Dynamic Auto-focus in a Nikon D5

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Dynamic Auto-focus changed in a Nikon D5.

Many people have noticed that Auto Focus on a D5 or a D500 seems to behave differently from the way that it did in earlier Nikon DSLRs.

The D5 and D500 have an additional and faster focus processor than the older models and this may account for the different way in which the Dynamic AF settings appear to work in the two newer cameras.

New Choices in Autofocus Settings the D5’s Custom Menu Settings:

The Autofocus settings have changed in the D5 menu and these are my settings (for the reasons which follow):

a1 AF-C Priority: Release
a2 AF-S Priority: Focus
a3 Focus Tracking with Lock-on:
Blocked shot AF response = 3;
Subject motion = Erratic
a4 3D-tracking face-detection: OFF
a5 3D-tracking watch area: WIDE
a6 Number of Focus points: AF55
a7 Store by orientation: Focus Point and AF-area mode
a8 AF Activation: OFF > AF-ON only > Out-of-Focus Release > Enable
a9 Limit AF-area mode selection: > all choices checked
a10 Autofocus mode restrictions: OFF > No Restrictions
a11 Focus point wrap-around: OFF
a12 Focus point options:
Manual focus mode = OFF
Focus point brightness = +1
Dynamic-area AF Assist = ON

The way that Dynamic AF appeared to function on earlier Nikons (when using AF C), seemed to be that the lens focused on the object that was immediately under the centre of the Dynamic-pattern; and the camera then held focus on that item until that item passed beyond the outer edges of the dynamic group’s "frame".

So, at D153 you have a big window frame while at D9 you are left with a very tight frame for retaining focus.

As soon as the focussed object left that "frame", AF changed its focus to pick the new object which had moved under its centre-point.

This behaviour has changed slightly and we have to "Think differently" with the new D5/D500 AF modes.

Dynamic AF modes D9 through D153:
The Photographer has to take control and move the camera physically to keep their pre-selected primary focussing point on their target throughout the exposures.

That means you need to start by moving your chosen Focus point (with the joy-stick) to the most appropriate position within the bracketed field which may very well be somewhere other than the centre point.

I think that Group Area AF mode is really just another version of Single Point but with some assistance from the surrounding diamond (which might help if someone has difficulty holding a single point on the target).

The downside is the way in which Group Area AF grabs the closest-to-the-camera part of the subject covered by the diamond which may often not be what the photographer wants!
(The tip of a wing instead of the eye of a flying bird; or twiggy branches that are in front of a sitting creature; are examples.)

3D Tracking and Auto-area AF:
The camera takes control and, once the photographer has clicked on the primary AF point of their choice, the camera moves the focus point around the field following the movement of the subject itself.

If you switch-on Dynamic Area AF Assist (in a12), you will see the red squares moving around the bracketed area in the viewfinder.

3D Tracking AF has the added capacity to take Colour as well as Contrast into consideration which means that AF is faster and more precise when the target differs in colour from the background. Regular Auto-area AF seeks out differences in Contrast.

It may be significant that only 3D Tracking AF mode has been named “Tracking” by Nikon?

On fast moving live creatures, 3D Tracking AF is remarkable for both its speedy lock-on and then for retaining the lock.

Unfortunately both 3D Tracking and Auto-area AF are disabled when you have a TeleConverter mounted on the camera which reduces the effective aperture to smaller than f/5.6.
A TC-20 on an f/4 lens reduces the working aperture to f/8 with the result that there are then insufficient focusable points for 3D AF to work; so, with that combination, I am no longer offered the choice of 3D AF and have to choose another AF mode.

I have not yet tried to use Auto-area AF with Face-recognition but understand that it might be useful if you are trying to track an individual player on a crowded sports field.

What has changed?

The way that Dynamic AF appears to function on earlier Nikons (using AF C), seems to be that the lens focused on the object that was immediately under the centre (primary) point of the Dynamic pattern; and the camera then held focus on that item until that item passed completely beyond the outer edges of the Dynamic-group’s "frame".

With D153 you have a big window frame while at D9 you are left with a very tight frame for retaining focus.

As soon as the focussed object leaves its "frame", AF changes its focus to pick the new object which has moved under its centre-point.

In the D5, this behaviour has changed and, as soon as the Primary focus-point loses the target, and if the background is sufficiently contrasty to provide a discernible and focusable target, the lens will immediately change its focus to the background — unless the photographer has given himself a little leeway by programming a Delay (in a3).

On the other hand, if the background is feature-less, the Dynamic AF modes behave in a D5 in the same way that they did in the earlier cameras.

Many people have found that if a photographer is not sufficiently skilled to hold the primary focus point over a moving target, they will need to use a Delay in the D5/D500 while the slower reaction to loss of contact between the prime focus point and the object being tracked on the earlier Nikons acted as a "Delay" by its nature without the need to program a Delay as such.

If you are moderately good at holding a target under the focussing point, a Delay of 3 should provide sufficient time to re-centre the AF point on the target — otherwise choose 5.

Unless the target is moving completely smoothly across the frame (like a speeding train), you will probably find that choosing “Erratic” (in a3) will give you more consistent results.

