Canon DSLR

Understanding Canon EOS 1DX Autofocus (Firmware Ver 2.0.3)

With the recent release of firmware V 2.03 for Canon’s flagship sports and wildlife camera, the EOS 1DX, the camera’s already-excellent autofocus system has taken another step forward, with enhancements to both performance, and configurability.  Before this firmware update, the 1DX already had the best autofocus in any Canon camera.  Although the 1DX shares its AF sensor with the Canon EOS 5Dmk3, it outperforms the smaller camera, mainly due to greater processing power coming from its additional Digic 5+, as well as it’s higher-voltage power supply.  The 1DX also uses information from it’s more sophisticated metering system to aid autofocus calculations.

With the new firmware in place, additional autofocus parameter options mean the 1DX is further differentiated from the Canon 5Dmk3 AF system.  This guide refers to the 1DX although there will be much relevance for users of the 5Dmk3.  Most of the settings and information in this post are directly related to Ai Servo focus operation rather than One Shot focus, and photography of subjects that may be moving.

Getting to understand the autofocus capabilities and set-up of the 1DX can take a little time, depending on which cameras you may have been using before you came to it.

Tawny eagle, Kenya. EOS 1DX and EF 500f4L IS ii, handheld. Ai Servo. Shutter speed 1/3200sec at f5.6, +0.33, Iso 640. Click for larger view

Tawny eagle, Kenya. EOS 1DX and EF 500f4L IS ii, handheld. Ai Servo. Shutter speed 1/3200sec at f5.6, +0.33, Iso 640. Click for larger view


It is quite feasible to just use the 1DX with its Ai Servo parameters set at Default, with spectacularly good results.  However, writing as a wildlife photographer with a liking for moving subjects, there is much benefit to be gained from exploring just how well the camera can be fine-tuned for different AF scenarios involving action.

For me, getting the most from the 1DX AF system involves changing certain parameters for different situations.  I have no magic combination of settings that I find ideal for every kind of moving subject that I photograph, and I also find that different lenses and focal lengths are important factors in how I set up my camera.  I also set up my cameras so that I am able to quickly access the relevant AF menus and parameters, making the necessary changes quick and painless.  When making adjustments to the 1DX AF parameters in order to learn what they do, I find it helpful to change just one parameter at any one time.  That way I am able to understand better the changes brought about by each individual slider rather than changing several at once.

There are several groups of settings that affect different elements of the autofocus system.  These settings are all found in the different tabs under the pink/purple AF menu tab on the 1DX menu.

The AF menu on the 1DX, showing the first AF case.

The AF menu on the 1DX, showing the first AF case.


Three parameters which have a powerful impact on how the AF points behave in terms of responsiveness, interaction and speed are clustered together under the AF Configuration Tool.  By grouping these three parameters in this way, Canon have created 6 presets, which they call AF Cases.  With the new firmware V2.03, two of the three parameters have had their range of settings expanded.

In an earlier post on the 1DX and 5D3 autofocus, I described how I prefer to copy those three parameters into the My Menu tab, where I can access them quickly and easily.  I don’t find that the AF Case presets necessarily match my own choice of settings as a wildlife photographer. While it is possible to go into a Case and modify any or all of the parameters, I found this time consuming in the field.

I fully appreciate that for many shooters, the AF Cases do the trick, and make things easy, which is after all, what they are designed by Canon to do.  Given that I will be fully describing each parameter and what it does on its own, I will not be working through the AF Cases nor trying to relate them to wildlife.

In order to set up my own, custom menu with these AF parameters, I go to the green tab My Menu, and choose the option, Register to My Menu.

Grant Atkinson Canon 5d3 menu

Selecting ‘Register to My Menu’ allows you to choose which menu items you want to group together yourself.


Doing this brings up the all the menu items in a vertical list, and I scroll down until I get to those three AF parameters, that are grouped together in the AF cases.  They are Tracking Sensitivity, Accel./decel. tracking, and AF pt auto switching.  Pressing the Set button will select each parameter, and copy it into your own My Menu tab.  Do that for all three of these parameters.

It takes longer to write up these steps for setting up My Menu than to actually do it on the camera, but I am detailing them clearly, as I am getting many requests from 1DX users who are finding the AF system setup a little intimidating.

Once this is done, merely choosing My Menu will bring up the three AF parameters, along with any other of the menu settings that you might wish to have rapid access to.  You can display a maximum of 6 menu items in My Menu.

Tracking Sensitivity


The screen where adjustments are made to Tracking Sensitivity on the EOS 1DX.


This setting controls how long the camera will ‘wait’ before refocusing, when a new subject/object moves between the camera, and the original subject that was being tracked by the active AF point.  It is one of the most important of the AF parameter adjustments for most wildlife photographers.  The adjustment slider has 5 different positions, with the default setting on 0.  Firmware V.0.3 brings no changes to this slider.


Lappet-faced vulture, Kenya. 1DX and EF 500 f4L IS ii. Shutter speed 1/2500sec at f5, iso 250. Ai servo, Tracking sensitivity -1, handheld. Click for larger view



Lappet-faced vulture, Kenya. 1DX and EF 500 f4L IS ii. Shutter speed 1/2500sec at f5, iso 250. Ai servo, Tracking sensitivity -1, handheld. Click for larger view



Lappet-faced vulture, Kenya. 1DX and EF 500 f4L IS ii. Shutter speed 1/2500sec at f5, iso 250. Ai servo, Tracking sensitivity -1, handheld. Click for larger view


An example to illustrate how Tracking sensitivity works,  might take the form of a flying bird, which you are following with your active AF point placed on the bird. In its flight, the bird passes between a tree that is between the camera and the bird, and it is obscured, for a moment.  If you keep on following the birds motion, which you must, the active AF point will temporarily now be placed on the tree.  With this setting on Responsive +2, it is quite likely that the camera will instantly lock focus on the tree.  Conversely with the setting on Locked-On -2, it is likely that the camera will hold off from refocusing for some time, without attempting to refocus, which may be long enough that when the bird comes out from behind the tree, it is still focused on its earlier lock, and hopefully the bird will not have moved much further away.  This should then allow the bird to be clearly seen in the viewfinder and tracked again more easily.

Another example of when the Locked-On settings will be helpful, is when tracking a fast moving subject with an active AF point on the subject, and you accidentally allow the AF point to slip off the subject.  It can easily happen that it locks onto the background before you are able to rectify your mistake whilst getting your AF point back on the target.  With Tracking sensitivity set to -1 or -2, there will be more time available to relocate the subject, without having the camera lose focus completely or lock onto a distant background.

I find that I several factors may influence when I make changes to the Tracking sensitivity setting, with lens focal length being an important one.

When I am using lenses with focal length of 400mm and above, it can happen that with Tracking sensitivity set to 0, that I may find that I am dropping the focus point off the subject and onto the background, too often.  In such instances, I will typically set Tracking sensitivity to -1.  That is usually enough to stabilize the AF point on my subject for longer.  I have even used settings of -2 at times, although that was only with 600mm or 800mm lenses.  Set like that, tracking sensitivity on Locked-on -1 or -2, will help with keeping the active AF point focused at the subject distance whilst tracking.  This can help prevent the AF locking onto the background.  When that happens with very long focal length lenses, the image in the viewfinder can become so blurred that it is not possible to make out where the subject is, and it usually becomes impossible to relocate the subject in time.  When this happens, it can make using long focal length lenses very frustrating, and the 1DX very effective AF tracking sensitivity adjustment goes a long way towards eliminating this.

With shorter lenses, and focal lengths of 300mm or less, I find that I can comfortably leave Tracking sensitivity on 0.  At these focal length ranges, the amount of defocus is not usually so great that you cannot still see the subject in the viewfinder, and then it is easy enough to get the AF point back on the subject.  Again, if I find that I am frequently getting focused on background or foreground whilst tracking, I may move Tracking sensitivity to -1.

When I first read a description of what Tracking sensitivity does when moved towards Locked On, I wondered to myself why I would not want it set up on -1 or -2 all the time.  I mean, having my AF point stay on target for longer sounds ideal, right?  And Tracking sensitivity adjustment is not only found on the 1DX and 5Dmk3.  The setting can be found in the 70D, 6D, 7D, 1Dmk4, 1Dmk3 and 1DSmk3.  On those cameras, it felt to me that setting AF tracking to the minus side of the slider did indeed keep the AF point from refocusing quickly, but it also slowed down overall AF response which I didn’t like.  On any of those cameras, I don’t go more than one click left of the middle, to minimise this slowdown.

I find that with the 1DX, I am unable to notice any slowdown in re-acquiring or acquiring initial AF, regardless of where I have Tracking sensitivity set.  That said, I usually keep it at 0 for shorter focal lengths, and then between -1 and-2 with long lenses if necessary.

