Nikon D300: Auto Focus

I’m not a professional reviewer and don’t have any sophisticated equipment to do measurements. I can only give my impressions of Nikon’s new auto focus system based on my limited use, thus far. So far, I’ve shot 2 games, totaling about 1,100 frames and also burned a few hundred frames chasing seagulls and forcing them into flight to see if the auto focus system would track them. It was a fun time!

The D300, as well as the D2X offer a myriad of ways to set up the auto focus system. However, as I’m talking about the D300, I’ll stick with that. The new auto focus system offers a pretty clean display featuring only one movable auto focus box, in the form of a rectangle with rounded ends. Here is a view of the display with all 51 possible auto focus points showing.

d300viewfinder.jpg

In reality, only one is visible at a time and you may move it into any one of the 51 positions. It makes for a very clean display. The only disadvantage that I’ve seen to non-sports photography is that the focus points can not go to the edge of the screen. With the D2x, even though it had only 11 auto focus points, I had the ability to cover more of the screen. This is an advantage when composing static images as you don’t have to hold the auto focus and then recompose as much.

Settings:

There are a number of settings available, but the major settings involve how many auto focus points are activated at a time. The choices are 1, 9, 21, 51, or 51 with 3-D tracking.

  • 1 point – For static subjects
  • 9 points – For moving objects when you have a good idea where they will go (race cars, runners, etc)
  • 21 points – For erratically moving objects such as basketball players.
  • 51 points – For lots of erratically moving objects, such as a flight of birds

I’ve experimented with each of them and have found that, for basketball, it’s kind of a toss up between 9 and 21 points. 9 points allows me to get a lot fewer miss-focused pictures. That is, the camera has focused, but possibly somewhere other than where I was trying to get the focus to lock. In basketball, on 21 points, sometimes the camera finds a nice focus point in the crowd if the angle of view is rather wide, like when you are shooting action that is around mid court. With 9 point focus, this rarely happens. The downside is that as it is a much smaller area of focus, sometimes the action is happening so fast that the camera cannot get a lock. For the purposes of this review I used 21 points.

The setup:
There are so many possibilities on the way to configure the camera to shoot. I won’t attempt to cover them, but will tell what I found most useful for shooting basketball, which may be totally different than shooting tennis, volleyball, baseball, or water polo! Your mileage, may vary.

  • Nikon D300
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens
  • Auto ISO – Starting at 800, maximum of 3200
  • Shutter priority – 1/500 second
  • Auto White Balance
  • 21 point auto focus
  • Dynamic tracking
  • Continuous auto focus
  • 6 frames per second (Continuous High)
  • Focus Priority (Don’t take the picture unless lock has been achieved).
  • Lock On- None – Camera, when in continuous auto focus, will constantly attempt to refocus if lock is not attained. The other options, short, normal, long indicate how long the camera must wait before attempting to refocus when the subject is moving drastically.
  • JPEG Normal (6 mega pixels), optimal quality – For faster shots per second and more shots allowed in the 100 shot (max) buffer

As you can see, there are quite a few settings. Fortunately, the camera has 4 custom shooting banks as well as for custom settings banks, making for 16 possible settings combinations. In this way, when I get to the game, I just switch to the correct banks and start shooting. Easy.

About that 50mm lens. I am so close to the action that I’ve found that the 80 – 200 mm/f2.8 lens that I had been using, which has a minimum focusing distance of 6 feet, was too long even at 80mm and I couldn’t get focus sometimes, especially when I was on the baseline, which put me right at about 6 feet, or less, from the action. The 50mm has a minimum focusing distance of about 1.5 feet. Hopefully, I don’t have to get so close as that!

The results:

pixelpeepers.jpg

The results were impressive. Using focus priority is rather annoying sometimes, especially when you miss a shot because the camera wouldn’t fire; however, if the camera didn’t fire, it meant that the picture wasn’t in focus! The auto focus is not flawless; there were several times when it focused on someone in the crowd, the rim of the basket, or perhaps the back wall. More of these ‘mistakes’ happen as you move from 9, to 21, to 51 auto focus points. It’s simply a matter of the camera having more targets to choose from. In the D300’s defense, though, I would have to say that it also has to do with the photographer’s ability to track the action accurately. Click on the thumbnail for a larger view. The larger view shows the full picture as well as a 100% crop. This was shot at ISO 1600. Considering that this is a 100% crop, that’s a surprisingly small amount of noise which is pretty easily cleaned up with Neat Image, as shown in this close up. The camera continues to impress.

after Neat Image
As usual, the action was frenetic! Basketball players moving in every direction, up, down, left to right, right to left, you name it. However, the camera’s auto focus stayed true to the game and most shots that I got were right on target and cleanly focused.

Two thumbs up, again, for the D300. Kudos to Nikon on their excellent auto focus. Click here for more shots from the game!!!