The ND Filter

Long Exposure & ND Filters

D4R3875 Edit Edit 598x900 The ND Filter

A view of the stunning rock formations at Porth Y Post on the Welsh island of Anglesey. The image is a long exposure of very rough sea, giving the impression of smoke and fog.  30 seconds @f13 ISO 100. B&W 10stop ND – unfiltered exposure would have been 1/30th.

The reason for this particular post began last week when I was “cruising” a forum on a PoD site I’m a member of, and I came across a thread started by someone about heavy ND filters and very long exposures.

Then, a couple of days later a Facebook conversation cropped up where someone I know rather well seemed to be losing the plot over things totally by purchasing a 16 stop ND.

The poor bugger got a right mauling from “yours truly” for the simple reason that he doesn’t understand the SCIENCE behind the art of photography.  This is what pisses me off about digital photography – it readily provides “instant gratification” to folk who know bugger all about what they are doing with their equipment.  They then spend money on “pushing the envelope” only to find their ivory tower comes tumbling down around them because they THOUGHT they knew what they were doing………..stop ranting Andy before you have a coronary!

OK, I’ll stop “ranting”, but seriously folks, it doesn’t matter if you are on a 5DMkIII or a D800E, a D4 or a 1Dx – you have to realise that your camera works within a certain set of fixed parameters; and if you wander outside these boundaries for reasons of either stupidity or ignorance, then you’ll soon be up to your ass in Alligators!

Avid readers of this blog of mine (seemingly there are a few) will know that I’ve gone to great lengths in the past to explain how sensors are limited in different ways by things such as diffraction and that certain lens/sensor combinations are said to be “diffraction limited; well here’s something new to run up your flag pole – sensors can be thought of as being “photon limited” too!

I’ll explain what I mean in a minute…..


Most folk who own a camera of modern design by Nikon or Canon FAIL at the first hurdle by not understanding their sensor type.

Sensors generally fall into two basic types – CCD and CMOS.

Most of us use cameras fitted with CMOS sensors, because we demand accurate fast phase detection AF AND we demand high levels of ADC/BUFFER speed.  In VERY simplistic terms, CCD sensors cannot operate at the levels of speed and efficiency demanded by the general camera-buying public.

So, it’s CMOS to the rescue.  But CMOS sensors are generally noisier than CCDs.

When I say “noise” I’m NOT referring to the normal under exposure luminance noise that a some of you might be thinking of. I’m talking about the “background noise” of the sensor itself – see post HERE .

Now I’m going to over simplify things for you here – I need to because there are a lot of variables to take into account.

  • A photodiode exists to do one thing – react to being struck by PHOTONS of light by producing electrons.
  • To produce electrons PROPORTIONAL to the number of photons that strike it.

Now in theory, a photodiode that sees ZERO photons during the exposure should release NO ELECTRONS.

At the end of the exposure the ADC comes along and counts the electrons for each photodiode – an ANALOGUE VALUE – and converts it to a DIGITAL VALUE and stores that digital value as a point of information in the RAW file.

A RAW converter such as Lightroom then reads all these individual points of information and using its own in-built algorithms it normalises and demosaics them into an RGB image that we can see on our monitor.

Sounds simple doesn’t it, and theoretically it is.  But in practice there’s a lot of places in the process where things can go sideways rapidly……..!

We make a lot of assumptions about our pride and joy – our newly purchased DSLR – and most of these assumptions are just plain wrong.  One that most folk get wrong is presuming ALL the photodiodes on their shiny new sensor BEHAVE IN THE SAME WAY and are 100% identical in response.  WRONG – even though, in theory, it should be true.

Some sensors are built to a budget, some to a standard of quality and bugger the budget.

Think of the above statement as a scale running left to right with crap sensors like a 7D or D5000 on the left, and the staggering Phase IQ260 on the right.  There isn’t, despite what sales bumph says, any 35mm format sensor that can come even close to residing on the right hand end of the scale, but perhaps a D800E might sit somewhere between 65 and 70%.

The thing I’m trying to get at here is that “quality control” and “budget” are opposites in the manufacturing process, and that linearity and uniformity of photodiode performance costs MONEY – and lots of it.

