When autofocus is not the right choice

In an age where auto focus is almost universal, why do camera manufacturers still go to lengths to build in functionality with focus rings and switches and advanced focus aids such as peaking, magnification, etc. Is it just for landscape photographers?

Nikon F501 product image https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20170530_Nikon_F501_stacked.jpg by Granada

With the increase in popularity of mirrorless systems, with adapters for multiple third party lenses, there is also an increase in the popularity of older manual focus lenses on modern cameras. Autofocus has been the norm for decades now, I still remember looking with curiosity at the Minolta Dynax 7000, Yashica 230 AF and Nikon F501 - it has moved on massively and must now, some 30 years on, be at the peak of development where changes or developments will be small incremental improvements only.

The time has long since passed where you have to wait for the camera to focus. Although my Leica X is not instant (though not slow) - my Nikon D750 is pretty much instant in virtually every lighting situation and subject choice. Indeed even with my Nikon F5 and faster primes, focus was rarely a major problem.

Manual focus continues to be a talked about function even in modern cameras, despite what I would assume is minimal real world use. Lots of work has been done by camera manufacturers to develop focus peaking and incorporate automatic focus point magnification to enable accurate focus on mirrorless cameras, in order to replace prisms / split images in focus screens. Focus accuracy on mirrorless cameras and in Live View on DSLRs should now be at the peak of what is possible, eliminating focus errors with SLRs due to mirror misalignments, as required by high acutance of modern sensors which exceed film resolution.

Image https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Focus-screen-1.jpg by Dave Fischer

While the manual focus ergonomics of modern AF lenses is generally not great, with small poorly weighted focus rings and questionable throw distance, perhaps the lack of attention is justified by the infrequent use? There is still a market for manual focus only lenses, dominated by Zeiss and Voigtlander, these are specialist small volume items. And they are generally superb.

But given that AF is now so advanced and coupled with features such as tracking and face recognition (with the Olympus OM-D E-M1, I had my first experience with eye detection and control over which eye you choose) maybe this is just too much.

Why do I still manually focus sometimes? Perhaps just to exercise a bit more control, perhaps habit carried over from most of my time photographing being with manual focussing cameras. There are other reasons for consciously choosing manual focus too.

Hyperfocal distance / preset focus - I know I want to get the person who is always 2m from me, don’t want to start moving focus points or focus and recompose, actually at f/5.6 or smaller it is quicker to have prefocussed, minor adjustments are rarely necessary, maybe that is why some claim they are quicker with their Leica M than their DSLR - it’s not actually quicker, just that the process has refined to doing less.

Autofocus in street photography - choice or control - Often there are multiple focal planes in a composition - autofocus picks one, not the middle - we are yet to see a camera that can evaluate a scene, adjust aperture to provide an appropriate depth of field and focus appropriately. 

Only manual focus will do in this situation.

The photo below wouldn’t have worked with autofocus, the pigeon would have been too out of focus if a focus point on the man was selected.

Macro photography - Another example of where careful selective focus, human rather than processor driven is required for many situations.

Other situations such as focussing through a fence or window can also demand manual focus. 

That’s not to say I am against using autofocus, frequently it is much better suited than manual focus (and than my eyesight), but being aware of when manual focus works well is important. It offers more control and it opens options, photographically and also to some amazing old lenses and modern lenses. In my opinion the current Zeiss manual focus lenses are among the best ever made, but older lenses of outstanding quality can be obtained at comparatively bargain prices and the lack of autofocus shouldn’t be off-putting.

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