Autofocus

Autofocus

Focus Point Positioning | Presetting Manual Focus


Nikon Z 6II | 24-70mm f/2.8 @35mm | 1/1500 | f/2.8 | ISO 400
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

For sports, autofocus (AF) is your best friend. In this section, I will share a few tips on how to utilize autofocus for better results. I’m not going to talk too much about what settings to use because when shooting sports, AF-C or AI Servo (the name of this setting will vary between brands) is going to be essential. I personally prefer back button AF, because it allows me to continue tracking a subject using autofocus when my finger is not on the shutter. Most of this section will be about the different AF modes and focusing techniques you can use.

The focus area mode I use depends a lot on the sport I am covering. The three I typically use are Wide-area AF (L-people) on my mirrorless cameras and 9-Point Dynamic Area AF or 3-D tracking on both DSLR and mirrorless. Since I primarily shoot Nikon, I may refer to uniquely Nikon modes, but most manufacturers have something equivalent.

If you are not familiar with the 3-D tracking mode, essentially it allows you to choose a single focus point in the viewfinder. Once you engage AF, the camera will track the subject as it moves around the frame, starting from the initial point. When the focus button is released, the point will jump back to the location it started. This allows the user to easily track moving subjects in sports with erratically moving players, keeping them in focus while the user adjusts the framing when the subject falls, dives, or jumps.

Nikon Z 9 | 600mm f/4 | 1/1000 | f/4 | ISO 20000
Nikon Z 7II | 600mm f/4 | 1/1500 | f/4 | ISO 6400
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

To the left is a mock-up of what I see through my viewfinder when shooting with the Wide-area AF (L-people) on my mirrorless cameras. This mode allows me to select an area of the frame I want the camera to find a face/eye to track. This is great for sports like volleyball and tennis where you have a general idea of where the subject will be in the frame. The camera will pick up faces/eyes only in the box, meaning you won’t accidentally focus on another player elsewhere in the frame.

I mainly use the 9-Point Dynamic Area AF when shooting sports that have very consistent player placement, like hockey from ice level. Typically, I will switch from 3-D tracking back to 9-Point if the camera is struggling to track subjects correctly. This primarily happens when the lighting is poor, making it difficult for the camera to acquire focus.

Focus Point Positioning

When shooting, I find people have a tendency to leave the focus point in the center of the viewfinder. This is a very natural thing to do; I used to do it as well. Having the point in the center allows you to easily see what happening throughout the whole viewfinder, and you can just point your lens straight at the subject. However, this will inevitably lead to players on the left or right of your subject being cut off.

As you can see from Example A, my focus point was too close to the center meaning I failed to capture #2’s legs as he dived for the tackle. Example B, from later in the same game, shows the results after I moved the focus point off to the side of the frame. This allowed me to capture all of the defender, meaning neither subject is cut in half.

Several factors – including the sport, which direction the offense is going, and what side of the field you are on – will determine where the focus point will need to be. Since I used two football photos, I will continue using football as the example.

When shooting, you want the focus point to be on the side of the frame the offense will be running toward. For Example A, that would be the left. And for Example B, it would be the right. This is because when the players are running with the ball, they will often get tackled from behind or the side, allowing you to capture the whole tackle. If a tackle happens to come in from the other side, that is where having 3-D tracking AF comes in handy. It allows me to quickly recompose the photo, while the camera tracks the subject.

DSLR cameras are very limiting when it comes to focus point spread, with some only having 9 focus points clustered around the center of the frame. These days, mirrorless cameras have upwards of 99% focus point coverage, so you have no excuse not to move it around when using a mirrorless camera.

