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Focus Patterns

Lesson 5 from: Using the Nikon Autofocus System

Mike Hagen

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Lesson Info

5. Focus Patterns

Next Lesson: Autofocus Settings

Lesson Info

Focus Patterns

Now let's talk about the focus patterns. This causes a ton of confusion with Nikon shooters. So, I mentioned before, that all the different Nikon cameras have a different number of focus points, and a different number of cross points, a different number of, you know, horizontal points or vertical points. And on the slide I have here, I kinda show some of the cameras from the Nikon world. For example, the Nikon D610, the Nikon Df, and the Nikon D5500. These cameras have 39 auto focus points, alright. So 39 points. The D7200 and the D750, these cameras have 51 auto focus points. And also, the D810 and the D4, the D4 series of cameras, they have 51 points. Well the new cameras from Nikon, the D500 and the D5, they have 153 points. So, as a new Nikon shooter or even a seasoned Nikon shooter who hasn't thought about this, it's always confusing like well how many points do I use? Which ones are most important? How do I arrange my focus patterns? Well, Nikon has a bunch of patterns to help yo...

u, and sometimes I think they have too many patterns, because it gets a little overwhelming. I'm gonna go through all those patterns, and hopefully at the end of this little discussion, it'll simplify it and you'll be able to say oh yeah, I get it, this is the pattern I need for my specific situation. So, how are you gonna use all the focus points? Well you're gonna choose from, Single-area Auto Focus, Dynamic-area Auto Focus, Group-area Auto Focus or Auto-area Auto Focus. Let's go through those, one by one. So I already talked about kinda how you choose the auto focus mode, which is the auto focus servo by you pushing the auto focus button there and then rotating with your sub command dial or your main command dial sorry that's the back one, the main command dial. To change the pattern though, to change between Dynamic and Single area and Auto area, your gonna push this in and your gonna rotate the front dial. The front dial is called the sub-command dial. So this is on most of the Prosumer and higher cameras from Nikon. You know, like the D7200, the D750 and the D500, and all the D4's, the D5's. The high-end cameras all work in this way. Let's say you don't have one of those cameras, let's say you you have something like a D5300, D something like that, the D3300. In those cameras, you're going to push the information button or the i button. Pop that and the back of the screen pops up and there you'll have a full menu system, where you can choose the servo, I'm sorry, choose the Auto-focus area mode. And then the last one I want to show you here, before I get into the details, is maybe you have an older Nikon camera like the Nikon D700, maybe like the Nikon D3, maybe like the Nikon D300 series. Great cameras, really great cameras, and they still produce great images. In these cases, you're gonna flip a switch on the back of the camera and that switch you're going to select Single area, Dynamic area or Auto area. And then beyond the switch, you often have to go into the menu system, menu A3 typically on those older cameras, and choose how many points are in dynamic. So, if you chose dynamic on a D700, or a D3 or D300 series camera. If you chose this one here, that's called dynamic you're going to then go to menu A and choose how many points in your dynamic area. So, now you know, in general, how to access the options. I think I should probably show here on the D500 real quick, just to show you, just to be clear. So again, I'm gonna push the auto focus button here, and then on the top of the camera, I'm gonna rotate my thumb button, my thumb dial, which is also called my main command dial between AFC and AFS, and then I'm gonna rotate my sub command dial, that's the front. And you can see I can choose the little d there that's showing up, that's the dynamic. So we got dynamic 153, I've got 3D, Group, Auto, Single, and then back to dynamic, dynamic 25, 72, and 153, okay. So let's talk through all of those, starting with Single-area Auto Focus. Oops, I was already there. Single-area Auto Focus. So we already kinda talked through all the cameras and all the different sensors. Remember, we've got anywhere from like 39 sensors up to 153 sensors. And they're, depending on the camera, they're spread out across the region of your viewfinder like that. Well in this case, let's say I'm using the Nikon D500, or I'm using the Nikon D5. I've got 153 choices, but I'm only gonna use one of those points. So, I'm like 152 of them are just sitting there asleep. They're not doing anything. I'm only using one of those sensors. And this works the same in any of the