Autofocus (through the viewfinder)

A simplified look at the Canon 80D's 45-point AF system.

As well as its dual Pixel AF imaging sensor, the 80D also gets its conventional phase-detection AF system updated to a system with 45 cross-type AF points when you're shooting through the viewfinder. In 45-point auto select mode the EOS 80D uses a new 7560 pixel RGB+IR metering sensor to assist the autofocus system in tracking subjects. This metering sensor, while not as advanced as the 150,000-pixel RGB metering sensor found in the 7D Mark II, gives the 80D better subject awareness than its predecessor.

When it comes to through the viewfinder AF performance, the 80D is without question better than its predecessor, which only offered 19 all cross-type points and used a 63-zone dual layer sensor for tracking. But it is clear, both from the camera's specifications and from field use, that the 80D's AF system is not as advanced as that of the higher-priced EOS 7D Mark II. Unlike the 7D II, Canon doesn't brand the 80D's focus tracking as 'iTR' (Intelligent Tracking and Recognition), which could reflect the use of a different algorithm as well as the lower resolution of the metering/recognition sensor. The 7D II also has more AF points (65), and offers a substantially easier method of manually moving AF points (via a dedicated joystick). 

The 80D also lacks a dedicated AF menu. Instead, there is a section within the Custom Function menu dedicated to AF adjustments. But more on that below. 

Focus modes

The AF Area Selector button, located between the shutter release and control dial, is an effective way to quickly switch between the four AF area modes.

When shooting through the viewfinder, there are four focus area modes including Single-point, Zone, Large Zone and 45-point Auto Selection. Depending on your shooting scenario, each of the modes can prove useful. 

In the Zone mode, a 3x3 point square can be moved around the 45-point array to one of nine positions. In the Large Zone mode, a 3x5 point rectangle can be moved to one of three positions. 

Single shot AF (One-shot mode)

When shooting in single AF acquisition mode, AF acquisition speed is generally fast (though lens dependent) and focus tends to be both accurate and precise.

The 80D has a center AF point that's sensitive down to -3EV. That translates to an ability to acquire focus, even in VERY dim light. In my real world testing, I found the 80D had no issues acquiring focus using its center point in any low light situation I encountered. We also tested the 80D's center point sensitivity in the lab and found it could acquire focus in conditions even darker than -3EV.

Additionally, we tested the 80D's dual pixel AF in live view against the Sony a6300 and found the Canon was able to focus in even dimmer light (using Live view) than the Sony, which is very impressive.

ISO 8000, 1/250 sec at F4. Shot using the Canon EF 16-35mm F4 IS USM lens at 32mm. Edited to taste in ACR.

Continuous AF (AI Servo mode using single point or zone)

There are essentially two methods for photographing a moving subject using continuous AF. There's the tried and true method of selecting a single AF point or Zone, and attempting to keep the subject within that area by moving the camera. And then there is subject tracking, where you tell the camera who or what you'd like to track, and it attempts to do so, while also maintaining focus.

Of the two, the former is something most modern hybrid AF systems have no trouble with and Canon DSLRs in particular have historically excelled in this area. However, as our roll-over above demonstrates, the 80D does seem to struggle at least moderately at maintaining focus using a single point. This is especially true when shooting at its top burst speed of 7 fps. The above demonstration is representative of our findings from multiple tests using a single point while also firing at the camera's top burst rate.

Continuous AF + Tracking (AI Servo with tracking)

Through the viewfinder subject tracking can prove difficult for even pro-level DSLRs. We've already established on the live view page, that the 80D can track subjects such as faces, at close distances quite well using Dual Pixel AF. But when it comes to tracking subjects at far distances with telephoto lenses, Live view isn't useful. So what about that 45-point phase-detection AF array?

I first tried the 80D's 45-point Auto Select tracking mode at a University of Washington women's tennis match. Once I figured out how to turn off the auto AF point selection and turn on the manual AF point selection (more on that below*), I was fairly impressed by the 80D's ability to maintain focus and track tennis players.

*Note: By default 45-point Auto Select tries to "guess" the subject to track, often very poorly. I highly recommend enabling manual AF point selection from within the Custom Function menu. Doing so allows you to place a point over the subject you want to track. Pressing the shutter release half way enables tracking.

For sports where your subject is isolated against a relatively simple background, like tennis, the 45-Point Auto Select mode is very effective for subject tracking. But for scenes with complex backgrounds and/or multiple subjects and/or unpredictable motion, the 45-Point Auto Selection mode is easily confused. This was the case when we tried to use it to photograph rugby. ISO 250, 1/2000 sec at F5. Shot using the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM at 100mm.

However, tennis is one of the easiest real-world subject tracking scenarios. This is because movement is limited to a fairly small space and the background is usually pretty uncluttered and distinct from the player. In the case of the match I attended, being able to shoot from above made for an even cleaner background. Essentially, my first real world test gave the 80D's subject tracking every chance possible to succeed and it did.

But what about a more complex shooting scenario? Our technical editor, Rishi Sanyal, brought the 80D along with him to a rugby match and found the movement of the players coupled with having multiple potential subjects at the same distance made for a near impossible scenario for the 80D's tracking to be of any use. Add in distractions (players) in the foreground and you have an even more challenging tracking scenario.

