#590. The AF divide: A conversation of two convictions

#590. The AF divide: A conversation of two convictions

I recently overheard a conversation in a pub between two photographers which went like this:*


#1 … It doesn’t matter! Imagine that on the upcoming model of the camera with vastly improved AF! Faster, more focus points, 98% coverage, always on-point …

#2 But 6 months ago you said, the current generation has incredible fast auto focus! And about the previous generation you said, it has amazingly fast auto focus.

#1 … Well … bigger is better. Always. And I still get some images not perfectly in focus and some not at all. I don’t understand how you can still stick to the first generation with its awful AF performance?

#2 I don’t care. I mostly use MF lenses.

 

 

#1 Because you only want to buy cheap, old lenses!

#2 Not at all. Ever heard of Zeiss, Leica, or Voigtländer? Not exactly cheap glass but all manual focus. MF-only has nothing to do with price.

#1 But … you know … there’re these AF adapters which will decently focus your old MF lenses.

#2 Sure, I know. But I like the overall experience of manual focussing very much.

#1 Which experience? Manual focussing is slow and fiddling! I just raise my camera and … BAM! Shoot!

#2 No, you don’t.

#1 Of course!

#2 No. You spot the subject. Raise your camera. Look through the viewfinder. Compose. Select you focus method. Select your focus point. And … BAM! Shoot. THAT sounds fiddling to me!

#1 You exaggerate!

#2 You don’t even have an AF selection joystick anymore!

#1 But manual focus is only good for slow portraiture and landscape, not for action. Tony Northrup recently commented, he wants the new 85 mm for his fast-paced portrait shootings!

#2 What the heck is “fast-paced portrait shooting”? Sounds filthy to me. Anyways … How do you think photographers have shot sports 50 years ago? Or 10? Or 5? Or last year? You can do it with manual focus, generations of photographers and family dads have done so before. They even had keepers, great ones actually. It’s just a matter of technique and practice.

#1 But you still don’t have that high rate of keepers!

#2 It’s not that auto focus nails it perfectly every time, right?

#1 Right. But with the new model of the camera and the updated AF …

 

 

#2 To me, the fundamental difference between auto focus and manual focus is that with AF you rely on the camera’s technology. That’s why you will always need improvement on both, focus technology and prediction algorithms. When your manually focussed photo is mis-focussed, it was your fault — and only your fault. No one else to blame. And that makes a huge difference in your mindset. You will not rant about yourself in the same way you’d do to someone else’s fault. Furthermore, “upgrading” your focus abilities just means to practice more. You just don’t need to rely on technology to enhance.

#1 But we all rely on technology every day. It makes our lives easier. To me, the whole MF thing is a Hipster/Retro trend. When technology rises, a counter-trend emerges. Same with vinyl vs mp3. The whole world buys music online or even streams it, and some purists go back to vinyl, but forget how cumbersome it is to turn the record every 15 min, that they scratch, jump, are noisy and extremely inconvenient to carry around.

#2 If you need an analogy, I think it would be a car with automatic gearbox vs. manual gearbox. Automatic is convenient, it works great for cruising and for most people out there. But a racing driver or enthusiast will always strive for manual transmission because it does what he wants. It’s faster, direct and puts you in control — and can also be more fuel-efficient. In the end, I don’t understand you: You use manual white balance and shoot in manual mode because you don’t trust the camera’s measurement. Why do you trust its focussing algorithms?

#1 Because AF technology has made significant improvements in recent years. We have Eye-AF, 3D-Focus, On-Sensor-AF, 95% coverage, Phase Detection … you name it.

 

 

#2 MF benefits from the latest technology achievements as well. With EVF, hybrid viewfinders, mirrorless technology and the adaptability of any lens ever made on these new short mounts, manual focus has never been easier, accessible and more approachable. That’s why so many people go manual now, not because it’s a trend by hipsters.

#1 Still you can’t deny that modern AF technology is faster while being more precise at the same time.

#2 MF can be faster than AF.

#1 How?

#2 Zone focussing, pre-focussing or using hyperfocal distance. At the moment when you hit the shutter button, there’s no delay and therefore faster.

#1 But only with static subjects like landscapes.

#2 No. Zone focussing is very famous with street photographers. And they shoot moving subjects too. Try hip-shots with your AF and you will get anything in focus but what you want.

#1 OK. But it doesn’t work properly with shallow depth of field.

