Hands On with Sony a7 III / a7R III Firmware 3.00 -- Real-Time Eye AF, Animal Eye AF, & Time Lapses!
When Sony dropped their Firmware 3.00 Update for their a7 III and a7R III bodies, they naturally got all Sony users and devotees all sorts of amped up. Who wouldn't be? This update doesn't only offer Real-Time Eye AF in AF continuous mode, but it also adds the Animal EyeAF function to detect and track animal eyes as well as the Interval Shooting function to the mix, among other things.
Indeed, all three are very promising additions to these full-frame crowd-pleasers' already outstanding list of accomplishments. That's not mentioning the fact they are some of the features many photographers have long been asking for.
But how exactly do these features measure up? What looks good on paper doesn't always work in practice. The Animal Eye AF, especially, might be a little trickier to execute properly just because there's a whole lot more factors to consider.
So we went out and tested these new features from the Firmware 3.00 Update for you, and stacked them up against real-world situations and our own expectations. Here's everything we found out about.
How to Update Your Camera (Prep)
If you haven't updated your Sony a7 III or a7R III yet, there are important things you need to know. Updating to Firmware 3.00 won't take up too much of your time. However, it is a slightly meticulous process, and you have to follow every step. Otherwise, you're risking a $2,000 to $2,800 camera.
But first thing's first. In preparation for the update, you're going to need to check on a few things:
1. Check your camera's software version. Go to Menu > Setup (the fifth tab) > Page 7 > Version. If it already says Ver.3.00, then you're done, son! If it says something other than Ver.3.00, then proceed to the next steps.
2. Check your computer's OS and hardware. You need to make sure your computer meets the system requirements below:
- macOS 10.12 - 10.14 (for Mac)
- Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 7 SP1 (for Windows)
- Hard Drive: 600MB or more (for Mac) / 500MB or more (for Windows)
- RAM: 512MB or more (for Mac and Windows)
3. Check your sleep mode settings. Sony doesn't require this, but just to be on the safe side, make sure that you don't have any type of sleep or screensaver mode activated to avoid interruptions in the process. We also set the Power Save Start Time on our camera to 30 minutes. Again, this isn't necessary, but we just wanted to take extra precautions.
4. Make sure that the USB Connection on your camera set to "Mass Storage." Go to Menu > Setup (the fifth tab) > Page 4 > USB Connection, and select "Mass Storage."
5. Make sure that your camera battery is fully charged. The update itself won't necessarily drain your battery, but it won't start unless you have at least three bars on that power level icon.
6. Make sure that you have the USB cable that came with your camera. It might not work if you're using a different USB cable. Keep in mind that both the USB-C and Multiport cables and ports will work. We couldn't find our Multiport cable so we used our USB-C cable instead, and it worked like a charm.
7. Remove all your memory cards from the camera.
How to Update Your Camera (The Actual Update)
Once you've ticked off everything from the list above, you're ready to start the update. It's a fairly straightforward process so relax and don't be intimidated.
1. Download the firmware. A73 owners can find their firmware updates HERE. A7R3 owners can find their firmware HERE. You must either sign in to your Sony account if you've got one, or create a new one if you don't. Once you've signed in or verified your new Sony account, it will start the download, which takes only a few seconds.
2. Open or extract the downloaded file. At this point, make sure that you're camera is either not connected or turned off if it's already connected.
3. Double-click on UpdateSettingTool in the folder to start the installation process. If that doesn't do anything, open the Resources folder and click on the SystemSoftwareUpdater instead.
4. When prompted, connect your camera to the computer, or simply turn it on if already connected. The software will then check your camera's current firmware version and start the firmware installation process. This will take about 10 minutes.
5. Click on finish when it says that the process has been completed. Wait until your camera quickly resets.
6. Disconnect your camera from the computer.
That was pretty painless, wasn't it? As long as you follow these steps carefully, you'll find yourself enjoying the new features in no time.
Real-Time Eye AF
What We Love. Instead of hitting a separate button to activate the Eye AF, which frankly is a little tedious and also distracting from your creative process, this allows you to activate the Eye AF (both detection and tracking) just by half-pressing the shutter or using the AF On button. We mostly just half-pressed, and we must say, it really makes shooting with our a7R III all the more effortless.
Additionally, when the camera does lose the eye--i.e. when the subject turns around or moves so that their eyes are hidden--the camera then switches to the other tracking modes available. When the camera detects the eye again (and it detects it very quickly, we might add), it switches back.
If you're a Sony user, you're already familiar with their incredibly fast and very accurate autofocusing system. The addition of this Real-Time Eye AF features just improves on an already impressive AF system.
