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I regularly shoot video and photo at ice skating events with a Canon 7D + Samyang 85mm f/1.4 manual focus lens. I set the ISO at 6400 and with the aperture at 11, I have most of the ice rink in focus.

I always follow the same pattern: making photos during the warm-up and video for the dance itself.

Unfortunately, light conditions sometimes force me to open up to 4, and manual focus gets really hard to get right on fast-moving ice skaters.

I thought of switching to an X-mount system with Fujifilm X-E3 and an XF 56mm f/1.2 lens, but did not have a chance to try it out. Is the manual focus easier with an EVF? They seem to have a few modes that help manual focus, but what about the EVF lag?

Any other recommendation? Sony A7S is somewhat pricey, and I am not sure that it can autofocus well enough for my needs either.

I can also switch from 7D to 5DmkII and still shoot at 720p/50fps with an extra sensitivity of a bigger sensor. But this will mean losing some DOF, so what's the point?

Mod's Note: Please keep answers to the photography portion of the question. If you want to answer recommendations based on the Video portion, it is covered here.

  • Are you primarily doing video? Your last paragraph hints that you are. – Michael C Nov 3 '17 at 2:48
  • Note that the 5D Mark ii does not autofocus when shooting video. – AJ Henderson Nov 3 '17 at 3:18
  • And the 7D does not do continuous AF in video mode either. – Michael C Nov 3 '17 at 4:28
  • I always follow the same pattern: making photos during the warm-up and video for the dance itself. Video and photo is so much interlinked nowadays. – mikhailian Nov 3 '17 at 6:16
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    Many cameras designed primarily as still cameras can also shoot video these days. But the best approaches for shooting stills and video of the same subject matter in very low light, even with the same camera, can be very different. There's a big difference between dealing with subject motion and noise in a 5184x3456 resolution still image and a 960x720 pixel video signal being refreshed at 24-60fps. The way the two cameras in your question AF for still photos and don't for video is also extremely significant. What works for one is almost diametrically opposed for the other. – Michael C Nov 3 '17 at 6:57
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Why not get a full-communicating, autofocusing lens for Canon that's f/2? An EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, EF 100/2 USM, or EF 135mm f/2L USM can use tracking autofocus on the 7D to keep things in focus, and at f/2, you'd be able to use iso 1600 instead of iso 6400 (at f/4).

The manual non-communicating Samyang 85/1.4 is simply the wrong tool for indoor sports. I know folks who shoot roller derby with it, but they're not regular sports photographers and they get by with pre-focusing where they know someone's going to be (easy to do with roller derby; not so easy to do with figure skating).

Getting a 7D to use it in manual focus, and an f/1.4 lens to use it at f/11 just doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

  • "Why not get a full-communicating, autofocusing lens for Canon that's f/2?" Probably because the OP seems to be primarily doing video and the 7D does not offer continuous AF in video mode. – Michael C Nov 3 '17 at 2:56
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There are tons of questions in your question, so I will address some of them that have not been well covered yet:

  • The most significant upgrade possible for shooting sports is an autofocus lens. This will be true regardless if you change cameras. Modern Phase-Detect AF systems are incredibly fast and certainly much faster a person can do so manually, particularly if you shoot continuously and use continuous or tracking autofocus.
  • Moving to an X-E3 and XF 56mm F/1.2: This will get you autofocus to start with, so already a good upgrade. The EVF of the X-E3 is excellent and it is very easy to manually focus with it. It has a MF-Assist mode that magnifies the area around the selected AF-point (even in MF mode) and that makes MF very precise but it does not make it any faster. Read my review of the Fujifilm X-E3 to find out more. Note that I found that autofocus in low-light is more hesitant than on modern mirrorless cameras which I tested. You will not notice any EVF lag, those are pretty much gone from modern EVFs.
  • Another Recommendation: While I have yet to try the A7S, the A7R 3 is already extremely fast and the one I tried was a preproduction model. The A9 is also an excellent choice for fast tracking AF but is very pricey. Depends how often you shoot these events, renting one might be an option. A more affordable option among mirrorless cameras is an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Its AF system is very fast and tracking can keep up with fast moving subjects at 18 FPS. I also happen to have reviewed the Olympus E-M1 Mark II recently.
  • Upgrade to a 5D Mark II: Sure, you can get a better DSLR. Even going to a 7D Mark II will give you a much improved AF system but at this point you are not using any autofocus, so there is not much point unless you change the lens. If you want to manually focus better, an EVF nowadays is easier to work with.
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Until you're using what you already have to full potential, upgrading your gear won't improve your results unless you also upgrade your knowledge, skill, technique, and experience.

