It’s been four months since I made the transition from my beloved Canon 6D to the much-revered Sony a7 III. There are many things that I love about this new camera, but there’s one thing that’s proving to be a problem.
With every upgrade, whether it’s glass, lights, or a shiny new camera body, there’s usually a tradeoff: for example, if you upgrade your 50mm from f/1.8 to f/1.4, you can be sure it’s going to be a lot bigger and heavier. With a long-term camera body upgrade, it’s a little more complex, and you typically open up a world of new features — better autofocus, greater dynamic range, improved low-light performance. Occasionally, there’s a compromise to be made along the way, and with the move from DSLR to mirrorless, there’s one in particular that I’d not considered — or understood — fully when making the switch: lag.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things that I love about the a7 III that have made the transition a joy: the smaller body, the burst speed, the EVF, the customizable buttons and the menus, and, above all, the eye autofocus has been a bit of a gamechanger. However, having since photographed a couple of events, there’s an undeniable lag that very occasionally causes me to miss shots. As I started to investigate whether I was imagining it, I discovered something of a rabbit hole.
When I spent three days testing a rented a7 III last year in Belgrade prior to my purchase, I was shooting choreographed action and clothing — all controlled situations where responding to sudden or unexpected movements was not called for. Any lag was not really a factor. In the past, I’d relied on my timing to capture athletes at just the right moment using my 6D; with the a7, I was exploiting the glorious ten frames per second and was much more efficient as a result.
Events are somewhat different, however. While I can anticipate a lot, there are plenty of occasions when something happens when I need to react quickly, and it took a little while to tweak my settings so that the a7 doesn’t fall asleep too readily. The start-up time is markedly slower than a DSLR (my 6D was instantaneous), and it’s fortunate that the events that I shoot are not critical. There’s typically plenty of repetition, and while it can certainly be frustrating to miss shots, it’s not the end of the world.
Test Your Rental Properly
During my tests in Belgrade, I was shooting on burst mode for the first time since selling my beloved Canon 1D Mark II (oh, how we miss you, APS-H!). When upgrading from my original 5D, I had the choice between the 5D Mark III and the 6D; one offered a decent burst rate in a massive body, the latter a fairly unusable burst rate in a much smaller body and at almost half the price. I opted for the 6D and loved it. As a result, my ability to time action shots is something I’m now quite proud of — useful for those occasions when I shoot with strobes.
The Sony’s 10 frames per second might be wonderful, but I can’t spray and pray at events, as it’s simply not practical. Instead, I frequently shoot single images, and this is where I occasionally noticed a lag. Over the last three months, there have been a few instances where I’ve missed a shot — and yes, I’ve pre-focused — because my timing has been off by a fraction of a second. With time, I can adjust, but I started to wonder how many moments I would miss before my trigger finger was back on point.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article reflecting on why so many press photographers are sticking with the DSLRs, and this was one element that I hadn’t fully considered. When you’re shooting high-pressure, fast-moving events, a fraction of a second can be the difference between a decent photograph and an award-winning photograph. Worse than that, it might mean missing a shot completely. Some of the comments suggested that lag was one of the issues that meant that the majority photojournalists will be sticking with DSLRs for the foreseeable future.
Not Slow Simple
As I started digging around to find out whether the lag that I was occasionally noticing was user error (much more likely, in my experience), I realized that things were a little more complex than I anticipated.
Adapted lenses and the electronic front curtain shutter also seem to play a huge role (and when I say “huge,” please keep in mind that we’re talking milliseconds, so take that with a pinch of salt). From what I’ve gathered, shooting with adapted lenses causes a bigger lag, regardless of autofocus. Softening the transition to Sony, I’m currently shooting primarily with my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 Mark II, and given that I can prefocus the vast majority of the time, the limited autofocus compared to a native lens has not yet been an issue. However, I’m keen to swap it out a little sooner if it’s truly the case that adapted lenses create a larger lag, as this video suggests.
The other factor explored in this video is the electronic front curtain shutter. This now gets incredibly geeky and starts to go a little more techie than I’m usually comfortable. Using EFCS (and it’s switched on by default) causes the camera to swap out the mechanical shutter at the start of an exposure and use an electronic shutter instead. (Shooting in silent mode simply swaps out mechanical shutter at the end of an exposure, too). This can reduce camera shake (called “shutter shock,” as I understand it) for longer exposures, but can cause banding and ghosting.
What I’ve since realized is that I switched off EFCS after having watched this video from photographer Manny Ortiz, as I’d been shooting some portraits and wanted to see the difference, as it turns out that using EFCS reduces bokeh. I switched it off, and, of course, I’d then completely forgot about it. I’d bought myself a shiny new camera and inadvertently crippled it. Genius. Fortunately, I’ve been primarily shooting in silent mode at recent events (i.e., switching EFCS back on without realizing), and I think the lag that I’d been experiencing was probably only when I was shooting in regular old noisy mode instead.
- if you want to maximize bokeh, switch EFCS off (and keep in mind that silent mode will switch it back on)
- if you’re shooting action and need to minimize the lag between you pushing the button and the image being captured, keep EFCS switched on
Unfortunately, there's a bit more to it than this.
As the Sony website explains: “We recommend to turn this function off whenever you’re shooting with fast shutter speeds, with a large diameter lens attached to prevent ghosting and blurring from happening.”
This does present something of a problem for very specific scenarios. As Sony ambassador Mark Galen points out in this video, switching on the EFCS not only increases the maximum frame rate, but reduces the lag time. Here’s the problem: if you’re shooting action at 1/4000th of a second using a large lens (apparently, aperture isn’t a factor), you want the shortest possible lag, so you want EFCS on. However, to avoid ghosting, you want EFCS off. I’ve yet to come across anyone who’s run into problem,s but I might find out during some jobs shooting parkour indoors in June, as we will be relying on strobes and high speed sync. Cross your fingers for me.
One Final Factor
With an optical viewfinder, there’s a fraction of a second between the moment you press the shutter button and the moment that the mirror flaps out of the way and the aperture captures your image. With an EVF, you have to add to that the amount of time it takes for the camera to take the light that’s hitting the sensor and convert it into something digital and visible. All of the tests that I’ve found so far don’t seem to take into account the delay that the EVF introduces. As I understand it, that tiny extra lag, however small it might be, is still something that means that DSLRs are still the best choice when it comes to capturing unpredictable action. If you any insights on the amount of time that elapses between reality and what appears on the display of a Sony a7 III, I’d be keen to find out.
Know Your Gear
While I don’t regret the move to mirrorless in any way, this is definitely an area that I hadn’t explored properly when testing the a7. Each upgrade comes with its own pros and cons, and fortunately, however many shots I might miss thanks to the increased lag (if it even exists), there will be countless others that I will achieve as a result of the 10 frames per second. On balance, the upgrade is more than worth it, especially now I know that the biggest factor was probably my own naivety.
My final thought: if you’re pondering the transition from DSLR, make sure to take this into consideration and shoot a rental in a variety of scenarios before taking the plunge. As usual, I welcome your thoughts in the comments.