Commack High School Boys Varsity Fencing vs. Newfield
Congratulations to the Commack boys fencing team on their win over Newfield. They're off to a good season. I reviewed some tips and suggestions for shooting fencing in my post on the girls team a few days ago, so if you're new to photographing fencing you might want to have a look at that. Today, I thought I'd discuss some thoughts on optimizing your autofocus for fencing and this applies to other sports as well.
I recently switched from shooting with Nikon equipment to shooting with Fujifilm equipment and, one thing that taught me very quickly is one camera manufacturer's autofocus system does not necessarily behave like another's, even where similar features are involved. For example, both Nikon and Fuji (and most other manufacturers) give you the option of setting your autofocus priority on either "Focus" or "Release". This controls whether the camera waits for a subject to be perfectly in focus before it allows the shutter to activate or whether it will take an out of focus photo. You might wonder why you would want to take an out of focus photo but, in an important sports event, a photo that's slightly out of focus is better than no photo at all. So, setting a focus priority of "Release" allows the shutter to fire while the camera's autofocus mechanism is catching up with the action. The photo may or may not be acceptably sharp, but that's up to you to decide.
Anyway, on my Nikon D3s, setting the focus priority on "Focus" definitely prevent you from taking a photo if the subject is not in focus, yet using the same setting on the Fuji XT-2 doesn't seem to have that much of an effect on whether or not the shutter is fired, yet it does seem to increase the number of in-focus photos I get even while it takes virtually the same amount of photos as on the "Focus" setting. Go figure. The reason I'm mentioning this is that, before you take anyone's advice on which autofocus settings to use, find out what kind of camera they're using or you might not get the results you're after.
Let's review some basic autofocus options. First, there's the focus mode setting. Almost all cameras give you a choice of "S" for single servo (your camera locks focus on the subject but doesn't follow if the subject moves), "C" for continuous servo (your camera locks focus but keeps the subject in focus if it moves) and "M" for manual focus (you focus with the focus ring on your lens). In almost all cases for sports with movement you'll be using mode "C".
Next there's the AF Mode setting (not to be confused with the focus mode setting, although it's confusing). The choices here are usually Single Point (the camera focuses on that part of your subject under a single focus point in the viewfinder), Zone or Dynamic Area (the camera use a zone (rectangle) of multiple focus points to focus on your subject so it can track your subject within that zone), and Wide Tracking or Auto Area (the camera automatically detects the subject, usually by contrast). Using my Nikon D3s, I almost always got better results by using Single Point AF-mode. This, however, assumes you can keep that single focus point on your moving subject, which takes some practice. On the Fuji XT-2 I find that Zone focus works well as long as your subject is moving across your frame but for subjects moving directly toward or away from you, Single Point works much better. You also need to tweak the size of the zone to correspond with the size of your subject in the viewfinder. A larger size zone allows for easier tracking of movement within the zone, but also may jump to another object that enters the focus zone. I try to use the smallest zone I can get away with. The problem in fencing is that neither the jacket or lame is very high in contrast (they're usually all white or silver) so you may need to use a larger zone to cover a section of higher contrast. Wide tracking, or Auto Area, is best left to high contrast subjects with clean backgrounds. An example would be a bird flying across a clear sky.
For some cameras there are additional focus options such as focus tracking sensitivity, speed tracking sensitivity and zone area switching. They allow you to tweak your focus settings based on how your subject moves (constant or erratic motion) and how long to continue to lock focus if an obstacle passed between you and your subject. These can be useful but you really need to test them with your specific camera in specific sports situations. Different cameras will behave differently given the same option.
Finally, in order to get the most from these autofocus options, you need to take a lot of photos in a lot of different situations and keep notes on what works and what doesn't. Start out with the average recommended settings then check your photos to see which types of subject movement caused focusing problems and adjust your settings accordingly. This can take a while but it can significantly increase your number of keepers.