What is the best autofocus mode for moving objects?

Nothing ruins a photograph more than a blurry, unsharp image. One of the godsends of modern DSLR technology is the autofocus feature. But as helpful as autofocus is, sometimes the camera gets it wrong and focuses on the wrong subject. Additionally, there are situations where autofocus just can’t cut it.

Getting a moving subject in sharp focus can be a massive challenge for photographers, and capturing moving, especially fast-moving objects, involves more than just the focusing part. Many other factors need to be taken into account when trying to focus on fast-moving subjects.

It’s harder to hit a moving target than it is to hit a stationary target; any sniper, archer, or NFL quarterback knows this to be true. Photographers understand this challenge as well. One can’t possibly overstate the importance of nailing Focus; Focus works right alongside composition, framing, and lighting as factors that make for a good photo.

Sure, there’s always some artistic wiggle room to account for. Still, if you fail to reach a certain threshold— perhaps an abstract one, maybe an arbitrary one — your image simply isn’t going to go over too well with its intended audience.

Modern autofocus systems are fantastic. They can get a subject sharp in the blink of an eye – faster even. And if you’ve ever tried focusing manually, you’ve probably realized that they’re usually more accurate than your eye in most situations. However, things get a little tricky with moving subjects, and you have to make sure that you’ve set the camera to the correct mode. If you need advice on your wedding photography, check out our photography packages and services at Wild Romantic Photography.

The fantastic thing about autofocus on today’s cameras is that you can let it do all the work to get the super-sharp images. The four primary focus modes (Continuous, Single, Automatic, and Manual) give you a tremendous amount of flexibility to capture precisely what you want. 

How to Get Sharper Photos: Essential Settings You Need to Know

Nailing your focus and taking sharper photos is a common problem among beginning photographers. 

Some of the camera settings and tips for finding focus and getting sharper photos include:

  • Focus mode (single, continuous, auto – AF-S, AF-C, and AF-A)
  • Focus point mode (when to use single point, when to use zone/multi, when to use auto)
  • Drive mode (single or continuous, when to use each)
  • Using a large aperture, especially in low light
  • Focus on an area with contrast
  • Focus on the eyes of a person

There are several different settings on your camera related to getting sharp images. You need to choose the most appropriate one for each situation in which you may be photographing. Let’s go through them one by one so you know which settings to apply in various scenarios.

Tips and Camera Settings You Need to Know to Get Sharper Photos

What is the best autofocus mode for moving objects?

Choose the Appropriate Focus Mode

Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras (as well as many compact cameras) have a Focus Mode setting. This allows you to choose how the camera focuses according to the subject, either locking on the intended subject or tracking it as it moves.

There are generally four focus modes (some cameras have more):

  • Single Shot Focus Mode: called One-Shot on Canon cameras, AF-S on Nikon and Sony, AFS on Pentax, and S-AF on Olympus.
  • Continuous Focus Mode: called AI Servo on Canon, AF-C on Nikon and Sony, AFC on Pentax, and C-AF on Olympus.
  • Auto Focus Mode: called AI Focus on Canon, AF-A on Nikon, and Sony, AFA on Pentax.
  • Manual focus: pretty much the same on all cameras – M.

Note: It would be nice if all the camera manufacturers could get together and use the same names, right?! 

Okay, great, so what does all that mean? In a perfect world, you could pick Auto Focus Mode and let the camera do all the work for you. But, if you’ve been using your DSLR for a while, you’ve probably moved away from most of the auto settings for a reason – sometimes, and often, the camera gets it wrong. This is no exception. This setting (AF-A or AI Focus) is supposed to be the best of both worlds, but in reality, most photographers never use it because the camera usually chooses wrong. So it will try tracking focus on a stationary object and not lock focus for you – or it may not pick up a moving object correctly.

Continuous Focusing Mode

AI Servo AF (Canon)/AF-C (Nikon) stands for Continuous Focus, and this mode is most useful for keeping moving objects sharp within the viewfinder as you track the item. As soon as you begin to depress the shutter release, the camera goes into action and begins to focus. In Continuous focusing mode, the camera detects the subject’s movements and refocuses accordingly to keep the object sharp as a tack.

In C-AF mode, the camera focuses the lens for as long as you hold the shutter button down. If you also have the camera set to continuous drive mode, it will continue to focus the lens between shots as they are fired off in rapid succession. This makes it an excellent choice for shooting sport because the camera can keep the subject sharp as it moves towards or away from the camera – provided the correct autofocus point is selected. Continuous focusing is best for moving objects, particularly ones moving away from or toward the camera.

Pressing the shutter button halfway down in this mode will engage the autofocus, but it will never give you Focus Lock. Instead, the camera will continue to adjust focus on the subject as it moves. This is ideal for shooting sports, quick-moving toddlers, pets, etc., anything where there is action. This mode is best combined with a zone or multiple-point focus area.

