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

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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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.