I started my career as a Canon shooter, and moved to Nikon in 2009 when I got to try the D3 and the D3x. From then onwards I have been very happy with my Nikon gear and I was even lucky to represent the brand as an ambassador for 7 years. However, I have seen a change over time that made me start rethinking my choice of gear. In November 2019 I moved over to Sony and after using my new tools in Antarctica for 2 weeks, hosting a expedition with WildPhoto Travel, I have some thoughts I want to share.
Firstly I want to say that I am a true believer that the camera gear is not the most important tool to become a good photographer. Some people can create stunning images with a mobile phone. However I do believe that a good photographer, that knows how to utilize the tools available can improve his or her images by choosing the best available technology.
I also want to make it clear that I am not sponsored by Sony in any way, nor do I have any working relationship with the brand. I am however sponsored by Stavanger Foto that also sponsored my Nikon gear ever since I was relieved from my ambassador contract with Nikon Norway. Please check them out at www.stavangerfoto.no.
So why change? To sum it up – innovation! Nikon has an amazing history of professional cameras and lenses that have been producing stunning images over decades. However, every time they have tried to take a leap into the mirrorless future they have failed, lately with the Z7 and Z6 that was released long before it was ready for the marked in my opinion. Amazing files, but completely useless autofocus from a camera manufacturer that is know to have one of the best focus systems in the world. And lets not even talk about the V1 series…
The only thing holding me back before has been the lack of Sony prime telephoto lenses, but now with a 400/2,8 and the 600/4, as well as a great selection of flexible lenses in the medium and wide range I don’t see why I shouldn’t take the leap. I already have several colleagues that have moved to mirrorless, and especially the Olympus system has been getting a lot of attention in Norway, but in my opinion it is not even close to the competition unless you are looking for a lightweight backpack. At least not for the kind of wildlife photography I am doing, and in the environment that I normally work.
My current field collection consists of a Sony A9 with a battery grip and a A7 III (while waiting for a A7r IV) with a 600/4, 70-200/2,8, 24-105/4, 16-35/4 and the brilliant 85/1,8. Weight has not really been a big issue for me, but I must admit it was a bit comforting to put my camera bag on the scale at the airport in Argentina and only get an approving nod from behind the counter. The bag weighed in at 12,5 kg, oppose to close to 20kg with my old system. Stress level reduction – check!
Then let’s jump straight into it; the focus system – wow! I have always believed that Nikon has the best focus system in the world, but I will be the first (I think) to admit I was wrong. The flexible tracking spot of the Sony A9 is completely mind-blowing. I still think that my Nikon D5 caught the subject faster while it was still small in the frame, and especially in hard backlight, but when the A9 has the subject locked it just doesn’t let go. While shooting Antarctic cormorants flying to the nest at high speed I shot 2200 backlit images in two hours with my 600mm and ALL of them where in focus. Because the birds came in very close I did cut the wings, head or tail at times, but even when just the tip of a wing was in the viewfinder it was a sharp wingtip. The Sony sensor has focus points on 100 % of the viewfinder and it really makes a difference.
During the cormorant shoot I was firing at continuous high and medium with electronic shutter, giving me roughly 14 frames per second with uncompressed RAW. I realized that the mechanical shutter was useless for this kind of shooting and I honestly don’t see why you would bother using it unless you need a long exposure. I guess that is the only reason it is even an option. I was also using a small spot to lock onto the bird while it was still small in the frame. In addition I have my camera set to medium lock-on and I noticed on a few series that even when the subject in focus was completely covered behind nesting birds, it would still be pin sharp when it emerged a couple of frames later. Very impressive!
One of the most important features concerning the focus system, in my opinion, is the flexible tracking. This makes it possible to focus on a moving subject like a flying bird and compose your picture without worrying about loosing focus. I used this feature a lot with petrels flying along tabular icebergs and over the Drake Passage. What really makes a difference though, is that this amazing autofocus also works with the live view screen (obviously as it is a digital viewfinder), making it super simple to work with moving subject with a tilted LCD screen and autofocus low to the ground or over water. The Nikon had a 3D tracking mode that had similar features, but it could not be used with live view, and it was not usable for fast moving subjects like the cormorants. From what I heard the focus is even more impressive in the A9 II with much smoother tracking, which is going to be nice as the focus is a bit overactive.
