These cormorants in the trees at the fabulous Circle B Bar Reserve near Lakeland, FL are focused by using a magnified live view image of the birds in the trees, and manually focusing on them. I shot with live view still active to eliminate mirror vibrations and shutter vibrations. This technique is the best way I know to shoot a sharp image of this scene.
Gerlach’s Focusing Tactics as of March 2018
Since I shoot more than 200,000 images each year, and constantly strive to figure out the best way to capture the images I seek, my photo strategies continually evolve. Focusing has evolved for me tremendously over the past 1.5 years. Here is where I am now with my focusing. Keep in mind my goals and limitations.
I want the focus precisely where it is most desirable.
I want to do it quickly.
My eyesight isn’t what it once was.
Other medical problems are making things more challenging for me.
Checking the Sharpness
On March 18, I shot close to 700 images of royal terns and laughing gulls in flight. Using the only processing software I know how to use, I selected all of them with Canon’s DPP4 (latest version) and looked at the thumbnails a screen full at a time. When I saw an image with a pleasing composition – full body of bird and nothing cut off, good wing and head position, good light on the subject, no distractions from parts of other birds, and a pleasing background, I clicked on the thumbnail by placing the pointer on the face of the bird in the image that looks promising, and the software blows up the spot I clicked on to 100%. Having looked at least a million digital images this way, it is immediately obvious to me when I have superb sharpness as the feathers around the eye look crisp. I work my way through the entire set of images in about 45 minutes and give all of them that survive my initial composition and sharpness examination a number rating. Normally I use one, two, or three. One means it likely a keeper, two is a definite keeper with something extra about the image, and three means it is a keeper that should be processed right away and made available for viewing to you folks. Few meet the three standard, but sometimes I get several during periods of high action.
The royal tern on Huguenot Beach where I used back-button focus and move a single AF point over to coincide with the face of this tern. I looked at all of the similar images, and check the sharpness of the best poses like this one where it is calling. The remainder were deleted.
Close-up photography was my first real love in photography and I continue to eagerly pursue it today. I greatly enjoy photographing fresh wildflowers, butterflies, frost, dewy dragonflies, and anything else dewy, mushrooms, other insects, small natural patterns, and so much more. Except for the brief period when I pursued moving insects with a flash mounted above the lens, I have never used autofocus in close-up photography. Focus is too critical to let the camera do it. Instead, I always use manual focus. I now use a magnified live view image of the subject and manually focus the lens. When the focus spot of the target is blown up to 10X, it is easy to see when it is in sharp focus. In bright ambient light, then I use a hood loupe to see the magnified LCD on the back of the camera. And not only do I use the magnified live view image to focus, I shoot the image in live view too as both the mirror and shutter vibration (often called shutter shock) problems are eliminated with live view.
In this close-up of snow on manzanita at Bryce Canon National Park, I manually focused the lens using live view. I focused on the very bottom of the image, shot at f/8, focus stacked my way through the scene by manually changing the focus in tiny increments until I was focused on the spot furthest from the camera, and stacked them together using Helicon Focus software.
I once was a huge fan of using back-button focus for landscapes because I found early on tripping the camera with my cable release caused my Canon cameras to autofocus unless the focus was assigned to the rear button and removed from the shutter button altogether. I discovered the merits of back-button focus with my Canon F-1 film camera decades ago, so I have a long history with back-button focus. However, when I started to AF Microadjust my lenses a couple of years ago, I discovered that autofocus precision varies somewhat, and you can get serious misfocus even when operating the autofocus system correctly. Cameras and lenses simply vary a little from shot to shot in how precisely they autofocus. Therefore, I now treat all still landscapes like they are close-up subjects. Now I magnify the exact spot where I want the most precise focus and manually focus on the spot. I don’t rely on autofocus at all unless there is no other choice. For example, when photographing the colorful cliffs along the Lake Superior shoreline at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I can’t use manual focus as the boat is moving and I am handholding the camera, so autofocus is the way to go in that instance.
Chinese spring in Yellowstone near Old Faithful has a lot of depth, so I manually focused the scene and used focus stacking techniques to achieve the ultimate in depth of field and overall sharpness.