Canon literature mentions that setting Tracking sensitivity to the Locked-On -1 or -2 settings, may result in the AF taking longer to re-acquire focus if focus is lost.  Canon also state that initial AF acquisition is not affected by setting Tracking sensitivity to -1 or -2.

Accelerate/Decelerate Tracking


The screen where adjustments are made to Accelerate/Decelerate tracking on the EOS 1DX.


This parameter affects how the AF deals with the movement of subjects, with the system either being prioritized for predictable, steady, constant speed or rapid, erratic movement in multiple directions.  With firmware V2.03, this parameter has been expanded from a 3 position slider to a 5 position slider, with 0 being the middle position.  Most of the wildlife subjects that I photograph are unpredictable when it comes to speed and direction.  It is also normal for them to change how fast they are moving.  When evaluating the speed of your subject, it is important to take into account the direction of the subjects travel. If a subject is coming towards me, I have to be aware of the relative increase in speed that will occur as that subject gets closer to me and passes you by.  As I like trying to shoot fast-moving subjects, I typically leave the Accelerate/Decelerate setting on 0 or +1.  The +2 setting is for subjects that are changing speed and size in the frame, significantly between consecutive frames. For me typical examples of such subjects would be fast-flying birds, like bee-eaters, or African wild dogs at play.  So far I have not found a need to go as far as +2 with the 1DX, although I have frequently used that +2 setting with the 5Dmk3.

The -1 and -2 settings are newly added with firmware V.2.03, and they make the AF more stable when working with subjects that are moving slower, or at a constant speed. As someone who prefers keeping my cameras in Ai Servo most of the time, selecting -1 or -2 means that I can optimize AF performance on occasions when I am photographing subjects that are not moving around too quickly.  I might choose to do this when my subjects where not changing their location too much from frame to frame.

It would appear that both the Tracking Sensitivity and Accelerate/Decelerate parameters have similar effects, but there is a difference.  Canon literature states that Tracking Sensitivity deals with how quickly the camera reacts to major changes in what the AF point sees, whereas the Accelerate/Decelerate minus settings adjust the AF systems response to minor changes in what the active AF point is seeing.

AF Point Auto Switching


The screen where adjustments are made to AF Point Auto Switching on the EOS 1DX.


This parameter is perhaps less complex in its function than some of the others.  Also, nothing has changed with it since the new firmware has been implemented.  It is only relevant if you are shooting with one of the AF point groupings that utilize more than a single AF point.  There are four such AF area modes available on the 1DX, and they are Expand AF area (1 point+4), Expand AF area Surround (1 point+8), Zone AF and Auto Select AF (61 point).  When you are shooting any one of those AF modes, there may be situations where the AF point that held initial focus is no longer on the subject, due to subject movement or camera movement.  In such instances the camera then hands focus over to the next AF point which detects the subject.  This parameter, AF Point Auto Switching, determines how quickly or slowly that handover from one AF point to the next, takes place.  On the 1DX I have not had need to move this setting beyond 0 which is the default setting.

AF Menu, AF 2

Ai Servo Release (Speed) and Focus Priority


AF 2 Screen where adjustments are made to 1st and 2nd image Release or Focus priority


Moving to the right on the 1DX AF menu brings up the second tab, which deals with timing in a general way.  Here, I can choose whether my camera fires as quickly as possible between frames, or whether it allow more time for focus to take place.  Neither of these two AF parameters are linked to the AF Cases and these adjustments will not affect them nor be affected by them.  With firmware V. 2.03 the settings that control just how this is applied, have been expanded for the 2nd Image Priority adjustments only.

Ai Servo 1st Image Priority

The first menu item here deals with Ai Servo shooting, and the very first image that you take in a burst, only.  Pressing the Set button whilst Ai Servo 1st image priority is highlighted, will take you into the adjustment screen.  Nothing on this screen or slider are changed from the earlier firmware. 


The screen where adjustments are made to timing and focus for the 1st image in an Ai Servo burst on the EOS 1DX


This parameter controls how much time is allowed for focus to take place before the shutter fires, but applies only to the first image in a burst.  The options on the slider go from Release on the left, to Focus on the right.


The screen where adjustments are made to timing and focus for the 1st image in an Ai Servo burst on the EOS 1DX


Moving the slider left, to the Release position, will limit how much time the camera will allow for focus to take place before the image is taken.  The amount of time allowed will only be that which is needed for the camera to fire at its selected frame rate, which may be anything up to 12 frames per second.  With the slider in the Release position, focus tracking will take place (there seems to be some confusion amongst some users whether focus takes place, which it always does), but, once the allocated time is up, the camera will fire the shutter regardless of whether focus was confirmed or not.


The screen where adjustments are made to timing and focus for the 1st image in an Ai Servo burst on the EOS 1DX


Moving the slider all the way to the right, to the Focus position, will mean that in Ai Servo, the camera will allow as much time as needed for focus tracking to confirm BEFORE it allows the shutter to fire.  In reality, what this can mean is that in difficult focus conditions, such as subjects and backgrounds that are similar, or very high speed movement, or very low light, the frame rate of the camera may slow down to allow the extra focusing time.

Simply stated, focus tracking takes place for both the Release option or the Focus option, but with Focus, more time is allowed when needed.  Again, it should be remembered that the setting you choose on this screen applies to the first image in a burst only.  Your own preferences may differ according to your choice of subject matter and your own shooting style, but for me, I choose Release as my first image option.  I know with Release enabled, that I am able to get off my first shot quickly, and with little hesitation.   Whilst setting the option to Focus priority is likely to increase the percentage of in-focus first images, it can also increase the amount of time that it takes to get the first shot off.  Canon recommend the use of the Focus priority setting in very low light situations.

Cheetah cub, Kenya.  Eos 1DX and EF 500f4L IS ii. Shutter speed 1/1000sec at f4, iso 5000. Handheld.  Ai Servo and very low ambient light for action photography.  Click for larger view

Cheetah cub, Kenya. Eos 1DX and EF 500f4L IS ii. Shutter speed 1/1000sec at f4, iso 5000. Handheld. Ai Servo and very low ambient light for action photography. Click for larger view


The middle option on this screen is a balance between the two extremes.

(The settings and parameters for Ai Servo 1/2nd image priority here should not be confused with the 1DX ability to fire at 14 fps when set to jpg quality and with no AF focus tracking taking place between frames at all – a rather bizarre feature which I have no use for).


AF 2 Screen where adjustments are made to 1st and 2nd image Release or Focus priority


Ai Servo 2nd Image Priority

The second menu item on this AF 2 tab deals with Ai Servo shooting, and the timing versus focus priority for the second image and every subsequent one in a burst.  Once you lift your finger up off the shutter button, it signals the end of that burst, (and 2nd Image setting), and the next image taken will then be the first image in what the camera sees as a new burst.

With two separate sets of controlling sliders, Canon make it possible for you to configure your camera AF timing exactly to your own liking, and to tailor it to different AF shooting situations.


The screen where adjustments are made to timing and focus for the 2nd and all following images in an Ai Servo burst on the EOS 1DX


With firmware V.2.03, the Ai Servo 2nd image priority slider has expanded on both ends, with 5 positions now to choose from (as opposed to only 3 with the earlier firmware or the 5Dmk3).

With this slider, you are again choosing how much time is allowed for focus to take place between each frame in a burst, after the first image (the timing of which is controlled by Ai Servo 1st Image Priority setting).


The screen where adjustments are made to timing and focus for the 2nd and all following images in an Ai Servo burst on the EOS 1DX


Moving the slider to the left, to the Release position, limits how much time the camera allows for focus to occur before the image is taken.  The time allowed being only what is needed for the camera to fire at its selected frame rate (which may be anything up to 12 frames per second).  In the Release position, focus tracking will still take place, (as it always does).  The difference is that one the allocated time is up, the camera will fire the shutter regardless of whether focus is confirmed or not.


The screen where adjustments are made to timing and focus for the 2nd and all following images in an Ai Servo burst on the EOS 1DX


Moving the slider all the way toward Focus, +2, will result in focus being heavily prioritized with every frame from the second one onwards in an Ai Servo burst.  The camera will delay firing until it confirms focus, or as close to it as it can come.  This should result in more in-focus shots in a burst.  However, choosing the +2 option can also result in the 1DX slowing down during a burst, and the frame rate changing.  This may happen in response to difficult conditions where it is difficult for Ai Servo AF to confirm focus and is perfectly normal.  If you are not accustomed to it, it may feel as if the camera is lagging behind the shutter release.  Canon recommend the use of this +2 setting for very low light situations, to improve tracking accuracy.  The male lion image below this text serves as a good example of the low light prowess of the 1DX.  Even though the pre-dawn light was almost non-existent, it locked onto the lions eye using a single AF point instantly.

