Cameras, Automation, Etc.

As photographers we're all in someway tied to the tech, always have been, always will be to one degree or another. There are many temptations to veer off the path of the primary mission of making pictures in whatever way makes the most sense, in whatever way works, in being creative working under constraints that may change but will always be there. The temptations always lead to technological solutions that promise to solve all your problems. They don't, in many cases they are a gigantic distraction from the matter at hand.


Let's take auto-focus as the example. I've been around the block a few times photographically speaking. Hell, I'm pretty old and have been messing with making pictures since I was about 12 years old. How long have camera's been auto-focusing? For a couple of years? Wrong! More like decades now. Let's take a look at the pattern of how that's gone.

  • Holy shit, the camera can focus for me. Now all my pictures will be fantastic because the reason they suck is they're out of focus.
  • Hmmm, most of my pictures still suck but a few more are in focus then before. I need better auto-focus.
  • Time goes by, camera makers. Here's are newer better badder-ass autofocus. The last one was trash.
  • Oh boy, now everything will be fine.
  • Hmmm, same suck, but there are a few more pictures in focus now. Maybe those one's that are still out of focus would be really great if they were in focus. Yeh, I wish my AF was better.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat, over and over.

The only difference from a few decades ago is that we get "better" autofocus every year or sooner than every five years. Oh, and every year we can look at our pictures with higher and higher magnification via more pixels so we can see just how "bad" our lenses are or how the focus is ever so slightly off where theoretically it would make the picture great if it was just faster and better. Bullshit!

An Arbitrary Case Study

How about a camera from like last year that used to be great. Now it's trash because three newer versions are out.

Not the best-est picture in the world but will serve for sure. Made it with the Fuji XT-1 while messing around with Kami. I was using the 35mm f/2 WR at f/4. A fairly dynamic situation like 80% of what I tend to do on this particular project. Dynamic in that there's no hold-still. At this distance at that aperture there's not a ton of DOF. I was probably using single AF, maybe I was using manual with the AF-on button serving to refocus when I felt it was required.

Let's take a look at something similar in nature from a dynamic, framing, point of view, etc…

The above was made with the camera that I ditched my original X-Pro1 for after I could not make that camera work for me — The Nikon Df. Why did I ditch the Fuji and go back to Nikon? Was it the auto-focus? Considering the above picture was made with a 28mm f/3.5 lens from 1971 I got for free I would suggest that auto-focus had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The reason was focus related, specifically at that time there was no way to focus the X-Pro1 in certain situations that were remotely reasonable. The EVF was absolutely horrible, no focus peaking yet, the AF-on in manual focus didn't work in backlit situations or in the dark (like using strobes with modeling lights. In many shooting situations you just could not focus the thing, forget auto-focus.

The situations were similar. I manually focused the old Nikkor 28mm, was shooting at f/5.6 (mostly because of horrid aberrations that lens makes on digital anywhere close to the edges of the frame. I only re-focused when it was required, sort of by feel. I use manual focus most of the time on my Fuji X cameras. Wait, that's no fair a wide vs a normal and a stop more DOF blah, blah. Sure it is, first off the actual focal length is pretty close taking in the full-frame vs APS-C but more to the point I had to be MUCH closer with the 28mm on full-frame and trust me that one stop down vs much closer isn't even a contest in terms of DOF. Similar focal length plus much closer equals way less DOF even stopped down more. Okay fine here's one with a 50mm at f/4 on the Nikon shot the same way at the same time. No argument now right.

Not Focusing Is Always Faster

I use manual focus on my DSLR's most of the time (or back-button focus in a similar manner). Honestly I shoot a lot like I always have regardless of Nikon 35mm film bodies of all ages, DSLR's, Medium format Hasselblad film, Fuji X, whatever. Not because I'm lazy, or old-fashioned, or don't know how the new stuff works. I probably know my cameras and everything they do better than most. I do what works for the situation and what gear I happen to be using in that situation.

Sure the joy-stick thing on the X-Pro2 is far better than the d-pad on the XT-1. Mostly because the d-pad on that camera sucked really bad. It's a convenience. Sure the little EVF in the corner I can pop-up with magnification and/or focus peaking is also pretty cool. Honestly they are very similar to having a focus screen that you can actually see the focus everywhere sort of like my old Hasselblad cameras.

Why does my particular way of working work better for me? Well because there's never a miss, there's no wasted time even thinking about focusing, no delay in releasing the shutter, no focusing on the background or missing the moment because the person moved to the side a bit, etc, etc.

What's The Point?

I'm not suggesting you do the same thing I do. I'm not suggesting you don't use auto-focus. I am suggesting that for decades and decades it's not the better camera that makes anyone's pictures better. It's not the constant marketing of way better auto-focus, it's pretty much none of that that's getting in the way for 99.99% of what all of us actually make pictures of. If focusing was such an issue and the big problem standing in the way then you would have solved it no matter what way you did a long long time ago.

I'm making this point because I see a giant dichotomy between photographers from a long time ago vs. photographers now. Not all of them of course but generally speaking. There's really no technical obstacle that's getting in the way. It's all marketing to sell more product, too bad that's a giant distraction to a whole lot of people looking to push their photography to whatever "better" means to them. No matter where that is at the moment the next place is always hard, that's why it's so easy to blame it on a tech problem, and so attractive to solve what turns out to be a nit by just grabbing the next camera.

End Notes

It's fun to talk gear. It's fun to compare lenses and look at what they can do. Consider this though; A free lens made in 1971 that wasn't even that special back then is perfectly fine for most subject matter. The 18mm f/2 smashes that 1971 lens in many ways but honestly there about the same for the vast majority of circumstances where corner performance isn't a factor. I like both because they are small and look pretty damn good.

I do stuff like The Fuji lens guide series of posts in a meager attempt to dispel a lot of the internet wisdom regarding what's what. There are so many factors that have so much more impact than the nits of resolution, minor AF performance differences and all that it can't be summarized quickly but boy it's still fun to talk about gear, always has been.