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Context

I'll be using a Nikon 300mm/f4 on my Sony a6000 and seeing what birds I can get with it. The Sony 55-210mm is what I've been using but it lacks the reach and native teleconverters.

Autofocusing on the Sony with that lens works but a good chunk of the time it focuses on the closest item, which may be a branch which doesn't help so I have to manually focus on the bird.

Question

I know that the fancy new Nikon 300mm/f2.8 and 400mm/f2.8 lens have fast autofocusing speed, some people say it's faster than a 70-200/f2.8. Do pros still rely on autofocusing for birds and other animals where they may be partially visible (e.g. behind a bush) or do they manually focus to get it just right?

I'm asking this as my Sony seems to focus too much to the front and misses the bird usually behind a branch or related so I'm focused to manually focus. I presume Pro DSLR bodies don't have this problem?

Reference

  • What AF mode are you using? – Michael C Feb 2 '16 at 3:50
  • What they said - and/but - Use AF to get you about right then on a SOny (I assume A6000 matches this) press AF/Manual swap with camera set tto focus peaking (high and red works best for me). Nudge manual AF and if target is in focus adequately it will usually show focus peaking across target and yoiu can go from there. I do not have the super fancy high end glass that you mention but the above works well if you need it and you'd rapidly find out if it was unneeded. I like the ability to make snap decisions with AF then MF based on input that is hard to feed to the camera any other way. ... – Russell McMahon Feb 2 '16 at 13:06
  • There may be two birds, or a branch to void for focusing or at eg f/2.8 *or even f/4) DOF may be small enough that you wish to fine tune focus point "on the fly" (so to speak). I find focus peaking utterly marvellous for this sort of task and weep for those whose systems do not provide it. (sort of anyway). Long long long ago my Minolta SRT303b (which did not know what AF meant) had a split image centre focus point which was as accurate as focus peaking but a lot harder to use rapidly for eg birds. FP allows you to sweep the focus "at a venture" when you are not 100% sure which way the focus – Russell McMahon Feb 2 '16 at 13:10
  • ... point has moved from where AF left off. | Tracking focus will largely remove the need to do the above IF you can find the target with a long lens in an open sky stably enough for focus to stabilise. Often you can (even with modest eg Sigma 70-200 f/2.8) but when you caqn't FP is your friend. – Russell McMahon Feb 2 '16 at 13:12
  • @MichaelClark I'm using wide at the moment. I have on my a6000, wide, single point, multi point and zone. – unsignedzero Feb 2 '16 at 16:50
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Switch the camera to using a single auto-focus spot in the middle of the frame. Most high end cameras have this capability. I don't know if your Sony camera can do that or how it will show you the spot if it does, but look around the owners manual. On my Nikon, the autofocus spots are shown as small red rectangles in the viewfinder.

You point the spot at whatever you want the lens to focus on, push the shutter button part way down. This freezes the focus and exposure selections. While continuing to hold the button down half way, pan to frame the shot you want, then press the button all the way to take the picture. This half way shutter button feature is pretty universal nowadays, even on point and shoot cameras.

As a additional aside, 300 mm is really weak for birds. The general rule regarding focal length for wild birds is that too much is never enough. 300 mm isn't really even starting to be adequate if you want the bird to fill the frame. 300 mm can be good for getting a nice picture that has a bird in it, but not a good picture of a bird.

  • I do have a teleconverter 1.4x coming and I am on a crop body so I'm close to 600mm. For birds I agree but it was a deal I couldn't pass up and it's compared to other teleprimes rather light. – unsignedzero Feb 2 '16 at 16:52
  • When a long lens is not long enough, get closer. (You know that). It's getting harder to crawl (hunk of Titanium in neck and what it is there to address makes looking up harder than it was )(somewhat), but a weed mat covered hide seems a lot less visible to birds than I'd have expected. | For years I've been dreaming of a lie-prostrate battery powered creeper that would (half) safely cross estuarine areas and beach sand. It will almost certainly never happen :-). The 2x teleconverter hardly seems to be better than cropping my 70-200 (better quality TC needed). .... – Russell McMahon Feb 3 '16 at 16:28
  • .... My 500mm Minolta AF mirror lens vanished at a concert I was asked to do (and never paid for) Get closer .... :-). – Russell McMahon Feb 3 '16 at 16:28
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Bird photography is the kind of situation where you have to select one of the auto-focus point (usually the center one). With such setting, you have a better control where the focus is done (as the camera will not switch between the focus-points). Furthermore you do not really care if the subject is right in the center of the image as, most of the time, you will crop it (and do the composition as this time).

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