All our 35mm format sensors suffer from a lack of that expensive quality control in some form or other, but what manufacturers try to do is place the resulting poor performance “outside the envelope of normal expected operation” as a Nikon technician once told me.

In other words, during normal exposures and camera usage (is there such a thing?) the errors don’t show themselves – so you are oblivious to them. But move outside of that “envelope of normal expected operation” and as I said before, the Alligators are soon chomping on your butt cheeks.


Long exposures in low light levels – those longer than 30 to 90 seconds – present us with one of those “outside the envelope” situations that can highlight some major discrepancies in individual photodiode performance and sensor uniformity.

Earlier, I said that a photodiode, in a perfect world, would always react proportionally to the number of photons striking it, and that if it had no photon strikes during the exposure then it would have ZERO output in terms of electrons produced.

Think of the “perfect” photodiode/photosite as being a child brought up by nuns, well mannered and perfectly behaved.

Then think of a child brought up in the Gallagher household a la “Shameless” – zero patience, no sense of right or wrong, rebellious and down right misbehaved.  We can compare this kid with some of the photodiodes on our sensor.

These odd photodiodes usually show a random distribution across the sensor surface, but you only ever see evidence of their existence when you shoot in the dark, or when executing very long exposures from behind a heavy ND filter.

These “naughty” photodiodes behave badly in numerous ways:

  • They can release a larger number of electrons than is proportional to their photon count.
  • They can go to the extreme of releasing electrons when the have a ZERO photon count.
  • They can mimic the output of their nearest neighbors.
  • They can be clustered together and produce random spurious specks of colour.

And the list goes on!

It’s a Question of Time

These errant little buggers basically misbehave because the combination of low photon count and overly long exposure time allow them to, if you like, run out of patience and start misbehaving.

It is quite common for a single photodiode or cluster of them to behave in a perfect manner for any shutter speed up to between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. But if we expose that same photodiode or cluster for 3 minutes it can show abnormal behavior in its electron output.  Expose it for 5 minutes and its output could be the same, or amplified, or even totally different.

IMPORTANT – do not confuse these with so-called “hot pixels” which show up in all exposures irrespective of shutter duration.

Putting an ND filter in front of your lens is the same as shooting under less light.  Its effect is even-handed across all exposure values in the scenes brightness range, and therein lies the problem.  Cutting 10 stops worth of photons from the highlights in the scene will still leave plenty to make the sensor work effectively in those areas of the image.

But cutting 10 stops worth of photons from the shadow areas – where there was perhaps 12 stops less to begin with – might well leave an insufficient number of photons in the very darkest areas to make those particular photodiodes function correctly.

Exposure is basically a function of Intensity and Time, back in my college days we used to say that Ex = I x T !

Our ND filter CUTS intensity across the board, so Time has to increase to avoid under exposure in general.  But because we are working with far fewer photons as a whole, we have to curb the length of the Time component BECAUSE OF the level of intensity reduction – we become caught in a “Catch 22” situation, trying to avoid the “time triggered” malfunction of those errant diodes.

Below is an 4 minute exposure from behind a Lee Big Stopper on a 1Dx – click on both images to open at full resolution in a new window.

Canon1Dx 900x560 The ND Filter

Canon 1Dx
4 minutes @ f13
ISO 200 Lee 10stop

Canon1Dx2 900x560 The ND Filter

The beastly Nikon D800E fairs a lot better under similar exposure parameters, but there are still a lot of repairs to be done:

D800E 900x558 The ND Filter

A 4 minute exposure on a D800, f11 at 200ISO

Most people use heavy ND filters for the same reason I do – smoothing out water.

NDuse2 708x900 The ND Filter

The texture of the water in the top shot clutters the image and adds nothing – so get rid of it! D4,ISO 50, 30secs f11 Lee Big Stopper

Then we change the camera orientation and get a commercial shot:

D4D9874 Edit 581x900 The ND Filter

Cemlyn Bay on the northwest coast of Anglesey, North Wales, Approximately 2.5 km to the east is Wylfa nuclear power station. Same exposure as above.

