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User-friendly AF Adjustment with the EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III AF Configuration Tool

March 08, 2012

Rudy Winston

Among the many things a truly professional modern SLR brings to its users, compared to more moderately-priced models, is the ability to really customize and tailor certain features to the precise way its user wants them to work. For many SLR users, it's enough to simply know that if they're shooting moving subjects, put a Canon EOS camera's AF system into AI Servo AF, and the focus system is now set to track that movement.

But to the truly critical user, there's more. Experienced sports and wildlife shooters know that not all movement is equal. Not every situation presents the same challenges to the shooter and to the camera. To the critical pro, there's a big difference between shooting (for example) an Indy car or a Moto GP racing motorcycle coming out of a corner and accelerating down a straightaway, compared to shooting a basketball player who's stopping and starting suddenly, and one instant may be clearly visible, and the next be blocked momentarily by another player or a referee. Or, an eagle soaring at a continuous speed through the air, compared to animals at an African watering hole sprinting away and changing direction to evade a predator.

Even the best factory settings for AF can't always accommodate these differences. Top-of-the-line pro cameras like the EOS-1D series have offered adjustments for the critical shooter to tune their focus tracking to better-suit the conditions, the subject, and the user's own style and preferences. But until now, these functions were difficult for many users to understand and successfully apply. Combinations of settings could be even more confusing and sometimes unpredictable. Many users gave up in frustration, and simply returned their cameras to the default factory settings.

With Canon’s EOS-1D X, a whole new concept was born. Not just the totally new AI Servo AF III focusing system, but one that combined those two seemingly contradictory themes: sophistication and flexibility, with simplicity and ease of operation. This same system is carried-over into the EOS 5D Mark III as well.

AF Adjustments – what's possible?

Readers not really familiar with previous versions of the EOS-1D and EOS-1Ds series models may want to start right here. Even veteran EOS-1D Mark IV or Mark III users will want to take a moment and read this, because the available parameters for making changes to the way focus-tracking is done have changed. Even more importantly, there's a new way to access them.

  • Tracking Sensitivity
    This one is carried-over from previous high-end EOS models, including the EOS 7D. Tracking Sensitivity tunes the AI Servo AF system's response to sudden changes in what the AF system now sees. If the active AF point(s) suddenly lose the subject, or something comes between the subject and camera, will the camera almost instantly try to re-focus on the new object, or delay perceptibly and allow the shooter to find the original subject again? The previous "fast" and "slow" designations have been changed:

    Locked-on: the camera will delay any change if it suddenly sees a new subject
    Responsive: the camera will try to re-focus on the new subject much more quickly
  • New – Accel./Decel. Tracking
    Allows adjustment of the AF to more rapidly adjust to subjects that tend to start, stop and change direction quickly. A photographer shooting a sport like basketball is likely to want to set this to a higher "+1" or "+2" threshold (telling the AF system to expect and react to this movement); another shooter photographing long-distance runners moving in a straight line would likely want to leave this at the "zero" setting. This ability to optimize focus tracking for continuous or erratic movement is a vital and significant new development in Canon’s 61-point AF system.
  • New - AF point auto switching
    This only kicks-in if the camera is set to Automatic AF point selection, combined with AI Servo AF focus tracking. It changes the way that active AF points are automatically changed by the camera if a subject moves away from the initial AF point that first started to track it. Normally, the EOS-1D X and 5D Mark III are tuned to provide smooth, steady changes to AF points during Automatic AF point selection. But users can use the "+1" or "+2" settings to speed-up this responsiveness, if erratic or aggressive subject movement is anticipated.
Simplifying AI Servo AF adjustments: The AF Configuration Tool

Until now, any AF adjustments for high-end EOS cameras were within the Custom Function menu, and each was set independently. For knowledgeable working pros, this wasn't a problem, but for many users, it created a lot of confusion. But with both the EOS 5D Mark III and EOS-1D X, Canon's engineers and designers were after not just performance, but flexibility that is user-friendly as well. The answer is the AF Configuration Tool.

The AF Configuration Tool is a menu setting, within the first AF menu (no more need to dip into Custom Functions; all AF-related settings in these two cameras are now under one of the AF menu screens). It consists of six clearly-defined "cases". These apply different combinations of the three parameters (above), changing the camera's AF responsiveness and tailoring it for different types of shooting situations. Each of these applies strictly to shooting moving subjects with AI Servo AF – they have no direct impact when locking focus on stationary subjects with One-Shot AF (landscapes, macro, portraits and so on).

The AF Configuration Tool is on the first AF Menu screen. Six different icons run down the left side of the menu screen; as a user highlights each one, information about that "case" appears on the main area of the Menu. And, each of the three variables (above), while pre-set to different values for each "case", can be adjusted further by the user as desired.

With the ability to tune the EOS 5D Mark III or the EOS-1D X's focus tracking in AI Servo AF with one easy menu setting, the AF Configuration Tool fully opens the door to truly optimizing the camera for the way the shooter wants to use it, and the type of subject matter at hand.

