Behind the Shot: Eagle in a Snowstorm With Sony a9 III

An adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) swooping through a blizzard – 1/5000, ISO4000, f/2.8 – Sony a9 III + Sony 300mm f/2.8 GM – Homer, Alaska, USA. Photo ©Dan Carr

In the previous post in my Behind the Shot series, I talked about my first days with the Sony 300mm f/2.8 GM lens. This trip to Alaska was just as much about testing the Sony a9 III as it was about testing the 300mm f/2.8 GM, so I thought I’d make that more of a focus for today’s post, even though it also happens to be shot with the 300mm f/2.8 GM.

The Sony a9 III has much going for it, including the latest, greatest AI-powered autofocus system. This AI-driven AF was first seen on the Sony a7R V, which employed a dedicated AI processing unit to improve subject detection and tracking performance. It would be a mistake, though, to assume the a9 III’s AF system is the same as that in the a7R V. As someone who owns the a7R V for landscape photography and was never impressed by its animal tracking abilities, I can tell you that the a9 III is in a different league.

The truth is, not many people will compare the a7R V to the a9 III, though. They are very different cameras for different purposes. One is slow and delivers 65MP images, and the other is fast (as lightning) and delivers 24MP images. What’s more interesting to most is a comparison of the a9 III’s autofocus prowess to that of the Sony a1, the darling of the Sony wildlife photography community.

The a1 has been at the top of Sony’s lineup for some years, and though its AF performance is outstanding and still a match for much newer cameras from other brands, it was launched before Sony implemented an AI-powered AF processing unit in cameras like the a7R V. So, how does the a1 autofocus compare to the new a9 III? Has the king been dethroned?

After shooting my a1 side-by-side with my a9 III for a couple of months, it’s clear that the a9 III’s autofocus performance is better. It’s not in a different league from the a1, which says more about the insane performance of the 4-year-old a1 than the a9 III, but there is a noticeable difference.

When shooting wildlife, the a9 III detects and tracks subjects’ eyes much more accurately in the frame’s outer edges than the a1. Generally, you are not placing a subject in that outer area as a deliberate composition. Still, sometimes, when tracking erratic or fast-moving subjects like birds in flight, a subject might end up there for a split second. You need a camera that still holds onto the eye or the subject in that outer part of the frame, allowing you to catch up and return them to a compositionally preferable location. The a9 III is clearly better than the a1 in this regard.

Sometimes, that subject might also fly out of the frame for a brief moment. I sense that the a9 III also does a slightly better job of picking the subject back up once you get the lens back on track. Again, this is a big help for BIF photography and other fast or erratic subjects. Finally, overall subject detection in complex frames is improved. By complex frames, I mean images with a lot going on. Images with a busy background or foreground or images with a lot of other movements outside of what you are trying to capture. Case in point: Today’s photo of an eagle in a blizzard.

The eagle image in the discussion today is one of over one hundred sharp-on-the-eye images I created in less than a second as this eagle dove down from a higher flight pattern. The insane 120fps RAW burst speed of the a9 III allowed me to find many fantastic frames where no snowflakes covered the eagle’s eye. Despite the fast subject movement, low light, and complex snow-covered scene, the a9 III didn’t struggle once I dialed in the right AF settings.

What were those crucial settings? The a9 III’s AF setup is slightly different from all other currently available Sony Alpha cameras. It includes a setting called “AF Trk for Spd Chng“. Sony says, “You can select the sensitivity of AF tracking relative to changes in the moving speed of the subject in the still image shooting mode.” MENU → AF/MF (Focus) → [AF/MF] → [AF Trk for Spd Chng]. From reading the Sony help guide, you might think that a fast-moving eagle should use the “responsive” setting. However, my time shooting in this blizzard proved otherwise. Best results (by some margin) to maintain eye tracking in a snowstorm were achieved when I used the “standard” setting for this autofocus option.

Having spent 20 years shooting in snowy conditions, 10 of which were as a professional ski photographer for all the major ski brands, I have logged many hours shooting in terrible whiteout blizzards. In the DSLR days, it was often best to use manual focus in this kind of weather, but new mirrorless systems have made a vast leap in autofocus effectiveness. The a9 III is another step forward again. I hold the Nikon Z8/Z9 AF system in very high regard and love shooting with them, but even they struggled in the hands of a fellow photographer next to me on this day. The a9 III shooters in the group certainly had smiles on their faces.

Why trust me? The internet is full of garbage written by AI and people who pretend to use the photo gear they are testing. On the other hand, I get out there and do the work, as evidenced by the images I create along the way and the stories I share with my followers. If you want to support an independent creator, please consider sharing this article, subscribing to my newsletter, or purchasing through links on this page.

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Ok, One More Shot…

An adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a snowstorm – 1/5000, ISO4000, f/2.8 – Sony a9 III + Sony 300mm f/2.8 GM – Homer, Alaska, USA. Photo ©Dan Carr.

Dress Correctly or Miss the Shot

Too many people underestimate the importance of dressing correctly in the field. Time and again, I see people spending $15,000 or more on their camera setup and another $10,000 on a trip to a far-flung location, only to spend the day in distracted discomfort. You will never be on your A-game if that is your mood, and I saw it on this day with others on our trip.

I concede that you can only do so much to stay cool in certain hot climates. Bring a sun hat, wear lighter shades of clothing, and carry plenty of water. In cold locations, though, everyone has the choice to stay warm, dry, and comfortable. Sure, it might cost you as much as a couple of thousand dollars if you’re planning to spend time in genuinely Arctic conditions, but again, I’ll point you to the total cost of your camera gear and the trip you have just paid for, and the fact that good clothing will last you many years.

I’m not going to turn this quick post into a guide for dressing for a snowstorm, but do remember the basics: If you’re visiting a location where there is a chance of severe weather, you should be packing thick winter boots, thick wool socks, good-quality base layers, a breathable lightly insulated mid-layer (I prefer synthetic for this layer as it maintains warmth if you sweat into it), a thick down jacket, high-quality waterproof pants, a good pair of photography gloves and a waterproof shell. Make sure the shell is large enough to fit over your down jacket. I would consider this a bare minimum packing list for any trip to a cold climate. Don’t forget, I live in the Yukon, where winter temperatures drop to -40F (-40C), so I know something about being out in the cold!

The variables in that packing list for dealing with different severities of cold are the down layer and the photography gloves. If I’m headed to a location where I expect temperatures to be just below 32F (0C), I take thinner gloves and a thinner down jacket with less fill. Everything else on the list stays the same. If I’m headed somewhere colder than that, I take thicker gloves and a much thicker down jacket. And, yes, that down jacket retails for over $1000. But I’m toasty warm in any weather, and my mind is firmly focused on getting the shot.

This selection of layers covers me for varying temperatures, cold winds, varying physical outputs (static vs. hiking and sweating), and varying precipitation (rain, wet snow, dry snow). Comfort in the cold is worth paying for, trust me.

Photo of author
Professional photographer based in Yukon, Canada, and founder of Shutter Muse. His editorial work has been featured in publications all over the world, and his commercial clients include brands such as Nike, Apple, Adobe and Red Bull.

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