Bee-Eaters BIF Field Tests with Z7, Z7 II, D850, D500, Sony A7R IV, Sony A1

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ElenaH

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As a foreword I‘d like to emphasis that the tests were undertaken on the particular copies of the equipment which can differ from your particular copies of the same equipment.
I was taking pictures of European bee-eaters during the last 3 years with different cameras and lenses. The colony is not far away from the place where I live and I was always parking on the same spot about 20m away from the nesting wall.

Tests were made using Z7, Z7 II, D850, D500, Sony A7R IV, Sony A1 cameras and 500/5.6 PF and 400/2.8 (Nikon) and 200-600mm (Sony).
(The picture above is taken with D850)

I was using Nikon cameras, Nikon 500/5.6 and Sigma 150-600. My partner was using Sony cameras and Nikon D850 with 400/2.8. We are using Auto ISO in manual mode.
My shutter speed was between 1/2500 and 1/3200 sec. But I recommend to use 1/3200-1/4000s for bee-eaters in flight if you have a professional lens like 400/2.8. I was just trying to use the maximum possible shutter speed to compensate the ISO.

The bee-eaters are flying very fast and erratic, but they have a kind of “approach procedure”. It was possible to foresee their movements. However, there were also 2-3 more skilled individuals using other flying patterns without procedures and the biggest challenge was to follow the bird with the camera and keep it in the frame.

My observation on the Nikon cameras AF Tracking and lock-on settings (a3): there is a big difference between camera+lens combinations you have.
For example, Sigma 150-600 has a slow AF and I need to set a3 to a Quick AF Response because it will not change the distance due to the slow lens-motor. Tracking with Sigma and Group-Area AF was working good. The 500/5.6 PF with Group Area AF was hunting when using mentioned settings.

I used fully automatic AF (Af Area = auto) with Nikon cameras and 500/5.6 PF. Why? Why not group or some other?

Because it was working the best. Try it! The auto AF focuses what is the closest to the camera. The algorithm is simple and because of that simplicity AF is very fast. The DoF of F5.6 would be enough to have the head of the bird in focus if the camera focused on the wing.

My partner has been using Sony cameras for 8 years. He owns Sony A7R IV and wanted to test A1. He used both Sony cameras with Sony 200-600mm. He also used D850 with 400/2.8 FL ED with and without 1.4x TC. And as I said I used Z7, D500 and borrowed Z7 II. Later I did the test with a new D850 I bought for myself.
My partner was also using AF Area Auto on Nikon and analog to that setting on Sony.

We came to the following summary (Auto AF):
  1. All mirrorless cameras have a big numbers of keepers when focusing a bird in the sky (no foliage behind) And it is also clear why: mirrorless have contrast AF algorithm. Trying to find something to focus they find a bird (an object) on the empty sky and focus it fast. DSLR struggle to keep the bird in the sky, AF is hunting, much less keepers than by mirrorless.
  1. DSLRs (Nikon) perform excellently when bird is in the front of the foliage or other background (wall). There are much more keepers by DSLR than by mirrorless. I think that is because the focusing system of DSLR has cross-sensors in the middle of the frame and they are more sensitive (or working different way) than line contrast sensors of mirrorless. So, if the bird is kept in the middle then the camera easily focuses it independently on the busy background. Remember, I use the simple Auto AF! The closest object is focused! And this is a bird! That is why background was not focused by DSLRs. The focus area of mirrorless covers almost the whole sensor and for mirrorless it is easier to focus on the background than on the fast moving birds, it doesn’t have enough time to detect the bird. The processor power and read-out are not enough for bee-eaters! (looks like)
Interestingly Sony A1 recognised the eye of bee-eater much better (high contrast!) than the eye of the harrier, especially female (low contrast!). But it didn’t track bee-eaters eye when they were flying. The bird is too fast for that. It was also struggling with a harrier in the foliage. Sony A1 was better than Sony A7R IV by focusing but not extremely better to replace the last.

Moreover Sony A1 had a very interesting phenomenon: when the files were a bit overexposed (one stop) a lot of noise was introduced and the files couldn't be recovered. It was not clear why the files sometimes were differently exposed under the same circumstances; we couldn’t explain it. But the worse was that those files were suddenly full of noise. Perhaps, it was/is just a software issue and could have been already solved. I read about the same experience by other users who solved the problem by not using Auto ISO.

