Flying into Focus

This article discusses flying into focus which is a technique that can be achieved using some common approaches. Flying into focus can be extremely helpful when trying to capture birds, insects or other animals in flight.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to support specific information, and also to provide visual breaks.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/2500, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3581 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.8 metres

The basic idea behind flying into focus technique is the same with all of the approaches used to achieve it… a photographer concentrates on a specific focusing area or focal plane through which their desired subject will hopefully fly.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-500, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3258 pixels on the width

Various camera formats can be used when practising flying into focus, as can both handheld and tripod assisted photography. This is a fairly lengthy article… so grab a coffee or other beverage.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @208 mm, efov 562 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-4500

Back Button Focus

Some photographers like to specifically lock their focus and often use back button focus to help accomplish this task. I don’t use back button focus so I don’t have any first-hand experience that I can share. From what other photographers have told me, using back button focus separates the focusing and shutter release functions.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm @ 220 mm, efov 594 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-450

A common situation that has been described to me is when a photographer is waiting for a bird to take flight from a concealed, or partially concealed, perch. The photographer can pick a focusing point that represents a focal plane through which the bird is likely to fly once airborne. Back button focus is also often used when a bird returns to a specific perch.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 164 mm, efov 328 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.9 metres

Using back button focus allows a photographer to pre-select a focusing distance then lock it in. After that they are free to use the shutter release button to fire off a burst of shots once the bird has taken flight, without having to worry about reacquiring focus.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.8 metres

I know that some nature photographers also prefer to use back button focus for birds in flight to lock their camera’s continuous auto-focusing on an incoming bird.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-1000

Obviously there are many ways to use a camera. Ultimately it comes down to personal choice about what feels most comfortable and natural for a photographer. And, is most effective in terms of them creating their desired images.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with MC-14 teleconverter @ 420 mm, efov 860 mm, f/8.8, 1/2500, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4099 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres

Pro Capture

Technology like Pro Capture is incredibly powerful since it allows a photographer to store images in temporary memory then commit them to their memory card after the desired behaviour has occurred. Pro Capture can be used when a subject takes flight or when it is coming in to land. Either approach is a flying into focus technique as the in-focus area was pre-determined by the photographer.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-3200, cropped to 3665 pixels on the width, Pro Capture H, subject distance 4.2 metres

In a recent article I described how Pro Capture H was used to capture a dragonfly coming in to land. In this case I placed my auto-focus point on the edge of a leaf that was consistently being used as a perch by a subject dragonfly. After the dragonfly took flight,

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/4000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3708 pixels on the height, subject distance 2.8 metres

I acquired auto-focus on that portion of the leaf and waited for the dragonfly to return. As soon as it landed I fully depressed my shutter release to fully lock in the Pro Capture H images that had been stored in temporary memory.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/2500, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4057 pixels on the width, subject distance 2.3 metres

Pre-focusing Pro Capture on a branch, leaf or nest and half-depressing the shutter to continuously spool images is a very easy way to achieve flying into focus photographs. Using both eyes open technique in conjunction with Pro Capture H can help improve shutter release timing and overall effectiveness.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 800 mm, efov 1600, f/13, 1/2500, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4244 pixels on the width, subject distance 2.7 metres

Another variation with which I have been experimenting is to pre-focus Pro Capture H on a specific landing point, but then shifting my image framing away from that focusing point so it no longer appears in my composition. A photographer must keep their shutter release half depressed to keep the original focusing point locked in.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 plus M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 104 mm, efov 208 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.6 metres

Often when a small bird flies through this pre-focused area it appears as little more than a blur. Eye/hand coordination and shutter release timing need to be extremely quick to be successful using this approach. Adding some additional Pre-Shutter frames can help improve success.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 80 mm, efov 160 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H mode

I’ve been practising with some sparrows in my backyard, using a close-by bird feeder as my auto-focusing point. While I’ve been having some very limited success it has been tricky as the flight angle of the bird approaching the feeder needs to precisely fit the pre-focused area I’m monitoring in terms of depth-of-field. The further the bird is away from the pre-focused point, the likelihood of success with this approach diminishes.

Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.5 metres

When done correctly, and with a bit of luck, the advantage is being able to get a subject bird in flight larger in the frame, and with a pre-chosen, pleasing background. I may have an article on this technique at some point in the future.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250

General Area Pre-Focus

I regularly use a general area pre-focus when photographing birds and insects in flight. This is another very simple technique that can be used with a wide range of camera gear. The key is to pick a pre-focus distance that will approximate where you think an in-flight subject will be. For example, the dragonfly in-flight in the above photograph kept returning to the same general area over a pond, and hovering in mid-air momentarily.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/4000, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3588 pixels on the height, subject distance 2.7 metres

There was nothing in that specific shooting area that I could use to pre-focus my lens, so I used a tree branch at 90-degrees from that point instead. I half depressed my shutter to acquire auto-focus on the branch, and removed my finger from the shutter release. I then pointed my camera towards other subjects etc. without touching my shutter release again.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-4000, cropped to 3286 pixels on the width, subject distance 3.6 metres

To check to make sure my camera was still locked on to that desired pre-focusing distance all I had to do was frame an image of the original branch again to see if it was still sharp and in focus.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 284 mm, efov 568 mm, f/6.3, 1/3200, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 8.2 metres

Once I confirmed that my camera was ‘locked and loaded’ I turned my attention to the returning dragonfly and framed it in a few sample compositions without firing off any frames, or touching my shutter release (this would have changed my general area pre-focus point). I was now ready to fire off an image run the next time the dragonfly flew back into my general area pre-focused zone.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/2500, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3813 pixels on the width, subject distance 1.6 metres

In this case I used a single auto-focus point to capture my photographs. The general area pre-focus is typically adjusted by my camera when I fully depress my shutter to capture my image run. Having this approximate auto-focusing done in advance helps a camera acquire focus more rapidly while also helping to avoid focus hunting.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-640, cropped to 3102 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.4 metres

Using this general area pre-focus technique in conjunction with Olympus Cluster Area auto-focus is a powerful combination that I have used to capture dragonflies in flight as well as birds. An example is the dragonfly photograph above. My general area pre-focusing was done on the tip of the branch. This was covered in an earlier article.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 201 mm, efov 543 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250, captured at 15 frames per second

Focus Limiter

Depending on the camera gear you own, it may have a focus limiter function. Often long telephoto lenses will have a switch on the barrel that gives a photographer some basic control of the focusing distance at which the lens will operate.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, +0.3 EV, 1/2500, ISO-2000, cropped to 3798 pixels on the width, Bird Detection AI, Pro Capture L, subject distance 67.8 metres

For example, my M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS has three settings. These include 1.3 to 6 metres, 6 metres to infinity, and 1.3 metres to infinity. I use these all the time when I am out photographing birds and find that these basic focus limiter options are quite useful, but sometimes they don’t give me the amount of control I want.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/2500, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3568 pixels on the width, subject distance 1.6 metres

I’m just starting to experiment with the focus limiter settings on my E-M1X to fine tune the auto-focus operating range of my camera. I know that some Olympus nature/bird professional photographers like Tesni Ward use the focus limiter options on their E-M1X cameras on a regular basis. Tesni has stated in some YouTube videos that using the focus limiter capability is one of the most powerful techniques she uses to increase the number of birds-in-flight keepers she gets.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-400, cropped to 2832 pixels on the width

For example, let’s say that a photographer is at a particular location where water fowl can be expected to land. Often these areas have busy backgrounds composed of bull rushes or low hanging trees. It is quite common for the auto-focusing of cameras to become confused when a bird comes into land in close proximity to busy backgrounds. Sometimes an incoming bird is out-of-focus because the camera grabbed focus on the busy background instead.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-1600, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2689 pixels on the width, subject distance 69.8 metres

To help avoid this problem a photographer can spend a minute or two to check the focusing distance of the busy background. To do this they can go into their AF Limiter in-camera function and do some auto-focusing testing to discover how far away the busy background is situated.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 246mm, efov 664mm, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-900

For illustrative purposes let’s assume it is 35 metres. After determining this distance, a photographer can set their camera’s maximum auto-focusing distance to something shorter… 32 metres for example. Now, when a duck comes in to land in front of the busy background, the camera will not make a mistake and pick up the busy background in error. As long as the duck is no further away than 32 metres the camera should grab auto-focus on it and ignore the busy background. Watching the behaviour of subject birds is required so the proper maximum focusing distance can be correctly determined.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/1600, ISO-2500, cropped to 4457 pixels on width

Again, I am just starting to experiment with the AF Limiter on my E-M1X. To adjust the AF Limiter distances on an E-M1X go to A3 under the gear icon. Switch AF Limiter to On and scroll to the right. This will give you three AF Limiter settings. Each of these can be programmed at different auto-focus distances by using the wheel on the back of the camera.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-200, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3966 pixels on the width, distance to subject 14.9 metres

