A Trip to the Woods: Wildlife and Bird Photography With the Sony a9 Mirrorless Camera

A Trip to the Woods: Wildlife and Bird Photography With the Sony a9 Mirrorless Camera

Since the new Sony a9 announcement and subsequent release, it’s been earmarked as an honest competitor to the sports and wildlife scene. As time went on we saw a lot of talk about it being framed in the context of sports photography, so I eagerly wanted to take it out and see what it had to offer to the wildlife and bird photographers who were often getting left out of these discussions. Here’s a collection of my thoughts after heading out into the woods with the Sony a9.

When I knew I wanted to write up an article about photographing wildlife with the a9, I decided that I would stay true to the Sony FE system and not use non-system lenses via mount adapter. Since the just-released Sony FE 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6 GM wasn’t available at the time, I went with the next best option in reachability: the Sony FE 70–200mm f/2.8 GM with a FE 2.0x teleconverter. Of course, Sony does make the FE 70–300mm 4.5–5.6 lens, but for a 24-megapixel full-frame camera, I felt there would be limited cropping potential and knew I’d want that extra 100mm. It turned out I was pretty spot on with my assessment; I never really strayed from the effective 400mm focal length and almost always was wishing I had a little more on top of it. Cropping in was almost always still necessary for my images. Figuring in the 2.0x teleconverter’s two-stop loss of light, my kit here was basically a Sony a9 with a 400mm f/5.6 lens.

One “trick” I learned early on from Sony Artisan Patrick Murphy-Racey when I first got my hands on the a9 in April was to map the AE-L button to AF-On. With the way the body is designed, the AE-L button happens to lie directly above the elevated thumb grip on the backside, so a lot of times your thumb is going to be more comfortable in this spot rather than to the left where the physical AF-On button is. If you’re playing the waiting game with wildlife and want your grip to be as comfortable as possible for as long as possible, this is the way to go. Thankfully, all these buttons are customizable through the menu system so it’s really no big deal. The Sony a9 has more than enough buttons to customize in my opinion, so I actually just had these both mapped to AF-On. The default position of the AF-On button is nice as well since your thumb tip can be on the button while the flat of your thumb can be hovering the joystick which controls the focus point; it’s just slightly less natural feeling in my hand.

One other quick tip that I know other Sony users do is set the focus hold buttons (the round, blank buttons found on many Sony lenses) to AF-On as well. If you are a back-button focuser, this will allow you to more easily use the touchscreen focal point switching that is present on the a9 and a6500. You would use the touchscreen with your right thumb, focus hold button (now programmed to AF-On) on the lens with your left thumb, and right index for the shutter button.

Other settings I found useful were mapping the focus mode and drive mode buttons to somewhere extremely handy, like C1 and C2. The new Sony Alpha cameras have some really powerful focus modes that suit each situation differently. Also firing off 20 frames per second isn’t necessary 100 percent of the time, so having a way to go single shot and back in the drive modes is going to be a huge timesaver in post-processing. Turning off auto display/EVF switching and mapping it to a button also helps my sanity. While you’re at it, turn down the viewfinder brightness to –2 because what you see is definitely not what you get on this ultra-bright OLED EVF display.

The a9 camera has a lot of really helpful technologies built in such as a blackout-free 120 fps viewfinder, silent shutter, and 20 frames per second continuous shooting, but with wildlife photography more than anything else I’ve shot so far they come together in a perfect harmony. Photographing small, fidgety birds for example, I could be constantly watching them through the real-time EVF, even while shooting, because of zero blackout; they were not going to bounce to a different tree branch and get lost between frames. The silent shutter meant I could fire away at any point without setting off their flight response in direct consequence. At 20 frames per second on top of it all, it amounted to what felt like pressing record on a video camera but knowing each frame was going to be a high-resolution photo still and I could pick the perfect micro-expression later.

