Autofocus, Does It Matter?

I’ve rambled on a bit regarding auto-this, manual-that, camera tech, a bunch of my feelings towards it for the last month or so. All of it amounts to one thing — to get across a point that what matters to the industry and everybody else really has very little to do with what matters to you, your photographs, and honestly the vast majority of photographs I see.

Every one is different. No two people are not on fire. Ahhhhh. Strong Bad

Ranting Blah, Blah

A few things amuse me regarding the camera market. A lot of the holy-grail chasing is exactly the same in “new” camera technology such as mirrorless as it was back in the later part of the twentieth century. It sounds a lot like: “As soon as this stuff gets just a little better everything will be just dandy. All of the problems I’ve got will go away and I can get on with the matter at hand.” It’s an illusion.

I make fun of my brother all the time with regard to bikes. He’s really into bikes. Did you know all the shit with bikes becomes obsolete every year? No shit. I laugh because it makes no difference in his performance as a biker but every year there’s all new parts. Sure he rides bikes but also he’s really into changing all the parts around every year as well. Completely different endeavors. The bike cabal looked over at the computer industry and said — OMG, they are onto something. We can sell these bike guys completely new shit every year. Here’s the big difference, for a while computer tech was completely insufficient for just about everyone. It sucked so there really was a need. Bikes, you’ve got to be kidding me. One ounce is going to make a difference to who exactly?

I really feel a lot of mirrorless “enthusiasts” are really in it for the holy shit, wow, new factor of “stuff” more than anything else. That was getting boring for a while over in DSLR land. Irrelevant except for my amusement. Irrelevant except for the fact that I actually look forward to the point where no body gives a shit any more and there is stasis with the “stuff”. What is relevant is taking a step back and understanding exactly how improvements in any of the stuff affect you and your pictures. For that matter the vast majority of pictures that anyone takes.

Autofocus Relevance

Let’s talk about the relevance of autofocus and all the crap associated with it. I propose that it’s completely irrelevant for at least 80% of pictures that I see and most of the pictures I want to make. Is this the case for you? I don’t know but when surveying the photo-verse out there it would seem so. How about an inventory?

  • Stuff that doesn’t move. Landscape, still life, etc. Completely irrelevant.
  • Any kind of “hold still” picture.
  • Most things that are really really close as compared to far away due to it’s lack of performance and better ways to skin the cat.
  • Anything where you’ve not already prepared to take an image. Focus is so far down the list of things that will actually hold you up for the “holy crap” moments where you or the camera is not already to go. I think this is the area of wishful thinking that is most likely causing grail quests. “If only the focus was faster” kind of thought process. Irrelevant.

What about stuff that moves? Especially if you want to shoot wide open with crazy shallow depth of field? Things like that? Hmmm. Good question but let’s take a tangent for a second. Let’s this segue the road to hell is paved with good intention — also known as the ubiquitous shutter release button linked to autofocus default that has been built into all cameras since the dawn of AF. This is the very essence of evil. It’s put a not-so subtle notion in people’s heads that these two things are linked extremely tightly. A corollary to this is some notion that re-focus between every single shot is a good working method. In most cases it’s not.

Why would I propose this… wouldn’t somehow making sure the focus is right all the time between every shot be the right way to do things??? Maybe but I’ll propose it’s not because even with stuff that moves it just doesn’t matter. Your way way way better off developing a really good sense of when it does matter than wasting shitloads of time and attention determining precise point of focus between every shot.

Let’s take the shot at the shot at the top as a poster child for what I’m talking about. One of about 50 that’s still making it through my idiotically long, cumbersome, recursive edit process of one particular set of shots I made for a long term project. Shot on full-frame with a 50mm/1.4 wide open of a moving, semi-candid subject (semi meaning yes Anastasia knew I was there and taking pictures all friggin weekend). Ask yourself this given I’ve got maybe an inch of DOF? Where should the exact point of focus in this picture be assuming only one thing — that I want the foreground in focus rather than the reflection for this. Next up is what if she moves just a little tiny bit, as she was doing for the entire sequence I shot while having a conversation.

