The Latest is Always the Best

Nikon's introduction of a halo camera with reported incredible focus performance—the Nikon Z9—reminds me that I need to further explain something that oft goes overlooked.

The Internet thrives on latest and greatest. Most of the photography sites and videos you might look at are all about generating Dollars Now! To a large degree, influencers have taken over the mainstream photography discussion, and they have very vested interests in hyping something before the truth about it starts to dilute the sales potential slightly. 

So let me start with that last bit: a new camera tends to sell best on first availability. At least in terms of the dollars that come from affiliate programs and other semi-hidden royalty programs available to Web sites and influencers. (Disclosure: none of my Web sites participate in this. My relationship with B&H is a fixed cost advertising contract that does not depend upon how many of the latest product I manage to help them sell, though I suppose if clickthroughs from my sites dropped significantly, I wouldn't be able to maintain that more distanced relationship.)

Thus, what is now happening on the Web is strong competition for eyeballs, which has lead to clickbait type headlines and exaggerated claims. Information has turned into Infotainment, with an emphasis on the entertainment side, not the information side. The camera companies haven't been oblivious to this; they see what's happening and try to take advantage of it.

The reason I bring this up has to do with exactly what Nikon promoted so heavily with the Z9 introduction, and something Sony promoted heavily with the A1 announcement: focus performance. 

Here's the thing you have to be aware of: not all cameras from the same maker have the same focus capability and performance. That seems like it should be a given, but what I keep seeing all across the net are generalizations about brand versus brand, and those blanket statements aren't going to be accurate for all models. Focus is one of those technologies that has been moving forward with every generation of camera. The original Sony A7 introduced back in 2013? Pretty dismal in focus performance compared to the current A1. But the range in focus performance of Alpha cameras over the ensuing time period is more important to understand than you might first think. And make no mistake, it's a range.

For instance, I would say from experience that the Nikon Z6 II's focus system is more reliable and in some cases faster than the Sony A7 Mark III's. That shouldn't be surprising, as the Nikon is a newer camera than the Sony. However, it is surprising to many because the general theme of Internet posts has been "Sony's AF performance is better than Nikon's." Yes, that may be true for an individual, new camera, but it isn't consistently true across all models. And let's not throw in Canon, Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic, who are on their own climb to best-possible AF performance.

Not that the Z6 II is perfect at autofocus. It has three specific liabilities that the user needs to be aware of to maximize performance: (1) the AF sensors in the viewfinder lag the actual focus; (2) above 5.5 fps you'll get more random focus performance because you can't keep the camera composed properly on moving subjects; and (3) you can't switch to a different focus mode instantly via a button, should you decide that an alternate mode would be better suited to the subject before you. But for most things, I'd prefer to have the Nikon Z6 II over the Sony A7 Mark III. For instance: the Z6 II locks onto the focus plane tighter for moving subjects than the Sony does. 

I can't speak to the just announced Z9 yet as I haven't had a real chance to use it—nor have I used a Canon R3 yet—let alone for real production work, but right now I'd tend to say that the current AF performance goes something like this minus those two new cameras:

  1. Sony A1
  2. Canon R6/R5
  3. Nikon Z6 II/Z7 II
  4. Sony A7R Mark IV

There's not a lot separating #1 from #2, then a bit of a drop-off to #3 and #4, again where there isn't a lot of separation. (My assessment is made from actual use of these cameras in a range of photography, and from diligent studying of how to extract every bit of focus performance from each. Which means: don't photograph with everything set to Auto ;~).

But where are we really? 

Well, pretty much every current mirrorless camera is as good as—and many are better than—all but the top pro DSLRs of five to ten years ago. Again, you have to study the differences and adapt to the new focus systems to extract all the performance that is possible. But if you do that, you'll find that the current mirrorless cameras provide excellent focus abilities, pretty much across the board.

So don't get too caught up in the Canon R3, Nikon Z9, and Sony A1 focus hype unless you're buying a camera at that level. If you are buying at that level, wait for the real-world evaluations from photographers who try to maximize the performance rather than listening to the quick had-the-camera-for-a-day testers who never really got past setting all-automatic. 

Looking for gear-specific information? Check out our other Web sites:
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