Focus frustrations - action photos with 200mm lens

edited October 2014 Posted in » Nikon D3100 Forum
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!


  • edited October 2014
    I suspect the AF capability of the d3xxx is not as good as that of the d5xxx in general.

    I find that shooting moving objects with the D3200 is a bit iffy even with practice, but generally seem to do better with AFA or C, and dynamic or 3-d focus. AFA seems to make the shift to continuous well enough.

    But for dynamic focusing to work, you must first nail the subject. If the subject moves before initial focus is established, it will not track the subject. Thus, it may well be that the lens is your limiting factor here if it cannot finish focusing in time. Improvement in panning technique can help a lot, as sometimes can widening your view so it's easier to find the subject, and there's more of it to focus on. Of course you can't do that with a prime lens.

    If your subject is a relatively consistent distance from the camera, it can help speed things up by manually focusing first to something close. AF time will be diminished some if it does not have to hunt far.

  • edited October 2014
    The D3100 and the D5100 have the same AF sensor so performance should be comparable. That said, neither cameras are the cream of the crop when it comes to AF performance. Problem is you're limited to just 11 AF points with just the center one being cross type.

    For best results, set your cam to AF-C and Dynamic area mode with the center AF point active. Also set your drive mode to continuous. Nail your focus and pan with your subject as you shoot. Auto focus requires light to work, so shooting with large aperture would help. But while shooting wide open helps AF performance, it reduces your margin of error since it shrinks your depth of field, so you'll need to balance that out.
  • edited October 2014
    Thanks! Sounds like I am already working within the best options. I have gone large on the aperture in the interest of gaining light, but the shallow depth of field bites me occasionally in that approach. ;-) When I've been shooting the monster trucks, I seem to have better results because the target subjects are bigger. I'm going to work on "nailing" the subject better and see how we do. I'm still interested in hearing from anyone else.
  • edited October 2014
    A few more tips for you to experiment with to see if you can improve your shots.

    For something like soccer, it can be challenging for the D3100. There’s so much action, change in direction, and things moving in and out of your frame which will confuse the camera’s AF. Well, at least that’s what I’ve found to be the case with my D5100. What I like to do is not track longer than 2 seconds at a time. Just acquire focus and then hold the shutter to fire off a quick burst of shots while panning with the subject. Then let go. Reacquire focus and repeat. Think of it as playing a first-person shooter video game with an automatic weapon. You never want to just hold the trigger and fire away constantly. That’s just wasting shots and you lose accuracy. Always shoot quick short bursts.

    By the way, when trying to freeze action, you don’t really need something to stabilize the camera. If you’re ripping off shots at 1/500 or 1/1000 sec on a 200mm lens, that’s more than fast enough to eliminate camera shake. So just hand-hold it. The improved maneuverability may help.

    Now, if you were shooting race cars and you’re trying to pan laterally with the car with a relatively slow shutter in order to freeze the car but convey motion blur on the background and the wheels, then stabilization would help.
  • edited October 2014
    I can only agree with all the above expert advice. However, a technique which I use, and many sports photographers, is something called predictive focussing. The idea is that you try to predict an area where the action will happen and pre-focus on that area. In reality, the process is not as random as it might seem and one soon gets a feel for it. Ever noticed that many sports photographers squat to the rear of a goal in soccer for example. They are assuming that if any good action is going to happen, it is likely to happen in this area.
  • edited November 2014
    Hi again folks. I've tried some of these techniques, and I also bought Moose's tips, but I'm still getting a little frustrated. I got some decent pictures with the 200mm lens, but most recently I took a few with the 18-55mm lens using Moose's tips, and there were still a few that had fuzzy focus. I'll have to get an account on dropbox and upload to share, as I would love to hear objective observations.

    I fear that I'm expecting the pictures to be much more clear than perhaps is reasonable, but on the other hand, if I'm not doing something right, then I want to correct it. I took a portrait of my daughter and her friend last weekend, and I thought I had all the settings proper and in the great light it would have been crystal clear, and it wasn't. More to learn I guess.
  • edited November 2014
    The first thing to do is probably to make sure that your 18-55mm is focusing correctly and optically right. Find a wall or a road sign or the like, and check that it's working right. Be careful that your finger does not accidentally move the focus point. The control is rather sensitive and I find I often bump it in normal holding on the D3200. The OK button will recenter it, so get into the habit of pushing that when you turn it on. Remember too that the focus point is proportionally broader as you go to a wider angle, so it may not pinpoint a subject as well.

