Before the film vs digital debate occupied internet forums and magazine letters’ pages, many photographers railed against the need for an autofocus system in a camera. But not only is autofocus faster and more convenient, it’s a necessity for those without perfect vision.
A good AF system not only ensures your subject is sharp, but it also keeps your subject in focus when it moves. Modern cameras, like the Olympus OM-D E-M1Mark II, offer superb, technologically advanced AF systems, but if you’re not in a position to buy the latest and greatest, there are still quite a few older cameras on the market that offer premium autofocus performance at less of the cost of their successors.
Best AF in old cameras: 01 Canon EOS-1DX
Canon hadn’t updated its much-loved 1D line of professional DSLRs in quite some time, and when it unveiled the EOS-1DX as an update to the EOS-1D Mark IV, it marked a whole new era for the line. The full-frame 1DX introduced a 61-point AF system, offering even more coverage than Nikon’s press darling, the D4S.
What’s more, the Canon EOS-1DX can keep focusing even when shooting in burst mode at 12fps. That’s one whole image more per second than the D4S, which is a crucial figure for press and sports photographers.
Significantly for users of long telephoto lenses with teleconverters, the 1DX can focus with effective maximum apertures as small as f/8, a trick it offered following a firmware upgrade to bring it into line with the Nikon D4S.
The finer points of the AF system aren’t quite as intuitive to set-up as the D4S’s, but there’s lots of control and it works incredibly well delivering sharp images even in low light.
Best AF in old cameras: 02 Nikon D4S
We hope our description of the Canon EOS-1DX didn’t make it sound like the D4S was amateur hour. Anything but…
To many professional photographers out there, the Nikon D4 was the pinnacle of AF performance. So when the D4S was launched, and Nikon had managed to improve the autofocus performance even further, it became a justifiable modern masterpiece.
When Nikon tweaked the D4S it gave the camera (now proceeded by the D5) an Advanced version of the Multi-CAM 3500AF module found in the Nikon D4.
As a result, the Nikon D4S offers 51 AF points, as well as 9-,21- and 51-point dynamic-area AF and 3D-tracking modes and a new Group-area AF mode. This new 3D-tracking mode is designed to help when shooting small moving subjects against a high contrast or distracting background, and it works really well.
Nikon also dampened the mirror movement in the D4S and, as well as reducing the viewfinder blackout time, this gives the AF system more time to work between shots.
This, plus the move to Nikon’s Expeed 4 processing engine, enables the AF system to operate when shooting at 11fps.
Best AF in old cameras: 03 Canon EOS 5D Mark III
OK, so those first two cameras are serious pro bodies that will still cost you a fair bit of cash, but not nearly as much as their successors. Stepping down a rung from the 1DX, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has been the camera of choice for many enthusiast photographers – until it was usurped last year by the Mark IV – as well as budget or size-minded pros.
Yet, like the 1DX, the Canon EOS 5D mark III offers the same 61-point AF system, of which 41 are cross-type and five are dual cross-type AF points. This helps improve your accuracy.
And it’s a gigantic improvement over the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which offers just 15 AF points, nine of which can be selected by the photographer. The EOS 5D Mark III also introduced a dedicated AF menu screen that allows you to take control over things like how quickly the camera should respond to changes in subject distance.
With the 5D Mark IV now a fixture in the Canon EOS landscape, the price of the Mark III has come down considerably, and this camera offers a great AF system that can be relied on in a range of difference shooting conditions.
Best AF in old cameras: 04 Canon EOS 70D
The Canon EOS 70D with its Dual Pixel CMOS sensor was once the darling of enthusiast photographers for its ability to focus faster than most other DSLRs in its class when live view mode, and offer smooth, high-quality video footage at the same time.
When composing images in the viewfinder, there’s a dedicated phase detection sensor with 19 AF points, all of which are cross-type for greater sensitivity.
The 70D also offers three AF point selection modes: Single Point AF, Zone AF and 19-point Area AF.
Best AF in old cameras: 05 Nikon D7100
The Nikon D7200, the camera which replaced the D7100, is itself even getting long in the tooth these days, but nevertheless the D7100 remains a solid all-rounder and you can pick one up at a very good price.
Aimed at enthusiast photographers, the Nikon D7100 is a real asset for budding sports and wildlife photographers thanks to its 51-point Multi-Cam 3500DX AF module, with 15 cross-type AF points, that can capture pin-sharp images even in low light.
Another nice feature of the D7100 is a continuous AF mode that you can set to track moving targets using 51, 21 or nine AF points.
What’s more, it also offers 3D tracking when using continuous AF mode, which is a very useful feature to have as it enables the camera to track your subject around the frame in those instances when a subject is a good colour contrast from its surroundings.
The Nikon D7100’s excellent AF system also combines well with a maximum continuous shooting rate of 6fps (frames per second) in its standard configuration, or 7fps in 1.3x crop mode.
Best AF in old cameras: 06 Olympus OM-D E-M1
Olympus’s recently launched successor to the E-M1, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, seriously impressed us with its AF capability. But only a few years old, the original E-M1 is no slouch.
This former flagship camera introduced Olympus’s Dual Fast hybrid AF system to the world, and uses half-pixels on the sensor to create a phase detection AF system to compliment the E-M1’s contrast-detection system.
Although the E-M1’s contrast detection AF system is impressively fast with Micro Four Third lenses mounted, the phase detection part of hybrid system enables similar performance when Four Thirds lenses are mounted via an adaptor.
What’s more, the OM-D E-M1 automatically detects what type of lens you have mounted and automatically employs the appropriate AF system.
Best AF in old cameras: 07 Sony Alpha 77 II
With the Alpha 77 Mark II Sony debuted a newly developed phase detection sensor with 79 AF points, 15 of which are the more sensitive cross-type.
What’s more, Sony made the camera even more versatile by including a number of AF-point selection options, such as Wide, Zone, Flexible Spot, Local, Expanded Flexible Spot and Lock-on AF.
In particular, the A77 Mark II’s Expanded Flexible Spot mode is useful with moving targets, allowing photographers to select one AF point while the camera uses the surrounding 8 points in support.
Another selling point of the A77 Mark II is Sony’s SLT translucent mirror design, which employs full-time phase detection autofocus when shooting movies or composing images on the LCD screen.