Tim Boyer Photography

Small Groups, Cool Birds, Fun Locations

How to Set up the Canon EOS 7D Mark II Part 3 -- Auto Focus and Flight Photography

The Canon 7D Mark IITim Boyer
Ring-billed Gull, Coronado, CA. f/9, 1.1000 of a second, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II and the 70 to 200 f/2.9 zoom lens at 140mm. AF Zone AF slection.
Ring-billed Gull, Coronado, CA. f/9, 1.1000 of a second, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II and the 70 to 200 f/2.9 zoom lens at 140mm. AF Zone AF slection.

There are several things to like right off the bat with the new Canon 7D Mark II; the fast frames per second as mentioned earlier, and the fast acquiring of the subject. I also like the 65 Auto Focus Points and the almost full frame coverage they offer. There are a lot of options with Auto Focus from area points selected to how AI Servo works. I’ll try to explain all of this, and let you know what I do. After 3-months I still like this camera.  There are a few things I wish were better, but it's a great improvement over the old Canon 7D.  I can live  with the other issues because the Auto Focus, Frames per Second, and other features are so useful, and I haven't even started in on the Time Lapse or the Multiple Exposure features!

Let’s tackle the easy part of the auto focus first, the seven, yes seven, I know the Canon literature says six, but we’ll go through all seven AF Area Selection Modes.

AF Area Selection Modes

Single-point Spot AF – for pinpoint focusing.

This is for that pinpoint accuracy you might want on a stationary shot. The small dot in the middle of square focus point represented in the view finder means the focus point is smaller then the size of a single Auto Focus point. So, if a bird is stationary, perching or if I’m doing some landscape photography with or without birds, I might use this, but I doubt if I will very much. Since it reads such a small area, it will be effective only when there’s plenty of time for the shot. I did use this trying to focus on the eye of a Long-eared Owl last month. It worked well for that, I could have used manual focus, which I would normally do to find the eye through the branches, but tried this new AF point and it worked great.

Single-point Spot AF area selection mode
Single-point Spot AF area selection mode

Single-point AF- one AF Point is active

Just one Auto Focus Point is activated, but you can activate any of the 65 points, move the active point around to get just the eye of the bird or the precise point of interest in the frame. This is what I use most of the time for pinpoint accuracy in focusing, and will occasionally use the one above (Spot AF) when it’s a really tight focusing situation.  Mostly I see using this one and the next for portraits of birds.

Single-point AF area selection mode
Single-point AF area selection mode

AF Point Expansion(4)

One active point and the surrounding four points one top one bottom one to the right and then one to the left assist in focusing. This gives a little more precise control for flight photography and moving birds, for advanced flight photographers. If the birds are moving unpredictably, like Swallows I’d start with AF Point Expansion 8, but probably use the AF Zone. I use this as my default setting for all my bird photography. The main thing to remember is there is one main Auto Focus Point active with four surrounding Auto Focus Points to assist the main active point. When I leave the car my camera will either be setup with this or the next AF Mode.

AF point expansion area selection mode (4)
AF point expansion area selection mode (4)

AF Point Expansion (8)

When I first started using this new camera I thought of this as a “small” AF Zone setting, but it works like the AF Point Expansion -- the eight surround points only assist in auto focus they don’t search for the next three cases. I think using this will allow some people to acquire the birds in light a little faster since it offers more assistance points. My go to Mode for fasting moving, unpredictably fight photography and wildlife. I had good results with this mode in San Diego earlier this month when doing birds-in-flight photogpraphy. When using this AF mode, I also try to shoot at f/8 or a little higher to make sure the  eye of th e bird is sharp!

AF point expansion area selection mode (8)
AF point expansion area selection mode (8)

Zone AF

The fifteen active Auto Focus Points will automatically acquire the closest subject. The AF Expansion 4 and 8 won’t do this. All 15 Auto Focus Points are active. I like this for flight photography when I can also use f/8 or f/11 and when I’m photographing a flock of birds and I want the closest bird to be in focus. The active Zone can be moved around the 65 AF Pont for composition purposes. I used this for birds-in-flight in San Diego earlier this month and with a slightly the smaller aperture of f/9 it worked great!

