The Sony AR74 and the Sony 200-600 f5.6-6.3 lens, a non-functional combination for birds in flight?
I have taken approximately 2000 birds in flight shots with the Sony AR74 and the Sony 200-600 and obtained a miserably low number of in-focus images. Changing the lens has made almost no difference. Although some photographers have achieved apparently good results, many have experienced the same problems that I have found. For some owners, like me, this seems to be a non-functional combination for birds in flight.
The Sony AR74 and the Sony 200-600 f5.6-6.3 lens are the highest resolution products of their type made by Sony and also the among the most recently released at the time of writing. You would think they were a match made in heaven, and many Sony customers including myself thought that too. However the reality proves to be quite different and in fact the combination of these two items for me has been almost completely non-functional, at least for birds in flight which is the reason I bought them both. On looking this up on the internet, there are numerous stories about the problem from other users, as well as professional photographers such as Arthur Morris and Mark Galer (at 58m in the video), and there is no doubt that Sony is aware of the problem, although to this date they have not formally acknowledged it.
This post summarises two detailed tests I recently did to get an accurate figure for the percentage of in focus shots of birds in flight with the combination of the camera and lens.
A fast way of seeing the problem
Before going into detail, here is a 1.5 minute video that shows the problem. This is a fast run-through of the focal point positions of over a hundred images taken at the Hawk Conservancy Trust. All the Exif data is shown on the right. This is using the latest v2.6 of the amazing A7info.exe program which enables you to fly through images at Photomechanic speeds. As a result I was able to take a screen video capture of all the shots. You can stop the movie at any point to see the EXIF and focus info for any shot. You will see that there are a huge number of misses, and even where there are focus hits, the bird is often out of focus. Click the Vimeo logo to see this in a separate tab, with the option to view full screen.
Initial experience with the the Sony AR74 and the Sony 200-600at Gigrin
I purchased the 200-600 lens new from Cardiff Camera Centre, and received it on 7/1/2020. Hoping to compare the AR74 to my existing systems (and hopefully replace one or more of them), I visited the Red Kite feeding centre at Gigrin Farm in Wales for a 2-day session on 27/1/2020. Along with the Sony system I took my Nikon D850 with the 200-500 lens as well as my Olympus EM1 Mark II with the 300mm F4 lens and the 1.4 teleconverter. I took approximately 1000 photographs with each system. I had great success and got some wonderful photographs with the D850 see here and the Olympus E-M1ii see here. However I did not get a single photograph in focus with the AR74 and the 200-600. I was astonished and annoyed by this.
The camera was running the current firmware 1.1 and the lens 1.3. The lens was mounted on a Manfrotto 560B pro monopod. According to the received wisdom at the time (e.g. Alphashooters) about half of the shots were taken with the wide AF point setting either with tracking on or off. The remainder were set with either expanded flexible spot or centre focusing, and tracking off. Shutter speeds were 1/1000 and 1/1600. Image stabilization was turned off.
On detailed examination in the excellent A7info software (which shows the detailed EXIF data including AF points and the actual final focus location), it is clear that even where the focus point was bang on the bird, the photograph was not in focus. For the AF wide settings the bird was always photographed against an absolutely clear sky and was definitely the closest and largest item to the camera. With the wide setting in this situation the bird should always get picked up as the focus target. However, only 79 of 393 shots with the wide setting even managed to get the focus point on the bird, and mostly the focus point was randomly somewhere else in the shot. In some cases the AF points were right on the bird but the actual focus point used was miles away.
In the gallery of AR7info screenshots below, you can see several examples of how the Sony system completely malfunctioned. The green squares show the AF points (AFP) which were operating, and the red circle shows the final focus point (FFP) used. In the first image you have to look quite hard to see the dark red final focus point (on the left wing, near the body). The focus point was dead on the bird, and the result was a totally out of focus shot. Other shots show all the AF points on the bird, and the final focus point miles away, resulting again in out of focus shots.
Doing a statistical count on focus accuracy was depressingly easy for this test. Out of focus shots: 100%. No tables or further analysis needed.
This was a desperately poor performance and I contacted the seller Cardiff cameras who very kindly agreed to take the lens back and replace it.
New lens, new test.
