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About a month ago I received a tip about a great grey owl. Most years this owl species is breeding in my area, but this year there is not enough food for them. I hadn't seen a single one yet this year, so was more than happy with the tip! It was a great opportunity to test the autofocus of the Sony a9 with the new firmware (5.01) update. I hadn't had the chance yet to really test it in the field.

I got really lucky with this owl. It was a young bird, which didn't show any fear of humans. long as you kept your distance that is. The owl had chosen a small clear cut along a forest road as its hunting ground. Easy to reach, but that also ment that it was easy for by passers to also spot the owl. Several times there were other people who walked up to the owl to photograph it with their cellphone. This resulted in the owl sitting high up in a tree and not hunting. But as soon the other people left, the owl started hunting again. Because I kept my distance and did not approach the owl closer than 25 meter, the owl accepted my presence. By observing how the owl used the terrain, I knew where to position myself in order to get the shots I was after. Several times the owl flew almost straight at me. Most of those times, it just passed over head. But several times it landed right next or in front of me. Of which twice less than 2 meter!

This owl gave me plenty of opportunities to really test the autofocus of the Sony a9 with firmware 5.01 and the Sony 400mm f2.8. Once again the Sony gear managed to impress me. The autofocus of the a9 was already outperforming any other camera I ever photographed with. But the new firmware took it even one step further. The way the camera is now capable of tracking a subject is unseen. Before the autofocus tracking was using distance, faces or eyes to track the subject. But now the camera is capable to also track patterns and colors. Meaning that the camera is capable to distinguish a subject from its surroundings and keep the focus on the subject even better.

I could show you loads of sharp images of the owl in flight, but that wouldn't illustrate how well the focus tracking actually works. I could just have picked out the best ones. To really show how this focus system differs from the others, I selected a single burst of images where the owl really makes it difficult for the camera to keep the focus on the right spot. These images are not cropped and no images are left out. I managed to get a burst of 24 shots of the owl in flight before it landed. I was shooting uncompressed RAW, which gives 12 frames per second. So this whole happening only lasted 2 seconds. I used for "Focus Area" the "Tracking: Flexible Spot S" to focus on and track the bird. This means that I have a single autofocus point to start with. Once I press the focus button, the focus will jump to the bird and directly recognize a small area around where the single focus point hit. The camera will display a small squire around that area, so you know which area the camera is tracking. From that moment, all 693 autofocus points are activated in order to track that part of the subject through the frame. I had face and eye detection de-activated because I wanted to see how the focus tracking would do without it. Not on all animals the eye or face detection will work. So it is important to see how well the autofocus tracks without these features.

In the images below you can see how the owl started to fly straight at me. The closer the owl gets, the larger the relative movement of the owl becomes. Meaning, it becomes more difficult for me to react to any changes in direction made by the owl. Luckily the autofocus points cover 96% of the sensor, so the camera can track the bird even to the edges and corners of the frame. The autofocus tracking selected a section of the face of the bird and kept the focus locked on this part of the bird during the whole flight. Even when the bird made the landing and the face of the bird almost completely disappears out of the frame, the focus didn't jump to the body (as you would expect any other camera to do). You can see that when the face of the bird starts to come back in the frame, the head is still in focus and not the body of the bird. The camera managed to recognize features on the head of the bird and separate it from the rest of the bird. Therefor the focus didn't jump.

Sony a9, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO1600, 1/1000s

For some reason I let the shutter button go and didn't get the last shots. I guess that I just didn't expect the camera to still be capable of focusing on the head and let go of the shutter button. The next shot is of the bird sitting on the stick.

To test if the camera really would track the owl based on color and structure, I positioned myself behind a large bush. The owl was perched on a dead tree at about 35 meter from me. Because I observed how the owl used the terrain I could guess where the owl would fly. I expected the owl to fly to the left, so I positioned myself so that the owl was on the right side of the bush. When the owl started to fly, I could first track it for a few meter before it went behind the bush. When the bush came in between, the focus managed to stick with the owl for 6 frames before the bush really got to thick for the focus to find the bird. I'm well impressed that the camera managed to track the bird so long before losing it. As you can see in the image below, the bush really covered the whole area between the bird and me.

Sony a9, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO640, 1/1600s

Personally, I really love this type of images. Often I see the situation, but am not able to get the shot without using manual focus. This results in often missing the shot because the fast movement of the animal. So I'm very happy to see that with this new technology, it becomes easier to get shots like this. Now I just have to wait until Sony comes with "heat autofocus tracking" so that I can keep shooting through thick shrubs. ...just kidding of course!

To conclude, once again I'm very pleased with the new developments of Sony. The autofocus tracking definitely improved even more. The only bad thing is that it almost feels like I'm cheating when shooting with this setup. The camera really makes the job a lot easier. But that means I can concentrate more on the composition of the images instead of only trying to keep the focus on the subject, which also gives more space for creativity. ...can't wait to see what the a9II can do!

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