Tripping the Camera
For both close-ups and landscapes on a tripod, I once used a cable release or the two-second self-timer. But, now I do it differently. I still use the two-second self-timer but fire the camera by using live view and gently touching the LCD to activate the incredible Touch Shutter set to Sensitive that is available on my Canon 5D Mark IV. Barely touching the LCD fires the camera. Just so I do not induce any vibrations, I set the camera to two-second delay, so any tiny vibrations created from touching the LCD have time to dissipate completely. This works really, well! Shooting in the live view mode means the mirror is already up, and the shutters are open, so vibrations created by both the moving mirror and the shutter are eliminated. My images are significantly sharper as a result, especially in the 1/30 to 1 second range where vibrations from the mirror and the shutter are the most serious.
A palm warbler at Circle B Bar Reserve using back-button autofocus.
Wildlife with Autofocus
All lens/camera combos I might use with autofocus require an AF Microadjustment test. Though a lens and camera may be made by Nikon, Canon, or some other maker, it does not mean they focus precisely on a given spot as there is some variability that fall within the “acceptable” range as determined by the equipment maker, but not necessarily acceptable by critical photographers. Every lens/camera combo I have tested at the longest focal lengths of a zoom lens or the fixed focal length of a prime lens have benefited from some AF Microadjustment. This is critical. If you haven’t microadjusted the autofocus, most likely your images are not as sharp as they could and should be.
When making wildlife images, I normally press the shutter button with my finger. Sure, it causes vibration, but the fast shutter speeds normally used for wildlife largely negate the problem of causing soft images. Nearly always I am shooting with shutter speeds of 1/250 second or much faster, especially for flying birds where I might even use 1/4000 second in bright sunshine.
When there is a chance of having still wildlife subjects, and then moving ones right after that, I set my camera to continuous autofocus and assign the control to two buttons on the rear of my camera that are a little to the right of the viewfinder when viewing the camera from the rear. When I need to track a moving animal, I hold the rear button in while panning with the creature and firing away. Pressing and holding the rear AF button in activates continuous AF. If the animal is still, then I point the active AF point, or points, and press the rear AF button in to focus on the exact part of the animal I wish to be in focus. Then I let up on the button to lock the focus there, allowing me to recompose and shoot without having the lens focus on the wrong spot. Back-button focusing handles the situation where an animal could be moving, or still, quite effectively. Most photographers know about this technique now, but if you don’t, you must master it.
For still objects, I normally only use a single active AF point, and use a button on the rear of my camera to move it around any of the AF points that are available to be set as active. For slow action, I often use a single AF point and four surrounding AF points just in case the main AF point wanders off the intended spot where I want sharp focus.
For fast action, I use a square of about 9 AF points and move that around to coincide with the head of the target as much as possible. It is not as precise as holding a single AF point on the face of a passing snowy egret, but at least there is a better chance of having an AF point somewhere on the subject.
A roseate spoonbill flying by at the Circle B Bar Reserve using continuous AF on the shutter button and panning with the bird. In this case, I put the AF back on the shutter button, and not on the rear button as there is one less thing to do.
Back-button Focusing – or NOT
In both my Canon 5D Mark IV and 1DX Mark II, I go to the menu choice called Custom Controls. Highlight Custom Controls, press SET, and another menu comes up that lets me programs eleven buttons found on my camera. But the first button choice is the one I need for this. So, I highlight the first button choice, press Set, and I have three choices. The left one is the default choice where AF and metering are both activated on the Shutter button (Canon calls it Metering and AF start). The middle choice means only metering is active on the shutter button (called Metering start) and autofocus is active only on the AF-On button found on the rear of the camera to the right of the viewfinder. The third choice on the far right is AE Lock, but I don’t use it as I prefer manual metering most of the time, so exposure is locked already.
As of now, this describes how I use my autofocus controls. The methods I use are easy and deliver truly sharp images if I use excellent shooting technique too. They will work for you too! A little tip! Okay, a bit tip! If you are not regularly using live view and AF microadjusting your lens/camera combinations, you are most likely not producing images as sharp as they could be. Good luck!!!
Continuous autofocus on the shutter button does the trick for me. I had a cluster of 5 active AF points and put them right on the head of this white ibis. Panning the camera and lens with the ibis and keeping the shutter speed fast produced many sharp images for me.
Sometimes it pays to shoot a lot of images. This limpkin with an apple snail at the Circle B Bar Reserve continually moved its head up and down as it walked to the left, but erratically. It is difficult to keep AF points on the head of the bird, even for me, so I tried a lot of shots and got some keepers that were truly sharp.