In contrary the D850 over- or underexposed files are easily to recover/process and they don’t loose on quality. The better files and easier processing was a point where my partner turned back to Nikon. He mentioned that he was even more satisfied with Z7 than with Sony cameras because of consistent quality of files. Nikons were more reliable for him.

The other thing is the focusing ability of the camera or of the photographer. I think, A1 has the best AF focusing system and it was probably inability of my partner to handle the camera.

I was using Z7 II and brought that camera even to focusing bee-eaters in front of the foliage, but it was not consistent. Z7 II is better than Z7 but not much better. The birds in the sky as I said before were ca. 80% in focus by Z7 and Z7 II but in the foliage the both cameras had problems, Z7 mostly couldn’t focus and Z7 II could focus sometimes.

The focus of my D500 was hunting and produced bad results for birds in the sky. So, I even don’t use it for that with 500/5.6 PF. D500 with Sigma and group AF was better. For birds in the foliage it was very good and I was able to capture even unpredictable individuals.

The best was a brand-new D850 which was excellently focusing on birds in the sky and on birds in front of the foliage. I took more than 1000 pictures, deleted all which were not in focus and came to 78% keepers. I don’t know why there was such a difference between D850 and D500 for birds in the sky. My D500 has more than 140000 releases, it is already 6 years old and I suppose that the cross-sensors which are on the bottom of the camera are covered with dust and I don’t know how I can clean them because it is difficult to get to that place. The AF-points coverage of D500 is probably also not an advantage in all cases. I noticed that I preferred a strong middle coverage rather than a whole sensor coverage for the flying birds.

Conclusion:
We ended by using mirrorless for birds in the sky and DSLR - for birds in front of busy backgrounds with AF Auto. And it always works!
I encourage everybody to try it! Maybe you will be surprised.
Or test each AF-area with each AF lock settings on the same objects and figure out what is working best for you. When bee-eaters are not here I am using flying pillows ;-)

I will post some examples but I think, I am limited to 5 pictures in this thread.
Here Z7 II focuses on bee-eater with busy and lighted background:
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the old Z 7 focuses courtship of European bee-eaters. However, I must say that Southern Carmine Bee-eaters make more often and much better performance than their European friends (a bit of noise here and shutter speed is not really enough but you got the point ;-)
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D850 focuses even on birds flying toward the camera:
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The bird is between busy background and the plant. D850 keeps the track or it is just too slow to change the track ;-)
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I have more examples but I cannot post them in this thread (need to post in Wildlife Presentation Thread).
 

WBYonder

New member
Elena, beautiful shots and thank you for the comparison! One question: was the firmware version for the Z7 the latest update (3.40, releasd earlier this month)? Thanks again.

Rob
 

ElenaH

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Thread starter
@WBYonder , no. no, the old firmware. The bee-eaters flew away in August. I was photographing with old firmware !
I assume that Z7 new firmware makes some changes but I am afraid, that there will not be changes for eye-AF for very fast flying birds... The cameras will track the bird as a whole but not the eye. It is too fast, too much data to process. Maybe it is even possible to calculate: we need to know the read-out in second and how far in mm the bird will move in the frame (in mm on the sensor). So the speed of object moving in the frame and the speed of reading and adjusting the focus... perhaps the bird is faster than camera can read, find the eye and adjust.
 

BorderBirder

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Great post @ElenaH and I shall certainly try auto area AF for fun! Goes against perceived wisdom but your argument is interesting. Love the images especially as Bee Eaters are one of my favourite birds. I like their song that’s like an old telephone! White pillows? Egrets?
 

ElenaH

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@BorderBirder , thank you very much! Yes, try Auto Area AF! I was always thinking that this mode is for beginners and never used it. But then I considered the method of closest object and tried it. And AF copes with bee-eaters speed! I think, because it is not sofisticated like 3D, for example. I would say that 153 adn 72 points areas will work the same way but it is difficult to keep the bird inside the focus area and when it is out then camera needs to refocus...
 

FB101

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Great pictures and nice summary of your experience. As somebody who shoots D500, D850 and A1 I certainly can relate to some but not all of your findings.

first, file quality matches my own experience. Nikon files are overall easier to process. I have never encountered the noisy overexposure effect with the A1 but that might be because that camera is so easy to shoot all manual that I don’t use the auto iso much anymore. I will say, running the A1 files through DXO pure raw removes 80% of the difference and makes the A1 files mostly seamless to edit.

