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One of the biggest challenges when it comes to how to capture moving objects in photography is making sure that your subject is in sharp focus. When an object is moving, it can be very difficult to keep up and focus.

I got the idea to write this tutorial when one of our readers, Rachel, left a comment on the Nail your Autofocus tutorial asking for advice on photographing busy kids and particularly mentioned Nikon’s 3D tracking and continuous servo.

To answer how to capture moving objects involves more than just focus and applies to many more situations than just photographing children.

Situations where sharp focus is challenging

  • sports photography, including your kids’ sports
  • young children playing
  • pets running around
  • birds in flight

How to capture moving objects in photography – camera settings

The next challenge is how to capture moving objects to ensure that they’re sharp. So we’ll look at these 6 essential techniques you need to consider for focusing on moving objects:

  1. Continuous autofocus
  2. Autofocus area modes
  3. Focus tracking duration
  4. Back button focus
  5. Pre-focus on a point
  6. Vibration reduction / Image stabilization

To receive the cheat sheet on autofocus areas shown further down, just pop us your email address and we’ll send it over to you. It’s for Nikon and Canon cameras, but the autofocus areas are similar for other camera makes too.

But first, here’s Rachel’s questions on how to capture moving objects in photography….

1. Does every Nikon model do 3d tracking?

2. You mentioned that you use continuous servo when taking pictures of active kids. Is that used in conjunction with 3D tracking or are they two separate actions used for separate occasions? And if they are separate, how is the 3D tracking different than the continuous servo?

3. When using continuous servo, do you continually hold the shutter button halfway down like you do with the single servo?

And here’s my reply….

The problem with 3D tracking is that the camera struggles to focus when the subject is close to a background, or if the background is a similar colour to the subject. I’ve also heard that green can confuse it, particularly grass.

When talking about continuous servo and 3D tracking, we’re talking about two different aspects of focus: autofocus modes (continuous servo and single servo) and autofocus area modes (single point, dynamic area, auto area and 3D). It’s confusing, because they sound similar.

With continuous servo, the camera focuses continuously whilst depressing either the back button focus button or half depressing the shutter button. With single servo, once focus has been locked it is held until you fully depress the shutter button. If you or your subject moves in that time the subject will be out of focus.

For this reason you can’t use the 3D tracking auto focus area mode when you are in single servo mode.

I use back button focusing, so I keep the back button continuously held down and depress the shutter button only when I want to take the shot. If I weren’t using back button focusing, I would, like you say, hold the shutter button down half way while in continuous servo mode.

Now let’s get into the details of how to capture moving objects in photography…

How an object moves determines how you photograph it

Before you begin photographing a fast moving object, ask yourself if it’s moving: 

  • erratically (football, hockey, small kids)
  • in an expected line (runners on a track, ski jumpers, divers)

This will form the basis of many of your focusing decisions and camera settings.

1. Continuous autofocus for capturing moving objects in photography

As we’re photographing moving subjects, the focus mode needs to be set to continuous-servo AF (AF-C) if using Nikon and AI Servo AF if using Canon. Continuous autofocus is also known as continuous shooting mode, or burst mode.

Use single-servo AF (AF-S) if using Nikon and One Shot if using Canon for still subjects only.

Further reading: 3 creative photography tricks using continuous shooting mode

AF-C priority selection

You will need to change your AF-C priority selection depending on what you’re shooting and how fast the movement is. This will vary between RELEASE or FOCUS + RELEASE for Nikon, and for Canon Focus Priority and Release Priority.

To capture moving objects in photography the rule of thumb is:

  • Where precise timing is not essential, use FOCUS + RELEASE (Nikon) or Focus Priority (Canon). Examples are skating, surfing, cycling.
  • Use RELEASE (Nikon) or Release Priority (Canon) when the subjects are moving and changing rapidly. Also for when they suddenly appear in the frame. Examples are football, hockey, volleyball, diving or ski jumping.

How to capture moving objects in photography with children

2. Autofocus area modes to capture moving objects in photography

Your next consideration for achieving a well focused image of a fast moving subject is the autofocus area. In other words, how much of the field of view (frame) will be a focus target? There are two autofocus area modes to consider:

a) Dynamic AF area modes (Nikon) or AF Point Expansion (Canon)

b) 3D tracking

a) Dynamic AF-Area Mode (Nikon) / AF Point Expansion (Canon)

How many points of focus you select depends on your subject’s movement and what is around your subject. Let’s look at:

  • Single point AF
  • 9 point
  • 21 point

Single point AF

If there are fixed obstacles between you and your subject, switch to single point autofocus. This will prevent the camera accidentally focusing on something other than your subject.

A sports photography example would be volleyball – you don’t want to accidentally focus on the net or the ball.

Likewise, it would be a good choice when photographing children running around the park in between the slide and the swings etc.

9 point dynamic area AF

A dynamic area of 9 points is good for most situations as it allows for some subject movement for the camera to track, but doesn’t cover too great an area that might confuse the focusing.

