Professional motorsport photographer Nick Dungan tests the Sony Alpha 7R II at the 6 Hours of Bahrain World Endurance Championship race
My fascination with motorsport predates my love of photography. In fact, it was my desire to get closer to car racing that inspired me to buy my first DSLR.
I loved cars and motor racing when I was growing up. My dad used to take me to British Touring Car races, and it was great watching from the pit garages and grandstands, but as I grew older I wanted to get closer. I saw the media photographers and it looked like the closest you could get to the action without driving a car. So, as soon as I could, I bought a Canon EOS 400D.
Not long after, I was at Thruxton Circuit in Hampshire watching the British Touring Car Championship and read about a competition in Amateur Photographer that one of the teams was running. As luck would have it, my favourite image of the weekend was of that team’s car, so I entered the competition and several months later got a call to say I had won.
Since then, I’ve worked to build contacts with drivers, race teams, newspapers and in turn secure accreditation for various championships – from club racing to F1. Photography became a second job to my full-time career as a designer, and consumed all my spare time and holidays. In 2012, I was awarded the Motor Sports Association (MSA) Young Photographer of the Year. That convinced me I should make photography my full-time career.
I’ve been a full-time motorsport photographer for a year, and my cameras are no longer just things I use as a hobby – they’re the tools of my trade. So ensuring they’re well maintained is vital to staying at the top of my game.
Tools of the trade
My Canon EOS-1D Mark III has been with me for five years; it was my first professional camera and the single best investment in equipment I have made. Somehow, it continues to withstand all the abuse I throw at it. Unfortunately, despite still being capable of producing great images, it has fallen behind in the ISO and megapixel race.
In search of a new camera body, the obvious choices for a motorsport photographer shooting with a Canon are the EOS-1D X or the EOS 5D Mark III. Both are great cameras, but both are due for a replacement in the near future (probably in time for the Olympics in the summer). Therefore, buying either at the moment would see me watching my new camera body lose money overnight once the new model is launched.
I was prepared to hold out until Canon launched the successors to the EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III, when both Canon and Sony launched super-high-megapixel bodies – the Canon EOS 5DS and Sony Alpha 7R II respectively.
While megapixels are not a huge concern for motorsport photography, I fill my weeks with non-motorsport clients, and that includes shooting commercial images for heavy plant manufacturers and interior photography for a furniture company. Here, the additional resolution and ability to crop a landscape image to portrait can be invaluable. On top of this, early indicators were that the Alpha 7R II produced very little noise at high ISO sensitivities and had an amazing dynamic range – both very useful features on a motorsport shoot.
Why the Alpha 7R II?
The Canon EOS 5DS would seem the logical choice for a Canon user. Unfortunately, the ISO performance is somewhat in the dark ages compared with most modern cameras. For my work, I don’t see enough benefits from this model over the much cheaper EOS 5D Mark III.
The Sony, on the other hand, has some unique features over the Canon that grabbed my attention. First, the difference in size between this mirrorless camera system and a traditional mirrored DSLR is significant. The Sony is closer in size to a compact camera than a professional DSLR. When travelling with equipment, space is at a premium, and being able to fit two Alpha 7R II bodies into the space in which you would fit one Canon EOS-1D is very appealing.
The next feature I was drawn to was the electronic viewfinder (EVF). I recently tested the Fujifilm’s X-T1 and fell in love with its small form, stunning EVF and razor-sharp lens selection. After using an EVF, returning to a camera with a traditional mirror feels like a step backwards. Unfortunately, though, the Fuji system does not offer a long focal length, fast-aperture lens that fits my needs.
Enter the Alpha 7R II. Its EVF is just as good as Fujifilm’s, but unlike the Fuji system you can use a ‘smart’ adapter to mount Canon EF lenses to it. This gets around the issue of running two camera systems.
Over the past year, I noticed an increasing number of automotive photographers switching to Sony’s Alpha 7R II, while retaining their old Canon glass and using an adapter made by Metabones (www.metabones.com) that allowed the Canon glass to behave exactly as it would on a Canon body. However, the requirements from a camera for automotive photography are quite different when compared with what you need for motorsport.
With this in mind, I started to look into the Metabones adapter. I discovered that its latest version (Mark IV) now supported the Alpha 7R II’s new on-sensor, phase-detection autofocus. Early reports seemed to suggest this significantly improved AF performance when using adapters and third-party lenses. Although Metabones does warn that not all lenses perform as they would on Canon camera bodies, it still seemed like this system had the potential to be a great solution.
After a lot of pleading with Sony (the Alpha 7R II is in serious demand), I obtained a test camera just in time for the final race of the World Endurance Championship in Bahrain. Once I had it in my hands, I set about familiarising myself with it. Having become used to Fujifilm’s X-T1 over recent months, the small size of the Sony felt familiar. I found the Sony’s slightly larger grip, and removal of the ISO and shutter dial in favour of a Canon 5D-type mode dial, easier to use. The Sony also has some of my favourite features found on the X-T1.
