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My Shooting Experience With the Sony a9 and 400mm f/2.8 GM Handheld

Last weekend I attended the world's largest military air show at MCAS Miramar in San Diego, California. Also in attendance with me was a Sony a9 and the new FE 400mm f/2.8 GM lens. Here's how it went down.

After arriving on base where the air show is staged, I actually began the event shooting with the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM lens on an a9 camera. This premium zoom lens afforded me with flexibility in my compositions, and it turned out to be quite helpful with the more nimble airplanes that create interesting smoke patterns in the sky that are worth including to add depth to images. The 100-400mm has a zoom ring friction setting that I'm so used to leaving on "tight," but on this day having the zoom ready to adjust freely is that way to go with subjects that are constantly changing distance from the camera. If I wasn't so eager to finally get my hands on the new 400mm f/2.8 GM for the first time, it would have made for a perfect lens to use all day.

But alas, that beautiful 400mm was waiting for me to test out. This new lens is Sony's first foray into prime super-telephotos for mirrorless cameras. While the focal length still isn't quite there for my personal hobby of wildlife and bird photography, getting this taste for what's down the road is all I needed right now. And of course, for air show photography it's right at that sweet spot between getting maximum magnification and detail for fly-bys and shooting too far in the distance where heat waves and the atmosphere will destroy image quality.

One of the headlining specs of the 400mm f/2.8 GM is the low 6.4 pound weight for its class. Part of the weight savings is due to the glass elements distributed towards the camera end where they don't have to be made so large. Because of this, lighter cameras don't feel so unbalanced either. To test this reported portability, I shot the 400mm f/2.8 handheld all day and didn't use a battery grip on the a9 camera (which is usually a must to balance heavier lenses on DSLRs). The total weight was probably somewhere around 8 pounds for the setup.

The short version of the story is that at the end of the day, I felt fine and if I could redo the day I still wouldn't use a monopod or tripod gimbal head. I enjoyed having the freedom to easily adjust my position and the (semi) low footprint of using a camera handheld, and the times when I was holding up the camera in a shooting position for a prolonged period weren't that common. As long as my left arm got a little break whenever there was a break in the action, I was ready to go for the next series of images, and I was able to keep that process up for around five hours.

Final image quality is, as you can guess, ridiculously fine. But hey, we're talking about a $11,998 lens. I had shared some of my photos from the air show on Instagram and all I could think was "you guys don't even know." The fine detail is all there when you pixel peep the jets flying at 600 mph; it's really something. If I have an opportunity to shoot another air show, no doubt I'm renting the 400mm f/2.8.

Not to be overlooked, the Sony a9 paid a perfect compliment to the 400mm f/2.8 for photographing jets blazing across the sky in perfect formation. Remember, with the a9 there's no blackout during continuous shooting, it fires up to 20 frames per second with no buffer limit in sight, and there are 60 focus evaluations per second even while shooting.

I was astonished to find out that at 20 fps, when photographing two jets coming at each other to perform a close pass I'd end up with only two to four frames with both jets in the frame. And even then, I only had one crossing shot at the end of the day that turned out what I'd consider OK. It goes to show how difficult of a shot that is to pull off with any lesser camera. But for a complete amateur like me to get somewhat close to right on the money on day one, that's the advantage of the a9.

Another factor in what I would consider a successful event shoot were the physical dials on the a9 body and being able to switch continuous shooting speed from 20 fps for jets, lower burst speeds for the aerobatic bi-planes, and single frame shooting for what was happening on the ground. It was also easy access moving from +1 EV or so for the planes in the sky to 0 EV for grounded subjects. I also came to the realization that I would much rather have a focus area dial on the body rather than a never-used autofocus mode dial. My cameras never leave AF-C with back-button focusing and just about every lens has the AF/MF switch. Sony a9 II where you at?

Lastly, I can't even imagine how much it would probably suck to shoot an air show with an optical viewfinder. Pointing a telephoto lens into the bright, midday sky for hours on end is not an ideal situation for my eyes. I'm happy I didn't have to find out what that's like.

When the show was over, I managed to rip through two 64 GB SD cards and had started on a third. My first FZ100 battery dropped to 20 percent but I swapped it out about an hour before the air show ended to not end up in a dicey situation mid-performance; I had already run out of a memory card right as an epic pass was happening and I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. Apparently autofocusing big glass in AF-C and having Optical SteadyShot activated for a few hours takes its toll on battery life. Huh.

After my initial cull of removing anything that was an obvious dud from the thumbnail, I had 4,283 photos on my hands. Trust me when I tell you that what you see published here in a mere glance at what was captured that fine day of photography at MCAS Miramar.

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Deleted Account's picture

"Lastly, I can't even imagine how much it would probably suck to shoot an air show with an optical viewfinder."
You can't imagine it because it doesn't suck. I shoot air shows with an optical viewfinder and zero problems. :-)

Johnny Rico's picture

Damn he really said that? Glad I didnt read the article

Deleted Account's picture

I can't really complain because I've made lots of regrettable comments. :-)

Roger Morris's picture

That optical viewfinder (the one that's supposed to suck) gave you a shot of the F-22 that outshines any of the photos in the article by a sizeable margin.

Deleted Account's picture

Thanks, but I wouldn't say that.

Bert Nase's picture

You mean that blurry F-22?

Jarrett Rathert's picture

lmao, right?

Pieter Batenburg's picture

@Roger Morris that is nonsense.

Sean Gibson's picture

That picture is so blurry compared to all of the ones in this article. Ha.... You people are silly!

