.

Support - I do not have CPS but anytime I have had an issue with canon equipment it has been fixed quickly and when not my own fault, Canon has done the work without charge.  I have had excellent experience with Sigma when my 120-300 image stabilizer died.  This is one area that I have not had good experience so far with Sony.  I scratched the 100-400 lens a few months back (my own fault, did not expect Sony to fix it for free). I sent it in for an estimate and it came back at $1800 to replace the outer element.  Nearly the price of the lens itself.  I decided not to get it fixed since it really doesn’t affect the image much (but I’ll never be able to sell the lens).  When it came back, my camera guy (yes I have a camera guy that has been taking care of both of us for 14 years now) asked the Sony rep who was in the store to see if they might be able to do something a bit more reasonable.  In the end, all I got was a bit of a sneer and was told to use a filter next time.  I guess I was more annoyed by the attitude than whether or not they might try to do more, but it has left a bad taste in my mouth.  

Video - I’m just learning to do more video so the capabilities of all of my cameras are not the going to be the limiting factor for quite some time.  The A7III does make things very easy compared to any of the other cameras I have used before.  I have very little experience with any of the Canon cameras with DPAF so can’t compare them yet, just bought a m50 for use with the DJI ronin-s so will likely do some comparisons between that and the A7III soon.

Stabilization - I love the in body image stabilization.  I can handhold shots I would never consider before with any lens I have.  There are many times I would like to have a tripod but the weight is just too much for the hike.  In these cases the Sony cameras mean I can use any lens now in those conditions.  

Colour - not an issue with me as I adjust white balance for each shot depending on how I feel the scene should look.  Out of camera, Canon seems “warmer”, Sony seems “colder”, both can be adjusted to what I think I actually saw.

Noise - With Canon I tend to shoot to the right since shadows can be a challenge to recover an the noise is a bit ugly in those areas.  With Sony I don’t need to worry as much, I can expose for the scene and recover shadows more easily.  I rarely feel limited by either system.

So for now, I have some excellent equipment and I use all of it together depending on what I am shooting.  I’m looking forward to all the tech that is likely to come in the next few years, from improvements to the smaller sensors, to the ways that autofocus is going to seem almost simplistic and just to the competition in the market place with so many good products looking to get our attention.  If anyone actually reads this far and would like me to go deeper into any of the subjects above leave a comment.  We will be working on some videos soon and may cover these areas as we learn what to do (and likely show you what we found doesn’t work).