#2 Yes, true. It can be fiddly then. Although this shallow depth of field craze is beyond me. It’s only about bokeh and wide open performance, resulting in silly portraits with only one eye in focus. “Delicious, creamy bokeh” … WTF! These are supposed to be photographs not creme brulee. What about good composition, good light … and good taste?

#1 This is your topic, right? But people like it, and it’s not upon you to judge them.

 

 

#2 Yes, yes. It’s just not my cup of tea. And if you do a quick head-shot with a 100 mm F1.4 wide open, MF is probably not the best option. I’d rather use AF if I had no second try. But I’d avoid this scenario at all costs. Because what I like about MF is that it slows you down. It forces you to consciously decide about your camera settings, like aperture, focus, and depth of field. And it goes further into conscious composition instead of snapping. MF gives you technical and artistic control over your tool. And it can help you to create images that where impossible or at least difficult with AF.

#1 Which?

#2 Well, shooting through things like windows or fences. Or with strong back lights or very low contrast. Or with very fast movements where zone focussing or pre-focussing are perhaps better techniques. Or when you want to have a large depth of field you better use hyperfocal distance.

#1 I tried manual focus with focus-peaking once or twice and can’t get warm to it.

#2 Seriously, focus-peaking is bullshit. A bright, flashing color paves the whole screen. Great. How should you compose or take care of the content? Furthermore it’s very inaccurate. I get focus-peaking highlights in areas that are definitely not in focus. Makes no sense, doesn’t work. I use magnification instead. I set it to a custom button and it works like charm. But often you simply don’t need magnification but just changing focus on the lens back and forth and decide for the middle. Very quick and most likely on point. It depends on the lens actually, on its sharpness and focus transition. If the lens is soft or not fast enough, it doesn’t work that good. I also often focus wide open and then stop down. And if you have a very sharp lens, you can make use of the bad EVFs: When something is in focus then, you see purple shimmering aberrations in the EVF. Like a focus-peaking hack. Works great and fast.

#1 Maybe I need to go back and check that out. But manual focus is still fiddling. As you said before, once I wanted to photograph through a grid and switched to MF, but it just felt disconnected and slow.

#2 Because you have an AF lens with focus-by-wire. The focus wheel is not directly connected and feels as such. Use a dedicated MF lens. They’re optimized for this handling and will work much better. You just can’t switch off AF and compare that to a fully manual lens. I can borrow you one of mine lenses. For beginners, it’s best to start with a wide-angle MF lens. Set it to F8 or F11 and have a great point & shoot. You will love it!

 

 

#1 Wait, wait … don’t push me! I like the full-frame look with shallow depth of field. And, anyhow, what you said made no sense! Talking about artistic control: What is great about iPhoneography is that it’s only about composition, not about setting. If you can’t hide your poor composition within bokeh or crazy view angles, it’s all about content and composition. Furthermore, if you have no settings to take care of, you can set your mind free to create art. Now back to real cameras: If modern cameras free you from technical decisions, you can concentrate more on composition and content.

#2 You mean, we should start using P-mode? laugh

#1 No, but AF takes work away from you, like any automatization, and lets you concentrate on the essentials. Which is not technology.

#2 Wasn’t it you who talks about new technology all the time? … But that only works if the camera does everything right. And that is not the case — will never be. Because the camera doesn’t know my intent, because it’s my art. That’s why we use manual white balance, manual exposures, manual focus and so on. And to do this, we have to learn our tools like every artist. And we learn the most by doing things on our own — like setting the focus and aperture manually and see how the transition shifts.

#1 That sounds very technology-driven too me. So instead of just creating my art, you propose to learn and study all the technical stuff of my camera? If you want to be a die-hard racing driver, I rather cruise around and have some fun.

#2 That’s not what I meant. It’s about conscious decisions, working on your craft, improving your photography …

#1 … doesn’t sound like a creative setting to me but more like a boot camp.

#1 By the way: the A9 is out.

#2 Mmmh … cool …

 

* I totally made this up.

 


 

For imagery, I follow the official DS publishing guidelines: “§82 In case content-accompanying images are not available, use tasteful, soothing landscape or nature photography.” As I don’t like German winter lighting, I have been into black & white for the last few months. You’re presented a selection of German winter landscapes, mostly taken in an area called Oderbruch, located in East-Brandenburg at the border to Poland, just 90 min outside of Berlin.