If you are using a lens like the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS make sure the lens is set to 1.3 m to infinity. If you choose another AF Limiter setting on the lens it may  override the in-camera programming you do. I don’t know about other Olympus cameras, but the E-M1 Mark III also has AF Limiter.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-500, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3554 pixels on the width

I anticipate using AF Limiter often, so I have included this under the functions in My Menu. At this point I have my three AF Limiter options set up as follows: 1.3m to 10m, 1.3m to 25m, and 10m to 75m. I will no doubt be adjusting these distance limits once I do some field testing under real world conitions.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 502 mm, efov 1004 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3052 pixels on the width, subject distance 37.7 metres

I also anticipate that when I am at a specific location that I know very well, such as Hendrie Valley, I will change these AF Limiter distances to correspond to specific shooting spots that I typically use for my photography.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 545 mm, efov 1090 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-640, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 1801 pixels on the width

As part of my shooting discipline I will need to check to ensure that I have my AF Limiter turned to Off at the end of each photo session. That way I will not miss any images on my next photo session when the general AF Limiter options on my M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS may suffice.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/4000, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3537 pixels on the width, subject distance 1.8 metres

Using flying into focus techniques and related camera technology can have a positive impact on a photographer’s ability to capture birds and other subjects in flight.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. This is the 1,059th article published on this website since its original inception.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3723 pixels on the width, subject distance 1.8 metres

How you can help keep this site advertising free

My intent is to keep this photography blog advertising free. If you enjoyed this article and/or my website and would like to support my work, you can purchase an eBook, or make a modest $10 donation through PayPal. Both are most appreciated. You can use the Donate button below. Larger donations can be made to tom@tomstirr.com through PayPal.

As a reminder to our Canadian readers, you can get a special 5% discount when ordering Tamron or Rokinon lenses and other products directly from the Amplis Store.

Word of mouth is the best form of endorsement. If you like our website please let your friends and associates know about our work. Linking to this site or to specific articles is allowed with proper acknowledgement. Reproducing articles, or any of the images contained in them, on another website or in any social media posting is a Copyright infringement.

Article is Copyright 2021 Thomas Stirr. Photographs are Copyright 2015 – 2021. All rights reserved. No use, duplication or adaptation of any kind is allowed without written consent. If you see this article reproduced anywhere else it is an unauthorized and illegal use. Posting comments on offending websites and calling out individuals who steal intellectual property is always appreciated!

9 thoughts on “Flying into Focus”

  1. I had a Pentax K7 and that had a trap-focus function whete you preset the focus and as soon as the af system detected that something entered the focus area at that distance it would shoot automatically. So far as i know no other brand offers this which would be useful in many nature shooting situations.

  2. Tom
    Very interesting and beautiful images. My mind was always set to go fullframe, but your work prove its not always a better choice. This week mirrorlesscomparison.com made a test on wildlife photography between the Olympus and the Canon R5 & R6 . This comparison proves the Olympus is a solid competitor.
    Luc

    1. Hi Luc,

      The choice of camera gear is a very personal decision. No doubt many photographers are well served with full frame and larger sensor cameras.

      For the work that I do full frame turned out to be a poor decision on my part as it made my client video work less efficient. I sold all of my full frame gear back in July 2015 and have never regretted that decision for even a second.

      As I’ve been transitioning away from doing client assignments I still feel very strongly that Olympus M4/3 gear, and specifically the E-M1X is the perfect camera for my needs. It may not suit every photographer’s needs, but for me there is nothing else on the market that I would even consider. Many people focus solely on sensor size and miss all of the other advantages with this camera. The weather sealing, IBIS performance, ergonomics/handling/comfort, and imaging technology are simply superb. I have captured thousands of images with my E-M1X that I simply would never have been able to create with my previous full frame gear.

      Tom

  3. This is a most interesting and helpful post. I need to read it a few more times to digest all the information and then try some out that I have not used before. I have never used the camera’s focus limiter, as an example. I on occasion use the limiter on my lens but not the camera even though I have the M1X. So I have some work to do.
    Thanks much for this posting.

    1. Hi Joel,

      On occasion I have an article that rolls around in my old, porous brain for quite a while before the pieces fall into place. I’m glad that this posting was helpful for you. There is so much that I still have to explore on my E-M1X, so like you, I have some work to do.

      Tom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *