Focusing for action or fast focus photography isn’t the easiest thing in the world. But it is possible, as many photographers show us on a daily basis.
There are a few things that you need to know about. These are both gear related, as in what cameras can offer you, and settings related, giving you the best possibilities for those focused shots.
Read our tips here for how to focus on action and fast-moving subjects.
Choosing the Right Focus Modes
There are three autofocus modes on digital cameras. You will find One Shot, AI Focus and AI Servo on Canon and AF-A, AF-S and AF-C on Nikon. Other camera companies will use the same types of autofocus, but they might be slightly different.
One-Shot & AF-S – Your camera focuses on the focal point for one image
AI Focus & AF-A – A hybrid autofocus mode that switches between the one-shot and continuous mode. If your subject is still, it will use the One-Shot mode. but if your subject moves, it will follow them.
AI Servo & AF-C – The camera continuously focuses on the subject when the distance changes. This only works for the subject moving when on the chosen focal point.
NB – Newer Nikon cameras have the AF-F option which tracks subjects automatically in live view mode. It doesn’t work so well for fast-moving subjects, however.
Continuous mode is one of the most important and widely used focus modes when facing sports and action photography. they are known as AI-Servo for Canon and AF-C for Nikon, but they do the same thing.
This allows you to track the subject, as long as the focal point is on them throughout. This is perfect for subjects who are moving toward or away from you, such as models on a catwalk.
The difficulty is that the single focal point needs to stay on them or you will lose the focus. This is better for subjects closer to you, as further away, the focus might also look at the background at the same time.
There is a lot to be said for manual mode, and it is possible to shoot without autofocus. This is not an easy option, and there will be a large margin of error. In some circumstances, I photographed bands and musicians where AI Servo didn’t work well. Low light situations can cause this issue.
So, do you go home or do you try your hand at manual focusing?
The thing you need to take into consideration is there are cases where this works very well. If you are photographing a sport or action scene where you know where the subjects will go. For example, F1 racing tends to stick to a track.
What you can do is prefocus on an area, and wait for the subject to enter it. The slower the aperture, the more of the area is in focus.
Personally, I have used this method for guitarists who like to rock out by moving back and forth. They stick to the same path, so I am able to focus on them in a specific position, and then wait for them to hit that point again and again.
Choosing the Right Camera – Frame Rate
For sports, photojournalism and action photography, you need to capture fast-paced environments. You might want to make sure you get the shot, rather than repeat the same perspective over and over again.
Consider this. You are sitting under the hoop when your favorite basketball team plays. The main star comes in for a slam dunk, and you have one shot to get it right – framing, exposure, and autofocus. You might have to wait another 20 minutes for them to try again.
If you have a camera with a fast burst rate, you might have 10 shots to get it right. Or, considering the Olympus E-M1 II, 60 chances. Is it worth the risk? The slam dunk might never happen ever again.
Better to have 10 frames you can choose from, than getting stuck with one or two.
The frame rate isn’t only down to your camera. It is also down to you and how you hold and move/pan the camera. You need to know when to start the succession of 10 images so you have the right timing.
On top of the user issues, there is also the question about memory cards. You don’t want to let down your camera’s limitation of frame rate by using a slow card.
Your camera might capture 10 frames a second, but it will only capture as many as your card will allow.
Choosing the Right Camera – Autofocus
Phase Detection And Contrast Detection
There are two types of autofocusing, Phase Detection And Contrast Detection. Some cameras have a preference, such as DSLRs using phase-detection and mirrorless using contrast detection. But, some cameras use both.
When light enters your DSLR via the lens, it splits. Some of it bounces off the mirror and heads through the pentaprism. The smaller part goes through a translucent part of the mirror, allowing you to autofocus.
The light that enters the mirror is split again, creating two separate images. If these images line up in the autofocus unit, the focal point is in focus.
If the images are close together, the focus falls in front of the subject. The focus falls behind the subject If the images are far apart. The camera corrects it to bring that subject into a correct focus. And it does it quickly.
This doesn’t work well in situations of low light. It also has issues with subjects that lack contrast. Another issue is that the AF points don’t sit close to the edges of the frame, meaning you can’t focus on anything there.
In mirrorless cameras, the reading comes from the sensor.
Canon uses Dual Pixel CMOS AF which is new technology behind autofocusing. Each pixel on the sensor is made from one diode recording light and another diode for autofocusing.
Contrast detection looks at the contrast of the subject in any given scene. When the contrast is at its highest, the subject is in focus. There is an issue here, which makes it great for static subjects rather than moving ones.
The focuses of the lens need to move forward and backward. This makes it slower to focus.
It is the most accurate way to ensure your subjects are in focus. The movement of the focusing slows down the speed of this type of autofocusing, making it slow when tracking and moving subjects.
This is why camera manufacturers have created systems to counteract this. Cameras, such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II have both types of detection points, making it versatile.
Choosing the Right Camera Settings
Your camera settings need to be spot on when capturing anything from sportspeople running around or birds flying overhead.
As the subjects are moving, we need to concentrate on the shutter speed as the main setting to follow. To freeze the action, we need a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second. Anything below this will blur, making the image unusable.
To ensure that we maintain that setting, we need to use Shutter Priority mode, which is TV for Canon or S for Nikon. This allows us to change the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second, and the camera will work out the aperture for you.
This way, if you decide that 1/1000th of a second is still slow (fast cars) then you can bump it up without having to remember the exposure triangle.
We want to keep the quality of the images as high as possible, so we will start with ISO 100. If you find it is too dark, and you have reached the limit of your aperture, then you can easily change it without affecting other settings.
You’ll find that a low ISO isn’t going to work for indoor shots. Similarly, unless the sun is very bright, a low ISO will give you a low depth of field, which is more difficult to get the shot perfectly.
Change your shooting mode to AI-Servo Mode for Canon or AF-C for Nikon. This setting forces the camera to keep refocusing when the focal point shows a subject unsharp.
This lets you capture moving subjects without having to keep restarting. Just keep your finger halfway on the shutter.
To enable the burst mode, you need to ensure High-Speed Continuous is selected. This will take multiple images within a second. The amount of frames-per-second depends on your camera and memory card.
Have your focal point set to the middle of the scene. This is where you have the best opportunity to spot what is happening around you. If it stays in the center, it is easy to remember where you need to point your frame to record it.
Only change the focal point if you are aiming at something specific as focusing and reframing aren’t easy in these action photography settings.
The last thing I want to stress is to use back button focusing. This means changing the automatic focus button from your shutter release to another button on the back of the camera.
This stops you accidentally re-focusing a scene, wasting precious time.
- TV (Canon)/S (Nikon) Shooting mode
- 1/1000th shutter speed
- 100 ISO
- AI-Servo Mode (Canon)/AF-C (Nikon)
- High-Speed Continuous Shooting mode
- Middle-of-the-frame focal point
- Back button focusing
Looking for more great tips? Check out our post What to Look for in a Sports and Adventure Photography Camera next!