Setup and Operation of the
Nikon D700 Auto Focus system
by John Mantzefield © 2009
The Nikon Auto Focus system reference cards and two other cards (in the above photo) are included in a FREE download Which includes a copy of the article below. The cards and article were saved in several formats for your convenience. The cards in the photo were printed on a laser printer, glued back to back on index stock, marked with highlighters as needed and laminated with 2" plastic packaging tape. For a higher level of protection you could have Kinko's laminate your cards.
Here's a list of what's included on the cards:
#1 - D700 Set-Once AF Menu settings and D700 Variable AF Menu settings. The left column lists all of the AF Menu items, the right column lists the preferred settings as described in the article.
#2 - D700 AF Area Mode settings - the left column lists Mode Switch and AF Menu choices, while the right column lists Subject/Shooting Conditions. The other side of the card lists AF Mode Switch choices in the left column, and AF Functions in the right column as described in the article.
#3 - Nikon D700 Exposure Bracketing choices in the left column, center column the number of shots, and the right column the order of bracketed shots. The other side of the card lists White Balance Florescent light sources, their menu numbers and color temperature.
#4 - Nikon FX Format Image Area Sizes - the columns list Image Quality (RAW, TIF, JPG), Image Size (pixels), File Size (Mb), and Image Resolution (ppi).
CLICK HERE to open the DOWNLOAD PAGE, then click "D700_AF_Article-Charts.zip"
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Auto Focus system Setup & Operation
The following comments and observations are just my opinions and one method of working with a D700... you may find an alternate setup that works better for you. Prior to buying the D700 I had used other digital cameras that had auto focus systems, and while this is by far the most sophisticated AF system that I have used, it is also the most accurate and flexible. If you have just recently purchased a D700 (or haven’t familiarized yourself with the AF system yet) don’t feel intimidated by the numerous setup and operating choices... it’s just a very flexible AF system that anyone can master.
A NOTE ABOUT OTHER NIKON MODELS: While I only own a D700 I have read (online & in Nikon PDF’s) through the specs* and features** of the D3X, DX and D300. To the best of my knowledge it appears that there are enough similarities in the AF systems of those models so that you could use the information in this commentary to setup and operate those cameras. Because there are some variations in body design (D3X & D3 have built-in battery compartments) you’ll need to take note of how this will effect the use of the AF-ON button as described below. There are also some variations in the “Custom Settings: Fine-Tuning Camera Settings” sections of the three manuals. I hope that this commentary and the accompanying reference cards will help you to get up to speed so that you can enjoy these great creative tools.
* SPECS: The D3X, D3 and D700 have the Multi-CAM 3500FX Autofocus Module and the D300 has the Multi-CAM 3500DX Autofocus Module.
** Camera controls and menu settings: All three models have the same front Focus Mode Selector, rear Focus Selector Lock, Multi-Selector and the AF Area Mode Selector, but only the D3X and D3 have the AF-ON button built-in. The D300 must have an MB-D10 battery pack added to have the additional AF-ON button as noted in “Set Once AF Mode Menu Settings” below. All three models have the “My Menu” custom menu feature as described in “ Variable AF Mode Menu Settings” below.
OVERVIEW - The Nikon D700’s Auto Focus system is comprised of two main components; a series of selections you can make from the in-camera menu system and some bottoms and switches that you can change. The menu items that you can change fall into two groups; some that you will only need to adjust once and others that you will need to change in relation to the type of subject your shooting.
Set Once AF Mode Menu Settings
In almost all shooting situations these settings can be left as noted below. See page 283 (Auto Focus) in the D700 manual for more details.
NOTE: The item designations a1, a2, a3, etc. are how the AF in-camera menu settings are named/numbered in the manual and in the camera. See page 281 (Custom Settings) in the D700 manual for a list of all the settings.
a1: AF-C Priority Selection: In this group of settings there are three choices available for Continuos shooting, Release (default), Release + Focus and Focus only. It’s best to change this from the default release mode to Focus only. By changing this setting you must achieve a locked focus point before the shutter can open. The default release mode allows you to take a picture whether or not the camera achieves an accurate focus point. The default mode will cause you to shoot more out of focus shots than you’ll get by using the Focus only setting. (Below there is a detailed description of how to use this “focus-then-shoot” system.)
