Sony a9 For Wildlife Photography

Experiences and takeaways from my first time shooting with a mirrorless camera
Sony a9 for wildlife photography: sea lion in the Galapagos.
A Galapagos sea lion pauses for a look back on its way down to the water. Española Island, Galapagos. Sony a9, Sony FE 24-70 mm F2.8 GM.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to test the Sony a9 camera and a selection of Sony FE lenses. As a wildlife photographer, I was intrigued by what I’d been hearing about the a9, particularly its silent shutter and reportedly blazing autofocus capabilities. Could there be a camera that would entice me to set aside my beloved Canon EOS-1D X Mark II? And would it work with my big Canon glass? I set out to find the answers.

I think it’s important to state at the outset that no payment or goods were or will be given to me by Sony for this review, excepting the two-month loan of this kit. Both Outdoor Photographer and Sony supported my intention to write an unbiased, honest review. Due to an intensive travel schedule during the loan, I was able to take the Sony kit with me on several trips out West as well as to South America. The kit included the a9 camera, Sony FE 24-70 mm F2.8 GM, FE 70-200 mm F2.8 GM OSS and FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS lenses, teleconverters and an adaptor so I could try out my Canon lens on the a9.

A cool, windy day in Point Reyes National Seashore, California, found me giving this camera its first go. Picking up the a9, I was stunned by how much lighter it is (1.48 pounds) compared to my Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (3.37 pounds). A body that weighs less than half my current camera makes a considerable difference when doing a lot of handholding. The camera felt almost too small in my hands, and I suspected that I would prefer it with the battery grip to give it more of a sense of heft.

Using the Sony FE 24-70 mm F2.8 GM, I aimed at the coastline and pressed the shutter. Nothing seemed to happen. I continued to depress the shutter, but no sound, no vibration, no blackout during capture, no sign that any photo had been taken—only a constant live image. I fired away repeatedly. It was the oddest feeling. I was convinced something was wrong with the camera.

Needless to say, I felt like an idiot when I came to realize the camera was actually working perfectly and I now had 350 crappy photos. It was in electronic shutter mode, featuring its entirely silent shutter. And there’s no brief shutter blackout when you take a photo, though it is possible to have the camera simulate one. Moreover, as the camera takes 20 fps, I had accumulated a large quantity of images rather quickly. Later on, I learned that you can enable several different illuminators that flash in the viewfinder during capture and can enable a shutter sound effect, if you want to avoid this illusion that nothing is happening. I would suggest that to anyone starting out with this camera!

The electronic shutter allows 20 fps capture, as well as shutter speeds between 30 seconds and 1/32000 sec. There’s also a mechanical shutter that is not silent but allows for functionalities with flash and artificial lighting. However, the burst rate drops to 5 fps, and there is viewfinder blackout between frames. Shutter speeds for the mechanical shutter top out at 1/8000. If you opt for Auto exposure mode, single-drive shots use the mechanical shutter, while continuous-drive uses electronic.

This was my first time shooting with a mirrorless camera. I had enabled the Live View to display the camera settings so that as I looked through the electronic viewfinder or looked at the LCD screen, I could see the exposure I would be getting with my settings. This can also be set on most DLSRs, though only via the LCD screen. This really takes away the guesswork when you’re shooting in Manual or A/V modes. As a wildlife photographer, this can be a great boon if you have to act lightning fast.

The a9 has two SD card slots, and one is compatible with extra-fast UHS-II cards. Since this camera’s speed is its strong suit, I would expect that’s the card one would primarily want to work from. The size of the a9’s buffer is truly impressive, and I never bumped up against it, even when firing a few hundred shots in a row. Sony cites the buffer as 364 for JPEG, 240 for RAW.

The battery’s performance was solid and lasted for 500-600 shots, which is in line with what Sony quotes. It’s still half of what my EOS-1D X II can muster (1,210, as stated by Canon). However, adding the VG-C3EM grip accessory for the a9 will allow for two batteries and double the total life to at least 1,000 shots.

I was of two minds about the a9 menu. On one hand, it’s incredibly dense and complex, and would take a lot of study to fully comprehend. On the other, it does allow for a remarkable array of capabilities and customization. For example, the camera’s Custom buttons can be configured to activate specific settings, such as drive mode, exposure or AF mode, giving you quick access to controls you use most.

Sony a9 for wildlife photography
A California quail atop a fencepost in Point Reyes National Seashore, California. Sony a9, Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS.