Male lion, Kenya.  EOS 1DX and EF 500f4L IS ii, handheld.  Shutter speed 1/100sec at f4, iso 5000.  Very low ambient light levels, shot with Ai Servo.   Click for larger view

Male lion, Kenya. EOS 1DX and EF 500f4L IS ii, handheld. Shutter speed was only 1/100 sec at f4, iso 5000. Very low ambient light levels, shot with Ai Servo.  Click for larger view


The in-between settings on the slider, which are -1,0 and +1, are fairly straightforward to understand, with 0 being an equal balance between release speed and focus priority.

I find that for my own shooting preferences, I tend toward opting for the 0 choice here with the 1DX, or I may move to +1 if I find that I am getting too many shots from bursts that are not properly focused.  The camera is so fast that I don’t mind if ultimate speed is not maintained, as I still end up with more in-focus frames when I am using the 1DX  than I do with any other Canon dslr.

AF Menu AF 4

AF Menu AF 4

AF Menu AF 4, with the setting for EOS Intelligent Tracking highlighted


There are several menu items in the AF 4 screen that I find important to my style of shooting.

The first item in this row is labelled ‘Auto AF Point Selection: EOS iTR AF.’  This setting enables intelligent tracking, which is effective only when using the Auto 61 point AF option.  Choosing ON will mean that the AF system will attempt face detection as well as make use of colour information from the meter to aid AF tracking.  As I don’t often personally use the Automatic 61 pt AF option, preferring to have more control over where my camera focuses, I set this to OFF.

‘Lens Drive when AF is impossible’ is the next menu item moving down.  I choose to set that to ON.  What this setting does is keep the AF drive going even when the lens has become so deeply out of focus, that the subject may be difficult to see, for the AF and through the viewfinder.  This is something that tends to be more relevant for very long focal length lenses, like 500mm and over.  Switching it to OFF may result in the lens drive stopping if it becomes deeply defocused, with the idea that it is better to have it stop instead of hunting back and forth.  I find that a bit unsettling, and prefer to keep the lens drive active, and do my part to keep the lens focused on something big and with lots of contrast that may be close to the subject, even if I cannot locate the subject itself immediately.


AF Menu 4, with the setting for Selectable AF point highlighted


‘Selectable AF Point’ – pressing Set here will take you into a screen of options.  The EOS 1DX has 61 AF points.  This provides quite extensive coverage of the frame.


The EOS 1DX screen where the number of available AF points can be set, with the maximum of 61 points option highlighted here


Selecting this option will mean that all 61 are available for you to select from.  The centre point, along with the two above and two below it, are ultra-precise diagonal cross-type points, that function as such when paired with an f2.8 or faster lens.  There is an extensive list in the 1DX manual (and 5dmk3) of exactly which points function as cross-type and non-cross type with which lenses.


The EOS 1DX screen where the number of available AF points can be set, with the 41 cross-type points option highlighted here


Selecting this option will mean that only the more sensitive cross-type points are available.  There are 41 cross type points.  Note that some coverage is lost, most importantly on the left and right sides of the AF grid.  All other things being equal, cross-type AF points should be more accurate than non-cross types which are disabled in this option.  Having fewer points also means it is easier to move around the grid.

Selecting either 15 or 9 AF points from the menu, reduces the number of points and coverage even further.  With fewer steps to make between points, it becomes easier to move the AF point from one part of the frame to another, although the 15 and 9 pt options reduce coverage of the frame significantly, especially toward the edges.

In my own shooting, I tend to keep all 61 available or sometimes just the 41 cross-types, when I might need to move about the grid a bit faster.

AF Area Selection Modes


AF Menu 4, with the setting for Selectable AF area highlighted


Pressing Set on this menu item will take you into the next screen, which displays all 6 different AF areas available.  As these different ways of utilizing the AF points can be very advantageous for action photography, I will go through each mode describing advantages and disadvantages as I experience them.  In the controlling screen shown below, it is possible to enable or disable any of the modes that you might not like using.  That way, you can minimize time spent cycling through options that you don’t normally use.

AF Area mode selection screen with all options enabled

AF Area mode selection screen with all options enabled. Removing a check mark disables that mode


Spot AF is the first option, which is a single point, shown on the rear screen, and inside the viewfinder, as a black square with a circle within.


Spot AF, centre point selected, note the circle within a square symbol


With Spot AF, the actual size of the active part of the single AF sensor is reduced.  It has it’s main use in situations where there may be a lot of distracting structure around the subject, as in shooting between blades of grass or bushes.  It is a precise AF mode, but as the size of the active sensor is quite small, it will usually not be the best choice for fast moving subjects, and it is easy to drop tracking of a moving subject using this mode.  Also, the name Spot AF is unfortunate, as it creates confusion with Spot Metering, which is an entirely different thing.  In Spot AF, the active point is chosen by the user, and moved manually one step at a time.


Single point AF, note the empty square symbol


Single point AF or one point AF, employs a single, normal-sized point that offers accurate and precise AF.  On the rear screen, and in the viewfinder, it shows as a single, empty square. I use it all the time, for everything I photograph.  Using Single pt AF, I can be almost certain that if I get the point positioned correctly on the subject, I will get a sharp result.  With only a single point to read data from, Ai Servo AF response is also rapid. Drawbacks to using Single point AF are only that it can take a long time to shift the selected point from one side of the grid to the other.  I also sometimes find it difficult to pick up birds against a sky background with just the single point.  If I do manage to get the single point onto such a subject quickly, I usually get good results.  In Single pt AF, the active point is chosen by the user, and moved manually one step at a time.

AF Expansion, one plus four points

AF Expansion, one plus four points, the highlighted empty square is where AF will start


AF Point expansion (four surrounding points) displays in the viewfinder and on the rear screen as a single, empty square, with four black squares each containing a circle within, surrounding it.   Using this AF mode means that I can choose an AF point, and focus will begin with the point that I have selected, wherever that may be on the grid.  The active point shows in the grid as the empty square.  Focus will continue with my original point, until I move it off the target, when focus should be handed over to the surrounding points.  This can be a good balance between precise AF performance and some additional coverage, which can help with moving subjects especially.  A disadvantage is that it can take a while to move from one side of the grid to the other. With AF point expansion (4) the active point is chosen by the user, and moved manually one step at a time.


AF Expansion, one plus eight points, the highlighted empty square is where AF will start


AF Point expansion (eight surrounding points) displays in the viewfinder and on the rear screen as a single, empty square, with eight black squares each containing a circle within, surrounding it.   Using this AF mode means that I can choose an AF point, and focus will begin with the point that I have selected, wherever that may be on the grid.  The active point in the group shows as the empty square.  Focus will continue with my original point, until I move it off the target, when focus should be handed over to the surrounding points.  Whilst this option offers quite expansive coverage, I find it a little slower in response when compared with AF Point Expansion (4 points) .  It also suffers a little in that it can take a while to move from one side of the grid to the other.  With AF point expansion (8) the active point is chosen by the user, and moved manually one step at a time.


AF Zone focus mode, note all points show as squares with circles within


Zone AF displays in the viewfinder and rear screen as a group of 9 AF points, with each black square containing a circle.  While it looks similar at first to AF Expansion (8Pts), there are big differences.  With AF Zone, I can choose where I place the block of AF points, but the camera will choose which AF point gets focus from those in the group.  In the viewfinder, I can see which point has found focus, as the inner circle within the square disappears.  With AF Zone  have control over where I wish to place the group of points.  I find AF Zone to be very useful for focusing larger subjects, as well as for birds against a clear sky.  Unlike 61 point AF, with AF Zone I can control where I place the group of points.  AF Zone is not always the best choice when I am very close to a subject, as it is not as precise as Single point AF.  It works best when I have a little more depth of field.  With AF Zone, moving the block of AF points around the grid is very quick, as it moves a whole block at a time.  With AF Zone, the active AF point is chosen by the camera, and the cluster of points moved manually, one whole block of points at a time.


Auto Select 61 point AF, with the point where AF will begin, showing as a larger, highlighted empty square


Auto Select 61 Point AF displays in the viewfinder and the rear screen as small empty squares, with the selected or active AF point showing as a larger empty square.   Using Auto Select 61 pt means that I can choose where focus begins by manually selecting any AF point.  The active point in the group shows as the empty square.  Focus will continue with my original point, until I move it off the target, or the target moves, at which point will then be handed over to the surrounding points.  The Auto Select 61 pt option offers quite expansive coverage, and is generally at its best when tracking bigger subjects, or subjects with lots of contrast, against backgrounds that are very different to the subject, which makes AF easier.  Birds flying in a clear sky are an example.  A drawback of using Auto Select 61 pt AF is that focus may not always lock on the part of the subject that I want to have in focus. To make use of Canon’s iTR (intelligent tracking function), which is designed to work with Auto Select af 61, make sure to turn the setting ‘Auto AF pt sel: EOS iTR to ON,’ from the AF menu AF 4, as detailed in the text above.   At the time of writing, I have not found iTR to be that useful for style of wildlife photography.  When focus tracking with Auto Select AF 61 and iTR on, it is possible that AF response may be slowed slightly under certain difficult AF conditions.  With Auto Select AF 61 pt, the initial AF point can be manually chosen by the user, and then further tracking will take place with the camera choosing the AF point.

