I just came in from our backyard bird blinds shooting my favorite wildlife combo…600mm F4E FL and the Z9. I have been photographing birds and deer near my house for the last few days, and I think I have a few observations that will help Z9 users figure out the incredible autofocus options on the Z9. And if you are waiting on your camera, please keep reading so you will be ready to go when you get it!
Autofocus with the Z9 involves a few choices. First, turn on AF-C; you want autofocus continuously focusing on your moving subject. Next, choose a fast frame rate. I am using CL set to 10FPS for animals that aren’t moving quick, and using CH at 30 FPS in ‘Fine’ jpeg mode (Photoshop can’t read Z9 RAW files yet, stay tuned) for birds.
Now here is where it gets interesting. For Autofocus Modes, you have many choices. If you are shooting landscapes, you may go right to single point autofocus mode. But for wildlife, I am using two area modes; Auto-area AF and 3D Tracking. What’s the difference? In Auto-area AF, the camera is choosing the subject. In the past, I have never really liked this mode. But that all changes with the Z9. The other choice I recommend is 3D tracking. In this mode, you engage autofocus (back button or shutter halfway down) and whatever the autofocus square is on will be tracked in the viewfinder, whether you are shaking the camera or the subject is moving. And I always use Auto-ISO and manual mode for photographing wildlife, but there are lots of options here.
Wide area Large and wide area Small focus mode also work great. The difference is with these modes the focus box doesn’t move unless you move it…but eye/face detect is still working inside the focus box area. If you can track a bird in this mode, the camera will have less surface area to search…similar to group area auto focus in DSLRs. But I have found I would rather use 3D because once I get the focus square on the subject, the camera will actively track it anywhere in the scene. The Z9 has lots of options, and no doubt photographers will find their own favorite modes. I am getting stunning results using Auto-area AF and 3D.
The other important part is subject detection, located in a row of choices just below the autofocus modes. I select animals. Honestly, I haven’t tried the auto mode (Z9 looks for all subject types), I just figure I’ll make the camera’s job easier and use animal detect.
So with animal detection on, should you use Auto-area AF or 3D tracking? That is the million dollar question. And here is the good news…they both work excellent! I’ll show a few examples below.
Take a look at the eagle photo above. I photographed this bird last night at sunset near my house. The bird was sitting on a perch in a tree, and was close using my 600mm F4 (newest version) with the FTZ adapter. I turned on Auto-area AF and the Z9 instantly pinpointed and focused on the eye in a millisecond. I was almost giggling at how fast and accurate the focus was in this mode. The eagle then flew off the branch, and I just kept shooting knowing my focus point was perfect. Auto-area AF with animal detection worked like a charm.
But where does Auto-area AF really shine? I was photographing this squirrel in my yard this morning at a very close distance. He was hiding in the brush. But with Auto-area autofocus, the Z9 knew exactly where to focus in this busy scene, and never focused on the foreground or background branches within inches of this critter. Eye detections works with close animals and birds, and when you are shooting a 600mm F4 at F4 you have about an inch of sharp focus. I am getting more keeper shots with my 600mm F4 at f4 than I ever have in the past. Incredible.
Check out this deer in the bushes. He looked at me for about a second….Auto-area AF just tacked to the eye before the deer scampered off…I would have missed this in the past. Auto-area AF works for many situations…it never misses a bird in flight on a blue sky. And it works great with birds in flight with busier backgrounds too.
Why would you use 3D tracking? When you have many subjects, and want to move the focus point around. Take a look these geese. Since I wanted to select one goose in particular, I used 3D tracking and put the focus point on the goose head. Once I activated the autofocus, the focus just stayed locked on. Auto-area AF may have chosen this bird, or another one. So 3D Tracking mode made sense. 3D, like Auto-area, once engaged tracks subjects so well you will have to see it to believe it.
Sometimes you have to make a choice. If I can see a bird approaching from a long distance (or any animal), I found using 3D tracking was the way to go. You can lock onto the subject from a distance, and just keep tracking it all the way till landing or you are running for cover because it is too close (okay, I know, never run from a bear…). I tracked this mallard for a long ways using 3D Tracking, every frame was tack sharp.
These geese were close, so I used Auto-area AF and the Z9 locked right onto them, even though there were many geese and ducks in the frame. The Z9 knew this was my subject using the brilliant focusing algorithms it uses.
So there is my first take on autofocus and wildlife with the Z9. A game changer for sure. I did shoot a few landscapes, and realized I like to go back to aperture priority and single point autofocus…I like to manually select a focus point in my landscape shot. Since the Z9 is 45MP, it is also a perfect landscape camera. But if you shoot action, the new predictive autofocus modes are gonna rock your world.