After I started shooting with the Sony I have started seeing new possibilities and I can’t wait to take it under water and also shoot low from our zodiacs and ships in the Arctic.
Other positives worth mentioning is the possibility to customize more or less every button on the camera. I especially like the option to save every exposure parameter to a custom button (I use the AEL button for this) so that I can quickly go from shooting fast shutterspeed to slow panning without rotating dials or going into the menu. Canon used to have this feature in the EOS 1D mkII but I don’t know if it still exists. I only wish I didn’t have to release the focus button for the custom settings to activate. Hopefully that can be solved with a firmware upgrade. This is also something I love about the Sony; with so few moving parts major adjustments to the camera performance can be done over regular firmware upgrades.
One of the most important features of any camera is of course the file produced. Both the cameras I have been shooting with have 24,2 megapixel sensors, and I consider this sufficient but nothing more. However, I hope to upgrade to the A9 II (same file size as A9) and also to get the A7r IV, which has an incredible 61,2 megapixel sensor! The one thing that struck me with the Sony files were the dynamic range in my images, and especially the details I got shooting backlit penguins. Shooting the birds on snow obviously helps as the light is bounced off the surroundings but even in harsh backlight I got amazing details in both shadow and highlight. I am really looking forward to seeing the files of the A7r IV when I get my hands on it.
On a couple of occasions I also got to use the insanely fast shutterspeed you can get with the A9. When shooting backlit penguins with the low sun in the frame I could shoot at 1/32000 sec, making it possible to still use a large aperture for a soft foreground and background. This is also extremely convenient when shooting with lenses like the 85/1,8 or similar.
Even I haven’t really been using it yet I am also fascinated by the eye recognition feature, which will be upgraded to also work on animal eyes. I look forward to try it on Polar bears in the Arctic.
It has to be said, the menu system is a mess! I have always praised Nikon for having a simple and intuitive menu, unlike Canon, and I will stand by that. Sonys menu is extremely confusing and seem like it has been thrown into the camera on pure chance. Many of the menu options are also very hard to understand and the descriptions given by holding the trashcan button is just as confusing. Luckily you have the option of storing your own custom menu and I am sure that over time I will learn to use my custom menu and forget about the mess behind it.
It took a while for me to get used to the digital viewfinder but once I did I didn’t really think about it. The only thing I have learnt is that it takes a while for the camera to wake up after sleep mode. I have my cameras set to 1 minute before going into sleep mode and on more than one occasion I have put the camera to my eye only to realize the viewfinder is pitch black. When triggered it also takes a while for the viewfinder to wake up and even longer before the focus starts searching. I have lost images due to this and it is something I need to work around by changing the time before the camera goes to sleep or learn to wake it up while I am putting it to my eye.
Coming from the Nikon D5 and D850 I do find the button configuration of the A9 and the A7 III a bit odd. Especially wearing gloves it is very hard to work the dials and the buttons, but I have had the A9 II and also the A7r IV in my hands and I think the problems has been solved in this generation of bodies. The first time I held the A9 II it was almost like holding a Nikon D850 again, and with the grip I am sure it will fall into my hands quite nicely. In addition you get better weather sealing than you get with the A9.
A couple of things worth mentioning at the end is the lack of lossless compressed RAW which I hope can be solved over a firmware upgrade, and the dust issues which is more a hardware problem. The Sony sensor needs a lot of attention and I found that I needed to clean dust more often then I have ever done with my Nikons. However the sensor is large and easy to access and cleaning it is not too hard.
So to sum it up, I changed to Sony because I believe in innovation, a smarter future, awesome autofocus, a great lens line-up and okay the weight reduction is a bonus too. For me moving from Nikon to Sony felt natural in a digital world where a brand like Sony is a leading force. To bring photography forward the photographer and the camera brands have to work hand in hand, and at the moment I feel Sony is the brand that listens to the professional user. Together we can improve the art of photography.