Guide to Continuous Focus Tracking for Sports Photography

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Great photos, in any discipline, can result from infinite techniques, but in sports photography—at least in sports photojournalism—there is little room for the aesthete who chooses a slow approach or the kind that eschews the available camera functions that will increase the proverbial “hit rate.” In other words, sports photographers need to use all measures to get that decisive, well-composed, and most important, in-focus photograph. Thank goodness, therefore, for continuous focus tracking, a blessing for sports photographers everywhere.

Continuous tracking is an autofocus function that uses the predictive artificial intelligence of the camera’s processor to analyze moving subjects and to “predict” where they will move to maintain focus on the subject while shooting in continuous burst modes. As your subject moves and you track through the viewfinder, the system calculates what the position of the subject will be based on its speed, size, distance, and direction of travel. If you keep your finger (half-depressed) on the shutter release (or on the back-button focus control), the camera will automatically and continuously track the subject and maintain focus. Does this work perfectly, all the time? No. Are these technologies improving with every camera generation and firmware update? Yes. Will this technique increase your in-focus shots in the very difficult discipline of sports action photography? Most definitely.

Continuous Autofocus

I am primarily a Nikon DSLR photographer, and that is my frame of reference, although the basic idea is the same for all the major camera systems, and setting the autofocus to continuous tracking is quite simple. Across a brand’s camera lineup, the more sophisticated cameras will provide more options for setting the focus area to be tracked, but even entry-level cameras, such as the Nikon D3500 DSLR and the Canon EOS Rebel SL3 DSLR, offer continuous autofocus, designated “AF-C” in the Nikon and Sony ecosystems and “Continuous Servo or AI-Servo AF” on Canon cameras.

To turn on the AF-C setting on most Nikon DSLRs, simply hold the AF button on the lower left side of the camera body and turn the main command dial until you read AF-C in the viewfinder or LCD monitor. For the latest Nikon mirrorless cameras, such as the Nikon Z 7II Mirrorless Digital Camera, the control for these AF modes is in the menu system. With the camera set to AF-C while you hold the shutter button (or back-button focus) halfway and follow your subject in the viewfinder, the focus will also move with the subject and maintain focus on it.

Focus Points

The next step to setting your camera to perform its best in the dynamic world of sports photography is to determine the focus point or focus areas that will be tracking your subject. Some cameras have more focus points than others and some have arrays of points from which you can choose. For example, the Nikon D6 DSLR camera offers up to 105 AF points and several AF “group-areas” and the Canon EOS R5 Mirrorless Camera has 1053 Phase Detection AF points. At this point, consider the composition of your final image. If you want the focus point in a spot other than center, adjust your focus point and lock the point in place. On my Nikon DSLR, this is adjusted by using the multi-selector dial on the back of the camera and flicking it into the “L” position.

If the subject that you want to track is one that tends to travel in a straight line or is not particularly fast moving, it’s suggested that you choose the single-point AF mode when in the AF-C setting (Nikon/Sony), but with subjects that move unpredictably, or zigzag as an athlete might in a football game or hockey match, other modes, such as “Zone;” “Expand;” “Wide;” or “Flexible Spot M,” in the Sony menu, should get you better results. However, this is when things get a bit complicated, because each manufacturer and camera have different systems and different capabilities, so dig deep into your manual, menus, and support pages. (Sony, for example, offers a chart, excerpted below, with the ideal settings for more than forty different sports, including speak takraw).

For the latest Nikon mirrorless cameras, for example, Dynamic Area AF-C would be the preferred setting for subjects that move quickly and erratically, as you would find in a sports setting. With Dynamic Area AF, if the subject briefly leaves the selected point, the camera will focus based on information from surrounding focus points. High-end Sony mirrorless cameras, including the flagship Sony Alpha 1 mirrorless digital camera, offer Real-time Tracking, which uses AI-based technology to lock focus onto subjects. Nikon also has its 3D Focus Tracking in select models, which automatically shifts the focus point to follow the movement of the subject.

In the world of sports photography, as well as wildlife and bird photography, long telephoto lenses are often the norm, and maintaining a composition on a fast-moving subject through a long lens can be very difficult, so it may be easier to choose the focus point in the center and crop for preferred composition. Some DSLR and mirrorless cameras also have touch focus control, allowing you to establish the focus point by touching that point on the LCD monitor.

Tracking Sensitivity

A setting that is found on the latest cameras and can be adjusted to improve focus tracking is Tracking Sensitivity. On Sony Alpha a9 series cameras, Tracking Sensitivity is noted as “Responsive,” “Standard,” or “Locked-On,” with corresponding numbers from 5 to 1. Responsive mode is ideal for faster-moving subjects or when switching between subjects, such as in a football game when one player passes in front of another and you want focus to switch to the passing player. Locked-On mode is best used to maintain focus on the initial subject even as it passes behind something within the frame. Select Canon cameras use a numerical system to note sensitivity with a range from -2 to +2. Setting the sensitivity to +1 or +2 is comparable to “Responsive” in the Sony system and is best used for fast-moving subjects, while a setting of -1 or -2 helps when you have a busy background and want to maintain focus on your primary subject.

The above settings are ways to fine-tune your continuous focus tracking, and they need to be experimented with in the field to determine what works best for you. One can argue for the precision of manual focus and control of single-shot auto-focus (AF-S) but, in my opinion, the one simple point that should be remembered when you shoot sports is to set your camera on continuous autofocus and allow the incredible technology in your hand to work for you. An obvious drawback to using such technology is that continuous focus is a drain on batteries, so be sure to have plenty available when you arrive at the stadium.

If you have experience using continuous focus tracking systems for sports photography, we’d love to read your comments and insights on what works for you.

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