It seems very possible that the difference between the way that the Dynamic AF modes work on the D5 and D500 and the way that they appeared to work on earlier DSLRs is due to the faster-responding AF processor in the newer two models.
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Butlerkid

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EXCELLENT overview and food for thought!!!! Thank you for taking the time to post this here.

My D5 is set up like yours except I had a5 set to Normal.... and a9 I restricted auto, 3D and D153.

I've been waiting for the research being done by Steve Perry, you and others on the differences in how AF works on the D5/D500 compared to earlier bodies.
 
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I am very happy that you found the post useful: taming a D5 is quite a complex task isn't it?!
:)
 
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I haven't yet noticed a difference on the "dynamic" situation with my D500 from previous cameras. But as winter approaches and I'll be using it more regularly if anything has changed I should notice it.
 
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If you are good at keeping your primary focus point over a fast-moving target when using the Dynamic AF modes, you may not notice the difference.

However, many people have reported that they were getting fewer "Keepers" when photographing birds in flight while using their customary "Dynamic 25" and the changes in AF behaviour (in both the D5 and the D500) probably account for that.
 
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Ann, thank you for taking the time to post this regarding the D5 and D500, I've experienced the very same thing with my D5 and D500. I feel a bit better knowing that it's not entirely me at fault, so will be watching this thread for any updates. Should I come to any conclusions I'll certainly share them here.
 
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There is a major thread about this subject over on the Fred Miranda site. Check for the discussion about "Nikon D5/D500 Dynamic AF Issue"

This! Steve Perry and some others have done extensive testing and he has posted what he believes is happening. He clearly lays out what really seems to be happening now in the D5/D500, and what is different from the previous generations of cameras. Well worth the read. Check the "Nikon" forum on FM for the post, his results are on page 9 of that thread.
 
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I still shoot my D500 like my D7200 except I use d25 because there isn't a D9 and no problems but thanks for posting this Ann, I'll have another look
 
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Randy:
Do give 3D Tracking a look: I find it absolutely brilliant and am using it most of the time these days.
My only disappointment with 3D AF is that it is not available when I have a TC on the lens which is when I would especially value it.
 
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Randy:
Do give 3D Tracking a look: I find it absolutely brilliant and am using it most of the time these days.
My only disappointment with 3D AF is that it is not available when I have a TC on the lens which is when I would especially value it.
I tried 3d years ago on a much older body, I'm sure it's light years better now.
I'm a grumpy old man who hates change unless it's to fix a problem. Remember we invented 'if it ain't broke don't fix it'
Seriously though when I get a body that works I don't change anything, including the firmware.
The D500 shoots superbly for me, AF is quite impressive.
I change AFC to Focus, shoot in D9 or D25 and leave everything else at default. How did I come to these setting you might wonder. I only change something to fix a problem.:)
 
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a7 Store by orientation: Focus Point and AF-area mode

It's worth calling attention to this one as I know I was confused, and others may be. If set as noted, and you change your AF mode, you are changing it only for the current orientation. So let's say you start off with everything in D-9. You decide to flip to 3D, and shoot for a while, notice a more vertical scene, flip to vertical and... you aren't in 3D any more. That's exactly what it should do, but I find it makes more intuitive sense to have one mode, and when I change it, it's changed, period. Obviously a subjective choice.

In the D5, this behaviour has changed and, as soon as the Primary focus-point loses the target, and if the background is sufficiently contrasty to provide a discernible and focusable target, the lens will immediately change its focus to the background — unless the photographer has given himself a little leeway by programming a Delay (in a3).
This is fascinating to read, since with almost 100k shots on a D5 I had not noticed. Then again I doubt I have ever shot in any D-x mode other than D-9 (well, D-25 before the first firmware), but I just tried this with a D4 and a D5 and indeed works as you described. Completely and totally to my surprise.

So... what does the D-153 vs D-25 (for example) actually DO? The manual says "will focus based on information from surrounding focus points if the subject briefly leaves the selected point". In testing with one near subject against a distant background, I see no difference in behavior with these two settings. Is it perhaps different if the subject that left the area is also moving toward/away from me, is it still tracking until the delay, but tracking only if in the D-x area?

On fast moving live creatures, 3D Tracking AF is remarkable for both its speedy lock-on and then for retaining the lock.

Unfortunately both 3D Tracking and Auto-area AF are disabled when you have a TeleConverter mounted on the camera so you have to choose another mode under those circumstances.

I have not yet tried to use Auto-area AF with Face-recognition but understand that it might be useful if you are trying to track an individual player on a crowded sports field.
3D is definitely the most improved of the focus modes from the prior cameras, it is now usable instead of junk.

But... I have not noticed any limitation of using it with a teleconverter. Where did you get that restriction? I'm running to dinner so can't try it now, but I use 3D mostly in baseball, and also use teleconverters mostly in baseball. I find it hard to believe I never tried the two together. Remotely possible, but ... are you SURE?

