Nikon D600 for Sports Photography – by Mikhail Bezruchko

Today’s guest post is by Mikhail Bezruchko on using the Nikon D600 for Sports Photography. Mikhail was kind enough to send his observations on the autofocus performance of the D600 for low-light and daytime sports photography. He photographed a local football game at night and then a local soccer game, using fast telephoto lenses. Although not a pro, Mikhail has had a long history with photography, starting out with Russian-made “Zenit” film cameras a while ago. But his interest in photography spiked up during the last few years and he has been shooting with Nikon D90, D700 and other high-end DSLRs, mostly freelancing. Enjoy!


When the D600 was finally announced, most of us got very excited about the new camera. Nasim’s review of the D600 and Bird Photography follow-up answered a lot of my questions, but I was still curious about the D600’s autofocus performance with sports. There are some similarities between sports and wildlife photography, but there are also many differences.

Nikon D600 Football Game (7)

While I mainly focus on portraiture and functions, I absolutely love shooting games, especially local, non-professional events. Anyone who has photographed a sports match knows that it’s a very challenging venture. Not only does it take experience, preparation and knowledge of the particular game you want to shoot, but it also requires decent equipment.

Now, I’m not a full-time sports photographer, so don’t expect me to shell out six grands on the Nikon D4. But if there is a $2099 camera that can do a decent job on the soccer field, wouldn’t that be nice?

I decided to borrow a D600 body and the Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 VR for a weekend for a real-life test (I also had my good old Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8). I really would have liked to grab a D700 or D3s/D4 with me as well, for comparison, but wasn’t able to do that.

I shot two games – one at night and one during the day – and some random practices here and there. I was going to photograph another match, but my results were becoming more or less consistent, and I decided to stop. I imported all photos in the Lightroom for a closer inspection (I shot in RAW and then converted the files to DNG to be able to import them into Lightroom). I also applied some basic sharpening and adjusted the exposure. Overcast lighting made my soccer game shots look somewhat bland, so I added a bit of contrast.

The Night Game

The first event I shot was a football game between two Northern Virginia high school teams. I figured, if we are going to challenge D600, let’s go all the way. The big trouble with night sports is poor lighting. Good lighting is very expensive (ever heard that before?). In my experience it affects both AF and picture quality, i.e. horrid ISO noise and weird skin tones. If you are a parent and shot your kid’s basketball game in a gym, or Friday night football match, you know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.

In terms of challenges, the first game didn’t disappoint. The ISO setting spent the entire night around 3200-4000. I had to crank up the shutter speed to avoid motion blur, which forced me to shoot as wide as I could (between f2.8 and f4). With those apertures, the depth of field at 300mm becomes paper-thin. I knew that any AF mis-hit would become VERY obvious.

Results:
The lighting was good enough for the initial focus acquisition. Single shots of standing or moving athletes/referees were almost always dead on! Even the cheerleaders, band members and the crowd who were off the field and not under direct light were perfectly focused. I was really surprised. No complaints!

Nikon D600 Football Game (1)

Burst shots of fast-moving players were a different story. I was inspecting the sequences in Lightroom and I noticed that with some of them, the focus was gradually deteriorating (initial snapshot was perfect, and with each consequent shot the focus was worsening). It didn’t occur often enough to annoy me, but I did miss a 1-2 great shots. One sequence in particular stands out: I had only two players in my frame and almost nothing in the background… the focus loss is so severe that I think it’s very possible that I did something wrong. I don’t know… (I guess you could blame it my half-frozen fingers – it was really cold.)

Nikon D600 Football Game (6)

Otherwise, most of the shots came out great! Below are more samples.

