AF Technique, Settings for Concert Photography

Photos of Aerosmith performing at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on their tour opener. June 11, 2009. © Todd Owyoung. (Todd Owyoung)

Q&ASingle servo, or continuous AF? A look at choosing the right AF modes and camera settings for concert photography.

Hi Todd,

Which focusing mode do you generally use for concert photography? Also, could you describe how your controls set up for AF?

Thanks,
Rene Skrodzki
www.rskrodzkiphotography.ca

Hi Rene, thanks for the question.

On my Nikon cameras, I use the Continuous Servo AF (AF-C), which corresponds to AI Servo mode on Canon cameras. The reason for selecting this mode is to quickly track performers on stage without having to reactivate AF as they move. For general event photography, I recommend continuous mode.

The Setup

Before describing why AF-C is the best solution for my shooting, it’s important to describe how I have my AF controls set up. By default, most DSLRs have the activation triggered by a half-press of the shutter release.

I have my controls set up so that the activation of AF on my cameras is toggled by the AF-ON button on the back of the camera, thus uncoupling the steps of AF and making the image. In addition, I have AE Lock (exposure lock) set to half-press via the shutter release.

The Rationale

By separating the operations of focus, shutter release, and exposure lock, the photographer gains control over the basic and essential elements of image capture. From obtaining and locking focus, locking exposure, and finally establishing the composition, each step is independent from the others, subdividing the process of capture into a more natural, highly controlled sequence. Furthermore, this hierarchy of use not only grants command over the imaging process, but also simplifies pre-focusing and facilitates quick compositions.

Also, in this setup, AF-C allows for active focus without repeatedly depressing the shutter release button.

When AF activation is tied to the shutter release, using AF-C would necessitate either re-acquiring focus before every image, thereby slowing down composition, or maintaining a half-press to hold focus.

With AF activation dedicated to the the AF-ON button, the photographer is more free to achieve AF lock more independently, allowing for faster and more responsive composition and execution, all with the benefits of active focus acquisition.

In Practice

For real life event photography, the benefits of this AF setup translate into being able to quickly acquire focus on a subject, maintain focus, and release the shutter in controlled, deliberate steps.

For very quickly moving subjects, I will change the active AF point, selecting the point closest to the target of focus as possible and tracking from there. Other times, various degrees of focusing and recomposing are appropriate.

After acquiring AF, I’m free to turn my attention to composition and release the shutter at the decisive moment, tracking and/or adjusting focus as necessary.

In the instances when the subject moves out of focus, by virtue of extreme movement or the the camera losing its tracking, AF-C helps resume focus as fluidly as possible, while still maintain an awareness of composition and lighting, so that when the lock is resumed, the camera’s ready to go.

Using Single Mode

Very rarely, I will switch to Single Servo AF (AF-S) if lighting conditions are very tricky, or when using lenses that behave poorly when used in continuous mode. With regard to the latter, this generally means older, screw-driven AF lenses that do not have built-in motors for changing focus.

One other situation in which I may use AF-S is for relatively static subjects, such as singer-songwriters, when I don’t need to worry about quick tracking.

How do you have AF setup on your camera? Do you have any tips to share for tricks to optimize autofocus performance for concert photography?

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There are 59 comments

Add yours
  1. Michael

    I use the same setup. AF-C mode and focus activated by AF-ON button.
    I usually only use the center AF point but if the lighting is good I switch AF point depending on the composition so I dont have to recompose the picture after focusing.

    By the way, last night I forgot to switch to AF-C before I started shooting. It took me a minute to understand why I couldn’t release the shutter sometimes… that’s why I usually set everything up before going in front of the stage.

    • Todd

      Hey Michael,

      Thanks for the input here. I’ll usually stick to the cross-type sensors on the D3/D700 if possible, but I’ve found the outer points to be fairly decent as well. There’s nothing quite like the center AF point, though – it’s like an AF heatseeker.

      I should also note that I have my camera setup for “Shutter Priority,” rather than “AF Priority.” In the latter, the camera requires AF lock before it will open the shutter. Shutter Priority allows capture at any time, regardless of whether focus is achieved.

  2. Rene Skrodzki

    Todd:

    Thanks for answering this question, I do have my focus and exposures separated, used to do this when I shot car racing. However I did find myself using Single Shot High speed and not AI Servo.

    I also just recently moved away from focus and recompose so using Servo is not a big deal.

