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Wildlife Shooters Guide to Using the Canon 1D Mark III

Automatic Focus Modes

Focus Related Custom Functions

Tracking Sensitivity Test

(Note--Please be sure to read the December 20, 2007 update, which appears at the end of the section on Custom Function III-2, and also see the May 1, 2008 update following the release of firmware version 1.2.3)

The Canon EOS 1D Mark III became available toward the end of May, 2007 and has been touted as the wildlife shooter’s dream camera body. However, among its early users, there were some who did not get the kind of results from the camera’s auto focus system they had expected. It appears that there may have been some “bad” units in the early shipments, but, at the same time, the camera and its auto focus system are a completely new design. So, in addition, there have been frustrations with trying to learn the nuances of a new camera and how to get the most out of it.


Having spent many hours with the camera and having experimented with what combinations of functions and settings seem to work the best, I’ve come to some conclusions that may be of help to other 1DIII owners. As I’ve become more familiar with the camera, I have come to feel that it is a remarkable camera with a better auto focus system than any other I have use. I’ve asked other wildlife shooters whose work I respect to try my settings, and they have agreed that they are appropriate for most wildlife shooting, including birds in flight. Some shooting situations, however, might benefit from a minor change in settings. Still, the auto focus system is, I believe, the best I’ve ever used, and I’m getting shots with it that I could not have gotten with any other camera. Almost all of the shots on the “What’s New” page of this site were taken with the 1DIII.

 

Automatic Focus Modes

Most wildlife shooting is going to be done in the AI Servo mode. Canon provides three choices in this mode.

45-Point Focus
Enabling all 45 focus points and letting the camera automatically choose the active focus point can be useful in some shooting situations. When using all 45 focus points, initial focus still needs to be locked in with the center focus point before starting to shoot. Failure to lock in initial focus with the center point is a common user error that will result in out-of-focus shots. Additionally, using all 45-points generally works best in situations where the backgrounds are fairly simple, such as blue-sky for birds in flight. A busier background can make it more difficult for the camera to pick the subject out of the background, and the number of focus errors can increase.

My early impression is that the 1DIII seems to be much better at using all 45-points and auto selecting the focus point than previous Canon 1-series cameras, and I plan to use this mode more often than I have in the past. The advantage of this mode is that the camera will hand off focus from one available focus point to another if the subject wanders among the circle of the available active focus points. Should the subject wander beyond the circle of available points, of course, focus will be lost.

One Selected Focus Point
When the backgrounds are too busy for the camera to be able to accurately select the focus point automatically, using just one manually selected auto focus point may be more appropriate. In this mode the number of decisions the camera has to make are reduced to a minimum. But at the same time, it requires the photographer to be precise with tracking; once contact is gone between the selected focus point and the subject, focus will be lost. Using one focus point can be a good choice when the subject fills a large portion of the frame and/or is moving slowly in a fairly predictable manner and is, thus, easier to track with a single focus point.

One Selected Focus Point and CF-III-8
A compromise between using all 45-points and using a single point is using a single focus point expanded to surrounding points via custom function III-8 (see below). This mode allows surrounding focus points to assist the selected focus point in achieving initial focus, and also allows the camera to shift from the chosen point to one of the surrounding points if the camera detects that the subject has moved from the selected point to one of the surrounding points. Like with using all 45-points, initial focus must be locked in with the center focus point to tell the camera on what it should be focusing, and, if the subject wanders beyond the smaller circle of surrounding points, focus will be lost.

Thus, an evaluation of each shooting situation can help to choose the best focus mode.  When the backgrounds are less busy and less likely to fool the auto focus system, using all 45 points can be an advantage, especially with a subject that is darting about and harder to keep in focus with a single focus point.  However, if there is a busier background, which is more likely to confuse the auto focus system into trying to track something other than the subject, that is when switching to a single point with focus point expansion or just a single point is likely to work better.