The rest of this answer will be dedicated to shooting still images as the video part is expressly off topic here. Keep in mind that the 7D does not have the capability of continuous AF while shooting video, so the answer for video use will be totally different. You'd be much better off asking about shooting video in this situation at video.stackexchange.com.

The entire development of autofocus technology over the past 30+ years has been driven by the desire to apply it to shooting sports and action with more accuracy and consistency. Sure, it's nice for other applications, but the cutting edge of AF technology has always been about sports/action. That's where the gains have first been made that then can also be applied to other forms of photography.

If you're going to shoot sports or action in a low light environment the usual approach is to use the widest aperture that gives acceptable image quality. This allows one to shoot at lower ISO than would be the case using a very narrow aperture. The noise reduction needed when shooting in a dim environment at very high ISO, such as ISO 6400 with the APS-C Canon 7D, will reduce image detail to the point that the entire image will look blurry anyway, even when shot at f/11. Also keep in mind that for full resolution still images shot with the 7D, the diffraction limited aperture (DLA) for the 7D is at f/6.9. By f/11 one will likely be able to begin to see the detail reducing effects of diffraction even when viewing the image at less than 100%.

The 7D has a very configurable AF system. It does take some work and practice to learn how to use it to its full potential. Like any complex tool, the more options it gives the user the more skill the user needs to use those options to their advantage. It's not the most consistent AF system in terms of accuracy from frame-to-frame but it does do well enough that many photographers have managed to get some good action shots with it.

Action shot
Canon EOS 7D + EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II, ISO 2500, f/2.8, 1/400 sec.

Action shot
Canon EOS 7D + EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II, ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/200 sec.

If the 85mm focal length gives you the field of view you desire, then consider an AF lens such as the EF 85mm f/1.8. It's a fairly popular 'budget' lens for shooting indoor sports. Use it at f/2.2-2.8 with whatever shutter speed you can get away with based on your subject's movement and set the ISO at what you need to get decent enough exposure. Depending on your post-shooting workflow, you can leverage the power of raw image processing to use shorter shutter times than would otherwise be the case.

For further reading:

When should I upgrade my camera body?
Should I upgrade my Canon body or lens for upcoming travel?
After 2 years of amateur photo, buy a new body or a great lens?
Which lens for portraits using an APS-C camera?
Should I upgrade my body or lens first?
Choosing between Lenses Canon 70-200 f2.8L IS II vs Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM
Should I buy a new DSLR or spend the money on a photography course with my point & shoot?
What is better than a Canon d1100 but still affordable? (The accepted answer to this one includes plenty of links to other related questions here that may be helpful to understanding how the photographer is the main contributor to the quality of an image while also acknowledging that sometimes a piece of gear may be part of the problem.)
Can great photographs be taken with not-so-good equipment?
Will a better lens help with high speed skateboarding shots?
Why are my photos not crisp?
How do I diagnose the source of focus problem in a camera?
I'm having trouble getting sharp pictures while shooting a concert from a press pass location
This answer includes a large number of links, grouped by the primary cause, to other questions here that address various issues that affect image sharpness.
Lots of noise in my hockey pictures. What am I doing wrong?
Blown out blue/red light making photos look out of focus

Or you could go ahead and totally switch systems because you're using the wrong lens in the wrong way for what you're trying to shoot.

  • I get it, I am using the lens I am making photo shots with a lens that is only suitable for video in my setup. I should use different lenses for different tasks. – mikhailian Nov 3 '17 at 7:01
  • It's not just the lens - it's the whole approach. See the link to the hockey question above for how you plan to post-process a still image can affect the choices you make when you shoot it. – Michael C Nov 3 '17 at 7:05

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