Manual Focus (MF)
Sure, when I held for the first time an SLR in my hands the top mode dial: was set to “P” and I was more than thrilled with the results. When I then noticed, which incredible creative possibilities the individual settings offered to me my camera was soon only in the “M” mode. Of course by now I use every mode on my camera depending on the situation and I can only recommend that you play with them and figure out which one is best suited for specific situations.
Then the only thing I had to play with was the focus. Soon and after a lot of weddings a though cross my mind: so if the manual change of aperture, shutter speed and ISO performance can change a picture so decisively, then the focus should not be different.
I just turned the switch from AF to MF and went off. Out into the city, the people in sight, aperture to 1.8 (should be nicely separated from the background) and turning the focus ring until it looked sharp.
The devastating results of my first manually focused pictures on a computer 24″ inch screen showed the following reality: I had no idea what I was doing. But others managed to do it, they do or not? Some lens makers do not even bother themselves to build an autofocus system into their lenses, so somehow it has to be possible.
In the past, when people were still shooting on film, there was no autofocus, how did that work? Because there were different focusing screens, If you’ve never shot with an old manual focus film SLR, you’ve probably never experienced the joys (and pains) of focusing with a split screen and microprism ring. The most common type of focusing screen in non-autofocus 35 mm SLR cameras is the split screen and microprism ring variation that aids focusing and became standard in the 1980s. The microprism ring blurs the image unless the lens setting is in focus, the split screen shows part of the image split in two pieces. When both pieces are aligned the setting is in focus. The drawback is that the prisms have considerable light loss, making low-light focusing almost impossible. When autofocus crashed the photography party, these focusing screens were replaced with simple screens and AF points.
That was certainly what I was looking for unfortunately Canon has decided not to longer provide Focusing Screens and there where of course offers by third parties but they were not trustworthy in my opinion.
It was 2:0 against manual focus. However, my next approach proved much more fruitful. Modern digital cameras offered the possibility of a live image to be viewed on the display prior to taking the shot. It is usually possible to zoom into this view far enough to carry out focusing with great precision. Since the camera’s mirror has to be locked up in this mode, the AF function is either no longer available or the mirror has to be briefly flipped down and then back up again to carry out focusing, depending on the specific camera system. A further option is the rather cumbersome contrast-based autofocus function used in compact cameras or mirrorless I think.
With the camera mounted on a tripod and zoomed into the Live View, a high-precision MF lens enables accurate focusing. In addition, Live View generally provides a bright, crystal-clear image even in poor light. Alignment tolerances of the focusing screen, the mirror or the entire AF system of the camera are no longer an issue if Live View is used for manual focusing. At least in those cameras that take the preview image directly from the image sensor, you see the allocation of the focus exactly as it will subsequently appear in the shot.
This leads us to the question of how far this accuracy can also be achieved using modern (D)SLR cameras, most of which suffer from the limitations described above in comparison to “old” models without AF. The focusing screens fitted as standard to modern autofocus cameras are primarily designed for a bright, crystal-clear viewfinder. What they generally lack, however, are optical focusing aids (e.g. split image rangefinder and microprisms) and – due to their surface structure – the ability to make any viable distinction between “in focus” and “out of focus”. In addition, AF focus points and other markings that appear either on a second screen positioned above or on an LCD display can make it hard for the eye to clearly check the focus on a single plane of the screen.
My focus workflow looked like this for a long time: I switched my camera to LiveView, composed the image and zoomed to the place where I wanted to focus. Now the picture was wonderful and without great problems I had finally managed to manually focus. At that time, I photographed mainly natural and very calm, unmoving motifs, for which this method was wonderful.
Until I started to put people in front of my camera and focus on Live View. Have you tried this before? Somehow embarrassing, right? You have a super location, super light, your model is thrown in pose and just wait for you to press the trigger. And what are the photographer doing? “Wait …” – composing the picture – “Wait …” – zooming in to achieve accurate focusing – “Wait, one moment …” – Zoom out the picture again and correct the composition – “Ahhh, crap, now you have breathed and moved out of focus …” Everything from the start again.
This eternal focus process has really destroyed a lot of things in portrait photography. The mood, the spontaneity and above all the communication between model and photographer. In addition, one can not deny a fact: A photographer, who holds the camera about 15 cm in front of his face and stare at the display, looks more like a tourist than an photographer.
Was it so with manual focusing? My focus shifted more and more to the portrait photo and for me it was clear that I would definitely not continue to photograph people with the Live View which greatly increased the hit rate when focusing. However, this method requires a lot of practice. At first I felt a little like “what the heck am I doing here” I did not trust my abilities enough, so I turned a little further on the focus ring and then asked myself inside: Better or worse?
It was still an extremely slow and awkward process, but with more practice and experience I was getting faster. While with other photographers the small motor buzzed in the lens to achieve focus, I had already shot three pictures. In the case of poor light conditions even five.
When I recently used a Fujifilm X100s as a second body, I got to know a completely new method of focusing, the so-called “Focus Peaking”. The edges of focused areas are highlighted by overlapping white lines, which really works wonderfully. With the X100s, the whole can even be displayed in the digital viewfinder, which was perfect because you doesn’t stare constantly at the display at the back. But the EVF (electronic view finder) not convinced me because at the end its like watching a display… the OVF (optical view finder) of my canon 5D is in my opinion better suited to identifying the nuances in darker areas.
For me, manual focus meant acceleration and deceleration at the same time. I shoot whole engagements 100% manually and also moving motives without problems. After so much exercise I exactly know when the sharpness is hit and when not.
At the same time it is also said that when I have enough time, I can make much more thoughts about how my pictures has to look where the sharpness or the lack of it enriches it most forcing me above all to make more intense thoughts about what sharp and blurred elements in my photos mean.
Simply my way was not and above all not short. But it was definitely worth it. I’ve come home from shootings in the early days without a single 100% sharp picture, but I’ve been trying to keep it more and more connected to my way of photography.
Of course that included a lot of work: manual exposure, image composition, communication with the models, manual focusing.
But every damm picture feels like a handmade unique.
So is there any place left for manual focusing?
When your aim is to take photographs with wide apertures and extremely accurate focusing, high-precision manual lenses can make your work easier. A well-aligned AF system and use of the Live View mode all help to make focusing more precise. Although the influence of focus shift cannot be ignored, it can produce better, reproducible results if suitable care is taken. In situations where focusing accuracy is of paramount importance, it is also advisable to take finely graded bracketing sequences. Equally, both spontaneous portraits and reportage shots can be achieved with the same focusing precision by manual means as by using an AF system.