Birds in flight with 7D: suggested AF settings?

Discussion in 'Canon EOS' started by ljwest, Sep 7, 2011.

  1. Hi! I'm working on improving my bird photography skills, and one of the things I have the hardest time with is getting in-focus shots of birds in flight. I realize that there will be a relatively low percentage of 'keepers' in the best of situations, but I am trying to improve my personal ratio on that front. My usual equipment is an EOS 7D with grip and EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L.
    I've found that using AI Servo and having all 19 AF points active (Auto-select) requires me to get a single focus point on the subject and then focus before it will track the subject. This can be difficult for me with fast moving or fast maneuvering birds.
    I recently found that I get more a greater percentage of in-focus shots in AI Servo mode by selecting Zone focusing, and using the "center 9" zone. This does not require that I get a fast-moving bird (often small, as we know...) in a single AF point and hoping I can track it well enough so that the AF system can lock onto it with that single AF point, though it does require I keep the subject inside that 'center 9'. (I also get better results with slower- moving birds like Herons instead of swallows, but I suppose that's relatively normal!)
    I have back-button focus enabled (I often wonder if this is the right setting for capturing moving subjects...), the Multi-controller (joystick) set to change the focus point/zone selection, AI Servo tracking sensitivity (C.Fn III-1) set to slow, AI Servo 1st/2nd image priority (C.Fn III-2) set to 0: AF/Tracking priority, and AI Servo AF tracking Method (C.Fn III-3) set to 1: Continuous AF Track Priority.
    I know I've got a long way to go learning to physically track the birds, and maintain a steady sight on them. I am hoping that maybe someone can point out anything I might be doing wrong with the camera settings, or recommend a different set of settings that may help me at my current skill level.
  2. Larry,
    I use a 50D, and the 100-400 also. And as I understand it, the 7D has improved AF features that I am not familiar with. However, I would suggest using only the center focusing point. I anticipate you will get many more responses that will lean the same way.
    You indicate that you have the AI Servo tracking sensitivity (C.FnIII-1) set to slow. I think if my 50D had that feature, I'd be finding the setting that would speed it up as much as I could.
    When I'm shooting birds in flight, I find myself "feathering" (for lack of terminology) the shutter button from no pressure to the "half" position often as I follow the bird, even though I have the AF set to AI Servo. I think it more or less "resets" both the focus and the tracking ability plus gives me a chance to see if I actually have the focus point on the birds head or body or not. Over time I have become much better at maintaining the focus point on the birds head, and have gained a much better "follow through" after I full press the shutter button and take the shot. I feel that obtaining a good "follow through" technique is very important on shooting moving subjects.
    I know thats probably not much help, but I think other than speeding up the tracking sensitivity your other settings appear to be as I would have them if I had those features.
    I'm certain others will chime in with different techniques too. Just keep working at it . . . .
  3. Larry, for in flight work- AI Servo, back button focus and single point is the best combination. This may seem a silly question, have you also removed AF start from the shutter button? Assuming you have, what James describes as "feathering" is something I've adopted as well. You basically refocus prior to each depression of the shutter as you track the subject.
    Also- you can adjust the AF sensitivity, I have mine set to high for faster aquisition (though this can also cause the af to be more susceptible to hunting if you lock your thumb down on the AF ON as you track), and you can set AF priority (first shot, second shot etc). I have mine set to first shot as I tend to "feather" frequently.
    Other factors can contribute to an image appearing to be OOF, especially with birds in flight. DoF can be an issue, depending on angle and distance to subject. (I have numerous images of Geese with the neck/body in sharp focus but the head is soft).
    Shutter speed- at 400mm (640mm angle of view w7D crop factor) a shutter speed of 1/2500 is the minimum I'd recommend for handholding, and even this can be marginal with a moving subject. (I believe that the 7D's pixel density/size tends to make moving subjects appear less sharp due to % of surface area per pixel that the subject occupies being larger.)
    Again, as James suggests, follow through. I also recommend the use of either a monopod, or very small tripod (legs taped) as a handgrip mounted to the tripod collar to aid in tracking. Shoot in small bursts of 2-3 shots per sequence/focus tap (machine gunning does not equate to higher keeper rates on BiF).