As usual, more images on my Flickr.

 


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24 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Dallas Thomas May 04, 2017

    I had my first serious shoot a few weeks ago using manual focus on a borrowed Zeiss Otus 28 1.4. It did take some getting use to. I was told by P. to shoot wide open and did. The % of keepers was about 90%, I was impressed. A week or so later out again using the Otus 55 1.4 this time. The difference between using AF and MF to me is it slows me down and think more about what I am shooting and trying to create. I am now hooked on Zeiss and will get a Milvus 50 1.4 on my return home to Sydney from an extended stay in Paris. Yes I could use my existing glass as MF but they do not feel the same as the Zeiss very short focus throw. Loved the article. Just my 2 bobs worth. Dallas

    • Avatar
      Steffen Kamprath May 04, 2017

      Congrats! I can fully subscribe to your experiences. Slow down is also the attribute I’d use, but not in the sense that you are slow but more mindful and less trigger-happy. Also, pure MF lenses are a completely different experience to AF lenses set to MF. (As a side note for others: It doesn’t need to be $3-4k lenses to get feel that.)

      Though, the post was just half about it. At the end there is this interesting twist from the fictional AF character. His argument is that everything we put between the subject and the shutter button increases friction and weakens the creative vision. In it’s purest form, you can’t hide bad composition and a boring image on a smartphone. My approach is: With every acquisition I ask myself “Does this improve my photography”? And with photography, I don’t mean technically better photos with higher resolution but better, more meaningful photos.

    • Avatar
      jean pierre (pete) guaron May 06, 2017

      Jumping on board, now – thanks for raising that Dallas. I shoot some of my stuff exclusively on MF lenses (thanks, Mr Zeiss) and yes, I agree that it means taking more care – ie putting more in – in taking photos. Unfortunately it isn’t always feasible – for instance, I take a lot of photos of people’s pets (they call me “the dog man” around this suburb 🙂 ) and you simply cannot focus on the eyes quickly enough to be successful with pet photography, with an MF lens. Or perhaps you can, but your percentage of keepers would be less than 10%. So on my next shoot, all I am taking is my two Otus lenses. Heavy as hell (especially the w/angle) – but OMG, I ADORE the image quality !!!!
      And I am envious, Dallas – I wish I could figure a way to get myself an extended stay in Paris – or ANYWHERE in France !!! Even if I have to wash the dishes !!!

  2. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron May 04, 2017

    We’ve shifted from creative photography to creative writing?

    I can scarcely comment on this article – I spent the afternoon reading articles on the failings of AF. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Fabrizio Giudici May 04, 2017

    But 6 months ago you said, the current generation has incredible fast auto focus! And about the previous generation you said, it has amazingly fast auto focus.

    I don’t know whether somebody defined an official terminology to describe this kind of rhetorics, but I call it “saturation of emphasis”. I see it happening all the time, in all contexts (evaluation of technology, politics, athletes/teams… the latter thing makes me thing that it’s related, guess what, to fanboyism… 😉

    For the rest, some interesting hints. But at the moment, as a total ignorant about shallow DoF portraiture, I supposed that 100mm @ ƒ/1.8 was one of the specific cases where _manual_ focus is fundamental.

    • Avatar
      Steffen Kamprath May 04, 2017

      Fabrizio, I also don’t know the official term. But I read about this some times ago. It was that with fast product cycles we loose track of comparability because we always consider the latest iteration to be superior. It also put consume pressure on us because we now lack 2 versions behind. It doesn’t matter what happened during those two iterations. Meanwhile we came to the point that the faster you iterate on your product (the more versions you put out within one timeframe), the better the product has to be. We don’t think of it as a bad product that needs to change quickly or of a rip-off (charge for minor improvements) or of failed product development (that needs to get fixed fast and often). We cry for a new camera or smartphone after only 10 month. We celebrate firmware bugfixes as customer service. We don’t put product improvements into perspective. Newer is faster is better – sold.

  4. Avatar
    pascaljappy May 04, 2017

    Steffen, thanks for this fun and interesting article. Ultimately, it’s what allows you to make the best pictures that count. And those you provide are a mix of static landscape and of a very timid-looking and beautiful feline. Fantastic photographs. Particularly the two trees in a X formation, but multiple others as well.

