Action Photography: AF Modes for Nikon Cameras

If you get action photography right, it’s extremely gratifying. All those breathtaking images of fast action are pretty intriguing. If you don’t get it right, you end up with a lot of unwanted blur and missed opportunities. In this video, Steve Perry explains some of the tricks that he uses to shoot action photos:

Though these tips are Nikon-specific, you may still be able to use them for other camera makes. Just swap the Nikon specific commands with those from the system you’re using.

Before we get into the main tricks of the video you need to have a good grasp of back-button focusing.

Number of AF Points

Some Nikon cameras have an option to choose how many of the AF points you wish to use with the multi-selector button at the back of the camera.

choosing the number of selectable AF points

Number of AF Points

If your camera comes with 51 AF points, you can choose to either use all of them or only 11 of them—or whatever else your camera allows you to. This is helpful when you want to scroll through one AF point to the other and don’t want to go through all of them, which can make things slow.

Focus Tracking with Lock On

Some Nikon cameras come with the focus tracking with lock on function.

Focus Tracking with Lock On

Focus Tracking with Lock On

This function controls the time lag after which the camera automatically attempts to acquire focus after losing focus on a subject. This is particularly helpful when you’re panning a bird and some sort of obstacle—like a tree or a bush—comes between you and the bird. Normally, a camera will try to immediately correct the focus, in the process locking focus on the tree or bush. But with focus tracking lock on you can control the time lag and thereby “skim” through that obstacle without losing focus.

Single Shot or Continuous AF

Single shot AF is always the right way to go when you are shooting a stationary subject. It allows you to hold the shutter release and recompose, keeping the subject in sharp focus.

continuous AF

Continuous AF

If your subject is moving about, choose continuous auto-focus. This allows you to lock focus on a subject easily, and if it moves the camera will automatically acquire focus as long as there is an AF point at that area. This mode, however, is not suitable for the focus and recompose technique.

AF Priority Selection

Auto-focus priority selection tells the camera whether is should make the exposure only when there is a confirmed focus lock or whether it should take the shot no matter what.

AF Priority Selection

AF Priority Selection

Perry suggests selecting focus priority for AF-S mode and release priority for AF-C mode.


AF Priority

Single Point or Dynamic

Perry’s suggestions are simple.

Dynamic AF

Dynamic AF

For stationary subjects, go for Single Point AF. For moving subjects, go for Dynamic AF.


3D auto-focus uses color information for tracking a subject. For wildlife photography Perry says this is not the ideal option, because it can then become confusing for the camera to isolate a subject from its background.

For sports shooters, though, this mode is ideal; by choosing an AF point you’re able to track the subject and maintain focus most of the time as it moves in the frame.

Group AF

Group AF is a much better choice when you’re shooting in low light and low contrast situations.

Group AF

Group AF

In this mode, the camera uses a group of AF points, and they work as a single large AF point.

On the downside, group AF tends to lock focus on anything that is closest to your lens, which means you’re not always likely to lock focus where you intend.

By understanding how auto focus modes work and when to use them, you can get more from your camera—and sharper images.

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3 responses to “Action Photography: AF Modes for Nikon Cameras”

  1. Dhiraj says:

    thanks for this article :)

  2. john schaub says:

    Trying to find your ebook – Secrets to stunning….. dont see a link.

  3. Arthur Jacoby says:

    There is no link for your book.

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