  4. I have the exact same set up as you have.
    I use center point with expansion and set the af towards the slow end, not the fast end.
    I pan the bird(s) and take only 3-5 shots.
    I do not use a tripod or monopod for this, especially on a boat.
    I have had no trouble with a good percent of "keepers".
    I have never had to use a higher shutter speed than 1/1000.
  5. Shutter button focus is off. It only starts the metering now.
    As for C.Fn III-1, the way I read it, (toward) 'slow' is what I would prefer.: "If it is set toward [Slow], interruptions by any obstacles will be less disruptive. It makes it easier to keep tracking the target subject. If it is set toward [Fast], it will be easier to focus any subjects which suddenly enter the picture from the side. Convenient when you want to successively photograph multiple subjects located at random distances" I read this as a branch that enters the picture while panning is far less likely to become the in-focus point the more toward [Slow] this is set.
    I'm always practicing proper follow-through with the shots. I learned that a long time ago. I'll try the method using the monopod as a grip. Maybe that'll help me somewhat. Thanks for the responses!
  6. Larry,
    In addition to the good info here, there was an earlier thread on this which covered the same topic:
    Here is one item I contributed:
    One thing I'll add is to set up the camera user settings to switch quickly from One-shot to AI Servo. I set up C1 (on the mode dial to the left of the viewfinder) as ISO 400, AI-servo, f/5.6, evaluative metering; 19-point AF; AV priority, Hi-speed drive. I set up C2 for one-shot AF, all other settings the same. If you have the 7D, you have a C3, which you can also set up. That way, all it takes is one notch rotation from C1 to C2, etc. Saves a lot of time. Check the manual for procedure.​
    Also, just keep practicing...that is what improved my percentage (although it still isn't what I want it to be, heh).
  7. I use manual exposure, A1 servo, back button focus, center focus box expanded, and AF set to slow. These settings increased my keeper rate dramatically. I used to be able to pick out the 1 or 2 good ones out of a 15 frame burst. Now I have hard time picking from the 80% to 90% keeper rate. Not too bad a problem to have though!
  8. I use the same set up as Harold Center plus assist, AI Servo and af towards the slower end. I also take the AF off the shutter and put it on the back button. For exposure either manual or spot tends to work best. If the bird is a mid tone then spot works well - if not either manual or compensate and use spot.
  9. There are different ways to approach this, and it depends on the birds, your skills, and whether or not you can predict where the birds will be.
    Most often, especially with backgrounds that the AF system might pick up instead of locking on the bird, I think using a single center focus point is going to be more accurate than using multiple points.
    As to camera mode... there are some variables here. In some cases the AI Servo mode can be good since it is always focusing and it attempts to predict where the moving subject might be when the shutter actually fires. On the other hand, if the bird is passing across your field of vision (say, right to left) rather than approaching directly or obliquely, regular old one-shot mode can work fine.
    People often don't talk about this in equipment forums, but I'm certain that there are a bunch of non-equipment issues that are also critical. It is not easy - as you alluded to - to try to track a fast moving flying target with a 400mm focal length on a cropped sensor camera, much less try to keep it under the center AF point, be aware of what the target is doing, be aware of the background, and keep the smooth panning going while firing off a single shot or a burst.
    This requires practice. A LOT of practice. if you are new to this, I recommend focusing on the practice at first. A few exercises that I find useful include:
    • Practice on anything that moves: birds, cars, runners, airplanes, etc. I first figured this out when photographing bicycle races - which is not all that different from BIF. I "primed the pump" by tracking everything that came by, including police motorcycles, support vehicles, you name it.
    • Practice without firing the shutter. Just focus on the panning process, keeping the target in the center of the frame as much as possible. You might speak a word like "fire" or "now" as you track in order to start becoming aware of your timing.
    • When you fire the shutter, most of us have an instinct to stop the camera motion - it is hard to fight. It is well worth practicing the act of panning and firing while not changing your rate of motion.
    Expect to have a very low hit rate at first. And it doesn't get a lot better. Rather than trying for a few perfect frames, shoot everything that moves and with practice you'll get some good stuff within that flow.

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