In this next shot all I’m interested in is the jetty, neither water surface texture or horizon land add anything – the land is easy to dump in PShop but the water would be impossible:

NDuse1 900x511 The ND Filter

I see the bottom image in my head when I look at the scene top left. Again, the 10 stop ND fixes the water, which adds precisely nothing to the image. D4 ISO 50, 60 secs, f14 B&W 10 stop

The mistake folk make is this, 30 seconds is usually enough time to get the effect on the water you want, and 90 to 120 seconds is truly the maximum you should ever really need.  Any longer and you’ll get at best no more effect, and at worst the effect will not look as visually appealing – that’s my opinion anyway.

This time requirement dovetails nicely with the “operating inside the design envelope” physics of the average 35mm format sensor.

So, as I said before, we could go out on a bit of a limb and say that our sensors are all “photon limited”; all diodes on the sensor must be struck by x number of photons.

And we can regard them as being exposure length limited; all diodes on the sensor must be struck by x photons in y seconds in order to avoid the pitfalls mentioned.

So next time you have the idea of obtaining something really daft, such as the 16 stop ND filter my friend ordered, try engaging your brain.  An unfiltered exposure that meters out at 1/30th sec will be 30 seconds behind a 10 stop ND filter, and a whopping 32 minutes behind a 16 stop ND filter.  Now at that sort of exposure time the sensor noise in the image will be astonishing in both presence and variety!

As I posted on my Book of Face page the other day, just for kicks I shot this last Wednesday night:

D4D0710 Edit Edit Edit 900x598 The ND Filter

Penmon Lighthouse in North Wales at twilight.
Sky is 90 secs, foreground is 4 minutes, D4, f16, ISO 50 B&W 10 stop ND filter

The image truly gives the wrong impression of reality – the wind was cold and gusting to 30mph, and the sea looked very lumpy and just plain ugly.

I spent at least 45 minutes just taking the bloody speckled colour read noise out of the 4 minute foreground exposure – I have to wonder if the image was truly worth the effort in processing.

When you take into account everything I’ve mentioned so far plus the following:

  • Long exposures are prone to ground vibration and the effects of wind on the tripod etc
  • Hanging around in places like the last shot above is plain dangerous, especially when it’s dark.

you must now see that keeping the exposures as short as possible is the sensible course of action, and that for doing this sort of work a 6 stop ND filter is a more sensible addition to your armoury than a 16 stop ND filter!

Just keep away from exposures above 2 minutes.

And before anyone asks, NO – you don’t shoot star trails in one frame over 4 hours unless you’re a complete numpty!  And for anyone who thinks you can cancel noise by shooting a black frame think on this – the black frame has to be shot immediately after the image, and has to be the same exposure duration as the main image.  That means a 4 hour single frame star trail plus black frame to go with it will take at least 8 hours – will your camera battery last that long?  If it dies before the black frame is finished then you lose BOTH frames……………


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This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Your donation will help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

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Exposure Compensation

Exposure Compensation

Exposure Compensation – that’s something else that cropped up once or twice for the chaps on my recent Norwegian Eagle workshop!

We had something like 420 or more dives from eagles during the trip, and very few if any were shot with flat metering, or 0Ev compensation.

What is Exposure Compensation, and why do we need to use it?

It all begins with this little button:

D4D0716 Edit 900x900 Exposure Compensation

D3 Exposure Compensation button – Nikon, Canon and most others use the same symbol.

Pushing this button and rotating your main command dial will select a certain exposure compensation value.

Why do we need to use Exposure Compensation though?

Cameras, for all their complexity and “intelligent whotsits” are basically STUPID!  They don’t know WHAT you are trying to photograph, or HOW you are trying to photograph it.

They make a lot of very basic assumptions about what you are trying to do – 99.99% of which are WRONG!

The camera does NOT know if you are trying to photograph:

  • A white cat in a coal shed
  • A black cat in a snow storm
  • A white cat in a snow storm
  • A black cat in a coal shed

All it sees is a frame full of various amounts of light and shade, and depending on your metering mode (which should always be Matrix/Evaluative – see post here) it gives you an “average mean exposure value”.