This mode uses a lot of battery power because it is continuously focusing and refocusing. Also, the autofocus technology might not accurately predict the direction in which a chaotic, fast-moving subject is going to move, so you might still get a blur. Choosing the right wedding photographer in Melbourne to capture every moment on your wedding day. 

One-Shot Focusing Mode

Next, we have One-Shot AF (Canon)/AF-S (Nikon), representing single-focus capability.

When you depress the shutter release halfway in this mode, the camera focuses on the subject just once – there’s no continuous adjustment. This mode saves battery power and is ideal for issues that aren’t moving. However, this mode falls short when you’re trying to capture something that’s changing positions. So unless you’re trying to get a quick shot of a deer in the early morning or hoping to immortalize Tony Romo getting tackled, then One Shot mode is probably your best bet.

Single Autofocus

You need to know that most cameras have two autofocus modes, and many have three. The most commonly used model is Single-Autofocus or S-AF. In this mode, the camera focuses the lens when you press the shutter release halfway. Once it has achieved focus, it won’t adjust the focus again even if you continue to hold your finger on the shutter button and the subject moves. If you want the camera to refocus the lens, you have to lift your finger off the shutter release and depress it again.

Single-AF mode is an excellent option for stationary subjects and when you want to focus and recompose an image. However, it’s not a good choice for sport and action photography; that’s where Continuous-Autofocus or C-AF comes in handy. This mode is best used for focusing on stationary objects, anything that is not moving,

The camera will engage autofocus and do a focus lock when you press the shutter button halfway down.

  • Use Single Focus MODE for getting sharp focus on non-moving or stationary subjects like this portrait of a Cuban woman smoking a cigar
  • Use Single Focus Mode for non-moving or static issues, like posed portraits.

You may hear a beep when Focus Lock is achieved (you can usually disable that if it annoys you as much as it does me, look in your camera menu under sounds). This mode is also best combined with using a single focus point.

Automatic Autofocus Mode

The last autofocus mode is AI Focus AF (Canon)/AF-A (Nikon), which stands for Automatic Autofocus.

This is a relatively new feature that has turned out to be quite helpful. In this mode, the camera’s focusing computer jumps back and forth between AF-C and AF-S (Nikon)/One-Shot AF and AI Servo AF (Canon) depending on the situation. This is the default autofocus mode on cameras that have this feature.

Many cameras offer a third automatic focusing option called Auto-AF or A-AF. When this mode is selected, the camera attempts to decide whether the subject moves or not and switches between Single-AF and Continuous-AF mode accordingly. It can be helpful, but it’s usually best to think about your subject and set S-AF or C-AF mode yourself. That way, you can guarantee the camera will respond as you want it to.

This setting is supposed to be the best of both worlds. The key phrase there is “supposed to be!” In this mode, the camera will pick either Single or Continuous focus mode for you, based on its assessment of the subject. The problem is – just like any auto setting – there is a chance that the camera will get it wrong, and you’ll end up with a blurry photo.

Unfortunately, it’s usually the worst of two worlds, and frequently more shots are out of focus than are in sharp focus. So your best option is to select one of the two modes above. Some cameras have a quick switch button to toggle back and forth between them (Canons do), or you can do a custom setting for each. Once again, consult your user manual to see what your camera can do.

Note: If you don’t have the printed user manual, or can’t find it, do a Google search for the name, model number, and the words “user manual” for your camera, and you should see a copy of the PDF. Download it and put it on your smartphone, so you have it with you at all times as a reference. It’s also searchable, which makes finding particular things like customizing settings easier.

You have to remember that photography can be an art, and in art, you have to go with what’s in your mind’s eye. You never know what will happen next or what will catch your eye, so it’s helpful to have the camera make quick focus adjustments. This feature maintains focus if you change subjects or the subject moves. We have the best wedding photographer in Yarra Valley to capture your beautiful moments on your wedding day.

Manual Focusing Mode

Manually focusing on the camera is perhaps the most frustrating barrier between good and great photography.

Achieving perfect focus requires using the lens barrel’s distance measurements and even measuring the distance from the lens to the subject with a tape measure; high-end photographers shoot products this way. So do fine art photographers who are using medium format cameras. This will give you the most accurate focus point. What if you can’t take a tape measure up to a subject?

You have to rely on your internal sense of sharpness and know the critical focus zone you have at the specified aperture.

There is a diopter adjustment on most DSLRs (it’s right next to the viewfinder) that lets you make minute adjustments to the focusing capacity based upon any irregularities in your eyesight. You can also use the Depth of Field preview button to help determine focus, but this is a more advanced technique.

Manual focus is essential when you focus on a non-traditional subject. For example, an issue that is in the background when the foreground is busy and dominating. This one should be pretty self-explanatory, but be clear that Manual Focus and Manual Shooting Mode are NOT the same! Manual Shooting Mode and Manual Focus are NOT the same and do not have to go together.

