The Sony Alpha a1 Meets a Redhead, Field Report
Last week's goal was to put a significantly challenging subject in front of the Sony Alpha a1's AF system.
This project started with 350+ images of whitetail deer captured with the outstanding Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens. At f/4, this lens produces a shallow depth of field that presents an AF challenge. Initially, the deer were milling about (erratic motion), but the game was quickly upped when a large group of deer came in fast, primarily single file, leaping toward the camera position. With animal eye detection and the entire AF area selected, the a1 easily and impressively tracked these subjects' eyes and produced an extremely high in-focus rate, including when the deer were leaping at close distances.
Despite the in-focus aspect of the image, none of these pics were worth keeping as the deer were shedding their winter coats and looking shaggy. I needed pictures that would look good in a review. From a wildlife perspective, birds, primarily ducks, were the acceptable subject I had access to.
After watching the weather forecast and the migration reports for some hotspot locations within driving distance, I made a final decision. On this day, the temperature was going well above freezing, and clear skies were forecasted. Bright sunlight brings out birds' iridescent colors, and the sky color reflects in the water, which, in this case, provided a surrounding blue color in the image (deep blue late in the day). The wind speed was supposed to be light for calmer water. The temperature was going to be comfortable — sitting in the water in the wind and sub-freezing temperatures complicates duck photography.
On this morning, I drove to the closest of the four selected locations, about 2.5 hours away. Unfortunately, the perfect subjects, the wood ducks reliably found there, were not there. While Canada geese were plentiful, I was looking for something different.
Plan B was immediately implemented. The Chesapeake Bay location was 2+ hours farther away, but this location is best in the afternoon, so there was still time to make it there for the ideal lighting.
Upon arrival, I discovered that the huge winter flock of ducks was down to a small fraction of the count. I expected a reduced count, but not this reduced. Fortunately, a selection of the ideal species was there, and with fewer birds, it was easier to isolate individual subjects, making the situation was ideal.
The scenario was ideal except for some wind that made the water choppy. Ideally, swimming duck photography is done at the water level, with the camera just above the water. This low camera position provides a side view of the duck, with a more-distant background, meaning the background has a stronger blur, making the subject pop.
When photographing floating ducks, getting the camera low involves sitting in the water, with chest waders and thick insulated pants required at this time of the year. With the high-frequency wind chop, splashing salt water was an issue, requiring a slightly higher camera position (a LensCoat rain cover protected most of the camera and lens). An unexpected wind complication was that bobbing with the ducks while looking into the viewfinder contributed to a strong sense of motion sickness.
Ducks floating on water may seem a low challenge to photograph (the proverbial sitting duck), but this scenario was the completel opposite. Many near-1' (0.3m) waves rocking the already-twitchy, constantly-erratically moving ducks and me (at different frequencies) made keeping a duck in the 600mm frame (I started at 840mm with a 1.4x teleconverter) extremely challenging (especially when the duck was obscured by a wave). I monitored image sharpness until becoming confident that a 1/3200 shutter speed eliminated motion blur in most pictures.
One of the biggest wildlife (and portrait) photography challenges is to keep the proper AF point selected. A motionless subject permits a focus and recompose strategy, but moving subjects require selecting a specific AF point that produces the optimal composition while remaining on the subject's eye. Fast AF point selection is an especially big challenge for unpredictable wildlife. Tracking a twitchy, bobbing duck with a specific focus point held on the eye would have been nearly impossible. However, the 600mm, f/4, close distance combination's shallow depth of field made focusing precisely on the eye a requirement.
Eye AF eliminates this challenge for a significant percentage of subjects. With the Sony Alpha a1's eye AF enabled, bird selected as the subject, and the entire AF area chosen (most of the frame), I was left to concentrate primarily on framing the scene and timing the shutter release press. Note that, when eye AF is locking on the subject, gloves are no longer an impediment to cold-weather wildlife pursuits.
When many changes are happening simultaneously, a fast frame rate has your back. I began shooting in the 30 fps drive mode but backed off to 20 fps when I saw how fast the image count was increasing.
Twenty fps is still an exceptionally fast frame rate. Most 20 fps shot sequences captured, minimally, a properly-framed duck image, and often, many well-framed shots, despite all of the motion (ducks would sometimes bob from one frame border to another during a short burst). With 20 fps capture, I didn't feel the need to repair closed necessitating membranes as the previous or next image still had the ideal pose. The foreground and background matter, and wave and reflection nuances vary constantly. These elements can be the deciding factor for selection, and the 20 and 30 fps capture rate provides considerable options in this regard.
That the a1's viewfinder responded fast enough to keep the birds in the frame was remarkable, and the lack of viewfinder blackout was also critical. Even more remarkable was the extremely-high in-focus rate the a1 delivered. In this 3:45 shoot, 8,985 images were captured, and in almost all of them, the eye was in sharp focus – even when the eye bounced into the periphery of the frame.
When packing, four batteries seemed a lot, but 4% of the fourth battery was consumed by the time I walked out of the water. That said, capturing nearly 3,000 images per relatively-small battery is great performance.
