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Advice re action photography please

thatmanbrian 9 342 3 Spain
16 Jan 2012 6:29PM
I may have mentioned this last year but now I need to sort it. I use a Nikon D7000 with the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 lens which is great quality. My photography used to be just landscapes but I've started to do nature/action as well now. My problem is the Nikon's auto focus. It fails far too often. Am I expecting too much?

As last year, I visited a wild bird sanctuary flying display. Eagles, owls etc. My technique is as follows: set the camera to a min of ISO 1,000 and aperture priority at about f8 giving a shutter speed of 1/2000. I tried different AF settings incl the recommended AF-C and 39-point dynamic area and sometimes 3D tracking too. I then half-press the shutter to focus on the stationery bird and when he launches himself, press the release for around half a dozen high-speed continuous shoots. I also tried not prefoucssing but just pressing the release as soon as the bird flies. I also tried nine-point settings.

All result in absolutely no in-fous shots whatsover. Not even the very first one as by the time I've reacted the bird has moved out of focus already.

It makes no difference if the bird flies towards me or laterally.

The conditions were clear skies and lowish sun and a varied background over which I had no control. But I got the same results when the bird flew (or in one case ran!) over grass. I am at my wits end. I have the same issues when by a river and trying to catch birds there. OK, I'm not expecting to catch the kingfisher, but gulls for example shouldn't pose a problem!

Edit: forgot to ask - would a Canon of similar cost be any better?
pulsar69 17 1.6k 6 United Kingdom
16 Jan 2012 6:36PM
I dont specialize in bird or action photography but just wonder what sort of f stop you are shooting at as I can imagine down at 2.8 it is going to be real easy to lose the focal plane when the bird veers off ?

oops edit that just read the F8 bit !

also this may help
( or it may tell you your AF system is faulty as it sounds like it should work easily )
thatmanbrian 9 342 3 Spain
16 Jan 2012 6:45PM
Thanks, the site confirmed I'm selecting the right settings for this type of subject. It just doesn't seem to work.
User_Removed 11 4.6k 1 Scotland
16 Jan 2012 6:59PM
I have never had any problem with any of the Nikons I have used for this type of photography (D80, D300, D3s) and I can't imagine that the D7000 is not of the same superb AF quality.

One thing does strike me. You are focussing on a stationary bird while in multi-focal point modes and then holding the shutter release half pressed for maybe quite a long time before the bird starts to move.

All I can suggest is to adopt a more "Normal" mode of operation - try using single point AF and wait until the bird is in flight before locking-on to it. If you know which direction it is going to fly in, set the focus point to the left or right of centre to make it easier to "Swing through" the bird (shotgun style) and locking-on as the wee red rectangle passes through the bird's body. Sounds tricky but it is actually very easy and intuitive after a bit of practice. Some folk program one of the rear buttons for the AF lock rather than using the shutter release but that takes a bit of practice too.

The lens you are using is superb and has very fast AF, so very little time is taken to lock-on before you can press the shutter release fully.

Here's one taken using that method (albeit using a Sigma 150-500mm lens that has a slower AF than your Nikkor):


User_Removed 11 4.6k 1 Scotland
16 Jan 2012 7:03PM
...just a further thought. You are not, by any chance, using VR for those shots? If so, don't.
cameracat 17 8.6k 61 Norfolk Island
16 Jan 2012 7:03PM
First have the cameras AF checked by Nikon.

Second have the Lens focus checked by Nikon, It maye be back or front focusing, Not sure about the D7000, But some models have a means of fine tuning the AF in respect to individual lens used, I know Some Canon models have the same thing, You would be suprised how many can be out of sync, Not a lot, But enough to make a difference in " Critical " shooting conditions, Where everything needs to be spot on.

I know a guy who is into shooting small birds in flight, He uses a D90 with a Sigma 150-500mm and pretty much the same setting you quote, He regularly gets superb results, In theory your D7000 should outperform the D90 in the AF department.