To switching between these different AF areas whilst shooting, it simply done by just pressing in the AF button which is located on the top right of the back of the 1DX, and identified by a white cross symbol inside a white square.  It is not necessary to hold this button in, pressing and letting it go activates the M.Fn button for about two seconds.


Right rear view of EOS 1DX, with the AF button beneath the white horizontal cross symbol


After pushing the AF  button once, within a couple of seconds, press the small M.Fn button which is located right beside the shutter release.  This will cycle you through all of the AF area options that you have enabled for your camera.


Front view of the M.Fn button, just above the shutter release, which switches between AF Area modes


Returning to the AF 4 menu, and more changes that firmware V.2.03 brings to the 1DX, can be found with the ‘Orientation linked AF point feature.’ 


AF 4 Menu, with the ‘Orientation linked AF point’ highlighted


Orientation linked AF point is a feature that allows users to register a particular AF point and AF area (like Single, Expanded or Zone) in one location for horizontal shooting, and then another AF point and AF area in another location, for vertical shooting.  Once this is done, simply rotating the camera in the hand from horizontal to vertical will cause the active AF point to switch to the location and AF area that was selected in the Orientation screen. 


Screen for selecting different Orientation linked AF point options on the EOS 1DX


With the new firmware, there are now expanded options that control whether changing the AF area for one orientation automatically does  so for the other, or they remain separated.  Given that there is not very much predictability with the wildlife subjects that I shoot, I prefer to not make use of the orientation linked AF point feature and keep it disabled.


AF 4 Menu, with ‘Initial AF Pt Ai Servo’ highlighted


‘Initial AF pt, Ai Servo AF’ is new for firmware V2.03, and relates entirely to the use of Auto Select 61 pt AF.  If you are shooting with any of the AF area modes where you are selecting the location of the AF point, like Spot AF, Single pt Af and Expand AF, and you switch quickly to Auto Select 61 Pt AF, you can now choose one option (Manual)  whereby the location of your last AF point in one of the other AF areas is carried through to become the new AF starting point location in Auto Select 61 Pt.


Screen for selecting Initial AF pt options on the EOS 1DX


Opting for the alternative setting will discard the location of the point in the earlier AF area mode, and require you to select one AF point for 61 pt tracking to begin focusing with. With these new settings, it becomes possible to switch to Auto Select 61 Pt AF from another AF area mode without having to relocate your last focus point, and this can be accomplished without looking away from the viewfinder.

AF Menu AF 5


AF 5 Menu on the EOS 1DX


The first four items in the AF 5 menu really do not have any effect on how the 1DX AF behaves, but are there to enable users to set up the AF point display in the viewfinder, to their own liking.  Getting it right for your own preferences is simply a matter of trying each option, looking through the viewfinder, and making your choices.  When I shoot with a 1DX I typically configure screen and AF point view as selected in the image above this text.

Using the Multi-controller for AF point selection


EOS 1DX Custom Control screen, accessed via Custom Function menu, with the symbol for the Multi-controller highlighted


With the 1DX, as well as the 5Dmk3, it is possible to select or change AF points by means of the multi-controller which is the little joystick that is located to the top right of the rear LCD, on the back of the camera.  In default setup, you first have to press the AF button on the far right on the back of the camera in order to activate the multi-controller.  If, like me, you would prefer to do away with that extra step, just go to the orange C.Fn menu, find Custom Controls and select the symbol for the multi-controller, which is the very bottom right of the list of controls.


Option screen for selecting direct function for the Multi-controller on the EOS 1DX


Choose the AF symbol as shown in the image above, and press Set.  Now, the multi-controller will be activated for direct operation.  Just touch the camera shutter to make sure the camera is switched on, and the multi-controller can be used directly to select the AF point, without having to first push the AF button.  This makes moving the AF point that much less time consuming and more intuitive.

The 1DX has the most powerful AF system put into any Canon camera at the time of writing, and it is expanded and enhanced with firmware V2.03.  It is very effective, even in the Default settings.  However, there are so many ways to tailor it for specific  AF scenarios, that it is well worth a little effort in getting to understand what it can do.

It is also important to remember that the photographer’s tracking skills and technique play a big role in how effective a camera like the 1DX can be.  For many photographers, including myself, practising my subject tracking skills is something I need to do often, or else my success rates go down.

I have used the following Canon L-series lenses on the EOS 1DX:  Canon EF 17-40L f4, EF 70-200L f2.8 IS ii, EF 70-300L f4-5.6 IS, EF 300L f2.8 IS, EF 500L f4 IS ii.

I don’t seek to present myself here as any kind of all-knowing expert on the AF system, but rather a wildlife photographer who gets to shoot a whole lot with a wide variety of subject matter.  As such, I am happy to share what I have learned about the camera’s autofocus system so far.  I can honestly say without any doubt, that each time I use the 1DX for action photography, I come away with more properly focused shots than with any other Canon camera.


About the Author:

I am a guide and a photographer, with a deep interest in all things to do with nature. I am based in Cape Town, South Africa, but travel often to wild places whilst leading photographic safaris, and enjoying the outdoors.

82 Responses to “Understanding Canon EOS 1DX Autofocus (Firmware Ver 2.0.3)”

  1. Steve Uffman Says: April 1, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Very well done Grant. A huge effort by you that will help many. I want to experiment with the tracking settings you use for focal lengths. Plus double ck my settiings on release/focus priority. Two addl things that i do on the 1dx. I register the an alternate af strategy to my dof preview. I do it to be active while i am holding it. Usually its af expansion. Helpful with birds in flight and low contrast situations. The other thing i do is reprogram the set key to zoom. That helps me quickly assess focus quality on an image.

    Now can you do the same for the 5diii. 😉

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 1, 2014 at 3:32 pm

      Hi Steve, thanks for the extra information you have added. There are several options to utilize buttons that you may not use for anything else, to activate an AF area mode that you may need to switch to in a hurry.
      And making the SET button the zoom in button is also easy to use. I usually make the Set button activate Exposure Compensation when I am in Manual mode with Auto Iso engaged.
      I probably need to do another post on alternative settings for 1DX controls. None of the things we have mentioned in your reply and mine are available on the 5d3.
      Thanks again 🙂

      • Steve Uffman Says: April 17, 2014 at 2:38 am

        Have moved away from the set button to zoom as the magnifying glass is there and easy..Using now for changing the ISO….have to play with the exposure compensation in the Auto ISO mode to see how that works.

        • Grant Atkinson Says: April 17, 2014 at 7:06 am

          Hi Steve, using the SET button for changing Exp Compensation means you can make the change without looking away from the viewfinder. It does require that you hold the SET button pushed in whilst rotating the top dial at the same time…which isn’t that easy for folk with smaller hands.
          The other option, is to press the Q button, which is right between the rear LCD and the big Quick Command Dial and right under my thumb, which displays all camera settings in the rear LCD. Make sure the Exposure meter window is highlighted, then just turn the QCD right or left to dial in compensation. Touch the shutter and shoot. Using this method, I do have to look away from the viewfinder to see what I am doing on the rear LCD screen. I also make sure to leave the Exposure meter highlighted as my last location when I leave the Q-button settings, that way if I need to change compensation again it opens right up in the correct location when I press the Q-button.

  2. nero355 Says: April 1, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    You forgot to mention that the “shutterspeed wheel” can be used instead of M.Fn to select the AF point/area type and also works a lot faster and feels more logical than the M.Fn button 🙂

    The 1DX and 5DMKIII both have this option.

    Really mis that on my 7D 🙁

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 1, 2014 at 3:46 pm

      Thanks for that Nero
      You are totally right that the top Main Dial can be assigned to selecting the AF Area mode by rotating it, immediately after pressing the AF button on the top right back side of the camera. The only negative I have noted when using this method is that if you accidentally don’t push the AF button in all the way, and then spin the top Main Dial expecting to switch AF Areas, you can inadvertantly change the aperture setting instead. So I am happy to stick to the M.Fn button, but I fully understand that others prefer the dial. Good to have choices
      Thanks again Nero 🙂

  3. Steve Uffman Says: April 1, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    nero355 You can use the toggle to set focus points on the 7d…..that way all your cameras can be sort of similar

  4. John Nelson Says: April 1, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    We’ll done grant!cant wait to field test these made it so simple and easy to understand!thanks lot

  5. Daron Wyatt Says: April 3, 2014 at 7:45 am


    Thank you so much. I have been waiting anxiously for this post. I am leaving for South Africa in 4 weeks for my first trip with the 1Dx. Can’t wait! I have a question about lens/body combinations. I have a 1Dx, a 5dmk3, and a 7D. My longest lens is a 300 2.8is version 1, but I have both the 1.4 and 2x converters. I also have the 70-200 2.8is v2 and the 16-35. I was thinking about keeping the 300 on the 1Dx with the 2x, the 70-200 on the 7D, and the 16-35 on the mk3. Would you have a different suggestion?