other Nikon cameras, you know, the Df, the D3s, the D7000, you can choose one sensor. So where would you use one sensor? Well, I use Single-Area Auto Focus anytime I need, super-accurate critical focus. So, I'm thinking flowers, you know, macro-photography, I'm thinking portraits, you know, portraits, people don't move a whole lot in portraits, so I don't need a bunch of sensors to track the help track the movement. I'll just pick one sensor, and I'll focus right there on the eye. So, anytime you need critical-focus, use Single-area Auto Focus. But, now, let's say that the subject is moving around. So, let's say you're photographing your Labrador, your dog out in the backyard, and it's a puppy, and it's moving, and it's really erratic. Well, in that case, I bet it's going to be very hard for you to keep that sensor on the dog, all the time, if the dog is moving around. So, therefore you might need to use something bigger. You might need more sensors. And I use something called, Dynamic-area Auto Focus to do that. Let's describe Dynamic. Depending on your camera, there are generally two types of dynamic patterns. I'll call them Legacy cameras and Current cameras, right. The Legacy cameras I'll call before the D5 and the D500. So Legacy cameras, like the D7200 the D750. The Dynamic options are d-9, we've got d- and d-51. So let me explain what that means. Dynamic means, that their focus points actually dynamically move with the subject. It always starts with the middle sensor though, that's called the Priority Sensor. The Priority Sensor is where the auto-focus party begins. Alright, so your going to start the auto-focus on lets say the Labrador, on the Labrador's eyes, maybe even. And then as the Labrador moves around, as long as you keep this larger area of sensors in the general vicinity of the Labrador, it's going to track it, and you're going to be just fine. So, that's Dynamic. It dynamically tracks the subject inside of this group, in this case, of 21 sensors. So, you've got d-9, d-9 is just a 3X3 array. d-21, and then you got the big one d-51. Now hold that thought. Because I'm going to, in parallel, bring in the new cameras from Nikon. The D500 and the D5. Well here we've got a d-25, d-72 and a d-153. And these actually translate one-to-one, in terms of overall coverage surface area. So the d-9 in old cameras is about the same surface area, in your view finder, as the d-25 on the new cameras. So, where an older camera would have, let's say, 21 points here. The new camera would have 72 points. So, the newer cameras from Nikon actually have a higher sensor density in this zone. They have more sensors in the same area. But it generally works the same the way. It generally works so that if the subject is moving around, as long as you keep that cloud of sensors over the subject, the camera will maintain focus. Okay, so Dynamic-area. Let me show you an actual example. A real world example of the dynamic auto focus pattern. So, this is in the Galapagos. Galapagos Islands. I took this photo, I think I took it last year. And this is a Red-footed Booby. It's hunting, so it's looking down for fish. And anyone who's ever photographed birds knows that it's very difficult, sometimes, to actually track that bird, as it's moving around the scene. So, here's what I did. This camera, I think I took this photo with a Nikon D800. So, I moved the sensor group up here towards the top. The Priority Sensor is there, in the middle. And then as that birds flying around, I keep pressing my focus button, my AF-on button or my shutter release button. And as that bird moves, as long as I keep that sensor group, that whole group of 21 points, as long as I keep it somewhere, or something in the bird in that group, I'm going to maintain focus. So, Dynamic-area Auto Focus, what's the best one? You know, there's three choices, actually four choices there, d-9, d-21, d-51. I recommend using the second position. So if you have the D500 or if you have an older camera, that second position is either, d, make sure I'm remembering my numbers correctly, the d-21 on the older cameras, or the d-72 on the newer cameras. And the reason why, because that size tends to work for most of my photography, alright. It allows just enough movement to track it, but not so that the sensor group isn't so big, that it starts to pull in focusing from something else in the background. Like, if you choose the big one. Like d-51 or d-153, that covers a big portion. Sometimes, the background information gets in the way, and the camera will actually start focusing on light poles and clouds in the background. So, the big sensors patterns, I'm not always keen on, unless the background is clean and clear. If the background is clean and clear then I will use the larger sensor patterns. The dirtier, the messier the background, smaller sensors. Okay, let's talk about