Tips for Understanding and Using Nikon AF Modes

If you are a Nikon shooter this video is really a must see. Wildlife and nature photographer Steve Perry (from backcountrygallery) looks at some of the most important auto focus settings in Nikon cameras, what they mean and how to best use the,

As we mentioned many times in the past, Perry’s video are always educational and this one is no exception. This time around he looks at the AF system on Nikon cameras (keep in mind that not all Nikon cameras will have all these options – typically the higher end models and newer ones will have more advanced modes – Perry uses a D810 in this case – but some of these tips will apply to more or less all recent models).

On this video Perry looks at:

  • Number of AF points – in the custom functions – this setting will let you choose how many of your focus points are available for you to choose from using the multi selector (the joystick) on the back. If moving from side to side between points is to slow for you – choose a smaller number.
  • Focus tracking with lock on – in the custom functions – this will determine for how long the AF system will pause if it looses lock (say you shoot a bird and it moves behind a tree (Perry either turned this off completely of sets this to a short pause if there are a lot of potential distractions between him and the subject he is tracking – might be better for sports shooting than wildlife).
  • Single shot or Continuous AF – in the custom functions – if you are using back bottom AF (which we highly recommend – see a previous video of Perry in the link below) AF-C is probably the way to go (at least when shooting moving targets. If you are using the shutter bottom for both AF and for shooting you have a choice – pressing the shutter half-way will focus and keep the focus in this distance until you fully press the shutter or stop pressing it. If you choose AF-C (Continuous AF), half pressing the shutter will focus and continue to track your subject as it moves closer or further away from you. If you want to recompose AF-C will change the focus to the new subject – so it isn’t ideal (and in this case AF-S or back bottom AF are better options).
  • AF priority selection – in the custom functions – there might be two of these options (one for AF-S and one for AF-C) but they work in the same way. They determine if the shooter can be pressed when you do not have an AF lock. If you are using AF-S you better set it to focus (i.e. you must have a lock). For AF-C it is more of a question – in Perry’s experience and with his type of wildlife photography the best option is release (i.e. the camera can shoot even if it does not have focus confirmation). We suggest you try both and see what gives you more sharp images.
  • Single point or Dynamic AF – in AF functions – for stationary subject just go with single point AF, if you are shooting a moving subject try to use typically a lower number – the reason? using more dynamic points increases the risk of the AF choosing an AF point which you don’t want – far from the one you choose (Perry uses either a single point or typically 9 points and moves to 21 only in rare cases where locking on the moving subject is very hard).
  • 3D AF – in AF functions – Perry never use this and the reason is that Nikon 3D AF uses color to determine the focus and track a subject across the frame. If your subject is more or less the same color as the background – this won’t work well. If however you are shooting sports or other situations were your subject has a very distinct color from the background – give this a try and see how it works.
  • Group AF – in AF functions – in some of the more advanced (new) Nikon cameras allows the AF system to take several AF points and use them as one big AF point (cool isn’t it?). This is great if you are shooting in low light/low contrast or other hard to track situations. However group AF will focus on what is close in the group of points that you use – so if you shoot a bird’s face – you might end up with a sharp beak and not the eye…

If you liked this video there are two other video by Perry which you might want to watch – “How To Use AF-On And Back Button Autofocus” and “Super Tip: Manual Mode With Auto ISO“. We can vague for both videos and we have been using the techniques Perry suggest for quite some time with great success so give them a try and see if they work for you.

You can check out many more helpful photography tips on our Photography tips section here on LensVid. We have a special page dedicated to all of Perry ‘s videos which you can find here.
Iddo Genuth
Iddo Genuth is the founder and chief editor of He has been a technology reporter working for international publications since the late 1990's and covering photography since 2009. Iddo is also a co-founder of a production company specializing in commercial food and product visual content.

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