Jason Frels's picture

When someone goes full Sony, wearing the hats and all, they do tend to occasionally spout inanities.

Ryan Mense's picture

I own and and shoot Canon normally.

Dennis Johnson's picture

just upgrade to Nikon or Sony. problem solved.

Ryan Mense's picture

I mean I'm assuming it was doable with the short history of mirrorless and long history of aviation photography, it just seems like the EVF has the advantage as far as eye protection. That shot is sick!

Deleted Account's picture

Having never shot with a mirrorless camera, I can't understand what you mean but okay. Actually, since you like wildlife photography, assuming that includes birds, I was surprised at your comment since shooting aircraft is very similar to photographing large birds in flight.
I have no idea what your last sentence is referring to. Maybe because I'm kinda old. :-/

Ryan Mense's picture

You're selling yourself short. I know you understand that you can't point an OVF with 400mm towards the midday sun if you value your sight.

Deleted Account's picture

I AM kinda short! :-) I've never thought about it and it's never been necessary.

Christos Dikos's picture

Great shots! 4,300 shots handheld - I would love to know what percentage were in focus.

Deleted Account's picture

I can't speak for Ryan but it's almost difficult to get them out of focus due to the distance, using a fast shutter speed (1/1000 +/-), the fact their flight paths are very predictable and there's nothing in the background.

Ryan Mense's picture

It's like Deleted User guessed. When shots weren't sharp it was either due to photographing the helicopters or prop planes where I didn't want to freeze the propeller blades and used a slow shutter speed while panning, or from heat waves.

Deleted Account's picture

I HATE trying to shoot helicopters and prop planes! :-)

Matthew White's picture

Sony is doing one hell of a job courting bloggers and vloggers. Smart strategy in light of the competition coming forward.

Christian Durand's picture

well said

Liviu Dnistran's picture

Good effort on your side to take aviation shots as a "never did it before guy". Still some work to be done on your side :).

Miramar is nowhere near the biggest military show in the world :).
We have taken shots at airshows with DSLRs and managed crossing shots fine without the EVF.
400mm is too short when doing airshows, especially in western Europe and the USA where the action takes place way too far away from the public.

Ryan Mense's picture

It isn't? I overheard someone mention it while I was there and then when I got home I checked their website and that's what it said too. Sorry if I was misinformed.
The only thing I was saying with EVF was the eye protection was a nice benefit. I don't doubt anything else about using optical viewfinders at air shows. I normally shoot with a 7D Mark II and have spent plenty of time photographing birds in flight and it can get overly intense sometimes.
Good to know about the 400mm. I'm batting 1/1 for it being a good focal length for the situation, so I'll have to find out how it holds up moving forward. Whenever the jets became too small in the frame, they were overcome with atmospheric distortion anyways so I don't see anything longer being helpful. I'm wondering how you manage with that?
Thanks for the comment.

Aneesh Kothari's picture

Is the Paris Air Show the largest military airshow? I know that one is huge. Farnborough is also massive.

jim blair's picture

Shooting air shows is not easy and the location is critical, regardless a 150-600 is really the best choice or even the 100-400 based upon where you were standing. The 20 fps is definitely not a surprise when the Blue Angels criss-cross, the more fps the better. It doesn't suck to shoot thru an optical viewfinder at 12/14 fps with a Canon 1DX, this myth like the blackout is some sort hinderance is the dumbest thing I've read shooting at high fps.

Is there a conclusion with the article? You have a $16k setup that could easily be achieved spending 1/4 of that with a DSLR, in fact better if you know what you're doing shooting air shows. A blue sky isn't pushing the limitations the A9 AF. If these were the best of the 4000+ photo's, thanks for filtering the other 99.5% that didn't make it.

Ryan Mense's picture

"...blackout is some sort hinderance is the dumbest thing I've read shooting at high fps." Spoken like someone who hasn't shot blackout free, haha.
No, there's not really a conclusion. This isn't a review and I'm just spewing my thoughts.

Stevie Beats's picture

Nice to know someone's view on shooting aircraft mirrorless, I will not be changing for now.

Will mirrorless make any difference if we are gonna use a hefty 500/600mm F4 lens on the end? Lenses are getting much lighter nowadays especially the Nikon FL series, though very costly.

Out of reference and obvious self promo here is an older shot from uk airshow shot on Nikon D3s and 600mm F4.

Ryan Mense's picture

That shot is awesome! Nice work.

Weight isn't what mirrorless is primarily about, but I think it was something easy for marketing teams to promote when they were introduced. Unfortunately today people assume that going mirrorless is about the weight. People understand weight savings without using a new product, but you kind of need to use one of the new generation mirrorless cameras to understand how the real primary benefits of losing the mirror come into play.

Stevie Beats's picture

Thanks - that's a good point Ryan. Look forward to trying one out sometime. Nice to be able to compose in viewfinder and know what you are gonna get. Always confused me in the early days of SLR that you essentially shooting blind - although the viewfinder image always looks great

Brian Pernicone's picture

I'm curious at what aperture you shot most/all of those photos (which are awesome, BTW)? Was the f/2.8 lens necessary? Certainly there are benefits to a 400mm f/2.8 prime, but shooting in broad daylight and, I'm assuming smaller apertures, is there a real benefit to this particular $12K lens over, for instance, a $2k Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L? The Canon is 1/6 the price and half the weight. Seems like the primary difference here is the A9 camera's 20 fps compared to that of a Canon DSLR.