I want to double down on talking about that silent camera operation too. Imagine being in the forest, no camera gear, just you. You hear the wind move through the trees, rustling their leaves. You hear birds call back and forth to one another. There’s a crackling noise in the distance that piques your interest and you wonder what kind of animal is there. You know, typical woodsy stuff that we outdoor people are so in love with. Now add in aggressively using the a9, and guess what? Nothing changes. It’s like the camera is just a sort of extension of you, not a mechanical device yelling for attention as it sprays off frames. For hours on the trail I would hear nothing but pure nature, even while hard at work shooting photos. It’s honestly one of the coolest experiences I’ve had using a camera.

Now that I’ve established I’m either a nut or that it really is a strangely spiritual experience, what does the reality and results of dropping nearly $4,500 on the Sony a9 look like? Here’s some balance to my thoughts.

The autofocus is not god-tier perfect. It still can’t read your mind, and that becomes pretty apparent when there’s a great depth of branches and leaves between you and your furry subject, as well as the forest backdrop beyond. Picking out what’s important to focus on is no different than other high-end cameras I’ve used. The biggest difference comes from the speed at which it acquires focus. So even when it’s not picking up what you want it to, the process of acquisition is still blazing fast. Tree branch — no; Another tree branch — no; The bird on the far away tree branch — yes. This just takes very short taps of the AF-On button and is over before you really think about it. On other cameras I’ve used the hunt is the same but focus acquisition takes longer for each miss, adding up in the end. In a few rare instances there was of course still the “F*&k it, we’ll do it live” approach and I switched to manual focus via toggle switch on the lens.

The only way this shot was going to work for me was in manual focus mode.

However, if your subject has some real separation — oh boy. The lock-on AF of the a9 is deadly serious. It’s going to nail you shot after shot when shooting birds in flight panning across the sky (bonus tip: panning is what Mode 2 on your Sony telephotos are for). As you can see in the sequence below, a small bird flying at you can be a bit too much to ask for the a9’s lock-on AF and the possibly compromising 2.0x telephoto adapter.

Another thing to bring up is the ISO performance. The forest is typically going to be heavily shaded, and with longer telephotos and adapters and what have you, your lowest aperture might not really be all that low. Imagine shooting the FE 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6 GM with the 2.0x teleconverter; You got yourself an 800mm f/11 lens there, buddy. To get your shutter speed up into the usable range for those fidgety little birds you’re going to need some help from the ISO. The Sony a9 can skyrocket its ISO to 204,800. Is the image quality good at 204,800? Eh. Is it good after taking a IQ hit from the teleconverter? Ehhhh. I’ll say that for me shooting up to ISO 6,400 was my tolerable range. It’s where I set my Auto-ISO limit on the a9. Beyond that, personally it was too much quality loss and I’d rather start losing exposure and boosting that slider in post-processing.

In summary, I think that if you’re going all out in wildlife photography, such as introducing the use of a portable blind in the woods, you’re going to be just another tree in the forest with the Sony a9. I can’t stress enough how bizarre and peaceful it is to have so much firepower behind a completely silent machine. There’s really no great separation here from traditional birding with binoculars anymore. It’s not the perfect camera, we still have one hell of a fun adventure in front of us to see that happen, but it’s absolutely the best wildlife camera that Sony has ever made.

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Black Rock's picture

Great write up, Ryan. I too find the total silent shooting eerie (in a good way).

Ryan Mense's picture

Thanks! It's certainly easy to get used to.

Phil Wright's picture

*sigh* why do you all keep doing this to me? I'm trying my very best to make the A7Rii work for me, but you all keep throwing this beast in my face. I primarily photograph dogs and when stood still 'posing' the A7Rii is just beautifully sharp and detailed. However, when you have manic puppies or dogs with 'zoomies' it just can't keep up with them.

£4500 is just soooo much money :(

PS. Great article and lovely images. Makes me want to just go out and walk through the local woods :)

Ziggy Stardust's picture

No rolling shutter effects at 20 fps?