Nikon Group-Area AF Mode

The latest Nikon DSLRs like D810 (see our detailed review) and D4S came with the a new “Group-area Autofocus” mode. When compared to the regular Single-Point AF Mode, Group-area AF activates five focus points to track subjects. This focus mode is great for initial focus acquisition and tracking of subjects when compared to a Single-Point or Dynamic AF, especially when dealing with smaller birds that fly erratically and can be really hard to focus on and track. In such situations, the Group-area AF mode might give better results than Dynamic AF, showing better accuracy and consistency from shot to shot.

Nikon Dynamic-Area AF

How does Group-area AF work? Basically, within the viewfinder you see four focus points, with the fifth one in the middle hidden. You can move all four focus points by pressing the multi-touch controller on the back of the camera (ideally, you want to stay in the middle, because the focus points in the center of the frame are cross-type and the most accurate). When pointed at a subject, all five focus points are activated simultaneously for the initial focus acquisition, with priority given to the closest subject. This differs from the the Dynamic 9 AF mode quite a bit, because D9 activates 8 focus points around the center focus point, with priority given to the chosen center focus point. If the camera fails to focus using the center focus point (not enough contrast), it attempts to do it with the other 8 focus points. Basically, the camera will always prioritize the central focus point and only fail-over to the other 8 if focus is not possible. In contrast, Group-area AF uses all 5 focus points simultaneously and will attempt to focus on the nearest subject, without giving preference to any of the 5 focus points.

Nikon Group-area AF

Group-area AF is especially useful when photographing birds, wildlife and non-team sports. In the above sample image of speed skaters, if your goal is to focus on the front runner, Group-area AF would do wonders, as it would automatically acquire focus on and track the runner that is closest to the camera. Another good example can be a perched bird sitting on a stick and you are looking at it a little from above, so the ground behind the bird is clearly visible. With Dynamic AF mode, whatever you are pointing at is where the camera will initially attempt to acquire focus. If you are right on the bird, the camera will focus on the bird. If you accidentally point to the ground behind the bird, the camera will focus on the background instead. This can get quite challenging when photographing small birds, especially when the branch or stick they are sitting on is constantly moving. Getting initial focus point is important and the quicker you do it, the better the chance of capturing and tracking action, especially if the bird decides to suddenly take off. As I have mentioned above, with Group-area AF, there is no preference given to any focus point, so all 5 focus points are active simultaneously. In this particular situation, since the bird is closer than the background, as long as one of the 5 focus points is near the bird, the camera will always focus on the bird and not the background. Once focus is acquired, Group-area AF will also track the subject, but again, only if one of the 5 focus points is near the subject. If the subject moves fast and you cannot effectively pan your camera in the same direction, focus will be lost, similarly to what happens in Dynamic 9 AF mode. In terms of tracking, I personally found Group-area AF to be pretty fast, but it is hard to say if it is as fast as Dynamic 9 AF – in some situations, Dynamic 9 AF seemed to be a bit faster.

Another important fact I should mention, is that when you use Group-area AF in AF-S mode, the camera will engage face recognition and attempt to focus on the eye of the nearest person, which is neat. For example, if you are photographing someone between tree branches and leaves, the camera will always attempt to focus on the person’s face instead of the nearest leaf. Unfortunately, face recognition is activated only in AF-S mode, so if you photograph fast-moving group sports and you need the camera to lock and track on a subject’s face (and not on the nearest object), your best bet will be to use Dynamic AF instead.

A number of our readers have been asking us to revise the DSLR Autofocus Modes Explained article with the most recent updates, particularly when using the Group-Area AF mode. I have also revised the article by adding a separate section on Group-Area AF, updated the AF-Area Mode and Focus Mode table and also changed the Autofocus Scenarios and Examples section a bit. If you would like to learn about DSLR autofocus modes in detail, I highly recommend to check out the above-mentioned autofocus modes article.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) June
    August 24, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    exellent article, sir! Can you write something to explain about the new highlight weighted metering on the D810?

  2. 2
    ) Russ
    August 24, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    As a sports shooter I appreciate this article. It sounds like D9 is still the best. I do not want the camera to focus on whatever is nearest in a big circle, I want to focus at what I’m pointing at. In team sports there is often someone standing close to the subject, and closer to me than the subject, that I do not want to focus on.

