Autofocus settings for birds in flight with Nikon Z cameras
I’m back from my third annual San Diego Birding & Wildlife photo workshop, and this year I decided to use the workshop as a testing ground for the Nikon Z6 mirrorless digital camera. Ever since the Nikon Z6 and Z7 cameras were released, the general consensus seems to be that their hybrid phase/contrast autofocus system was great for everything except fast moving subjects, like flying birds. I decided to test the Z6 myself and see how well it could perform in the field in real-world conditions.
For four days I put the Z6 through its paces, and came away with the conclusion that by tweaking the autofocus settings, you can nail BIFs with this camera almost as well as I could with my tried and true Nikon D850 DSLR. The trick is to customize your autofocus settings to something other than the defaults, and the settings I chose will actually seem counter-intuitive. More on that in a moment.
First step: Check Your Nikon Z Firmware
Before you begin, make sure that you’ve updated the firmware in your Nikon Z6 or Z7 camera to the latest version. In 2019, Nikon released firmware version 2.0, which dramatically improved autofocus performance and tweaked the algorithms for the AF area modes. If you’re not using firmware v 2.x for the Nikon Z6/Z7, you should update it immediately!
Step 2: Set AF to Continuous Servo
For moving subjects, make sure you enable continuous-servo autofocus (AF-C). You can do this easily in the “i” menu in the Z6/Z7 or, for fast access, I have my Fn2 button on the front of my cameras set to change AF servo (rear dial) or AF area (front dial). I particularly like how easy it is to change AF patterns while looking through the viewfinder in the Z6/Z7.
Step 3: Set the AF Tracking & Lock-on Settings
Probably the most misunderstood setting in Nikon digital cameras is the “Focus tracking with lock-on” option in the Custom Settings menu. In the Nikon Z6 and Z7 cameras, you’ll find this under Custom Setting a3. This setting sets the sensitivity of the camera to sudden, large-scale changes to perceived subject distance. It does not, however, affect the camera’s ability to follow-focus a continuously moving subject.
Let me explain the lock-on setting this way: It slows down the camera’s AF response to a SUDDEN change in subject distance. If you’re using continuous-servo focus (AF-C mode) and something comes between you and your subject (bird/wing/pole/branch), the camera AF system has to make a decision: Stay locked on the original subject distance, or shift the focus to the new subject. If you are trying to use continuous autofocus to rapidly change between different subjects, you want the latency set to a short value. But if you’re tracking an erratic subject, like a bird in flight, where it’s tough to keep your AF point on it (and wings may be occasionally blocking the bird’s body), you want a LONGER latency. Otherwise, the camera will try to focus on wings or anything else that pops into your active AF area.
In Custom menu item a3, you can choose a value for blocked-shot delay from 1-5, where 1 is the shortest delay (almost none) and 5 is the longest (close to two seconds). The default value is 3. What I discovered was that with the default settings, the camera would focus on the bird but I could see “jitter” in the viewfinder. Sure enough, when I shot continuous bursts, I’d get great focus in 2 or 3 out of 5 shots, but then I’d get softer focus with the other images in that sequence. Dialing the tracking setting to 1 or 2 made it worse.
On a suggestion from my Image Doctors co-host, Rick Walker, I decided to change the Lock-on setting to its slowest value, 5. Guess what? the Z6 immediately stopped its focus “jitter” behavior on flying birds. I saw no loss of follow-focus performance, and I started getting 9/10 shots dead sharp. The one caveat of using this setting is that if I want to change to a different subject quickly, I have to release and then re-press the AF-ON button on the camera. Below is a sequence of 13 continuous shots, with the lock-on set to 5. Nailed it!
Step 4: Select the appropriate AF area mode
The AF-Area mode allows you to choose the size and characteristics of the active focus area in the Nikon Z6/Z& viewfinder. For stationary subjects, or subjects that are perched in trees and/or partially obscured, I usually go with Dynamic-area AF mode.
For birds in flight, I recommend switching to one of the Wide-Area AF patterns. Since firmware 2.0, Wide-Area AF includes nearest-subject priority. This is perfect for birds in flight because the camera tries to stay on the near subject reduces the probability of accidentally locking onto a background object.
After extensive shooting with the Nikon Z6 and 200-500mm f/5.6E VR Nikkor lens, I found focus acquisition to be nearly on par with what I experienced with my Nikon D850. There was initially a lot of focus “jitter” that lead to soft shots when I used continuous servo AF on moving subjects. I was able to nearly eliminate erratic focus lock by setting Custom Menu item a3 to its longest delay setting, 5. While DSLR autofocus systems in the top-end cameras probably still have a slight edge in focus speed and acquisition, I am very content with using the Nikon Z system for typical wildlife photography.
My AF settings for photographing birds with the Nikon Z6 and Nikon Z7 mirrorless cameras
- AF Servo Mode: Continuous (AF-C)
- Custom Menu A (Autofocus)
- a1: Release
- a2: Focus
- a3: Lock-on (5)
- a4: OFF
- a5: ALL
- a6: ON
- a7: AF-activation OFF (back-button focus only)
- a8: default settings
- a9: OFF
- a10: default settings
- a11: OFF
- a12: OFF
- Autofocus Area Mode
- Dynamic-area AF (stationary or perched birds)
- Wide-area Small (birds in flight)