Note: if you choose this Focus Only mode it may slow down the frame rate a little, but the number of in focus shots will be higher. One common shooting strategy is to focus your attention on frames per second and to get into a rhythm of the number of shots captured to the memory card. If your shooting action subjects (like sports or an active form of dance) the camera may slow down a little if the shot isn’t in focus. This may through you off at first if you expecting to hear the shutter constantly firing. This Focus Only method of shooting requires that you pause periodically to let the AF system catch up with the subject.
a2: AF-S Priority selection: This is the same as above, but for Single Servo Mode. Select Focus only priority as above. (Below there is a detailed description of how to use this “focus-then-shoot” system.)
a4: Focus Tracking with Lock On: Many photogs don’t pay much attention to this important setting which can result in AF performance complaints. There are four menu options: Long, Normal (default), Short and Off. If the subject is out of focus, this option determines the amount of time the camera waits before refocusing.
If your shooting soccer or football where your tracking a player and someone runs between you and the player your tracking this option can prevent the focus from shifting away from the main player. If players are moving across the frame in front of each other (distance between subject and camera changes rapidly) then you may want to choose either Long or Normal. For other situations where there are small distance differences between you and the subject the Long or Normal setting can cause a delay in acquiring an accurate focus point... in tis situation choose the OFF setting.
NOTE: While the above setting recommendations are what Nikon and some other online users have recommended, my experience with the D700 has shown me that the best general purpose setting is OFF. If the shooting situation dictates that the focus point may be lost due to conflicting subjects (like sports players running in front of each other) then I’ll just refocus by lifting my thumb off the AF-ON button (see next setting) and pressing it again to establish a new focus point. Please keep in mind that the combined settings of Priority Selection and Focus Tracking with Lock should be chosen in conjunction with the AF-Area Mode and the type of subject that your shooting.
a5: AF Activation: This option controls how you activate the D700’s Auto Focus system. You have two choices; either you will press the shutter release half way down or press the AF-ON button, OR you will only use the AF-ON button. I have followed the recommendations of other Nikon users and have changed this setting from the default (Shutter Button and AF-ON Button) to the AF-ON Only setting. Once this setting is changed half pressing the shutter release does not activate auto focus.
I have noticed that using only the AF-ON button to activate auto focus will give you a slight improvement in auto focus speed. It’s very advantageous for you to learn how to shoot using the AF-ON button. The main concept to consider is that this MO unlinks the focusing process from releasing the shutter. It takes a little time to get used to it, but in the long haul it’s well worth it. Why you may ask? Because, as you use this new AF setup you’ll start to separate the camera’s focus functions from firing the shutter. In doing this you’ll become more aware of when you need to refocus the shot, thus giving you a higher level of control over the photographic process.
A Couple of Final Notes: If your shooting in a rapid frames/sec. mode it’s really to your advantage to use the AF-ON button to achieve an accurate focus point. In this shooting MO your camera will be continuously tracking and predicting the subjects movement. If your using the half shutter press method of focusing the first shot will most likely be in focus, but then the camera stops focusing until you half press again.
If you are using a remote trigger shutter release like the MC-30 (connects to the ten pin terminal on the front of the camera) then you will need to choose Shutter Button and AF-ON Button. This is necessary because the MC-30 extension cable and it’s shutter release button are usually used when the camera is out of reach and you can’t press the AF-ON Button. One common camera setup would be where you have the camera mounted on a mono-pod so that you can get a high angle shot over a crowd or fence and your triggering the shutter with the MC-30 extension cable. See page 389 (Remote Terminal Accessories) in the D700 manual for more information.
a6: AF Point Illumination. This setting offers you two choices; the default Auto Mode and ON. Auto Mode can work for most situations, but if you want to constantly see the active focus point you need to choose the ON setting. This is the setting I use. If this interferes with the composition then leave it at Auto where the illumination appears for just a couple of seconds.
a7: Focus Point Wrap Around: This setting does not effect the AF system. It’s really just for your convenience in determining how you want to set up a manual focus point. I leave it set at the the default No Wrap.
a10: AF On for MB-D10: This setting only applies if you have an MB-D10 Battery Pack attached to your camera. The seven choices allow you to choose which function the AF-ON Button will preform on the MB-D10. I leave it set to the default AF-ON. The default setting gives you full focus and shutter control when composing shots in either landscape or portrait modes.