Nikon D600 Football Game (2)

Nikon D600 Football Game (3)

Nikon D600 Football Game (4)

Nikon D600 Football Game (5)

If you use Nikon, you probably know the AF-C continuous mode and are aware it has several settings. With football and soccer I pretty much leave the camera in 3D tracking mode. I’ve tried Dynamic-Area mode in the past, but it doesn’t work for me for most situation in those games. I believe that Nasim had a similar problem when photographing birds. Very often, other players are very close to my target (behind or in front of) and AF starts acting-up. And when everyone is running, it’s very difficult to keep those selected AF points on my intended person. With tennis, I actually prefer Dynamic-Area, not 3D. For some reason I get better pictures in that mode. I also play and watch a lot of tennis, so it’s possible that I’m a little better at predicting what is about to happen.

The Day Game

I think that most modern DSLR’s can produce decent results with daytime sports. I’ve shot many games with my D90, and I can tell you that it handles daylight very well. So when I hear about the D600’s “shortcomings” (shutter speed too slow, focus points clustered too closely to center, body color too black, and so forth), I smile.

Originally, I was supposed to shoot a college women’s soccer game but that didn’t work out. I ended up catching a girls’ soccer game in a local park. Overcast skies gave me good lighting, but it was very windy and very cold. Those were some brave little munchkins, I tell you. About 20 minutes in, I had to phone my wife and ask her to get me some gloves, because I was pretty damn sure that my fingers were going to freeze and stick to the shutter release, and there would be no review to write.

Those girls were really tiny compared to adult male athletes and I had a tough time predicting their movements. On a more positive note, they weren’t moving as fast, so that probably helped with focus tracking.

Nikon D600 Soccer Game (1)

Nikon D600 Soccer Game (2)

Nikon D600 Soccer Game (3)

Nikon D600 Soccer Game (4)

Results:
Image quality obviously improved (lower ISO). AF performance with moving subjects was slightly better too, but pretty close to the first game. I didn’t grab any “Wow” moments, but that had nothing to do with AF.

Again, I was using 3D tracking, and occasionally tried dynamic-area with similar results. I was hoping I’d get much less of the focus loss on prolonged bursts than with the night game. It still happened a few times, but when it did, it wasn’t as severe as in the image above, indeed. In Lightroom, I zoomed in and checked the turf – an easy way to see where the focus locked. In the shots where AF “missed”, the focus was almost always slightly behind the player (assuming the kid was running toward me). I think my mistake was shooting at f4. If I closed down the aperture a bit and thus expanded the depth of field, this wouldn’t have happened. I was too eager to isolate the scenic construction backdrop. As good as the 3D tracking technology is, there’s still some delay, and you can’t expect it to work magic. If you close down the aperture a little 3D tracking on D600 will do great.

As mentioned before, I wasn’t able to get my hands on a sports camera like D3s or D4 to compare it to D600… I also didn’t have the battery grip. I don’t know if that would have affected the AF performance.

Location of AF Points

I think it would be worth mentioning the AF point clustering/coverage “issue”. I didn’t have any problems with the layout – I got used to it very quickly. Furthermore, I’m glad that the points were tightly packed, and I think this only improved the tracking of players. I don’t know the precise technology behind the AF sensors, so I can’t say whether spreading them would affect the focus tracking.

Conclusion & Side Notes

Overall, I think D600’s autofocus did pretty darn well. True, AF-C missed several shots, but the total number of focused frames was very high. Not all of the sharp and focused images were keepers, of course. I went back and rechecked the photos several times, and I’m still amazed at how well many of them turned out.

While this review is about AF, I didn’t want to neglect praising D600’s low-light/high-ISO capability. In my humble opinion, the quality of the night game images is amazing. I could have easily gone higher than 4000, but I was afraid to get so much noise that it would prevent me from being able to tell if AF was working well. I just didn’t expect that level of clarity.

Do keep in mind that autofocus by itself will not hand you Sports Illustrated shots on a silver platter; sports photography is very difficult and involves much more than focus precision or ISO noise or $10,000 dollar lenses.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) gregorylent
    November 5, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    as a beginner….

    i have huge problems with d600 auto focus, it seems to have a mind of its own … just one example, i have not figured out to override its algorithms, have not figured out how to park that focus spot in the center and have it stay there.