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1DIII Auto Focus Related Custom Functions

While many of the 1DIII focus-related custom functions seem similar to those on the 1DII and other previous Canon 1-series bodies, the effects of some are quite different from what would, at first, seem to be similar settings on the 1DII. My early observation is that many of those who have been frustrated with the 1DIII auto focus system are those who are trying to use the same settings on the new camera that they used on their previous 1-series body. My experience has been that having success with the 1DIII requires doing some things differently than the way I would have done them with previous 1-series bodies.

Several custom functions have settings available which allow the user to optimize auto focus performance for the type of shooting being done, while others are generally a matter of personal preference or convenience, with default settings as good as any. Thus, I will focus on those whose settings seem to me most important for wildlife and nature shooting.

Custom Function III-2
This custom function controls tracking sensitivity. Simply stated, this setting affects how long the auto focus system waits before it decides to switch focus as the camera is making a decision whether it is the photographer’s intent to keep tracking the same subject or whether the photographer wants to switch to tracking a new subject. Thus, when the subject moves from one focus point to another, the camera has to decide whether to try to keep tracking the original subject or to try to start tracking a new subject.  Which setting is chosen can affect how easily focus is lost, and it can also, very importantly, affect how quickly focus is regained if it is lost.

The theory behind using a slower tracking sensitivity speed is that focus is less likely to be lost because the camera decided to start tracking something other than the intended subject; however, this custom function is, in essence, a two-edged sword because the slower settings also mean that, if focus contact is lost, the camera will wait longer to try to regain focus on the intended subject. Thus, with a faster setting, in theory, the camera might lose focus with the intended subject more frequently, but, if focus on the intended subject is lost, the camera should be able to regain focus more quickly.

On previous 1-series bodies, many users set the tracking sensitivity to the slowest setting, meaning the camera delayed longer in making changes with regard to switching focus to start tracking a new subject. The benefit of the slower setting, again, is that the camera is less likely to mistakenly change to focusing on a new subject when it shouldn’t. However, my experience with the camera indicates that the speed of the slowest setting on previous 1-series bodies yields results comparable to those that I’ve had with a much faster tracking sensitivity setting on the 1DIII. What my controlled tests have indicated is that, with the slow settings on the 1DIII, if focus is lost, it will generally take several frames in a burst to regain focus, and, sometimes, focus will not be regained at all. On the other hand, with the faster settings, if focus is lost, the camera will generally regain focus within one shot. Additionally, with the faster settings, the camera doesn’t seem to lose focus significantly more frequently than it does with the slower settings. If the 1DIII auto focus sensors are more sensitive, as has frequently been reported, than those on previous 1-series bodies, that increased sensitivity could lead to more frequent attempts by the auto focus system to try to shift tracking to a new subject when it is not the intent of the photographer to do so. If that is happening, being able to regain correct focus becomes a higher priority, and the faster tracking sensitivity settings will allow the camera to regain focus on the proper subject more quickly. 

For most of my shooting of action, I use short bursts of two to four shots. Even when I’m tracking a subject over an extended period of time and shooting a larger number of shots, I usually back off the focus and reestablish focus every few shots. The reality is that, for short bursts, the tracking sensitivity setting should make little difference because, during those short bursts, it should be very rare for the camera to have reason to decide to start tracking a new subject, and, therefore, how long it waits before switching to track a new subject is irrelevant. Where I see this setting making a difference, however, is in those rare situations where I am shooting a burst of seven or eight shots or more of fast moving action, especially when the action is at close range.

