Review: Canon’s Vehicle Subject Tracking AutoFocus Mode
The move to mirrorless has allowed Canon to add a bunch of new features to their camera bodies. One of the most notable areas of improvement, particularly for motorsport photography, is in the autofocus tracking modes and options available.
The addition of vehicle subject tracking, as part of its advanced subject detection features, is one of those key additions that has been specifically targeted towards motorsport photographers. So let’s take a look at what it is, how it works and if it will help you get better shots the next time you are trackside.
What Is Vehicle Subject Tracking?
Introduced with the Canon R3, the advanced subject detection features that include the vehicle subject tracking mode allows your camera autofocus system to automatically detect the subject of your photo (and video), lock on and follow it as it moves through the frame to ensure it is sharp no matter when it moves throughout the frame.
This feature has since been rolled out to subsequent cameras from Canon, like the R7, R10 and Canon R6 Mark 2, while it was also added to the R5 and original R6 via a firmware upgrade.
How Does Vehicle Subject Tracking Work?
In much the same way that these advanced subject detection features from Canon detect faces and eyes when set to people, the vehicle tracking mode uses a vehicle detection algorithm for cars and motorcycles that was developed using the company’s deep learning technology.
Canon advertises that this feature is also capable of detecting the helmets of racing car drivers and motorcycle riders and can give photographers the ability to automatically prioritise tracking a vehicle or a person in or on a vehicle, or vice versa.
Does Vehicle Subject Tracking Make A Difference?
Having tested this feature a few times since its release, both on the Canon R3 and R5, vehicle subject tracking in the advanced subject detection mode is very good at recognising, locking onto cars and following them on track. Very, very good.
Both when shooting photos and video, vehicle subject tracking does a very good job of keeping the cars in focus, even when they are travelling at high speeds, as they tend to do on race tracks. Even when capturing the action with a wide aperture.
However, part of the appeal of motorsport is racing, with multiple cars duking it out on track. Using an automated mode like vehicle subject tracking, as good as it is, doesn’t allow you to control which car the autofocus locks on to and follows. This is the biggest reason I don’t recommend using it.
Yes, vehicle subject tracking works exactly as advertised and can be a good tool, especially when shooting video, during track days and manufacturer drive events. However, when it comes to motorsport, the lack of control can be a huge drawback.
Vehicle subject tracking really struggles when capturing arty shots, like shooting between cars going in different directions or through the crowd.
Now, the team at Canon Professional Services did point out to me that on the Canon R3, the Multi-function 2 button (the one on the front of the camera next to the lens above the Depth-of-field preview button) allows you to quickly switch between subject tracking and the more conventional auto modes. Which is very handy, but I’ve found it much easier and much more predictable to continue to choose my autofocus point.
Pro Tip: While I don’t take advantage of Canon’s vehicle subject tracking option, I do use the advanced subject detection mode. I’ve set mine to people with eye-detection enabled, which allows me (in combination with the Multi-function 2 button) to quickly switch between autofocus modes when photographing in and around the pits.
As fast as motorsport action is on track, it’s somewhat predictable. However, when it comes to racing, particularly endurance racing, what happens in the pits is far less predictable in the way people can move. Coupled with the fact that the pits also feature some of the harshest lighting changes (dark garages and shadows from the pit structures) depending on the time of day.
Switching between the autofocus modes allows me to adjust the other settings to get the exposure correct (which is helped by the live view EVF), while autofocus will detect and lock in on the driver’s face (even with a full-face helmet if the lighting conditions allow it).
Canon’s advanced subject detection features, including vehicle subject tracking, are very good. However, professional motorsport photographers will find that the lack of control is a limiting factor in using it.
If you are just starting out in motorsport photography, it’s a very good tool to ensure you get sharp photos of cars moving at high speed. But as you build confidence in capturing the action, I recommend learning and leaning on the other autofocus modes built into your camera to get greater control of the images you create while trackside.
I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I am very fortunate that I have been able to work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand. Also, check out my personal website where I document my travels and a few other things.
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