Sony a6400 for birds in flight

Sony a6400 for birds in flight

What is the actual performance of Sony a6400 for birds in flight? The Sony A6400 and A6600 have been described by some as mini A9 cameras, inheriting many aspects of that camera’s advanced autofocus system. They also have the advantage of a crop sensor which gives you extra reach when shooting birds in flight. The A6400 in particular is also (unusually from Sony) an absolute bargain. What could be better? Lets look at it in detail.

Background

Given the shortcomings of the 1.4 teleconverter and 200-6- f5.6-6.3 zoom lens with the A9 camera, and the complete disaster of the A7R4, the A6400 was the only remaining Sony option to provide reach beyond 600mm for birds in flight. I spent 9 months with this camera trying multiple setups to get an acceptable focus hit rate. Sadly I was unsuccessful and sold it (along with my A7R4 and 200-600) in November of the same year.

Setup and test locations

Sony a6400 for birds in flight

I tried multiple autofocus setups, from the Mark Smith A9 setup, to full focus tracking, and use of the camera with the Olympus EE-1 dot sight. For all of those I ran my customary settings of 1/2000 shutter speed, with the lens wide open, and auto ISO set. I used exposure compensation and the Sony zebra blinkies to get the exposure reasonably correct on the bird. With these settings I took over 10,000 shots, and measured the focus accuracy over 3400 of these in 7 separate sessions, both at a local wildlife reserve (Richmond Park pen ponds, near London, UK) and at The Hawk Conservancy Trust (HCT) raptor centre in Andover, UK.

Sony a6400 for birds in flight – focus accuracy

The table below shows the details for all 7 sessions where I did the detailed image analysis. Over 3500 shots the camera averaged a focus accuracy of 35%. On some days, it could reach 60, but in general the performance was very average.

DateLocationNotesTotal shotsIn focus%
30/07/2020Andover1252218%
08/07/2020Andover45311425%
22/08/2020Andover62018330%
12/09/2020Andover69834249%
20/09/2020Pen Ponds68010315%
22/09/2020Pen PondsDot sight50621643%
24/09/2020Pen Ponds35921460%
3441119435%

You can see examples of the way the A6400 and the 200-600 fail to get focus at this link. I have over 2000 other examples like this of the A6400 failing, and they are remarkably similar to the way the A7R4, the A9 and the A7R3 fail to get focus also.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed with the focus accuracy of the Sony a6400 for birds in flight, particularly since Mirrorless Comparisons had given it a very high focus accuracy score. I have explained why I think this disparity exists at this link, but the short answer is that I think my test scenarios were much more challenging than those of Mattieu at the MC site. Some might put this down to poor quality shooting also, but take a look at these tests of the A9 focus accuracy, and then tell me either my methodology or shot accuracy is lacking.

Noise and Dynamic range

The noise and dynamic range of the A6400 and the A6600 on paper are pretty much identical to that of the Nikon D500, and Olympus Em1ii, EM1iii, and EM1x. In practice I found the images from the A6400 to be very noisy and with poor shadow recovery, particularly compared to the Olympus cameras.

Battery life

Sony a6400 for birds in flight

The A6400 uses a variant of the original Sony NP FW50 battery which goes back to the 2012 Nex 5 and 6 cameras. It was pretty cr*p then and it still is today. The camera chews through them at a rate of knots, particularly for birds in flight. Fortunately I have a stock of 8 of these from prior Sony systems, so was able to swap batteries out as needed. The more expensive A6600 uses the far better battery of the A7Riii/iv and A9, but neither camera has a proper battery grip as we will see in the next section.

Battery grip

Sony a6400 for birds in flight

The A6400 is a very small camera with minimal built-in grip and is absolutely dwarfed by the 200-600 lens. Just for manoeuvrability a battery grip is needed, preferably with vertical as well as horizontal orientation. Sony don’t make one, and no easy provision is made for 3rd parties to provide one. It is possible to obtain an ersatz grip, but they have the following problems:

  • The sole A6400/A6600 SD card is in the battery compartment. To get access to the card the entire grip must be removed again
  • No 3rd party grip seats correctly on the A6400 body, so the grip flexes and moves
  • An extremely clumsy extra cable is required for vertical grip use.

It’s the most horrible grip I have used in any camera and contributes to the miserable BIF shooting experience of the A6400.

Viewfinder

Sony a6400 for birds in flight

The A6400 ostensibly has a 2.36M-dot electronic viewfinder, the same resolution as the Olympus Pro cameras. However Sony have to contrived to make this a rather poor viewing experience. As you can see from the image to the left, the viewfinder aperture is very small, and you almost have to squint to see though it. Of all the features that made me sell the A6400, it is this viewfinder that is at the top of the list. It makes the shooting experience very frustrating , and is several worlds away from the superb viewfinder ergonomics of the Olympus or Nikon cameras.

Controls

One of the factors that leads to the poor overall usability of the A6400 are the camera controls. I actually don’t have a problem with the Sony menu system, or the button layout. The fact that the menu system is almost identical in layout and function to the A9 is a huge benefit.

The main issue is that there is only one control wheel. The vertical wheel around the multifunction selector on the back plate can ben pressed into service, but it is in the wrong place for accurate control. For my kind of shooting, I need to quickly change the exposure compensation. The sole (rear) control wheel can be set to this capability, but only after complex setup, and must be activated by first pressing a function button. Given this setting is lost every time the camera switches off, the whole thing is a total pain in the backside.

Exposure Compensation.

As I explain here, I like to get the bird exposed correctly and where possible, exposed to the right (ETTR) to minimise the shadow recovery needed. For that I need to be able to rapidly spin the exposure compensation dial, and assess the exposure by the over/under exposure zebras. On the A6400, the rear control dial is stiff and can not be easily spun. Moreover, the Sony overexposure zebras are very intrusive, so that you cannot see the subject clearly, and this makes subject framing very difficult. This is true for the A9 and the A6400. The Olympus system is a great deal better for this than the Sony controls. Many things add up to the A6400 being such a disappointment, but this for me was the greatest factor along with the viewfinder.

Conclusion

The Sony a6400 for birds in flight is such a frustrating story. The camera on paper has the potential to be a superb birding tool, providing extra reach and excellent focus accuracy. In practice, it is ergonomically the most miserable piece of photographic equipment I have ever used, and I have used some real clunkers in my time. In addition it is noisy, and has below average focus accuracy for birds in flight for the conditions I shoot in. It represented my last chance to get decent range on top of the A9, and when it proved to be a complete bust, I sold every piece of Sony equipment I owned (for the second time in 8 years).

Despite the wishes of many wildlife photographers including me, I don’t think Sony will ever create an APSC equivalent of the D500 or the 7D mark ii. They will continue to cynically milk the APSC market with zero new investment, and keep their attention focussed on the much more lucrative full frame space. And that is a shame.

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