My personal experience is that, with fast action, especially if it is moving toward the camera and at close range, the fastest setting on this custom function works best because, in those situations, contact between the subject and the focus point is more likely to be lost, and the faster settings allow the camera to regain focus more quickly. Regaining focus more quickly becomes especially important in situations where you are shooting a longer burst and there is not time to back off focus and regain focus at the expense of losing shot opportunities. When the subject may be moving a bit slower or when the subject is further away, the moderately fast or the neutral setting seems to work fine because, in those situations, contact between the focus point and the intended subject is less likely to be lost, and, again, when shooting very short bursts, the setting for this custom function makes much less difference, but, with longer bursts of fast moving action, I find that the slower settings are not making tracking decisions fast enough to regain focus quickly if it is momentarily lost. It may be that, when Canon designed the 1DIII, they changed the default (neutral) tracking sensitivity speed to better optimize its performance to more “typical” users who might be shooting moving subjects, but not necessarily ones which are moving fast or erratically and where focus contact is less likely to be lost. I certainly don’t know that for sure, but I do know that, for the kind of shooting I and many wildlife shooters are doing, the faster settings are yielding markedly better results in the situation that I described above. Thus, for those who are shooting a wedding or doing typical photojournalism work where it is less likely the the photographer is going to lose contact between the focus point and the intended subject, they may do well with one of the slower speeds, but, for those who are shooting faster moving action where it is more likely that contact is going to be lost between the focus point and the subject, they may need to be boosting this setting to a higher level. What I also know is that, in controlled testing, if the tracking sensitivity is set to one of the slower speeds and with a fast and erratically moving subject and an extended burst of shots, I can consistently reproduce poor results similar to those that Rob Galbraith reported when he tested the 1D Mark III; however, at the fast setting, the camera seems to track flawlessly and focus errors are rare. Below, you will find a test procedure to help you to determine if the tracking sensitivity that you are using is too fast, too slow, or appropriate.

Update--7-31-07. Since posting this guide, I’ve received dozens of e-mails from wildlife shooters who had used a slower tracking sensitivity speed on previous 1-series bodies and who have since switched to the faster settings for the 1DIII and who have reported similar better results after having done so. I’ve also noticed that some very respected wildlife shooters have made the same change in their settings. As I’ve seen some still using the slower settings, I’ve continued to repeat controlled tests (as opposed to casual shooting) in an effort to confirm that the faster settings perform better under the circumstances that I’ve described, and, each time, the results of those controlled tests confirm my original thoughts. My thinking continues to be that the faster settings are allowing the AF system to regain focus more quickly should focus contact be lost, and this ability to regain focus quickly seems to be more critical with the 1DIII than it was with previous 1-series auto focus systems. At the same time, the faster settings do not seem to cause the camera to lose proper focus significantly more often than with the slower settings. Also, after installing firmware update 1.1.0, I was interested in finding out whether the new firmware would have any effect on which setting seemed to work best for this custom function, and my initial new runs of the same controlled tests indicate that the faster settings still seem to work best for shooting action.

Update--12-20-07. I’ve received a number of e-mails asking me questions about the “sub-mirror fix” that Canon has been performing to address the auto focus problems reported by some 1DIII users. Up until this point, my 1DIII has continued to perform better, in terms of auto focus, than any camera, including the 1DII, that I’ve used. A week or so ago, for example, I was shooting bald eagles in flight. Out of about 150 in-flight shots, all but about 5 were in sharp focus, and the ones that were not in focus were clearly the product of user error. Because it has performed so well, I had been hesitant to have anyone perform any “fixes” on it; however, because of the internet hysteria, it became clear to me that, if I will be wanting to sell the camera a couple of years down the road, doing so without documentation from Canon that it has been “fixed” will be difficult. Thus, with some trepidation, I sent mine in for the “fix”, whether anything needed to be fixed or not, and it was returned to me a few days ago. During the time since it was returned, my conclusion is that it is performing neither better nor worse than it had been before it was sent in, and that is good because it had been performing so well, and I’m not sure whether my camera actually needed or had anything done to it. I would guess that many/most 1DIII cameras were performing as they were supposed to perform and that they will not benefit from the “fix”, but I would also hope that those which were not performing as expected will do better after their return from Canon. I did receive an e-mail from another 1DIII user. He said that, before his camera went in for the sub-mirror fix, he had been using my recommended custom function settings, including the fastest tracking sensitivity setting, and that he had been getting excellent results. He reported, however, that, after having the sub-mirror fix done, he was now getting better results with slower tracking sensitivity settings. Thus, I was interested in seeing whether, after my camera’s return from Canon, I would have any different feelings about Custom Function III-2 than I had before it went into Canon. While I haven’t had extensive opportunities to do formal testing, my initial judgment is that I’m still getting my best results using the fastest setting, but my results with the middle settings seem to be acceptable. I continue to get my worst results with the slowest settings. I’m not quite sure what all of this means. It could be that different samples of the 1DIII need different setting to perform equally, or it could mean that different shooting styles and techniques of different owners require that different settings be used to get the most out of the camera. I will also add that, when firmware version 1.1.0 replaced the original firmware, I saw no difference at all in how the camera performed. After I installed firmware version 1.1.3, however, I did see marginal improvements in the already excellent auto focus performance of the camera. As time allows, I will continue to evaluate how different settings for Custom Function III-2 perform, and I will add an update to this report if I see anything that would change my feelings about this custom function. 