    • August 24, 2014 at 9:57 pm

      Russ, I guess it depends – in sports, sometimes the shooter wants to concentrate on whoever is first (the winner), particularly in running competitions when shooting from the front. If you want to show a particular athlete, then Dynamic AF Area is still the best, since it tracks only on and around the selected AF point.

      • 7
        ) Russ
        August 24, 2014 at 10:02 pm

        Then maybe qualify this statement, “Group-area AF is especially useful when photographing birds, wildlife and sports” to something like “non-team sports”?

        • August 24, 2014 at 10:31 pm

          Russ, good point, I will adjust the article per your suggestion.

  3. 3
    ) Vandana
    August 24, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Sir I am reading your posts and all are so informative. Thanks a lot. Can you please write a review of Sony alpha 6000. What are the lenses which should be purchased along with it. I am a beginner and would like to learn more and more.
    Thanks and regards

    • August 24, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      Vandana, I will post a review of the A6000 as soon as I am done working on the Nikon D4 and D4S reviews. As for lenses, there are many to choose from – it all depends on what you shoot.

  4. Profile photo of Rick Keller
    9
    ) Rick Keller
    August 24, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    Hello Nasim,

    Very nice communication on this feature. Well done. :-)

    I am surprised that up until now Nikon had not incorporated the “Group Area AF” mode into its digital line-up. This group AF feature had been available for quite some time, in particular on the Nikon F6, which was released in 2004 (ten years ago in 2 weeks, actually).

    I don’t own the D810, but I do own the F6, which is, in my humble opinion, the greatest 35 mm SLR ever made and is one of Nikon’s top cameras ever. This camera has the AF mode called, “Group Dynamic AF Mode” and appears to be similar to what the D810 currently has, although it’s a sure bet this system is more fine tuned on the D810. The Group AF works great, exactly for the reasons that you nicely detailed.

    As an aside, the F6 (as well as the subsequent D300, D300s, D700, D3, and D3s) has all AF modes readily available on the back of the camera body with a mechanical lever that can promptly be switched to the different AF modes with one thumb, as opposed to having to bumble the modern-day Nikon camera with both hands to hold down a button and rotate a dial in unison – very counterproductive. This is where the F6 (and the D700 and D3s, for that matter) are superior for making instantaneous adjustments in AF modes. To this day, I have no clue why this lever was removed from Nikon’s digital SLRs in 2012. Perhaps, someday, the engineers of the F6, D700, and D3s will be rehired by Nikon to improve its future camera ergonomics, among a plethora of other things. Nikon sure does not manufacture cameras the way they once did as early as 10 years ago . . . ;-)

    Great job, as always. And cheers!

    Rick

    • August 24, 2014 at 11:19 pm

      Rick, thank you for sharing! I had no idea that the Nikon F6 had this feature – that’s neat to find out! The focus mode selector was there on the D300s, D700, D3 and D3s, but Nikon moved it to a button on the new DSLRs instead…

  5. 11
    ) Colin Adams
    August 25, 2014 at 12:36 am

    I’m thinking of getting a D810 to replace my D300. My principal interest is photographing dragonflies, particularly in flight. With the D300, I almost always have to resort to manual focus for flight shots. It sounds to me that the group-area mode will help me a lot.

  6. 12
    ) Slawomir
    August 25, 2014 at 1:02 am

    Great article Nasim, thanks for Your work!
    Is the group area mode something that can be expected in D800 as a future firmware update or is it more hardware related?
    Kind regards,
    Slawomir

    • 19
      ) Crunch Hardtack
      August 25, 2014 at 7:32 am

      I too own a D800 and am wondering if a firmware update will give it the same function?

  7. 13
    ) Steve W
    August 25, 2014 at 2:04 am

    Hi Nasim
    I’m looking at buying a second FF camera body and want some advice – I have a D800e and use that primarily for landscape and long exposure. I’m looking to do more people / wedding and event photography and need to choose a second hand D3s or pay a little more for a D810. I’m planning to keep the D800e, which I think I brilliant, but which uses up hard drive space like nothing else……….
    A D4 is definitely out of my budget.
    Could you make a suggestion about the best choice.

  8. 14
    ) Michael Thornton
    August 25, 2014 at 3:21 am

    Dear Nasim,

    In the example you have shown with the bird using group area AF, the birds eye stands a good chance of being out of focus with a long lens.
    Perhaps a single point focus would be better, would you care to comment.