Take a general scene of fairly low contrast under flat overcast light:

Scene 900x599 Exposure Compensation

A scene as WE see it.

SceneAvEx 900x599 Exposure Compensation

The same scene as the camera METER sees it.

SceneArea1 900x599 Exposure Compensation

Lighter tones within the scene.

SceneArea21 900x599 Exposure Compensation

Some darker area tones within the scene.

SceneGreys 900x599 Exposure Compensation

The exposure is governed by the PREDOMINANT tone.

As discussed in the previous metering article mentioned earlier, only MATRIX/EVALUATIVE takes the entire frame area into account.

Okay, so that scene was fairly bland on the old tonal front, so let’s have a look at something a little more relevant:

Pos1 900x599 Exposure Compensation

Straight off the camera with no processing. 1/2000th @ f4 1600ISO +1.3Ev

Pos2 900x599 Exposure Compensation

As the camera metered the scene WITHOUT compensation.

Why would the image be so dark and under exposed?

Well here’s an approximation of the cameras average tone “thought process”:

Pos31 900x599 Exposure Compensation

The approximate average value of the scene.

But if we look at some averages WITHIN the overall image:

Pos4 900x599 Exposure Compensation

Random tonal averages within the image.

We can see that the tonal values for the subject are generally darker than the average scene value, therefore the camera records those values as “under exposed”.

This is further compounded by the cameras brain making the decision that the commonest tonal value MUST represent “mid grey” – which it DOESN’T; it’s lighter than that – and so under exposing the image even further!

Now I’m not going to get into the argument about “what is mid grey” and do Nikon et al calibrate to 12%, 18%, 20% or whatever – to be honest it’s “neither here nor there” from our standpoint.

What is CRITICAL though is that we understand the old adage:

“Light Subject Dark Background = Under, or negative exposure compensation. And that Dark Subject Light Background = Over, or positive exposure compensation”.

Okay, but what are we actually doing?

In any exposure mode other than Manual mode, we are allowing the camera to meter the scene AND make the decision over which shutter speed or aperture to use depending on whether we have the camera in Av or Tv mode – that’s Canon-speak for A or S on Nikon.

If we are in shutter priority/S/Tv mode then the camera sets the aperture to give us its metered exposure – that thing that’s usually WRONG! – at the shutter speed we’ve selected.

If, as in the case above, we ADD +1.3Ev – one and one third stops of POSITIVE exposure compensation, the camera uses the shutter speed we’ve selected but then opens up the aperture WIDER than it’s “brain” wants it to.

How wide? 1.3 stops wider, thus allowing 1.3 stops more light into the the sensor during the exposure time.

If we were in Av/A or aperture priority mode then it’s the shutter speed that would take up the slack and become 1.3 stops SLOWER than the cameras “brain” wanted it to be.

Here’s an example of negative exposure compensation:

D4D6682 900x598 Exposure Compensation

1/3200th @ f4.5 1000ISO -1.3Ev exposure compensation.

In this particular shot we’re pointing towards the sun – a “dark subject, light background” positive exposure compensation scenario, or so you’d think.

But I want to “protect” those orange highlights in the water and the brightest tones in the eagle, so if I “peg those highlights” just over a stop below the top end of the cameras’  tonal response curve then there is no way on earth they are going to “blow” in the final RAW file.

Manual Exposure mode can still furnish us with exposure compensation based on metering if we engage AUTO-ISO.  If we decide we want to shoot continuously with a high shutter speed and a set aperture at a fixed ISO then our exposures are going to be all over the place.  But if we engage AUTO-ISO and let the camera choose the ISO speed via the meter reading, we can use the exposure compensation adjustments just the same as we do in Av or Tv modes.

This get’s us away from the problem of fixed ISO Tv mode running out of aperture in low light or when very high shutter speeds are needed; or conversely, stopping the aperture down too far when the sun comes out! – I’ll do a breakdown on this method of shooting later in the year – it’s not without it’s problems.

Next time you get the chance to stand by a large lake or other body of water, just take a moment to notice that the water is dark in some places and light in others. ambient light falling on a moving subject can easily be very uniform and so the subject basically has the same exposure value all the time.  But it’s the changing brightness of the background as the subject moves across it that causes us to need exposure compensation.

