Mirrorless Night Action

Mirrorless Night Action

I hope that wasn't a misleading title; I'll blame it on my SEO optimizer. If you are looking for something other than sports photography, and if this photo doesn't interest you in the slightest, feel free to move on...

Face-off. How the game starts. Sony A7R3 with Nikon 300 f/4 Fresnel, shot at 1/500 sec and ISO 12800. Yes, 12800.

Until recently, "night sports" and "mirrorless cameras" was almost an oxymoron, except for parents huddled under their umbrellas snapping shots of Jack and Jackie from the extended pencil lenses of their pocket cameras.  Within the past year, Sony has released three mirrorless cameras that pretty much close the gap between "DSLR" and "Mirrorless" regarding action photography in general, and more specifically night sports.

  • A9: 24 megapixels, 20 frames per second, $4,500.

  • A7R3: 43 megapixels, 10 frames per second, $3,000.

  • A73: 24 megapixels, 10 frames per second, $2,000.

All three cameras feature 'live' viewing through the electronic viewfinder, so you can continue to shoot - and see what you're shooting - while the buffer passes your photostream over to the SD card.  All three offer a joystick button for moving the focus pointer around the screen. And the latest two offer a touch screen interface so you can move the focus pointer with your finger or thumb, even when the camera is up against your face. 

For me, the A7R3 is the ideal choice because of its massive megapixels which allows me the comfort of cropping. Plus, I only shoot action sports six months out of the year.  And 10 fps is fast enough for most action sports; up until just a few years ago 10 fps was the holy grail and somehow the NFL, NBA, MLB and FIFA survived just fine without more.

The question for 2018 is lenses.  Sony still doesn't have any prime tele's like the 300 and 400 f/2.8 that are staples of pro sports.  The only options for primes are third party primes with adaptors. For zooms, it's pretty much the 100-400 f/4./5.6.  

I took a few of these options out into the pelting rains of Seattle's spring sports scene, to get some night shots of the "fastest sport on two feet", lacrosse. These were the Zeiss Batis 2.8/135, Nikon 300 f/4 PF, and Sony 100-400 GM. Shooting 90 mph shots on goal without the advantage of a wind-up requires both anticipation and an extremely fast focus.

Zeiss Batis 2.8/135

Fingertip balance

This is the longest prime tele that is native to FE mount. Yea I know, right?  It's a gorgeous portrait lens but it can be 'converted' to a 200mm lens if you shoot using APS-C settings.  If you already own one, and have a second body to shoot with simultaneously, it can work well for shorter focal length needs.

Batis 135 @ APSC setting, 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 5000

Batis 135 @ APSC setting, 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 5000

The first night I was shooting with the Nikon 300mm on my Nikon D800, so I thought I'd try the Batis 135 on my Sony, set to APSC. This affectively 'increases' the tele to about 200mm but decreases the resolution to 18mp.  Still, it was handy to grab this camera when the action got too close for the 300mm.  I love the creamy backgrounds of this portrait lens and it was quick to focus - though sometimes the focus would 'hunt' with quickly moving object.

Incidentally, and this may be a comment on how quickly technology changes, there is absolutely no comparison in low light image quality between my 'old' Nikon D800 with 36mp, and my Sony A7R3 with 43 mp.  The Sony has at least a 3 stop ISO advantage, meaning I can get better pictures with the Sony at ISO 10000 than I can with the Nikon at 6400. And even at those two settings the photo quality of the Sony just seems so much better. Entirely subjective, of course. And yes there is a reason why I'm keeping my Nikon glass.

Shooting at 10 frames per second, it is also very easy to catch motion:


Nikon 300mm f/4 "Fresnal"

Lens and body, hand-held.

Small. Light. Prime. Sharp.  I just love this lens and I've written about it before.  Here's a gallery of my favorite shots with this lens.   The great thing about the  "300F", as I call it, is how perfectly it fits the form factor of the Sony Alpha series cameras: you can hold the camera, with lens attached, in one hand.  I used it last year with a rented A9 for the Washington State Lacrosse  Championships, and just loved it; it outperformed a Canon 300 f/2.8 on the same body. But now that I own the A7R3, and now that it's lacrosse season again, I've been able to spend a bit more time with the pair.


This body/lens combination is so light, I can run up and down the side of the field all night, whereas those guys with their giant DSRL's and pro glass are stuck to their monopods tri-fold stools, and yes maybe they will get a few keepers but I'll be able to document the entire game, from both ends of the field. Well, that's the theory.

The Vello Nikon F to Sony E-Mount auto-focus adaptor is much maligned but when it is working, the focus is crisp and fast.  And it works better on the 300 Fresnal then on other Nikon lenses, including the 70-200 f/2.8 VRII, which I've stopped using for field sports because it just doesn't have the reach.  But the adaptor does have a few issues.  I have to keep tightening the screws on the flange, otherwise it will stop working. And sometimes it freezes anyhow, even when I'm using it. The work-around is to switch to another shutter mode, then back again.  This performs a reset better than if you turn the camera off and back on (I don't know why).  If that doesn't work, turn the camera off, pull out the battery, pop it back in, turn it back on. That also works better than turning the camera off and back on (still don't know why - but trust me, it works). 

Two other nigglies:

  1. Auto focus only works when the focus selector is in the middle of the screen. So I use two different settings, either "Focus Area Center" or "Lock-On AF: Center". Try both. (Note this may have been 'fixed' in the latest Vello version 6).