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The Six Cases:
Case 1: Versatile multi-purpose setting

This factory-default setting has the AF system tuned for smooth yet fast response to moving subjects, but with a built-in momentary pause if the active AF point suddenly leaves a subject as it's being tracked. It's especially ideal for subjects moving at continuous speeds, where little or no interference from other subjects or erratic stops-and-starts are anticipated.

Examples: Motorsports (with manual AF point selection)
Runners and other objects coming straight at the camera
 
Settings: Tracking Sensitivity – 0 (middle setting)
Accel./Decel. Tracking – 0 (least response)
AF point Auto Switching – 0 (slower and steadier changing of Auto AF points)
Case 2: Continue to track subjects, ignoring possible obstacles

A go-to option for any situation where the nature of the action is such that the subject may either momentarily leave the active AF point, or where there's likely interference from other athletes, referees or foreground objects. Once focus tracking begins, the AI Servo AF system is tuned to ignore momentary interference or a sudden loss of the subject, assuming it can be picked-up again soon thereafter.

Examples: Butterfly swimming event
American football
Freestyle skiing
 
Settings: Tracking Sensitivity – -1 (one step in "locked on" direction)
Accel./Decel. Tracking – 0 (least response)
AF point Auto Switching – 0 (slower and steadier changing of Auto AF points)
Case 3: Instantly focus on subjects entering AF points

Sets the AF system so that it responds instantly when a subject enters the active AF area. One example might be a sports shooter expecting a skier to suddenly come bursting into view over a hill, where he or she needs the AF system to instantly respond to this new, fast-moving subject as it streaks toward the camera. Another might be when the photographer wants to rapidly shoot different moving subjects, one after another, at different distances.

Examples: Alpine downhill skiing
Finish line at track event, such as marathon, where shot is needed of each runner
 
Settings: Tracking Sensitivity – +1 (one step in "responsive" direction)
Accel./Decel. Tracking – 0 (least response)
AF point Auto Switching – 0 (slower and steadier changing of Auto AF points)
Case 4: For subjects that accelerate or decelerate quickly

Converts the EOS-1D X's AI Servo AF to respond instantly to changes in subject speed... sports like US football or basketball, as well as certain types of wildlife shooting, come immediately to mind. The difference vs. Tracking Sensitivity is that Case 4 assumes the photographer can keep the active AF area upon the subject, and that the challenge is the subject's changes in movement – rather than the active AF area suddenly losing the subject for a moment. As stated before, this is a huge development in SLR autofocus, to be able to change AF's fundamental response from continuous movement to erratic movement.

Examples: Soccer
Fast wildlife with long tele lenses (big cats, deer in motion, etc.)
 
Settings: Tracking Sensitivity – 0 (middle setting)
Accel./Decel. Tracking – 1 (one step in "faster response" direction)
AF point Auto Switching – 0 (slower and steadier changing of Auto AF points)
Case 5: Erratic subjects moving quickly in any direction

This case assumes the user will be shooting with Automatic AF point selection active – that is, all AF points are active, and the camera is going to automatically select the active AF point. It also applies with Zone AF, or if a single AF point has been expanded. Case 5's default AF point Auto Switching settings therefore have no impact if a user has manually selected a single AF point. With Case 5, the camera is set to respond immediately to significant up/down or left-right movements, with faster switching of AF points to continue to track the subject's movement.

Examples: Figure Skating
Birds in flight
Motorsports when user wants to use Automatic AF point selection
 
Settings: Tracking Sensitivity – 0 (middle setting)
Accel./Decel. Tracking – 0 (least response)
AF point Auto Switching – 1 (one step in "faster response" direction)
Case 6: Subjects that change speed and move erratically

Again, this case initially assumes the user is working with more than one single AF point (either Automatic AF point select mode, Zone AF, or a manually-selected point with AF point expansion). It not only tailors the AF system to more rapidly change AF points to accommodate side-to-side or up-and-down subject movement, but also sets the AF to be ready to respond more rapidly to changes in speed, stops-and-starts, and so on.

As with any of the six cases, the initial settings (listed below) can be further modified by the shooter to further meet his or her preferences.

Examples: Basketball
Rhythmic Gymnastics
 
Settings: Tracking Sensitivity – 0 (middle setting)
Accel./Decel. Tracking – 1 (one step in "faster response" direction)
AF point Auto Switching – 1 (one step in "faster response" direction)

These six pre-set options are not the limit of either cameras's AF adjustment ability, but in one place and with easy-to-understand commands, they open the door for even the relatively inexperienced user to be able to fine-tune the camera for the job at hand.

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Other AF Customizing Options

While the six available Cases answer many of the needs for action shooters, there are a few other separate and independent adjustments possible for AF within the EOS-1D X. These are completely separate from the AF Configuration Tool and its six "cases," just described.

