March 11, 2016

SUBJECT: Is the Sony A6300 for the Birds?


Great Blue Heron in-flight
Spring is here! The Great Blue Herons are back! (Sony A6300, Canon 600mm + 1.4x TC = 840mm)

Over the past few months I really haven't had much of a chance to do any serious bird photography and there wasn't much activity anyway. With that said, I have been busy researching and testing Sony cameras. Why? Simply put, technology marches on and Canon has been slow to respond. It's really sad in many ways. When the 5D Mark II arrived on the scene and produced 1080p video, Canon was at the top of their game. Since that time however, the playing field was leveled and now has surpassed Canon in many ways.

As you know, I have been using cameras for not only still photography but also video over the past number of years now. To me, they go hand-in-hand. To tell a complete story, video usually plays a role.

My camera collection up until 2016 was comprised of the Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 7D Mark II and the Panasonic GH4. The 5D was used for general purpose, landscape and portrait photography. The 7D for bird photography and the GH4 for 4k video work.

Two Great Blue Herons on Nest
Two Great Blue Herons in Love (Sony A6300, Canon 600mm + 1.4x TC = 840mm)

Times are a changin as they say. I really have wanted to consolidate my cameras down to just two. That plus the new mirror-less cameras from Sony are so much smaller and lighter. That's a big deal to me. Not just from a standpoint of lugging stuff on an excursion, but being able to put cameras into smaller gimbals or rails for video and time-lapse.

So...I drank the grape Kool Aid and bought the Sony A7RII -- a full-frame, 42mp, 4k camera that has taken the place of the Canon 5D Mark III and the Panasonic GH4. And I get to still use my Canon glass. That's what made me switch. Using a Metabones adapter, I have most of the functionality of my Canon lenses on the A7RII body. Cool beans!

But is the A7RII capable of taking great images of birds? Yes, but auto-focus is too slow for action. Perched birds are easy prey for the A7RII but introduce movement and it's not so good -- at least with the current firmware of the Metabones adapter. Not only that, but the fps (frames per second) aren't up to snuff for a serious birding camera (only 5fps) and the buffer fills up incredibly fast.

The images however from this camera are astounding. 42mp gives you a lot of room to crop and feather detail is just wonderful.

Red-Tail Hawk
Red-Tailed Hawk (Sony A7RII, Tamron 150-600 Sony A-mount, LA-EA3 adapter, 560mm)

So...Now I just drank some more grape Kool Aid and purchased the new Sony A6300 camera. This is a 24mp, 1.5x crop sensor camera with 4k and 120p slow motion video and shoots 8fps without viewfinder lag.

Viewfinder lag has been the Achilles heel of mirror-less cameras. There has always been lag-time between the time you press the shutter and what you see in the viewfinder. This short delay has made it nearly impossible to track birds-in-flight.

I am glad to report that the A6300 has solved this problem. At least when shooting at 8fps. I can definitely track birds with this camera.

That stated, the next Achilles heel to Sony mirror-less cameras has been the lack of native, long telephoto lenses. Anything over 240mm in length requires some form of adapter and a non-native lens such a Canon mount lens or a Sony A-mount lens.

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron with nesting material. (Sony A6300, Canon 600mm + 1.4x TC = 840mm)

Using either the Metabones or Sony adapter gets you close to the functionality of a native E lens, but it's not perfect. Not all the functionality of native lenses are available and especially with long telephoto lenses, the time to find focus (hunt time) can be upwards of 3 seconds. In a lot of cases, 3 seconds is too long.

That's the one thing about bird photography. In my opinion, it is the most demanding form of photography there is. The subject is small in most cases. The subject is erratic and moves in non-linear fashion. The subject moves fast! The subject is usually in front of busy backgrounds making auto-focus difficult. There is nothing easy about bird photography.

My Sony A6300 Observations
When Sony announced that they had created the fastest focusing camera on the market, I was skeptical -- skeptical but curious. For a price tag of $1,000 it seemed too good to be true. Nonetheless, I had to give it a try.

Here are my findings after one day of use, using long telephoto lenses (Canon 600mm, Tamron 150-600, Sigma 150-600 and the Metabones Mark IV adapter and Sony LA-EA3 adapter with a Sony A-mount Tamron 150-600.) I spent about 90 minutes at a heron rookery photographing Great Blue Herons in-flight.

PLEASE NOTE: My observations are solely with respect to bird photography/videography which is much different than other forms. Here's my list:

  • If the lens is completely out of focus, the time it takes to find focus is too slow. 3 seconds is too long.

  • If the lens is already close to focus, acquisition time is quite acceptable and in most cases the auto-focus works great!

  • All three lens/adapter combinations focused with the same speed and accuracy when used at 600mm.

  • In some cases, the auto-focus does not stay locked on a bird-in-flight. It drifts out of focus and focus must be reacquired. I have tried all sorts of auto-focus settings from wide to center focus and the same symptoms occur. This might need a firmware fix? (It's been noted by other reviewers.)

  • One particular case that astounded me: 48 continuous shots of sharp, in-focus shots of a Great Blue Heron in flight. Holy cow! That was great! It only happened once however during my 90 minutes of testing. I can't figure out why it worked so great one time, and not so good the next.

  • I only shot jpg because Adobe doesn't have a raw decoder yet. I was amazed that I got the entire 48 jpg shot sequence without the buffer filling up. That was great to see. The camera just kept shooting.

  • When utilizing the focus-limit switches on long telephoto lenses the hunt time is probably around 1 second. Not bad really. However if you plan to shoot subjects close to you, you'll have to turn off the focus-limit function and this greatly increases the hunt time for initial focus.

  • 4k video looks great on this camera. Low light capability is fantastic. It puts the GH4 to shame. I plan to test it up against the A7RII when I get a chance.

  • 120fps slow-motion looks great! When I owned the Panasonic GH4, 96fps looked muddy. Not so with the A6300. (See video example below.)

  • 4k, 24fps has bad rolling shutter. Any kind of vibration and the video looks like Jello. I much prefer 30fps which reduces this effect.

  • 4k, 30fps has a slight crop-factor to it compared to the 24fps mode. Not a big deal for birds...I can always use more reach! (See video example below.)

  • SD slot is in battery compartment? Really? Ufda!
great blue heron
Coming in for a landing. (Sony A6300, Sigma 150-600 @ 600mm, Metabones IV adapter)

To summarize, if I had to rate the camera's auto-focus capabilities using long telephoto lenses, I would rate it at "C+". As a comparison, I would rate the Canon 7D Mark II as an "A" . Using the Sony A6300 reminds me of my days using the Canon 40D. You'll get some great shots, but you'll miss a few.

For most photographers who want a nice, small, light-weight camera to use with a hand-holdable lens for bird photography, the Sony A6300 is a perfect fit. For example, the A6300 works great with the Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens. What a great combo for taking on hikes or taking on a flight to exotic places.

Will I keep the camera? Not sure. I am waiting for Sigma's MC-11 adapter which Sigma has specifically designed to work with their lenses. Demonstrations of the MC-11 show the adapter allows Sigma lenses to appear native to the Sony mirrorless cameras. How will this adapter work with the Sigma 150-600mm lens? We should know that answer in a few weeks. If it allows for phase-detect autofocus while taking video, this will be a big deal.

So far, I have yet to find the perfect camera that can accurately and quickly focus in both stills and video modes. Wouldn't it be great to have ONE camera that with the flick of a button switches between shooting 4k video and stills? Hey...what about the new Canon 1DX Mark II?

That's a question for another day.

Note: I originally rated the autofocus with long lenses as a C- but have upgraded it to a C+ after using it for a few days. I don't want to give the impression that it isn't usable. It is. And maybe once the Sigma MC-11 arrives, I might rethink the rating again. And it certainly gets an "A" rating for autofocus using shorter lenses and is a fantastic camera for most users.


Great Blue Heron Nest, 4k comparison 24p vs 30p


Canada Goose Chase - 120 fps, slowed to 24fps


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—Alan Stankevitz


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