    Thanks again,


    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 3, 2014 at 8:37 am

      Hi Daron
      You have a good plan here, and a good set of equipment for the trip. The 1DX will do the best when matched with either the 1.4x or the 2x extender, and give away the least hit when it comes to AF performance and image quality.
      Depending on how close you can get to the wildlife, I would also perhaps try to use the 5dmk3 more than the 7D. I typically want to be making the most that I can of those full-frame sensors image quality advantage, so I would tend toward shifting the crop sensor camera to the focal lengths I was using least at the time. I do realize that will impact how wide the 16-35 is cropped, but changing lenses in the field isn’t impossible.
      I would also look to be using the 1DX and 5Dmk3 as primary options very early in the morning, when light is low, and again in the low light of the late afternoon, or on overcast days.

      That would be my approach if I were travelling with those 3 bodies, which I almost do some days (sometimes a 70D in place of the 7D)

  6. Jean François Poudron Says: April 4, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Hi Grant,
    Many thanks for this update.
    I have been to the Sabi Sand 2 weeks ago.1Dx was combined with 200-400.
    Same conclusion : good results on cats with tracking sensitivity -1 and Accel/Decel 0 (or +1 with low light)

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 4, 2014 at 4:20 pm

      Hey there Jean Francois, thanks so much for sharing your experience, always good to hear that similar settings produced the goods for you!

  7. Melissa groo Says: April 5, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Grant, this is fantastically informative and you Are very kind to tAke the time to lay this all out.i recently got a 1dx and have felt very confused by the options. This should sort me out. Thanks very much!

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 6, 2014 at 8:24 am

      Hi Melissa, I hope the text is useful in helping you get your 1DX set-up just as you want it…though your images are so good already 🙂
      Thanks for writing here

  8. willem dekker Says: April 6, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Hi Grant, thanks for this article very helpful. Question, are you using back button focus in the 1DX all the time? Or are you selective in applying it. All the best from Hamburg. Hope that we can catch up one day. Have a nice sunday. Willem

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 6, 2014 at 10:20 am

      Hi Willem
      Thanks for writing here :-). I only use back-button focus in very specific situations where I need to spend long periods waiting for a subject to move through a preset ‘band’ of focus.
      I normally focus using the shutter release button and i configure the AF-On button to actually stop AF, so that when in Ai Servo (which is most of the time) I can just hold that in on the odd occasions when I might need to lock and recompose. Back-button focus works great for many people, but my personal preference is to use the shutter button. That may be because I shoot handheld most of the time, often with quite heavy lenses, and don’t have very big hands…as such I don’t like weakening my grip with how far I have to stretch.
      Will get a post going on back-button focus and other options one of these days?
      What do you shoot with…back button or shutter release?

  9. Jaco de Klerk Says: April 6, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks Grant,
    I missed the firmware update until I read your post on ODP.. have now made minor tweaks to my own settings.
    Have been happy with the 1dx AF-wise, and perhaps a bit complacent too as I hardly ever fiddle with the settings. Like nero I too use the main dial to select AF mode – and reserve the M-Fn button to quickly change C1-C2-C3, which I have set up for different shooting conditions.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 6, 2014 at 4:30 pm

      Hi Jaco
      Thanks for that, definitely worthwhile taking time to explore just how you can set up the camera to suit your own preferences…with so many controls and buttons that can be changed around or re-configured, the 1DX offers the greatest range of options in Canon’s current camera range.

  10. Basil Stathoulis Says: April 6, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Thanks Grant, you have expounded the virtues of the 1DX’s amazing focus system very well. Thank you for all the effort. I had a big problem getting humming birds in flight. That really pushed the tracking to its limit because of speed and erratic movements. Thank you for expelling this so clearly. Regards, Basil

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 7, 2014 at 2:59 pm

      Hi Basil, thanks for your feedback, and I hope you come right with your hummingbird imagery…things don’t get a whole lot faster than they are!

  11. Jim Palfrey Says: April 7, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Hi Grant I have only had my 1dx for 4 or 5 days and would like to say how much your article helped me understand the intricacies of the AF system. Being a very keen bird photographer myself I will attempt to put your tips to good use in the future. Thanks again


  12. Tim Driman Says: April 19, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Hi Grant, We have just return from having spent six days with Guts on the boat in Chobe.

    I used my 1DX coupled to my 200mm-400mmf4+1.4X for the first time in earnest ( Alongside a 1DMkiv / 70mm-200mmf2.8 ii) and was very disappointed to discover a number of the images on the 1DX to be soft when put on a big screen.( Only after I got home because I don’t take a laptop to check on site…)
    Lesson No1: Take along a laptop to view every day’s efforts…You can rectify any problems when they occur and not waste a trip )

    I contacted Roger Machin of Canon SA in JHB and he referred me to your recent postings on the auto focus of the 1DX.

    Revisiting my settings I discovered that the 1DX gives more focal point options than my 1D Mkiv’s, which I have been using with great success, and found that I had set my focal point as a central point plus the four little corner points as a cluster, because I wanted a little more latitude when shooting birds moving through the air….

    I analysed my “soft” images and discovered that the edges of the cluster had touched reeds, grass etc, causing the images to be soft…

    Lesson No2: When shooting eg: a Jacana with chicks in the reeds, you have to be extremely accurate in ensuring that the peripheral clutter is not detected by the AF system of the camera…The fine settings are crucial in such circumstances

    ‘Von and I have booked for your Carmine safari in October, and are really looking forward to joining you… Hopefully I should have mastered this new body ( For me ) by then… 😉

    Thanks for your detailed and most informative articles of the AF of this amazing piece of equipment.


    I have since reset my focal point to just the centre point

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 20, 2014 at 8:55 am

      Hi Tim
      Interesting feedback from you regarding the 1DX and also your experiences with the 1Dmk4. Both cameras have great AF systems, although I feel that the 1DX is pretty much superior in most ways. Although the 1Dmk4 also offers options for shooting with more than one AF point, in C.Fn III:8 AF Expansion, the choices are 3 pts, 9 pts or all 45, and one big difference is the AF system interface between the two cameras. With the 1Dmk4, you had to go digging in the menu to change between any of these options. With the 1DX, the beauty of the AF system is that it is simply a one or two button push, without even looking away from the viewfinder, to change them in the field. This means that just as soon as you get comfortable with changing between Single Pt and any other AF Area modes that you like using, it can be done on the fly. So with the 1DX you don’t have to choose one kind of AF area and be stuck with it, you can select in a moment the AF area best suited to your current subject and its surroundings.
      For my own shooting, so far I have found that the two AF Areas that I like shooting with the most are Single AF Point and AF Zone (which is the 9pt cluster that can be moved around quick and easy). So I disable all the other 4 (Spot AF, AF Expansion 4+1, AF Expansion 8+1, and 61 Pt AF) which means I have just Single AF Pt and AF Zone to cycle through in my choices. So I may be tracking a bird flying low against the ground, with a difficult background, and I will be using Single Pt AF, which I like in such instances, and I am expecting that bird to fly up and into the blue sky when it gets closer to me. Whilst continuing to track it and just by pressing a couple of buttons (you can customize which buttons yourself with the 1DX), and without looking away, I can switch to AF Zone (the group of AF points) for tracking that same bird as it moves away from the busy background and into the sky (where I find AF Zone to track it much easier).
      It is not my aim to say my choices will work for everybody, nor do I say that they are the only methods. The fantastic thing about the 1DX is that you can tailor it exactly to suit your own preferences. If you were having good success with the Expanded 1+4 AF point for birds, keep it as one of your choices, along with Single Pt AF, and get comfortable and quick at switching between them. As Steve mentions in his response to your post below, there are a number of buttons that you can assign on the 1DX to momentarily engage a different choice of AF Points whilst you hold those buttons in. Choices aplenty.
      Looking forward to the carmine photo safari in October, that is going to give us a serious workout with our tracking skills and bird in flight opportunities :-), and the 1DX is one of the best cameras to use for them.
      Feel free to ask if there things that are unclear either in my website posts for the autofocus, or the Canon literature as mentioned by Steve below

  13. Steve Uffman Says: April 19, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    Tim, I have had the 1dx since it came out and do lots of BIF….I have a hot key (DOF) button with the point expansion registered to it. I shoot single point and then if the bird is in the air, I often press the DOF button which gives me expanded until I release it…Wonderful tool to do what you are talking about… See page 45 .