We brought the 80D to a rugby match to test out its tracking capabilities along with several other cameras. While we only shot part of the game with the Canon, this was one of the few sharp frames we ended up with. Edit to taste in ACR. ISO 100, 1/2000 sec at F5.6. Shot using the EF-S 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM kit zoom at 135mm. Photo: Rishi Sanyal

So after trying to the 80D's subject tracking in two very different real-world situations and getting different results, we decided to run it through our bike test, which is a good happy medium between the two scenarios described above: The movement of the cyclist in this test is unpredictable (from the camera's point-of-view), but the subject is very distinct in depth from the background. Also, there is nothing in the foreground to distract the camera (as was often the case in our rugby shooting).

Not surprisingly, the results from this demonstration fell somewhere between Rishi's experience and mine: many images are out of focus, but not all. The 80D often failed to drive the focus to the right depth toward the middle of the burst, only to do so later on.

After pulling the frames from the subject tracking test into Canon's Digital Photo Professional and viewing which AF points were used, I noticed something interesting: while many of the frames were out of focus, the correct AF points were often illuminated over the subject. This indicates that while the camera is able to detect and track where the subject is in the frame, the AF system is simply unable to acquire focus quickly enough during the burst.

Sure, the AF points are over the subject, he just isn't in focus.

AF settings in Custom Fn. Menu

Unlike pro-level Canon DSLRs, that feature a dedicated AF menu, many AF adjustments are found within the Custom Fn. menu on the 80D. The first three parameters that can be adjusted (shown in the table below) are related to AF tracking. Unfortunately, the camera gives little indication as to what scenarios would benefit from adjusting these three parameters.

Higher-end Canon DSLRs group these three options into a series of presets aimed at specific shooting scenarios, such as 'For subjects that accelerate or decelerate quickly' and 'For erratic subjects moving quickly in any direction.' Users simply pick the scenario that applies to what they are shooting. But on the 80D the settings are listed separately with no clues given for how to configure them.

If it seems odd that Canon essentially made the AF tuning settings in relation to subject tracking more complicated in the 80D than in their higher-end cameras, I tend to agree. For the most part, during my testing, I left many of these options in their default positions. However, depending on what you are shooting, you may benefit from adjusting some. We've listed out all of the options below:

Menu option:  Function:
Option no.1 Tracking sensitivity: 5-way slider
Option no.2 Tracking acceleration: 3-way slider
Option no.3 AF point auto switching: 3-way slider
Option no.4 AI Servo 1st image priority focus vs release: 3-way slider
Option no.5 AI Servo 2nd image priority focus vs release: 3-way slider
Option no.6 AF assist beam: Enable, Disable, Enable for external flash only, IR AF assist only
Option no.7 Drive lens when AF impossible: Continue focus search, Stop focus search
Option no.8 Select AF area mode: Single-point, Zone, Large Zone and 45-point Auto Selection
Option no.9* AF area selection method: AF area selection button, Main dial
Option no.10 Orientation linked AF points: Same for vertical and horizontal, Separate AF point for vertical and horizontal (area and point), Separate AF point for vertical and horizontal (point only)
Option no.11* Initial AF point selection in AI Servo, 45-point auto select: Auto, Initial AF point (the last point selected before switching to 45-point auto select will be used), Manually select AF point
Option no.12 Use color information for 45-point auto select tracking: Enable, Disable
Option no.13 AF point selection when moving point left/right, up/down: Stop at edge of frame, Continue to either side of frame
Option no.14 AF point display during focus: Show all points, Show only selected points, Show only points used for focus, Show no points
Option no.15  Viewfinder AF grid display: Auto, Enable, Disable
Option no.16  AF micro-adjustment: Disable, All lens by X amount, Adjust this lens by X maount

*Options we definitely recommend changing from their defaults

The default setting in the table above is the first option listed. Option 9 in particular deserves calling out, as it allows you to toggle your AF area selection method between the AF area selection button and the Multi-controller.

We also highly recommend switching option 11 from its default, to 'Manually select AF point,' before using the 45-point Auto Selection AF mode during through the viewfinder shooting.

Summary and best practices

 Shooting scenario:  For best results... Also consider...
Close-up subject, shot with a wide angle lens Shoot in live view using the Face+Tracking mode in Servo. Either tap on your subject using the touchscreen to maintain focus, or let the camera automatically focus on the nearest face to the camera. Shoot through the viewfinder using the single-point or Zone modes in AI Servo, keeping your point or zone over the subject.
Moving subjects, far away, shot using a normal or tele lens Shoot through the viewfinder using the single-point or one of the Zone modes in AI Servo, keeping your point or zone over the subject. Consider shooting at a slower burst rate than 7 fps for a better hit rate. Shoot through the viewfinder, using the 45-point Auto Select mode in AI Servo. Make sure to turn on manual AF point selection. Hold your point over the subject and half press the shutter release to start tracking.

For photographing a moving subject at a distance in burst mode or single-shot mode, you'll still get best results shooting through the viewfinder using a single-point or Zone mode. There are instances where the 45-point Auto selection mode can prove useful at tracking and maintaining focus, but only when the subject is distinct from the background and the movement reasonably predictable.

For photographing people, individuals or a group at close distances, the Face+Tracking mode in live view gives great results. Shooting bursts in live view is not recommended, due to the lack of a live feed and a drop in burst rate.