Update--May 1, 2008--After installing firmware version 1.2.3, I did some additional testing of the auto focus, in general, and, more specifically, the custom function settings. My conclusion is that the new firmware gives some marginal improvement in auto focus performance. While the camera had been performing excellently with the previous firmware, with 1.2.3, it seems to be able to hold focus on a moving subject in servo mode just a bit better. With regard to settings for tracking sensitivity, I am still using the fastest setting or the second fastest setting for most of my shooting. I still find that the faster settings allow me to recover more quickly if focus is lost. If I am shooting rapid and especially erratic action at a close distance and if it is more likely that focus will occasionally be lost, I’m still getting my best results with the fastest setting for CF III-2, but, for most other shooting, the second fastest setting seems to work fine. As explained above, this custom function setting should make a significant difference only on the rare occasions when I’m shooting an extended burst of shots. For a single shot or for a short burst, the setting for this custom function should be largely irrelevant. The settings that I am using for other focus-related custom functions remain the same as they were with previous firmware versions. At this point, with the firmware updates and with the sub-mirror fix, I think that most people should find that their cameras are performing as expected. There may well be a relatively small percentage of “bad bodies” that cannot perform properly regardless of firmware or hardware updates. I’m sure that there are also some people who are experiencing user error, and I would also guess that there are some people who, because of an experience of problems with the camera and because of the internet furor now have a psychological block that will make it impossible for them to ever feel good about using the camera, but most users should feel confident that they are going to find the auto focus performance to be the best that they have experienced in any camera, and I can comfortably say that this is, by a good margin, the case with mine. 

Custom Function III-3
I recommend leaving this custom function at its default, which places the highest priority on getting the shot in focus.

Custom Function III-4
This custom function deals with how the camera tracks focus. In the default setting, it will place priority in focusing on whatever is below the active focus point. In the “1” setting, it will place priority on tracking the subject that it has already been tracking. While it might seem, at first, that the “1” setting would be more appropriate, I and other users have found the camera seems to lose focus much more often. Therefore, the recommendation is to use the default “0” setting, except in situations where objects are frequently coming between the camera and the subject.

Custom Function III-5
This custom function allows focus search to be enabled or disabled. Several months ago, one of the best known bird photographers made the recommendation that this custom function be disabled (on previous 1-series bodies). Evidently, the recommendation to disable focus search is contingent upon the need to pre-focus, which, to my thinking, is not practical in most situations. After trying to follow this recommendation for 2 full days of shooting, I came to the conclusion that the recommendation was ill-conceived. I found that, when I disabled the focus search, an especially high number of pictures were either completely out of focus or, at a minimum, quite soft. To make sure that nothing changed with the 1DIII, I experimented with disabling focus search on the 1DIII. I found that doing so led to the same unacceptable results that it did with the 1DII. A number of other experienced and exceptional wildlife shooter that I know and/or shoot with have come to the same conclusion. Thus, my strong recommendation is to leave this custom function permanently in the default or “0” position.

