Auto-Focus Tips for Action Soccer Photography

Soccer is a fast moving sport to photograph so understanding how to optimize your auto-focus settings is important to capture crisp photos of the action. This should go without saying but manual focus settings are not advisable when shooting soccer. The action is too unpredictable and too fast with subjects that are moving in all directions that there is no possible way you can focus in time.

Which auto-focus mode should I choose?

When it comes to focus settings, there are 3 main modes built into your camera.

Auto-Focus Single Mode (AF-S)

This mode is best for non-moving subjects. I use this mode when taking photos of players on the sideline or on the bench, coaches on the sideline, candids before and after the game, and player and team portraits.

Auto-Focus Continuous Mode (AF-C)

This mode is best for in-game action soccer photography shpts. This means that the camera is constantly looking to find focus instead of locking into a single point of focus. 

Auto-Focus Automatic Mode (AF-A)

This mode is basically a hybrid of AF-S and AF-C modes. The camera senses movement and decides for you which mode is best.

Which auto-focus settings should I use?

When shooting action soccer photography: You should use AF-C mode exclusively. This mode is best for sports and continuous action. Once you set your camera to this mode, you should not have to change it. There are, however, other settings to the auto-focus process that you should know about:

Focus vs Release Priority

The Focus Priority setting tells the camera to only take a picture if the sensor believes it has locked in focus. This does not necessarily mean it locked focus on the exact subject area yu want. It only means that it is focused on something.

The Release Priority setting allows the camera to fire a shot regardless if the sensor detects it has achieved auto-focus. I choose this setting because it allows me to shoot in quick continuous bursts. In some cases there are photos in that burst that are out of focus. But it it at least captures the entire sequence regardless of focus. In digital photography it does not matter if I shoot 100 photos or 10000 photos (other than the time it takes to sort and make my picks). I personally would rather have that option.

Back Button Auto-Focusing

Back Button Auto-Focusing refers to the act of separating the function of focusing and opening the shutter into 2 separate button actions. The advantage of this is to provide maximum flexibility in switching between AF-S and AF-C modes which can be very advantageous when shooting a variety of motion type of shots during a soccer match.

Back Button Autofocus means you can follow a moving player in the frame simply by holding down the AF-On button. If you want to switch to a AF-S shot you just position the focus where you want it and release the AF-On button.

To set up back button focus on a Canon DSLR, locate the Custom Controls or C. Fn option in the menu/then select the shutter button/AF-On option. Under this menu, two options will set up back button focus.

For Nikon, in the camera menu, go to the custom setting menu. Go to autofocus/AF activation /AF-On. Then press OK. Now you can use the AF-On button on the back of the camera to use it. On older Nikon models, there is no AF-On button. You will need to reassign another button at the back of the camera instead. Find the back button focus option under the Custom Settings menu and then the Controls section. Choose Assign AE-L/AF-L button and scroll down to AF-On. Press OK and then the AE-L/AF-L button at the back of the camera now acts like an AF-On button for back button focusing.

Focus Tracking with LockOn

Another setting on your DSLR is called Focus Tracking. This is a feature that allows your camera to auto-focus and lock on a subject and then for a period of time it will maintain auto-focus on that subject as it moves through your frame. This setting is incredibly valuable for action soccer photography. I tend to adjust this setting based on the speed of the game. For smaller kids the game play is very slow so I set this setting to a slower setting. It allows me to lock on and keep locked on for a few seconds. For professional soccer where the game play is faster, I use a quicker focus tracking as it will quickly change. With practice you will get a feel for what setting value works for you.

This sequence is an example of where focus tracking maintained focus in the primary subject (the player in white). Notice how despite where she is in the frame, focus is maintained throughout.

This sequence is an example of where focus tracking maintained focus in the primary subject (the player in white). Notice how despite where she is in the frame, focus is maintained throughout.

Where should I focus?

One of the advantages of shooting the game of soccer is there are a finite amount of objects to focus on. You have players, the ball, goal posts, and corner flags. But your primary focus will always be on the players with or without the ball.

As a good rule of thumb it is great to apply your focus point at the chest of the player. From a longer focal length, even at a wide open aperture (which creates a shorter depth of field) you will still typically have the players full body as well as the ball if its at their feet in full focus.

 These are the settings that I use and have had success using to grab engaging action soccer photos. But there is no right or wrong way to do it. If you have any other tips, I want to know them! Email me here or message me on instagram. I would love to continue the conversation.