Zone AF area selection mode
Zone AF area selection mode

Large Zone AF

This is three very broad zones, the left, right or center zones to capture moving subjects. I like this again because it will focus on the closest subject. I’m really going to like this the next time I have a blastoff of Snow Geese or Swans. Consider using this for a large flock of birds, or in the case of some very erratic but fast moving subjects. The closest part of the flocks or subject once it reaches the zone will remain in focus. This might work very well with Case 5 or 6 for Swallows and  very fast small birds in flight.

Large Zone AF area selection mode
Large Zone AF area selection mode

65-point automatic selection

All 65 Auto Focus points are active, and the camera will pick up the closest subject. The AF system recognizes the initial subject and follows it even more precisely as it moves around the AF point array. But, it works differently for One Shot Mode and AI Servo Mode. In One Shot Mode, the camera will select the nearest subject and move around and activate points. In AI Servo Mode the camera starts with the photographer selected AF Point then moves around.

65-point automatic selection AF area selection mode
65-point automatic selection AF area selection mode

How to change the Auto Focus Selection Mode

The default method is press the AF Point Selection button on the upper right side of the back of the camera with your thumb and then press the M-Fn (Auto Focus Area Selection) Button on top of the camera with your index finger. Cycle through the seven modes until you get to the one you want. There are many options for setting this up, but I like this one, I’ve used it enough so I don’t think about where the buttons are, I just change focusing modes as quickly as I need to. This is a good time to mention that it’s not as important which method you use to get the AF Mode you want - what matters is you need to practice so you can change AF Selection Modes quickly in the field while still looking at the subject through the viewfinder!

Ring-billed Gull in flight at Coronado, CA. Canon 7 D Mark II and the 70 to 200 f/2.8 zoom lens. 1/1000 of a second, f/9, and ISO 640 at 145 mm.
Ring-billed Gull in flight at Coronado, CA. Canon 7 D Mark II and the 70 to 200 f/2.8 zoom lens. 1/1000 of a second, f/9, and ISO 640 at 145 mm.

The Six AI Servo AF Cases

Chose different Cases to enhance the AI Servo Mode for different shooting situations and different types of moving subjects.

Each case consists of three variables; Tracking Sensitivity, Acceleration/Deceleration Tracking and AF Point Switching.

  • Tracking Sensitivity deals with what the AF sensor does when it’s tracking and then “sees” another, new subject.
  • Accel./Decel. Tracking deals with the speed and character of the movement of the subject, is the subject moving steadily or is the subject stopping and starting.
  • AF Point Switching deals with how quickly we want the camera to move to the next AF Point.

Case 1 -- This is the default multi-purpose setting if you don’t want to change anything. This works well for steady continuous speed and movement. It’s also the recommended starting place for people starting to shoot moving or action subjects. Try this first, then move on to the other Cases. All three variables are set to the “0” or neutral position of their scale or parameter.

Case 2 -- Chose this if you want to track a subject while ignoring possible obstacles. If the bird flies behind a tree, keep tracking and then when the bird reappears you should still be on it. This is also helpful if you lose the subject when trying to track it. Tracking Sensitivity is set to -1, so by decreasing the Tracking Sensitivity the camera should remain on target. Accel./Decel. is set to “0” and so is AF Point Switching. If the subject is hidden for longer interval consider changing the Tracking Sensitivity parameter to -2.   (This is how I set up my camera -2, 0, 0). I used this recently in San Diego for birds-in-flight and it works wonderfully.   See how to change this below.)