    My main thing is now with a shallow DOF, the focus points seem to like ending up on the mic and not on the face but that is more about me than the equipment I think :)

    I am glad you had a moment to answer I didn’t want to appear to be a pest :)

    Thanks

    • Todd

      Hey Rene,

      Regarding the camera AF locking onto the mic instead of a performer’s face, one factor could be that the individual AF sensors for DSLRs may be larger than the indicated region in the viewfinder. This is especially true of the AF system uses non-selectable “assist” points, which may lay in between the standard AF points.

      In this case, AF system may be “seeing” the mic as the target (or at least as an easier target) due to its higher contrast, even though the AF sensor is not centered over the mic.

  3. Rene Skrodzki

    I just recently became aware of this fact. I did find a paper on the 40D’s AF areas, so I am going to see how to mitigate that fact in the future. Thanks.

    Hopefully one day I can graduate to 5Dmkii. Just need a couple more weddings this season hehe.

    • Todd

      You bring up a good point. It’s generally very useful to look at the white papers for one’s gear. The AF system of a camera and its particular features/quirks is a prime example for this benefit.

  4. Matthew Miller

    Hi Todd,
    Great tips here.
    I use the same technique but never use exposure lock and am confused by it’s application as I only shoot in manual. Could you elaborate a little on it’s use for you?

    Also I tend to use the single AF point approach and usually frame with the AF point I want and then focus.
    Is this a correct approach? I guess everyone is different.

    I do find it difficult to track performers with erratic movements. Like headwhips etc.
    How can these moments be improved as I’m sure many struggle.

    Thanks Todd.

    • Todd

      Hi Matthew,

      The point about AE-Lock was mentioned as a point for those shooting in an automatic setting (or using spot metering). In either mode, it’s useful to lock exposure as a separate step prior to releasing the shutter.

      As far as quick movements like headwhips, I think there are a few options. One is to photograph them from a more oblique angle, thus minimizing the difference in the focus plane. Another is to time your shots for one extreme of the movement. Unless it’s a one-off thing, they will generally return to one state or another, so anticipating this will help you make the shot.

  5. Craig Ferguson

    I use pretty much the exact same setup, just with Canon instead of Nikon. I only ever use the center focus point, and always do the focus/recompose dance – for me, it’s quicker than selecting individual points, but of course, that’ll differ for everyone.

    Rene – the 5D mkII is a sweet camera for concert photography. My 40D now spends most of the gig acting as a lens holder for whichever lens I’m not using.

    • Todd

      Hey Craig,

      Thanks for the input on this topic. I see a lot of people are using this setup, too, so there’s a little consensus.

      I agree, focus-recompose can be much faster than selecting individual points in some instances/subjects. It all just depends.

  6. Thomas Lester

    I’m trying to refine my technique. Especially in the area of AF. I often times shoot with very shallow DOF due to the light or for creative reasons. Therefore, focus becomes very critical. I find sometimes, that focus and recompose is enough at shallow DOF to make the eyes or desired sharp area to be slightly soft. How should I best deal with that? When you focus and recompose, are you releasing the AF-On button before you recompose? I would assume you do.

    With dynamic area focus, do you use 3D tracking or not? Also, do you have to keep the AF-On button pressed to keep it tracking or do you lock on and then release the AF-On button?

    • Todd

      Hey Thomas,

      The focus-recompose method has some inherent issues with reliability, given the shift in the plane of focus. The extent of the imprecision will depend on the magnitude of the shift, the depth of field, and the lens itself.

      However, despite its drawbacks, the focus-recompose method can be a very fast way to acquire focus if one can live with its limitations. In many situations, it may have very little affect on the perceived quality of an image.

      When using this method, the smallest shifts will produce the most consistent results and the smallest change in the plane of focus. In this regard, choosing an AF point closest to the intended point of focus is a benefit.

      Using this method, I will first achieve AF lock and then recompose as desired. It’s necessary to release the AF-ON button before recomposing, otherwise you risk the AF system locking onto another target while you recompose.

      I do not use 3D tracking or multi-point AF detection, preferring single-point AF for my work.

      As for keeping the AF-ON button depressed while tracking, it depends on the subject. Sometimes it’s faster to track with AF, other times it’s easier to recompose and then reacquire AF.

      • Anssi

        What’s your rationale on not using Nikon’s 3D tracking with AF-C? Thought it’s better than Dynamic Area or Single-Point since it takes note on color as well to track the subject.

