A Fine Obstruction
Close to Your Subject
Using Hyperfocal Distance
The Glass Barrier
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As amazing as the autofocus technology on your camera may be, the real world is still more amazing. You’re bound to experience one or a number of shooting situations where the point of focus is so precise and subtle that the AF system on most cameras becomes confused. The result is possibly a great shot, but not in focus, which makes it worthless.
Whenever you find yourself in any of the following 10 shooting situations, it’s a good idea to turn off the AF and manually focus on your subject or scene. You’re much more likely to capture the sharp, crisp image that you expected. In addition, you should know how to focus your camera manually and have experience doing it successfully, even though you may use the AF system most of the time.
Whenever the light is low—sunrise, sunset, twilight, night, cloudy days, dark interiors—an AF system can have difficulty locking focus simply because the environment is not producing enough light or there is not enough reflecting off surfaces. Any photography of the night skies also requires manual focus.
When the tones, textures or colors of the subject and other objects and areas in a photo are the same AF is often unable to distinguish between what you want in focus and whatever else is in the photo that registers similarly, in terms of contrast value. For example, a black dog against a dark wall. Typically, you must manually focus on the dog to ensure it will be in focus and not the wall.
There’s a very good reason (actual more than one) the best sports, motorsports and nature photographers use a very high-end DSLR camera: They need the best AF system available to help maintain focus of fast-moving subjects and objects and stop their action and be in focus. Even then, many of these pros often use manual focus. Most of us don’t shoot with those kinds of cameras, so whenever you want to capture action images, you can’t rely totally on the AF. Plus, the AF could actually fool you into thinking the moving object is in focus, and then change the focus point as you depress the shutter.
When using manual focus for action shots, a good method is to pre-focus on a spot in front of the subject/object, and then capture it when it moves into that space. This may take some practice, but you’ll like the results better than what AF will produce.
HDR is the process where you shoot multiple images of a scene or subject at different exposures, some lighter and some darker, and then combine them in editing software into a single image. To use this technique successfully, your camera must be rock-steady on a tripod and you want to focus manually. In fact, once you establish the focus for the first shot, you don’t want the focus point to change. This process could confuse the AF, so it’s better to rely on manual focus when creating HDR photos.
You might be shooting through hanging leaves or foliage to create a frame around a distant subject. You take your camera to the zoo and all your animal pictures include the fencing between you and the animals (Thank Goodness!) AF may focus on the foliage or fence instead of your primary subject.
With the use of manual exposure control, you may be able to defocus the fine obstruction so much that it essentially disappears from your photo. Use a wider aperture to narrow the depth-of-field. With AF deactivated, you can manually focus on your actual subject, so the foreground foliage creates a nicely defocused framing. When shooting through a fence, move as close as you can and match the center open space with the middle of your lens.
Similar to HDR photography, editing together multiple images of the same subject is a very interesting portrait technique. Typically, a consistent background with the same tonal value (which tends to be studio portrait work) won’t confuse autofocus and white balance. Portraits shot outdoors or lifestyle portraits are more likely to have backgrounds with a variety of tonal values. You’ll want to use manual focus and white balance for better control.
During close-up or macro photography, your lens is very close to the subject, which narrows the depth-of-field to just inches or less. This shooting situation is often a challenge for AF, so manual focus is required to achieve the most accurate focus point on your macro subject.
Study the best landscape photography and you’ll notice that both the foreground and background (and, of course, all the space between them) are sharply in focus. To achieve this, may require determining the hyperfocal distance. This is another instance where AF could be fooled, and refocus your image as you trip the shutter.
The AF system in your camera doesn’t like glass either, especially if it has fingerprints, scratches, reflections and other aberrations. Like a frame of foliage or the fencing at the zoo, AF may locked on the surface features of the glass and not your subject on the other side. Manual focus will guarantee you don’t bring home a photo study of glass smudges and marks.
To your eye, fog may look like it is “there,” near your subject, but fog is also “here,” or near your camera. Fog tends to fill a three-dimensional space. An autofocus system has the precision to lock on the fog “curtain” directly in front of you instead of your distant focus point. Go to manual and let the fog do what it will.
Image credit: jcjgphotography / 123RF Stock Photo
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