Eyeshine and Autofocus Advice (Canon Mirrorless?)


Does anyone have experience using one of the new Canon mirrorless cameras (R5/R6) to focus on eyeshine at night? I’ve found the autofocus on the Canon 5DIII/IV to be frustratingly slow to fix on eyeshine, even when an animal is in the open (for example: https://www.tremarctos.com/2021/06/oncilla-2/). The new mirrorless cameras have an eye-tracking option, and I’m wondering if that would help. (I would continue using my old lenses with an adapter.)

Relatedly, does anyone have advice on autofocus settings for eyeshine for Canon?



  • Jono Dashper

    Hi Ben,

    I have used my R5 for nocturnal photography (Yellow-bellied Gliders, Greater Glider etc.) and have found the focus to work better than my previous 1DX (which I am told has better focusing that the 5DIV, but have not used one myself). However the eye autofocus did not work, as it did not pickup eyeshine as an ‘eye’.
    I think on very well lit situations, where the source of light is not producing eyeshine, the eye auto focus should work – but I am yet to fully test this.
    Hope this helps.
    Cheer, Jono

  • Jon Hall

    My experience with the R6 is similar to Jono’s. The autofocus is way quicker in low light than my D7 MKII … in general I have found the animal eye detection not to work well for most mammals day or night. It rarely works for the very large stuff I was looking at in Africa, nor for primates, and It appears to have been designed for birds. But you can use different buttons to chose between the eye focus and regular focus modes so its not a problem.

  • Lennartv

    Hi Ben,

    I happen to be the proud owner of the R5 for a day and a half now and I’m already very happy with it. It doesn’t work miracles but it is definitely a steep improvement from my 5DmarkIV. I am still figuring out what the best settings are but I will probably go with separate buttons for the AF with and without eye AF. I haven’t really had the chance to work out the differences but a friend of mine had the same setup and I did notice a difference in focussing speed when using the AF without eye AF versus with. Myself I haven’t really noticed much difference during my one day shooting butterflies in the garden. I could also be smart to have the one AF-setting at just a few AF-points as this allows for a more precise focusing, sometimes the ‘smart AF’ can be very persistent in focussing on the things you don’t want it to focus on. Once you’ve got the right thing in focus you can switch to eye AF and it will probably stick then.

    So far I haven’t really had any indication the eye AF wouldn’t work on different animals as it worked fine on our cat, my parents (in the animal setting) and my stuffed hawk, although when the cat turns it’s head it will go more quickly for the body, but I think that is not very surprising. I did notice though that it doesn’t necessarily ‘glue’ to something once it’s got it, I thought it would be stickier. Still it’s definitely an improvement over anything I’ve had before. In my experience so far I noticed that the eye AF will gratefully go for anything round and shiny like the ‘eyes’ on the wing of a Peacock butterfly so I imagined it would have no trouble at all focusing on the lit up eyes of a spotlit animal. So I am a bit surprised by the experiences of Jon and Jono, but I have nothing to say to the contrary as I haven’t tested it out when spotlighting yet. In a month I will be in Ecuador and Bolivia so I will pay attention to this in my tripreport when I come back.

    Regarding your experiences with the AF, I can’t say I’ve had really bad experiences with my 5D mark IV. It also depends on the lens setup though and of course the conditions. If all you can see are two yellow round spots for eyes, your AF doesn’t have much to work on and your photo won’t be much anyway. But in the case of your Oncilla it looks like the conditions were good enough for the AF to work, if not as snappy as during the day. It does seem though that nothing is precisely in focus, probably the AF kept ‘hunting’ and you just decided to go for the recordshot? In these cases it can be useful to reduce your AF to just a few central points. Also for nightshots it can help to set your lighting to ‘spot’ as this means the camera will work on lighting just a part of your image instead of the whole thing which allows for a more precise lighting of the area that you are shining with your torch. Also I would always recommend to set out with your exposure at -2/3 or even a bit more as this gives you more speed and you don’t need the extra exposure. In my tripreport of Borneo 2019 I have included quite a few nightshots using this technique so you can have a look at how this can turn out: https://www.mammalwatching.com/wp-content/uploads/LV-Borneo-2019.pdf. These were all shot with my 5D mark IV with the Canon 100-400 II lens. The stabilisation of this lens is great.

    Apart from the advise above I would also always recommend to avoid going above ISO 3200 on the 5DIV. This will require a steady hand and you firing away like crazy, but I prefer to have one shot 10 being ‘perfect’ than 8/10 sharp, but more grainy than I like. When I don’t know what to expect I will often keep it on 6400 though just to get the first record shot right and then go down to 3200 if the animal stays around.

    Do you use a 5Dmark IV or III? Because as far as I know the IV has a different AF-system than the III. In any case, I use the IV myself so if you are using the same I would be happy to share the specific AF-settings I use for wildlife.

