Sports Photography with the Sony A7II

Raid Rockingham

Most people wouldn't call this a "sports" camera. It lacks the insane FPS counts and lightning fast autofocus of the Canon 7D, the exceptional low light performance of the Canon 1DX, and even the small form factor can make it troublesome to flip around and manipulate its controls in a fast paced sports situation. 

But it still works. And it works pretty well: If you can get past its deficiencies and quirks. 

I had originally hoped the Sony A7II would replace my Canon 5D MKII. It has a slightly higher megapixel count, 5 FPS vs 3.5 FPS, in-body stabilization, and it shoots 60 FPS 1080P in S-Log 2. How could it not replace the Canon? 

Well, it wasn't so simple. 

Note: This isn't meant to be a complete review of the camera system. Only a review as it pertains to sports photography. 

FIRST, THE POSITIVES.

BEAUTIFUL IMAGES

The sensor on The Sony A7II is exceptional. Amazing dynamic range. The detail that you can pull out of the shadows and recover from the highlights is incredible. It's so dramatic that it's required me to rethink how I expose for a scene. Rather than Exposing To The Right (ETTR, essentially exposing bright enough that you're just keeping your highlights from blowing out and then fixing it in post in order to maintain as much shadow detail as possible), I've found that I can now just exposure for the mid-tones, maybe just a touch over-exposed, and everything else will fall into place. Nothing short of amazing. 

And the feel of the images that I get out of the Zeiss Batis 85mm 1.8 is exceptional and unmatched by any of my Canon lenses. Color rendition and contrast are superb.

Raid Lamoille

Raid Lamoille

SENSOR STABILIZATION 

As part of my sports work I'm shooting candids and group photos of athletes. Unfortunately, this is often in horrendous lighting conditions indoors. On-camera flash just sucks and I hate having to carry a flash in my pack. Off-camera flash is an option but it forces me to bring extra gear: light stand, transmitters, extra batteries, etc. And then I'd have to move its position multiple times during the short window that I have for shooting and I'd need to find a place to put it when I'm done using it. Often my car is parked far away from the venue and the thought of carrying that gear on my back while I'm on my bike makes me cringe. 

With the A7II and a fast prime lens I can shoot handheld without cranking the ISO way up. It's still a challenge to freeze action at low shutter speeds of course but you end up with a very natural looking photograph that convey's the mood of the room very well. 

Raid Lamoille

1/160 f/2 ISO 2500

Weather Sealing

A very wet A7II at the 2016 Raid Rockingham

Yep, it's weather sealed. I got my Sony A7II completely soaked shooting this year's Raid Rockingham. It held up like a champ and I'm confident in its ability to keep operating in adverse conditions. Enough said. 

Form Factor

Obviously, it's much smaller than 7D or 5D, especially after you add battery grips to those cameras. This makes it very easy to carry around, pack and store. Less weight on my back means I'm happier after pedaling a 13 mile race course on my bike. It's small size actually makes it difficult to hold at times but a cheap Chinese battery grip from Amazon makes everything smooth. And it doubles the battery life. Woohoo!

Raid Lamoille

NOW, THE NEGATIVES.

AUTOFOCUS

Garbage. Just plain garbage. Prior to the latest firmware release by Sony this camera was manual focus only for me. The focus peaking feature helped a little but proved to be useless for really wide open aperture use. I still liked the camera. After the firmware update I had high hopes for the camera. My informal testing with my Canon 16-35 F/2.8 LII and 70-200 F/2.8 L looked promising. But put your subject in low light and this will hunt from time to time. Even with the Native Sony 16-35 F/4 it would hunt and miss focus with alarming regularity. And my 85 F1.8 will slowly focus just past its mark and then snap onto its subject; Most of the time. Sometimes it will freak out and continuously hunt for focus until I give up and just focus manually. 

Battle wounds on this sign in Buffalo Gap, Texas.

It's hard to tell without zooming in but the Zeiss 85 missed focus on this sign repeatedly. It continuously hunted without getting a good lock despite have a nice and contrasty object to focus on. 

