Wednesday, March 24, 2010

AF settings for birds in flight with the Canon 1D Mark IV

The Canon 1D Mark IV is the most customizable camera I’ve ever used. It has dozens of settings that allow you to tune it to your exact needs. Wading through all those settings, though, can be challenging, especially if you don’t have a lot of time for trial and error.

After using the camera for more than two months of intensive wildlife photography, I’ve finally settled on autofocus settings that I really like. I’m sharing them with you because I’m often asked for my settings. Remember, these are settings that I like. Your style of shooting may be completely different, which is why the ability to change these settings exists in the first place.

With the exception of the following, I’ve left the other autofocus settings on the C.fn III menu at their default settings:


C.fn III-2 AI Servo tracking sensitivity

One step below middle. If you’re tracking something and something passes between you and the thing your tracking, this setting governs how long the camera will wait before refocusing on your selected focus point. The more you move the point to the left, the longer the camera will wait to refocus. The default setting actually works fine, but this is what I used with the Mark III series and it still seems to work well.


C.fn III-4 AI Servo AF tracking method

I switched this to 1, which turns on continuous AF track priority. This setting tells the camera whether it should concentrate on the focus point you selected, or the object it thinks you’re tracking. It’s designed for sports photographers. It will tell the camera to continue tracking a player even if a referee briefly gets in the way. For wildlife photography, it makes it easier to track birds, even when you can’t keep the autofocus point on the same spot.


C.fn III-5 Lens drive when AF impossible

I switched this to 1, “focus search off.” I found that with the default setting, the camera is way too quick to give up trying to lock focus. In its default setting, the camera then defocuses and slowly works its way through its range until it can focus on something. Problem is, when you’re working with a long lens and a bird that’s far off, when the lens defocuses, the viewfinder becomes a complete blur. It’s focusing close with a lens that has very little depth of field. When the viewfinder is a complete blur, it’s impossible for you to keep the autofocus point on the bird, and therefore the camera is never able to lock focus on anything. I’m having much more success by turning focus search off. When the camera can’t immediately lock focus, take your finger off the shutter (or AF button), compose so your autofocus point is back on top of the bird, and then try to focus again. You may need to repeat that process a few times for tricky subjects, but this works a million times better than the focus search method.


C.fn III-6 Lens AF stop button function

I set this to 7, “Spot AF.” On long telephoto lenses, there are little black buttons on the ring near the lens hood. These are called AF stop buttons. This camera setting determines what those buttons do when they’re held down. Spot AF, a new feature, is like spot metering. It causes the camera to concentrate on a small portion within an autofocus point. It’s supposed to allow it to lock focus in challenging conditions. It helps me a little when the animal is in front of a busy background, though the main reason I switched this to 7 is that I have absolutely no use for the other settings.


C.fn III-8 AF expansion with selected point

I set this to 2, “surrounding AF points.” When you’re tracking a bird (or anything else) this setting tells the camera whether or not it can use AF points besides the one you selected to help with tracking. The AF point expansion is handy, because it is incredibly hard to keep one single AF point on the very same part of a moving object. The 0 setting turns any assistance off; the 3 setting turns all autofocus points on. In theory, you’d think you would want to use 3 – to get any help you can get. In practice, when set to 3, the camera gets distracted very easily. It’s quick to focus on anything that’s closer than what you want to track. When tracking a bald eagle, for example, the camera quickly jumped from the eye (which is what I wanted in focus) to the tip of the wing closest to me. The setting 2 – surrounding AF points – allows the camera to use the AF points that are in a ring around the point you selected, and works very well.


C.fn III-9 Multi-controller when metering

I set this to 1, which allows you to use the “joystick” to select a new autofocus point. I love this feature because it allows me to quickly change my composition. If the bird suddenly changes direction, for example, I can rapidly move the autofocus point to the opposite side of the viewfinder to give the bird “room” to fly in my composition. A friend of mine who photographs sports, however, hates this feature because he accidentally bumps the joystick – and accidentally changes his autofocus point.


