With over 30 years experience in high-end sports photography, Bob Martin needs no introduction as one of the leading experts in his field. Two years ago, intrigued by the idea of completely silent shooting, Bob picked up an α7R II for the first time and hasn’t looked back since.
We managed to catch Bob in between assignments recently and asked him about his favourite Sony cameras and lenses.
Am I right in saying you’re a big fan of technology, but only if it gives you an edge to your work?
I use every little gadget I can, if it’s going to help me improve my photography – and why not? I embraced digital when it started getting good and the same with autofocus. Mirrorless, to me, is the next big leap forward because of the advantages it can offer.
When I first looked at the Sony, I immediately wanted the camera because it was silent, but I didn’t like the electronic viewfinder. I said to myself, put up with it because the benefits outweigh the negatives. Now, I think it’s the biggest selling point of the cameras and it’s a feature I couldn’t live without. If I’m taking portraits in tricky lighting situations, I can preview and adjust very quickly, and with the silent shutter, the subject doesn’t even know I’m doing it! I can keep the sitter relaxed by talking to them as I’m fine tuning the settings.
It’s a huge bonus, the silent shutter. People are now so used to hearing it fire and they’ll re-set their pose or expression each time, but when shooting silently, that advantage is back in the hands of the photographer; you tell them when they look good, not when they hear the click.
I can be standing next to Tiger Woods at the 18th hole when he’s playing the shot that will win him the Masters, and I’ll never disturb him; he’ll never know I’m shooting 20fps.
As I’ve said before, I think that camera technology has made sports photography better because as photographers, we don’t need to worry about the technique and capturing the moment any more. There was perhaps a time when sports photographers were viewed as second-class shooters by the news and fine-art photographers because all we did was ‘capture the moment’, but now – with the gear we’re using helping so much – I feel we’re free to concentrate on the artistic side of composition and lighting.
Did you find the transition from DSLR to mirrorless easy?
Not easy, no. It took me a good few months of using the Sony continually before I felt comfortable. I’d been using the same brand of DSLR for years and could use them intuitively. I used the Sony alongside my DSLRs and gradually built up the confidence to switch over completely. I found the custom function feature on the Sony particularly helpful and it’s allowed me to place most of my often-accessed features within easy reach.
Aside from the camera technology, which you’re clearly happy with, can we talk about lenses
I’ll be honest – when I first picked up the Sony, I was only interested in the silent aspect and I thought I’d be fine using my DSLR lenses via an adapter. But I found them clunky and the AF performance wasn’t up to par, so I quickly started trying the G Masters.
Perhaps it’s because you’re not having to develop lenses for a legacy system, or because you’re using the latest optical technology in them, but the G Master lenses are quite remarkable in what they deliver – particularly the 70-200mm f/2.8 – which, in my opinion, knocks the socks off the competition. I think the fact that the Sony lenses have been designed from the ground up as ‘digital’ lenses is a huge advantage; they’re modern lenses made for modern cameras.
I also find that the Sony lenses can handle high resolution sensors easily, and for me, that’s one less thing I have to worry about. Even some of the ‘lesser’ lenses, as it were – the 12-24mm f/4 G for example; why that isn’t branded as a G Master lens, I shall never understand because it’s an incredibly sharp lens! Same goes for the 24-105mm f/4 G – that’s another fantastic piece of glass.
It sounds like you have quite a wide range of lenses! Any particular favourite?
As I mentioned earlier, I really like the 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master and I use it on most shoots. I was also fortunate enough to recently get my hands on the 400mm f/2.8 G Master, which has got to be the main lens that any serious sports photographer will use. Aside from the excellent optical performance, the weight advantage is massive, especially for someone like me who’s fairly mobile when shooting. And one thing that struck me was how well it performs using a teleconverter – both the focusing speed and sharpness are spot-on. It’s also front-heavy which is a big help when swinging it into frame for a grab shot.
Prior to getting the 400mm, I carried a 100-400mm G Master with me, and I must admit I wasn’t expecting much from it. My previous experience had steered me away from long zooms and I’d always preferred to use primes when I could, but I decided to give it a try when I was in Ethiopia shooting Mo Farah. He was doing some TV interviews and I was standing back, trying to grab some tight crop portraits. I was blown away with how sharp it actually is and it now travels everywhere with me.
"Sony α9 - silent, Eye AF and live viewfinder is a game changer for me!"