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 20, 2014 at 8:56 am

      Hi Steve
      Thanks for that link, and the tip for using the DOF button in a more useful way 🙂

  14. Tim Driman Says: April 20, 2014 at 10:05 am

    Hey Grant and Steve,

    Thanks so much guys….I now just need to get this operational and practice until it becomes second nature….

    Much appreciated.

    Tim D.

  15. Steve Uffman Says: April 20, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Tim, Grant has done a wonderful job on this piece and I have referred others to it. And as he said, the settings are not for everyone. I tell people they are personalizing their camera not deviating from some standard-the cameras are meant to be personalized to how one likes to work best- which is Grant’s point.

    Like Grant, I don’t use all the AF strategies, so I turn some of them off so I don’t have to scroll through them. Of course, I can simply activate them if I am entering a scenario where they would be useful.

    I do the same thing for the metering….I only ever use evaluative and matrix so IMO, I can save time scrolling by not having partial or average registered.

  16. Steve Uffman Says: April 20, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Oops. I meant evaluative and spot!

  17. Tim Driman Says: April 20, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Hi Steve, Absolutely……Grant is a legend…..

    It took me a while to fathom out, but I have since preset a single AF point and also a 9 point AF cluster which I can flip between with just one touch of the DOF button when required…

    I was in Chobe last week photographing African Jacana and chicks on lilly pads, with water grass etc interfering, which made the images soft…

    Only after a long chat to Roger Machin ( Canon SA ) and close scrutiny of the soft images, did it dawn on me that the wider AF setting were collecting periferal clutter ( even a single blade of water grass)…The average focus across all nine points caused the images to be soft.

    With the new settings, I can now use a single AF point and get everything of my intended subject pin-sharp.. If a bird flies I can flip to the other AF option and use the AF cluster to enlarge my focus area and give me a better chance to lock onto the flying subject.

    Do you have a Face Book page?

    Thanks again for your kind input…Much appreciated.

    Best regards

  18. Tim Driman Says: April 20, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Hi Steve, I also use Evaluative Metering permanently… And now, Auto ISO ….My White Balance is permanently set at “Shadow” because I like the warmth, even though LiteRoom 5.4 can do the adjustments easily…

    While on the subject of settings, I have never found success using AV… I prefer to use the TV setting and then through the view finder, set the shutter speed ( One the 200mm-400mmf4+1.4X ) so I achieve f6.3 / f7.1 ….That coupled with the Auto ISO seems to work OK for me…

    On the 1DMkiv with the 70mm-200mmf2.8ii, I set a speed through the view finder, to achieve f4 / f5.6 which seems to give me the maximum and achieve sharp action images…

    By going to full manual, I still feel that it is a little too restrictive when you have literally seconds to react to moving subjects…

    Thanks again and great to share ideas.

    Best regards

    Tim D.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 20, 2014 at 2:40 pm

      Hi Tim
      Glad to read that you are taking full advantage of the 1DX flexibility when it comes to set-up. I also shoot Evaluative metering all the time, and typically use either AV or TV. For my own shooting style, I have not been a fan of full manual, but with Auto Iso enabled, it works well, especially on the 1DX where you can still over or under expose using exposure compensation (with the 1Dmk4 or 5Dmk3, this isn’t really possible).

  19. Tim Driman Says: April 20, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Hi Grant, Many thanks for sharing your knowledge….

    It has been really great to have your input, as well as Steve’s….Both have helped me tremendously.

    Will be back in the bush in a week or so ( Northern KZN ) and will certainly put this to the test.

    Best regards


  20. Steve Uffman Says: April 20, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    Tim, I use the feature of the alternative AF strategy tied to the DOF all the time when shooting birds in flight..also helpful when there is little contrast on a subject and its background or lots of diamond dust that makes AF tough. By expanding the AF points in these situations, it increase the opportunity to find contrast so the AF can function properly

  21. Steve Uffman Says: April 20, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Tim, i use ev but more often spot particularly with the 200-400+ 1.4 tc. But i shoot white birds against dark backgrounds or Bald eagles against light skies Ev can struggle with big ranges of tonality where using spot, i can focus exposing the subject and if the light is the same not have to change the exposure at 200mm or 560mm. Ev however could be be be impacted by the size of the subject in the iimage.

    Now, if its a lion in light brown grasss and the range of tonalities is limited, Ev might work perfectly. I also shoot manual unless the light is changing, then i shoot Av.

    Key pointwhich i think Grant makes is there is no singular way to do it. Main thing is to get proficient in whatever ways you choose

    Now to add to confusion i shot Ev mostly inKenya in 2012 during the dry seasons and it worked well most of the time. When it did not , i should have used spot but i was not proficient with it then

    IMO if you follow Grants advice, you will do very well

  22. Tim Driman Says: April 21, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Hi Steve, Many thanks for your very kind input and guidance…

    I have now set the two AF options which are controlled by the DOF button…Looking forward to putting it to the test soon….

    I am headed to our reserve today just for a meeting and will be back home tomorrow, so will only take one camera in case of anything availing itself…Unfortunately I will have to wait a week or so to have some “me time” in the bush with my toys… ;-).

    Love your Face Book page.


    Tim D

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 21, 2014 at 4:47 pm

      Hi Steve and Tim
      As far as metering goes, I tend to stay with Evaluative. I shoot a variety of subjects, and some are one-toned, others have multiple tones in their coats, like wild dogs, black, white and gold. I make sure to keep an eye on the exposures I am getting by checking my histogram often. So long as my exposure, via Evaluative metering, and typically Aperture Priority, is not giving me blown out highlights, nor extremely dark, then I am happy to shoot away. I prefer to apply my concentration in watching my subject, making sure I have proper focus, and composing properly, rather than getting hung up on a half a stop this way or that exposure adjustments. Shooting this way works for me because I typically get to shoot a variety of subjects, and in changing light, in the course of a day.

  23. Robert Hardy Says: April 21, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Hi Grant
    Great info here and thanks for shareing it.
    one thing that seems odd is that you go to zone AF from single point sometime’s when a bird comes off say grassland and into the sky.
    Given that zone will pick the focus point why not use all 61 point’s as it would seem easier for you to stay with the bird as it is in the sky so no chance of the focus grabing something else .
    Thanks Rob.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 21, 2014 at 4:40 pm

      Hi Rob, thanks for your feedback, and about your question..I prefer to use AF Zone over 61 Pt AF because AF Zone still allows me to position the cluster of points where I want the bird to be…I don’t always use the completely central position…and if I am looking to leave more space in one part of my frame than the other, Zone works for me.
      I know that 61 Pt AF gives wider coverage, but I prefer AF Zone for for partial control that it allows me..
      Hope that explains my take on things

  24. Robert Hardy Says: April 21, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    Yes that explains it .

    Many thanks


    • Grant Atkinson Says: April 21, 2014 at 5:52 pm

      Also Rob
      One more thing to take into consideration, is the new custom function option in AF4, the last menu item on that screen, on the 1DX that allows you to switch from a Single AF pt shooting, to 61 Pt AF, whilst beginning focus with the same point that was last active in Single Pt shooting…at least for initial AF. That option might make 61 Pt AF more of an option, for me…

  25. Robert Hardy Says: April 21, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Hi Grant

    Yes that could be of use too as you can hopefully have more control on the composition of the shot.


  26. Peter Estment Says: June 16, 2014 at 5:24 am

    Hi Grant

    Although not big commentator, I truly enjoy your website, and have for a number of years. Your reviews are brilliant (and wonderful images), and having purchased a 5DM3 last year for my safari trip, I have found some valuable information and tips in this post. Just a pity it was not written last year before I departed (:

    Many Thanks for your efforts.

    Peter Estment

    • Grant Atkinson Says: June 19, 2014 at 7:31 am

      Hi Peter, thanks so much for taking the time to let me know your feedback and thoughts. Hope the 5Dmk3 is doing the job for you 🙂

  27. David Shallcross Says: July 31, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    Hi Grant, i have read with interest your thoughts on the 1DX AF . thanks for sharing i will give them a go. Cheers

  28. Adrian Anon Says: August 21, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Hi Grant, I’m by no means professional but I have a 1Dx and still struggling to make sense of the settings for birds in flight at my local wildlife trust. In your article you say 0 to -2 for tracking and I can see the sense for the examples you give but unless I’m mistaken, -2 will desensitize AI Servo to such an extent that if a bird is coming towards you you’re likely to get soft images as the focus is only intermittently updating and users should be very aware of this.
    What worries me is that I’ve spoken to Canon and a very highly respected Canon distributor here in the UK and they both gave me completely different advice, one saying -2, the other saying +2 for tracking BIF.
    It would be good to know just how long the update interval is for focus tracking between the -2 and +2 settings but I cant find that anywhere, all I can find is examples of when you might use one particular Case or setting which might work for one situation but not in others and BIF with owls moving slowly in one direction at a constant speed to falcons moving every which way at different speeds is not an easy one to get right.
    Personally I always use tracking +2 now for BIF and have significantly more keepers. If the camera focuses incorrectly on another subject refocusing on the bird is virtually instantaneous for lenses up to 400mm (DO).
    A UK Canon rep also told me that if one setting is wrong it can screw everything up, thanks but I already found that one out …

    • Grant Atkinson Says: August 21, 2014 at 10:32 pm

      Hi Adrian, I went to some lengths in this article to detail what the settings do, so that readers might get a better idea of what the sliders mean, rather than just give out settings. I also listed my own choice of settings and why they worked for me with the kind of subject matter that I frequently shoot. If your settings are totally different to what I use, and they are working for you, I am happy to hear it. Different lenses, levels of light, speed and direction of subjects and one own techniques can and will influence the outcome. I am not quite sure from your post whether you are intimating that I caused your settings to be screwed up? That was not my intention with writing the article, but again, in several places in the text, I did mention that using minus settings in Ai Servo Tracking Sensitivity might ‘slow down” AF response, but that I could not feel that with the 1DX.

