Outdoor Sports with Autofocus


Using the Nikon® Autofocus System


Lesson Info

Outdoor Sports with Autofocus

What about sports? A lot of y'all have kids. I have kids, my kids are in soccer. And getting accurate photos or getting clear photos of them in sporting events is always a difficulty. You know we want to show our kids off to the world, these are my kids, I love showin' 'em off. There's my daughter on the left and my son on the right. Daughter's playin' soccer there and my son is running cross-country. So, differences in these two photographs? This one here is in the morning, the sun had just crested and so the light, the sun is fairly bright in the scene. This one was on a northwest cloudy, rainy, horrible, rotten day. Just the way we live around here sometimes, so. Here my focus, I had to think about not just focus I had to think about shutter speed. In fact to get that photo I had to really amp up my aperture. I'm sorry, amp up my ISO to make sure my shutter speed was fast enough, alright. This one I really didn't have to worry about ISO, because there's so much light, really bright ...

sunny day. So ISO plays a big role in that, just like I was talkin' about earlier. Well let's go back to Seattle and shoot in the field an actual soccer match between two elite soccer players. So we're out in the field here, we're talkin' autofocus. And I wanna talk about settings on the camera for dealing with different scenarios, like motion, action, landscape, wildlife, all of those different things. The scenario I have set up now is for someone walking and moving towards the camera. So the person's moving, in motion, therefore we want the autofocus to be continuously tracking. So on the camera here, I'm gonna push my autofocus mode button down here with my thumb, and then on my front dial and my rear dial, I'm able to change and configure the different autofocus modes. So with my thumb here I'm rotating, you can see I've got AFC versus AFS. Well AFC on the Nikon means continuous servo autofocus. So I wanna be continuously tracking the movement. Now the front dial, this changes how many sensors I'm using. So for most of my work that's, you know, the movement isn't fast and furious, I'm gonna use something like D25. I'm on the Nikon D500 which is a brand new camera from Nikon, so with this camera D25 makes sense. If you have an older Nikon, maybe something like D nine. That stands for dynamic autofocus area, nine points. On the D500 I'm gonna use D25. So it's using 25 points to track autofocus. So now I'm gonna autofocus on her as she walks towards me. And I'm tracking focus. I'm back button focusing, so I'm pushing my AF on button, and I'm just shooting bursts when I see something interesting. Great. Awesome. OK so the next scenario we'll photograph here is a sports scenario. We're gonna shoot soccer. And so what do we need to think about with the autofocus system in this situation. Well obviously we need to track the movement. We need to track the movement as it's coming towards us. But a lot of times with soccer, there's a lot of side to side movement as well. So we need our autofocus system configured in such a way that it allows the subject to move like outside of the main autofocus sensor. In the Nikon camera there are a number of different options for that. And so I'll show, I'll go through a couple of 'em right now. I'm gonna push the autofocus button down here, and then in the back, the rear dial, I'm gonna set up AFC, which stands for continuous autofocus. And then on the front dial, I'm gonna rotate and choose how many sensors I want to utilize. Well since this is a little bit more of an erratic scenario, I'm gonna use something like D72. And again this is on the Nikon D500, so D72 means dynamic autofocus 72 points. So there's basically this grid of 72 points, that the sensors will track as the, as the soccer players move left and right. There's another option that you can use, that sometimes I recommend. And that's called auto, auto area autofocus. Now auto area actually works very well in situations where the background is clean and um, and not messy. There's no distractions. Well this background is pretty cluttered. There's buildings back there, there's sailboats, so when you use auto area, sometimes the focus will jump to the background and then jump back to the subjects. I don't recommend it in this specific scenario. So I'm gonna go back here to D and we're gonna shoot a sequence of them running up towards me, so before I do that though, I'm gonna move my sensor over to the left hand side, so it's focused on the one player who has the ball now. And then as they run towards me, I'll just keep that sensor on them. Alright, you guys ready? And go. And I'm focusing, great, nice job. OK for this scenario I'm just gonna shoot with the camera vertically and what I'm gonna do now is I'm gonna move the autofocus' sensor over to the left hand side to keep the sensor on the subject as they run towards me. Alright you guys ready? Set go. And I'm focusing, I'm pushing down my focus button, good. Awesome. (laughs) You have no idea how much money it cost to hire those two elite athletes. (Laughs) Yes, that was awesome. So they're production staff here at Creative Live. Good friends. So they did a great job of standing in for soccer. Now, in the field on a day like that, you know it was a cloudy day, so I still was thinking through things like, ISO and shutter speed. You know I really need a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement. You can see the camera did a great job, but beyond that I also did a really good job. Pat myself on the back because I worked hard to keep the focus sensor on the subject. And now in these scenarios, remember bright contrasty lines. Bright contrasty lines. I'm always looking for that. So what do I have? Well I've got a bright contrasty line right there. So that's what I was focused on in my mind. I'm gonna keep the sensor there, keep the sensor there, keep the sensor there. Self talk. (laughs) If you ever stand around me when I'm shooting photography, or shooting sports you'll hear me say this. (whispers) Sensor. Focus. You know, concentrate. Because it helps me remember what's important in autofocus. Keeping the sensor on the subject. In this example this was a horizontal shot, and I worked really hard to keep the sensor in the middle and then also again on this line of contrast. So outdoor sports, football, baseball, all of those things um, make sure to keep the sensor centered on your most important subject and also in these situations I use dynamic I think I used dynamic 25, no this was my D500 camera, so I used dynamic 72. And again how big that is that sensor group ends up being about that size. And that's about the perfect amount as they move back and forth. I would not have used auto area autofocus, nor would I have used 51 point dynamic autofocus, 'cause it's just too much clutter there in the background.

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.

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...

Janie Anderson

Thanks, Mike! I will go on tomorrow's shoot with my new Nikon D500, using autofocus with much more confidence thanks to this excellent class. I especially want to master birds in flight, so that module was of particular interest, as was the detailed review of back-button focus.