People seem to think there’s some sort of “magic” at play when they come out with me and I’m throwing exposure compensation values at them.  But there’s no magic here folks, just an ability to see beyond “the subject, framing etc” and to actually “see the light” and understand it.

After all, when we click our shutters we are imaging light – the subject is, for the most part, purely incidental!

And there’s only one way you can learn to see light and grasp its implications for camera exposure, and that’s to practice.

Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Your donation will help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


Auto Focus Work Out

Auto Focus Work Out

My recent summer trip to Flatanger in Norway, and to the famous “Eagle Man of Norway” Ole Martin Dahle, proved, as ever, a severe test of the auto focus capabilities of the gear!

We had 4 guys on the trip, 3 Nikon and 1 Canon, and White-tailed Eagles doing more than 40mph and turning on a dime is one of the hardest tests for auto focus tracking and lock on that you can imagine – especially when it’s all done hand held from a boat that’s rolling around in the sea swell.

The Guys 752x900 Auto Focus Work Out

The Guys – yours truly, Malcolm Clayton and Paul Atkins; and Mohamed El Ashkar (all the way from Cairo!) and our Cambridge “Don” – all trips should have one – Jamie Gundry. Photo by Ole Martin Dahle.

We had a conglomeration of D4’s, D800E’s and 200-400 f4’s, with a smattering of 300mm and 400mm f2.8’s – and then there was Mohamed with his solitary 1Dx and 300 f2.8.

And our target:

D4D7980 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

Say “Hello” to “Brutus” – an eagle who lives up to his name for sure – a total brute, especially to a boat full of daft photographers! CLICK for larger view.

Just to set the scene with regard to the technical side of things; birds fly into the wind given the choice, and the sun is wherever it decides to be! So the boat driver – Ole – always needs to position the boat so that “wind and sunlight” are coming from pretty much the same direction, otherwise the birds are not front-lit and cast their own shadows across themselves. In other words the images look like crap!

Some birds come towards the boat, take the fish and then turn away; some will do their approach parallel to the boat; and gits like Brutus will fly low and fast straight at you, pick the fish and then turn straight for the boat and climb.

But no matter how they choose to approach the camera boat all the birds pick the fish and go back to where they’ve come from.

Ole has intimate knowledge of these birds as individuals, and so has a damn good idea of what they will do as they come to the boat.  This enables him to manoeuvre the boat for the best shots, and this skill is what you pay for.

Perhaps by now you’ve got the general feel for the situation – a boat that’s subject to wave motion and which might suddenly go backwards 10 yards through its own wake – not the steadiest of camera platforms!

Couple that with trying to make the auto focus lock on and track the bird, and maintain a modicum of composition – it’s just damned hard work.

Photographing anything that’s moving is hard work; moving erratically is even harder; and hand holding on an oscillating camera platform makes the job beyond hard.  This style of shooting will NEVER yield vast rafts of sharp sequential images – anyone who tells you different is an outright liar. Christ, even licensed FIA F1 ‘togs are on “easy street” by comparison.

Auto focus cannot be set up perfectly for this sort of situation, but understanding it is a MUST if you want to maximise the opportunity.

Auto Focus Choices

There are 3 main things that control the effectiveness of auto focus and AF tracking:

AF Area Mode

AF Tracking Lock-on interval

Frame Rate

(Bare in mind I’m talking Nikon here, but sorting Mohameds’ 1Dx out showed my that Canon AF is pretty much the same).

Now I dealt with the latter in a previous post HERE and so we need to concentrate here on AF area modes in the main.

Let’s look at what we have to work with on a Nikon body – in this case a D4:

Firstly, the AF sensor layout.

All 51 focus sensors, and there approximate layout in relation to the image frame:

All51AFpoints 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

All 51 of the Nikon Multi Cam 3500 FX focus sensors – both cross and linear sensors depicted.

Just the Cross-type Sensors:

CrossType 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

The 15 Cross type focus sensors on the Nikon Multi-Cam 3500 FX unit.

The Linear-type Sensors:

LinearType 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

The 36 Linear type focus sensors on the Nikon Multi-Cam 3500 FX unit.

