Getting Sharp Photos with Moving Subjects

Here is a question posted by a reader that I thought I would try to answer here today.....

"How about a post on shooting a toddler who just wants to run away from you ;) I used AI Servo mode with BBF but didn't nail focus like I wanted to. I think one shot nailed it right in the eyes the rest were on the forehead, hair, nose- not what I wanted. I used the 50mm 1.8 and aperture above 2.8 most times. I'm thinking this lens is not good for running toddlers. Thoughts?"

Shooting toddlers is HARD! I bet every single one of us moms has problems when shooting children of this age group - they are fast, unpredictable and notoriously unreliable for staying in one place. I too struggle with this daily so I thought it would be good to address some of the main issues of getting sharp focus on moving subjects, whilst trying to answer the above question at the same time.

The first thing I want to say is that you will never get all your shots of moving subjects sharp and in focus - probably not even close. I imagine a lot of people think that using Al Servo and Back Button Focus means they should get all their shots in focus (I did!) but the truth is they won't be.  Using this combo, combined with the tips below, just increases the number of "keepers" you get.  That's actually the main aim - to increase your "hit" rate of shots, whilst understanding that a good number of these will be out of focus. 

Here's some tips that will help with that......

- First of all check your shutter speed. With moving subjects you need a bare minimum of 1/500 but you probably want to go even faster than that - it really depends on how quick their movements are.  Fast moving might need 1/1000. With toddlers it's tricky because they can often be quite slow, then quickly turn or run, or drop to the ground. Although they are not moving constantly at a fast rate, each individual movement can actually be quite speedy! Always make sure that your shutter speed is high enough - if in doubt, go higher.

- For moving subjects, Al Servo is the best mode, however, you should note that it is definitely not infallible.  Al Servo works by trying to anticipate movement, and as such has a hard job trying to predict the movements of a typical toddler or young child. It seems to work better for subjects that are following a line - for example a bird in flight, or a runner as they move forward.  It finds it much harder with subjects that move erratically.

-  As a side note, remember that you cannot use focus-recompose in Al Servo!

- If you have a Canon camera, for moving subjects it is probably better to use in centre focus point - this is more reliable than the outer ones. You will need to shoot wider and crop to a better composition in post processing.

- Another option is to actually use Auto AF rather than Manual Single Point AF, where you let your camera decide the focus point. This can work very well if your subject is against an uniform background or you are filling the frame with your subject.  The downside to this method is your camera could decide to fix focus on something else rather than your subject - you are a bit at the mercy of your camera in this regard. (This is why it can be better to use Single Point AF so you can control what the camera focuses on) However, the camera may work better at trying to focus on a moving subject if it can use all of the points available to it. If you are not happy with the results using a single focus point (central one as suggested above) then give this a whirl instead.  You may find you prefer to use this for moving subjects, but be prepared for the fact that it will occasionally focus on something else rather than your child.

- Check the aperture you are using and understand the depth of field you will get with that. It's better to have a higher aperture number as you will find it much easier to nail focus on your subject, especially if you are currently finding it difficult. Although I generally use about F2.8, I sometimes go a bit higher, say around F4.0, if he is moving around a lot.  This is where it can get tricky as you are effectively letting less light into your camera by having a smaller aperture, and at the same time you are letting less light into your camera by having a high shutter speed. You will probably need to boost your ISO quite high to cope. It's a trade off and you need to decide which is most important to you.

- Watch your motion.  If you are swinging the camera about erratically whilst chasing your fast-moving child, you are adding to the mix. Try to keep your movements smooth and fluid (easier said than done!) whilst following the subject.

- When shooting any kind of moving subject, the best way to ensure you get a sharp photo is to simply take a LOT of shots. Working with moving subjects is tricky, all you can hope to do is increase your "hit" rate. Taking lots of shots means you are likely to get a few keepers in amongst all the soft or out of focus ones.

- How successful you are will also (unfortunately) depend on your equipment. Al Servo on entry level camera bodies does not appear to be the greatest in the world. The more expensive cameras will have better focus and tracking systems on them - that's just simply a fact. I definitely don't mean this to sound like you need the best gear to take great photos, you really don't, but it helps if you have your expectations in the right place. (Even with a camera body with an amazing autofocus system, like the Canon 7D, you still won't get all your shots in focus, but I suspect the number of keepers will be higher!)

- The quality and type of lens you are using also makes a difference. Some lenses are simply faster to focus than others. The 50mm F1.8, whilst I love it and it is absolutely a brilliant lens for the price, it does not focus terribly quickly, so it's not ideal for fast moving subjects. If you are taking your photography seriously, you might want to upgrade your lens to something that will focus more quickly but bear in mind that good lenses cost a good deal of money. Again, please don't think I am saying you need to upgrade to get good shots, I'm adding this so that you can manage your expectations.

- Practice makes perfect! The good news is with a digital camera this is pretty much free!

- Lastly, have a look at some ideas for photographing toddlers - if you can it is much easier to contain them in some way, or get their attention long enough for you to take the shot, rather than trying to keep up with them!

I hope you moms who are struggling with focus with their toddlers or young child (or any fast moving subjects) found this to be helpful. The one thing I hope you take away from this is that you I doubt you will ever get all your shots sharp and in focus with moving subjects - aim to improve your hit rate.

