Sony RX10iv: focus lessons from the field.

I am just back from a month of travel which took me and my trusty RX10iv to southern Portugal, the Dry Tortugas, and the Erie shore of Northern Ohio (for migrant birds). I am still experimenting with focus modes to get the most out this camera in different situations.

In southern Portugal, has in most places in Europe, it is hard to get close to birds. Many of the birds you see are either small and distant, or big and really distant (as in eagles flying high on the thermals). Also, at least where we were, by mid-morning there is significant heat shimmer over the fields and pastures and seashore, which makes any auto-focus mode problematic. In those conditions, I found, after experimenting with several different modes, that wide-frame tracking auto focus worked as well as anything. I was able, when needed, to pin the initial focus point down by touching the screen, but most of the time the camera locked on to the subject within a few seconds and held long enough for a series of shots. Keeping the camera in wide area tracking also allowed me to swing up for birds overhead without changing any settings.

a tight crop of a very distant bird in heat haze…even expanded spot flexible focus could not provide reliable focus under these conditions. Great Bustard, one of most sought after European birds

keeping the camera in wide area tracking auto focus allowed me to swing up for BIF. Iberian Magpie.

In the Dry Tortugas, the birds were somewhat closer, and the light was blindingly bright. Again, I found that, in most cases, wide area tracking auto focus did as well as any other setting, and better than most, at focusing on the bird. It takes some getting used to, as the camera often takes a second to seek and find the most obvious target, but if the target is moving at all, as even in a preening bird, it will lock on. And again, you have the advantage of being able to swing to birds in flight without changing any settings.

wide area tracking auto focus in great light in the Dry Tortugas . Brown Noddies.

Not a perfect shot but impossible without wide area tracking auto focus. Sooty Tern

But then I went to Ohio…the famous Magee Marsh boardwalk for migrating warblers and other singing birds. The birds are close…often less then 10 feet…very small and very active. And they are in dense cover…the trees are beginning to leave out, and there are always twigs and brush in the way. In those conditions, I had to revert to my preferred Expanded Spot Flexible Focus (without any tracking). It was the only way to get on the close, active, and too often particularly hidden, birds. On occasion I even had to switch to DMF and focus through foreground foliage and twigs.

Expanded flexible spot was needed here with the bird in a confused surround. Female Cape May Warbler

DMF allowed me to focus right through obscuring foreground foliage. Not a great shot but effective. Northern Oriole.

By the way, when using DMF, I do it backwards. I use the focus ring to get close to focus and then half press the shutter release to kick in auto focus. Only on really rare occasions do I half press to enlarge the subject and focus completely manually. 

So, the take away is that no one focus mode works best all the time. You have to adapt to the situation. And the Sony RX10iv has the options you need in almost any situation.

This will appear as an added chapter in my Sony RX10iv ebook soon.

9 thoughts on “Sony RX10iv: focus lessons from the field.”

  1. Stephen:
    Thank you so much for all the great photos and awesome instructional guides you have developed over the years. I am the happy owner of a Sony RX10iv and have been taking pictures of birds in New Mexico and Colorado for the last six months. I have read and reread your ebooks and blogs and they have been so helpful – thanks!!
    I do have a question about your settings in Polarr. In your Point and Shoot Nature Photography book, the example Polarr edits seem to be:
    Shadow – 70
    Highlights – -18
    Vibrance – 57
    Sharpen – 45
    Clarity – 58

    My question is what are the ranges that you usually work in for each of the adjustments? I think I understand that different light conditions will call for different values, but I am curious as to your presets.

    Thanks again for your generosity in teaching us how to be better photographers.

    1. Indeed, by presets are only “starting points” for each individual image. On bird photographs I often use between 70 and 150 shadow control and between -0 and -20 highlight control. I rarely adjust Vibrance off my preset setting. Sharpen and especially Clarity have to be closely monitored as the ISO of images increases. Low ISO images will respond to the settings above, but higher ISO images will quickly become mottled and I generally cut back on both Clarity and Sharpness to the +10 range. I actually have a separate preset for high ISO birds. 🙂

  2. Steve:

    Thanks for the information, particularly about paying attention to the ISO.

    I have a couple of more questions:
    1. What is your regular setting for Vibrance?
    2. Do you usually have a preset for Dehaze?
    3. Do you have a different set of preset settings for Landscape photographs?

    I am looking forward to your new Ebook.

    1. I use just enough vibrance to make the image pop, without loosing detail in the reds and blues. It is an eyeball thing but rarely more than 60. I am careful with Dehaze as it tends to make the shadows darker…often too dark. I use it as needed only where there is too much blue scatter. I shoot almost all my landscapes in in-camera HDR, and, yes I have a whole other set of presets for various levels of HDR effect. Check the chapter on HDR in my book 🙂

      1. Steve:

        Thanks for the information on Vibrance. I will check the chapter on Landscapes and HDR in the book. And I promise not to bug you too much in the future.

  3. Hello Stephan,

    I downloaded and read your P&S manual yesterday. Thanks for the great tips!

    One question: I understand that you focus with the release button.

    Being left-eyed, I switched off the touch screen because my nose kept interacting with it.
    I learned myself to use a dedicated button for that focussing (the AEL button), which give me the opportunity to point to the subject, press the button and focus.
    After that, I start working on the composition and light metering.

    The downside is that it is not as fast as using the release button for focussing and that in a number of situations of excitement I keep pressing the focus button, thus ruining the focus again…

    Also I problably can’t point to the subject when using the wide area focus mode, something that you do frequently, I understand.

    I must admit that I am not that used yet to letting the camera do most of the work. Reading your book I might put more trust in its capabilities….

    My question: are you familiar with this method, and if so, what are your motivations not to use it?

    1. Placing the focus on a dedicated button (back button focus) only works if you set the main focus control to Auto or Single. Otherwise the focus may or may not hold after pressing the button. Also the camera has to be set in continuous focus to engage the Phase Detect Auto Focus. In single focus the camera only uses Contrast Detection, and in Auto it might or might not use Phase Detection. This can make a difference in both focus speed and accuracy. That is my reasoning. 🙂

      1. Thanks!
        I had my camera either in Continuous or DMF. That worked fine, as far as I remember. About phase and contrast: that I did not realize.

        However: I’m eager to learn, so I reprogrammed the button to AEL and I’m using the focus with the release button again.

        1. In continuous, the focus would have changed as soon as you took the focus square off your subject. DMF only uses Contrast Detection. 🙂

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