We often see confusion between these two – Manual Shooting Mode and Manual Focus. You do NOT have to use Manual Focus if you are shooting in Manual Mode for exposure! You CAN, but it is not necessary or mandatory to do so. To focus the camera in this mode, you need to turn the focus ring on your lens physically.

This mode is handy for doing things like macro photography, some night photography, or when you want first to use autofocus and then lock it (you can do so by switching to Manual Focus to disengage AF for doing night photography, for example).

You may find it challenging to use Manual Mode, especially on a moving target. Your camera has a sophisticated focusing system – don’t be afraid to use it. You are not cheating by doing that! 

Suppose your camera has Live View mode, or you’re using a camera with an electronic viewfinder (like a newer mirrorless camera) with focus assist or focus peaking. In that case, Manual Focus is a lot easier and usable. But if you’re using a DSLR, it can be challenging (especially for “mature” eyes like mine) so choose one of the other autofocus modes to help you.

The bottom line here is that picking the Focus Mode according to your subject is your best option. If your issue is not moving (or is moving side to side but not changing its distance to the camera), go with option #1 above, single shot (AF-S, One-Shot).

That will give you an excellent clean focus lock and sharp image.

If your subject is moving toward or away from you (or rapidly in random directions, like a child), then option #2 or Continuous Focus Mode (Servo or AF-C) is your best bet. If you have another camera brand, check the user manual to determine your focus modes and what they are called. But, likely, they will be similar to the ones above.

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Choose the Appropriate Focus Point Setting

What is the best autofocus mode for moving objects?

When you look through your camera’s viewfinder, you will likely see several dots or squares. When you press the shutter button halfway down, one or several of those dots will light up or become highlighted.

Those are your focus points, and which one(s) light up indicate precisely where the camera will attempt to focus. There are three standard options for setting up your focus points (your camera may even have more than that, but you know what I’m going to say next – read the manual).

Single Focus Point

You select one single point, and the camera focuses only on that spot.

This is the best choice for non-moving subjects. You have more precise control over where the focus is set. This is important when you’re using a large aperture and a very shallow depth of field.

Notice the red or highlighted point. That is where the camera will attempt to focus. You should see something similar to this through your viewfinder.

The centre point is called a cross-type focus point (that means the camera looks for contrast both horizontally and vertically). Whereas in many cameras, most or all of the other points see the difference on only one axis (vertically).

If you also choose the centre point, it will usually give you a quicker and more accurate focus in challenging situations. So if you’re in a dark room or shooting in low light, using the centre point will help your camera focus.  

Check your user manual once again to see which type of points your camera has outside the centre. But know that you can always use the middle one to be safe if you aren’t sure.

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Zone or Multi-Focus Points

In this setting, the camera uses a set area of focus points or a more extensive zone (a portion of the scene) to find focus.

It’s the best option for moving subjects as it’s harder to get a single point on a moving target. Ever try photographing a toddler or bird flying in the sky using Single Point Focus? It’s frustrating at best, and you get few, if any, good results at worst. Try a zone or multi-point instead, and the camera will look within those points for the subject.

Results will vary from camera to camera, and some are better at this than others, though. So if shooting sports or moving targets (kids, pets, etc.) is a priority for you, look for a camera that gets good reviews in the focus category (fast focus, number of points, tracking focus).

Auto Focus Point Selection

With this option, the camera chooses which point to focus on for you.

Cameras are getting smarter now, with things like Face Detection, but what often happens is the object that is closest to the camera ends up being the sharpest. But, if that is not what you intended – if you wanted that pretty flower behind the fence firm and the wall in front blurry – the camera gets it wrong.

Most of the time, my camera stays on Single Point Focus. This should help you decide which is suitable for whatever you’re photographing.

Auto AF Point selection systems get confused by busy backgrounds and fast-moving subjects. It’s far better to set the active AF point yourself. There’s usually an option that lets you choose a single point for focusing; this may be called Single AF-point or, ironically, Multi AF Point (because you can choose from multiple topics). Using this option ensures that the focus point is exactly where you want it to be, but it’s only effective if you can hold the camera. Hence, the active energy is over the subject in the viewfinder, and that’s often easier said than done when you’re shooting a sport.

Zone AF (or similar) model makes an excellent choice for shooting sport because it gives you a little bit of room for error when you’re trying to keep the active area over the subject. Still, it’s more focused than the Auto AF-Point, which uses all the available points. If you’d like to work with professional photographers for your wedding, book with us at Wild Romantic Photography.

As with Single AF Point mode, in Zone AF mode, you need to select the Zone that overlies the subject and then keep that area over the issue as it moves. Provided you do that, and the camera is in C-AF mode, you should get sharp shots.