Living with Manual Focus

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*Model, *Photography, *Portraits

Manual focus

Many of the world’s most loved lenses have a flaw, including the world’s sharpest lens, the Zeiss Otus 85mm: It’s manual focus with a shallow depth-of-field. So, autofocus is faster and more accurate than manual focus, and when using a shallow depth-of-field with living subjects, it’s rather a necessity. So, why and how I am actually using an manual f/1.4 lens?

Many of my shots are planned, so I can take some time and give some instructions at the same time that I manually focus the lens. As the on-camera talent, I understand that I can’t allow my body to sway forward or back (a natural thing humans like us do), or everything will become blurry.

For stills, I simply use a tripod and of course getting a sharp shot has nothing to do with luck.

Of course I fail nailing the focus, and some shots will be a little bit more “smooth” there are a lot of them on this blog where my model’s eyes are open and expression is pleasant but it´s not perfectly sharp.

The Problem with Manual Focus

Here’s the thing about manual focus: it sucks. It’s just not very good. If you don’t believe me, look at the history of cameras, and how quickly autofocus became a key feature of all cameras, including professional cameras, even in the 70s and 80s. Autofocus helps you get the shot.

Yes, focus peaking exists on mirrorless cameras and focus confirmation on DSLR, and it helps… but it’s not very precise. Focus peaking highlights contrasty areas of the picture, and it highlights a range that much deeper than the actual depth-of-field. The standard focusing screens of modern auto focus DSLR cameras are optimized for use with AF type lenses. Most of them, however, are lacking optical focusing aids (e.g. split/microprism screens) that makes it hard to visually judge sharpness. If you rely entirely on focus peaking or focus confirmation with this type of lens, you’ll often be an inch or so off, and your picture will look… let us say wrong.

So magnify the viewfinder 1:1 to find the focus, then un-magnify to frame the picture, then snap the shot. It works, but it’s not that fast; it takes quite a few seconds of fine-tuning (at least) to really nail focus on an eye when you’re taking a portrait, and with living subjects,people are moving very slightly every few seconds, so by the time you get them in focus, they can be out of focus again. Even your own body movements that you’re not aware of can be enough to move the picture out-of-focus when your depth of field is razor thin.

I am not saying that I only manual focus in manual mode with manual ISO on a wooden tripod shoting only film with an 100 year old camera to use as an excuse to get some wrong looking images.

Of course you’ll get a lot of pictures like this, that are almost in focus, but not quite:

So why the hell

Most of you care about the technical perfection of a lens, and this lenses aren’t technically perfect. But it´s just perfect for me. I think I am using manual lenses for three years for now and here I am but however, if missing focus on 40% of your shots sounds like fun, and you don’t mind annoying the people your taking a picture of by telling them to hold still for just a few more seconds, then this is the lens for you. It’s creative, it’s real, it creates a mood, and most importantly, it’s fun for me. It added something to my personal way of Photography that I had thought lost.

I don´t want to say that Sharpness is overrated but the most common complaints I hear from most photographers of any experience level is “my images aren’t sharp”, and “I can’t get my focus to lock”. Most want to blame their equipment and, while there are many instances that equipment is to blame, I have found a vast majority are just simple user error.

Focus and sharpness are two different things. Explaining sharpness could take another whole entry, so I’m just make a couple of useful points. If an image is out of focus, you can’t make it in focus by sharpening. You will just have a very sharp out of focus picture. Most RAW images need sharpening of some type. Whether you use Smart Sharpen, an un-sharp mask, or hi-pass filtering techniques, most RAW images benefit from some sharpening. Remember also that sharpening is final product dependent. You would not sharpen the same amount for a web-sized image as you would for a poster sized print.

Escrito por

Founder of Lichtbild & Head of his own strange world / Vintage Enthusiast / Photographer / Graphic Designer /Typography "lover" / Book Collector / Spanish+German Mix / Lives in Coruña / Sometimes heads back home & Sleeps. /*

5 thoughts on “Living with Manual Focus”

  1. Hey Alberto,
    i use the newest Canon super autofocus eos 5mk4…with the non autofocus zeiss 2.0 50mm makro…but i am no sports photographer, so i think…it depends on the job you have to do…sometimes autofocus is really useful…(ok, i am not the youngest…may be i look around of a good af lens :-)
    kind regards, Jürgen

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