    • November 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm

      You should have an AF button on the bottom left side of the camera, where you toggle auto/manual focus. Press it + main/secondary command dials to switch between options.

      • 15
        ) gregorylent
        November 6, 2012 at 7:26 pm

        yes, thanks .. i can set it, but it seems there is an algorithm in the auto focus software that walks that point around, where it saw a person last time, the focus points shift, and then remain there.

        will try again.

        also, totally don’t get af in live view, only seems one or two of the possible af settings allow the camera to focus when in lv, video or still.

        and, will try again. :-)

  2. 2
    ) Richard
    November 5, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    Thanks, Mikhail and Nasim, for this article. I’ll have to read it over and more carefully.

    I’m not a “pro,” at least not full time, but I have been doing some freelance work. Most of it has been shooting marathons this past year. I’m still using an “old” Nikon D200, with a Nikon 70 – 200 mm 2/f.8 with VR. I’m generally happy with the results I’m getting. I always shoot with Continuous Focus and set the Focus Area Mode Selector switch on the back to the “Cross” position, which is the “dynamic-area AF” position. I’ve never fooled with the Menu options, but one of these days, I should take a look at them…..but, again, I’ve been fairly happy with the results I have been getting.

    But, getting back to your article, I had a couple of comments/questions. You mention your good old 80 – 700 mm f/2.8 lens….I’m sure you meant an 80 to 200?

    I also am a little confused about one statement you made concerning importing files into Lightroom. You said that you shoot RAW and then convert to DNG in order to import into Lightroom. For sports, the client asks me for small JPEGs, but I do generally shoot RAW for most other things. I can import these RAW files into Lightroom, without first converting to DNG, so I’m a little confused about what you mean by this.

    Anyway, thanks for your article…..I am getting concerned about the number of shutter activations I have used on my D200. I think it is rated at 150,000. With the number of shots I typically shoot at marathons, I have to check, but I think I’m over 100,000 right now. So I’m looking into an upgraded camera. I’m considering the D800, maybe the D700, and now the D600. I’m glad you like the D600. I like the fact that it can shoot 5.5 fps, compared to 4 for the D800, although 4 probably is good enough for me (the D200 can shoot 5 fps, which is what I often do). But the D600 I believe is also rated at 150,000 shutter activations, whereas the D800 is rated at I think 200,000.

    So, more things to consider for my next (and hope soon) camera upgrade, and your article seems to say that the D600 does work well for sports/action shots.

    • 4
      ) Mikhail
      November 6, 2012 at 3:38 am

      Richard,

      As far as I know, Lightroom 3, which is what I use on my MacBook, does not support D600’s NEF files – there are no updates for that. Instead, I installed the Adobe DNG Converter which happily converted NEFs (Nikon RAW) to Adobe DNG. I then imported those into my LR. I hope this clarifies my statement.

      I probably should have mentioned something about D600’s fps, but I didn’t want to open that can of worms :) If you ever shoot with a camera capable of 8+ fps, you’ll realize how handy it is. In some sports more than others. Having said that, high fps is not a guarantee that you will get amazing photos. If you’re not a full-time sports shooter (or if you are and need a second body), I think 5.5 is very fast.

      • 6
        ) Richard
        November 6, 2012 at 6:05 am

        Hi, Mikhail.

        Thanks for that….I didn’t even think about the fact that LR might not be updated, yet, to support D600 RAW files. I use version 4, but I’m sure it isn’t ready either, if version 3 isn’t.

        I do know that the higher fps doesn’t guarantee great shots. The camera has to focus properly, and the photographer has to know how to properly use his camera!:) And, actually, while I like the 5 fps and usually shoot with it, I have turned it down to 3 fps for some occasions, and that often works well for me. I am just thinking of future use, as I hope to expand the quanity and type of my freelance work in the future. I actually have held a D4 in my hand and played with it…..if only I could win the lottery!