  2. Continuous Focus AF-C only works up to the "High" settings, which as far as I can tell is roughly 6 fps. So if you use "High+" then be sure you are tracking the subject laterally.

With that said, this lens works great at night and can be used without a monopod on most well-lit fields:

Sony 100-400 GM

This lens weighs a few ounces less the 70-200, but has double the reach.  It is an ideal zoom range for field use because you rarely need anything below 100 and rarely above 400.  The weight and form factor are definitely out of balance with the A7 series bodies, so a supplemental grip might make sense. 

1/1000 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 4000. Zoomed to 300mm - my favorite focal length.

1/1000 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 4000. Zoomed to 300mm - my favorite focal length.

In short, I absolutely love this lens. It is extremely fast to focus, has a surprisingly low percentage of out-of-focus pictures even with tracking on, and the stabilization works great.  I did start to notice the limitations of 5.6 about an hour after the sun set, but nothing that a monopod couldn't cure (these photos were all shot hand-held).

The lens is sharp, is resolves beautifully, and the bokeh is very nice. At 5.6 I can get excellent subject-to-backgorund separation as long as the subject is on the half of the field closer to me. 

High Keeper Rate

I was impressed with the high number of photos I got that were 'keepers'.   The game that I shot at dusk had 900 photos (this was only half a game), 700 of which were in crisp focus, 150 were keepers, and 75 worthy of publishing as a game gallery for parents to purchase prints and contribute to their favorite charity.   In the past, typically I only have about 40 gallery photos per game even for daytime games.

Depth of Field at f/5.6

It's not great but here's what you can and cannot achieve with this lens. In the first photo, the players are on the other side of the field and it's difficult to separate them from those on the sidelines, even though there is about 15 yards of separation. An f/2.8 lens would have made the players pop.

315mm, 1/1000 sec f/5.6 @ ISO 1000

315mm, 1/1000 sec f/5.6 @ ISO 1000

In this next photo, the players are about midway across the field, i.e. closer to me. At f/5.6 the people on the other side of the field literally fade away, even at f/5.6.  

260mm. 1/1000 sec, f/5.6 @ ISO 500

260mm. 1/1000 sec, f/5.6 @ ISO 500

Tracking Fun

Most of the time, the lens tracked very well. I tried the various continuous focus settings and found that AF-C with Lock-on AF Center was, by far,  the best.  Why? With AF Center you always know where you can start the focus tracking; there's no need to move the pointer artificially to one side or the other, only to have to reset it with the next positional move.  Place the action in the center, start focus, and it tracks the movement as the subject moves away (as you move the camera away) from the center.  Watch carefully; if the subject goes "off track" then you can easily and quickly regain focus simply by removing your finger from the focus action button then placing it back on. Just a quick tap, really. Using this method, I had over 85% keepers - and in focus.  Typically this included a fair amount of lateral movement.

Occasionally, the tracking would go 'off' and if I wasn't paying attention, it would then find something else to focus on, before returning to the subject.  This did not happen often but this next series shows what it looked like. And it did happen a bit more frequently as dusk turned to darkness. These four photos were all taken within the same one second, as I zoomed out from 280 to 190mm.

Frame a: in focus; b: focus on background; c: nothing in focus; d: subject back in focus

Adjust Your Focus Point Size

Lacrosse is a fast sport and the best players have perfected their unpredictable moves.  Even at the high school level, it's common to see shots on goal exceeding 90mph and sometimes 100mph.  This doesn't give the goalie much time to react when the shooter is only 20 yards out. Still, as a goalie, if you can anticipate the shot, and if you are good, you have a 50% chance of stopping it.  As a shooter, it's important not to telegraph your shot.  Some kids wind up before shooting but the really good ones have shot - and scored - before goalie even knew they were in position.  For photographers, this means you don't have much time to get the focus. And it really, really helps to know the player and what his 'tricks' and 'tendencies' are.  As a result, my own photos tend to be hit or miss at the beginning of the season but by the end, I can usually catch even the good shooters on the best teams that I've shot a few times. If I have fast focus.

This photo shows a shooter from last year's State Champion team. I got myself into position in time, but the focus caught player #14 instead, even though 14 was not in the center of my screen.  This is probably because I was using a wide focus point size. Sometimes it helps to use a much smaller focus point. It also helps to have your finger ready to release then re-engage focus. But in this case, it all happened much too quickly.



Zoom Distribution

I did a not-so-quick calculation of the 900 photos I took during one game.  The weighted average of focal lengths was 200mm, with 25% of my shots at 100mm, 10% at 400mm and the rest of them evenly distributed between the two. I don't recall 'needing' to go below 100; that just seemed to be an optimum starting point.

Night Action Settings for your A7R3 / A73 / A9

So here is what I use. But don't blame me if your photos don't turn out!. By the way you can put most of these onto your Function Button so that you can make changes on the fly, even without moving your eye from the EVF.

  • Drive Mode > Hi or Hi+

  • Focus Mode > AF-C

  • Focus Area > Lock-on AF Center

  • ISO AUTO Min. SS > 1/500 or 1/1000

  • Metering Mode > Multi

  • Steady Shot Adjust > On (but off with Monopod)

  • Zebra Display > On with strong field lights

  • Silent Shooting > Off

  • File Format > Compressed RAW


I live on an island. The ferry ride home after a game is always nice, even in bad weather.  A few shots with the  100-400.