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Focus frustrations - action photos with 200mm lens

After damaging my D5100 last year, I got a D3100 through my "damage insurance" and I've been pleased with the camera so far. Although I do feel the D5100 had more features. I have the kit lens and the 200mm kit lens. I use the 200mm a lot for action photos. I've had some good successes with it, but I'm still looking for more consistency in the focus. Most recently I've been shooting my daughters during their soccer games, and some shots come out clear, and others still are fuzzy. Perhaps I'm being overly critical of my efforts, as some of the photos are easily "enlargement-worthy". I have to remind myself that auto-focus is involved.

I've mostly been shooting in Manual mode with the lens set to Auto-focus and VR turned on. Earlier I had been shooting with low aperture numbers (in lower light conditions) with limited success, but have moved up to using f/8, f/9 and f/10. I've been trying different auto-focus settings from single-point, to dynamic, to auto, and servo setting of continuous. In order to freeze the action, I try to use shutter speeds of 500, 640, 800 and even 1000 when light permits. I also have a single-post pedestal that I'm holding the camera on to ensure a steady hand. I'm being more mindful of pressing the shutter halfway as I follow the action too.

I already know that ideally I should probably have a better lens to achieve improved results; that's on my wish list. We are also race fans, enjoying drag racing and monster trucks, and I love to shoot those action shots too. I recently discovered this forum and thought I'd see if anyone had any comments or suggestions. Thanks!
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Comments

  • A lot of your shots look great!

    I think some of the "softness" in some of the shots are due to diffraction and image noise.

    4309 is soft definitely due to slow shutter speed. 1/8 sec is way too ambitious to handhold at 45mm even with VR.

    What you're seeing on the print on the shirt is chromatic aberration in 4887.

    In 4764, maybe it's a missed focus. Seems the focus is slightly in front of where it should be. If you look at the hands of the girl on the left, they look sharp. Did you use focus-recompose?

    On a separate note, I see that you're shooting the soccer stuff around noon. The harsh lighting makes for undesirable shadows. You can't really do much about it in the action shots, but for a posed shot like 4764, you may want to try popping up the flash to add some fill.
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