Using Canon’s “AI-Focus” Mode to Catch the Action

There’s nothing better for a wildlife photographer than catching a beautiful pair of birds in flight and having the camera and lens to track them through a high-speed sequence. Folks shooting with Canon’s new EOS 1D Mark IV or EOS 7D will know exactly what I mean. The “AI Servo” auto-focus mode on these two new Canon DSLRs is nothing less than spectacular, especially after years of mediocre performance from most Canon models.

Another auto-focus feature that “finally” works as advertised is the “AI Focus” mode that will switch between “One-Shot” and “AI-Servo” modes when the camera detects significant motion in the subject. I use this setting frequently with water fowl to ensure that I capture the sharpest shots when they are swimming (One-Shot) and when they take off (AI-Servo) suddenly. This feature allows me to concentrate on the birds behavior to anticipate their flight rather than spending critical seconds switching from one FA mode to another and hoping that I can pan fast enough to catch the action.

Wing Man One

Wing Man One – Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 7D set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender mono-pod mounted. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/5.6 for 1/640th of a second at ISO 200. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

Wing Man Two

Wing Man Two – Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 7D set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender mono-pod mounted. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/5.6 for 1/640th of a second at ISO 200. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

9 thoughts on “Using Canon’s “AI-Focus” Mode to Catch the Action

  1. Nicely written article and great shots of the water fowl, a tricky capture indeed. The 7D certainly packs a lunch in terms of focusing and fps to catch the action, Japan Fashion Week is coming up soon for me and I exclusively use my 7D over my 5DmkII for the shows for all the reasons you state above.

  2. Jeff,
    Thanks for your review of the EOS 7D I found the information on the updated focus tracking interesting. With this function finally meeting expectations why would you ever not use it? Why waste resources giving us the three different option? I guess what I’m asking is what are the negative aspects of using AI Focus or AI Servo. I am thinking about selling my old 40D and use this for my wildlife shots. I use my MK II for my landscape shots but it burst speed and focus modes won’t keep up with birds very well. With the increased pixel count how does the 7D’s continuous shooting speed match up with the 40D? That is really the only reason I still have a 40D.
    I enjoy your posts and thanks for including the technical information it really helps.

    • Harold,

      Right now the “AI Focus” mode is what I use all the time for shooting wildlife with a 7D. I still use “One Shot” when I shoot landscape work with my 5D Mark II however. The high speed burst on the 7D is 8 fps versus 6 fps on the 40D. With a high-speed CF card, the buffer clears quickly and you can actually shoot 16 frames in under 2 seconds. The 7D has two DIGIC processors and will handle the 18MP files with little delay.

      Jeff

  3. I am beginning to think that I may need to upgrade sooner than I had wanted.. And you bring up one of the main reasons here. Which do you shoot with? My little Canon Rebel XT really just does not have the AF power I want. I shoot animals, dogs in particular often and my percentage of sharp shots is not too high. Another reason to upgrade soon became more apparent as I tried to shoot at the dog show yesterday. Big warehouse flourecent light is not friendly to shooting fast moving dogs in a ring when the highest ISO is 1600 and thats handicapped by my ap only being able to go down to 3.5…. What I am afraid of is my loss of lenses when I upgrade. Not sure if a Mark level with take my EF lenses.

    Wonderful shots by the way, do you have anywhere you put all these up in an album? Anywhere to purchase any? My husband loves waterfowl hunting.

    • Anna,

      The EOS 7D sounds like a good choice for you. It will take all the Canon “EF” series lenses including the “EF-S” lenses. You can purchase any image displayed on my blog or Flickr site as a poster for around $40 (20×16). If there is something specific you’re looking for just let me know. I have hundreds of water fowl images.

      Jeff

      • yeah… am leaning towards that (7D). maybe I will get lucky and still not need to upgrade past it.

        As far as the waterfowl shots, nothing smaller than poster? Do you just use flickr? You should check out smugmug. I love them

        Take care and keep shooting
        Anna

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