  29. Adrian Anon Says: August 21, 2014 at 10:45 am

    PS; I should have also mentioned that I’m using back button focus with the AF-ON button continually depressed (except when I lose focus) and best results so far with Expand AF Area: Surround …

  30. Adrian Anon Says: August 22, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Hi Grant, sorry for the misunderstanding, I wasn’t intimating that you caused my settings to be screwed up, I did that all by myself and very much appreciate your article to gain a better understanding of what I’ve been doing wrong.
    The point I was trying to make about tracking is that from my own experience and in the specific case of birds flying towards or away from the camera, tracking set at +2 gives me a far better keeper rate.
    It took me a while to understand why but its better understood (for me anyway) when you try focusing on two stationary subjects say 10 feet and 50 feet. With tracking set to -2 the camera will take around 1 second to refocus when you move from one subject to the other whereas with tacking set to +2 its instantaneous, and from this I can only conclude that when you’re focusing on subjects moving towards or away from the camera you must have tracking set to +2 so as to avoid soft images when AI Servo hasnt refocused. Is this not logical or have I missed something?

    • Grant Atkinson Says: August 22, 2014 at 6:33 pm

      Hi Adrian
      Thanks for writing. I fully understand what you are saying, and if it is giving you properly focused shots in the scenarios you are finding yourself in, then you have it figured out. I don’t think you have missed anything. According to Canon there is no slowdown of overall Ai Servo initial response regardless of whether you set Ai Servo Tracking Sensitivity on -2 or +2, or any settings in between. In my own experience, I find that if I use -2, general Ai Servo response feels a little sluggish (with all lesser Canon cameras than the 1DX), so I don’t use that very often, except with the very longest focal lengths that I use for moving subjects (800mm). But if you are managing to keep your focus point on your subject, then you are not having to worry about the focus point grabbing the background, and that is key to why you are succeeding now. In many of the scenarios that I shoot in, I sometimes get the AF point temporarily off the bird..depending on the birds size, speed and direction. It is for those instances that I prefer to use Tracking Sensivity at -1 on my 500L f4 IS. Almost every one of these bird in flight scenarios can be a little different, but the single biggest factor that I find impacts my results is the background that the bird is flying against. So I can usually get focus to lock on quicker, and get away with being less precise with my own tracking skills, and get similar results using one point, AF expansion or AF zone..when the bird is flying in a clear sky. But often the better exposure or framing might be when my subject bird is flying lower down, and with a distant dark background behind it, rather than a clear such instances I end up using Single AF point only, and still manage to drop the AF point off my subject and onto the background quite often…
      I also find that it gets progressively more difficult for me to focus birds that are flying fast against dark or structured background, the longer the focal length I am using. And here I am referring to more rapid fliers…as you say there is a vast difference between photographing a heron or pelican in flight, as opposed to a speeding falcon, parrot or bee-eater.
      When using the EF 300 f2.8 L IS, I do best at picking up the fast fliers quickly in the viewfinder, and I typically shoot with Tracking Sensitivity on 0. But the birds have to be really, really close to be big enough with the 300. So I try do most of my birds in flight shooting these days with the 500f4.
      The good thing is that you have figured out how to make it work for your scenario and style..and understand what it does. It seems to me that the Ai Servo Tracking Sensitivity parameter is the most important one of the three – Tracking Sensitivy, Accelerate/Decelerate Tracking and AF Point Auto Switching.
      Getting the focus dialed-in for different subjects, lenses and preferences can be a little complicated…and I don’t claim to fully understand each parameters deeper workings or overlap…:-)

  31. Adrian Anon Says: August 22, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    Thanks for your reply Grant.
    I totally agree that the initial response time is instantaneous no matter which tracking setting is being used, its the refocusing speed that was baffling me and now that I understand the logic of how tracking affects AI Servo I can apply it better in different scenarios.
    One more thought, although I also have a 500mm f4 I use the 400mm DO with a 1.4 Mk3 extender giving me 560mm with no noticeable deterioration in IQ which I find works really well for handheld shots.
    Thanks again for all your advice.

  32. David Shallcross Says: September 11, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Hi Grant, thank you for the wonderful advice on this site, i’m getting great pictures now from the 1DX but still struggling with wader flight shots.
    Some in focus some out, i have tried the 61 point focus and cranked up the ISO to get fast shutter speeds on A/V over 3000sec have had the f stop at 16 but i’m unsuccessful could you offer any help with this please.
    Regards David

  33. David Shallcross Says: September 11, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    regarding my previous message some additional info.
    my lens is a canon 500mm mark 2
    I have used AF case 3-4-5
    tracking minus 1
    Af auto switch plus 2
    Acc/ dece. plus 2 and various combinations of these.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: September 13, 2014 at 3:42 pm

      Hi David, apologies for my late response, I am in the midst of a busy guiding season with minimal computer time but lots of shooting time. As far as your wader images go, things to consider are which AF point setup are you using…I find for fast moving birds using a Single AF point works the best for me..and many other successful bird in flight shooters either use Single AF point or the AF Expansion mode with 4 surrounding points active. I think it is also important to take into consideration what your typical background is for the wader images…birds in a clear sky are the easiest to focus, and can be captured sometimes using the multiple point AF options, but for birds flying over a background that is strongly structured, or similar in tone to the bird itself…I usually find Single Point AF to be most effective. It is more difficult to keep on the bird, but is less likely to jump to the background.
      Also important to consider whether the birds are flying across your frame, at an angle toward you..or directly toward the camera, which I find hte most difficult to focus well.
      Hope that helps

  34. Adrian Anon Says: September 13, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Could it be the same problem I had which was improved significantly by increasing tracking (my post above August 21, 2014 at 10:25 am)? Al servo doesnt respond constantly when you slow the tracking down, instant from first shot in a sequence but subsequent shots lag.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: September 13, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      Hi Adrian, I am a big fan of the EF 400 DO as a bird in flight lens, and also got good results with it using a 1.4x extender. The lens is so light and therefore easy to use, that it takes away the discomfort that is often associated with using heavier lenses like the EF 500L f4 IS. I am happy to see that Canon are likely to announce a new version of the EF 400DO, for sure it will benefit from the new IS and perhaps some other improvements.
      In response to your comment to David above, I took note and revisited the Tracking Sensitivity setting on my last couple of photo trips using my 5Dmk3 and EF 500L f4 IS ii. I set Tracking at Plus 1 for some fast-approaching subjects, with some mixed results. A couple of times it did not seem to make a whole lot of difference, but on one sequence with a hunting cheetah running right towards my camera, it did seem to help the camera get focused faster between frames.
      On the other hand it does make the AF point more ‘jumpy’ when shooting static subjects…if I drift it off accidentally. I ended up setting it to the faster setting if I expected a fast, straight head-on approaching subject. I will be doing some more testing with some very fast flying birds next month with the 1DX.
      I was also wondering which setting you have Adrian, for your 1DX Second image Focus or Release or which one in-between. If that is set to Focus priority, a subject that is difficult to track will slow down the frame rate noticeably…

  35. David Shallcross Says: September 13, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Thank you Grant i realise you may have been / are on tour,so didn’t expect an immediate reply. i will make adjustments to my settings and hopefully test them out tomorrow on the Lancashire coastline.
    I will let you know how i got on. Regards.

    Adrian thanks also for your advice on what works for you.

  36. Adrian Anon Says: September 13, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    Hi Grant, I mainly use +2 for the second image and only found the frame rate slowing significantly in poor light or when the focus point is way off a subject that quickly changes direction. I totally agree with setting tracking to the faster setting for a rapidly approaching subject and usually use AF Expansion with 8 surrounding points against a distracting background which I find marginally better than 4 assist points probably because I’m not so good at keeping the centre point on the subject which remains a work in progress …

    Glad you agree about the 400mm DO, I read so many negatives about contrast prior to buying and have only been delighted with the results especially sharpness, and I never think twice about using the x1.4 if I need the extra reach.

