A quick note on Nikon D800 autofocus…

Up to this point, I’d been shooting the camera with the same autofocus settings I used on the D3 and D700 – which share the same CAM3500FX AF module. I think I just discovered why the AF system doesn’t seem to be as precise as before.

Previously, I used single point AF-S for static subjects, and 51-point dynamic 3D tracking AF-C for everything else. I could lock on with the center point, focus and recompose, and everything would be fine. It seemed like a good starting point for the D800.

Turns out I was wrong. Single point AF-C is MUCH more accurate and slightly faster than 51-point dynamic 3D. It’s solved a good number of my AF issues. Remains to try it out tonight when the light gets low to see if performance is improved under those conditions too. MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Actually, it was something even more simple. I forgot I switched to continuous focus from single focus. When I switched back to S it worked fine.

    Thank you for getting back with me…

  2. Ok. So, I occasionally use an older zoom lens on my D700. This time when I switched back to my AF-S 14-24 2.8G ED I was unable to get to 51 point to function properly. I called Nikon. No answer. Any suggestions?

    • Because I’m also tech support, did you set 11 point or 51 points in the custom functions? Cleaned the contacts? AF/MF switch knocked off position?

  3. AF-C single point – alright – thanks – I did try the “intelligent” focusing mode, seemed a little bit like playing roulette, so will forget about it for sure.

    OM-D (or rather the E PL5) sounds better and better. WIth fast multi S A/F in lieu of Continous Tracking A/F as you suggested in your excellent OM-D review. Apparently this is the same technique one can use with the Fuji X100/ X Pro 1/ X E1 .. please do re-test these if you ever get a chance.

  4. Hi – thanks for all your extensive and thorough notes – much appreciated. One area that has me a little annoyed with the D700 is that for quick street shots wide open the face detection A/F performance is slower (using the approximation of face detection provided by the Nikon A/F) than my P&S. So, has Nikon figured out a better face A/F yet – I’ve been mulling the Sony NEX6 for that reason only, but it does pain me to have to carry another set of lenses, batteries etc. Any feedback specifically on this would be much appreciated

    • The DSLRs don’t do face detection well at all in normal PDAF mode – they don’t have as much information to work with as the compacts to determine what is a face and what isn’t; the Nikon system uses the metering sensor, which is just 2,048 pixels or something around there.

      I’d go with the OM-D over the NEX6.

      • OK – had hoped the D800 had better face recognition than the D700 ( thought I had read something along these lines somewhere, with the metering sensor having more pixels to work with). So, how would a good shooter go about shooting, say, a child running towards you – use A/F C and hope for the best? Or try and shoot with manual focus (nearly impossible in my experience) – pro sports photographers with long lenses can do well probably because they are shooting with long lenses – but how about with moderate to wide angle lenses?

        OM D over NEX6 – thanks for the reminder, especially re lens selection and prices. So the special hybrid phase detect A/F of the NEX6 isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be?

        • I’d use AF-C single point and put the box over the child’s face.

          Haven’t used the NEX6 enough to tell, but from my brief play with it – not really that much better than the OM-D for moving objects, and much slower for stills. Sony still has some distance to go, it seems. Odd seeing as the RX100 is the fastest-focusing compact I’ve ever used…

  5. David Carson says:

    Nice review. I have a specialized autofocus question. I always use 1 center-point for autofocus. In the D700, the focus point would blink once when autofocus was started, but not blink when focus was achieved. Rather, to show focus was achieved, the D700 (and F100, actually) had a little green dot outside the optical area that turned on. This is unlike the D3, which worked like Canons; ie. focus started: red blink, focus achieved: red blink.

    My question is: How does the D800’s autofocus work when set to 1 center-point autofocus?

    • No blinking, the box is solid red (LCD overlay) all the time. You get the little green dot like the D700. I suspect the blinking can only be done in a way that’s noticeable with the bright red LED projection (which I wish the D800 had too, because it’s much easier to see than the dark box).

  6. Kenneth Tse says:

    Hi Ming:
    Re your guide on AF fine tune:

    11. Save the adjustment value – if you can’t save camera settings to a card, you might want to write it down somewhere just in case.

    do you mean I have to make a record of the setting, and input it to the D800 whenever that particular lens is used( for your information, I am aged over 60, and still use the D2X), and

    From the forum on another web, someone complained that “I had great difficulty with the D800 viewfinder, basically to see the whole frame I had to squash my nose really hard against the back of the camera, or alternatively, tilt my head down and look up through the corner of my eyes in an angle. ”

    is that some extreme case?