One-Shot AF release priority:

Again, the AF Configuration Tool deals with focus-tracking of moving subjects with the camera’s new AI Servo AF III focus system. But the EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III don’t ignore the shooter working with stationary subjects in One-Shot AF mode — portraits, fashion, landscape, close-up and other types of shooting.

For the first time ever in an EOS camera, the user can change how the camera responds when trying to shoot if the camera hasn't yet confirmed sharp focus:

  • Release priority: Allows the shutter to fire, even if One-Shot AF hasn't confirmed sharp focus (an EOS first)
  • AF priority: Camera gives priority to sharp focus – won't allow shutter to fire in One-Shot AF mode until focus confirmation light appears in finder
AI Servo 1st image priority:

When starting to follow-focus a moving subject with AI Servo AF, if the user fully presses down on the shutter button immediately after starting to focus, what will the camera do?

  • Equal Priority: Camera allows a bit of time before firing first shot in a sequence, to give AF system a bit of "cushion" to focus completely on subject. This setting is new on EOS cameras.
  • Release Priority: Camera gives "priority" to releasing shutter – camera will fire virtually instantly, even if AF system hasn't fully locked-on to subject. News and wire-service shooters, who often are more concerned with the "decisive moment" than absolute tack-sharp images, may prefer this setting.
  • Focus Priority: Camera gives "priority" to assuring sharp focus – when trying to focus and shoot quickly, shutter release may be delayed for a perceptible moment while AF system confirms that first shot will be sharp.
AI Servo 2nd image priority:

This concerns what happens when the user tries to shoot a sequence of two or more continuous pictures of a moving subject with AI Servo AF. For the 2nd and all subsequent shots in that sequence, does the camera try to shoot as fast as it possibly can – even if this means a few frames may not be tack-sharp – or will it slow down the fps rate as needed to allow the AF system to confirm that virtually all frames in a sequence are as sharp as they can be?

  • Equal Priority: The EOS-1D X and 5D Mark III give equal priority to maintaining fps shooting speed, while allowing time for AF. In extremely dim conditions or with very difficult-to-focus subjects, shooting speed may slow down.
  • Speed Priority: Camera gives priority to maintaining fps shooting speed, even if it means the AF system may not have fully confirmed sharp focus for every frame in a sequence. Again, for example, capturing the moment may be more important for a traditional news shooter than having each and every frame tack-sharp in a high-speed sequence.
  • Focus Priority: During continuous shooting with focus-tracking in AI Servo AF, the camera gives priority to assuring sharpest possible focus for all frames in a sequence, and will readily slow-down the fps rate if necessary to allow this.

Each of these are menu settings within the AF menus for both the EOS 5D Mark III and EOS-1D X. Again, all AF-related settings have been removed from the Custom Functions list, and are in one of five separate AF menu screens.

Summary:

Flexibility and the ability to meet almost any conceivable challenge has traditionally been the hallmark of the professional SLR camera. As camera design has advanced, this has come to include autofocus systems and AF technology as well.

With Canon’s new 61-point AF system, new levels of fine-tuning of the AF are now at the photographer’s fingertips. Its ability to change the fundamental way it copes with subject movement — from continuous to erratic — is a landmark capability. But it’s still up to the user to be able to apply these changes as needed, and in an appropriate way.

The AF Configuration Tool totally changes the interaction between photographer and camera when it comes to many of these adjustments. In simple, easy-to-understand terms, it allows the user to adjust and set-up the AF to maximize its potential for the task at hand. And far from locking the user in, each of the individual settings can be further tuned by the shooter as needed.

Combined with other separate adjustments for both AI Servo and One-Shot AF, this supremely flexible AF system is perhaps highlighted by its user-friendly approach, which users will find a big improvement from the previous-generation EOS cameras with AF adjustments. Any prospective EOS-1D X or EOS 5D Mark III customer who anticipates shooting action from time to time should at the very least try out the AF Configuration Tool, experiment occasionally with its settings, and be ready to really maximize the next real-life opportunity they have to get great images of moving subjects.

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Rudy Winston
Rudy Winston

Rudy Winston has over 17 years experience with Canon USA's Pro Products team, and has been responsible during that time for training Canon's staff on new products, creating presentations for customers and dealers, numerous writing projects, and providing technical assistance to professional and amateur photographers.

Rudy Winston

Rudy Winston has over 17 years experience with Canon USA's Pro Products team, and has been responsible during that time for training Canon's staff on new products, creating presentations for customers and dealers, numerous writing projects, and providing technical assistance to professional and amateur photographers. Currently, he's a key figure in Canon's growing Education department, and contributes to many of the on-line articles and resources on Canon USA's Digital Learning Center, as well as to Canon's Live Learning events. During his career at Canon, he's had hands-on experience with nearly every Canon EOS camera and lens, and has outstanding working knowledge of everyday use of the EOS system. Rudy has worked in the photography field virtually his entire adult life. Before coming to Canon, he had an extensive career as a freelance photographer, including years of experience shooting professional sports, as well as experience in retail camera sales.

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