    My point is : focus matters. A lot. If AF works well, then great. If it’s approximative (and, in my experience, it very often is), it ruins the clarity of the message. It seems newer technologies are bridging the gap, though. So we might soon have performance and convenience. The conversation might look different then 😉 But for now, you paint a very accurate picture of the great AF divide 😉

    • Avatar
      Steffen Kamprath May 04, 2017

      The point I’m making for AF: Will AF ever work? I say no, because focus doesn’t mean to have something in focus but the right thing. How does any machine (or even another human) know what I find most important in my frame and what I want to have in focus? I say: Impossible! Example: This eastern I was shooting my son running through the garden seeking Easter presents. I was using wide AF. There was one shot of my son’s hand holding a basket with various sweets pointing in all direction out of the basket. I just raised the camera above him and hit the shutter when he passed quickly right in front of me. The AF focused on one of the sweets pointing towards my directions. I would rather choose the hand. Or the sweet with the face pointing away from me. Or the face of my son which was only half inside the frame. You see, with MF I myself would have had problems to decide what is most important – impossible with in a split-second to decide, not talking about execution. BUT with MF I would have seen before that my depth of field is too short for such images. If I used zone focus and stop down hard, I had a better shot. However, I would never had taken this shot in MF because I wouldn’t had the time to change focus from 3 m down to 50 cm within a split-second. In that regard, MF would have saved me from spray & pray by not talking any shot at all. But I took the image and now have a shot (that could be better) but works of that Easter basket 2017.

      I’m interested in what technology can do for MF.

    • Avatar
      jean pierre (pete) guaron May 06, 2017

      My issue with AF, Pascal – and my reason for junking it for my “serious” photography – is that AF has split off from the pack.

      Look at Leica – they are still succeeding, with their traditional rangefinder focusing system. That’s what I had with my original Zeiss cams – a dual rangefinder system, in the Contax and (later) the Contarex, giving me a choice between either a split image rangefinder or the surrounding micro prism collar. For me, it was a wild jump upwards – because until then, all the rangefinders I’d had were NOT TTL, and their performance was a bit lack lustre in certain circumstances.

      Jump forward and you get automation. Terrific! Anything you choose to have, in the way of an AF system (LOL – although your choice is limited to whatever your brand of camera provides, so choosing too many might cost a bit in camera bodies).

      But as Steffen’s No. 2 keeps saying, and you suggest, Pascal, AF doesn’t always “do it”. And then what? An army of amateur ‘togs out there, blazing away, getting crappy photos, and having no skill set to deal with their underlying problem? What a great contribution to photography THAT is!

  5. Avatar
    The anonymous grunter May 04, 2017

    Great Blog, Steffen. I enjoy my MF lenses on DSLR and EVF cameras for the very reasons mentioned and for their IQ and specific looks.

  6. Avatar
    Adam Bonn May 05, 2017

    Nice article, and I see increasingly more and more people wanting to a shoot a camera, rather than set a AF mode

    I’m a big proponent of MF, even on FBW lenses, where with BBF you get both worlds anyway!

    I started to use my X-Pro1 in MF mode because it was faster (overall, as there was no need to re engage in a AF run if I wanted a second or third shot and I hadn’t moved position), then when I got the X-Pro2 (which has pretty decent AF) I just stuck with MF mode, as I prefer the control, and even with the little joystick thing, I still tend to just use focus peaking and make sure what I want to be focus is glowing red rather than move the AF box around!

    I’m starting to think that AF spec is the new megapixel arms race from the OEMs…

    One thing I believe is that if you learn to manually focus and manually expose a camera, then you can use ANY camera. If you learn how the automatic-face-detect-eye-in-focus-capture mode works on your Canikonsonuji, then all you’ve really learnt is how to use a Canikonsonuji, you’ll need to learn it all again when they bring out a new one or switch brands

    I also think that… in the great scheme of things it actually doesn’t matter… The moment the shutter is pressed, all the technique you used becomes past history for that particular shot, and anyone who sees that shot (yourself included) will never judge it on mode your camera was in at the time of capture!

    • Avatar
      Steffen Kamprath May 05, 2017

      It’s also like a drug: You always need it faster and better, never satisfied with the status quo. And, of course, that costs money. Fuji is such an example: The had poor AF performance in their first cameras. Then improved it in newer bodies. But to effectively use it, you also need to buy new lenses. But they’re different and provide a different look. So you bought a new body, learn new ergonomics, buy new lenses, change your look … Sony, another example but different. They provide excellent performance on the A6000. The A6300 has a little bit better AF, so you better buy it. The A6500 is a little bit better too, so you better upgrade for the best AF performance. Of course, that’s only true until the A6700.