    • No, I meant just record it for use with the same lens and camera body in case for whatever reason your settings get wiped.

      The eye point could be better, but I don’t have any problems seeing the whole frame with glasses and the DK17M, which further reduces viewing distances.

  7. There’s bunch of D800 samples here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nikonrumors/sets/72157629289734604/
    and what’s important to me, author used one of “my lenses” – AF nikkor 70-200 1:2.8D (latest non AF-S).
    The lens performs great with D800, delivers super sharp images when focused properly, no more worries here 🙂
    Just a minor concern is obvious CA/blue fringing, any insights on this?
    Is it strictly lens related characteristics or not?

    • Good to know re. 70-200II. CA/ blue fringing can have two causes – one is lens related uncorrected aberrations, and the other is due to oblique light hitting the sensor and reflecting off photo site edges (the dreaded ‘purple fringing’) – it’s a consequence of small photosite sizes. I doubt that it’s sensor-based purple fringing because the 70-200II is definitely a telecentric design – this kind of aberration only happens usually with non- or partially- telecentric optical designs. I’m guessing it’s lens-based, especially if the samples were shot wide open.

  8. Henry Dinardo says:

    Thank You

  9. Henry Dinardo says:

    Ming I have enjoyed your site and it has provided me with a wealth of info. I have been shooting with the D3s for some time now but just received my D800. Initial tests with the AF have me a little confused. I read your earlier post to shoot in AFC-S and will give it a try.I was using 9 point. I missed quite a few shots and the focus just wasn’t sharp. Also it seems much noisier then the D3s even at ISO 2000. Do you shoot raw and convert and do you use the internal NR? I will say that at base ISO the DR and IQ is incredible. And when the focus is dead on its more then critically sharp.

    • Thanks Henry. These new group point modes basically use the central point of the group, but then track the subject to the other points if it moves. The trouble is that your group could actually cover a number of subjects at fairly similar (but still different enough to be out of focus) distances; the camera is never going to be smart enough to know what you want it to focus on – and herein lies the problem. Try using single point only for fast lenses. And if you haven’t already, do the AF fine tune routine (I describe it in today’s post here.

      Yes, on a pixel level, it’s definitely noisier than the D3S. I think it’s a stop behind the D700, which puts it two stops or more behind the D3S; however, if you downsize to 12MP I think they’re actually pretty close. I shoot raw with zero NR – same way I’ve done with all of my other cameras.

  10. Thank you very much for all your opinions on this new great gear.
    I’m looking forward to more comment as you pick-up experience with the new D800. I’m tied between D700 and D800. I tried D700 for VERY short period of time this winter, I had the feeling it is quite heavy and boxy. How feels the new D800 in the hands? Do you notice it is 100g lighter?
    Also I would appreciate very much you opinions on D800 + AF Nikkor 70-200mm 1:2.8D, AF Nikkor 50mm 1.4D and AF Nikkor 18-35mm 1:3.5 because those are my lenses (kinda cheapskate ;)) and I plan to pick up either D700 or D800 for use with them. Thanks.

    • The D800 feels lighter, but to be honest I prefer the grip design of the D700 – it’s more comfortable because the ‘nub’ underneath the shutter release button portion is thinner, and the grip at the base of your palm is fatter. I’d probably go with the D700 with your lens selection, you might feel the itch to upgrade glass otherwise.

  11. Hi Ming, thank you for the review and your accuracy, a question.
    The af-c mode in the d800 for sport-tracking, ex rally, moto-cross etc, excluding the fps, how do you see it? Lost the focus?

  12. Hi Ming. thanks for the great hands-on reviews which i find truly beneficial for amateurs like myself. Was hoping to get your thoughts an recommendation between a D3S and D800 for a general purpose all round shooting style that i do. What i really like to have would be noise free images at higher ISOs and speed/accuracy of AF lock which seems to sway towards a D3S from all my reading. Haven’t tried one to know for sure. I know the resolution on the D800 is amazing but would the D3S loose out that much in details if not for large printouts but merely on computer screen viewing? Capturing detail like facial hair and textures of vegetables are still possible with the D3S and how far would it loose out to the D800, again on screen viewing. Thanks for your effort and time here.

