The Sony A7R II is a superb camera in many ways, but it’s not the natural choice for shooting sport. Sony’s A9, however, has been developed with professional sports photographers in mind and it demonstrates how much Sony has developed its mirrorless cameras’ autofocus capability. The is good news for the new A7R III as it has a lot in common with the pro-level camera.
So when I was invited to the Olympic Aquatics Centre to photograph swimming and diving with the Sony A7R III, I leapt at the opportunity to put the camera through its paces and see how it shapes up as a sports camera.
Like the A7R II, the A7R III has a 42.4Mp sensor, but unlike the camera it replaces, it’s capable of shooting at up to 10fps (frames per second) with continuous autofocusing. What’s more, it can do that completely silently if you choose.
Like other Sony mirrorless cameras, the A7R III has a collection of autofocus modes including Wide, Zone, Centre, Flexible Spot, Expand Flexible Spot and Lock-on AF. During my time at the Aquatics Centre, I concentrated on using Flexible Spot, Expand Flexible Spot and Lock-on AF with the focusing set to continuous.
In Flexible Spot mode, you can select a small area for focusing and the camera will attempt to focus on the target under that area. Expand Flexible Spot is similar, but if the camera can’t focus on the single point that’s been selected it will defer to the surrounding points in the group.
When Lock-on AF mode is activated, you can set the starting point for the focusing and the camera attempts to track the subject as it moves around the frame.
The starting point for Lock-on AF mode can be set to Zone, Flexible Spot or Expand Flexible Spot so you can select a relatively large or small area. Once the shutter release is half-pressed, the camera starts to focus the lens and draws a green box around the subject it has identified. This box may vary in size and aspect ratio depending on the scene/subject and it moves around the image frame with the subject.
Lock-on AF Mode
Lock-on AF mode keeps things simple because it puts the camera in charge of tracking the subject and you just need to try to keep it in the imaging frame. I found it was quite a good choice when shooting diving with a long lens like the Sony FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS and on most occasions, it managed to correctly identify the subject and follow it from the board into the water.
I had mixed success using Lock-on AF mode when photographing a swimmer coming towards me in the water. When he ducked below the water the camera sometimes hunted for a subject and might latch onto the water above him, or occasionally something a bit further afield. When it was on the water above him it would quickly pick him up again when he resurfaced, but if it was focused at another point, there was nothing to interrupt its view to trigger the refocusing. On those occasions, it was a case of starting again with the point selection.
Flexible Spot Mode
Flexible Spot mode proved a good choice for photographing a swimmer as his steady movement in a predictable path was easy to follow in the viewfinder and I was usually successful at keeping the active point in the right area.
Occasionally the focus system hunted a little when he was below the water and I was shooting from above, but when he resurfaced it latched-on quickly so he was rendered sharp.
Flexible Spot mode is the least forgiving of the options when it comes to framing your subject, you have to keep the active point over the right part of the scene. This is incredibly tricky with diving, especially when the divers keep changing their dives so you don’t know what route they’re going to take into the water. And of course, everything happens in a flash.
However, when the active point is on the right part of the scene, the camera gets it sharp and I had some success with Flexible Spot mode when shooting the divers.
Expanded Flexible Spot
Expanded Flexible Spot proved a good default setting for shooting swimming and diving. It allows you to set the starting point but gives a bit more latitude than Flexible Spot for framing. If the subject moves a bit faster or slower than you expect, or it moves a little away from its expected path, the camera uses the surrounding points to get it sharp.
Can you shoot sport with the Sony A7R III?
I’m planning on doing a lot more shooting with the Sony A7R III in the very near future, but my experience with it at the Aquatics Centre indicates that it’s a versatile beast. Its high-resolution sensor allows it to capture lots of detail, but it has a fast, accurate AF system that makes shooting sport comparatively easy.
The tricky part with shooting sport with the A7R III is determining which AF mode to use. I’d recommend starting with Lock-on AF first to see how that fares. If it delivers what you want, great, but if it doesn’t, try Expanded Flexible Spot.
The images seen here are from my time at the Olympic Aquatics Centre and are straight from the camera apart from resizing. Follow this link to browse and download full-resolution images