Similarly, taking a full terabyte of memory cards seemed overkill, but the last 256GB card was half-filled when shade reached the water. As much as I want to purchase CFexpress Type A memory cards for the a1, I can't get past the current price. Let's put a Type A number on this day. As I write this, adequate 160GB Type A memory cards to contain this under-4-hour shoot would have cost $2,394.00.
In comparison, four fast Lexar 256GB Professional 1667x V60 UHS-II SDXC Memory Cards currently cost $300.00.
With these Lexar cards, the a1 was writing the buffer to the card most of the time. This writing prevents some camera features from being accessible, though image playback functions during the writing process.
Ultra-high performance AF combined with an extreme frame rate results in a problem, albeit a great problem — too many excellent images yield a long selection process. You may have foreseen this issue: reviewing nearly 9k photos is a massive project, and the phenomenal in-focus rate makes that job far more difficult. It is hard to delete excellent pictures, but the quality bar must be raised (or considerable hard drive storage space acquired). Again, the a1's extreme performance create a problem you want to have.
I didn't mention the a1's 50MP resolution in this post, but the bouncing ducks were often not ideally framed. This camera's high resolution meant that significant resolution remained even after cropping deeply.
The Robus RC-8860 Vantage Carbon Fiber Tripod (great tripod, excellent value) provided the support for this shoot. With the tripod leveled, the two-way pan and tilt of the smooth-functioning Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head ensured that every shot was level (though the wave action diminished this requirement).
The bottom line is that Sony Alpha a1, and especially its AF system, is an outstanding performer, as expected.
600mm f/4.0 1/3200s ISO 400
Bull Elk Chin-Up Pose in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is very scenic but some locations within the park have better environments for elk photography than others. Elk go where they want to and little will stop them from doing so, but I have some favorite locations and usually will pursue the elk found in these. This elk was in one of my go-to locations, featuring a low, clean foreground and rocky mountain base in the background.
Elk are very large animals and that means relatively long distances are required to fit them in the frame of a long lens (and for personal safety). Longer subject distances mean increased depth of field and that means the background will be less diffusely blurred. The 600mm f/4 focal length and aperture combination creating a three-dimensional effect that makes the subject stand out from the background is especially valuable when photographing large animals such as elk.
After seeing how sharp the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens was (and experiencing how light it was), I opted to use this lens behind the ultra-high-resolution Sony a7R IV for all of my late summer and fall wildlife photography.
The bull in this photo was moving across the meadow in front of us and this great rut-characteristic chin-high pose was my favorite. The other images captured in this sequence provided a small additional amount of background that, with the lack of distracting details, I later decided to merge with the original image, creating a panorama. With the 61 MP resolution provided by the a7R IV, I didn't need the additional pixels. Moving back and cropping would have been easier from a post-processing perspective but moving back would have resulted in a missed opportunity in this instance (and the original framing would have been fine). Note that this capability likely exists in some of your images — be cautious when deleting the lesser images.
Images captured under a cloudy sky, including this one, usually readily accept some contrast increase and a modest amount was added to this image.
600mm f/4.0 1/500s ISO 500
Whitetail Buck in the Forest, Shenandoah National Park
It is generally much easier to photograph deer in a field or meadow than in the forest where tree trunks and branches create obstructions and chaotic backgrounds. However, the forest is where many deer spend large amounts of their lives. Heading into the forest may reduce the odds of getting good images but the increased challenge makes a successful in-the-forest image more rewarding.
While a 600 f/4 lens is an awesome choice for obscuring a distracting foreground and background via blur, the narrow angle of view can be challenging to use in the forest due to the obstructions. A farther away view results in a higher chance of trees and branches being in the way. Despite having a Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens with me in Shenandoah National Park, I mostly used the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens. The images this lens makes are hard to beat and once one acclimates to 600mm f/4 images, it becomes difficult to be satisfied with anything less.
All 600mm f/4 and similar lenses are very expensive but the high price has one advantage: it is a barrier of entry, making it harder for those without such a lens to compete with those having one. In a world with an unimaginable number of images being captured daily, this lens' image quality is a differentiator and those able to make the investment should frequently make use of their advantage.
I was working ahead of this buck (with a somewhat unusual drop tine), looking for openings it might pass through. He came into this opening and cooperated nicely, looking toward the camera. After quickly capturing a few images with the currently-selected focus point, I changed the focus point to a more optimal position in the frame and captured another burst of images before the buck turned its head. I selected the image with the best deer pose (both ears forward and looking toward me) and stitched another of the images captured using the other focus point for a slightly wider overall image.
This image was captured on a bright cloudy day. Clouds act as a giant softbox, eliminating the harsh shadows often encountered in the woods. Images captured in cloudy weather often appear slightly cool and low contrast is also normal for images captured under cloudy skies. Adding a small amount of contrast and saturation and warming the color balance slightly brings the image to life.
The increased challenge, increased reward concept applies to many genres of photography. Welcome ways to increase your challenge!
600mm f/4.0 1/400s ISO 2000
Mercury Transit of the Sun
Smart people told us long in advance that the planet Mercury was going to pass in front of the Sun for many hours on 11/11/2019 and that the transit was going to be visible across a huge swath of the world, including my location on that date, falling during my Shenandoah National Park Workshop.