    If the camera and lens are on auto-focus and it fires, then it thinks it's in focus (won't fire until it does). The thing you need to do is to find out whether there's an error in the focusing (camera problem) or whether it's focusing on the wrong thing (operator problem). Study the fuzzy shots you got, and see if something other than the subject is sharper.

    If you suspect that the focus is out of adjustment, take two identical shots; one with the viewfinder and one in live mode. Live mode is slower to focus and less useful for action, but it uses the image on the sensor itself. So whatever it is focused on should be as sharp as your camera and lens can deliver. If the 18-55mm is working right, it should be good and sharp.
  • edited November 2014
    Thanks. As I reflect on my experiences with my D5100, I recall that I faced some focus challenges as well, so I'm leaning towards my part in the results. I've been doing a bunch of reading up on aperture and depth of field, and I think that, in many cases, I've been working with too shallow a depth of field. Under poor lighting situations, I've had to open up the aperture a lot just to get enough light in for the action shots I've been taking.

    This brings me to another thought. Even with a shallow depth of field, if I'm shooting an action shot of a soccer player, as long as I've hit my focus point properly on them as the subject, can I expect their entire body to be in focus? I mean, can the depth of field get narrower than a person's body? My daughters' season ends this Saturday, so I'm going to try smaller apertures if the light permits and see how I do. I'm not shooting at less than 500 speed, so that's probably going to be tricky. I have mostly used Dynamic and Auto for the Focus settings, but I may try some Single-point too.

    I really do enjoy shooting with my DSLR more than my prior point-and-shoot. I took some great shots before, but there's so much more power with the DSLR. Now I just have to make sure I'm harnessing that power correctly. ;-) I expect that I'll probably find myself looking towards higher-end gear in no time, but right now I simply can't afford that.
  • edited November 2014
    At wide enough aperture you actually can lose focus on part of a body, more so if the lens is long and/or the focus is close. It would be a good idea to experiment with the lens you're using and the distance you're expecting, and see just how much useable depth of field you get. Maybe try shooting a brick or stone wall sideways to get an idea of what works at what distances. Remember it's a digital camera and you can erase test shots, so there's no reason you can't take dozens of experimental shots to compare different settings.

    Also, if you are trying to nail a specific object, auto-area focus mode may not work well. In this mode, the camera decides the likeliest object to focus on, and if your chosen object is not obvious, it may choose the wrong one. Try dynamic and either AF-A or AFC, and then if you can grab a player in the center spot, the player should stay in focus as she moves.

    Remember that although it's always best to avoid the noise of high ISO if you can, a sharp picture in high ISO is going to be more satisfying than a blurry one in low ISO. So if you must, raise the ISO before you lose depth of field or sufficient shutter speed. You can get a pretty tolerable picture of a human player on a field even in a high ISO that would be a bit problematic for a static scene.
  • edited November 2014
    You are right in that it’s possible that missed focus could very well be due to an aperture that’s too large that caused a depth of field (DOF) that’s too shallow. I would say that with the 55-200mm lens, it’s not likely. The lens’ max aperture at any focal length is not large enough for you to have significant DOF issues unless you were shooting close to minimal focal distance (3.6 ft). At 200mm, that lens max aperture is f/5.6. I wouldn’t hesitate to always shoot wide open with the 55-200mm.

    Can depth of field get narrower than a person’s body? Yes. If you have the right lens and use the right settings, it’s very easy to have a person’s eyes in sharp focus but then have his nose look very soft. Let’s go back to the context of photographing action sports with the 55-200mm. At 200mm with aperture at f/5.6 and having the entire body of the soccer player in frame, you can indeed have the entire body to be in focus.
    I think the issue is WHERE you land your focus point. Using Dynamic Area and AF-A is fine. As always when photographing people, you want to land your focus point on the eye. There’s a couple reasons for this:

    1. When looking at photos, people always gravitate towards the eye. As long as the eye is in focus, the entire photo will be conceived to be in focus by most people.

    2. DOF extends 1/3 in front of your focus point and 2/3 behind it. For example, based on your distance to subject, your focal length, and your aperture setting, the DOF comes out to be about 1 ft. Then that means the space that would be in sharp focus will extend 4 inches in front of where you focus point is and 8 inches behind it. Notice where your eye is in relation to the front and back of your body. If you focus on the eye, you’ll maximize how much of the body is in focus.

    The largest target to focus on is the torso. Don’t do it. If you focus on a point where there’s nothing between it and the camera, you’ve just wasted 1/3 of your DOF.