  7. Thomas\m/HEADBANGERphotography

    I shoot with a Canon Eos 1D Mark III. I find AI servo very useful. With my joystick I move the focus point around using selective focus point mode. When using spot metering I can choose exposure locked to focus point. I often place focus point to the fare left on leadsinger face/eye for head shots and try to place a spotlight in upper right corner for great composing (ex. A) For guitarists I move the AF point to the upper middle of the cross hair, trying to hit the face and maybe tilting the camera for composing his instument into the picture (ex. B) AI servo mode made (ex.C) possible. Karin Alexsson/Sonic Syndicate was running from the bottom of the stage to where I was. You can see the action blur on her hand and despite an apeture set to f1,2 a sharp body and face.
    A: http://www.flickr.com/photos/headbangerphotography/3278254867/in/set-72157613782510321/
    B: http://www.flickr.com/photos/headbangerphotography/3122925304/in/set-72157611448598338/
    C: http://www.flickr.com/photos/headbangerphotography/3279078476/in/set-72157613782510321/

    \m/Thomas

  8. Damien

    Great tip regarding setting AE Lock (set to half-press via the shutter release) If I had of read this 6 months ago it wouldve saved me hours of fiddling with settings!

    • Todd

      Hi Damien, thanks for the comment. When using spot metering and, to a lesser degree, center-weighted metering, the AE lock can be useful. It’s also good when using automatic exposure modes to keep exposure consistent even when background lighting flares up.

  9. BrYan Kremkau

    You’re becoming quite the teacher Todd! you should do video tutorials on the site on concert photography, lighting and band portraits setups. i’m not sure any music photographers do video tuts at all. If you make any money off this idea, I get half! lol :)

    • Todd

      Hey Bryan,

      I’ve thought about starting some video tutorials, but we’ll see how that works out. No immediate plans to do that, but that could change. Thanks for the suggestion.

  10. Dan Thuy

    I’m not sure if I got your idea right Todd.
    If you use Continuous Servo AF (AF-C)mode, do you work with all your AF-sensors or do you chose the one that you need manually?

    • Todd

      Hey Dan,

      As my bro Chris mentions, I do manually select the AF points. This offers me more control and precision than the dynamic focus areas. While they have their uses, I just don’t trust them to pick out a singer’s eye or even face instead of say, a shiny mic or the head of a guitar.

  11. Chris Owyoung

    I think it should be stressed that the success of this technique will depend highly on the reliability of the continuous focus system created by the specific combination of the camera model and the lens model.

    This is one of the main reasons that I don’t buy third party lenses for my camera. Sure, they might work in normal situations, but a rock show isn’t exactly a normal situation. =)

    • Todd

      Hey Chris, thanks for your thoughts here. The point you raise is a good one.

      In general, concert photography is intensely challenging for equipment, pushing even Nikon and Canon’s flagship models to the failure point. For this implementation of continuous AF, I want the top-shelf glass.

  12. Martin Goodman

    I use the same setup with the AF-on button and continuous AF (AF-C), and find I never need to switch to singe shot AF (AF-S), as I can quickly press and release the AF-on button which gives me the same result as if I was in AF-S mode. I can even use manual focus without having to flip any switches or change any menus.

  13. Avangelist

    That is genius, I had never thought of switching the function for focus control and lock of the shutter release.

    Probably because you can’t do that with a D80 I don’t think, but that is one of those things when someone says it you just wonder why you haven never done it before.

    • Todd

      I had my D70 set up to function in this way, though that camera doesn’t have an AF-ON button, so it’s the AF/AE-L button that becomes the dedicated AF control. I’m pretty sure you should be able to set your D80 to behave in a similar manner. Thanks for the comment, hope you can try out these controls.

  14. Rene Skrodzki

    Yep, it was an ahah moment for me too …

    Now I gotta figure out how to make AI Servo work with my 50 1.8, somehow I suspect this is a lack of USM issue.

    Shot a bunch of shots the other night that focused on nothing at all neat effect.

    • Todd

      Hey Rene,

      You should be able to use AI Servo with non-USM (or at least non-ring-type USM), but performance is going to be very much lacking in low light compared to those with responsive built-in motors. At least in my experience, there’s a world of difference between continuous focus between old Nikon primes like the 50mm f/1.4 (and even the 85mm f/1.4) and newer lenses like the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8.

  15. Chris Owyoung

    My own experience with the Non-USM Canon lenses in AI-Servo wasn’t good. There are two factors at work.

    1) Non-USM lenses aren’t as accurate to begin with.