Plus, this feature can be disabled if you prefer to take the old-school route.
What We Would Change. Not a darn thing. The Real-Time Eye AF is very fast and responsive, not to mention super accurate.
Animal Eye AF
What We Love. The Animal Eye AF feature is probably every photographer/animal lover's dream, and Sony's version of it is pretty nifty. For the record, it's still a work-in-progress (we'll get to its flaws in a minute), but for an early iteration, it actually works and already proves to be quite promising.
On the Sony site, it says Animal Eye AF works not only on your furry friends at home, but also on wildlife. However, a couple of people online have claimed that it's supposed to only work on mammals. We're not quite sure who their source was, but we still wanted to test that claim so we took our trusty a7R III to the Los Angeles Zoo to see how this feature fared on birds and reptiles, as well as other mammals.
Here are some of our positive findings:
1. It works on the bigger reptiles! This one was a little tricky to test. Many reptiles (i.e. lizards and small snakes) are small and therefore have tiny eyes, and unfortunately, this feature doesn't work on those. However, if your reptilian subject has big enough eyes--like a larger snake or a turtle, for example--the Animal Eye AF is actually able to detect and, to some extent, track the eye. We're pretty sure it'll work on crocs and gators as well!
2. It works on the smaller mammals and some birds, but sometimes you have to give it an assist. We've noticed that when it comes to smaller animals with tiny black eyes like a meerkat, using the Wide Focus Area on AF-C doesn't always work. Sometimes, switching to Flexible Spot: M then moving that focus area closer to the animal's head help its eye detection work along. It's the same case when you're shooting birds with similar eyes.
3. It works on wildlife. Unfortunately, we didn't have a good telephoto lens ideal for wildlife photography and we couldn't get close to the gorillas and lions at the zoo. However, we were able to test it on deer and giraffes, and the Animal Eye AF worked swimmingly.
4. And it definitely works on your fur babies. Scratch that; the Animal Eye AF doesn't just work. Its detection and tracking capabilities are so good, it's able to keep up with their constant movement. That's extremely helpful when you've got some fussy babies to contend with.
What We Would Change. Not so fast, though. It's still pretty early in the game, and whatever algorithms and AI technology Sony uses to make the Animal Eye AF work is still pretty young, which means it still has a lot of room for improvement. Here are some of them:
1. It doesn't work on all birds. We tested it on flamingoes, and while we did manage to get good shots owing to the fact that their faces are pretty flat and everything is generally in the same focal plane when in profile, the camera didn't detect their eyes at all.
2. The eyes have to be well lit. The feature works best when enough light is bouncing on your subject's eyes and when they're completely visible. It has a harder time, for example, when the eyes are almost the same shade as the animal's fur or skin, or when there are folds of skin surrounding the eyes as with elephants.
3. The detection and tracking are erratic at times. When it works, it works great. But there are times when the Animal Eye AF's detection and tracking misfire or stops working altogether. Sometimes, the camera homes in on something else on the animal--like a pattern on its fur--instead of its eyes. It doesn't happen all the time, but you'll most likely have this happen to you every now and then.
4. The focus isn't always accurate. Unfortunately, there will also be a few times when the camera ends us focusing on the fur around the eyes as soon as you take that shot, even though it has locked in on the eyes before you press the shutter. You'll want to take plenty of shots or stop down your aperture, if there isn't a way for you to view your photos in a bigger screen in real time.
Built-in Intervalometer Time Lapse
What We Love. And finally, Sony's time-lapse feature... or more accurately, interval shooting function. This addition, unlike the Animal Eye AF, is very effective, not to mention pretty straightforward and easy to use.
It is more of a manual operation, however, and does take some simple math on your end to figure out how many shots you'll need at what time interval between each shot. Once you have those, all you need to do is input them in your camera and wait.
It comes equipped with additional useful features, as well, like the AE Tracking Sensitivity so that the camera can automatically adjust exposure for every shot when needed, the Silent Shooting option to keep the camera steady, and the Shooting Time Display so you know approximately how long it will take to shoot all the images you need for your time lapse.
This has other applications as well. Instagram influencers and bloggers, for example, can use this as a tool for their self-portrait travel and fashion shots. They would simply set the Shooting Start Time to around 10 seconds so they'll have enough time to position themselves in front of the camera, set the Shooting Interval and Number of Shots to whatever they want, and pose away.
What We Would Change. As we're used to processing our time-lapse videos in RAW using Photoshop, we're already pretty happy with the new Interval Shooting Function. However, we can see how some users might want in-camera processing, which is currently unavailable with this update.