The facial recognition is mildly interesting. I have not found that it is any good for tracking a particular face, what it does do is pull (sometimes, maybe mostly) the selected focus point up to the face. Say you cover a player's body with the focus area, focusing mid-body. If the face is visible and in the focus point area, it will tend to drift up to the face. I THINK the intent here is, if someone is for example leaning forward to run toward you, it gives preference to the face for focus so if you have a very shallow depth of field the face is sharper. Maybe. It's so inconsistent in whether and for how long it will "stick" to the face, I am not sure. It seems to do little harm to be on, and I have been leaving it there.

What's odd and a bit interesting about 3D and face recognition is the whole concept of color tracking. It's useful in baseball in particular, as I can grab a runner going from first to second and he can actually stand behind another player (e.g. first baseman), and so long as a decent amount of his (different color) uniform is showing, it will hold focus on the runner. Any other mode jumps off onto the foreground player. But if facial recognition is on... well, I'm not sure what it does. Does that mean it shifts from tracking the (say) red uniform to the tan face? No clue, and again, it's inconsistent enough I am not sure I can tell.

But again, thanks for this... the whole D-x behavior is not something I have noticed. And it's a bit disturbing actually.
 
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Ferguson:
You mentioned that you had not noticed any limitation when using 3D AF with a teleconverter.

It could be that my combination of a TC-20 iii and the 300mm PF (which reduces the aperture to f/8) caused there to be insufficient focusable points for 3D AF to work; but with that combination, I am no longer offered the choice of 3D AF.

If you have a TC-14 and a fast prime lens, do test it and see if 3D AF is offered with that combination and let me know.
 
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"So... what does the D-153 vs D-25 (for example) actually DO?"

As far as I can tell, D-153 lets the object move further from your Primary AF Point in the view finder before the lens re-focusses than it does with a smaller field-setting (D9, D25, or D72).

But in all the Dynamic modes, the onus is on the photographer to keep his target a closely under his Primary AF point by physically swinging the camera; whereas 3D tracks the object without the need to move the camera.
 
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Ferguson:
You mentioned that you had not noticed any limitation when using 3D AF with a teleconverter.

It could be that my combination of a TC-20 iii and the 300mm PF (which reduces the aperture to f/8) caused there to be insufficient focusable points for 3D AF to work; but with that combination, I am no longer offered the choice of 3D AF.

If you have a TC-14 and a fast prime lens, do test it and see if 3D AF is offered with that combination and let me know.

That's it.

I tried a 2x on a 400/2.8, so at F5.6, it works fine in 3-D.

I was about to write I couldn't try anything slower and remembered a TC will fit on a 80-400G. Never tried one there, but with a 1.4x mounted, which gives F8, you are right -- 3D is not available.

I guess not enough F8 focus points to track.

But at 5.6 it works just fine.
 
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"So... what does the D-153 vs D-25 (for example) actually DO?"

As far as I can tell, D-153 lets the object move further from your Primary AF Point in the view finder before the lens re-focusses than it does with a smaller field-setting (D9, D25, or D72).

But in all the Dynamic modes, the onus is on the photographer to keep his target a closely under his Primary AF point by physically swinging the camera; whereas 3D tracks the object without the need to move the camera.

I'm not seeing that. It may be true, but what I tried is this. Took a nearby subject (flower) and far away background. Started in D-25 centered, and then moved the camera to set it off to one side slowly. With the delay set to longest, there's a significant (maybe 1-1.5 second) delay, and it grabs the background instead. Do the same in D-153 at about the same speed (handheld, so you know, a guess) and it seems to do exactly the same thing at the same speed. I couldn't really see a difference.

Which is a bit distressing.

I also tried shorter delays, and steady vs erratic, and could see things change, but still could not see a D25 vs D153 difference. So there's something I must be missing. I still wonder if it has to do with tracking, as in if that subject were simultaneously moving toward or away from me, maybe it can continue to track it (as opposed to just locking on vs shifting to the background) only while in a selected set of points. But that's just a guess -- can't see anything from experimenting.
 
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Incidentally, I just want to add that as a sports shooter I'm delighted with the focus on the D5. It is MUCH better than my D4. Maybe I don't understand it completely given this discussion, but I do not want my comments above to sound like it isn't a real win. It's the real story of the D5, not the over-hyped high ISO.

I do wonder why Nikon does not issue a straightforward "here is what we changed". There's a bunch of stuff you have to discover, for example the handling of auto-ISO with speedlights is VERY different in the D5 than it was on the D4. Like ruin-your-shots different if you don't figure it out and pay attention.
 
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Someone in the FM discussion has just suggested that setting a8 to:
a8 AF Activation: OFF > AF-ON only > Out-of-Focus Release > DISABLE
(regardless of the choices made in a1 & a2) may ensure that you keep focus better when shooting in Dynamic mode with BBF.

I tried his suggestion and it did seem to work.
 
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I do agree with your comments about the superb capability of AutoFocus in the D5: I am thrilled with mine too.

And I also agree that it would be a huge help if Nikon published better descriptions of what they change and how to best use the new features: 400 pages and even after we have worked through every paragraph, and tried every option in the Menus, we are still left to flounder around trying to find out how everything actually works in reality for ourselves!
 
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You have just cost me a lot of money: it seems that I will now need to buy myself a TC-14?!

But thank you so much for testing this anyway.
 

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