The dedicated exposure-compensation dial and tilting screen are not really expected on professional-level cameras, but are invaluable once you become familiar with them.
Before getting too carried away with setting up the camera, I installed the latest firmware on both the camera and the Metabones adapter. The latest Mark IV version of the Metabones adapter includes a micro USB port that allows users to perform firmware updates themselves (previously, this process required returning the unit to the factory). This reflects the speed at which Metabones is introducing updates to its equipment.
Next was the focus system. One feature on any professional camera that I could not live without is back-button focus. This option removes the focus drive from the shutter button, reassigning it to a button on the back of the body. This allows you to focus the camera using a back button, then recompose your image and take the shot without the camera attempting to refocus.
The Sony offers you the option to reassign this feature to the button in the centre of the AF/MF switch. It’s a little small, especially if you’re wearing gloves, but it is well placed and behaves as you would expect it to on a Canon or Nikon body.
Once the camera was set up, it was time to pack my bags. Despite still carrying all my Canon equipment, the small size of the Alpha 7R II allowed me to sneak it into my carry-on bag with only the slightest of rearrangements.
The Bahrain round of the World Endurance Championship is a unique race: not only is it the final round of the event, but it is also the only dusk-to-night race. For many photographers, this is a real highlight of the year. The beautiful golden sunsets and vibrant floodlit night sessions make for great photos. The 28°C temperature is also a welcome break from the cold November temperatures back home.
As one of the official photographers for the World Endurance Championship, I arrive a few days before any cars take to the track. We document the event set-up, the drivers’ preparation and any pre-event press activities.
These set-up days are one of my favourite parts of the race weekend, as they provide plenty of opportunities to shoot detail shots in the pitlane and get closer to the cars than would usually be possible during a race session itself.
My lens of choice for this is usually the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4. So I slot the Sony, Metabones adapter and Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 together and head to the pitlane. On this occasion, though, I hit a snag! The lens will not register. I ponder for a moment what can be wrong before reverting to every call centre’s favourite solution – turn it off and back on again. That fixed it!
Changing lenses with the body switched on seems to produce unreliable results. Sometimes it is fine, but other times it will not focus or register at all. In an ideal world you should always remember to turn the body off first, but in the hustle and bustle of the moment I can see how this might get overlooked.
I start by setting the camera’s flexible AF spot to medium setting. Using constant autofocus, it is snappy and grabs focus brilliantly, but perhaps lacks the pin-point precision that is useful when trying to focus on a small detail that becomes so important when shooting wide open at f/1.4. I switch down to the smallest selectable AF area, which is smaller than is possible on my EOS 5D Mark III. To my surprise, the autofocus remains accurate and fast.
I decide to push the autofocus further, swap to my 85mm f/1.8 lens and head inside one of the garages, shielding myself from the burning midday sun and stepping into the cool shade of the garage. I line up a shot using the EVF and two scroll wheels to adjust my exposure to the new lighting conditions, placing the tiny AF point at the badge on one of the Aston Martins. Again, the focus locks on perfectly.
At this point, it is time for the teams and drivers to do a track walk. This is when the drivers familiarise themselves with the circuit if they have not driven it before, or to ensure that no changes have been made since their last visit. This involves walking a complete lap – nearly 3½ miles on this circuit. This is where the size of the Alpha 7R II comes into its own. Even when used with the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, it still results in a significant weight and size reduction compared with an EOS 5D Mark III. The flip-up screen is also great for taking low-angle shots without having to lie on the ground.
This long walk does show up one weakness in the Alpha 7R II – its battery life. On my 45-min walk, I filled an entire memory card, but I nearly emptied a battery too. While the battery life is poor on the Alpha 7R II, it does have one redeeming feature – it is possible to charge the camera on the fly using a portable powerbank via the micro USB socket.
On further investigation, I also discover that turning the screen’s sleep timer to 10 seconds and turning off Sony’s built-in stabilisation helps to eke out more battery life. I do not use image stabilisation most of the time, as it tends to slow the camera, and for most motorsport images it has little benefit.
With the track walk over, I head back into the media centre to edit and send the images that I’ve shot. The first thing that grabs my attention is the relatively low number of images you get on a card, with my 32GB SDHC card holding fewer than 300. Although I am using a fairly fast SanDisk Extreme Pro Class 10, 95MB/s SD card, the download times seem much longer than I would expect from a similar speed and capacity CF card. This does slow down workflow and could be a problem when image turnaround speed is critical.