As some of you may know I will be getting a new camera body and lenses (en-route as we speak but I'm not allowed them until Christmas!) so I fully intend to do some comparisons to see how the different bodies and different lenses compare (and how much difference a better quality lens makes to the lower-end camera bodies) and of course I'll post my results on the blog as I'm sure some of you will find it helpful!


Amy said...

This was a very helpful post. How exciting that you're getting a new camera body and lenses. I can't wait to read your comparisons.

Jan said...

i don't know if the person who asked the question is using a nikon or canan (i assume canon b/c mentioned al servo but maybe not), but the nikon 50 1.8 focuses considerably faster than the 50 1.4. i opted for the 1.8 for this very reason. it also has better reviews even though it's the cheaper lens. photographylife.com has a great review of the lenses and shows a video that compares focus speed.

hooray for new gear! very exciting!

Audrey said...

I'm really excited about getting new gear! I also have a 50mm f1.4 coming (upgrading my my f1.8) reviews on the canon seem to be mixed as to whether there is much of a difference between the two - if there isn't, the 1.4 will get returned! Will wait and see for myself. Interesting about the Nikon one though....actually I'm off to check out that website!

Jan said...

have you ever calibrated your lenses? i saw something on this once...where you make your lens fit your camera body and get the focus just right. just wondering if you knew anything about that and if it's really necessary.

Audrey said...

Hi Jan, I've never done it. If your lens is front or back focusing by a noticeable amount, you will need to send the lens back to be calibrated, but like you, I have heard of people micro calibrating. This is because canon and Nikon build in allowable tolerances, in other words the lenses can front or back focus just a tiny bit but within a tolerable amount. Some people want it incredibly spot on so calibrate so that the lens is spot on. Currently, I would only do this if I noticed any focusing issues but im not a pro!

Jan said...

makes sense...thanks!

here's another question, and please don't feel like you have to answer.

on my new camera, you can shoot up to iso 6400 and have grain, but a useable image. with that kind of flexibility, why wouldn't i just set my camera to auto iso so that i can always have the shutter speed and aperture that i want? when i set my camera to auto iso and matrix metering, it keeps the meter steady at 0 pretty well (b/c it adjusts the iso automatically). this makes it very simple to pick up your camera and take a quick shot. is there a reason to not use this setting? i feel like i'm already getting lazy, but the camera body is simply making it too easy! or am i missing out by setting up my camera this way? i'd love to hear your thoughts on this :)

Jan said...

oh, if i have my camera set to spot metering, the meter will be all over the place even with auto iso. i'd think that the iso would just go crazy and it would keep the meter at 0 like in matrix mode, but it doesn't for some reason.

Audrey said...

If you have good ISO capabilities then I can't see any reason why you can't shoot like this - it's not laziness, shooting moving children can be difficult to use fully manual in. I tend to use AV and set my ISO but only because my photos are only usable up to ISO 400/800 with my current camera so I don't want to go beyond that and I need to rein it in! The only thing I would say is that you should probably only use this in evaluative (matrix) as- your camera may have a hard job keeping up if you use spot as you will be constantly changing the metering point as you move about. I assume that is what's happening though can't be sure! All in all, I think it would be a pretty good way to shoot.

Jan said...

well, it's super simple and gets a great shot, quickly. i fix any white balance issues in lightroom in a snap too. i don't know how folks do custom wb with cards/expodisc or kelvin. there's just not time with little ones!

Audrey said...

Gotta love Lightroom! I too tend to do just fix white balance after as for most shots I just don't have time. If I was doing a planned shoot I probably would but that's it, otherwise cal would have run off by the time I'd custom set it!

shellyrenea said...

this post was really helpful. I'm just learning to use camera settings outside of auto mode and have used Aperature priority mode some. But wondering since shutter speed seems to be critical for shooting toddlers, do you tend to use the Shutter priority mode or go Manual mode all the way?

Audrey said...

I use different modes for different things! The best way is to consider what is most important in the set of photographs you are going to be taking....if controlling the depth of field is the most important to you - for example taking a portrait style shot - then choose AV. If your kids are going crazy running in and out of a fountain, then Shutter Priority is the one for you! If you are taking photos were they are not moving in and out of different light then give manual a go, or AV. I choose whichever mode happens to suit me best at the time, but I would say I use AV more - I like the creative control that altering my depth of field gives me, but I don't always have a lot of time to control my settings. Jan's idea above of setting the aperture and the shutter speed and letting the camera choose the ISO is actually a good one - my particular camera gives me noise I don't find usable for prints at about ISO400 at up, so I don't use this but maybe would outdoors? If you are just venturing out of Auto I would probably suggest AV as this can be easier to use creatively. Did this help at all?

shellyrenea said...

yes thanks!

Ava said...

This is a great post. I've been photographing a lot of kids lately with the 50 1.8 and their movement is throwing my sharpness off. The tips above are going to help for the next time.

I'm thinking about upgrading to the 50 1.4. I'm really looking forward to your reviews once you receive it.

Thanks again Audrey!

Michelle said...

This is an old post but I wanted to offer up a slight correction. There are different types of focus points and the cross ones are the best. For some cameras, the center may be the only cross but other cameras have more. So saying the center is better isn't the same across all Canon cameras.

Audrey said...

Michelle, you are absolutely right - my Canon 5D MKiii has several more cross type focal points and these are all great for moving subjects, I was probably trying to keep it simple when I wrote it! I'll amend it now though!

Post a Comment