Example A

Nikon D4 | 600mm f/4 | 1/1500 | f/4 | ISO 6400
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

Example B

Nikon D4 | 600mm f/4 | 1/1000 | f/4 | ISO 6400
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

Here is another example of what I discussed above. As you can see in the video above, I had the focus point already towards the right side of the frame since I was tracking another player as the ball was passed up the pitch. Once I saw the player receiving the pass, I released my finger off the focus button (you can see the focus point jump back to where it started before tracking and turn red) and, since my focus point was already towards the right of the frame, I was able to reacquire focus quickly while keeping both the offense and defense in the photo. I’d recommend scrubbing through the video slowly since the action happens so quickly, this will allow you to see what happens better.

One of the images from this viewfinder recording is shown to the right. Under it I have cropped the image as if the main subject had been centered when I shot the photograph, plus added a grey box where the rest of the image would have been. As you can see, the defender’s back leg would have been cut off and there would have been a lot of dead space in front of the offense. As the subject gets closer, and you are able to fill the frame, being able to keep them out of the center of the frame becomes more important since you don’t have much extra space surrounding the subjects.

Nikon Z 9 | 400mm f/2.8 | 1/4000 | f/2.8 | ISO 125
Nikon D750 | 400mm f/2.8 | 1/750 | f/2.8 | ISO 2200
Shot for the World Curling Federation

With every rule comes exceptions. While most of the time you will want the focus point off to the side, there will also be times you may want it centered. Sometimes this can be useful when photographing a new sport because it allows you to learn how players will need to be framed in the viewfinder. Once you get the hang of the sport, I urge you begin moving the focus point around.

The only time I use the center focusing point is when I am trying to get a specific composition. As you can see with the curling photo on the left, my focus was very close to the center of the frame. This was because I was trying to get this exact photograph. Having the focus point to the right or left would have cut off one of the sweepers in the foreground, ruining my vision for the image.

Frame each photograph with purpose, making sure the focus point position is a conscious and intentional decision that enables you to get the image you want.

As you shoot different sports, you will learn where the best placement for the focus point will be. There are so many different factors that come into play that I simply don’t have the space to talk about them all. Everything from the sport itself to the individual players can make a difference in how you position your focus point. As you gain experience with various sports and teams, you will learn where the focus point needs to be for your specific shoot.

Challenge:

There is a quick way to see if you are leaving your focus point in the center of the frame. Open a gallery of your best images, preferably uncropped. Place your phone or a piece of paper in the center of the laptop screen and scroll through the images. If your phone blocks the main subject in most of the photos, you definitely need to move the focus point around more while shooting.

Like many habits, this will be hard to break. But once you start moving that focus point, you'll never go back.
Nikon D4 | 400mm f/2.8 | 1/2000 | f/2.8 | ISO 1800
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

Presetting Manual Focus

Nikon Z 9 | 600mm f/4 | 1/2000 | f/4 | ISO 6400

As good as autofocus has gotten, there are still times I opt to use manual focus. More specifically, I choose to preset my focus to a specific spot. These are usually scenarios where the subject rapidly appears in a predictable spot of the frame. To use this technique, I frame up the photo I want before guesstimating my focus distance, using previous experience and/or test shots as a guide, to determine where I believe the subject will be. It’s simple to do, but requires some prior knowledge of the situation to execute correctly.

A few examples when presetting manual focus might be used are when skiers or motorists appear over a blind hill, field events such high jump, and first base during pickoff attempts (as shown in the example to the left). These photos are captured within a split second of the subject appearing in the frame, so by the time the camera has acquired focus, the perfect moment has past.

In order for this to work properly, your camera needs to be set on back button autofocus. If you have the shutter button set to focus on half press, the camera will attempt to refocus once you start shooting, ruining the point of presetting focus.

In this example, I have the focus set just past the base. Exactly where will depend how perpendicular your shooting position is to first and how tall the runner is. This play is very common, so do testing early in the game to figure out about where the focus will need to be. The way I personally shoot it is with both eyes open, my right eye looking through the viewfinder and keeping the framing I want while my left eye watches the pitcher. The moment he spins to attempt the pickoff, I fire off some frames. Occasionally you will get a pitcher that simply doesn’t throw to first. If this is the case, wait until they switch pitchers or the other team is on the mound.