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Nikon 70-200mm Portraits

I would love to get some feedback from others in the group about their usage of long focal length lenses for portraiture.  I love my D3s with my 70-200mm lens but I'm finding it very frustrating to use at 200mm to get tack sharp focus.  I've tried several different techniques to stabilize myself, breathing techniques, getting my shutter speed above 1/250's... but my success rate at nailing focus on the eye closest to the camera is dismal.  I want to shoot at f/2.8 @ 200mm on a tight headshot to get that beautiful out of focus background.  I set my focus point on the front eye of my subject, press the shutter halfway two... maybe three times sometimes just trying to make sure I'm locked on that eye.  I realize at 200mm @ f/2.8, my depth of field is probably 1.5 inches.. but try as I may, the eye I'm aiming for is soft.  Surprisingly, the further back eye is sometimes the one that's sharp.  

I'm just curious if anyone else tries to shoot this way at 200mm @ f/2.8 and what is your success rate.  Intuitively, I would guess I nail focus on the eye I'm aiming at about 40% of the time.  I sure don't feel like that is acceptable.  I've tried to use 3D Dynamic Focus on my Nikon D3s, I've used 21 point, I've locked my elbows, held my breath... everything short of using a tripod.  I'm usually very mobile and don't want to use a tripod.  Am I fooling myself into thinking I can do this without a tripod?  I can have my shutter speed as high as 1/800 of a second and still have this issue.

I'm at my wits end.  I am uncertain if it's me or my lens/camera combo.  Is it back focusing?  No idea.  I know my success rate dramatically improves if I put my 85mm f/1.4 on.  Even shooting at f/2, I can nail that eye better than 75% of the time.  

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.  

Comments

  • Problem could in part be the weight of this heavy lens. It's probably a combo of all you mentioned. The 200 mm reach plus the 2.8 and no tripod. Add to that wind, subject movement and calibration.

    I use this lens for all my portraits. I dont have an 85 but would love one due to lighter weight and other reasons. I love the 70-200 and it produces great pix for me. However, any aperture below 5 and I'm looking at soft focus. And I have two. And two bodies. So I usually shoot at 5.6. Yes sometimes I luck out and get sharp pix at 4 and 4.5 but I'll only shoot those if I also shoot 5.6 and 6.3. I often shoot at 200mm but don't really keep track. I rarely go below 160 on the shutter speed due to weight. My ideal combo is 160 at 5.6. Tack sharp. But I usually shoot outside so the distance to the background helps with getting a shallow DOF. I might use 2.8 and that ballpark if I am inside in low light and high ISO. I never use tripod. It just gets in the way. Maybe for big group shots or creative stuff or slow shutter speed shots.
  • The 70-200mm f2.8 is a really heavy lens, and I do think it requires a significant amount of stability.  If this lens didn't have VR, I think anybody hand-holding the lens would be getting far more soft focus shots.  I have shot with this lens at close to 200mm and at f2.8, and I was able to achieve "acceptable focus."  At 100% image magnification, it's not tack sharp, but it is not as soft as I thought it would be.  At normal magnification, no non-photographer person I show the photos to notices any softness.
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    I'd say either the lens or the camera needs to go in for calibration. 
    It is difficult to say which is at fault without comparing to another camera and another lens. 

    Also, I've found that on both my D4 bodies, the off-center AF points are out. My D810 is fine.

    First step would be then to see how accurate your lens + camera is when you are using the central AF point. 
  • Thanks for the feedback everyone.  I am leaning to send the body/lens combo back to Nikon to check it out.  I think the biggest concern I have is the inconsistency.  I may do a few tests using a tripod to see if I can isolate my movements from the equation.  It's been hard for me to determine if it's me causing the inconsistency or the camera's auto-focus causing the problem.  
  • Neil,

    I've been shooting with AF-S selected for this situation. I had someone suggest I select AF-C with 51 points and 3D tracking and I should have better success with locking focus.  That would continue to track focus even though I may slightly rock my position or the model may move slightly.  He said he has no issues with soft focus in this mode. 

    Just curious if this is the mode you use in this situation?
  • It certainly could be the lens / camera needing adjustment.

    If you are still troubleshooting: Forget about 3D tracking for portraits. Use single point, and only the center AF point, and focus carefully and don't move the camera to recompose (yet). Try on a tripod (with VR off). See if that works for you. Try handheld (with VR on) too. If your shutter speeds and VR usage are appropriate, it should work.

    Now, if those work, try some portraits handheld using the center AF point to focus, lock the focus, then recompose carefully to frame the way you want. When recomposing, do it carefully and minimally - it can and will introduce focus error, but you can get good at doing it over time.

    I tend to use AF-C all the time because I use back button focusing. However, I find it best to stop the focusing before you take the picture (I do so by releasing AF-ON). I reserve holding down on AF-ON while releasing the shutter for moving subjects. The issue with AF-C is that it is in motion and can be the moment you release the shutter. So with a portrait, I would press AF-ON with the center AF point on the nearest eye (or wherever you want), release AF-ON, recompose judiciously, and press the shutter.
  • One additional point is that while I use back button focusing and AF-C, I believe AF-S is more accurate for static subjects. Sometimes I will flip to AF-S in these cases.
  • UPDATE:  Well, I sent my D3s back to Nikon Service in New York and they did make several repairs and adjustments.  They ended up replacing my shutter mechanism, replaced the main printed circuit board, adjusted the auto exposure operation, adjusted the mirror operation and angle, adjusted the auto focus operation, upgraded the firmware, cleaned my sensor and gave it an overall check and clean.  

    Well, $585 later... what a difference.  I swear it's like having a new camera.  My inconsistent focus issues seem to be resolved now. 
  • TrevTrev Moderator
    Money well spent Dave. Glad it's sorted for you. :)
  • Thanks Trev... I have to say, they cleaned it and made all the changes and it really has the feel and effect of a new body.  
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