Case 3 – This case will instantly focus on subjects suddenly entering the AF Points. If might work well for a cycling race when the action shot requires switching from one rider to another, but I don’t think it works very well for bird photography. Tracking Sensitivity is set to +1, Accel./Decel. is set to +1 and AF Point Switching is set to “0”.  Canon literature on this Case says “When set to Case 3, if the subject moves away form the AF points, the camera will usually quickly refocus on a different subject or background …  So, most birds fly away from us, and then the camera will focus on the background? I don’t think many bird photographers will be using this Case.

Case 4 -- This Case is for accelerating or decelerating subjects. Tracking Sensitivity is set to neutral “0”, Accel./Decel. is set to +1 and AF Point Switching is set to “0” as well. The camera will respond to changes in speed, including sudden stops and acceleration.

Case 5 – This Case helps with erratic subjects moving in any direction, especially side-to-side. The Tracking Sensitivity is set to neutral “0”, Accel./Decel. is set to neutral and AF Point Switching is set to +1, this modifies the speed in which the AF Points change, so they acquire fast erratic moving subjects. Use AF Point Expansion or Zone AF with this, and I think it will work well for Swallows and other quick small birds.

Case 6 – Chose Case 6 for subjects that change speed and move erratically. This is like Case 5 except the Accel./Decel. is +1 instead of neutral at “0”. Again this might work very well for Swallows and fast moving birds.

How to modify the Cases

Go to the AF Menu, and select the first sub-menu. The Quick Control Dial can be used to move between Cases. I scrolled down to Case 2, pressed the Rate Button on the left side of the LCD screen, selected the Tracking Sensitivity Parameter with the Quick Control Dial then pressed the Set Button and with the Dial moved the sensitivity to -2. Then press Set again to finish making the selection and save it.

Which Case you use or what modifications you make may very well depend on your shooting style.  Start with Case 1 to see if that works for you if that doesn't then proceed to how I set up Case 2 with the change to the Tracking Sensitivity to -2.  If that doesn't work, try changing Case 3 to Tracking Sensitivity -2, Accel./Decel. to +1 and AF Point Switching to +1.  Then if that doesn't work try -2, +2, +2 and see if that works for you. There will be some trial and error to this process. Everyone is different and how we each use our equipment is different.

So, I'm using Case 1 as the default, Case 2 with the modification of the Tracking Sensitivity to -2 for my default flight settings, and Cases 5 and 6 for Swallows and other fast moving birds.

California Gull, Coronado, CA. 1/800 of a second, f/9, ISO 640 With the Canon 7D Mark II and the 70 to 200 f/2.8 zoom lens.
California Gull, Coronado, CA. 1/800 of a second, f/9, ISO 640 With the Canon 7D Mark II and the 70 to 200 f/2.8 zoom lens.

Other changes to the camera setup for Auto Focus

On the fourth AF sub-menu, I changed “Orientation Linked AF Point” Press the Set button and scroll down to “Separate AF Pts: Area+pts. Press set to chose this.

This allows the AF Points to be separate when in horizontal or vertical modes. Which means the active AF Point could be at the top of the frame for vertical shots and the active AF Points in the center of the frame for horizontal shots.

Also, this means I can have different AF Areas Selection Modes active. I could be shooting Snow Geese in a horizontal orientation and have the camera on Zone AF, then switch to vertical, have the active point at the top of the frame and be in AF Point Expansion (4).

On the fifth AF sub-menu, I change the “Manual AF Pt. select. Pattern”. There are two options Stop at AF Area edges or Continuous. I changed my camera to Continuous. This means if I’m moving the AF Points around I can scroll off the right edge of the frame and the active point will show up on the left side of the frame. This allows for quicker movement of AF points around the frame.

Heermann's gull, Coronado CA. 1/640 of a second, f/9 and ISO 640. Canon 7D Mark Ii and the 70 to 200 mm f/2.8 zoom lens at 200mm. Zone AF area selected.
Heermann's gull, Coronado CA. 1/640 of a second, f/9 and ISO 640. Canon 7D Mark Ii and the 70 to 200 mm f/2.8 zoom lens at 200mm. Zone AF area selected.

Enjoy!

Thanks

Tim