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AF Point and AF Mode settings in D90 suitable for Bird and Wildlife

Srijan Roy Choudhury , Feb 25, 2011; 01:28 p.m.

Hello friends

Could you please suggest which AF mode and AF-point settings are most suitable for photographing birds and wildlife, including BIF?

The lens I use is Nikkor 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 VRII IF-ED. I use it both hand held and on a tripod.

After searching through different threads I think AF-C will be most suitable. Still I would like your confirmation please. Please note that I like the eyes of the birds or wild life at maximum sharpness, and even for Birds in Flight (BIF). Regarding the Focus Point, I am still horribly confused. :(
I have read through the over 100 page D90 manual a number of times, but honestly, I hardly find the description/explanation inadequate or little ambiguous. I tried the Nikon Digitutor, but it is no better than the manual. Hence it would be great if members here could suggest explain the method and steps to achieve the same in terms of camera settings.
So please help.
Thank you


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Jay Poel , Feb 25, 2011; 02:33 p.m.

The only cross-type sensor (most accurate) is the centre one on a D90, so I would use single area and put turn on the focus lock (the little lever below the multi selector) and use AF-C for birds in flight and maybe switch to AF-A or AF-S for stationary ones.

Jay Poel , Feb 25, 2011; 02:44 p.m.

Forgot to add, you might also want to shoot in manual mode with a high shutter speed and an aperture of f/8 or so (for DOF) and set your ISO to 400 (mind you this is all dependent of light condtions at the time). That way something in the background will not effect your exposure.

Eric Arnold , Feb 25, 2011; 02:53 p.m.

i wouldnt expect great results, except in decent light, from that combo, for one thing. as jay pointed out, the d90 isnt particularly capable for shooting things that move. for maximum sharpness with the 70-300 VR, i would shoot at f/8 which means a dim viewfinder in low light. With a D90, use only the center AF point. AF-C is good for tracking moving subjects. You will also need a fast shutter speed, 1.5/focal length or faster, to freeze motion and prevent blurs. AF will be a little faster if VR is off. i would maybe turn Auto-ISO on, with a limit of, say 800. Everything else is technique.

Elliot Bernstein , Feb 25, 2011; 03:12 p.m.

" the d90 isnt particularly capable for shooting things that move" Not only did Jay not point that out, it is simply not even close to being true.

"shoot at f/8 which means a dim viewfinder in low light" This is also not true. Even if you selected f22 as the aperture, the viewfinder would not dim with the 70-300mm VR lens (or any of the other Nikon 70-300mm lenses, being the G or ED versions).

The D90 is capable of excellent images at ISO 1600 and gives pretty good results outdoors in decent light at ISO 3200.

Shooting birds in flight is not easy with any camera. It will take practice. Experiment with the AF modes - while the center AF point is the best one to use (if you are using just one), it is difficult to track small moving objects with one AF point - you might want to try the dynamic AF mode as well as 3D tracking (both of these modes will only work on AF-C mode).

When shooting stationery birds, shooting if AF-S will probably work best. Place the center focus point (best choice) or whichever AF point you choose over your subject's eye, lock in focus (by pressing the shutter 1/2 way until you hear the beep), then recompose and shoot.

Depending on the angle of the sun in relation to the bird(s) and the shooting conditions, you will likely have to dial in some exposure compensation.

Practices makes perfect. Good luck!.

Eric Arnold , Feb 25, 2011; 04:26 p.m.

elliot, sorry, but i completely disagree. with its 11-pt AF with one cross-type sensor, the d90 just isn't a great sports or action camera. it's not as responsive as a d300s or D3s, and the mirror slap when continuous shooting is worsened by its plastic shell, which transmits much more vibration than a metal body and simply doesn't inspire confidence. if you switch VR on to counter this, you run the risk of slowing AF. also, a dim VF is what you get with a variable f/4-5.6 lens, compared to a constant 2.8 lens. i would think that you would know this.

not to say you can't get great results with excellent technique with it. but i think one has to be realistic about one's expectations. i like the d90's form factor and it's great for casual shooting, but for a sports or wildlife camera, it leaves much to be desired.

Peter Hamm , Feb 25, 2011; 05:03 p.m.

If the D90 is all you have, using the center point only, you can shoot things that are moving. Again, if it's all you got, it's all you got...

It can't compare to a D300 or D700 of course, but I shoot kid sports with that camera and lens. You will get more "misses" than you might want to, but you will get some "hits".

Hector Javkin , Feb 25, 2011; 05:46 p.m.

I have usually used AF-S for photographing birds in flight, single sensor, but I should really experiment with AF-C. In theory, it should be better. I try to focus on the eye that is closest to me, but it's difficult. You have to keep trying, and have some luck. You can look at the image I posted, and also at the ones I linked to, taken with a D50, which is much less capable than the D90. I just happen to have had more time with the D50.

Eric, you're providing bad advice, and really really bad information:

i would shoot at f/8 which means a dim viewfinder in low light

For at least forty years, single-lens reflex cameras have had automatic diaphragms, which close down to shooting aperture only at the moment of making the exposure. The diaphragm is at maximum aperture for viewing unless the depth-of-field preview button is pressed (on cameras that have them.) All DSLRs have automatic diaphragms, so the viewfinder doesn't go dim when you manually set the aperture at less than maximum.

There are cameras that can focus more quickly than the D90, but so what? There are plenty of wonderful bird in flight photos taken with it and the 70-300mm VR. I've even taken many with than lens and a D50, for example here and here. But in case those images make you think that Srijan should throw out his D90 and buy an old D50, I'll post one taken with the D90, even though I've posted it before (I just can't find where at the moment.)

D90, 70-300mm VR, hummer flying in front of bougenvillia plant

Hector Javkin , Feb 25, 2011; 06:03 p.m.

if it's all you got, it's all you got...

Peter, I believe that is unfair. The combination that Srijan has is in some ways ideal. There is a huge advantage for photographing birds to having a lightweight setup that you hand-hold for long periods while waiting, and then swing around quickly to a flying bird when one appears. I also happen to own a 300mm f/4 AF-S and a 1.4 TC for it, but I can't hand-hold that combination for nearly as long a time, and it doesn't come around as fast.

Allan Armstrong , Feb 25, 2011; 08:29 p.m.

Hi Srijan,
I don't photograph birds, but I do photograph bicycle races, and the cyclists definitely move so AF is a challenge. I use a D90. I started out using the 70-300 f4.5-5.6 lens and the 300 f4, but I had trouble getting sharp images.
With a combination of practice and upgrading my lens to the 70-200 f2.8 VR2, I am now getting consistently sharp images.
I use AF-A. It is a combination of AF-S and AF-C and doesn't seem to have any downsides to me.
I use single point mode. The auto point selection mode works very badly for me. It does seem like the center AF point, which is cross-type, is more dependable than the others, but I get good results with the others, too, and I often need to focus off-center.
A fast lens makes a huge difference. The 70-300 f4.5-5.6 just doesn't acquire focus fast enough. The 300 f4 should be faster because is has a wider aperture, but mine is screwdrive and it just doesn't focus fast enough. The 70-200 f2.8 VR2 is a wonderful tool.
I do plan to upgrade to a pro camera, but I'm waiting on the D800/D4 introductions and I'm not ready to spend the money right now anyway. I'm not convinced that the D90 is incapable. Sure, a D300/D7000/D700/D3 would be better, but I can get the job done with what I have.

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