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Autofocus Tracking with cluttered background

Mike Hagen (Mike_Hagen)

Keywords: wildlife, photography, photographic, disciplines, guides, tips, focus, af, bif, birds

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It's a bird, it's a plane! Ok, they're just birds, not superman. But with Autofocus Tracking techniques like this, you'll feel like you've conquered a lot in getting those epic shots. Photographing small birds, fast in flight, is one of the most difficult things to photograph. Learn how you can overcome this challenge, and practice practice!

Photographing small, fast birds in flight is one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a photographer. On a recent Nikonians Academy Workshop trip to Iceland, our group had the opportunity to photograph puffins off the coastal cliffs and I came away with absolutely terrible results after my first day!

Small birds like puffins fly very fast in relation to their size, so are extremely difficult to keep in the camera frame. They often cut left and right while avoiding predators like the great skua, which makes it even more difficult to track them in your viewfinder.


Figure 1. This Icelandic puffin was very difficult to focus on because of the cluttered and high contrast background.

One of the situations I came across while photographing puffins in Iceland was an area where the puffins would fly across a cluttered background. In this case, we were approximately eye level with the birds as they were flying to their nests on a grassy slope. The sun was out, so the grass formed areas of bright highlights and dark shadows. As the puffins flew across the grass background, the camera’s autofocus system had a very difficult time distinguishing the bird from the background. Hence, the camera would jump from focus on the bird to focus on the background.


(27 Votes )
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Originally written on October 21, 2013

Last updated on November 21, 2023

Mike Hagen Mike Hagen (Mike_Hagen)

Expert photography teacher

Gig Harbor, USA
Basic, 149 posts


CS Spencer (CSS11) on March 5, 2018

Thanks for sharing your experiences! Can't wait to do some field testing.

Prasad Dalvi (dalviprasadd) on February 11, 2018

Its always have been a challenge to capture small birds in flight especially the Sun bird which is very small and camouflaged with the background. I have been trying hard but your article has given me an opportunity to use the suggested settings. Thanks, I will practice using the given setting.

William Meyer (chasseurdelumiere) on February 15, 2016

Would using a back button focus rather than being connected to the release button help?

Eric Cabrales (ec2please) on December 31, 2015

Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017

Mike, thanks for sharing your techniques and expertise....

Joe Cheng (cyjoe_nikon) on April 10, 2015

Very useful tips, thanks Mike

User on December 3, 2014

Thanks, this will help a great deal

Wen Wu (wwp512) on February 21, 2014

Many good points mentioned. It's situations like these that makes other photographers appreciate the photographer who has the talent and mastered the techniques (as well as heavy jealousy and envy!!)

Tony Johnson (TonyJ) on February 17, 2014


Norm Chatelier (KarshWannabe) on November 24, 2013

Thanks Mike - Very helpful. I can see how this technique can apply to other "noisy" backgrounds. - Norm.

User on November 19, 2013

Will try the long setting, I have found focusing on fast flighing birds difficult on my d4 and d3. Thanks

User on October 31, 2013

This is my pet problem, as well. Catching the gulls that come up from the Chesapeake bay to our local river. One key problem locally is that they often fly low enough that they pass a hill that is covered with trees and the movement across that seems to confuse the focusing system, similar to the problem with the Puffins. Just recently set focus to 3D tracking but haven't had a chance to try that to see if there is any improvement. What makes it even more frustrating is that a friend has a D5000 and has gotten fine images under identical circumstances.

Rick P (s2sailorlis_nikon) on October 31, 2013

@Kalyan..same issue when shooting gulls with water as background. I shot some gulls over the weekend on my D7000 and the AF system 21 Points kept focusing on the water. If was a sunny day so lots of contrast in the water.

Willis Charles Andrews II (WillisC) on October 30, 2013

Note that you can save a LONG AF shift delay to the U1 or U2 user settings on the D7000, or D600. (I assume the D7100 and D610 would be similar.) So, if you have a shorter preferred AF shift delay setting for other circumstances (or off), you can still get back to it quickly without having to use the menus.

Randy Nevers (Eagle IL) on October 29, 2013

Mike, I just bought a D800 and I am having a similar problem shooting Football games at night. I was having issues with the focus moving on me. I am going to try these settings and see if it helps. Thanks for the tips! Randy

Paul Ekman (pdekman) on October 27, 2013

Winner in The Nikonians 10th Anniversary Photo Contest Awarded as a regular contributor who offers in-depth knowledge to members who are interested in building efficient work flows. Winner in the Annual Nikonians Best Images Contest 2015

I was one of the photographers on the trip trying different techniques with Mike. I observed the following with my equipment (D7K, D800, 300/f2.8 VR). I immediately gave up on the D7000, finding the D800 AF to be an improvement. I did try 3D tracking mode, but it seemed to lose lock just as easily as other modes. A gimbal mount was useless, as a large panning motion was needed to first track the birds as they came towards us, got close, but then quickly swung back out to the ocean. Handholding seemed the only option. Lastly, I shot mostly with a 1.4TC for reach. We had an early morning Puffin opportunity where the birds were close yet I was missing focus, so shot the lens without the TC. As expected, the additional light helped me capture some great shots in flight.

Reza Gorji (gorji) on October 27, 2013

Thank you very much for the pointers. BIF are difficult to photograph as you mention. One point that I thinks needs emphasizing is that a top of the line Nikkor should be used to accomplish the mission: ie fast focusing AF-S lenses. Also where you using a Gimbal Head? Again, I enjoyed the article very much. Thank you.

Mike Hagen (Mike_Hagen) on October 27, 2013

Expert photography teacher

@cameralark2, yes, go ahead and leave Long delay for big birds in flight. This will prevent your AF from jumping to the background if the sensor leaves the body of the bird for a short time.

Neill Graham (NDGraham) on October 25, 2013

I "shoot" birds in flight as the greatest challenge to my skills. It is hard to get a decent keeper. I appreciate your sharing your technique and will try your suggestion to set the autofocus delay to long next time. I typically use single area and AF-C and the AF-ON button (thanks to Steve Simons courses). It looks like you used a 1.4tc to get the 550mm focal length. I'm getting very good results from my TC-20E III on my 70-200 f/2.8 VR.

Kalyan sankar (Vidya46) on October 25, 2013

I have tried 3d tracking on sea gulls with the sea as the background..the focus moved to the background when the bird was moving..I need some help too if anyone has tried this Cheers

Mark Mauro (MarkM10431) on October 23, 2013

Out of curiosity, did anyone use the 3d autofocus modes on the newer cameras? I'd my understanding that your situation is precisely what that mode is designed for

Craig Leaper (leaper1) on October 23, 2013

Thanks Mike, I have found that this also works wells for ducks

Gary Sutherland (gazzas007) on October 23, 2013

Good comment Mike, we were on the Farne Islands off the NE coast of England, Puffin paradise earlier this year. The ratio you suggested is about spot on took about 2200 raw images of Puffins, Guillemots, Shags and Arctic Terns and ended up with about 700. Real challenge to pick the puffins with eels in their mouths as they came zooming overhead. I was very pleased with what I ended up with.

Gregory J Weldon (GregWeldon) on October 23, 2013

I have been fighting that same problem for years, Thanks for the instruction I can't wait to go out and try for myself.

Nagendra Kumar G (nklightart) on October 23, 2013

Thanks for the wonderful tip. The setting I missed was the AF delay. I has my settings as "short" that explains the problem I was facing. Will definitely give your tip a try. Also I am facing problem with tracking while framing tight on birds on flight. Is it a good idea to include more area while framing and crop later. I use D7100.

Shavawn Donoghue (shavawn_) on October 23, 2013

Thanks, very helpful. I was in Iceland a few weeks after you and had the same problems. Nice to know there is a solution that works some/most of the time.

Paul Standing (misunda) on October 23, 2013

Any Info is good info, and yours was very welcome . Thank You

User on October 23, 2013

Your Iceland photos were simply awesome, makes me want to go. Thanks

User on October 23, 2013

I shot birds today at the Jamaica Wildlife Reserve, both large and small birds. I didn't know about the Auto focus delay control. Is it OK to leave it on "Long" for large birds also??? I was using AF-C and 21 point and did get several keepers but not as many as I would have liked. I think the "long" setting would have made a huge difference. Thanks

Mike Hagen (Mike_Hagen) on October 22, 2013

Expert photography teacher

@dennis_miller - the AF sensors will track the movement in continuous AF as long as you keep the priority sensor on the bird's body. If you are in another focus mode like Auto Area or Dynamic 51, then the camera will hand off the subject movement to other sensors. The problem arises when the background is cluttered and the camera isn't able to distinguish between the subject and the background.

dennis miller (dhmiller) on October 22, 2013

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

"Work hard at keeping focus sensor directly on the bird." If you are moving the camera to keep the focus sensor on the bird, then aren't |you| doing the focusing? What is the continuous AF doing at this point if you are moving the camera? I thought the idea was that the camera would track the motion of the bird and move the focus point for you. -d.

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on October 22, 2013

Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for  his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign

Thanks Mike, very helpful!

Egbert M. Reinhold (Ineluki) on October 21, 2013

Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Learnt a lot. Egbert

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