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.
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.
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!
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.)
Otherwise, most of the shots came out great! Below are more samples.
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.
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.
This guest post was shared by Mikhail Bezruchko. 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.