Getting the files onto the computer, I am able to have a closer look at the images the 42MP sensor produces. As you would expect, the resolution is vast, only matched by the file size (uncompressed raw files are 86MB). On close inspection, even when used with older lower-resolution glass, the quality is astounding. The details on portraits in the eyes, skin texture and eyelashes is striking. But this quality can be very unforgiving – a slight front or back focus is immediately noticeable. However, if you nail the focus the rewards are worth it.
As I move the files into Lightroom and begin to pull the highlights and shadows around, I am amazed at just how much information is in these files, particularly in the highlights where there seems to be a lot of colour, which I was not expecting. The files also seem to have a nice warmth to their tones that I haven’t seen on a modern camera since the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and EOS-1D Mark III. In the Bahrain sunshine, this gives the images a gorgeous golden tone even before processing.
One small niggle at this point is that Sony does not provide an option to change the file names, and this strikes me as a fairly basic oversight. With any luck it will be added in a future firmware update.
The next day it is time to try the camera on moving subjects. Most of the shorter glass I use in the pitlane has worked as well as I could hope, but this is the real test. I head out on track with my go-to lenses – the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 (non IS) and my EF 500mm f/4 IS Mark I. Starting with the EF 70-200mm, I try some panning. It’s not the most challenging for the camera, but good for testing the EVF blackout between frames. I was disappointed; to my eye, Fujifilm’s EVF is much faster, with a shorter blackout. This made it difficult to pan in burst mode, which is my preferred technique.
Changing my approach to taking single frames, it was easy to nail pans down to 1/50sec, while the EVF gave me constant visual verification that my exposures were spot on. It was a shame not to be able to take advantage of the Alpha 7R II’s 5fps frame rate. Although not very fast compared with some cameras, the 5fps is adequate for my uses – but only if the camera can deliver sharp focused images. So, this is a mark against the Sony.
Changing my position on the track, I pick a moderately fast head-on shot, for which I’d expect my Canon cameras to achieve more than 80% success. I fire a burst of four or five frames. Here I am shooting a higher shutter speed (1/160sec+) and the EVF blackout seems less noticeable. I review the images and find the first frame on each burst is perfectly focused, while the next three or four frames are much less reliable. Again, I adjust my technique to taking single frames and I achieve a success rate comparable to my Canon.
At this point, I’m starting to get a feel for the camera’s limitations, so I decide to try the EF 500mm lens, but I’m apprehensive about the likely success of this combination. Before leaving, I had read a warning on the Metabones website that stated: ‘Even on the Alpha 7R II, long telephoto lenses hunt more often and autofocus performance progressively deteriorates as focal length gets longer.’
Nevertheless, I attach the 500mm and pick a section of the circuit that provides a fairly easy head-on shot where the cars are doing around 80-100mph. Again, I find that the first shot in a burst tends to be significantly more successful than the following frames. However, the number of usable images, even from those first shots, is still noticeably lower than I would expect from my Canon cameras.
On inspection, the images also seemed to display a level of noise that I would not expect from this camera at low ISO sensitivities. I can only put this down to some kind of compatibility issue when using the 500mm with the Metabones adapter. Having said that, the focused images were perfectly usable – even if they didn’t do the 42MP sensor justice.
During this process of shooting and reviewing images, I find myself becoming frustrated with the camera’s processing and preview times. Clearly, the 86MB files take some processing power to view. But the time it takes to generate a 100% preview or switch between images could be 10 seconds, if the camera is saving to card.
I start to wonder if the Alpha 7R II has a place in my kit bag. It was never going to be a direct replacement for the EOS 5D Mark III or EOS-1D X, but it brings features to the table that these cameras do not have.
I love the Alpha 7R II’s size and weight (599g with batteries). The resolution, dynamic range and quality of the raw files means you can easily use it for commercial work. The less imposing size seems to make people less intimidated by your camera, while some question whether it is a ‘professional’ model.
The autofocus is very good on short focal-length lenses and even on shorter telephotos. However, it simply isn’t up to scratch on the long telephoto lenses. Yet this is nothing for Sony to be ashamed of, as ultimately this is all working through a third-party adapter and, frankly, the fact that it works to a half-decent standard at all is impressive.
However, this camera will be used daily, in all conditions, so I must also consider some of the strange behaviour the adapter caused when changing lenses. I also wonder how well the system would cope in poor weather conditions as the Metabones has no weather sealing.
Given all these concerns, though, I am left thinking about the Alpha 7R II’s EVF. While it isn’t perfect – the lag between frames makes it hard to work with when shooting bursts of images – it is brilliant. Being able to watch your exposure in tricky lighting conditions, and getting to see the image that will be delivered when you press the shutter, are such great benefits that I really became attached to this camera for portrait and detailed pitlane work. I would seriously consider adding the Sony Alpha 7R II to my camera bag.