this next one, which is 3D. Again, you select this by pushing your auto-focus button and rotating on the front, and you'll see it will say 3D. So, 3D, is designed to be a, a tracking method that you start the auto-focus on the subject. And then, as the subject moves around, you will see the focus points move as that thing moves around on the screen. The Priority Sensor moves, which is kinda different than before. Before, the Priority Sensor always stayed in the middle. But, now in 3D, the Priority Sensor actually moves around. This can be dangerous, especially if the Priority Sensor picks something incorrect to focus on. If that ever happens, you'll have to lift your thumb up, or lift your finger up and then start the focus over again. And it will start back in the middle. Here's an example of a missed opportunity. This is my Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a Puffin in flight. Isn't it great? It's a blurry blob right? So, the problem with that photo is that I tried to use this 3D system, but the background was really messy, in fact the background was a grassy slope, a lot of dark and a lot of bright, and as that bird flew over the camera went, woop! I like the grass better than I like the bird. So, messy backgrounds just definitely do not work for 3D. 3D does, however, work really well for this type of photo. This is an airplane against a blue sky. 3D will nail that every single time. Because there's nothing else competing with the image. Or I should say nothing else competing with the subject. Yes, use 3D if your background is simple. No, I recommend against using 3D with a messy or a dirty background. Alright, the next focus pattern is Group, Group-area Auto Focus. Group is new, Group it's new since, I think, the D810 and the D750. Anything newer than those cameras has a new pattern called Group. I love Group. Group works like this. There are actually five sensors in the Group Pattern. Little idiosyncrasy here, when you look through your camera, you'll only see four, you won't see the middle sensor, but know that it's there. Group-area Auto Focus works like this, think of it like a shotgun, anything in the shot that's going out in that group, will be focused on, and its closest subject. Whatever is closest will be the thing that the camera focuses on. Alright, so here we go, here is a photo, this is my daughter. And I used Group on this, and I purposely set this up, so that the camera would make a mistake. Just as an illustration. But look what I did with the Group. I put the Group so that one senor is over her nose, another sensor is over the bridge of her nose, and these two sensors are kind of off to the side of her face. And if you look very carefully at the presentation, you will see that her nose is in focus, but her eyes are actually out of focus. Because what Group does, is Group finds the closest thing inside of those five sensors and focuses on that. So, don't use Group for portraits or for critical focus scenarios like macros, I don't know, anytime your trying to focus on anything specific don't use Group. Rather, do use Group, maybe, for bird in flight or sports, especially erratic scenes. Because, again think of it like a shotgun. If any one of those sensors gets focus you're golden, you're good to go. The last one I want to cover is what's called Auto-area Auto Focus. Auto-area Auto Focus. This is where you seed control entirely to Nikon. In other words your not going to decide anymore. You want Nikon decide for you. Auto-area Auto Focus. So, quite literally, Nikon just tries to figure out what it is the camera is pointed at. And then applies sensors for that scene. And in this example, this is in Iceland, and that's a goose, and so I'm very close to the goose, and the background mountains are quite a distance away. So, you can see that the Auto-area Auto Focus did a decent job, it actually picked up what I was trying to focus. Now, this goose is behind that goose, so it did use all those sensors, but there's a little bit of a depth of field issue, that it didn't account for, but fortunately, it didn't focus here on the mountains. So, what I'm going to tell you is this. Don't use Auto-area Auto Focus. If you're the main, if you're the primary photographer for the scene, don't use Auto-area Auto Focus. In other words, if you're going to hand your camera, though, to your grandma, or to someone else, maybe your husband, and he doesn't understand the Auto Focus system, maybe you could use Auto-area Auto Focus for them. Because they won't know what to point the camera at. They don't know how to move the sensors around. Just let the camera do it for them. But, anyone who's trying to get better at this whole Auto Focus thing. Don't use this one.

Ratings and Reviews


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...

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