Here we go again: a new firmware comes out, promising improvements in the autofocus department, and I’m back taking pictures of my favourite birds with the Panasonic G9, which at this point I believe is the mirrorless camera I’ve tested the most for this genre.
Since its release in 2017, I’ve praised the contrast-based Depth From Defocus AF of the G9 for various things (in my in-depth comparison with the phase detection Olympus E-M1 II, it often came out on top). However I found a big limitation when tracking fast birds, especially if they fly against a busy background.
Panasonic has released various firmware updates to improve the performance, and introduced new settings including animal detection.
In June 2021, version 2.4 came out with the following statement: animal detection has a 5x faster recognition cycle speed, and these subjects can be detected when they are smaller in the frame by approximately half the size of what the camera was capable of before.
Many of you have been asking to test the G9 again, and our reader Malcolm also told me he saw a good increase in the keeper rate when testing the camera at one of my favourite feeding grounds, Gigrin farm. So that is where I went, armed with the G9 and the Leica DG 200mm F2.8, which was also updated to the latest firmware available (1.1).
Note: a few days after publishing this article, I went back a second time to try some specific settings suggested by our readers (see comment section). I didn’t find a relevant difference with my first test as far as the results are concerned, but I’ve added additional feedback throughout the article.
Ethics statement: the G9 and the 200mm lens were loaned to me by Panasonic UK. We were not asked to write anything about this product, nor were we provided any other compensation of any kind. Within the article, there are affiliate links. If you buy something after clicking one of these links, we will receive a small commission. To know more about our ethics, you can visit our full disclosure page. Thank you!
Recap: Panasonic G9 Settings for Birds in Flight
I’m not going to explain all the settings the camera has to offer because I already did that in my previous article when I tested firmware 2.0, which you are more than welcome to read if you want to find out more.
The settings that I used for this test and gave me the best results are as follows:
- 1-Area AF mode with the largest area possible, and with animal detection activated
- AF Custom Setting Set 4 (AF Sensitivity +1, AF Area Switching Sensitivity +1, Moving Object Prediction +1)
- AF-ON Near or AF-ON for the back button focus
- Focus Priority for C-AF
- 9fps burst with the mechanical shutter
I also set image quality to RAW, the EVF refresh rate to 120fps and the Constant Preview to Off. I shot in Manual mode with Auto ISO (max. 6400).
These settings are very similar to those I recommended in my previous article, minus a few modifications that I explain below.
Face/Eye Tracking AF mode vs 1-Area AF mode
With firmware 2.4, Animal detection can be activated in two ways: with the Human / Animal Detect mode (formerly Face/Eye Detect mode), or with the 1-Area AF mode (the latter wasn’t possible with older firmwares).
With the Human/Animal mode, you can either use the 225 AF points or select one single area that you can vary in size. The camera will resort to one of these AF areas if no animal is detected.
The theoretical advantage of choosing 1 area (at its maximum size) is that the camera will concentrate on the centre of the frame and ignore the subjects around it, which can help achieve better performance, but I found this to be less significant than with the previous firmware.
If you are interested in using only 1 area, the Human/Animal mode requires an extra step to activate it, and it won’t always stay on (for example after turning off the camera). So in this case, the dedicated 1-Area mode makes more sense.
Our reader Interceptor121 suggested that I use a small single area (rather than the largest available) to reduce the chance of the camera constantly switching from one bird to the next. I did this for my second test day, but to no avail.
That said, his input is interesting: the G9 detects animals not only inside the AF frame you set, but also around the borders of the frame. This is something worth keeping in mind in case you want to limit the area in which animal detection operates.
AF Custom Setting
I’ve always recommended setting the AF Sensitivity to +2 with fast moving birds to make the autofocus as reactive as possible.
However on this specific occasion, there were so many kites in a confined space that the autofocus was often too responsive, and the camera kept switching from one bird to another.
I tried various parameters to lower the sensitivity a little, including the default Set 1, and in the end the combination +1 +1 +1 gave me the best results. It’s not very different from the previous setting I recommended (+2 +1 +1) but it helps a little.
Since firmware 2.0, you can assign three different AF settings to the back button focus:
- AF-ON (standard)
- AF-ON Near shift (gives priority to a subject closer to the camera)
- AF-ON Far Shift (gives priority to a subject further away from the camera)
In my previous test, AF-ON Near played an important role in giving me the best score because it reduces the chance of the camera mis-focusing on the background. It still happens unfortunately, but it’s a bit less severe with this setting. However I noticed something very annoying.
Most of the time, when I pressed the button, the camera shortens the focus point before going back to the bird, which briefly makes the image completely blurry.
