We recently ranked the Sony a7R III as the best mirrorless camera, ever.
So, we’re giving the camera the attention that it deserves. You can see our video review here and how it rates against its predecessor in our Sony a7R III vs Sony a7R II: Features Compared article here. But we’re not done yet.
We really wanted to see just how good the Sony a7R III is for action photography, such as sports and wildlife.
On paper, the Sony a7R III is more rounded than its high-resolution predecessor – the Sony a7R II – and should excel in all types of photography. You’ve still got that 42.4-million-pixel full-frame sensor, but now with a vastly improved autofocus system, better handling and burst shooting up to 10fps.
We already know how good the a7R II is for landscape and studio photography and the same is a given for the a7R III (plus its dynamic range is even better). But can the a7R III also do the business for action?
Then we got the chance with Sony to use the a7R III at the London Olympic swimming pool for photographing professional divers and swimmers in action. We also had our hands on the Sony a9 at the same time, which has made for an interesting comparison.
Can the a7R III be called a true all-rounder? Does its performance match the impressive specification? Here’s how we got on.
Sony a7R III: Burst shooting
The Sony a7R III has a maximum 10fps burst shooting, with full-time AF and metering maintained. This is double the rate that the a7R II gives.
When shooting at that speed, the a7R III is able to keep going for up to 76 JPEG images or 28 raw images, which is 3x the amount of the a7R II. We were able to capture a swimmer without stopping during an entire length across the width of the pool.
Impressively, those high-speed sequences are available when using the mechanical and silent shutter. A silent shutter won’t disturb your subjects like a noisy mechanical one.
While the improvement is clear over the a7R II, the a7R III is not a patch on the Sony a9. The a9 can shoot up to 20fps with full-time AF for up to 362 JPEGs or 241 raws.
How many frames-per-second are needed for sports photography? Well, professional sports photographers will know if 10fps is enough for them. We’ve shot a lot of action photography down the years and in general, 10fps will cover most scenarios. Certainly, in the pool, we got the money shot quickly enough.
Sony a7R III: Processor
In reality, a big part of how good a camera is for action is how quick it is to be ready to shoot at full capacity again, following a burst shooting sequence.
It’s all very well to match the claimed burst shooting rates, but if the camera’s processing of those images is not up to scratch, you’ll find yourself missing lots of moments while the camera is out of action.
In the past, we have been left a little disappointed with how slow Sony mirrorless cameras are to process (buffer) high-speed burst shooting sequences and then be ready to shoot at full capacity again.
We think that the most recent generation of Sony mirrorless cameras; the a9, a7R III, a6500 and RX10 IV are the ablest to back up those impressive shooting numbers, with the right performance to boot.
Waiting time after a burst shooting sequence is minimal. The camera can be navigated, most recent images viewed and the number of images left to process is displayed, all while the sequence continues to be buffered. Everything feels responsive. It’s really impressive, given these are 42.4MP image sequences being processed.
Again, on processing power, the a9 feels more responsive than the a7R III. Thanks to its stacked sensor with a dedicated processor, it’s ready to go again that much sooner (plus its images are ‘only’ 24.2MP).
Our impressions of the a7R III are highly positive though, its processing power will not disappoint the majority of users.
Sony a7R III: Autofocus
Sony has made great strides in the autofocusing prowess of the 7R III, which is claimed to be twice as fast as the a7R II. Regardless of the improvement, in its own right how does the a7R III stand up to the task?
Of course, there are multiple factors to consider when analysing autofocus performance, including lens choice, AF mode choice, subject distance, how clean the background is, the strength of ambient light and so on.
As mentioned, the ‘correct’ AF mode does help increase your hit ratio of sharp shots. It is easier to make the right choice of AF mode for any given situation the more you use the camera. After using Zone, Wide and Flexible Spot focusing, we landed on Expand Flexible Spot which proved to be the most versatile and accurate.
Expand Flexible Spot is a good mode to start from and works well with the AF joystick for quick adjustments to the preferred focus area.
During our test, we were indoors in fairly low-contrast light and tracking subjects with a relatively clean background. We tracked the fast movement of divers from a 10m board, a swimmer who disappeared and reappeared quickly with every butterfly stroke and also from an underwater viewing point for when divers entered the pool.
These were good tests of the autofocusing prowess and we have been impressed in each situation. With divers at a level field to the camera during their action, all pictures in a sequence are sharp once the focus has been acquired.
The swimmer rapidly coming towards the camera while disappearing and reappearing in the water during every stroke provided a sterner test. It is doubly important to choose the correct autofocus mode in such a situation. Focusing seems to be a little more responsive, reliable and accurate when the subject is at a greater distance, say great than 10m.
On occasion, the a7R III seems distracted by background subjects and shifts focus completely. It’s not always a problem but it did happen on a few occasions. At closer distances, there were sections of the swim that the camera did not pick up a focus at all. Generally, when it did acquire a focus, all images during that swim stroke were sharp.
In general, with the a7R III set up correctly, we would expect it to focus sharply for the majority of images, save for a few jumps to background subjects and missing some subjects moving quickly towards and close to the camera.
The focusing system of the a9 was a little more responsive in the tougher tests.
A side note; with Eye AF activated, we have tack sharp portraits from when asking our athletic subjects to pose for us. We wouldn’t expect focusing issues when taking portraits.
Sony a7R III: Handling
Like the a9, the a7R III has an AF joystick. It is a really useful control for quickly selecting an AF point. The joystick feels great and has the right level of responsiveness. You also get the same AF On button as found in the a9.
Sports photographers take a lot of pictures. Again, another feature inherited from the a9 is the new NP-FZ100 battery. This new battery unit has around twice the capacity of the previous battery type used by Sony, giving 650-single shots from a full charge. Battery life is still not up to DSLR standard, but the gap is closing.
When using Sony’s long telephoto lenses that get you close to the action, we would recommend the optional grip in order to get a better balance. The a7R III feels too small and the combination front heavy otherwise. Of course, the added benefit with the grip is that you can double the battery life.
A genuinely useful feature for action photography – and indeed any type of photography – is the My Menu. Through My Menu it is possible to create your own set of controls for quick access. The menus in Sony mirrorless cameras are notoriously complicated, so My Menu is perfect for getting access to those favourite controls quickly – an invaluable feature for action photography where time is not a luxury.
Sony a7R III for sports: Conclusion
We can happily say that the reality of the a7R III is that it’s performance backs up those impressive numbers. 42.4-million-pixel image sequences at 10fps with quick processing time and a generally reliable autofocusing for the majority of most sequences. Yes please!
Add the silent shutter for the discreet shooting of your subjects and we would have no hesitation to recommend the a7R III for sports photography (plus weddings and wildlife). If you make a living out of sports photography, we think the a9 is a much better option – but for most folk the a7R III will be more than enough.