Nearly 700 focus points occupy over 93 percent of the frame. You can choose from various area settings: Wide, Zone, Center, Flexible Spot and Expand Flexible Spot. With any of these, you can enable Lock-on AF and keep the shutter pressed halfway down to track a subject based on its color and shape. I found the a9 remarkably fast at acquiring focus and skilled at keeping it. It may just outpace my Canon in this regard. Whether tracking an albatross in the Galapagos or a gull in New York, I was impressed by the ability of the camera to lock and keep focus even when birds flew across widely varied backgrounds.

Of the three Sony lenses I used, my favorite was—no surprise—the longest. The FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS is a wonderful lens, and I found its focus acquisition speed, image stability and lightness to be its best features. Adding a 1.4x teleconverter brings it to a 560mm ƒ/8, while a 2.0x teleconverter is the equivalent of an 800mm ƒ/11 lens. These apertures create a challenge with the high shutter speeds often needed for wildlife and require bumping up the ISO considerably. I didn’t do much testing of the ISO beyond 6400, but I would be comfortable with anything below that.

I’d heard that the Sigma MC-11 E-mount converter enabled Canon lenses to more quickly acquire focus compared to the Metabones Mark IV converter. I did try it with my Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM on the a9, but I felt that the lag in acquisition was not workable for me. Another consideration is the max frame rate with adapted lenses appears limited to about 10 fps. It seems that the native E-mount lenses are required for 20 fps.

In terms of image quality, I concluded that the images were comparable to those from my Canon. I was impressed with the quality and dynamic range of the 24-megapixel image files.

I spoke with some photographers who have recently made a full switch to the a9. Conservation photographer and filmmaker Morgan Heim had this to say: “I've been shooting the same trusted Canon body for the past eight years (an EOS 5D Mark II). As camera bodies evolved over the years, I saw mostly advancement in ISO capabilities, resolution and frames per second, but there wasn't a camera that hit on the core advancement that I needed as both a still and motion photographer. When Sony announced their a9, however, my world changed. Here was a camera that could shoot 20 fps for continuous stills, 4K video and up to 120 fps at Full HD. And the high ISO capabilities really gave every other brand a run for their money. Knowing that I could switch camera bodies but still use my Canon lenses with an adaptor made the prospect of switching brands less intimidating. My Sony a9 has become a workhorse for both stills and video. The picture is silky smooth with beautiful color and tone.”

Heim’s favorite feature is the silent shooting mode, as she has seen “a marked difference in how wildlife respond or, rather, don't respond” when she presses that shutter. She has experienced difficulty with autofocus when using the Canon 100-400mm with the Metabones adaptor, which means she ends up manually focusing a lot. But she recently had the chance to try the Sony 100-400mm lens and says, “It operates like a dream and even does a good job finding accurate focus in challenging situations, such as photographing elk in fog in a forest.”

Another friend, David Burbank, is a highly successful commercial, portrait and sports photographer in my hometown. He shoots people rather than wildlife but has to deal with many of the same issues, such as weather extremes and fast-moving subjects. A longtime Canon user as well, who has always had the latest and the greatest model, in the last year he has made a full transition to Sony and is now fully reliant on his two a9 cameras for action photography. He says, “They are super quiet and have incredibly powerful focus technology, able to lock on and focus on a moving subject that exceeds anything I’ve ever worked with before.” While he had initial hopes of using large Canon glass, he concluded that the Canon lenses with adaptors on the a9 were just not up to snuff. His only wish is that the a9 offered better weather protection.

Personally, although I think the Sony a9 is a superb camera in many respects, I’ve decided to stick with my Canon equipment for now, for two reasons. The first has to do with the fact that Sony doesn’t yet offer the lens capability that I need. Wildlife photographers are always talking about how they want more reach, especially anyone who photographs a lot of birds, as I do. I also really like long lenses, as I want to fade into the woodwork and keep my distance from the animal as much as I can, so as to capture natural, undisturbed behavior. And many of the animals I shoot are in low light, as they are most active at dawn or dusk. So I really need a super telephoto prime lens of at least 500mm, and one that lets a lot of light in, so at least an ƒ/4. At the time of this writing, Sony just doesn’t have the lens that can support my style of wildlife shooting.

The other concern I have is with durability and water resistance of the a9. My EOS-1D X II is a true workhorse. I can drop it, subject it to driving rain, and it keeps on ticking. It’s beautifully weather sealed. This is crucial given the places I travel and the work I do. The build and the sealing of the a9 felt inferior to the EOS-1D X II. There remains work for Sony to do to bring it up to speed in this regard, in line with the hardiness of Canon and Nikon’s flagship cameras.

Is the Sony a9 the best wildlife camera that Sony has ever made? Yes. Is it the best wildlife camera out there? No. Not right now. But things change fast.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.

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