    So, here’s the TLDR version to maximize the 55-200mm lens’ potential for action sports:
    - Just shoot at max aperture. That lens needs all the light it can get.
    - Dynamic Area and AF-A (or AF-C)
    - Land focus point on the eye. Remember to pan with your subject to try to keep the AF point on the eye.

    For specific settings, try this:
    Shutter priority mode with shutter speed set at 1/500 (or faster)
    Dynamic area
    AF-A or AF-C
    Auto-ISO with max ISO at 3200 or 6400

    Due to this lens’ limitations, it’s best if it was used in daylight. This lens isn’t effective at all for indoors sports; that’s when you should look to higher end gear. Unfortunately, fast tele lenses specifically for DX are hard to come by. Nikon doesn’t make any. Sigma used to have a 50-150mm f/2.8 which has since been discontinued. The only option appears to be to use full-frame lenses such as the variations of the 70-200mm.
  • edited November 2014
    Aside from the practical matters outlined above, you should usually aim for an eye anyway, because a blurred eye will immediately announce bad focus, where a sharp eye and a blurred body will not.

    I find on the D3200 that AFA usually is smart enough to switch from S to C mode when needed, but if you're shooting sports, you should probably go to AFC to be sure. Dynamic area mode will keep focus on a moving subject if you're holding down the shutter button, but its ability is limited. So the better you become at panning the better you'll do.

  • edited November 2014
    Great info folks! This is all very helpful! I have found that the 200mm lens is pretty poor for indoor sports, although I have managed to get good nighttime shots at MetLife Stadium of the monster truck shows. However, that lighting is pretty strong.

    The eye focus observations make great sense, and I will work on that in my technique. Thanks again, I'll let you know how I make out tomorrow. :-)
  • edited December 2014
    Well, I shot some more over the weekend, and I'm still finding myself a little disappointed. I did get a few good shots, but I keep feeling like the pictures are not crisp enough. I have to set up a dropbox account to share them, and let others give their objective views. In addition to the soccer action shots, I took some sunrise photos at the beach. I will get some samples of my work up for viewing and then see what you think. Thanks.
  • edited December 2014
    Please do share! I for one would love to give some shot comments to help you further your photography. I highly recommend using Flickr since they allow full res uploads/downloads. It also conveniently shows the EXIF data for each shot.

    I can kick this off. Here’s a shot I took a few weeks ago.

    It’s not a good example of focusing on the eyes since my son has small eyes (darn my Asian genes!), but you can see it’s very possible to get the entire body in focus. This was taken at 200mm, f/4, 1/500, ISO-640.
  • edited December 2014
    I do hope you can find a way to post some pictures.

    However, in the mean time, it might help you to determine if there really is any fault or softness in your equipment.

    Remember that you pay no real price for wasted photographs, so you can take a whole lot of experimental shots just to gather information, and then erase them.

    You need to figure out several things. Is your camera itself focusing properly? Is your lens soft? Are you holding it steady?

    What I would suggest as a starting point is to put your normal lens on (or whatever lens you expect to be the sharpest), use a mid-range if it's a zoom, set it to f/8, put the camera at a low ISO, support it on a tripod or a table (VR off if on a tripod), and aim it at something fairly complex like a brick wall or patterned wallpaper. If the camera is on a tripod or table and needs no support, take your hands off and fire it with the self timer. Now look at the picture. Is it sharp? If it is not sharp enough when you do this, then stop right here. It never will be. If it's soft, try the same thing again with manual focus and live view, taking great care. If this is much better, then perhaps your viewfinder focus needs adjusting (not a do it yourself thing).

    If you have confirmed that the camera is working well enough, your next shots should be an attempt to see if you are getting motion blur, or focus errors. Try any lenses you have at different focal lengths. Try static subjects and moving subjects. Practice and try to figure out what techniques work and what ones don't. Try to figure out what focal lengths and shutter speeds are most reliable, and what autofocus settings get the best results. Many telephoto lenses get a bit soft at the far end, though this varies a lot. You might find a 55-200mm works better at 175mm.
  • edited December 2014
    Hi folks. I hope to upload some pictures to a site tonight or tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm using my View NX to try and check the Focus Point on my shots. Now, I've edited some of them, so I know NX won't pick it up anymore on those, but I have not yet found one shot where it will display the Focus Point for me. I know I haven't edited them all. Is that a bad sign?

    More to come...
  • edited December 2014
    It certainly seems odd that you cannot see focus points. I know that View NX should show focus points whenever auto focus is used; a single one for single point and many for multi-point. It should work for both NEF and JPG saves as well.