After receiving the new lens from Cardiff cameras, I decided to to conduct a new test.
I couldn’t get to Wales again, so the location I chose was the Hawk Conservancy Trust (HCT), in Andover, Hampshire, which is only an hour’s drive away from my home.. This is a magnificent resource with a twice-daily flying display of a large number of raptors of various kinds from owls to vultures. Birds can be photographed either stationary or in-flight at a range of distances and with a fairly high frequency, so a good density of photographing opportunities can be obtained in a relatively short space of time. Unlike the Red Kites in Wales however, the birds are more difficult to capture as the flights are short, fast, close, and somewhat unpredictable (unlike with Red Kites where you can choose your bird, focus on it for some time, and then start shooting).
Over the course of two sessions on 13th March 2020, I took around 850 shots of birds in flight with the AR74 and the new lens. Before the shoot started, I set up the AR74 according to the recommendations from noted bird photographer Mark Smith and in fact downloaded his settings directly onto my camera. The lens was used without stabilization on a professional Manfrotto monopod and at a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second. The AF setting was a mixture of Zone or Flexible Spot as recommended by Mark, with tracking off for all shots. All other details were as for Gigrin above. After a complete failure to get any usable shots in an earlier session during which I got a large number of keepers from my Nikon D850 and Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II, I had high hopes of being successful this time round.
The results unfortunately were every bit as disappointing as in my initial trial. Of the 315 shots where a focus point was on the target, the percentage of critically in-focus shots was 5%, an astonishingly poor result. A further 21% were nearly in-focus, where the camera had locked onto the bird but was then unable to obtain critical sharpness. However a miserable 75% were out of focus and unusable in any way.
Assessing overall focus accuracy
I provide details below of the measurements and some examples of in focus and out of focus shots. My field workflow when shooting on location is to review and cull shots on a travel laptop using FastRawViewer, a program which I wholeheartedly recommend. I then only import the selected and tagged images to Lightroom on my main system when I return home. FastRawViewer also provides an excellent basis for assessing exposure and focus and doing some level of counting on the results.
To assess focus for the 854 shots, I chose one of the best in-focus samples as a constant reminder of the best that the lens could achieve and then compared that level of sharpness to every other photograph. I had this photograph open on a second PC while looking at all the other shots, so that I could continuously look at an example of optimum sharpness to compare with the picture being reviewed.
The whole body of the bird was checked in case shallow depth of field resulted in one part being in focus while another part was not. For a 600 mm full frame lens at a distance of of 30m to 50m and an aperture of f 6.3 the depth of field varies from 0.6m to 1.7m, so the whole bird should be in focus at longer distances.
I used XMP/ Lightroom colour labels to identify photographs as being either out of focus (red), in focus (green) or nearly in focus (yellow).
The first screen shown below (click image to view full screen in a light box) shows the summary of all the photographs taken (in the table to the right).
The photograph shown below of a barn owl was the comparison shot used to assess the remainder of the photographs in the series (click image to view full screen in a light box) . The focal length was nearly 450 mm, and the bird was around 30m away. For all the jpg images here, I took the original raw file into Lightroom, applied a minor amount of exposure adjustment if necessary, and the default LR sharpening, and then exported to jpg.
The crop below shows shows remarkable clarity even at a focal length of nearly 450 mm (click image to view full screen in a light box).
The photograph below is of the next shot in the burst (click image to view full screen in a light box). At full size it looks similar, but cropped in, the difference in focus is very marked.
This shot is characteristic of almost all the “nearly in focus” shots taken by the the Sony system. It is clear the camera is not focusing anywhere else in the frame. The camera is locked onto the bird but does not achieve acceptable sharpness during the focus process.
In addition to a simple visual comparison, FastRawViewer has two additional tools to assess sharpness.. The most useful of these is the Fine Detail focus peaking check which shows a red Indicator of fine detail superimposed over the darkened image. This focus peaking check needs to show lines and elements of the image and a pattern of only red dots does not imply sharpness, just high noise. The fine detail tool was very helpful for distinguishing between other less obvious examples to distinguish between critically sharp and nearly sharp photographs. The example below is of the sharp comparison sample. It needs to be shown in the lightbox (click image) to see the peaking overlay.