Variable AF Mode Menu Settings
In various shooting situations these settings will need to be changed as noted below. See page 283 (Auto Focus) in the D700 manual for more details.
a3: Dynamic Area: Here you can choose either 9 point, 21 point or 51 point selection. See the discussion below about using Dynamic Area AF.
a5: AF Activation: This setting is included again in this section to alert you to a situation where you may need to reconfigure this setting. If you are using one of Nikon’s remote triggering cables/devices like the MC-30 extension cable (functions like a traditional cable release) then you will need to choose Shutter Button and AF-ON Button. This is necessary because the MC-30 extension cable and it’s shutter release button are usually used when the camera is out of reach and you can’t press the AF-ON Button. Or if you are shooting with a macro or telephoto lens and have the camera mounted on a tripod, here the MC-30 cable is used to eliminate camera movement. See page 389 (Remote Terminal Accessories) in the D700 manual for more information on remote cables.
a9: AF Assist Illuminator: If your shooting situation dictates that it’s OK to illuminate your subject before taking the picture, then leave this setting to ON. Having the focus Illuminator on while shooting portraits or candid shots may be to distracting or uncomfortable for the subject. If your shooting in an available light situation where the light level is low then having it on will increase the AF speed and accuracy.
“MY MENU” EASY SETUP
After I initially read through the above body of information it seemed that this AF system might be rather difficult to manage during some shooting situations. But then I discovered the Nikon “My Menu” custom menu system. See page 364 (MY Menu) in the D700 manual for the details on how to create these handy custom menus for the items you’ll periodically need to change. Once you have these menu items set up you can go directly from the My Menu selection to those items and thus bypassing the main menu structure. This is a great feature, be sure to check it out.
Here’s a list of the items that I have included in my “My Menu”…
1 - a3 - Dynamic AF Area
2 - White Balance
3 - Live View
4 - c3 - Self-Timer Delay
5 - e5 - Auto Bracketing set
6 - a4 - Focus Tracking with Lock-On
7 - a5 - AF Activation
8 - a9 - Built-In AF-assist illuminator
Buttons and Switches that change the D700 AF Functions
On the Front of the Camera
Focus Mode Selector Switch: This rotating switch controls how and when the AF system operates. There are two AF Modes, the S Mode (Single Servo) & the C Mode (Continuous Servo). The third selector position is the M Mode (Manual focus).
In the Single Servo Mode the AF locks onto the subject each time the shutter release is pressed half way down or the AF-ON button is pressed. When focus lock is achieved the green in-focus indicator light appears in the viewfinder. This focus mode is ideal for stationary subjects like landscapes or nature close-ups. It can also be used for subjects that are moving in one plane, for example, a dog running from right to left through the frame.
In the Continuous Servo Mode the AF system tracks moving subjects. It uses "predictive focus tracking" and does not lock on to one focus plane, but continuously changes the focus point as the subject moves.
If your photographing a kids party in the backyard and a boy is running towards you the AF system continuously focuses on him as he gets closer. When you press the shutter release there is a very brief delay during the period of time when the mirror swings up and then the shutter opens. The AF system attempts to predict where the subject will be when the shutter opens and the image is captured. You can use the Continuous AF mode for single or multiple shots.
On the Back of the Camera
AF Area Modes Selector: This rotating switch on the back of the camera determines the range of focus points that the AF system will be working with. The three choices are Single Point, Dynamic Area and Auto Area focus.
Of the three modes that you can choose from the Auto Area Mode gives you the lowest level of focus control. But if you want the camera to automatically focus the shot this is the mode to choose. The camera identifies the subject and selects the focus point. Because your reading this commentary your probably an advanced Nikon user (or at least seeking a greater level of proficiency) and so I recommend not using the Auto Area Mode.