    I guess one thing you need to wonder is whether your camera is actually working properly on auto focus. I am presuming you've double checked the AF settings on lens and camera, the electrical connections, and can hear the focus motor working when you are shooting.

    I suggest you take a couple of shots and read the card directly into View NX2 to make sure that some other editing program has not erased them. Make sure you toggle the appropriate setting in View NX2 to make sure it's right. If your auto focus is working, it ought to show the focus points.

    Edit to add: I have been looking further into this, and as far as I can see with the D3100 (which has no option for turning off focus priority as many other models do), you cannot shoot a picture unless either the camera has locked onto focus, or you're on manual. The only reason why focus points would not be shown in View NX2 in this case would be either that the files have been edited, or that the camera was firing in manual focus mode. Other models, such as the D5xxx, can be custom set to shoot even if focus is not achieved When this occurs, the box will not appear in ViewNX2. This is not the case for the D3100. I can't seem to force my D3200 not to show the focus point in any AF mode.
  • edited December 2014
    Thanks for the info. Here's something else that's interesting. Keeping in mind, I had a D5100 before this...when I go back and view pictures taken with the D5100, I consistently see the Focus Points in ViewNX, but I haven't found a single picture shot with the D3100 that will show Focus Points. Is the ViewNX software specific to the camera model? I don't think I installed a new ViewNX when I got the new camera.
  • edited December 2014
    Alright, I got a bunch of pictures uploaded to Flickr, and I hope that you can see all of them in the Photostream. It's a mix of pictures that are good and some that could be better. I left comments. As I look back, I'm starting to question whether I really have any gripe here. Certainly some could be better, but there are others that are quite good as they are. I will let you folks peek and see what you think. Here's the link:
  • edited December 2014
    Many of those pictures look good and sharp, at least in the form we see here. Those that are less so look much as if they are focused on the wrong point. Some of the soccer pictures, for example, seem to have better focused knees than faces. You're getting good motion control here Some of this is going to be just luck, as the AF does not always catch up with action.

    You might want to review what your various autofocus settings are, including focus hold and what functions are assigned to the shutter button. If you are in the habit of focusing first on a subject and then recomposing, make sure that your AF is set to stay on when you move the camera with the shutter button part way down. This will allow you to focus on a face and then move the camera to a better composition without moving the focus point. In View NX2, the indicated focus point will still be shown as the center because it's recording what the camera setting was, rather than what was focused on before you recomposed.

    The trash can monster looks more like motion blur than depth of field. Remember that depth of field increases with distance, so that, for example, at that shallow DOF, roughly 1/3 of your DOF will be in front of the focus point, and 2/3 behind. For this reason, when you must compromise, try to figure out what your far and close points will be, and put your focal point a bit forward of the mid-point. You still need to compromise, and sometimes it just is not going to happen.

    I'm a little surprised that the f/9 portrait did not catch both faces better, but it looks a bit as if you focused a little too far forward on that one. The little girl's life jacket belt looks sharper than everything else, but depth of field at that close distance is always going to be difficult. You're probably better off trying for greater physical distance. If you don't intend to print very large, you might even find it works better to add some distance just to gain depth of field and crop to taste.

    Overall though, I think you're doing better than you fear. One of the things to remember when viewing your pictures is that what you see on the screen is a JPG preview, not the RAW file beneath. Not all viewing programs will give you the best looking image at every screen resolution. The differences are often tiny, but both the program and the monitor can make a difference.

    My introduction to digital was this spring when I went to the Galapagos with my new D3200. As I downloaded the pictures to the laptop, I was not too disappointed, but not too thrilled either, especially when I downsized them to smaller JPG's. Then I took those JPG's to a desktop Apple with a new monitor, and wow, they were pretty good! I got a new monitor when i came home. I'm viewing these now on a rather crappy laptop, and I bet if I put your pictures on that new big monitor they'd look a good bit better.

    As for the View NX2 issue, I don't think you should need to re-install it. It should be backward compatible, and if the image opens in it at all, I am pretty sure that it should work. I can't say for sure since I don't have a D3100 to try on mine. I think I have three different versions of the program; one from the D3200, one from the D7100, and one from the net, and all work OK. I also have Capture NX-D, the more recent Nikon program, which you can download from Nikon. That gives me the focus points for my D3200 shots as well.

    It remains a mystery. The only thing I can think of is that some processing removed that information, as it's pretty clear from the pictures shown that your camera is focusing as it should.
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