You’re not a real photographer if you rely on autofocus

School trip

I’m third from the left.

My first camera was a 35mm point a click compact. It was black, it was probably purchased by my mother from Boots, I was 7 or 8, I used to ask my barber to cut my hair like Jason Donovan. I have still got some of the pictures that I took with that camera most notably a set of glossy prints from Foto Processing of a school trip to the Lickey Hills. Looking back at those pictures now evokes some strong memories about that sunny day and reminds me of the ability for photography to capture a moment and allow us to travel back to that time.

You didn’t have to think about focusing with my first camera. You pointed it at your intended target and depressed the shutter, job done. The downside of course is that you couldn’t make creative use of depth of field either. I first started to learn about focusing and depth of field when I purchased a second hand 35mm SLR at the age of 13. That SLR is a Canon AT-1 and to be honest deserves a blog post all of it’s own.  I say is and not was because I still use it to this day. I only purchased my Nikon D700 DSLR in April of last year and whilst this is now my main camera body I still like to shoot with my 35mm SLR semi regularly.  The only thing that puts me off using it more often is the cost of film and processing.

There are many differences between my AT-1 and my D7000 but of all of those differences it’s the addition of autofocus that has stood out for me. Right up until the day that my DSLR arrived in the post I had been using my Canon SLR and the whole aspect of manual focus was part of the process for me. It might sound strange, but having a camera which has the ability to handle focusing automatically somehow felt like cheating. Manual focus was so embedded in how I took my photographs that relying on autofocus made me feel like I was less involved as a photographer.

For a while I struggled to get to grips with the autofocus feature of my D7000 and instead opted to continue using manual focus. This wasn’t quite as simple as you might think, the A series camera has a split focusing rangefinder built into the viewfinder. If you haven’t used one of these before it works using prisms to help the photographer set the correct focal distance. From a practical point of view the central part of what you see through the viewfinder is separated in two, horizontally. As you change focus and get closer to the correct distance the two parts of the image move together. The aim is to align both parts of the image in order to get a sharp shot. The only downside of this type of rangefinder is that it makes what you see though viewfinder a little darker.

Split focusing rangefinder

I took this picture through the viewfinder of my AT-1. You can see that the eye of the duck is not quite lined up showing that it isn’t in focus.

Initially I thought that my D7000 was completely lacking any kind of rangefinder but that isn’t actually the case. In the lower left corner of the D700 viewfinder there is a small green LED which uses the same electronic rangefinder used by the autofocus. When using manual focus you can press the shutter release halfway and the green LED with illuminate if you have the right distance set. One thing to bear in mind here is that it will use the currently selected AF point in order to judge the range.  To me this still feels a little bit like cheating as I’m not judging the correctness by eye but the D7000 has a lovely clear and bright viewfinder and the rangefinder is a useful tool.

After some practice I was fairly happy manually focusing my Nikon DSLR but I really wanted to learn how to use autofocus properly. I made it my mission to take control of autofocus so that it felt like I was taking picture rather than the camera doing it all for me. Coincidentally I happened across a tweet from @nine_volt_photo that lead me to this YouTube video by Steve Perry:

You can find out more about back button autofocus at Steve’s website, Back Country Gallery.

I have been using back button focusing for a month or so now and I have to say that I am more than impressed. Setting the focus using this method is a concious decision rather than something that happens when depressing the shutter and means that I am fully in control. Back button focusing feels natural on the D7000 and I can now easily move my thumb between selecting an AF point and pushing the focus button. If you are going to try it for yourself then stick with it as once you get use to the change it really is worth it.

Even with my new found control of autofocus I will still keep using manual focus fairly often. The more you manually focus your camera the quicker you will be able to get a sharp shot and there are times when autofocus will let you down. Especially if there is little contrast in your subject or low light. Not to mention the annoying autofocus lamp which alerts people of your impending picture.

If you have any focusing tips then please leave them in the comments.

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