    • Hi Jason, for general purpose shooting I’d go with the D3s hands down. AF is a little faster, and it’s definitely a less noisy camera. To be honest, you can make great 20×30″ prints from a D3S – I have done from a D3 and D700, and the D3s is better – unless you print bigger, then a D800 is unnecessary.

      • Thanks for the conclusive reply, Ming. And if i want, yet to spend less, how would the D700 compare in real world situations to the D3S, or rather what would it fall short on for an amateur like me who basically shoots everything short for a living? I’ve heard some say that the AF lock and tracking is slower/hunting more on the D700, but realistically is that a problem to be really concerned at a kids party where you want one kid who is running around to be in focus against the rest? As with the ISO, i understand the D3S is far superior, but again in real world, up to 6400 iso is probably what i would need and not anything more. Any good at 6400 iso on the D700? I guess the last question would be, where would you find the limits of the D700 in real world use? Thanks and much appreciate your thoughts, again.

        • AF isn’t as fast or positive as on the D3s, but it’s improved a bit by using the battery pack and ENEL4 (as well as gaining some fps). No problems up to ISO 6400 – my auto ISO limit is set to 12800, and I’ve had great results at that ISO. I used to own a D3, and don’t miss anything from it – I get 8fps if I need it with the grip, and a smaller camera with the built in flash to trigger speed lights if I don’t.

  13. Since the D3 and the D300 in 2007 I almost always use single point AF on my cameras (now D3s and D7000) because of the inaccuracy of the 51 point 3D mode.

    • You’re right – I found it worked fine with my D3, but I was using mostly f2.8 zooms that covered any slight AF inaccuracies with DOF. With the D700 and the f1.4 primes, less so; with the super-high density D800 and f1.4 primes, definitely not.

  14. Aloha Ming,

    Thank you for your incredible technical review of the D800. I look forward to your take on the AF now that you have worked it out. You write in a way that makes the reader think we are having coffee with you…and that makes for a great read! I’m interested in your review because i pre-ordered this camera. I’m leaving a lifetime relationship with Pentax cameras( I stayed because i had collected a large lens compliment) for the potentially greener pastures of Nikon. I know you are a Nikon guy so that is why i am reading your reviews of both the 700 and the 800.

    Is there a need to consider the Canon MKiii or would i be fine growing old with Nikon?

    Would you be willing to give us the D700 VS D800 pros and cons again in the coming days as your feelings for the D800 develop more?

    Thanks again for you insight.

    • Thanks Nate – I certainly had a lot of coffee over the last few days to make these reviews happen! AF in daylight: very positive, faster than D700, probably on par with D3 but not D4. It’s accurate providing you use single point AF-C or AF-S. Other modes, the camera focuses where it thinks you want to focus – not necessarily where you actually want to focus. Note that it’s still possible to have focus errors because even though the boxes are small, the camera picks the highest contrast thing inside that box – which could still be at a slightly different distance to the intended subject, and with resolution this high, focus errors are very visible. AF fine tune is a must, too, for all of your lenses.

      I was editor of a local photography/ camera magazine for five years, so I’ve used most systems – ironically with the exception of Pentax. Right now I run Nikon, Leica M and Micro 4/3. To be honest, the D800 is a very specialized tool that will deliver truly unbeatable image quality under the right conditions – you need to decide if those match what you do or not. If you need more of a general purpose tool, I’d probably go with the D700 (or 5D3 if you need video capability).

      As for D700 vs D800 – have a look at my final D700 long term review here, posted yesterday.

  15. Kenneth Tse says:

    Hi Ming: 1) with such high pixel sensor, do you think the D800 is a “hand-held” camera, 2) at the site of Thom Hogan he mentioned that to get sharp images from D800 ” it takes the same level of technique that D7000 users have had to attain”, please explain to us beginers, 3) your previous night photoes , were they taken hand-held or on a tripod?

    • 1. It can be, if you have enough light to maintain a sufficiently high shutter speed. 2. I agree – you can either use 1/crop factor x focal length rule – i.e. 1.5x faster than you’d use with the D700, for instance – that would work – or improve your shooting/ stability technique. 3. Everything handheld.

  16. Excuse my ignorance, but not sure how to achieve Single point AF-C. I’m reading the manual (available for download) to figure out, but was not able to see this option. Maybe you could explain to us newbies.

%d bloggers like this: