Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Sony A7R II–Yes, This Is Game Changing Autofocus BUT …

f/4 @ 38mm for 1/1000 sec at ISO 640

Parents and grandparents will appreciate how impossible shots like this are to capture with any camera, much less one sporting 42 megapixels! The Eye Sensing AF system is simply brilliant even in cases like this where subjects quickly come into focus.

I’m a Canon 1D X owner who is used to using advanced AF systems and dialing the settings to get high accuracy AF, but I’ve also seen intelligent people completely fail with their settings and get nearly every shot out of focus. I gushed over the amazing AF performance of the Nikon D4s because it was more foolproof and it just got the shot right more times than any camera I’ve ever tested. However both of these super expensive professional cameras have a long way to go to reach the overall ease of use and performance of the AF system that I’ve been testing in the Sony A7R II.

I don’t follow Sony closely, but I can definitely say that this AF system is a big improvement over what I observed in any previous Sony camera I’ve tested up to this point – including the original A7 and A7R as well as the a6000.

What’s more astonishing is that super megapixel cameras like the Nikon D810 and Canon 5Ds/5DsR fail to match the performance of their lesser megapixel siblings, yet this camera destroys nearly every AF system I’ve ever tested. This is huge news for hobbyist photographers and parents who are always struggling to keep up with their fast moving subjects that rarely give you the perfect pose to capture a fleeing moment. As a result, we rely on good AF systems to help us get the shot, and what I’ve seen on the A7R II thus far is that it simply doesn’t get any better than this as of October 13, 2015.

BUT, make sure you have the latest firmware

I’ve been offline helping my sweet preggy wife prepare for the birth of our daughter – today (October 13, 2015) – so my distracted mind led me to forget to make sure I had the latest firmware. Typically this isn’t a huge problem when I test cameras as the firmware updates rarely have a huge impact on the images. In fact, many updates are often more about user interface bugs or extreme scenarios so they are valuable to have but they generally don’t have an impact on the quality of images that you’ll capture.

After my testing when examining the images carefully on my 4k display I did notice that my lens was suffering from a little focusing error that I didn’t notice in the field. With such a high resolution image packed on a tiny screen it’s easy to chimp and think “wow, that’s spot on”, so this is something that is easy to get burned by in the field.

When I discovered the problem I immediately checked to see if I had the latest firmware (which I usually do for review units), but sadly I discovered I had version 1.0. Firmware 1.10 or greater allegedly addresses this problem and the others issues listed below:

  1. Reduces the chance of the camera changing to front focus when shooting certain scenes.
  2. Decreases chroma noise when Long Exposure NR (Noise Reduction) is set to Off.
    Note: The noise does not occur when Long Exposure NR is set to On.
  3. Improves continuous shooting at Hi speed so that it can be used just as long when using the flash as without the flash.

I seemed to be getting burned by issue #1 above, even though Sony claims that it rarely occurs. Click here for the US location of firmware updates if you use this camera, and make sure you get your update.

During my testing the focus was spot on or close enough in most real world scenarios, but when pixel peeping – as I must do when reviewing a camera – I noticed that there seemed to be a consistent offset from where the focus actually was and where it should be. The consistency of this error throughout my testing validated that this offset was not a general AF system because if the shots were generally focused where they should be. However if this offset issue was addressed every shot would have been 100% perfect, so this indicated that there was either a lens issue (most common) or something else (such as a general problem in the AF system). 

Normally for this type of problem, I’d do a AF microadjustment to ensure I had the most precise accuracy, but when I tried to do that with the Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS lens I was disappointed to discover that it doesn’t support AF micro adjustments.

I’ve got the latest firmware for future testing, but all images I’ve uploaded to the gallery on or before October 11, 2015 may experience this error (including all featured in this article). With this disclaimer out of the way, I’m still very impressed with the AF system in this camera in real world usage because out of the roughly 100 cameras I’ve tested in my lifetime, only the D4s has been this good or precise out of the box – even when you factor in this minor AF issue. The only real world impact of this problem are those scenarios where you do extreme crops or very large crops to view the pixels at 100% or more is that you’ll sometimes notice that adjacent areas are slightly sharper than your intended target (especially noticeable on people).

Eye AF In Action

f/4 @ 61mm for 1/320 sec at ISO 100

Even when Kai was spinning out of control, the eye AF managed to stay locked on to his eye – something that would be near impossible to do in any other system I’ve ever tested

There’s a lot of advanced features of the Sony AF system, but Sony actually does a pretty poor job documenting and touting them. As a result, I completely missed the Eye AF feature until one of my awesome blog readers, Robert Good, sent me an email to remind me to check it out. Once I used it, I was impressed to see how effective it was in real world scenarios.

Simply put, I love this feature because it really does work!

Here’s a short video that DPReview did that shows how it it locks on to an eye whenever possible, but it will switch to a face when an eye can’t be found:

To enable this feature you need to turn the auto focus system on to AF-C (Continuous) and while it is not a requirement, it seems to perform best when you set the Focus Area to  Lock-on AF Expand Flexible Spot. It doesn’t matter where your flexible spot is, but when you engage this feature it will find the eye and focus on that. Here’s the settings I used for the best results:

  • Face Recognition:  Off
  • Focus Area:  Lock-on AF Expand Flexible Spot
  • Focus Mode:  AF-C

To engage this feature, you’ll want to program any of the custom buttons (I chose AEL) to the Eye Autofocus feature. Once you do this you’ll want to press this button and the shutter halfway to acquire an eye and then shoot as normal. It literally takes less than a second on average for the camera to find an eye, but I didn’t discover any way to force it to choose a different eye other than the one it automatically detects. This can be problematic if the eye it chooses isn’t the eye in the foreground of the scene, but in practice it usually got the one I wanted about 90% of the time.

f/4 @ 70mm for 1/1000 sec at ISO 500

Under normal shooting conditions when your subject is more stationary the Eye AF system nails a perfectly focused eye which helps to capture those split second precious moments that you’ll get when photographing kids

Great, but not flawless

f/4 @ 70mm for 1/1000 sec at ISO 500

No AF system I’ve ever tested, even the mighty Nikon D4s,
is completely flawless and this camera is no different.

Like any AF system, there’s still some user input required to dial in the settings for the best possible results. As a result, if you try to go beyond what Eye AF is designed to do you’ll get out of focus shots like this. This is easily fixed by simply using AF Expand Flexible Spot or sometimes even Face Recognition without the Eye AF feature. Put another way, don’t just set the AF system to one setting like Eye AF and expect 100% perfectly focused shots as you won’t get it – just like every camera I’ve ever tested for $100,000 USD or less.

More Real World Example Shots

The purpose of my real world shots have always been to just take a review camera out and use it like a typical consumer would in every day settings. This is why super high megapixel cameras like the D800 fail so miserably because they are more suitable for specialty scenarios like landscape shots on tripods, super sunny day shooting, or when used with studio lights. However, I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about how good the AF system is on the A7R II despite it being a super high megapixel camera.

With some skepticism I decided to treat this camera like a typical consumer would in one of the toughest situations – a photographing a hyper 6 year old at a playground. This is a scenario where I’d typically tell people not to even bother trying unless you have a camera with a great AF system and a super fast burst mode (to increase your odds of getting a sharp shot), and definitely never bother trying to photography kids unless you enjoy blurry photos.

Times change and technology improves, so I was actually quite impressed with the results that I got with this camera. Instead of relying on burst mode and a single AF point as I’d do with DSLR’s, I let the full magic of the AF system do its work for me to see if it was up to the task. In my opinion, it was as you can see from the shots in this article. Even allegedly “sports” cameras like the Canon 7D Mark II have failed to give me the level of auto focus accuracy on my intended focus point that I have achieved here, so the need for a super fast burst mode was less critical to get shots that captured the action (and in this case the joy of a child).

All of the camera default settings were used in aperture priority or shutter priority (those at 1/1000 sec) using Lock-on AF Expand Flexible Spot with Eye Focus engaged about 90% of the time. Shooting mode was burst mode for the shutter priority shots and single shot for the others, and I was always shooting RAW+JPEG which is the slowest performing mode possible for this camera. Nevertheless, it still did an admirable job at coming away with shots that prove its potential and demonstrates that carefully thought out shots in the hands of a creative photographer would easily be magical with the power of this AF system.

All other camera settings were at factory default including metering, white balance, etc… Click here for the beginning of a full gallery of images – including the out of focus shots where the system failed – for this AF test.

f/4 @ 49mm for 1/1000 sec at ISO 400

Focus offset issue aside, I was pretty jazzed when I saw that this impossible shot for nearly any other camera was a keeper to capture the moment. Now if it could just auto erase that pesky garbage can we’d be in business!

f/4 @ 43mm for 1/1000 sec at ISO 320

The default metering was a bit on the dark side in this shutter priority burst mode series, but capturing in RAW with all of these megapixels means that this is an easy fix in post-processing

f/4 @ 65mm for 1/1000 sec at ISO 800

Any parent who has tried to do this style of shot of a kid coming out of a tube slide with anything but a small sensor camera (like a cellphone) on a super sunny knows how easy it is to miss this shot. I was pretty happy with the reliability at which the A7RII would come away with keepers on every attempt.

f/4 @ 54mm for 1/500 sec at ISO 100

My wife was happy to see that the Eye Focus AF feature was even easy for her to use and that it handled this scene with four eyes and glasses exactly as she hoped it would

f/4 @ 35mm for 1/500 sec at ISO 100

With kids you have lots of times where they are behind you and do something that you want to capture, so I turned completely around and shot this using Eye AF for the very first time. I was pleased with the camera performance, but less pleased with the lady on her cell phone in the background but I can’t blame Sony for that – ha, ha.

f/4 @ 24mm for 1/1000 sec at ISO 250

While I was disappointed with the in-camera metering shooting this scene so dark and the AF wasn’t as precise as I think this camera is capable of achieving, I do think that most users would be plenty happy with the results form this series of burst mode shots especially after a quick touchup in Lightroom


See my complete a7R Mark II review here.

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1 comment:

Mark said...

Hey, Happy Birth Day! Joy to your family!