As my frustration increased, I tried just about every autofocus combination possible on my Nikon camera. I have never come across an autofocus situation so difficult in all my years as a photographer. But, I wasn’t about to give up!
I was photographing with a number of advanced photographers and the group of us finally arrived at a solution that worked fairly well. By fairly well, I mean that we were able to achieve an in-focus shot of a flying puffin once every three or four attempts.
So, here are my recommended settings for photographing flying birds against a cluttered background such as grass or trees. These settings are based on a Nikon DSLR camera, but similar settings also apply for Canon DSLR cameras.
1. Set your camera on Single Area AF. Normally I use 21-point autofocus, but in this example, since the camera couldn’t distinguish between the bird and the background, I had to go to single area.
2. Set your autofocus delay for Long. This prevents the autofocus from jumping quickly between foreground and background objects.
3. Set autofocus servo for AF-C (a.k.a. continuous servo). Obviously, since the bird is moving, the autofocus system needs to continually track its motion and AF-C tells the camera to do this as long as you are pressing the AF-ON button or the shutter release button.
4. Start tracking the bird a long ways away by pressing your AF-ON button or half-pressing your shutter release button. Giving your autofocus system a few seconds to track the flying bird will greatly enhance the number of keepers you get.
5. Work hard at keeping focus sensor directly on the bird. This is undoubtedly the most difficult part of the equation and requires the most patience. Because puffins and small birds move so fast, you might have to resort to hand-holding your lens so you can react quickly to their changes in direction.
6. If you lose focus, then lift off your finger, and try to reacquire focus on the bird. Sometimes, you’ll need to lift and reacquire multiple times.
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