    Regards
    Michael

  9. 15
    ) Paul Tortora
    August 25, 2014 at 3:34 am

    Any recommendations for a setting for in studio portraits? Need to keep the eye in focus and I was wondering if there would be any advantage to group focussing on the eye or if a different method would make more sense.

    Thanks for such a great article on group focus.

    • August 25, 2014 at 8:31 am

      I believe that depending on the distance You are shooting from, one focus point will be enough to cover the eye as You are aiming with the sharpness on it. If I’m wrong please correct me but probably this won’t be of so much use in the studio.

  10. 16
    ) Patrick O'Connor
    August 25, 2014 at 5:27 am

    Unrelated to this post
    I’m not sure I like the new comments format. The smaller font is a little more difficult to read but I really like the ability to use html tags.

  11. 17
    ) Peter Connan
    August 25, 2014 at 5:50 am

    Ivan, do you think there is any possibility that this may be implimented in older cameras as part of a firmware upgrade? Sounds great!

  12. 18
    ) nestor
    August 25, 2014 at 5:55 am

    As I remember Group dynamic AF mode was available with CAM1000 with the D200, this feature was lost in newer cameras with CAM3500 until now, and although performance is quite different between both autofocuses modules it is a welcomed revival of old stuff.

  13. 20
    ) bruce
    August 25, 2014 at 8:29 am

    When photographing birds, I use the back focus button. If there is a branch or leaf in the focus group in front of the bird, it will focus on it rather than the bird. IMHO.

  14. 22
    ) John C
    August 25, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    Hi Nasim,
    Thanks for this very useful article. I have come to rely on the group autofocus mode for most of my shooting as it seems to just nail the focus so quickly and precisely I never have to worry about it.
    Now I have a request!
    Would it be possible for you to review the new Nikon TC 14 Elll version and especially to compare the results with the older version ll ?
    At almost $600 here in Canada, it is too expensive to just buy and hope that it is better . . . .

    Thanks very much!

  15. 23
    ) sceptical 1
    August 25, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    I really hope this focus mode / system shows up in an APC-S camera…..

  16. 24
    ) Bikash R Das
    August 26, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Hi Nasim,
    Greetings ,
    I have been using the D4s for past 5 months , and the group AF mode just focuses like a blink and locks on to the subject. I have been able to successfully take flying shots of few restless birds like the Wire Tailed Swallow , Pied Kingfisher and Lesser Fishing Eagles and an impossible to click Grizzled Giant Squirrel . Here subjects were way too far , yet the active 5 points were really latching on and not focussing to the back ground . I do sometimes use the AF-ON button , which makes even more faster. It has just increased the dependability of taking the right image. Just amazed at the performance in low light and how fast it locks on . Thank you for this article and your perspective. I use the Nikkor 70-200 , 2.8g with TC 1.7x.
    For Reference – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bikashdas/sets/72157645012066183/

    Best Regards
    Bikash

    Bangalore

  17. 25
    ) jB
    August 27, 2014 at 8:54 am

    Nasim, I really appreciate your ability to mix interesting technical knowledge with the the art of photography and practical applications for shooting. I shoot wedding with a d4 and d800 and when it comes to auto focus I have a lot of power that I under the hood but I only use single point AF as I don’t like to trust the other modes. Do you have any advice about different modes for different parts of the day? or perhaps have you already written about it?

    Many thanks

    jB

  18. 26
    ) Jim White
    August 27, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    I am an experienced bird photographer who is trying to photograph white Egrets in trees about 150 yards away with my new Tamron 150-600 lens. I shot 230 exposures the other day at 600mm, using spot meter, 9 point focus mode, over 1000 sec shutter speed at f8 using a D-7100 Nikon. Every exposure was out of focus! Shooting grouse and other birds at close range focus is very sharp. After reading your great article of focus modes today, I think my problem is lack of contrast using a spot meter on a white bird? We had early morning sun and the birds were well lighted. What do you think? Any advice would be welcome. Thanks..Jim

  19. 27
    ) Stan Burman
    August 29, 2014 at 2:51 am

    Nasim, thanks for this excellent and understandable explanation!

  20. 28
    ) Morten Jensen
    September 23, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    I have red your article. It was exellent and understandable. Thank you.

    Best regards
    Morten Jensen
    Norway

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