Sony’s Autofocus System: Does It Meet the Hype?

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With the advent of Sony’s mirrorless cameras, the company now offers one of the most advanced autofocusing systems on the market, with lots of different AF options depending on your subject and scenario. Multitudes of options alone won’t cut it these days, as a focusing system must be fast and accurate, and ideally be able to track a subject sharply when moving around in the frame.

This is where Sony has been focusing their efforts. One of the first to add phase-detection autofocus to their sensors, an almost full frame’s worth of AF points with lots of scene recognition modes for accurate tracking of subjects within the frame. These are coupled with fast-tracking features such as face detection, Eye-AF and Direct Manual Focus (DMF), which can be used for everything from fast action shots to landscape, portraiture and even video footage. All these features are there so that your subject will be in sharp focus every time and you can land those images that, in the past, may have passed you by. Here, we will go through which AF modes would work the best in various shooting scenarios and how they measure up.

Sony's Autofocus System: Does It Meet the Hype? 1

Fast Action

When it comes to fast action like sports or any fast-moving objects, this is where you are really reliant on your autofocus system. Because the latest Sony cameras are mirrorless designs, it means tracking of the subject, and even metering can be done far more accurately straight from the sensor. This allows Sony to incorporate more advanced object tracking systems, which ultimately means a faster reaction time for the camera to focus for any given subject.

So, we have faster autofocus and this is also coupled with 693 autofocus points with phase detection, covering 93 percent of the image. If you are never happy with the usual central spread of AF points on other systems, you really have nothing to moan about with the amount of AF points now included.

For sports and action shots, use the AF-C mode, with the Flexible Spot M and Lock-on AF focus area. Once you half-press the shutter button, the subject is automatically identified and tracked within the frame when it moves. If the subject is the nearest object or the only one in the frame, the AF system tracks extremely well. You can use this mode for more general photography for tracking your subjects with the focus area set to ‘wide’. This again tracks the best when the subject is nearest to you and there are no other distracting or moving subjects in the frame.

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Portraits and Eye Tracking

There’s a lot of information on Sony’s website about their eye tracking feature, basically saying that it can work in nearly all scenarios. With a partly hidden face, the head looking down, backlit, the subject wearing glasses, indoors or small subjects in the frame can all be tracked, which can all be captured at fast shooting rates.

Because of the large amount of AF points, your subject can be tracked anywhere in the frame with Assign Eye AF, Flexible Spot M and the AF-C focus mode. With the more automatic ‘Wide’ setting, you will definitely have more hits than misses. Eye AF works especially well for sports, such as a moving athlete. This feature sticks to your subject and is very fast and accurate.

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General Images

You can group lots of scenarios into this category from portraits, travel or candid images. Face-priority mode and even the eye tracking work very well when you just want to compose your shots and let your camera do the heavy lifting. AF-S focus mode and the central focus area when the AF is engaged can be assigned to a button when or if you need it. Essentially, you can let the camera choose the AF point for you, working best when the subject is the nearest object.

On a day-to-day level, you want to be able to handle everything from static images to fast moving objects with the ability to flip between them at a moments notice. Quite easy to do with the ‘Recall Custom Hold’ assigned to the button of your choice.

If you predominantly shoot landscapes, then manual focus is probably more your thing for dialing in all parts of a scene, but the autofocus system can still help you out. Choose an AF point in DMF mode, then use the focus magnifier to zoom into a point and dial everything in with the lens’ focus ring.

Video

Being able to use all the AF tracking facilities of stills in video mode is a major advantage, which you can now do with a mirrorless design. With precise 4K video, having the ability to track faces and any objects in the frame can be done with ‘Center Lock-on AF’ and tapping on the rear screen to choose your subject. You can choose how quickly you refocus on a different subject, with the ‘AF Track Sensitivity’ and the response can be set depending on how quickly the subject moves within the frame. The ‘AF Drive Speed’ also dictates how fast or slow one can focus, depending on how smooth you want the end results or if your subject is moving very fast within the frame.

Traditionally, you would do this manually with video, but having preset options to track subjects will give you more room to focus on the photo composition than the technicalities of the shot.

Essentially, this latest focusing technology from Sony is going to allow you to be more creative. Those images that you just couldn’t capture in the past as your camera’s AF system couldn’t keep up means they are now viable. Whether you’re shooting sports or weddings, the eye AF system is going to help in so many ways for capturing those all-important images, where cameras in the past were too slow to grab the moment.

Conclusion

Does this mean you should sell all your gear and move over to Sony? When a certain brand comes along with a chart-topping feature, it’s easy to think you should jump ship. In many ways, the competition is not far behind depending on who you use, but one of the takeaways is that it can also kick the backside of the competition to bring up their products with their next versions.

However, you can’t really fault Sony’s ability to do fast-tracking of a subject and their mirrorless line of cameras for image quality. It does instill some brand jealousy if you haven’t bought into the Sony lineup already, but Nikon and even Canon are catching up fast with their own mirrorless designs. Sony has the fastest and most accurate of the three, with arguably, Nikon and then Canon in the pecking order.

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