Playing with Camera Settings
Thursday, April 15th, 2010 by Reed Hoffmann
I always tell people to try different settings on their cameras. Those menus are chock-full of interesting options, and if you don't explore them, you'll never know if they might help. And as my friend Bill Durrence likes to tell people, "there's no button on that camera that will make it explode."
I thought of this recently as I had a number of sports assignments the past month. I’ve been using Nikon’s new 51-point AutoFocus system since it came out some time ago. And I never felt I was really getting the most out of it. With these jobs approaching, I decided to take a new look at the various settings. Over the course of three Big 12 basketball games earlier in the season, I found a set that worked really well for me. And that’s worth noting – settings can be pretty personal. What works for me may not work for you.
First off, when shooting sports I change my normal AF settings. Most of what I shoot these days isn’t action, so I like setting the rear button to control AF, instead of the shutter button (the default on all cameras). I feel that gives me the best of both worlds. I keep the AF on “Continuous,” so it will constantly track moving subjects and let me shoot anytime I like. However, as soon as I remove my thumb from the back button, AF is turned off, so the focus won’t change unless I press it again. That way if my subject is non-moving, I simply push the back button, confirm the camera has focused where I want it, then release. Now the focus it off, essentially locked at that distance, and as long as my distance to subject doesn’t change, I can compose and shoot to my heart’s content and everything will be in focus. Sports changes things.
When shooting sports, I like to put the AF back on the shutter button, so the camera is constantly focusing (AF is still set to “Continuous”) and I can concentrate on following the action and trying to shoot at the right time. The other settings I like to use then are:
- AF-C Priority – “Release + Focus.” This means the camera will slow down the frame-rate if needed to try to make sure it’s in focus.
- Dynamic AF area – “21 points.” These cameras can use up to 51 points, but I want the camera to concentrate on the group nearest the active focus point. I figure making it look at less points should help it work a bit faster.
- Focus tracking with lock-on – “Long.” This means that if something comes between me and the subject I’m tracking, or my AF dot moves off the subject, the camera will pause before jumping to the new subject.
Those are the key ones. And then I try to remember that when I shift my attention – and the lens – to a new subject, I release the button briefly and then push again, to re-start the AF. That’s my way of telling the camera I’ve got a new subject I want it to pay attention to.
With these settings, I’ve had excellent success. No camera’s AF system is perfect, as my friends using Canon have learned over the last couple of years. The Mark II had a phenomenally good AF system, and the Mark III didn’t match it. So people started blaming every out of focus frame on the camera. Fact of the matter is that no camera will get every frame in every situation in focus. Not Nikon’s top-of-the-line system nor Canon’s new Mark IV, though it’s certainly improved. It’s still up to the photographer to play with the various settings and learn how to make the most of them. And be willing to live with the occasional out of focus frame. After all, wouldn’t life be boring if every picture was perfect?