    2) AI-Servo is really meant to track moving targets and on the canon cameras I’ve used, the AI-Servo focus never really stops hunting unless you’ve got it turned all the way down (only on option on 1-Series bodies). Not that canon cameras do not give you focus confirmation in AI-Servo mode.

    • Todd

      Thanks for adding your thoughts here, Chris. Not having focus confirmation in AI-servo makes absolutely no sense to me. I was astounded when you showed me this on your Canon 1Dmk3.

  16. Chris Owyoung

    Oops, hit send to fast. My point was, the back button AF configuration still works in Single Focus mode and will be more accurate than AI-Servo when using Non-USM lenses without sacrificing too many of the benefits.

    • Todd

      I’ve found this to be true with Nikon as well. When I’m using primes, I will change to AF-S (single) under the most dim lights due to the increased precision (and general lack of twitchiness the older AF has with AF-S).

  17. Rene Skrodzki

    So in a nutshell if I keep using the 40D then I should get the 50 1.4 or just bite the bullet and save up for a 5D 2 or something along those lines.

    I knew I should have chosen Nikon years ago … I do plan on getting a 5D mk2 in the future, hopefully not too distant heh.

  18. Aaron

    i generally have my AF set to single focus mode, and i leave the AF coupled with the half-press of my shutter release. this ensures that a photos is only snapped upon the camera acquiring proper focus, which i find useful if i’m shooting from an angle that requires me to remove my camera form my eye and hold it at arm’s length.

    i think i’ll try AF-C for my next set, though!

  19. Ary-Jan

    A very interesting topic.
    At first, I read quite some contradictions.
    E.g. that a three step approach (sounds like costing time) shows advantages in our kind of photography (with, among others fast moving subjects and lightning conditions (diafragma settings) which result in small DOF).

    Nevertheless, after reading over and over I am getting convinced (at least, starting to belief) this may bring me some improvements.
    Being a Canon user, I try to translate it into Canon terms and buttons, and give it a go this Friday, shooting some hardcore punkrock (I do expect some fast movements on stage there!).

  20. Stephen

    Great article as usual, Todd!

    My tip to add into the mix is using an external flash (eg. SB-800) for focusing only – you can set Nikon flashes (and possibly others) to a “no fire” mode which gives you the benefit of the strong low light focusing ability using the flash’s IR / red crosshairs on your subject without having to actually use flash.

    • Stephen

      A footnote to this comment:

      The flash AF-assist only comes on when the camera is in single (AF-S) focusing mode, so if you use the AF-ON only + AF-C focusing setup, you’ll lose this advantage. The way I’ve overcome that is to switch back to AF-S when I need the flash AF-assist and also set the AF-S mode to “release priority” as opposed to the default “focus priority”. If you don’t do that, the camera will refuse to take a shot unless your subject is still in focus under the selected AF point, which often isn’t practical…

  21. wilson333

    Thanks all! This is a great dialogue. I plan on trying the AF-On button techniques tomorrow for Paramore. I can’t recall reading anything about # of focus points for Dynamic Area focusing. Do more Dynamic AF Area (focus assist) points mean slower focusing speeds? Should I just stay with single point for the fastest response?

    Also, when using the AF-On button, must you toggle or hold down every time you want to refocus, say if the subject is doing laps up and down the stage? I guess i’ll find out soon enough… thanks

  22. Jay

    Todd,

    Thanks for all the great info! I just found your site via a bit of surfing that began at texasphotoforum.com.

    Concert photography is something that has always interested me as an amateur photographer.

    I recently upgraded my kit from a Canon G10 to a Nikon D90. I like the tip on separating the focus and shutter functions — something I never would have thought to do.

    I think you’ve already amassed an impressive body of work and look forward to picking up more tips here.

    Cheers,
    Jay

  23. Albert

    Hi Todd,

    This discussion really helps a lot in my search on how to get good/best shots in concert photography. Im a newbie in this area, and its very interesting, as you said, challenging. And I’ve gain confidence by reading thru this topic.

    Just a quick check and your views, I’m using a D90 with 17-55mm f/2.8.. Would it be enough for me to get good shots with its AF function and the combination for gear?

    And about the AE and AF-ON being independent, is there a correct sequence which one should i gain 1st before taking the shots or it doesnt matters which one comes first?

    Thanks so much.

    Outstanding set of photos you got there!

    Happy Shooting;
    Albert

  24. Brice Lin

    Hi Todd,

    Like everyone said, thanks so much for sharing your techniques with us. I, myself have been reading up on everything you’ve posted and am trying to learn as much as I can about concert photography. I’m new at it still.

