Specialized AF For Action

Use custom function settings to fine-tune autofocus performance for your subject

There’s nothing like coming away from a shoot knowing you’ve captured a potential once-in-a-lifetime shot. Too often, many write this off as luck. Luck, though, is when preparedness meets opportunity. Knowing equipment potential and subject behavior is a major component of the preparedness equation. Since getting my first camera body with custom AF settings, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, I’ve been exploring all it has to offer. Its capabilities are way out there, and with certain settings, shots never thought possible before are reality today. If time is taken to explore and hone the skills necessary, magical images are sure to result.

Many professional and enthusiast-level cameras offer the ability to enable specialized camera performance settings using custom functions. For Canons such as the 5D Mark III, 1D X and 7D Mark II, there are preset Case settings in the AF menu that can be chosen for various types of action photography. These presets are good, but didn’t offer the responsiveness I wanted to obtain certain shots.

While on Kodiak Island, Alaska, photographing brown bears catching salmon at the mouth of a river, a scenario was observed where the fish were jumping in particular areas. Keeping this in mind, I concentrated on getting a shot of a salmon out of the water, as well as a shot of a salmon jumping with a bear behind it. Not knowing if this would present itself, a custom AF was needed if the opportunity arose for getting this unique photo. Not only did I get one, I was able to capture this series of four using the Canon EOS-1D X body with its high fps rate.

First, some general wildlife action settings were programmed: Drive to Continuous High and Focus to AI Servo. A minimum 1/2000th of a second was desired for this trip so every water splash and detail would be sharp. Because this was an overcast day, ISO was upped to 1250 to maintain this minimum shutter speed.

Canon has put the Case functions under the AF menu tab. The configuration has six icons, each representing an AI Servo setup to match subject movement for different scenarios. For example, Case 1, the default, has a runner icon, appropriate for most general action situations. All Cases contain three parameters: Tracking sensitivity, Acceleration/Deceleration tracking and AF point auto-switching. These six Cases are good, but there’s a way to create Cases suited to your preference.

My new custom function allowed for a quick change from the subject originally focused on to something moving into the frame, making this shot possible. The other custom function I use stays locked onto the original subject, which would have made the fish out of focus, resulting in a throwaway image.




Custom AF function settings in your camera’s menu are available for various types of action photography. For specialized action sequences, like this series of images of a brown bear in Kodiak Island, Alaska, creating your own presets makes capturing especially challenging subjects less daunting.

Creating A Canon Custom Preset

Choose Where To Put The Custom Preset. In choosing where to program this particular custom Case, I chose to overwrite Case 3. I also have a custom Case for birds in flight set on Case 2.

Custom Settings. For all preset Cases, Tracking sensitivity has a default of 0 or -1. Setting it at +2 causes the focus to switch from the original subject to whatever moves in front quicker. For Acceleration/Deceleration tracking, the presets are 0 or +1. Using +2 provides quicker sensitivity to a subject changing speeds, such as the salmon jumping out of the water. AF point auto-switching presets are also 0 or +1. Again, my preference is for the most sensitive at +2 so the camera switches AF points quicker when the subject moves off the original AF point. This setting only works when using Zone AF or the 61-point option.

Create A Custom Preset. Go to the main menu and scroll to the one to write over. Hit the Rate button on the left side of the back of the body and then the Set button in the thumbwheel. Turn the wheel to the desired setting and hit Set. Scroll to Acceleration/Deceleration, hit Set and turn the thumbwheel to +2 and hit Set. Do the same for AF point auto-switching, and the new custom Case is set.

Next, it’s putting it into action in the field and coming away with a shot that has the wow factor you’ve always wanted to see in your files.

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To see more of Andy Long’s work and sign up for his workshops or newsletter, go to firstlighttours.com.

4 Comments

    This sounds like an awesome way of doing this on these action shots, and I want to figure them out on my Nikon D7100 for sure. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us that are in the beginning stages compared to you all professionals.
    Dave

    Andy, there seems to be confusion whether setting the three adjustments to the same values for two different Cases on the Canon results in identical performance. Some articles, including yours, suggest yes. Others suggest the adjustments slightly modify a Case, but can’t be used to make two Cases identical. Do you have insights into this?

    Beautiful capture Andy. Was this taken at f/4 ? This is much more effective than an f/22 as that would get everything in focuse and most of your effect would be lost. Also, very important is your angle to the subject. Were you on the shore lying down or wading in the water ? It is a beautiful shot Andy. Makes the trip to Alaska worth the trip. Congrats !!!

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