C.fn III-16 Orientation linked AF point

I set this to 1, which allows you to select separate autofocus points for when the camera is horizontal and vertical. When I can, I try to get horizontal and vertical images of a subject – you never know how a client will want to use an image. With this feature set to 1, I can quickly switch my orientation back and forth without having to change the autofocus point each time. The point that I selected when the camera was horizontal will automatically be made active when the camera is horizontal. I can select a completely different point that will become active when the camera is vertical.


Bonus autofocus tip

I've found the thing that makes the biggest difference in my autofocus success rate is not any one camera setting, it's how you use the AI Servo mode. I've found that if I track the bird with the shutter half-pressed for a short period — a half-second or so — the Canon 1D Mark IV locks focus and holds it amazingly well.

Have your own autofocus tips or preferred settigs? Share them in the comments section!


Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin,
In regards to C.fn 111-10 selectable AF point which of these do you select?

LivingWilderness said...

I leave C.fn III-10 set to its default: 0 -- all 45 AF points.

I can select the point I want quickly with the joystick, so I haven't found any need to limit the number of points that can be manually selected.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, this is very informative. I have recently purchased the 1D mk 4 and the 500mm lens and am still getting my sea legs. When I push the black button on the lens collar (my camera set to spot focus), the focus point blinks, but isn't any smaller...I was hoping for a cross hair or something. I think I am not understanding properly. Can you explain how the black buttons work with spot focus? It would be much appreciated.

LivingWilderness said...

If it blinks, it's working.

The size of the AF sensor in your viewfinder isn't a perfect representation of the size of the actual AF point itself.

If the AF point is blinking, the camera is in Spot AF mode, even though the size of the display hasn't changed.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, thanks for your very helpful post about 1D4 custom settings.

I'm using the 1D4 with a Canon 500mm f4 IS lens mainly for birds in flight(lots of eagles).

And I've been using all the same settings you specified except for C.fn III-6 Lens AF stop button function. Can you tell me how it might change things for me in tracking and shooting birds across busy backgrounds if, like you, I also set C.fn III-6 to 7, “Spot AF” instead of 0, "AF Stop?"

Thanks, Bob

LivingWilderness said...

Hi Bob! The Spot AF setting causes the camera to concentrate on the very center of the AF point to achieve focus, rather than using the full point.

In my experience, I think the AF points are actually much larger than they appear in the viewfinder. If your subject is relatively small in the frame, using just a tiny part of the AF point may help avoid some distractions.

On the other hand, if you're tracking a subject and the background changes from simple to complex to simple, you may want to leave it at its default setting. Then you could use the AF Stop button on the lens to tell the camera to not even try focusing while you're panning over an especially busy background.


mikegeng said...

Many thanks for this. Did my first bird shooting yesterday after having used my 1Ds for aviation work. Found it to be quite different and it has me wanting to tweak some of my CF settings. Found this via google search.

Firetog said...

I'm more a Fashion photographer than bird shooter, but decided today to try my luck at some migratory birds here in Bermuda. We call them longtails, but I suspect thats just a name the locals give them. My hit rate was horrendous. So I definitely need to figure out the AF settings for this type of shooting. Thanks for the post I'll use those settings and try again.

Canon 1D mk iv with 300mm 2.8 IS V1

LivingWilderness said...

@Firetog -- Do be aware that technique also plays a critical role. If, as you're panning, the bird you're tracking moves all around the viewfinder, then you're probably not going to get very good results. You'll get the best results if you can keep the bird over a particular AF point or nearby points. The more erratic the bird is in your viewfinder, the less likely you are to get in-focus images.

Optimizing the settings helps, but it's no substitute for good technique.

I recently wrote about panning with birds in flight:

Anonymous said...

I'm using exact the same settings as you do.
My keeper rate with the 500mm f4
has reached his top.
I figured it all out after one year use and big disappointments.