    I’m a bit confused about the Al Servo function. If you are trying to compose a shot and move the camera away from the artist, won’t your AF readjust itself so as to take the focus off of the artist? I’m using a Canon Rebel XSi with 50mm f1.4 lens. That’s what’s happening to me when I try the Al Servo.

  25. Peter

    Hey Todd.

    Really interesting article. I was curious though..

    Why would you not use the shutter release for focus lock and the AF-ON button for exposure lock? Is it just a personal preference or is there a particular reason behind it? I know you talked about separation of tasks but you still have 2 functions on the shutter release either way.

    Also I was wondering as with Albert above, how do you work it with Continuous Servo selected when focusing and then composing? Would the camera not automatically re-focus?

    Cheers.
    Peter

    • Stephen

      Hi Peter,

      I think you’ve misunderstood the setup because the whole point of using the AF-ON only for focusing and removing that action from the shutter button means that the camera only changes focus when you explicitly tell it to. That means you can use continuous AF but have it behave like single AF when recomposing. I use this all the time and when I have a static subject like a portrait, I just press the AF-ON button until I get focus on my subject, then I reframe the shot and don’t touch the AF-ON button again unless either I move or my subject moves. The great thing about it is that if my subject starts moving a lot and I need to track them, I just hold down the AF-ON button and fire away. It really is the best of both worlds with AF-S and AF-C combined. Just takes a bit of adjusting to that way of shooting…

      As for the exposure lock, that’s not something I’ve ever really used and these days I never use it since I shoot manual for everything. For music photography especially, manual is the way to go.

  26. Joe

    Todd,

    I’m late to the party here, but I read this article a few weeks ago and decided to give your method of focusing/AE-L a go. I have to say that I am hooked. It was a little funky at first, and I still confuse myself at times (old habits die hard!) but in time I’m sure I’ll have myself re-trained.

    When I first read your description it seemed so unintuitive (and I suppose that with the way that most people are trained to auto focus it actually is), but this method makes so much sense I almost feel dumb for not thinking of this before. Thank you for explaining this!

    joe

  27. Black-Blende-Angel

    hi Todd,
    ich bin fotografin .
    ich mache zur zeit ,Konzertfotografie.
    habe eine canon 60 D mein Objektiv für konzerte habe ich 17mm-55mm von canon meine einstellungen sind TV iso 1600 blende 2,8 und sek 1/60 oder auch mal 1/100 aber die bilder werden nicht so wie ich will.kannst du mir weiter helfen ,was mache ich Falsch??.habe noch ein objektiv mit 4,0 blende 70mm -200 mm
    lg Black-Blende-Angel

  28. Wouter Vellekoop

    Hi Todd and everybody!

    Thanks for the great work, website and tutorials/tips.
    There’s is one thing i don’t understand; why should you lock your exposure when you are always shooting in manual mode? Maybe it’s a stupid question:)

    Greetings from the Netherlands!
    Wouter Vellekoop

  29. Cameron

    I’m looking for tips on using the servo mode on the Canon 7D. My experience with it has been a little dissatisfying, regardless of the USM lens used (usually and 85mm f/1.8 or the 70-200 IS Mk. 1), so I don’t know if it’s my technique or just the way things are with the mode.

    Basically, I find I get more shots out of focus than in, so I’ll describe my practices.

    I have the AF activation set to the AF-On button, and use a single AF point. I place the AF point over where I want focus (usually the eyes) and hold down the AF point as I follow the subject. When I release the shutter, I continue to hold down the AF-On button.

    The resulting number of slightly out of focus shots suggests the lens is not finding focus when the shutter is released, or losing/shifting focus between frames. I know setting the shutter to fire only when focus is found can be problematic, but that at least seems to provide a confirmation that it is focused on something. As it is, I have no way of knowing until after the fact.

    • Cameron

      After taking a closer look at my settings and custom functions, I believe I have my culprit – using spot AF. I use servo rather infrequently, so spot AF has usually been fine until the one or two times I switch to servo. I’m hoping to verify this has been the main issue with a show or two.

  30. Marc L

    Your technique does sound interesting, but what advantage does using the AF-ON have than using just the normal push the shutter button half way? Is it quicker?

    Instead of single point focusing or whatever I have kept my focus points on auto. I have found the quality of my images turning out to be alot stronger than when I decide where my points are. Can’t get my head round the focus fine tuning like So tthat’s why I stuck to that setting, plus I get more focus points added in. I use a D7000 btw lol.


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