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Old Oct 9, 2009, 12:16 PM   #1
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Default Wildlife Photography - Auto or Manual Focus? Part One

Part One

There have been discussions about AF vs manual focus. In a thread on Sports Photography I posted my lay persons opinion that manual focus, assuming that the person worked at learning it, would be better than AF. But what do I know? My experience with Sports Photography is watching crack addicts run from the police. Exciting. The stakes are high. But it's not a recognised Olympic event, and is rarely televised. My opinion is worthless...

When it comes to wildlife photography, I do have some experience. In part one here, I will post some reasons why MF is a must for serious wildlife photographers. People are just going to have to bite the bullet and learn how to use it.

I'm going to end this post with five example shots.

Wildlife photography does not consist only of going to an open field or the beach, to photograph hawks, gulls, egrets and pelicans. Much of it takes place in thick woods, brushy fields, marshes, and other locations where a heck of a lot of stuff is in between the photographer and the target.

When I started out in this field, over ten years ago, it never occurred to me to use MF. I had AF, and I used AF. And half the shots I tried to take in woods and forest were lost because the AF decided to focus on a branch or a rock, that stood between me and the subject. Forget about framing the image, because the AF would focus on some extranious subject.

Here are five examples, all shot in heavy brush, all focusing PAST an obstacle which AF would have locked onto. In this case there is One resemblance to Sports photography - You don't get do-overs.

















Ok, so what about when you Are shooting in open areas? Is AF better?


Dave
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Old Oct 9, 2009, 12:21 PM   #2
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Default Wildlife Photography - Auto or Manual Focus? Part Two

Part Two

Shooting moving targets with a long lens is easily managed with AF, under most circumstances. Some of this has to do with the capabilities of the camera And the lens. AF does Not equal AF. And there's no doubt that there's less to "learn" with AF than manual focusing. But is it always an advantage? Birds flying rapidly toward you, from a distance often confuses the AF. And this is because the target may not stay in the focus point. And when the AF "seeks," you actually lose the target completely and have to reorient yourself. But unlike shooting in heavy brush, AF does work, and often works well.

On the other hand, a lack of top of the line equipment and all bets are off. Here are three examples in which AF would have had a hard time, and two where it wouldn't. Either because the focus area changed to quickly, or because the target was too close, too fast, and at a speed that makes the fastest human look like a snail...

Even large birds, are not always flying in clear areas, and this presents more of a problem to AF, than to MF - But small birds are easy to drop out of the focus, the AF will seek, and the moment (because that's all you have) might very well be lost.

Hopefully, in addition to these examples above, I can post examples to answer additional questions.


















So to sum up, I'm certainly not saying that MF, is Always better than AF. But the wildlife photographer, unless they are going to a specific location, where their targets are large, there are no obstructions, will suffer under a handicap. But certainly in woods and brush, and for that matter mixed environments, the person who uses MF, and spends the time to learn how to use it, has an advantage. Because the wildlife photographer is presented with opportunities, and these are fleeting, and we have no control over when and how these opportunities arise.

Dave

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Old Oct 9, 2009, 1:39 PM   #3
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Good advice, and GREAT pics! I'm working on using MF more and more.
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Old Oct 9, 2009, 1:57 PM   #4
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Good advice, and GREAT pics! I'm working on using MF more and more.
One has to also ask, about the "glamour birds," are they only valuble pictures if taken in fleight?

This Hawk, didn't see me, landed in a tree, spotted me and left, using the back door. The whole event was over in 15 seconds. AF? Not a chance. Yet, I was on an open causeway at East Branch resevoir, there for the purpose of shooting Hawks and Ospreys. Who knew he would land in one of the few trees on the causeway?




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Old Oct 9, 2009, 3:26 PM   #5
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Dave, what lens are you using on these shots?
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Old Oct 9, 2009, 3:56 PM   #6
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Dave, what lens are you using on these shots?
I used to shoot with a Sigma 50-500, switched over to a Nikon 400mm, and finally, have hooked up a Swarovski 'Scope to my Nikon D2x. So, I have no choice about shooting manual...

But I intend to post quite a few photos to illustrate the point I'm making on this thread.

If you are shooting birds in flieght with a decent AF, all is well until you lose the focus point AND there are objects either before or after your target. The AF will immediately start to seek, and this can mean the entire loss of the subject. By the time you reorient yourself, the opportunity is over. Whereas, if you are shooting manual, you never completely lose focus.

So, first an example where it would be difficult for the AF to go completely out of whack...

These two pictures are actually part of an extended series of about ten shots.



But in This image, lose the focus point and the AF will lock onto the trees. Then you're in trouble.




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Old Oct 9, 2009, 4:33 PM   #7
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You are right no doubt, the wildlife photographer must learn manual focus. If you have a camera/lens that the M/AF can be used at the same time is this also a viable option?. I always have my supporting hand on the MF ring. Now moving my camera out of the subject area for even a moment then returning I can get close with AF then tweak almost in an instant with the MF.
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Old Oct 9, 2009, 5:18 PM   #8
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You are right no doubt, the wildlife photographer must learn manual focus. If you have a camera/lens that the M/AF can be used at the same time is this also a viable option?. I always have my supporting hand on the MF ring. Now moving my camera out of the subject area for even a moment then returning I can get close with AF then tweak almost in an instant with the MF.
There are of course, "workarounds" to this problem. My camera for example has a little switch, which takes off AF and switches to manual. Personally however I have enough distractions. If I was going to strictly shoot from an open beach, dock, or some such situation, I see nothing wrong with simply shooting Auto, although after years of doing this I prefer manual.

On a personal level, I never shoot machine gun style, which is not practical when shooting manual (and although I cast no stones, I'm not a fan of that style in general). But I don't do it because the viewfinder blacks out, a no no when shooting manual.

Overall however learning how to use you camera and lens in manual mode, even of rarely used, should be a priority of those who take wildlife photography seriously.

Dave
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Old Oct 9, 2009, 9:43 PM   #9
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I admire and respect your ability to capture such stunning photos.

I do, however, believe that auto-focus will allow many people to get stunning photos also, when manual focus is out of the question. As for the ability to shoot through foreground obstacles, auto-focus can achieve great results if one is careful an in a fraction of the time.

These are not as stunning as your examples. The focus may not even be as sharp. But they are an example of the ability of a good auto-focus system to lock onto and keep on the subject of the image in the middle of clutter. Thanks for a great discussion,


Garry
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Old Oct 9, 2009, 10:19 PM   #10
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Nice shots!!!!!

dave
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