Having said all that, Shooting birds in flight does take some practice and an aqurred technique, But you should get a Gull or two easy.....!!!

But before you can acertain where to start, You need to verify that the " Kit " is properly spot on in all departments.

Dave_Canon 15 2.0k United Kingdom
16 Jan 2012 7:22PM
In similar circumstances, I use A1 Servo, centre point only and continuous shooting for the drive mode. I hold the camera on the bird before take off and press the shutter half way as the bird takes off. The focus will then track the bird as long as the centre spot remains on the bird. To take a shot I press the shutter right down and record a burst of about 6 - 8 frames. I reckon 9 out of 10 will be reasonably well focussed but clearly some shots will be better than others so I just select the best but only when I have chance to view them at home. Occassionally, I lose the centre spot on the bird and thus focus but that is part of the game.

I use a Canon EOS 5D Mkii which is not well known for its fast focussing but, like you, I use a 70-200mm f2.8 lens which helps the focussing system. However, despite being a Canon owner, I believe that the focussing system in Nikons is probably generally better. When I have been out on bird photoshoots, those with Sonys or Monoltas seem to have a lot of problems. The old Canon 5D with f4 lens also struggles. However, those with more recent Canon's or Nikon cameras seem to do very well. I think you just need to modify your technique a little as your settings generally seem fine. Unfortunately I cannot advise on the detail for your camera but I am sure it is quite capable of taking the shots you want.

thatmanbrian 9 342 3 Spain
16 Jan 2012 8:51PM
Thanks all. Here's a typical example. I started focussed on the bird, by this shot, the camera has focused on the background. Certainly the bird is small in the frame.

I think it is my technique at fault to be honest. The above photo was at 1/1000th with VR on whilst panning. Even if sharp the bird is too small in the frame! Trouble is I was at 200mm already and a longer lens would make tracking even harder. Must learn not to blame my tools! Thanks again for the advice.
779HOB 9 1.2k United Kingdom
16 Jan 2012 9:46PM

Quote:..just a further thought. You are not, by any chance, using VR for those shots? If so, don't.

Agree - and I see from above you are using VR. I can't remember all the details but VR doesn't work on moving subjects.
thatmanbrian 9 342 3 Spain
16 Jan 2012 10:10PM
I know, but keep forgetting!Sad I'm off to the river tomorrow to stalk some gulls!!
mikehit 11 8.0k 13 United Kingdom
16 Jan 2012 11:17PM
Does Nikon VR have a pan mode like the Canon lenses?
StrayCat 17 19.1k 3 Canada
17 Jan 2012 4:36AM
779HOB 9 1.2k United Kingdom
17 Jan 2012 5:54AM


I didn't know that. I've never really used mine in a panning situation I guess so haven't had to find out. I'll have to dig the lens out of the car boot and have a look.
User_Removed 11 4.6k 1 Scotland
17 Jan 2012 9:52AM

Quote:..just a further thought. You are not, by any chance, using VR for those shots? If so, don't.

Agree - and I see from above you are using VR. I can't remember all the details but VR doesn't work on moving subjects.

VR does work when panning on moving subjects if you slide the switch to the "active" VR position. But I always think that it does slow down AF a little, which is why I prefer to switch it off completely - especially when using any shutter speed above about 1/500th when camera shake is not going to be an issue anyway.

(What VR does not do, of course, is avoid blur as a result of subject movement).

Railcam 14 920 2 Scotland
17 Jan 2012 9:57AM
Nikon VR lenses do not have a "pan mode" as such. If VR is switched on and set to normal (not active) it automatically detects if you are panning and thus only corrects for camera shake in the vertical axis.

This is a quote from Thom Hogan's review of the 70-200/f2.8 Nikon lens:

"VR Type button: In the Normal position, VR will detect panning and not try to correct for it. In the Active position, VR takes out all motion."

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