On the AF findings, I don’t see that much difference between my D500 and D850 - as you said, it could be a dusty AF sensor on the D500. I actually find the D500 slightly better when I combine 500pf and 1.4x TC but neither camera is great.

busy backgrounds are the doom of all mirrorless cameras as you pointed out but I find the A1 far less sensitive than others I have tried (z7ii and R5) but there can be a big difference depending on whether tracking is on or not. So I have C1 set to turn tracking on and off - if AF struggles with background or foreground (shiny reflections on water are another bane of mirror less cameras) I just turn off tracking and let the camera find an eye and latch on it. If tracking is on, the camera can get distracted and latch on the wrong thing even after finding the right subject initially.

The biggest challenge with the A1 is how customizable it is. It works very well out of the box but if you learn the effects of all the settings, it can go from good to great to amazing.
 

ElenaH

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I just turn off tracking and let the camera find an eye and latch on it
it is very interesting, I didn't come to this idea! This is like I didn't come to the idea to use Auto AF on Nikon earlier. Thank you, @FB101 and you are right in customizing of A1 !! I think one can do with that camera a lot of wrong stuff but also get it to be amazing. Exactly, what you menationed!
 

BLev65

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This is a great discussion and comparison of cameras. I appreciate that you had two people at the same time photographing similar subjects with a variety of gear. The latter allows us to read a variety of user experiences. While this is clearly not a controlled study, it is helpful to learn what a pair of users experience. As someone who recently abandoned all DSLRs for mirrorless bodies, your discussion matches what I see. Busy backgrounds challenge mirrorless cameras. The fix is to pre-focus and not use auto-subject tracking. This has been my experience with Nikon Zi and Zii series bodies. I believe that the Sony A9i/ii & A1 as well as the Canon R5/R6 handle busy backgrounds better, but I am quoting anecdotal evidence from other shooters.

Regardless,... what a great subject to have seasonally available to you!
regards,
bruce
 

fcotterill

Well-known member
Thanks for your lovely images and detailed comparisons. My experience in some aspects is similar. I say only some because I was too lazy to write down notes with different cameras (!) I shot D500 alongside D850 for 1+ years, and the D500 certainly delivered many keepers including a few BIF. But kept the D850 to consolidate a FX system. Your tests confirm beyond doubt that a bee eater colony is the ideal natural laboratory to test cameras :D

I now shoot this alongside the D5, which has much quicker response - it is much "Snappier" in almost all situations compared to the D850. I use Group mode most of the time, with Custom ability to hot-switch to Single-point. Considered overall, the D850 AF is no slouch however especially if you have trained camera handling skills for tracking tricky subjects ;) ;)

As for Auto AF mode, I began to try this seriously last year sometime after advice / feedback. In short i agree with your findings. My experience is similar - Auto-AF mode is excellent if there are not too many competing objects; so bird against open sky is ideal, especially with its front-focus priority. Going forward I have all LnsFn on all 3 telephotos set to Auto AF+AFOn. The 500 PF, 400 f2.8E and 70-200+TC14 III are my core lenses: and the latter 2 often with a TC14 III / TC2 III.

The D5 has a total of 3 GroupAF modes - Horizontal-Line and Vertical-Line as well as the standard 'diamond'. These options were probably crumbs off the table added to D5 firmware in 2018. Nikon getting feedbacks on them from testing in the wild likely helped engineers refine the C1, C2 Custom Group modes (17 options) in the D6.

All these group modes share strict front-focus priority, I often find 'normal' Group AF is often too small to track erratic subjects (eg BIF) but this probably reflect more on me! But this is where the Group HL mode can be very useful on running/flying subjects moving fast across the screen. HL is a single row (so is VL) so it helps you to grab a sharp eye if you have steady hand / tripod / monopod.
 

Hut2

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<~not a pro

I find that the A1 AF is better 100% of the time acquiring focus than my D500 and D850. I like wide or zone areas but it’s so easy to switch to something more appropriate for different situations.

I know that I have zero chance of bird eye AF on the dslr mentioned. Once the A1 grabs an eye (usually quicker than I realize it) it will hang in to it like glue.
*it’s not not perfect, not going to grab an eye from 100 yards away on a speck in the viewfinder.