  37. Grace Scalzo Says: September 20, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Grant, Many thanks for taking the time to explain all this. I’ve made a few tweaks to my set up based on your explanations which I think will make some positive changes in my focusing.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: September 25, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      Hey Grace, thanks for your feedback. With such good focus systems even at default settings, the 1Dx and the 5d3 really up one’s keeper rate. Hopefully my explanations of the AF settings are helpful. As can be seen from some of the very informative posts on this topic above, different approaches can yield success for different individuals :-). Things that can affect how the AF works for me are direction and quantity of light, subject angle to camera, subject speed, and the background as it relates to the subject, both in terms of contrast and structure, as well as my own skill level on the day 🙂 and what lens i am using.
      From your images you seem to have AF very well figured out!

  38. Joe Caffery Says: October 20, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Hi Grant,

    Thanks for taking the time to write such an informative and helpful article. It gives those of us who were still struggling a bit with the number of varaibles and their impact/influence on the DX performance a better undertstanding of how to tune it to our own requirements.

    Kind regards
    Joe Caffery

    • Grant Atkinson Says: December 6, 2014 at 1:36 pm

      Hi Joe
      I am glad the 1dx post was useful. It is a camera that focuses incredibly well, on almost any setting 🙂

  39. Lindsay Fraser Says: November 8, 2014 at 4:21 pm


    A great article & thanks for taking the time to put it together. You open up and explain many of the features. I Have just ordered a 1DX and will be referring to this when it arrives.



    • Grant Atkinson Says: December 6, 2014 at 1:37 pm

      Hi Lindsay, thanks so much for the feedback 🙂

  40. Marlene Finlayson Says: November 16, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Hi Grant

    I have had my 1Dx for couple of weeks and found your article very helpful to set up AF options. I have registered settings in My Menu but do these over ride the Case settings (1-6) or do you still need to have one of them selected. I am using a 300mm f2.8 + 2x so am not sure if Tracking sensitivity would be best at -1 or -2 for across the screen flight shots.


    • Grant Atkinson Says: December 6, 2014 at 1:40 pm

      hi Marlene, apologies for my late response, I am just reaching the end of my guiding season and very much behind on communications. What you register in My Menu will over ride what you had before…and it will change the Default Case to the new settings…
      For across the screen shots, with a 300 f2.8 and 2x extender, I would definitely start out with Tracking Sensitivity set to -1, and maybe even -2 if you found that you were dropping focus too quickly or easily. I would think that -1 might be good though. Are you using a 1DX for his combination?

  41. Marlene Finlayson Says: December 6, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Hi Grant

    I did manage to figure it out and have had the tracking sensitivity on -1 with a 1DX.


    • Grant Atkinson Says: December 6, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      Hi Marlene, that is great to hear. There is some debate amongst Canon shooters as to whether selecting a Minus 1 or Minus 2 setting on Ai Servo Tracking sensitivity may actually slow down AF response when tracking, even on the subject, and that this might be something experienced with subjects approaching head-on. I have been shooting at various Ai Servo Tracking settings over the last few months to get a better feel for this, but of course there are so many variables when actually shooting in the field that it can be tricky to pin down exactly what one parameter is doing. On the other hand, if you find a setting that is working for you, go with it :-). How effective these Ai Servo settings can be is also influenced by lens choice, user preference and skill levels, subject movement and angle, and ambient light 🙂

  42. Adrian Anon Says: December 6, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Hi Grant,

    I read your answer to Marlene and totally agree about the different variables especially the lens and I was recently surprised how many more keepers with a 300mm f2.8.

    I spoke to a top (Japanese) Canon guy at a recent CPS function and he set up my 1Dx to back button focus in two different ways, one for the subject coming at the sensor, one for a subject going across the sensor.

    Regretably I havent had the opportunity to fully work out what he’s done, it all happened so fast and I couldn’t understand half of what he said but he’s given me A/F on the AF/ON button *and* the AE Lock (star) button for both situations which kind of supports my original theory that tracking should be set differently when the subject is coming at you.

    I could download those settings and send them to you if you wish, any way to send you a private message?

  43. Marlene Finlayson Says: December 7, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    I have been using the 300mm f2.8 II lens with 2X converter MKII with 1 DX. I have used back button focusing on birds I know will land on perch because you can pre focus on perch and the shutter button does not refocus. Have not used it for birds flying across screen. The main problem I have is spotting the bird quick enough to lock on to it – guess it just takes practice and a bit of luck. Birds flying towards me are no problem. Also I think the 2x converter slows the autofocus. Is it possible the MKIII converter would be a lot better? Someone suggested that I have the Tracking Sensitivity on +1 for birds going across water so am trying that at the moment.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: December 7, 2014 at 4:34 pm

      Hi Marlene
      You have some very nice birds in flight on your website, the red kites and owls particularly. For sure the 2x extender slows down autofocus quite a lot. As you are using the 300 f2.8 mk2, then getting the newest 2x extender will bring you some accuracy and optical benefits, and probably some AF accuracy improvements. The mk3 converter will be better, but difficult to say by how much for your use. The new converter is optimized for use with the version ii telephoto lenses like yours and the 1DX.
      As far as birds across water goes, take into account how dark the birds might be, you may well find that white birds are easy for the AF to acquire whereas darker birds may be more difficult. How well AF tracks across water with flying birds can also be influenced by the nature and tone of the water surface, if it is flat and smooth, it may reflect quite brightly, whereas if the wind is blowing and the surface is ruffled, it may show up quite dark as a background. Take note of that when evaluating your well as whether your bird subjects are brighter or darker than their background.

  44. Pete Williamson Says: January 14, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    Hi! Excellent post. Really helpful.

    I was wondering with the firmware upgrade does the 2nd Priority work in the same way if you back button focus? All the literature just mentions when you half press the shutter release.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: January 26, 2015 at 10:49 am

      Hi Pete
      I think that what goes for the shutter release also goes for the back far as I understand this, those are just two different locations for a focus switch..but identical in how they function and what they do..

  45. Alan Ward Says: February 7, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Hi Grant, excellant tutorial and very easy to understand and simple. Question: How will the new firmware 2.0.7 effect the settings you have made?

  46. Elizabeth Says: March 14, 2015 at 1:22 am

    Thank you! This was a great article!

  47. Valerie Says: May 3, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    I just received my 1DX and came across your post. Thanks for this. I’ve bookmarked it so that I can re-read a few times to take it all in.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: May 3, 2015 at 7:30 pm

      Hi Valerie
      Glad you found the article. If you read it with your 1dx beside you, it should hopefully help make it a little easier. Keep on trying with the autofocus, it is worth getting familiar with it so you can take full advantage 🙂

  48. simon tull Says: September 13, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    Hi Grant
    I just came across this article…very useful indeed; I am just about to take possession of the canon 5d mk4 (a fairly significant upgrade on my current 7d mk1. I’m looking to improve my success at photographing harriers and the like, which are often quite close and disappearing in and out of reed beds…this article gives me really good pointers on where to start experimenting
    Best wishes

  49. Tony Webster Says: July 23, 2018 at 7:10 pm

    Hi Grant,

    I bought my 1DX second hand last year as I can’t stretch to the cost a new one! However I have been thoroughly impressed with camera and the photos it produces. As with all high end cameras there are so many features that I am still getting to know/ understand. What I love about your article is that you have shown me how I can further adapt it to my needs for wildlife photography which is my passion. Thank you.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: July 23, 2018 at 7:18 pm

      Hi Tony
      Glad to hear that you found the article useful, and the 1DX is still one of the most effective cameras available for wildlife photography, even if there is a newer model available. The core capabilities for still shooting of the 1DX, with its good image quality in low light, very fast and accurate autofocus and fast speed have long made it a favourite of ours 🙂
      Hope to see some of your images captured with that camera.

  50. David Shallcross Says: July 24, 2018 at 10:52 am

    Hi, Grant, would these setting work for the 1DX mark 2 as well.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: July 24, 2018 at 12:27 pm

      Hi David
      Yes, those settings will work on the 1DX Mark 2. i use the same setup between the original 1DX, and the 1DX Mark 2. What differs is that the focus points go a little higher and lower in the frame on the DX2, and also that it has more options for configuring buttons on the camera for focus related tasks and functions. But the way the focus works and the way that those focus parameters, Tracking Sensitivity, Accel/Decel Tracking, AF Point Auto Switching, as well as Ai Servo Focus Priorities all seem to work the same to me.
      I also keep iTR(Intelligent tracking) turned off on the 1DX Mark 2 as I did not find that it can cope with really fast moving subjects yet when using 61 point automatic focusing although it is more sophisticated than the original 1DX in this regard.

  51. David Shallcross Says: July 24, 2018 at 1:11 pm

    Dear Grant, thank you for your quick reply and your most helpful advice. many regards David

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