How can I speed up my focus with D300 for sports?

Started May 23, 2009 | Discussions thread
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jfriend00 Forum Pro • Posts: 11,300
Re: How can I speed up my focus with D300 for sports?

AF-ON is a preference only. It will not change the camera's ability to track focus at all. It works exactly the same as a half-press of the shutter as far as focusing is concerned. Switching to AF-ON takes some serious getting used to. I use it myself for all shooting now, but it took several weeks to get comfortable with it. If I were you, I would not switch to AF-ON yet. First, get the rest of your settings and technique developed. You can then, over time, try out AF-ON and see if it's for you.

I've been shooting soccer for 6 years (D70, D2Xs, D300 w/grip). Here's how I set up my D300:

AF-C focusing (will track focus as long as you hold shutter half press)

Auto-Focus Area Mode: Dynamic Area AF (the middle position of the switch to the right of the LCD). This allows the auto-focus system to use some other sensors to track your subject once you've acquired it.

Selected Focus Sensor: Use the center focus sensor as the one to initiate focus tracking. It and all nine sensors around it are of the cross-hatch variety that work well in any orientation. The sensors further from the center are not as sensitive.

a1: AF-C priority set to Release (won't fire full fps unless you set it to release)

a3: Dynamic AF area set to 9-points. This depends upon your tracking skill. If you are just getting started with this type of shooting, I would suggest you start out with 21-points as it's more forgiving.

a4: Focus tracking with Lock-On. I set this to OFF. Again, if you are just starting with this type of shooting, I would suggest you set it to Short as it's more forgiving if you temporarily lose focus tracking. There have been lots of heated debates about what the right setting for this is for sports. Most experienced sports shooters set it to OFF or Short, but a few swear that Long works well too. I get the best results with very diligent focus tracking and OFF, but I recommend that folks just getting started use Short as work their way to OFF as their tracking skill gets better.

a5: Focus activation. I shoot with AF-ON, but this is a personal preference. Your focus tracking accuracy will be the same whether you use AF-ON or shutter to trigger focus. I use AF-ON because it allows me to pre-focus and then lock focus with a single press and release of the AF-ON button for situations like corner kicks or goal kicks where I pre-focus on the ball location and then just fire away as the kicker goes through their motion. AF-ON definitely takes some learning. I would recommend you don't immediately go to AF-ON. Get your other settings and technique right first and then take a game where you experiment with AF-ON. It takes some training to become automatic and not forget to focus, etc...

Then, for technique, here's what I do:

Position the center focus sensor on the center of the jersey of the player.

Initiate focus tracking (either half-press of the shutter of AF-ON button)

Follow the player and keep that center sensor on the center of the jersey.

When you find a sequence you want to shoot, press the shutter and fire off as many as you need to.

You will find that this is easier to track focus smoothly if you have the camera/lens on a monopod. I shoot from my knees because I like that perspective better and you are more likely to be able to see the faces - particulary with younger kids.

When positioning yourself for shooting, there are three main things to think about and all have to be considered:

1) Where will the action you want to capture be?
2) Where is the sun. Get it behind you if at all possible.

3) What is the background like? A plain, dark background that is far away is best (because it will be blurry, will melt away and won't interfere with focusing). A busy, bright background of cars or spectators or bright buildings is the worst.

Oftentimes you won't be able to optimize for all three of these, but many people only optimize for the first and forget the other two. I find that if I ask permission of the refs before the game, they will always let me shoot from an endline (10-20 feet from the goal) as long as I'm quiet (no cheering or parental advice). That is the best place to get the offensive players (coming at you). To get mid-fielders or defensive players, I usually go the sideline right near the mid-field line and pick the side of the field that has more favorable lighting.

Then, when shooting, get as close in as you can. The tighter you shoot, the better the auto-focus system will work. Ideally your subject would be filling 2/3 of the frame height. Obviously, you can't always do that, but my best shots are almost always taken in tight.

Here's one of my daughter from last weekend. She was about to cross the ball to out in front of the goal. This was unfavorable lighting from the side, but I was in a good spot for the action and had a clean background and I could fix some of the shadows in post processing.

D300, 1/1250th, f/4, 200m (using 200-400 f/4), ISO 280 (in auto ISO with min shutter speed of 1/1250th)

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