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Using the Nikon Autofocus System

Lesson 15 of 17

Bird in Flight with Autofocus

Mike Hagen

Using the Nikon Autofocus System

Mike Hagen

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Lesson Info

15. Bird in Flight with Autofocus


  Class Trailer
Now Playing
1 Class Introduction Duration:05:53
2 Autofocus Defined Duration:04:45
3 How Autofocus Works Duration:06:39
4 Focus Servo Modes Duration:09:02
5 Focus Patterns Duration:17:20
6 Autofocus Settings Duration:19:55
7 Impacts on Autofocus Duration:16:17
8 Menu Banks Duration:04:47
10 The AF-ON & Back Button Focus Duration:12:45
11 Lens Switches Duration:07:31
12 Autofocus for Portraiture Duration:05:54
14 Landscape with Autofocus Duration:07:04
15 Bird in Flight with Autofocus Duration:05:30
16 Outdoor Sports with Autofocus Duration:08:05
17 Indoor Events with Autofocus Duration:09:18

Lesson Info

Bird in Flight with Autofocus

Birds in flight. So, very difficult sometimes. Birds in flight, sometimes it's a joy, and sometimes it's so frustrating. The shot on the left, that's in Iceland. That shot was taken in a harbor in the Westman Islands in Iceland. The shot on the right is in the Galapagos. Now, big birds, like this bird here, that's a big bird. It has like a five foot wingspan. Eagles, hawks, raptors, these are big birds. Very easy a lot of times to photograph big birds because they move slowly and predictably. Small birds are actually very difficult, if not near impossible to photograph. Sometime try it, sometime try to go photograph a sparrow in your backyard. You won't be able to do it, near impossible. The most difficult time I've ever had photographing birds was photographing puffins in Iceland against a grassy background. I showed you one of my shots earlier. I've done better than that since that time, but puffins are difficult. They're small birds, they move erratically. So what can you do to make...

autofocus for your bird photography better and easier? Well, as you'll see here in the video, I've got some tips for you. And then when we come back, I'll give you a couple more gems. Alright, so I'm just keeping my autofocus sensor on the airplane. I'm in autofocus, continuous mode. (camera shutters) Oh, these are nice with the buildings in the background. Cool. (camera shutters) I'm in dynamic area autofocus. (camera shutters) So while shooting the airplane, one the things that you're always concerned with is keeping your sensor right on the airplane, smack-dab on the front propellor. Shooting an airplane is very similar to shooting birds in flight, so that really requires the autofocus system- The autofocus system really requires time to acquire focus and maintain focus. So if you notice when I was shooting that, I actually started shooting when the plane was really small, a long ways away. That gives the system time to kind of track it, understand what it's looking at. And then as it comes closer, I keep my finger on the autofocus button, you know, the AF on button, or the front autofocus button. And by doing that, it lets the system track it continuously, and I get really good reliable results that way. Yeah, so when we were out photographing at Gas Works Park, we were looking for birds, and they just disappeared. I think they flew north or south, or east or west. They just weren't there that day, but we did have airplanes. And so, I like airplanes almost as much as I love birds. Actually, I like airplanes more than birds, to be honest with you. So we photographed the airplane flying. This is a Beaver, that's called a Beaver. And it's in Seattle, Washington. It's taking off from the water. It's flying up in front of a busy backdrop. That's important to pay attention to the background because whatever you have on your background will dictate what type of autofocus pattern you use. So once the airplane then flies away from the background or if you are photographing airplanes against an empty background, you're gonna use a different autofocus pattern. Now obviously, I didn't have time because the airplane took off and I'm actually actively shooting, and then it flies overhead. I didn't actually have time to change my autofocus pattern during that process. But let's pretend that I'm shooting two scenarios. One scenario is a bird or an airplane against a busy background. And another scenario is a bird or airplane against a clean, clean background. Well this scenario, there's a lot of stuff competing for the autofocus sensor's attention. So you need to keep your autofocus pattern relatively small. We're talking like a D9. D9, Dynamic 9-point autofocus. That's on the Nikon Legacy cameras. On the newer cameras like the D500 and the D5, maybe a D25 because they're both actually the same size. So this is about how big that would appear over that airplane. That's perfect because now the camera knows, you're telling it, hey camera, don't send any of the focus sensor's tracking out here, out in busy land, right? So, the busier the background, oftentimes the smaller the autofocus pattern. Now in this scenario, the airplane or the bird is up against kind of a blank sky. That's great because now we can allow all the sensors to work. The Nikon camera system is smart enough to know that, oh focus here, not there. In fact, there's really nothing to focus on anyways, so. Dynamic maybe 9 or 25 depends on your camera versus on this one, you could even use like a 3D or a 51 point on the Legacy cameras or 153 point on the D5 and D500 cameras. So that's photographing birds and airplanes in flight.

Class Description

The best photo moments often present themselves to us when we least expect it. Every photographer knows the feeling of lining up what they believe will be the perfect shot, only to realize after the fact that their focus was off. Nikon cameras have a built-in autofocus system for these situations. 

Join Mike Hagan, Nikonians Academy Director, to learn how to make the most of this often-overlooked function of your digital SLR. 

In this class, you’ll learn:

  • How to set your focus within the menu settings and overall various camera settings
  • How to use autofocus patterns and area modes
  • How to use servo modes and lens configurations
Mike will help you configure the autofocus system for portraits, sports, wildlife, and landscapes. Relying on autofocus will also let you concentrate on lighting and composition, and help you take advantage of those fleeting moments.



Good course! I am a beginner and this course helped me a lot. I agree with some students that a better work could have been done in preparing the presentations. It seems to me that Mike is great in having informal live workshops. However, for recorded classes like the ones we buy in Creative Live, the teaching technique should be adjusted. Overall I am glad I bought this course.

Cindy Manly-Fields

This was a great course. I just got a Nikon z5 and I also shoot a D750 and your explanations helped me understand how the autofocus works. I pulled out the cameras while you were teaching to follow along and now I have a better understanding. i appreciate at the level you teach, you keep it simple and practical which is helpful. Good job and thanks.

Catherine Lucas

After having my camera D800 for 5 or 6 years and never really got the focussing down I can finally do it. This video should be included with every Nikon sold. I am so happy that I am finally get the fullest out of this great camera, I am more of a visual person. Reading the manual is not the same as actually see it done... Thanks Mike, you rock! I have watched the sequences over and over and learned so much. Thanks. And always welcome when you pass in New Mexico...