Again compare this to the next shot in the burst, which shows no fine detail in the same area, or indeed anywhere else on the bird’s body.
All of the images that were identified as being out of focus (red) or nearly in focus (yellow) showed the same characteristic as above.
Assessing focus location
Separately, using the A7info program, I checked the location of the focus point for all the shots, and then using XMP/ Lightroom ratings, I cross- tagged them in FastRawViewer (an incredibly tedious and complicated task for 854 photos).
As in Wales, the bird was the closest element to the camera in every shot, usually against a clear sky. Because I was not using the AF Wide setting, focus location depended on me getting an AF point on the moving bird. As mentioned above, these birds moved only for short distances, and were fast and somewhat unpredictable. My overall result for this was that 37% of the 854 shots had an AF point right on the bird. There were a number of shots where the final focus point was very near the bird, but no AF points were activated, so I would round my focus accuracy up to around 40%. Not bad in the circumstances with a new camera system, but there are no measurements like this for me to compare to.
Photos where the both the AF points and the final focus point were on the subject, were given a 3 rating. Photos with a clear background where one or more AF points were on the birds, but the final focus point was not (but bloody well should have been), were given a 4 rating. The comparison ‘critically sharp’ photo was the single 5 rating. The filtering capability of FastRawViewer enables subtotals to be easily shown – and the overall results can be seen below (and in the FastRawViewer screenshot above).
|Files||Total||%||In focus||Close to focus||Out of focus|
|AF points and Focus pt on subject||224||26%||13||6%||46||21%||165||74%|
|AF points but not Focus pt on subject||91||11%||2||2%||19||21%||70||77%|
|Files with no focus on subject||539||63%||9||2%||82||15%||476||88%|
|All files with focus on subject||315||37%||15||5%||65||21%||235||75%|
Even for the 224 shots where the AF points and the final focus point were both right on the bird, the % of in focus shots was only 6%.
The gallery below shows sample images from the Andover shoot, showing placement of the AF points as revealed in A7Info, and the resulting image, cropped to show detail. These images show very clearly how the Sony focus system is failing. Why it’s failing I have no idea, but the system is clearly not working as intended or as advertised.
Trying to get the problem fixed
To this day, there is no official acknowledgement from Sony of the problem, and no warning on the 200-600 and A7R4 combination on any of their specification charts or data. I located the email addresses of multiple official contacts within Sony UK, and sent them a description of the problem and links to the data. The only response I got was a suggestion to send my camera in for repair. However, many others have gone the repair route and had their cameras returned with no improvement. It seems clear to me that Sony has no idea how to fix the issue.
There was a brief flurry of hope that the December 2020 firmware 1.2 update would fix the problem, but a) nothing was said about the 200-600 in the firmware details, and b) most users have reported no improvement. Others have said that cameras manufactured after March 2020 did not have the problem. I was not prepared to buy yet another copy to test this, and you cannot easily determine the manufacture date of rental cameras, so that was not an option either for me.
In the end, since the combination of lens and camera did not work for BIF, and the other options for the 200-600, like the A7R3 or A6400 were not acceptable in focus hit rate, I had to sell both camera and lens. I took a pretty substantial loss on them both, and to put it mildly, was extremely annoyed about the situation.
I have taken approximately 2000 BIF shots with the combination of the 200-600 lens and the AR74, and have obtained a miserably low number of in-focus shots. Changing the lens has made almost no difference. Although some photographers have achieved apparently good results, many have experienced the same problems that I have found.
I am exceptionally annoyed, as this is a problem that has been well documented on the internet, and one that Sony must be aware of. There has been no comment or warning from Sony on this issue. As a result, photographers like myself have wasted a huge amount of time, effort and money trying unsuccessfully to get the system to function properly. The most annoying part is the loss of perfectly good shots, due to this very expensive technology malfunctioning.
As far as I know this is one of the first detailed analyses to be published on the issue, and I did it in the mistaken hope that Sony would refer to the results to fix what is a huge and obvious issue. They have done nothing to fix or even acknowledge the problem, and that represents a huge black mark against them as a camera company. I know of no other example of a flagship camera and lens not working together where the manufacturer has so completely washed their hands of the matter. Shame on you Sony!