I Wish I'd Known This Before I Moved to Sony

I Wish I'd Known This Before I Moved to Sony

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.

Sony a7 III, Belgrade shoot.

Belgrade. Incredible architecture, very affordable, and more hours of sunshine per year than Istanbul. Client: Skochypstiks.com

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.

TLDR EFCS

In summary:

  • 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.

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76 Comments

Adam Palmer's picture

The viewfinder can refresh at 120 Fps and the human eye can't see anything faster than about 60 frames. I don't think the viewfinder is the issue. It is pretty widely known that first party lenses will focus faster than adapted lenses. Great forums over at dpreview will answer all questions about these types of things.

Andy Day's picture

As mentioned in the article, I'm prefocusing so the lag I'm experiencing (or not) isn't due to the adapted lens taking longer to focus.

3ric Johanson's picture

Disclaimer: I shoot in lots of automatic highspeed modes on both sony and canon. You are missing on several key points: 1. prefocused isn't great as not focusing. You'll get the best performance by setting up a back focus button and disable the focus/metering/etc on half press. 2. One of the largest sources of lag on canon cameras is actually the lens communication. In our really timing critical shots we actually have to tape over the electrical contacts on our canon lenses so that protocol doesn't significantly slow things down. Stopping an older 1.4 lens down to f8 can take 150 to 250ms! Using an adapter from sony is just foolhardy, either disable the interface or get native glass (and even then you might need to tape over the contacts). 3. imaging-resource dot com lists many detailed specs on camera latency for both sony and canon, and while it's not totally accurate it's a good starting place. Just keep in mind that the lens communication can be a major factor. 4. If you get into scientific measurement of camera latency keep in mind that the "half press" needs to be locked down on most camera bodies in order to achieve low latency; during this time most of the other menu buttons will not operate. Cognisys now sells a shutter cable with a half-press lock on it -- super helpful for this. https://www.cognisys-inc.com/products/stopshot/shutter_switch.php

3ric Johanson's picture

All of the highspeed shots you see here are using some of these methods: https://modernistcuisinegallery.com/collection/

Andy Day's picture

Hi Eric,

Thanks for the explanation. Yes, I should have explained further - I'm prefocusing using back button focus and releasing the shutter with no autofocus engaged. It is metering, however. I think the events I shoot are a little bit too unpredictable to turn that off, unfortunately, so I'm happy to compromise here. I think I'm likely to lose more shots to poor exposures than the occasional shot due to my poor timing.

I think you're right - shifting to native glass is the solution. I'd simply not realised that there were lag implications even when the autofocus is not active.

Great photos, by the way. Thanks for sharing. :)

3ric Johanson's picture

The lenses all tend to stay wide open until right before the shot -- thus, lens communication happens when you press the shutter to stop you down to your target f-stop. There's one additional trick for taping down the contacts: If you stop down the lens(via aperture preview button or via a long exposure shot on canon) and then remove the lens while it's stopped down, the aperture will stay fixed at that position. You can then use kapton tape on the contacts and tada: a low latency f8 lens!

Glad you like the photos, major engineering goes into shooting most of those.

James Philippon's picture

This is thoroughly disproven. The human eye is able to distinguish framerates well above 120hz.

As a gamer, it is distressing that this refresh rate discussion is also infecting my other hobby.

Do you remember when "You dont need more than 30 FPS in games as human see everything above 24 FPS as smooth" discussions were a thing ;)

I met someone at a party once who used the old "people can't really distinguish frame rates above 60fps" thing. At the time I owned an AOC 144hz monitor so I invited him over to play some titles and then tell me that a person couldn't tell the difference.

He came over about a week or so later and after playing a few titles at well over 60fps he admitted he had been completely wrong.

I have no doubt that there is a certain threshold that, once exceeded, would be impossible for humans to detect, but in my experience, it sure as hell isn't 24/30/60/75/90/120/144fps. I've never played above ~144fps... yet.

While an EVF may display frames at 120 Hz, that says nothing about the latency (i.e., the lag). There is a delay between the time a frame is captured on the sensor and the time it is displayed on the EVF.

The lag is generally not noticeable with my type of shooting (wild life, portrait and landscape/cityscape). Even when photograph fast moving birds, I did not notice any lag in the EVF.

However, I have noticed one scenario where the EVF is unusably laggy, and that is in extreme low light.

William Faucher's picture

60fps? Are you mad? This is a HUGELY disproven myth. Anyone who's played any games on a modern PC can tell you otherwise. Working in VFX I can assure you, there is a substantial difference between 60fps and 120fps.

Dave Morris's picture

Come on, it's not obvious but the a7III is still slow compared to decent DSLRs. Also its colors are a bit... well... rubbish.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great piece of gear and there is a lot to like about it. But it's not for everyone.

I had to sell my a7III after half a year of use. It was a lovely machine but every time I used my old Canon 5DIII it was a big relief in terms of sense of directness and immediate response. Also the Canon color science was visibly more pleasing.

Andy Day's picture

Yep, totally get that. I love my new Sony and am incredibly pleased with it but I completely understand why you would go back to a Canon DSLR.

Adam Palmer's picture

I had a 5dIII since the release date but it didn't seem any faster to me than current gen sonys.

Dave Morris's picture

Can't believe it's 120 fps, sorry. It's visibly laggy and flickery and very much inferior to the other mirrorless cameras I used.

user-128252's picture

Maybe yours. I tested mine with 240 FPS and my eyes spot the lag:-) I am sure humans are a lot more capable than 60 FPS

Fritz Asuro's picture

So how the hell that I can see the difference between my 60hz, 144hz, and 244hz screen? I must not be from earth.

Tyler Thomas's picture

Logged in to down vote because I was so triggered. lol

Adam T's picture

I've made the switch a couple of years ago and thought there was lag as well. No so much with just taking an outdoor shot but when I want to use strobes and have to turn live view off it become a problem

Leigh Miller's picture

Sheesh....sure hope you talk about your wife in such glowing terms (as your "beloved" Canons)...it's just a camera dude.

Toney Smith's picture

Seems the third party glass is your weak point. The 3 native Sony lens I’m using with my a7III have been all around better than the Canon L lens I had.

3ric Johanson's picture

Yeah, the canon EF lens protocol is extremely slow, combined with many of the older motors for the aperture control being exceptionally slow.

Michael Clark's picture

It's not so much the lens protocol itself is slow as it is the processing time in the adapter to translate Sony's protocol to Canon's protocol. This is probably exacerbated by making the adapter as miserly
as possible in terms of power consumption. The same lenses aren't as slow when used on, for example, a 1D X Mark II.

First thing I noticed when I panned with the Z6 in the camera store. EVF lag. I can see this being a bit annoying when shooting fast moving subjects. I'm told that all EVF have lag. Is this true?

Yes, it's impossible for there not to lag, as the signal needs to be captured by the sensor, transferred to the buffer, transferred to the processor, rendered by the processor, transferred to the EVF, and displayed by the EVF. That the cameras can do this at the speed they're already at is incredibly impressive. But as time goes by and processors get faster/smaller/more efficient, that lag will become nearly imperceptible. At the moment, it's the usual battle between EVF resolution and display speed. One reason the Olympus EM1X uses a lower res EVF than its price would suggest should be installed.

Tom Lew's picture

Before your shoot with strobes and flashes, you should note that your hot shoe will not trigger any signal in electronic shutter mode

3ric Johanson's picture

It will trigger in EFCS, but not in full electronic shutter mode.

EL PIC's picture

When my hands get smaller .. my camera can get smaller .. Till then it’s my Canon 5D’ s and Sony / Others will have to pry it from my cold dead hands.

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