    Finally: I am very jealous of your Oncilla sighting as this would be my main target in Ecuador, so I am hoping to repeat your succes :).

    • Lennartv

      Oh, and for those other R5 (or R6) shooters out there I would recommend watching this video and comparing your settings to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nnRqgXu7QI. It explains settings specifically for bird photography, but it’s all very on point for mammals too. A very useful video.

    • Ben S

      Thanks for the useful information! I think a key difference is that you are using a very strong torch to illuminate your subjects, whereas I rely on an external flash. I find my subjects with a weaker headlamp and the autofocus struggles with the lower light levels. When I took the photo of the Oncilla, I could only see the two eyes in the viewfinder. I’m usually alone and on foot so it is difficult to point a strong torch and my camera at the same time, but I recently added a strong torch to my flash bracket to help.

      I’ve used both the 5D mark III and 5D mark IV and have found the latter to be significantly better. Unfortunately, it broke on a recent trip to Cameroon (report coming later…), which is why I am looking to buy a new camera.

      In case you are interested in using an external flash: if you do so, you don’t have to worry about shutter speed or ISO (except for very distant subjects). Also, for the bright eyes issue mentioned in your report (great photos BTW), I found that putting my flash on a flash bracket helps. https://www.amazon.com/Desmond-Compatible-Bracket-Lightweight-DAFB-1/dp/B00987STOK https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/556156-REG/Jobu_Design_FB_TM2_FB_TM2_Topmount_Flash_Bracket.html

      • vnsankar

        Hi Ben, I had the same issue with bright eyes while photographing several nocturnal species on my Kenya trip and would like to try a similar setup to yours. I’ve seen your external flash before, but I’d like to see how you’re mounting a powerful small flashlight and what model you’re using. Please send me a PM. I agree that it is often too difficult to hold the light flush against the camera and locate the animal in the viewfinder at the same time.

      • Lennartv

        Hi Ben,

        That explains it! For many of those photo’s in Borneo I also had a guide next to me with a torch which makes things much easier of course. However in case of the Tarsier it was just me alone carrying the torch and the camera. I have thought about using a flash but have decided against this for now. What I like about using a torch is that I can judge from the viewfinder how the picture will turn out and (indeed) that focusing goes quite quickly also it saves me from carying another thing around. I am now able to shoot with just one hand for a few minutes, but adding a flash to it would probably make things just a bit too heavy. On top of that my cabin luggage is already pretty full although if I did see a lot of advantages I would of course find a way to deal with that. Also I’ve read that there are sometimes nightdrives where the general attitude is against using flash although I’ve not had any experience with that myself, so that’s another reason for me to train myself to be ready at any moment.

        For the far majority of the animals that I photograph at night I’ve also gotten very good results with just the torch. I was actually surprised that photo’s mainly taken with 1/60 to 1/100 turn out to be this sharp. When the animal is close enough I can easily go to 1/200 or a bit higher. With the R5 I will be able to shoot 20 frames a second with better stabilisation so I suspect I will miss the flash even less. I have already been able to get sharp pictures with the R5 at 1/15. The motion blur of the animal itself could be a factor of course but in general you’ll get your best photo’s anyway when they are standing still and looking. When they are walking most photo’s will be poor anyway also with a flash. Where I would see an advantage is for example photographing a flying squirrel while it’s flying. But also in this case it would very difficult to get a good photo and it would probably require a specific photo project focusing on doing just that.

        Thank you for the tips on setup though! I also saw a lot of your pictures without eyeshine so it must indeed work well for you. Of course also the trick is to let the animal look at the light of your torch, which will make it avert it’s eyes a little bit from your flash. So the more space between your torch and your flash the better.

        Too bad about your camera though. I look forward to reading your tripreport! If you can spare the money I would definitely go for the R5 or R6. They are the future. For mammals you might not need the extra advantes of the R5 (which is mainly the megapixels) since the reach of your torch also limits the distance at which you can get good photo’s, but if you also do birds and other stuff I would recommend the R5. You can use all your EF lenses anyway without any worries. If you are using the 100-400II I would recommend upgrading to the RF 100-500 though since this lens is lighter, has more stabilisation and gives you more milimeters to work with if lighting conditions are good enough. Getting your hands on this lens is the main problem at the time though…

  • Palani Mohan


    I looked at the photo you shared. Seems like there is enough light and contrast. So, the focus should have worked. Did you use single-point AF? I also see that the exposure seems to be too hot?

    What was your shutter speed? Could it be that your shutter speed was too low for hand-holding?

    • Ben S

      The light and contrast came from the external flash, which doesn’t help with the autofocus. I used single-point AF and the shutter speed was the highest it could be with flash (1/200); the only issue was that I had set the focus range to 1.5m-infinity rather than 3m-infinity so it spent more time searching. Still, I’d hope that the autofocus would work better.

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