Technically, this behaviour is understandable because with AF-ON Near, the camera concentrates on the foreground and therefore it “scans” shorter focus distances to make sure there isn’t a subject closer than the one I started tracking. However with such fast action, this brief adjustment makes you lose precious time and I lost track of the birds more than once as a result.
This is a bit of a “rock and hard place” situation. AF-ON Near can improve the performance and the keeper rate, but it can make the shooting experience less pleasant, if not frustrating. If you find yourself in this situation, switch to AF-ON only.
Burst mode: 20fps vs 9fps vs 7fps
If you haven’t read my previous articles, you might wonder why I didn’t take advantage of the fastest speed available, which is 20fps with the electronic shutter in C-AF mode. The answer is simple: the keeper rate drops considerably (below 40%), especially when the kite flies against a busy background.
I suppose such high speed is too much for the camera to process, in addition to the AF calculations and subject detection. 9fps with the mechanical shutter is much better, unless you’re only taking pictures of birds against the sky. In that case, you won’t find a major difference between the two burst modes.
Several readers reminded me that at 9fps (High mode), the G9 uses predictive focusing. This means that it gives priority to the burst speed and estimates focus from one frame to another, making the Focus Priority setting ineffective.
To have full focus priority in C-AF, you need to choose the Medium burst which works at 7fps. Although testing at 7fps didn’t make a relevant difference to my original results, it is something worth remembering (and it is also explained in the user manual of the camera).
Analysis and sample images
Panasonic says that animal detection is now five times faster, and I did get the impression that the camera was able to recognise the bird more quickly, even when it was smaller in the frame.
However, for groups shots where multiple kites are in the frame, it “recognised” too many of them and kept switching from one to another instead of concentrating on the bird at the centre, or the one closest to the foreground (which shows that the AF-ON Near setting is not perfect). Also, the single AF area didn’t always help to keep the camera more focused on the centre of the frame.
I started to play with the AF Custom Setting (as explained in the previous chapter) to try to make the camera less reactive. It worked partially, but I got the best keeper rate of the day when there were fewer kites flying around.
Another thing I noticed is that animal detection can struggle depending on the bird’s position. With the wings wide open and the body facing you, the camera has an easier time. When the wings are partially bent, or when the kite turns or faces sideways (which makes the animal appear smaller), the camera can stop detecting the animal or confuse it with the background.
This means that in a sequence, the G9 might stop detecting the bird then start detecting it again depending on its position, and that can hurt the performance.
Many times, the camera started the sequence with two or three out of focus shots before getting it right. It’s rare to have a sequence that is in-focus from start to finish. Occasionally, a bad start can lead to an entire sequence being out of focus.
When the bird is against the sky, the keeper rate is much better (15 – 20% better) and overall the camera struggles less. This makes sense: the contrast between the subject and the background is more clear for the G9 AF system to understand. You’ll rarely get a perfect sequence, but the number of out of focus images is much lower.
Once back home, I started to mark the images that were in focus, out of focus and slightly soft to calculate my BIF score (read more about how I calculate the score in our birds in flight article).
This is the best score the G9 gave me with firmware 2.4:
The number in green represents perfect sharpness only, whereas the one in blue also includes slightly soft results.
The score improves to 74% / 87% if I only count images of the bird against the sky, whereas the score drops to about 51% / 63% with the bird against a busy background.
The previous score I had with the G9 and firmware 2.0 was 51% / 69% (sky and busy background combined).
Firmware 2.4 gave me the best performance yet for birds in flight, but unfortunately I see the same limitations I witnessed with older versions of the software. The behaviour remains unpredictable for fast moving birds and a busy background.
The performance is frustrating because at times, the G9 can shine. When it gets it right, you can end up with very sharp images. The camera managed to take excellent shots in situations where other cameras might have struggled, like the kite flying very close to you, which requires a dramatic change in focus distance in a very short period of time.
The potential is there, but the problem is consistency, so you always have to compromise and accept that you’re going to take some great shots, but miss others. It’s a shame because otherwise, the G9 is one of the best cameras you can find today, and one that is ageing very well.
Can Panasonic further improve the performance? Possibly – after all they’ve brought improvements to the camera before, but I think at some point we will need a new generation and a much faster processor to take a relevant step forward.
Perhaps the better question is: will the DfD technology ever be able to compete with phase detection autofocus? I certainly applaud Panasonic for releasing so many updates, and for keeping a camera that is now almost four years old alive. But I can’t help but think that there are many phase-detection AF models that give a better keeper rate, and with fewer settings to worry about.
In the meantime, see you at the next firmware update, I guess? 😉
- Panasonic G9 Autofocus settings for birds in flight
- Best Mirrorless Cameras for Birds in Flight ranked
- Best Mirrorless Cameras for Wildlife Photography