Sony a1 and the 200-600mm G lens – Backyard Test

The Sony a1 is by far one of, if not the best, cameras I have ever owned. I traded a lot of gear in to get the a1 and so far it has delivered nothing but stellar performance. There is a lot to like about the a1, especially the 200-600mm GM Lens.

The Sony a1 with the 200-600mm G lens
The Sony a1 with the 200-600mm G lens

I’ll admit wildlife photography was never something I put a lot of effort into. My focus is on landscape photography.  However, on a trip to Svalbard a few years ago I realized that there is some pretty cool wildlife that roams the landscape there. There are a ton of birds, as well as polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes, and whales, to name a few.   

On that last trip, I had a Sony a9 and 100-400mm lens.  The results of my shoots with wildlife there were so good, I suddenly became excited about the potential.  Even the birds I was shooting with that setup were turning out great. With the fast AF of the a9 and 100-400mm, I found I was shooting birds’ heads and not their asses as I was previously with slower auto-focusing cameras and lenses. You can read about my experience with the a9 and 100-400mm in my article, My Favorite Lens – The Sony 100-400mm GM Lens. 

Me shooting in my backyard
Me shooting in my backyard

The Sony a1 Is Announced

Once I heard the rumor and eventually the announcement about the Sony a1, I knew I needed that camera. The specs were amazing and the AF seemed to perform like magic. Sony also added Birds Eye AF along with wildlife. I have already tried the AF with wildlife as you may remember with my session with the Wolves, Sony a1 Photographing Wolves With The 200-600mm G Lens. 

I purchased the a1 and the 200-600mm with the full intention of using them on my polar workshops to Svalbard and Greenland. Wouldn’t you know — the spike in COVID cases and uncertainly of travel forced these workshops to be postponed until next year.  Damn, I so much wanted to shoot with this setup.

My Wildlife Sanctuary 

A Robin enjoying our waterfall
A Robin enjoying our waterfall

It happens that my property is a Certified Wildlife Sanctuary.  How convenient for me that my backyard is teeming with birds and many other animals. If I couldn’t go to Svalbard and Greenland, no one was going to say I couldn’t go to my own backyard.

On one of those beautiful days, I grabbed the Sony a1 and 200-600mm lens and ventured into my backyard. Wow, was I surprised at what I found.

We back up into the woods and we have a ton of different and mature trees in our yard. Our bird feeder attracts hundreds of birds. We have a small water feature in our yard that is a favorite place for birds to drink and take cooling baths.  

Setting Up The Camera

The right side of the camera. All controls are easy to reach and work.
The right side of the camera. All controls are easy to reach and work.

I opted to handhold the camera and lens.  

  • Shutter speed was set to 1000-15000/th of a second
  • The camera was in manual mode
  • Auto ISO with a low of 100 and a high cap of 25,600
  • Aperture was f/5.6 to f/11
  • Autofocus was set to CF, continuous focus
  • AF mode was set to Animal Bird Eye AF
  • I used AF mode at Tracking, medium spot.

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This setup did a number of things. First, it assured me that I had a fast-enough shutter speed to stop action. Second, the f/stop gave me just enough depth of field to keep more of the bird or animal in focus. Next, by using auto ISO, I had this as the variable that could adjust quicker than any other setting I could change and allowed me to keep my shutter speed and f/stop constant.  

The left side of the camera
The left side of the camera

The ISO performance is superb. I have shot a lot of images at ISO 25,000 plus and the noise is not bad and can always be cleaned up in Topaz Noise AI in post. The tools that are available for us these days make photography under challenging conditions possible.

The Shoot

Robin

I sat on a chair on my back deck and waited. It didn’t take long. Birds were flying onto the bird feeder (yes, I know that’s kind of cheating) but a lot of this was proof of concept on where the camera could focus on birds’ eyes.  

I followed some birds into a tree and shot them there on branches.  We also had two birdhouses, and I found activity around these too. I spent a few hours shooting and some more time the next day.  

A robin gathering some moss for a nest
A robin gathering some moss for a nest

It was a success.  The Sony a1 is lighting fast when it comes to AF as well as staying locked onto the eye of a bird. How do they do that?  At an amazing frame rate near 30 fps, I found I shot way too many images and had to work really hard to find just the right one in post-editing. Note to self: maybe I don’t need such fast frame rates.

Wood Pecker

Post Processing

I exported my images into Capture One. The newest version of Capture One has a new “preview images prior to importing” feature. I was able to eliminate a number of bad images and was able to lower the number of images imported using this feature.

In Capture One, I found that the only adjustments I was making were primarily opening shadows and toning down highlights. I used the NEW style brushes to burn and dodge in some areas to enhance the image. 

I then output my favorites to 16bit full-size prophet TIFFs. I had the program set to open these images in Photoshop. Once in Photoshop, I checked each one for sharpness, and dust spots or debris like a leaf that I could Content-Aware out of the image.

I re-saved the images I made changes to and then using the ImageProcessorPro in Photoshop sent these images to a folder for the web. I downsized the images to 2000 pixels and sRGB color at 72 PPI so I could use them on our site and in this story. If you are a silver member or gold member you can click on any images to see larger. Membership information can be found HERE.

Some Final Thoughts

My son is in the Special Forces, and I was a firefighter for many years. Over the years, we have been drilled to practice, practice, and then practice again. Every time I pick this camera up, I am practicing and learning more of what I can expect of it, but more so what I can expect from myself. I am learning to get better at anticipating birds’ behavior as well as when to trigger the shutter.  

You know I am kind of an old guy but photography is the passion that lives and burns in me every day.  Each time I go out and shoot something like this, I learn. I get better but more than anything else, I have fun. 

My recommendation is to get out there and keep your skills sharp for the time when you find yourself in the thick of things. My next goal is to use this rig and go photograph eagles and a local state park.  

Gallery Of Images


Kevin Raber
July 2021
Kevin Raber
Indianapolis, IN

Photography is my passion and has been for 47 plus years. My career in photography has allowed me to travel the world, meet some of the most interesting people on the planet and see things I could never have dreamed of. My goal is to share the passion of pictures taking through photographs and teaching with as many people as I can hoping it brings them as much joy and happiness as it has me. I do this through photoPXL.com, this site as well as Rockhopper Workshops and other projects as well as teaching at my Gallery in Indianapolis.

Article Type: News, Tutorials, Columns, MISC

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