Single Area AF

AF Single 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

Single Area, or single point AF.

9 Point Dynamic Area AF:

AF 9pointD 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

9 Point Dynamic Area AF

AF 9pointDVF 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

9 Point DA AF as displayed in the viewfinder (drop shadows added in Photoshop behind the dots to aid visibility in this article).

21 Point Dynamic Area AF:

AF 21pointD 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

21 Point Dynamic Area AF

AF 21pointDVF 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

21 Point DA AF as displayed in the viewfinder (drop shadows added in Photoshop behind the dots to aid visibility in this article).

51 Point Dynamic Area AF:

All51AFpointsVF 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

51 Point DA AF as displayed in the viewfinder (drop shadows added in Photoshop behind the dots to aid visibility in this article).

As a stills photographer you are using what’s called Phase Detection auto focus (that’ll be another blog post topic!) but it still relies on a mix of contrast,luminosity and colour to work out what it should be concentrating on in the frame.

Consider the following 2 images, A & B:

D4D8114 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

A. Dark Subject and Light Background.
Subject itself is low contrast, background water is higher contrast. Subject is at 15 meters, Focal Length is 240mm

D4D7971 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out

B. Light Subject against a Dark Background.
Subject now has a slightly higher contrast, and background is lower contrast. Subject 29 meters, Focal length 360mm

Auto focus is dumb; just plain stupid, left to its own devices.  It, like me (yep, me dumb too!) favours lighter things with a higher degree of contrast.  The lighter something is then the brighter and more saturated it colour is, and this in turn gives it higher localised contrast.

Auto focus will be happier locking on to and tracking Eagle B than Eagle A.

In A, the AF will want to switch to the lighter, more contrasty water behind the bird – unless of course you “hobble it” and stop it from doing so…

And you stop it by BLINDING IT – in other words use LESS active auto focus points!

“If it ain’t got ’em it can’t switch to ’em!”

If all the AF points in use are on the important part of the subject (the EYE in this case) then there’s little or no chance of the auto focus switching to somewhere you don’t want it to go to.

In a perfect world we’d all be using Single Area AF on a tripod and panning away quite happily keeping that single sensor on the targets eye……………oh I wish!!!!!!

51 point AF is out for this sort of work – with what I’ve just written you should now easily understand why.

So we are down to either the 9 point or 21 point Dynamic Areas.

It all comes down to two things:

  • How steady you can keep the camera.
  • How big in the frame the birds are – in other words, subject distance.

But accuracy of auto focus will always be improved by using the least number of sensors you can get away with.


Image A. is at 240mm and a subject distance of 15 meters, and Image B. is at 360mm and a subject distance of 29 meters.  Both images were shot using 21 point Dynamic Area AF, 1/2000th @ f7 and 1600ISO.

AF 21pointDVFclose1 900x900 Auto Focus Work Out

21 point AF, 15 meters and 240mm focal length.

AF 21pointDVFclose21 900x900 Auto Focus Work Out

21 point AF, 29 meters and 360mm focal length.

On the upper detail image there’s one, perhaps two of the 21 sensors that are NOT on the subject.

On the second image there are at least 9 sensors out of the 21 in the group that are NOT on the bird.

If the bird in image A. had been 29 meters away I’ll guarantee it would have been out of focus – why?

  • Lack of good directional light.
  • Poor subject contrast and illumination.
  • Brighter, higher contrast background.
  • More sensors “Off Target”.

And the auto focus hasn’t wanted to wander to the background on image B. because there’s nothing there for it to favour over the main subject.

How Dynamic Area AF Works

9 point DA auto focus uses the single AF point that you select, but activates the 8 points surrounding it.  If you, or the subject, or both, move so that the single point you selected comes “off target” then one of those 8 surrounding points will “cover” the error and maintain focus lock and tracking until you get back on target.

In 9 point DA, auto focus ALL the sensors activated are “cross type” sensors, assuming you use a sensor on the vertical center line of the AF grid.

In 21 point DA, auto focus is still centered on the single sensor you select, but now the surrounding 20 are activated. But at least 6 of these sensors will be linear, not cross type sensors.