My first thought regarding photographing this event was that I could take a picture of the Sun anytime and simply use the paint brush tool to drop in Mercury planets wherever desired. While the result would look fine, it wouldn't be nearly as fun or as phsychologically rewarding as experiencing the event firsthand and capturing the real thing. Photographing the Sun is easy and a little black dot in front of it was going to be equally easy to capture so, I packed the required solar filter for the trip.
The Sun was not going to be our primary subject on this day, we didn't have time to shoot throughout the entire many-hour transit, and the cloudy sky made photographing it challenging during the few times we attempted to do so. Still, I wanted to show the entire transit in the final result. To fulfill that goal, I pieced a number of images together and then duplicated a Mercury planet to fill in the entire path across the Sun.
While the Mercury transit does not rise to the level of amazing as the recent solar eclipse, it was still fun to see and photograph.
When photographing the Sun, everything else in the frame is black unless there are clouds being brightly lit while darkening the Sun enough to even out the dynamic range. With black periphery being easy to create during post processing, framing the Sun a tightly as possible becomes the goal. Still, the Sun will not come close to filling the frame even at 1200mm, the longest most photographers will use, on a full frame camera. In a focal length limited scenario, higher pixel density on the imaging sensor means more resolution remaining after cropping and the Sony a7R IV has that. The Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens and FE 2x Teleconverter were used to gain the 1200mm focal length.
Among the many images captured were some with a cloud-caused fiery haze surrounding the Sun. Adding some of these images into the Photoshop stack provided the option of including the haze in the final image as shared here.
Here is a question for you: Since I watched Mercury transit the Sun in an electronic viewfinder, did I really see it?
1200mm f/8.0 1/125s ISO 100
Bath Time in Rocky Mountain National Park
A cow elk gives her calf a bath while standing in a lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Long telephoto lenses were meant for times like these. This was a scenario where I couldn't get any closer – wetter was not an option I was willing to accept. Not only did this lens's 600mm focal length make the animals substantial in the frame but the f/4 aperture created a blurred background even at this long distance, making the subject stand out.
I am considering a return to Rocky Mountain National Park in September. Let me know if you want to be part of this trip!
600mm f/4.0 1/640s ISO 500
High-Stepping Whitetail Buck, Shenandoah National Park
This old buck has its eyes on the doe it is pursuing.
I like some animal leg positions better than others. In this case, the lifted-high front leg and corresponding raised back leg show that the deer is in motion. When I have the mental wherewithal to time image captures with the ideal leg positions, I do. When I don't, that is what a fast frame rate is for.
While the beautiful early morning sunlight gives the image a warm look, the frost-covered whiskers indicate the true scenario. This was a very cold day. While I was functionally challenged by the heavy gloves (and my breath freezing on the camera), the Sony a7R IV worked flawlessly in these low temperatures.
It only takes a short amount of time with a great subject in a great scenario to generate a large selection of good images. Selecting a single image to share from such a situation becomes the next challenge. I opted to share two images (for now) of this buck, the other illustrating the lip curl behavior.
600mm f/4.0 1/640s ISO 320
Lip Curl, Whitetail Buck, Shenandoah National Park
The lip curl (Flehmen response) is a deer behavior especially common during the rut, exposing the vomeronasal organ (Jacobson’s organ) to scents, especially those of a doe in heat. While this behavior is not unusual, it is different from the many images captured of the same old buck simply standing and looking.
The bokeh buck is a want-to-be contender. He doesn't stand a chance against this clearly superior buck.
As I mentioned in the other photo of this buck, a few minutes with the right subject in the right light and location scenario can result in a lot of nice images on the memory card.
600mm f/4.0 1/640s ISO 320
International Space Station Solar Transit
Sean's recent Filming an ISS Transit of the Moon article reminded me to check for an upcoming locally-viewable International Space Station transit. Amazingly, there were two ISS solar transits scheduled for the next week, with my back yard being the perfect location for the alignment I wanted for both transits.
Sean's How to Photograph an International Space Station Lunar Transit article was directly applicable, with a solar filter being an additional requisite.
Only the sun was going to be illuminated in the frame, and the space station is especially small. I combined the longest focal length lens combination I have, the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens and Sony FE 2x Teleconverter, with the highest resolution ILC camera available, the Sony a7R IV. This combination was then mounted to the most solid tripod and head in my kit, the Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head on a Robus RC-8860 Vantage Carbon Fiber Tripod.
The ISS moves across the sky very rapidly, leading me to select a 1/2000 shutter speed to avoid motion blur. With the transit duration predicted to be a mere 0.52 seconds, timing the shot was crucial. From testing, I knew this camera with a V60 SDXC card loaded would capture an over-four-second burst before the buffer filled. At just under two seconds before the transit start time, I pressed and held the release button on the Vello ShutterBoss Remote Switch.
The a7R IV's high speed+ mode netted three images that included the ISS in front of the sun. That count seemed a little weak in the composite (the space stations were "spaced" too far apart), so some additional space stations were cloned into the final image.
1200mm f/8.0 1/2000s ISO 1600