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Alpha 1: When It Comes To Autofocus, Fast is Good And Faster Is Better

It's pretty obvious why fast autofocus is important for just about every photographer. When it comes to autofocus speed, fast is good, faster is better and there's no such thing as too fast. The Sony Alpha 1 is being called the one with everything, because its tech is so strong across the board. For sports photography, photojournalism, weddings and more, the camera doesn't have any soft spots. Sony took the state of the art AF system in the Alpha 9 II and built on it to make a system in the Alpha 1 that is twice as fast. We talked with several pros to get perspective on what that allows them to do.   

Wedding photographer Kesha Lambert knows just how critical fast autofocus can be when it comes to capturing everything on a wedding day for the client. “There are multiple layers of fleeting magic that unfold on the wedding day,” she explains. “Many times the window of opportunity to capture that magic is narrow and the margin for error is low. Having an AF that I can rely on to keep up with the magic allows me to focus my energy on seeing the magic and this is key.”

A group of photographers share their perspectives on some of the tech in the new Sony Alpha 1 and how it applies to their work.

Don Smith can often be found in the great outdoors photographing everything from colorful landscapes to active wildlife. When it comes to things like birds, animals and big waves, fast autofocus is key for him to ensure he captures the subject sharply, and in frame. “AF is very important to my work and the reason up to now that I own an α9 II,” says Smith. “I still shoot wildlife and actually photograph a lot of shore birds near where I live. The cool thing with the Alpha 1 is that they added Bird Eye Focus - I can’t wait to try that! AF is also important to me when shooting big waves and surfers. Acquisition and the ability to track are huge factors. I cannot even begin to wrap my mind around the fact that the Alpha 1 will be twice as fast in regards to AF as the α9 II - that’s insane!”

To give you an idea of just how reliable Smith finds Sony’s fast autofocus system, he shares how his approach to photography has changed over the years, just as the technology has. “Until AF came out in the late 1980’s, I was a manual sports shooter - regularly shooting with 400mm and 600mm glass for both MLB and NFL games. It took me a couple of years to fully let go of my manual training and trusting the camera’s AF. The Sony AF found in the α9 II and even in the α7R IV is nothing short of miraculous. I remember talking to some of our Sony Reps at a Kando event in Oregon and I wanted to configure some buttons on my camera so I could jump back and forth from manual to AF. They all looked at me like I was crazy and asked why? The AF is so good and so reliable that it boggled them to think I may want to take over with manual focus. It made me rethink my approach also. On moving subjects, I just trust the AF as it is better than anything I could ever do manually.”

Robert Evans, who professionally photographs weddings and sports, needs to be able to focus on the moment in front of him rather than his gear. He describes how fast autofocus puts him one step ahead to deliver those memorable once-in-a-lifetime shots. “Auto Focus speed is important to me in both my wedding and sports work. As with weddings and sports, you are telling a story; whether action or emotion, the best moments from those stories, happen in the blink of an eye. Fast reliable auto-focus in my Sony cameras gives me an edge and helps me capture rewarding images for my clients.” 

Photographer Chad Wadsworth is nationally recognized for his vibrant and energetic compositions. He has a ton of experience capturing high-energy performances, and he credits Sony’s fast autofocus for the assist in getting those shots. “I can’t tell you how many disappointments I’ve had prior to shooting with the Alpha series when a musician performs a stage jump and the camera either refuses to focus properly or the frame rate can’t keep up with the action. In the photo pit, we joke about whether we “got the jump” or not. With 30fps and ultra-sticky/high-speed AF, the photographer can no longer blame their gear. I’m also excited about the higher resolution of the Alpha 1, as I’ll have enhanced flexibility to crop in on the action if my vantage point is too far away.”

The common theme here is that if you’re covering something that only happens once, you and your gear better be quick. The most important moment can happen in the blink of an eye, something sports and live event photographer Gene Lower knows well – which is why he finds fast autofocus a crucial feature to his gear. “AF is extremely important to my work covering sports and live events. Without fast AF I would not be able to capture the peak of action and keep the image tack sharp. One example of this happened during the famous 'Hail Murray' pass from Kyler Murray to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to win in the final moments in the game against the Buffalo Bills this past season. Utilizing the 100-400, I started the play on the quarterback at the full focal length of 400mm. As the play developed and the ball was launched to the back of the end zone, I quickly zoomed back to 100mm, composed the frame and let AF do it’s magic as I captured an amazing series of the play from the back of the end zone. Some say this play was the 'play of the season," and I think it certainly was for the Arizona Cardinals.”

Lower caught on early to the speed and reliability of Sony’s autofocus system, and many others have followed suit. “It has been many, many years since I opted to go with manual AF,” explains Lower, “because simply put, the technology in the Sony cameras has been that good. I often joke to my friends when using the α9 II on the sidelines of athletic events that it is virtually impossible not to get the image tack sharp. I say that not to be arrogant but rather to profess how good the camera actually is. I know my counterparts have been listening to me as well; the sidelines are flooded with Sony bodies, especially the α9 series. Even the Associated Press is now utilizing the Sony technology. This technology has kept me at the top of my game, and I know the new Alpha 1 will keep me there for years to come.”

While autofocus speed is important to capturing the moment, just as important, filmmaker David McLain explains, is the ability to control the speed so you’re tracking exactly what you want. “It's important to be able to control AF speed in filmmaking. Yes, sure, if you're shooting a racehorse you want your AF to pull focus very fast but most of the time you just want your focus to track exactly what you want it to track in a smooth and deliberate way. To me, AF is more about this subtle yet significant control. Up until the α7S III it was really hard if not impossible for AF to do this in a wide range of real-world lighting scenarios. Based on my long experience with Sony, I have no doubt the seven-step AF transition speed, five-step AF subject shift sensitivity, and real-time tracking will represent a monumental step forward in a filmmaker's ability to use autofocus in a meaningful way.” 

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