Single Point AF: This mode is ideal for static subjects like landscapes or nature close-up shots. It also works well if your in the studio shooting portraits, product photography, table-top setups, etc.. If your subject (or the desired focus point) isn’t in the center of the frame then be sure to familiarize yourself with the camera’s Variable Focus Point settings. This feature allows you to manually choose (using the Multi-Selector) any of the 51 focus points. See page 76 (Focus Point Selection) in the D700 manual for the details on how this works.
Dynamic Area AF: If your tracking a moving subject then this is the mode to use. You will need to select either 9, 21 or 51 AF Focus Points. While selecting 51 focus points works with rapidly moving subjects (moving about in the frame), this mode slows down the AF system a little and so it’s not ideal for all subjects.
So how do you choose the appropriate focus points setting? Well, the key to determining which setting to choose can be understood by acknowledging that at least one focus point must be on the subject all the time. If focus lock is to be achieved you need to adjust the camera’s AF settings in relation to how the subject is moving and how large it is within the frame. Also consider whether the subject is moving within the frame, or are you tracking the subject to keep it centered in the frame.
Here are some examples - If your at the track shooting a car race you don’t need 21 or 51 points to keep a car in focus. This type of shot can be achieved with 9 focus points. If your at the park trying to get a good shot of your dog running across the field this may be difficult with only 9 focus points. In this case 21 focus points is probably a better option. But what if your photographing a kids birthday party where the subjects represent smaller areas in the frame and their moving erratically. A good choice here is probably 51 Points with 3D Tracking. In this mode the camera records the color information around the initial focus point and uses that to track the subject. An example of this would be a blue bird against a background of green foliage. This type of tracking works differently from standard 51 Point AF which is intended for tracking subjects that move in a smooth and regular manner. An example would be runners at a track and field meet that are moving from right to left in one plane.
Getting a handle on this focus point selection process just requires a little practice to familiarize yourself with how it works, and then take the time to shoot a lot of test shots so that these experiences will enable you to achieve consistent results. The reference cards that are included in this package should serve as convenient reminders to help you navigate this complex auto focus system.
Shooting Situation Examples and Camera AF Setups
To help you get up to speed in using the D700’s AF system I’ve included the following camera setups as they could be used in various shooting situations. In all of the setups below I’m assuming that you have followed my suggestions in the Set Once AF Mode Menu Settings part of this commentary. The items that will be changed from one setup to the next will be those that are in the Variable AF Mode Menu Settings section, and other variables like the number of focus points.
Single Servo Focus Mode (on front of the camera)
If your camera is mounted on a tripod and your shooting portraits, table top setups or a nature close-up then choose...
1 - Single Point AF (back of camera)
2 - Focus Point Selection: if the subject is off center then manually choose one of the 51 focus points using the Multi-Selector and the Focus Selector Lock - see page 76 in the D700 manual for more details.
3 - a5: AF Activation - if your using a remote trigger like the MC-30 extension cable then you will need to choose Shutter Button and AF-ON Button.
4 - a9: Af Assist Illuminator - if your shooting a portrait this bright light on the front of the camera may be to distracting or uncomfortable for the subject, set it to OFF.
Continuous Servo Focus Mode (on front of the camera)
If your shooting a horse or car race, or tracking a bike racer then choose...
1 - Dynamic Area AF (back of camera)
2 - a3: Dynamic Area: Set to 9 Points
If you have taken your camera to a soccer or football game where the action is moving across the frame, or your shooting small subjects like a running dog or a bird in flight choose...
1 - Dynamic Area AF (back of camera)
2 - a3: Dynamic area: Set to 21 Points
3 - a4: Focus tracking with Lock-on: Set to normal or long. If the field action is close to you then choose normal, if it’s far away then choose long.
If your shooting kids running and jumping, sports like tennis where the movement is erratic or birds that are flying in a rapidly changing directions then choose...
1 - Dynamic Area AF (back of camera)
2 - a3: Dynamic Area: Set to 51 Points with 3D tracking