Further reading: Panning photography – capturing action with motion blur

21 point dynamic area AF

If your subject is likely to move towards the edge of your focus area, it is better to use the 21 points dynamic area so that you have most of the area covered. This way if your subject momentarily moves away from your selected focus point, the camera will maintain focus, based on the information from the surrounding focus points.

In addition, if the background is plain, such as the sky behind a ski jumper, a 21 point dynamic area is useful and effective.

b) 3D tracking

This is a Nikon only feature.

It sounds great, but it can easily confused by the background, especially green backgrounds such as grass. So, not ideal for many types of sports photography.

It also can be confused when there isn’t enough contrast between the subject and the background, or if the subject is too close to the background.

For these reasons I wouldn’t use it and would favor the other focusing options I’ve covered.

DSLR autofocus areas to use for movement

3. Focus tracking duration for capturing moving objects

Our next consideration is focus tracking, which is how long we need the camera to track the fast moving subject.

To decide on your focus tracking setting, ask yourself 3 questions:

  • How quickly do I need to focus on a different subject?
  • Will my subject be moving in an expected trajectory without interruption?
  • Do I need to track my subject past obstacles?

Let’s look at each one…

a) How quickly do I need to focus on a different subject?

In a fast changing sports photography situation, such as hockey, set focus tracking with lock-on to 1 or switch it off.

This reduces the amount of time the camera is locked on, so the response time to focus on a new subject is faster.

b) Will my subject be moving in an expected trajectory without interruption?

The most commonly used sports photography setting for focus tracking lock-on is 3. This is the normal setting and is ideal for speed skating, diving, ski jumping, surfing and figure skating.

It’s not just for sports photography though. If you’re photographing a child playing, a focus tracking lock-on of 3 would be ideal to capture a sharp photo.

c) Do I need to track my subject past obstacles?

In sports photography, when your subject is occasionally being obscured, such as runners at a track event, it helps to set your focus tracking lock on to a long lock-on so that you can continue focusing on your subject.

For example, if you’re focusing on a runner overtaking another runner between you and your subject, your view of the subject will be temporarily blocked. If your focus tracking lock-on is set to 3 or 5, the camera will maintain focus on your subject and not the runner being overtaken.

5 is considered a long focus tracking setting, so it’s ideal when you need to hold the focus for a while, such as for photographing pairs of figure skaters.

With a bunch of busy kids running around and playing together, a long lock-on of 5 would also be ideal if you’re trying to photograph your child in the middle of the busy crowd.

4. Back button focus to capture moving objects

The button to use is the AF-ON button. It is on the back of your camera – hence the name, back button focus. If you don’t have an AF-ON button, you can use your menu to set the AE-L/AF-L button to function as your back button focus button.

I’ve written a separate article about back button focus, so won’t go into too much detail here. What I will say is that back button focusing is essential when photographing any moving subject.

To remove the focus function from the shutter release button for BBF:

  • Nikon – select your AF activation as AF-ON, rather than Shutter/AF-ON.
  • Canon – go to custom controls and then shutter button and then select metering start.

Further reading: Back button focus – how to use it and why it’s your BFF

5. Pre-focus on a point for capturing moving objects

The only time you could capture a moving object in sharp focus without using back button focus is if you’ve pre-focused on an area where you expect your subject to be.

Sports photography examples of pre-focusing are a horse jumping over a fence or someone running across a finish line.

Back button focus to capture a moving object in photography

In this instance you have 3 options to pre-focus to capture moving objects:

  • manually focus on a point ahead of time, or
  • autofocus to focus on a point and then switch to manual focus, or
  • separate the focus function from the shutter release button to ensure that when you depress the shutter release button your camera doesn’t try to refocus. In other words, disable it’s autofocusing ability.

Further reading:  9 times manual focus beats autofocus

How to focus on movement

6. Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabilization (IS) for moving objects

The last point on how to capture moving objects in photography is vibration reduction (Nikon) or image stabilization (Canon).

If you’re shooting with a shutter speed faster than 1/500, turn off your VR. You won’t need it.

Vibration reduction / Image stabilization settings

There are 2 settings you can use – active or normal. Set your vibration reduction to:

  • ON/NORMAL – when you’re panning with moving objects, or are photographing stationary objects.
  • ACTIVE – when you are moving and photographing, such as from a moving car.

Further reading: Vibration Reduction (Image Stabilization) mistakes to avoid for sharp photos

Summary of how to capture moving objects in photography

If you’ve skipped to the bottom, here’s a quick summary…

  1. Decide if the object is moving erratically or in an expected line
  2. Switch to continuous focus instead of single servo (one shot)
  3. Decide on the best AF-C priority for the situation
  4. Select the best autofocus area mode for the type of movement and activity
  5. Set focus tracking duration based on line of view to your moving object
  6. Use back button focus
  7. Consider pre-focusing and isolating the shutter button
  8. Decide on active or normal vibration reduction / image stabilisation, or switch it off

Leave a comment

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Learning how to focus on fast moving subjects is easier than you think. The ability of DSLR cameras to autofocus are excellent - we just need to learn how to use the full range of focus tools. Click through for our tutorial on how to focus on fast moving subjects and never be out of focus again. #focus #autofocus #sharpphoto #phototips #thelenslounge