How a recent photography workshop taught me how to focus
”The D800 isn’t very good for sports photography,” said my very unreliable source. It was my first summer here in Copenhagen and I was working for a company photographing running events. I didn’t know it at the time, but this guy would go on to become a huge pain in the arse for me and most of the other employees who he avoided paying month after month. But at this point I was just glad to be working as a photographer and he was charming enough, so I listened intently to what he had to say.
I’d had my eye on the Nikon D800 for a while, mainly due to its video capabilities, full-frame sensor and compact size. The price tag was a huge gamble, as my business was still struggling to turn over any kind of a profit, but needs must, so I went and bought one and slapped it on the credit card.
Not entirely full of shit
My source wasn’t completely wrong. There were bigger and better cameras out there on the market for sports photography, but his argument was that the D800 couldn’t achieve AF-C 3D focusing. For the layman out there, this basically enables you to track a moving object, such as a runner, and keep them in focus at all times. Pretty neat, and something I used often on the D3 and D3s.
Indeed, once I bought it I was left boggled when I couldn’t find the button to achieve this focusing setting and after a while I just gave up. From time to time I went looking on forums and the like, but never found an answer. Most people simply wrote “It’s not possible on the D800.” I was stumped.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’m at the Winter X Games in Oslo. Once again I’m stressing out that only my D3 can track the snowboarders flying through the air, and not the better quality D800, which is much better at handling night photography scenarios such as this. Sure, I got some great images, but things would’ve been much easier with the D800. In terms of editing, at least.
I was frustrated even more when a fellow photographer came up to me at a race asking for help. She’d borrowed a friends camera and was 100 per cent sure that she could change the focus settings – she’d done it before. “If anyone can help me it’s you,” she told me. Sadly this wasn’t the case. I stood there for a few minutes, cursing myself that I couldn’t fix the problem, especially as I was being told that it was most certainly possible. I felt like an amateur.
And then came the DHL Stafetten in August – a relay race for Danish businesses, and a huge event. As I was fiddling with the lens (whilst holding a bunch of other crap and not really concentrating) I noticed the display change to three simple letters: AF-S. If you haven’t figured it out already, the S here stands for single, and it’s the focus setting that my D800 has been stuck on for the last three years. I stopped dead in my tracks and tried to figure out which button I was accidentally pressing for this to show up. I didn’t dare move, and tried to make note of where my thumbs and fingers were pressing. I paid no attention to the side of my hand, nor any of my knuckles, and alas the display changed back once I moved my hand. But now I was confident there was a way!
Threesome vs Camera Knowledge
Ironically the eureka moment came a week later whilst I was teaching a night photography workshop. My Australian student, Dennis, was asking me a question regarding focus-tracking on a moving object and I was lying on the floor staring thoughtfully at my camera. Right below the lens-detachment button there’s a very small switch that reads AF M. It’s a switch I very rarely use, and its purpose is to switch over from Auto Focus to Manual. To activate the switch the user simply needs to press it in and flick it one way or another. Hey presto! This method prevents the photographer from accidentally changing the focus, as the switch won’t move without being pressed in first.
As I stared at it the cogs in my head starting whirring. Wasn’t I changing the lens over the first time I noticed the focus display light up? I sure was. So, with a Hollywood dramatic theme playing in my imagination I did the deed and pressed it in, and the display miraculously lit up with those three letters: AF-S.
My thumb and index finger went straight to the dials and I began rotating them to see what would happen and all my dreams came true in an instant. Forget your millions, or a threesome with Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston, this was a moment I’ll never forget.
My life changed in an instant, and suddenly the photo possibilities were endless. With the Copenhagen Half Marathon just around the corner I finally had a chance to put this beast through its paces and track those super fast Kenyans. The organisers wanted me to take photos under Bispeengbuen – a very urban area below a bridge in the Frederiksberg / Nørrebro area of the city. I was happy to oblige now that my D800 was back on the sports photography team.
But let’s not forget the lesson, here. We might think that we know it all when we specialise in a particular subject, but there’s still plenty we can discover. It was poetic, that I should fix out an on-going problem moment during a photo workshop where I was the teacher, not the student. I had to apologise to Dennis, as I hadn’t heard a single word he’s said during those few seconds of realisation. I patted him on the back and thanked him for hiring me. I’d benefited more than just financially on this occasion.
Over the years I’ve been on the verge of selling my D800, or at least part chopping it for the D5. But that would leave me with an older D3 as a second body, and that just didn’t make sense to me. Now I’m looking forward to moving one step closer to owning three camera bodies, which may sound a bit greedy but is very important to the freelance photographer. Sometimes our artistic decisions have a huge impact on our business ones.