The Sony α9’s Firmware version 5.0 adds AI-driven Real-time Tracking mode for precise subject tracking and introduces Real-time Eye AF, building on Sony’s industry-leading continuous-tracking Eye Autofocus. To learn more about how it works in a real shooting situation, we connected with Pulitzer-prize winning photographer and Sony Artisan of Imagery, Brian Smith. Smith had a chance to use the new firmware prior to its official introduction and he was able to try it out in some challenging situations. Smith is well-known for his dynamic editorial portraits and he took us through some of the significant benefits the new firmware has for his work.
“These new auto-focus features with this Firmware 5.0 upgrade essentially turn the camera into the next generation of α9.”
“In terms of Eye-AF, this update is a huge step forward,” says Smith. “Continuous Eye-AF is great and I’ve gotten used to activating it by pressing a custom button. With the update the camera first searches for the face and to the subject's eye in real time, which is incredible for portraits. The Eye-AF speed seems to keep getting better with every generation, which typically you talk about with a hardware update. These new auto-focus features with this Firmware 5.0 upgrade essentially turn the camera into the next generation of α9.”
Smith notes how the reliable tracking with Eye-AF enables him to work loose and free, and gives freedom to the subject as well. “I've used many fast aperture lenses over the years,” Smith explains, “but if the AF doesn’t keep up with the subject's movement instantaneously, those fast lenses don’t work for portraits. You can end up with images where the subject laughs or moves forward, and maybe you've got the perfect expression, but you missed focus. Not having to think about focus allows you to concentrate 100% on the subject. That's a huge advantage for a portrait photographer in the moment.”
Smith also remarked that beyond the technology in Firmware version 5.0, the usability—actually putting the tech to use while shooting—is intuitive. “A new feature that portrait photographers will want to know about is that enhanced Eye-AF no longer requires pressing a custom button to activate. Instead, I changed the custom button setting to allow me to select the eye that I want. In general the camera is extremely intuitive and it did an outstanding job of picking the near eye with the auto setting if the subject was facing at a 45-degree angle. But if I wanted to lock that down, I could quickly select which eye I wanted to track. I now use the Focus Hold button to select between auto eye selection or choose the left or right eye. This is very useful if you’re in a situation where your subject is only facing one direction. In many other situations, I generally select auto in case my subject turns and the opposite eye is closer.”
Shallow depth of field creates a very popular look, but it’s not appropriate for all portraits. Smith, who frequently shoots environmental portraits that demand more depth of field found another welcome addition to the Firmware version 5.0 feature set when he’s working at smaller apertures. “Another exciting thing about the update is that face detection and auto-focus now work all the way to f/16. The α9 already had it to f/11, but being able to extend that out another stop is a big plus.”