        I’m also looking at the number of focus points and what kind of difference that might make. But, the 51 of the D800 and the 39 of the D600 certainly are much more than the 12 on my D200, and I will say that I am still pretty happy with the D200….a high percentage of my shots are in focus.

        One last comment, not on the camera, but on the web site, for Nasim. I had to retype this reply because when I initially posted it, it told me to retype the “CAPTCHA.” I had forgotten to enter the number in the box. So, perhaps Nasim could have this fixed so if you forget, you don’t have to retype.

        Thanks again.

        • 19
          ) William
          November 14, 2012 at 8:56 pm

          You may have already discovered this, but there is a camera RAW 7.2 update from Adobe that will allow you to use the d600’s NEF’s without converting to DNG. It is currently only available through the help>update menu in your software, as they don’t seem to have an external download available yet. This update won’t work with any version older than CS6 though.

      • 7
        ) Richard
        November 6, 2012 at 6:14 am

        By the way, Mikhail.

        I forgot to mention something about the fps. A couple of years ago, I went to go see Scott Rovak talk about his photography work. He is the official photographer for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team (and does work for the RAMs as well). He had some amazing shots.

        There was one where you could see Albert Pujols swinging his bat, making contact with the ball, and you could see the ball squishing as it comes into contact with the bat. He said he did not have his camera in high speed continuous shooting mode…..that shot was a single shot, and Scott said he has shot for so long, he knows when to fire his camera to get shots like that. (that shot is on Scott’s web site, by the way). He even claimed that for him, because of his experience, he stands more of a chance of capturing a shot like that using a single shot rather than using a high frame rate! So, that’s another reason why, as you say, a high frame rate doesn’t guarantee an amazing photo!

        • 9
          ) Mikhail
          November 6, 2012 at 9:43 am

          There are few exceptions depending on what sport you’re shooting, but I agree with him completely. This was a single shot of Alex Dolgopolov earlier this year. I’ve played tennis for over 7 years now, and with my timing I have a much better chance of catching a shot like this with a single click, as opposed to blindly shooting away with bursts.

          http://mikhailbezruchko.zenfolio.com/p389587370/e400f35e4

  3. 3
    ) Sebastiano
    November 6, 2012 at 3:35 am

    Thank you for these feedbacks, I’ll read the article thoroughly.
    But I still think Nikon is missing an “effordable price” sport camera, and I hope it will be the rumored D400.
    The D4 is too expensive for most of the professionals, I think.

  4. 5
    ) William Jones
    November 6, 2012 at 4:59 am

    It would be nice if you labeled the pics to show which lens was used with each. I have been using the D600 for horse polo, with a 300 f/4 (normally shoot at f/5), plus night-time High School football, with a 80-200 f/2.8 (shoot at f/2.8, 1/500th, Auto ISO maxed at 4,000).

    Focus accuracy on polo is better (due to the light, and size of the subject). I shoot football in CH release mode, but use short bursts, then halfway release to refocus, then short burst again. It seems to me that AF-S lenses are better on the D600 for focus speed than AF lenses, and since the 80-200 is AF, that may affect my hit ratio for football.

    I have tried the different focus modes, and what seems to work best for me is AF-C in single point mode. Polo I shoot with Focus Tracking turned off, and football with a setting of 1. Have not tried shooting tennis or soccer.

    Another thing I have noticed with the focus accuracy is the subject color. The local football team uses dark green jerseys, and therefore the visiting teams normally have white ones. In the poor light, it seems to me that I get better focus accuracy on the white jerseys than on the dark green ones. Has anyone else noticed something similar?

    I shoot in NEF (14-bit), and then process with DxO Optics (just upgraded to Version 8).

    Question: Has anybody shot any sports on the D600 with a 70-200 f/2.8 VR II + TC-17? I would like to know your experiences with this combo, especially focus speed and accuracy.