      At the same time, people using their Leica or Contax or Minolta (whatever) glasses for decades now, at the same or improved speed and much improved image quality (due to digital sensors).

      • Avatar
        Adam Bonn May 06, 2017

        What I’m about to say can cause BIG arguments in the Fuji world…

        But the thing is, those newer faster AF Fuji lenses… they have worse optical performance than their predecessors

        So, it’s like Fuji originally thought

        “Of course people would be happy to sacrifice some AF performance for IQ that very fast (F1.4/1.2) optically true lenses provide”

        And now they’re saying

        “Hmmmm ok then, here’s a run of F2 glass with software correction for barrel distortion, but hey – look how fast they focus”

        And OK, I’m being a tad dramatic, it’s not like they don’t sell the fast glass any more, but the fact they felt the need to do that says a lot (to me anyway) about how the consumer rates the importance of AF performance

        Makes me wonder what the next prosumer obsession will be… the global shutter maybe?

        • Avatar
          Adrian May 11, 2017

          Fuji didn’t really understand the needs of mirrorless focus systems when they introduced the first Z mount lenses. They all focused externally, meaning they were traditional optical designs, with relatively heavy focusing groups and with relatively long focus throw. They also used very basic motors, probably because they had to move high mass. The result was a very slow focusing system, and still relatively slow focusing even on the newer camera bodies. They clearly realised their mistakes as successive lens models slowly moved to coreless (read linear or ring type) motors, internal focusing designs, dual motors etc – but it took them quite some time to get to lens designs that can support the faster focusing and tracking abilities of the newer bodies. Whether those early lenses were “better” optically I don’t know – they relied on software correction for distortions, and the 35mm f1.4 had some odd characteristics at open aperture and closer focusing (double edged bokeh and obvious spherical aberration), for example. Lenses have to be designed to work with their camera system, which is why slr and mirrorless lens models tend to be rather different. High resolution digital puts demands on lens camera systems that need changing designs for optimum results. People say Sony’s E mount has large lenses, but ignore that so do most SLR systems now – just look at the size of many new high performance lenses and compare their output to a decade ago to understand why lenses are getting larger- it’s because photographers use higher resolution cameras and demand better optical quality. People seem to think Fuji have some.secret sauce in lens designs, as if they don’t use the same software and computer models as everyone else. Almost all brands of lens are now excellent, and merely have to cope with the demands of their respective systems.

  7. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron May 06, 2017

    I thought winter and the hibernation period were ending in the northern hemisphere. Come on guys – Steffen has given you the ultimate version of two ‘togs bickering over their gear, and nobody is saying a thing!

    • Avatar
      jean pierre (pete) guaron May 06, 2017

      Ooops – it seems you WERE discussing it, and it wasn’t appearing at my end. Dunno how that works – or not, as the case may be. 🙂

      • Avatar
        Steffen Kamprath May 07, 2017

        I noticed comments weren’t excluded from caching properly. They only appear when you force reload without cache (CMD/Ctrl-Reload). And often comments were marked as spam (without reason) and had to manually approved by one of us.

  8. Avatar
    Brian Patterson May 07, 2017

    I usually shoot distant subjects in AF Spot mode to avoid errors made in manual focusing by eye.
    I usually shoot closeups of anything in MF to determine the critical focal point, DoF and bokeh develop in the frame.
    To make it easy, I separate AF and Shutter allows for complete control of both.

    Now, isn’t that a much shorter article?

    • Avatar
      Steffen Kamprath May 07, 2017

      That would be a short but boring and a not very objective article in my opinion. It’s your workflow and works for you. Not necessarily for me. I mostly shot distant shots MF because I’m using hyperfocal distance and want to make sure the focus is exactly where I want him. That’s more complicated for the AF because the target area and contrast is smaller/lower. I often use AF for close-by action because they are faster in relation to my position.

      However, this article is not about a particular workflow but about convictions and high-handedness. I think, I made some good points for both sides.

      But you’re right. The best take-away is: Don’t be Black & White but Grey. Don’t stick to preconceptions. Try out what works for you. There’re reasons why people love manual focus and why people love AF.

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