Nikon AF modes explained

“Grizzly Cub” “Hovering Egret”
“Dramatic Landing” “Hard Turn”
Nikon AF modes explained” is a new article by Steve Perry (website | YouTube | Facebook). You can check also his previous [NR] posts here:

Have you ever wondered if you’re getting the most out of Nikon’s AF system?

Sure, AF modes may not generate the kind of anxiety that keeps you up till the wee hours of the morning, but it is something to consider. After all, we put a lot of time and effort into our photographs and I doubt you’ll ever run across a photographer who wouldn’t appreciate a higher keeper rate.

However, Nikon’s AF can be a double-edged sword. There are a myriad of options that cover just about any AF situation you may find yourself struggling with. However, knowing which combination of settings to select can sometimes be tougher than cracking the combination at Fort Knox.

I mean, when should you switch from Single Point AF to Dynamic 9, 21, or 51 AF? For that matter, should you be using Dynamic AF or Group AF – or switching between the two? What about 3D AF?

Of course, there are also a confusing number of options in the Custom Functions menu as well. What duration should you set your “Focus tracking with lock on” feature to? Should you set your AF-C mode to Release, Focus, or Focus + Release? For that matter, what’s the difference? Should you set to 11 or 51 AF points – and what exactly does that mean anyway?  (Hint – it’s not the active number of AF points.)

Those are the types of questions I see all the time, so I created a video that will hopefully help un-muddy the waters a little bit. In this video, I’ll explain what each of the major Nikon AF modes does, why you might need it, suggestions for setup, and more.  We’ll also stroll through some of the more important custom functions as well.

This video is based on my experience as a wildlife photographer, so you’ll likely need to tailor these suggestions to your own type of shooting. I can tell you that I’ve been happy with the results from the settings I describe in the video, but everyone has a different style, so feel free to modify the suggestions in a way that’ll work best for your type of photography.

sit-back-and-relax

“Sit Back And Relax”

For subjects like this, you just can’t beat single point AF. Sure, Dynamic or even Group can get the shot as well, but the truth is it’s much better to be able to put the AF spot right on the eye for precise focus and single point AF makes it easy. (Nikon D4, 600mm lens + 1.4TC, 1/250th at F7.1)

“Angel Wings”

“Angel Wings”

This is a prime example of why I like to shut OFF the “Focus tracking with lock on” feature.  I was actually on another bird when I saw this one enter from the corner of the frame. I quickly changed birds and the lock was instantaneous. (Nikon D4, 600mm lens, 1/6400th,  F4.5)

“Hard Turn”

“Hard Turn”

For this one, D9 came to the rescue. I was tracking this guy as he was flying by at 30+MPH and it was more than a little tricky to keep a single AF sensor on him at close range. Switching to D9, gave me a much better chance of keeping the AF area in the vicinity of his head.  Group AF might have been even better but my D4 was born too early for that feature.  (Nikon D4, 600mm + 1.4TC, 1/1600th at F5.6)

“Hovering Egret”

“Hovering Egret”

As I mention in the video, I love back button AF. One benefit with Back Button AF is that the camera is always in Continuous AF mode – making the tracking easy as this egret flew directly towards me on his way to a landing. (Nikon D4, 600mm + 1.4TC, 1/4000th F5.6)

“Dramatic Landing”

“Dramatic Landing”

For this shot, I was glad I had my AF-C release mode set to “Release” rather then “Focus” According to Capture NX, the camera did NOT have an AF lock, however, the eye of this bird is crazy tack sharp. Had it been set to “Focus”, the camera wouldn’t have fired. (Nikon D4, 600mm + 1.4TC, 1/4000th, F6.3)

“Grizzly Cub”

“Grizzly Cub”

This was an easy catch with single point AF, despite the fact that the cub was walking. For images like this, I generally won’t turn to Dynamic or Group AF – it’s easy enough to keep a single AF sensor on his eye as he moves. (Nikon D4, 600mm + 1/400th, F4.5)

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