    Thanks for the above article,
    WEJ

  5. November 6, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Hi Mikhail,

    nice article. I’ve been shooting some horse walk and some weddings for fun, and I understand the struggling with AF. For the weddings in particular, I found really tricky getting a nice pic of people dancing (bride+dad, groom+mom): low light, close space, people moving fast, etc. I’m currently using a D90 with nice result (apart when light is very low), but I just got an used D700. I’ve heard great thing about D700 AF system and I’m looking forward to try it.

    I live in DC and I notice you shoot this in Northern Virginia. If it happens you are shooting in DC and surroundings, I will be more than happy to join you, if you like it. I hope I have something to share, but probably I have more to learn.

    Thanks again for the article…

    • 10
      ) Mikhail
      November 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

      Thank you! You’ll love D700 – it’s AF is fantastic.

  6. 12
    ) Don B
    November 6, 2012 at 11:18 am

    That was an interesting article. Thanks for posting it. I have some comments regarding focus that may be of interest to some.

    If the D600 has a menu choice “focus tracking with lock on” ( Menu A3 on the D800 ), you might try setting it to “1” ( short ) or to “off”. It seems to me (with limited experimentation) that the default setting of 3 ( on a D800 ) is much too long, and that such a high setting may cause a person to miss some shots.

    If anybody has the time to take some action shots with a low (1) setting or “off” setting, I would be interested in their findings.

    I would also be interested in knowing if “Trap Focus” works on the D600. “Trap Focus” does not seem to work on the D800.

  7. 13
    ) chipmaster
    November 6, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Nice summary, I’m looking forward at sometime to push my D600 for sports.

    My experience with D300, D700, D3s, and finally D4 was 3D never worked as well as AF-C with 9, 21 or 51 points. Belief or reality was that additional computional time/power is required for 3D that slows down focus decision ever so little, but enough. I’ve read each generation of expeed is getting fast so we’ll see.

    Lover your site and relevancy of your articles!

    Charles

  8. 16
    ) chris zeller
    November 7, 2012 at 10:44 am

    I like your conclusion. Sports photography is diffficult and like anything its still up to the skill of the photographer to see and anticipate great shots. Even $10K glass won’t solve that one. Its not the tools its the carpenter.

  9. November 7, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Thanks for the review! I agree with your stance on the D600’s AF. It is accurate and reliable. Could you comment on how the concentration of the AF points affects your composition? I shot a wedding with this camera recently and felt a bit restricted in my framing, especially with moving subjects.

    • 18
      ) Mikhail
      November 8, 2012 at 8:27 am

      Jacob,

      For vertical oriented shots, I didn’t feel much difference. For landscape it was a little funky at first, but I got used to it. I zoom out (if I can) and “recompose”/crop out the negative/empty space later. I’m very fussy about what ends up in my frame and I do a lot of cropping in post-processing anyway, so it works out.

  10. 20
    ) Dmytro
    December 27, 2012 at 3:39 am

    Dear Mikhail,
    thanks for you review!
    It is really helpful to understand AF quality of D600. I have one question – how well camera is focused on objects (players) moving towards you?
    I mean your phrase: “In the shots where AF “missed”, the focus was almost always slightly behind the player (assuming the kid was running toward me).” Is it real to catch sharp shots of moving objects towards the camera? And what is a percentage of nice shots?

  11. 21
    ) David Leung
    November 3, 2013 at 8:06 pm

    I shoot a lot of HS night football games in dark stadiums using a AF-S 400mm f2.8G on D3s. The D600 may be acceptable for dad shooting his son playing, but I doubt any pro or semipro sports photographer will use the D600 for sports, particularly in dark stadiums.

  12. 22
    ) Milo
    November 11, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    The article mentions the first photo was in focus and that the others afterwards were not. I bet you had Custom Setting a3 Auto Focus – Focus Tracking set at the AF3 Normal default.

    That delays the focus from re-acquiring. Set it to to Off to let the auto focus work instantly without delay on the subsequent shots in the sequence.

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