The near point on the belt? The tiny pice of hair against the white between the triangle in Anastasia’s arm? The belt buckle? You pick, I don’t care as long as I know about where the plane of focus is. Now let’s pretend you’re playing the af-point, confirm focus between shots and making sure that some arbitrary point you chose out of the bunch that you could is the priority. Messing about with refocusing between every shot dutifully making sure the camera is telling you that exact spot is in focus instead of another arbitrary but just as good spot is ideal. I’ll dare to say that you will be wasting tons of time and attention for things that just don’t matter and subordinating things that do. Does that ever matter? Sure but the sense of when it does and when it doesn’t is far more imporant to “speed” than whatever the focusing system does or doesn’t do including complete manual turn the lens to focus.

You might be saying… well of course that doesn’t matter but what about if we were focusing on a face instead?? Same thing is true for most pictures. Really it is, I swear just maybe a narrower and keener sense of where your focus plane is at any moment. Back up just a hair and that diminishes to a point of arbitrary again.

Of course I was doing those as well…

Or something like this where it’s really shallow…

Or this…

Oooops, the more astute rule followers out there will point out that this picture is wrong and would be way better if I was focusing between every shot. In fact the faster and bigger point spread — let’s say infinite point spread would net me a better more correct canonical shot. In case you didn’t notice where the focus system (which would be me deciding to manually focus and not confirm and knowing what was probably going to happen on this last shot) screwed the pooch on this I’ll point out that A.’s eyes are obviously out of focus and the zipper is in focus — you cannot have a picture with eyes out of focus can you?

Sure you can. In fact I am so glad I’m not one of the people convinced that I should be re-re-re-re-re-focusing on a particular eyelash every single time. It’s far better for IMO that the zipper where her eye’s are looking at is in focus. Actually anything in that plane she’s looking at. No matter what the focus system does or doesn’t do NOT focusing is way faster than anything else. Oh it’s dead reliable to. The focus will be exactly where you put it — that’s a joke but not really. It’s more to stress that a good “feel” of when it matters and where it is may be far more productive for the vast majority of pictures you might want to take.

Let’s take something that’s probably more normal a situation… How about a full-length picture kind of thing? Like this maybe…

Truth be told I take far more full length or three-quarter than I do head-shots. Most people do except head-shot photographers. More on that some other day. I shot this full -frame with a 28mm at f/5.6, even if I did it at f/4 and maybe f/2.8 it would have been similar and I swear I only focused maybe two or three times for the dozens of variations of this I did. When ever we changed it up with shoes or wardrobe I certainly did. Where’s the focus point exactly? Couldn’t possibly tell you from shot to shot I was using a lens made in 1973.

Do 28mm lenses at 5 or 6 feet away on full-frame have infinite DOF? Not even close. As advertised they have a couple of feet but honestly if you want crazy sharp at pixel-peeping view, which this is, you have about a foot. A foot is about human sized perfect and pretty easy to get with a 28 or a 35 or even a 50 on a 3/4 or full length shot. No need at all to go into “DOF” apertures like f/11 or f/16. Shutter speed is way way more important for crazy sharp of even slowly moving people. Why the hell would I want to pay any attention to focus in this situation. The big question for things like this is when do you? Answer is get a good sense of this it will serve you far better than some bullshit enhancement to an AF system. I can shoot way way faster and have way way better timing by not focusing than you will dicking around with refocusing on Savanah’s right eyelash between every shot.

Oooops? Way too much coffee that day which causes itchy-trigger-finger and shit like this happens when I’m directing a subject…

Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain but obviously refocusing for this didn’t matter. On the other hand I can assure you I re-focused before shooting a change up stemming from that last hand gesture and my blah-blah with S.

You get the idea. Engaging your head, taking pictures. Evaluating what you take pictures of and getting a sense of what matters when will work far more wonders than whatever the fuck firmware upgrade comes out or how many phase detect pixels the XT-4 has.

Next time I’ll get into shit that’s hard to evaluate by numbers that can affect you and your shooting far more than what the numbers are in terms of “fast-ness” but that’s highly subjective.


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