Custom Function III-7

This custom function allows the user to make micro adjustments to correct for front or back focusing with each of the users’ individual lenses. While this should be a very useful custom function, there are a few cautions related to its use that should be noted. First, the adjustments that are made here are truly micro adjustments. They are not going to correct a lens that is grossly out of proper calibration. The full range of available adjustment seems to be equal to about the depth of field of the lens being used. However, even though the adjustments that can be made are relatively small ones, it is critical to use these adjustments in a very careful manner because, if adjustments are made incorrectly and carelessly, doing so can lead to vastly degraded performance of the auto focus system. I have seen reports of users trying to make these adjustments only using a flat test target where the entire target is in the same plane relative to the camera. Even though Canon is rather vague about how to test and adjust using this custom function, I believe that only using such a flat test target is likely to cause the user to make incorrect adjustments. If the purpose of this custom function is to correct for back or front focus, it would seem to make sense that, in addition to a flat target to actually focus on, you also need a three dimensional target, such as yardstick placed at a 45 degree angle to the camera or a series of C cell batteries or soup cans placed at a 45 degree angle relative to the camera to evaluate any adjustments so that you can look to see where the focus is falling within the depth of field before and after any adjustments made. That depth of field should, in general, be about 1/3 in front of the focus point and 2/3 behind the focus point. Using only a flat target placed at a 90 degree angle relative to the camera is not going to allow the user to see the depth of field, and, with only this kind of target, many of the available adjustment points will yield virtually identical results, and the user is likely to chose an adjustment level that is not, in fact, the one that is needed. Using a flat target to actually focus on and something else at a 45 degree angle allows for both accurate focus and for checking to see where the depth of field falls. After observing how some users have carelessly used this micro adjustment, I’m confident that there are some who, by doing so, have, in effect, made their cameras incapable of focusing correctly. Finally, it would seem to make sense that, when making these micro adjustments, the lens should be used with its widest aperture. With a wide aperture, the depth of field will be the smallest, and it should be easier for the user to evaluate which adjustment setting is yielding the proper results. When I tested several of my own lenses, I found that each of them was virtually exactly where it should be without any adjustments, and I would not choose to make any adjustments and risk degrading auto focus performance unless I was absolutely certain that an adjustment was, in fact, really needed.

 

Custom Function III-8
This custom function is used when a focus point is manually selected and the photographer wishes to expand that selected point to surrounding focus points. The best setting for this custom function can vary depending on the shooting situation, and a more complete discussion of when it is appropriate to expand the focus points and when it is not can be found above in the Auto Focus Modes discussion.

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Testing Your Tracking Speed Sensitivity

The ideal testing situation is one with fast, erratically moving subjects, especially those moving toward the camera against busier backgrounds. This situation presents special challenges for the selections made by the camera’s auto focus system and would be similar to many situations involved with shooting wildlife action.

It is critical that Custom Function III-2 be set to the most appropriate for auto focus performance. You can evaluate it to determine whether the setting is appropriate, too fast, or too slow.

Start with the setting for Custom Function III-2 in the neutral (default) setting. Shoot several bursts of pictures (using either 45 points or the center point with focus points expanded) for a total of roughly 50 frames. Look at the captures on your computer in a program such as ZoomBrowser, which superimposes the focus points on the image, and concentrate on those where the subject was still under one of the active focus points, but it was out of focus. This could be caused by either of two camera errors: (a) the camera is changing the focus to a new subject too quickly when it shouldn't be, or (b) the camera is not changing the focus to a new subject fast enough when it should be doing so.

Next, shoot several more bursts totaling about 50 shots with the same or similar shooting situation, but set the tracking speed to the fast (far right) setting. Evaluate the results; if the number of out of focus shots with an active focus point over the subject went down, that means that, at the default setting, it was not switching to a new subject fast enough. If the number of out of focus shots with an active focus point over the subject goes up, it is likely that the camera was deciding to change the focus too quickly with the default settings.

Finally, shoot several more bursts totaling about 50 shots with the same shooting situation with the tracking sensitivity set to the slowest position (far left). Upon review, concentrate on those shots that are out of focus but have an active focus point over the subject. If the number is lower with this slow setting, it indicates the default setting was changing the focus too quickly and you need a slower setting. If, however, the number of out of focus shots with an active focus point over the subject goes up, the camera was not switching the focus point quickly enough with the default setting, and you would need a faster tracking sensitivity for that shooting situation.

Once you have determined whether you need a faster or slower tracking sensitivity, try the same test with moderately fast or moderately slow options to determine a more precise setting.

Note that the only shots you want to evaluate are those out of focus and under an active focus point. Other out of focus images are due to user error and focus tracking speed is irrelevant.

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