Manual focus with the camera can be quite good when you combine it with the image zoom. You can zoom into an image without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Pretty cool stuff. But, the Sony 16-35 and Zeiss 85 don't have a manual/auto focus switch on the lens. So you must change focus modes within the camera. And for some stupid reason the camera won't let you zoom into an image while it's in AF-Continuous mode. So it goes a little like this: Autofocus fails (either misses or hunts), then you must switch out of AF into MF, then you must activate the focus zoom, focus on your subject and now you can finally shoot; or more often you'll have to exit autofocus zoom, recompose and then shoot. Very cumbersome and totally unnecessary. Especially seeing as you can focus zoom in any autofocus mode while you're in Movie mode. It's crazy. 

With the A7II, rather than picking an autofocus point and then using continuous autofocus to track a subject like I do on my 7D MkII, I'll prefocus on a point and let the subject move into it. Not perfect but it works. 

BUFFERING

Buffering isn't too bad when you're shooting compressed RAW or JPEG. You can get a few seconds worth of shots before the camera bogs down and needs to take a break to process. Not usually an issue but it would be nice if you could squeeze a little more out of it. Especially for climbing photography where I find myself keeping the shutter release pinned waiting for that perfect movement or facial expression. Shooting uncompressed RAW with the latest firmware update is pretty much impossible for sports. It will only buffer a second or two's worth of frames before it clogs up. Since shooting in compressed RAW isn't so bad to begin with it's not a deal breaker for me. What's truly frustrating is that when you hit the buffer limit, or even before you hit the buffer limit, you can't review anything until it's completely done processing. Even if you just need to take a peak at that first frame for a quick exposure confirmation-impossible. 

Ian Wauchope in Acadia National Park

I had some issues with the buffering on this one. Uncompressed RAW just bogs down the processer on this camera. 

THE MENU LAYOUT

Unbearable and impossible. Why, oh, why would they have the menu options for autofocus functions spread out over multiple menu screens and mixed in with other random stuff? It makes no sense. Getting through the menus takes forever and because there is no rhyme or reason for how they're organized, it's very difficult to remember where important items are, even after accessing that menu item many times. Is it in one of the 9 sub-menu pages within the little camera icon menu? Or is within the 7 sub-menus of the gear icon? 

And you want to format your SD card? That's within sub-menu 5 of the little toolbox menu. Right after the menu with USB settings and the monitor brightness. But if you want to just delete photos you'll need to access a different menu screen entirely. It's crazy and hugely frustrating when you're trying to make a change on the side of the road as your athletes are whizzing past you. 

HIGH-ISO PERFORMANCE

Performance is okay. I would have hoped that a full-frame camera that was released almost 7 years after the 5D MkII would have superior high-ISO noise performance. It doesn't. It's almost as good as my old 5D MkII and maybe on par with my 7D MkII. Oh well. Not too big of a deal but it would be nice to see maybe just a little of that crazy A7S ISO technology in the A7II. 

Stowe 8-Miler

1/60 f/2 ISO 2000

Yeah, it was dark in there. 

So, how do I make it work for me?

As a third camera

I never thought I'd find myself lugging around three camera bodies. But keeping the 16-35 on my 5D MkII and my 70-200 on My 7D MkII I now have a really compact camera with a fast 85mm prime lens available for snapping quick shots of couples and portraits while athletes are prepping. Or for detail shots around the registration area or low light shots indoors. And when I'm whipping around on the course the Sony mostly stays in the bag, waiting for retrieval for post-race photos. For the bike events I shoot like the Raid Series from Loco Cycling the Sony will get used more frequently since I'm driving the course in my car and I have more time to go rummaging through camera bags. 

Beautiful colors and contrast with the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8

As a Packable Camera

This little Sony is spectacular to carry. With the compact 16-35 F/4 attached it barely takes up any space inside a pack and isn't cumbersome when it's attached to a pack's shoulder strap with a Peak Design Capture Clip. I haven't yet lugged it up a fixed line for shooting rock climbing but the reduced weight will be welcome for sure. It is nice and compact and stays out of the way when scrambling cliffside. And because it's so light and packable I'm much more likely to bring it along. And that makes this camera extremely valuable to me. 

Raid Rockingham

Conclusion

Is this camera perfect? No.

Is it going to replace my DSLRs? No.

Does it work really well for certain things and will I continue to use it? You bet! Work around the quirks and you'll end up with a capable, inexpensive full-frame camera that takes spectacular photos.