Auto Focus Senor Types – Cross and Linear (line).

This is going to be immensely paraphrased!

AF sensors need to see edge detail in order to work. A linear sensor can work more effectively when the edge it’s looking at is perpendicular to it.

The more an edge is parallel to said line sensor then the harder time it has in discerning when said edge is sharp or not.

But if we add 2 line sensors together at right angles to each other, then an edge that is parallel to one line is perpendicular to the other – so edge detection is greatly enhanced.

In an ideal scenario 9 point Dynamic Area AF, centered in the middle of the view finder and kept on the eagles head would be the ideal way to go, but with the other circumstances of:

  • Moving camera platform
  • Potential closeness of subject (sub 15 meters possible)

then 9 point DA might be a wee bit tight on both counts, and 21 point makes more sense from a tracking and shooting perspective.

But it leads to an initial problem with the auto focus acquiring the target in the first place.  You have to pick these eagles up quite a way out, and if one is coming low to the water then there is possibly too much in the frame to act as a distraction to the auto focus unit itself; though this isn’t quite such an issue if the bird is high in the sky.

So my recommendation for any form of bird-in-flight photography is to start out at 9 point DA and see how you get on!

There is always the AF Tracking Lock On feature that you can deploy in order to “hobble” the AF unit from switching  to subjects closer to or further away, but if I’m honest I find this the most sticky and difficult aspect of the Nikon system to get a precise handle on.  It does exactly “what it says on the tin” but it’s the “when” and “how much by” bits that have me slightly guessing.

Sometimes I put it on long and it basically waits for perhaps 4 or 5 seconds before it tries to switch focus, while at other times it does so in less than half the time.  Sometimes I feel it actually diminishes the effectiveness of the “predictive” side of the auto focus tracking unit.

But if I turn it off when hand holding the camera for flight shots then everything turns to crap – so I turn it back on again!

Again, my base recommendations for this are SHORT to NORMAL and see how things go.

One thing that can have a considerable impact on the way you perceive your auto focus effectiveness is how you have your AF release priority set up (CS a1).

There are 4 options:

  • Release
  • Focus+Release
  • Release+Focus
  • Focus

By default this is set to FOCUS.  With the default setting, it’s theoretically impossible to take a soft shot.  But in practice that’s not so simple, and I’ve taken many a soft shot when the D4 “thinks” things are sharp; though in the main, that seems to have been cured the minute we got trap focus back with the latest firmware upgrade.

Release means the camera will take shots irrespective of focus being acquired or not.  I NEVER use this option.

Focus+Release means that the first frame will only be taken once focus is acquired, and subsequent frames will be taken irrespective of focus.  This is one of my preferred options when everything is unstable – that first frame hopefully sets up the auto focus and AF tracking and so everything SHOULD keep the subsequent frames sharp – please note the use of the word “should”!

Both the above release priority modes do NOT slow the frame rate.

Release+Focus – works the opposite way to Focus+Release – it does slow the frame rate down giving the mirror more down-time and so the auto focus system has more time to work.  This is my other preferred option, the one I use when the “action” may not be as repeatable.

Focus – This is the option I deploy when shooting from a tripod or when the action is not quite so fast-paced.  Again, this option slows the frame rate.

The Back Button Auto Focus Option

I always use the back button for auto focus activation.  There are plenty of arguments for doing this, but I just feel it’s darn right more efficient than having AF activation on the shutter button.  Just don’t forget to turn AF/Shutter ON to OFF in the menu, otherwise you are just wasting time and effort!


A lot of folk feel that their auto focus is flawed; but more often it is they and their setup choices which are flawed.

There is no blanket panacea or magic bullet setting for your AF system – as with everything else you have to constantly evaluate the light around you, anticipate the shot and make the necessary changes to setup – otherwise it’s going to be a sad day.

But knowing how your gear works and how it reacts under different scenarios is the “meat and two veg” of good photography.  Couple that with shot anticipation and the proper corrective measures and it’s off home for tea and medals!

But above all, remember to have a laugh – you’re a long time dead……..

D4D5661 Edit 900x599 Auto Focus Work Out


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