I like the quality and color better on the Sony but the noise is a little cleaner on the D850 imho

Looking forward to Steve Perry setup guide. I’m sure it will be helpful to all of us much like his previous publications 😎👍
 
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ElenaH

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@BLev65 , thank you , Bruce! The bee-eaters colony is definitely a great subject to test the tracking ;-) and to sharpen the photographic skills! Hopefully, I can test Z9 some time in the future ;-)
 

ElenaH

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'normal' Group AF is often too small to track erratic subjects
so, the same for me. Moreover, you need to know on which of 4 points and where exactly the camera grabs AF... For example, mine grabs the lower point earlier than upper (regarding to the centre of a diamond) . I didn't know that D5 has HL and VL. It is very interesting and could be useful! Especially HL.... Good to know! Thank you @fcotterill
 

ElenaH

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A1 grabs an eye (usually quicker than I realize it)
yes, exactly! This will be the future of cameras: they will grab the focus before we even realize it! It is only the question of processing the data and it will be better.
The setup guide for A1 will be definitelly an asset! I think my partner couldn't simply handle the camera. There are obviously many of settings which shall be considered!
 

Hut2

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yes, exactly! This will be the future of cameras: they will grab the focus before we even realize it! It is only the question of processing the data and it will be better.
The setup guide for A1 will be definitelly an asset! I think my partner couldn't simply handle the camera. There are obviously many of settings which shall be considered!
Honestly, It takes a while to learn a new system. I am starting to think once I get fully used to this A1 and have it fully customized to my likely I will want to stick with it for a long while.
I was considering a Z9 but I see no reason now. A1 is everything I was hoping for. so, I can now focus on new lenses, technique and lots of practice. 👍
 

Wes Peterson

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Thanks for confirming that auto are af in nikon dslrs is amazing for BIF. Thats my go-to with my D5. I've mentioned on here that people overlook that mode for BIF and was told the feelings werent shared lol
 

arbitrage

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You certainly want to turn off Tracking (Real-time Tracking) on the A1 (or any Sony camera with that feature) when shooting against complicated/messy backgrounds. Just using Wide is the best. Zone if you can keep the bird in the Zone for a little more control. If tracking:Wide grabs some distracting background element it won't let go. If vanilla Wide does it often just bounces back to the bird because the bird is moving. One exception to this is if you are tracking a bird from clean background onto messy background. In that case you can sometimes use Tracking:Wide and because it is already tracking it will ignore the messy backgrounds for the most part. DSLR like D500/D850 are better at initial acquisition when bird already against messy background but A9/A1 much better at tracking from clean to messy IME.

I'm surprised you didn't find much benefit in A1 over A7RIV. I found A7RIV a terrible experience for fast/erratic BIF and the 200-600 was also a poor performer with that camera (discussed at length all over Internet forums since those two products hit the market). And that is just the AF....not to mention the blackout, laggy EVF experience with the A7RIV.

I also agree that Auto AF on D500/850 was the best mode for fast/erratic BIF. Group is great for birds you can keep it on but AutoAF was simply game changing for me for smaller, fast, erratic BIF when migrating from Canon DSLRs to Nikon D500/850.
 

FB101

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Honestly, It takes a while to learn a new system. I am starting to think once I get fully used to this A1 and have it fully customized to my likely I will want to stick with it for a long while.
I was considering a Z9 but I see no reason now. A1 is everything I was hoping for. so, I can now focus on new lenses, technique and lots of practice. 👍
I am slowly headed in that direction myself - it will be a costly proposition to replace all that nikon glass but at least I don't have a big exotic lens to swap this time. When Steve opens his buy and sell forum I'll make some happy folks around here :)
 

ElenaH

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I'm surprised you didn't find much benefit in A1 over A7RIV
Oh, it was not me, it was my partner. I was allowed just to look in EVF once. 😄 And it was not AF what bothered him but the consistency of files quality. They were inconsistent: once they were great and once bead under the same circumstances.
Very interesting what are writing about tracking on Sony, thank you for your advice, @arbitrage! And your experience using D500/D850 confirms mine.
 

ElenaH

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@Mitch56 , no I don't use BBAF. Once I wanted to switch but there was something what I couldn't use when using BBAF (I forgot what it was) and I didn't change. And now I am already so used to the shutter that I feel myself absolutely comfortable with it.
 

FB101

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that's true, @FB101 but unfortunately the majority of people in the forum are from US ... and we, from Europe, cannot benefit from it, I am afraid :-(
I do live in the US, so it's indeed a bit easier - I really never looked into what it would entail to ship outside of North-America. When I look at prices in the US and the fact that the US$ remains weaker than the Euro, it might still be worth it for people in Europe to buy in the US.
 
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