There have been some magnificent improvements in the abilities of cameras over the last few years, not least in lenses and camera focusing systems. The technical advancements have almost taken camera skills out of our hands. But is this good or bad for photography?
Looking Back to the Photographic Past
Going back in time, the camera obscura used a tiny aperture but no lens to create an image that would project onto a wall or screen. It’s theorized that early cave dwellers noticed this effect from tiny holes in the animal skin curtains hanging across the cave mouth. The projected scene on the wall inspired their wall paintings.
You can replicate this effect with your camera. Drill a hole in a body cap, tape some aluminum foil over the hole inside the cap, and prick a tiny hole in the center of the foil. Fit it to your camera’s lens mount and a do-it-yourself pinhole camera. Everything is in focus. Well, nearly in focus.
Early film cameras had a single element, a piece of convex glass. Rays of light would hit that lens, which would make the light converge to create a sharp image on the film. There’s a great interactive demonstration of how that works on the Physics Classroom website.
Similarly, the earliest film processing required precise chemistry techniques, not least because the chemicals could poison you.
Things progressed and lenses with multiple elements evolved with ever-increasingly flawlessness and definition. Modern camera lenses are complex devices with an array of elements. The highest-quality lenses need precision to make and that takes time, which is why they are very expensive.
Advancements in Autofocus
With the improvements in lens quality, the accuracy and versatility of autofocus leaped forward, too.
Back in 1978, Polaroid released the SX-70 SONAR OneStep camera. It used ultrasound to detect the subject distance and focused using that. Three years later, Pentax released the first autofocus SLR with the ME F. Other manufacturers soon followed suit.
When you looked through the viewfinder of many film SLR cameras, you would see a horizontal split in the middle of the screen. At first, what you saw above and below the split would be misaligned. To focus on the subject, you would turn the lens’ focussing ring until what you saw on either side of the split was in phase. When digital photography became mainstream, DSLRs had two focusing systems, one of which used a similar method. The sensor’s focus points would detect if the subject were out of phase, hence phase detection.
However, when you used your live view screen on the back of the camera, the focusing system was different. It employed contrast detection. Pick up your camera and put it out of focus. You will see that the scene loses contrast; shadows and highlights become a muddy midtone. As you focus the lens, the scene gains contrast and the different tones become more defined. The disadvantage of contrast detect is that it struggles in low-contrast situations. It is also slower to find focus than phase-detect because it doesn’t know whether you are focusing too close or too far away. Consequently, it must hunt to find the correct focus. However, like everything in photography, there are advantages too. Contrast detection’s advantage is that it is more accurate.
The Problem That Autofocus Brought Us
At that time, DSLR manufacturers decided for us that the viewfinder became less important because the autofocus was so good. Those eyepieces became small, making it difficult to discern detail; only top-of-the-range models had large, bright viewfinders. I am sure you can see the flaw in their decision here. It was a real disappointment as it was harder to compose the image correctly, plus the viewfinders rarely covered 100% of the image that you wanted to shoot.
Canon introduced their dual pixel focusing system for live-view phase-detect autofocus back in 2013 on the EOS 70D, where phase detection was possible on around 70% of the shooting area. They claimed it made their focusing system faster than any other full frame camera.
Meanwhile, other brands such as Sony, Nikon, Fujifilm, and OM use a hybrid system that makes the best of both phase and contrast detection. Lumix’s latest camera, the DC-S5M2, employs the same system, although most of their previous mirrorless cameras only used contrast detection. Focusing is faster and more accurate with mirrorless cameras than it was with DSLRs, now achieved in a few hundredths of a second.
These days, good cameras can focus across the entire scene. Furthermore, that split screen analogy is no longer entirely true as there is now a horizontal line sensor and a vertical line sensor at the same AF point, in other words, cross-type focus points. This means that the focus point can detect lines in both orientations. Previously, a horizontal sensor would have struggled to know if a horizontal line was out of phase. This is, of course, a hugely simplified explanation of how focusing works, and this video gives a superb explanation.
As autofocus progressed, and lens technology got faster to lock onto the subject, so too did the ability of the camera to detect eyes and faces. Tracking subjects across the frame also became more accurate too, especially with the introduction of AI technology. Now, even the previously appallingly bad hybrid mode (AI Focus/ AF-A) that switches between single and continuous autofocus, is starting to work reasonably well in some cameras. Canon has a system on their EOS R3 where the photographer’s eye movement focuses the camera according to where the photographer’s eye is looking.
The Return of Manual Focus
At first, I was a bit of a Luddite back then. I was used to shooting with manual-focus cameras that autofocus seemed to be cheating; I wanted to have full control over my photography. Additionally, with early digital cameras, the autofocus was sluggish.
Similarly, although my SLR and later DSLR cameras had an aperture priority exposure mode, I stayed with manual exposure. That was until I learned the advantage of letting the camera do the heavy lifting. Running indoors and out when shooting events, required little messing around with settings, so I was less likely to miss the action. Also, those silly tiny viewfinders of DSLRs pushed me towards using autofocus, unless using the live view screen when my camera was on a tripod.
Things are swinging back the other way to make manual focusing easier than it was. DSLR users who attend my workshops are often taken aback by the size, quality, and brightness of my mirrorless camera’s electronic viewfinder. Furthermore, lenses are produced that have focus clutch rings, making it easier to switch between manual and autofocus than fiddling through menus or fumbling for switches on the side of the lens with a gloved hand.
For example, the following images show the OM SYSTEM M.Zuiko Digital ED 90mm f/3.5 Macro IS PRO Lens with the focus clutch in its two positions.
Also, the focus assist function in the camera outlines the in-focus edges with colored lines. Therefore, I no longer need to calculate the hyperfocal distance or depth of field for certain lens settings. I just rotate the focus ring until the yellow outline covers the areas that I want to be sharp. Manual focus is once again encouraged.
Using Other Technologies That Make Photography Easier
I was showing a veteran friend the AI-based features of my camera and how it can focus on birds and track them. He called it military precision. The camera can also pre-empt action and record frames before I fully depress the shutter button. A photographer no longer needs to anticipate when a bird is going to take to the wing before fully pressing the shutter button. The camera is buffering images and will save multiple frames as soon as the shutter is released. Consequently, the hit-and-miss technique resulting from the photographer’s reaction time is redundant.
At night or when using ND filters, I can sit and watch long exposures develop on the live view screen in real-time, and I can see the histogram move to the right; I don’t have to calculate the exposure.
Similarly, there is the ability to light paint and see the new light appear on the Live View screen while the unlit areas remain the same brightness.
Most of the time I don’t even have to carry an ND filter as, up to ND64 is available within the camera.
These kinds of features are brilliant. I am all in favor of things that make it easier for me to get photos. Advanced but easy-to-use camera facilities allow photographers to capture images that would have previously taken considerable learning and practice.
Exposure is correctly achieved by a host of facilities that help override the shortcomings of TTL metering. Front-to-back sharpness no longer requires mathematics. In fact, with software now available, it doesn’t even matter if your picture isn’t entirely sharp.
What’s More Important, the Photograph or the Photography?
I have heard it questioned whether the photograph is more or less important than the act of shooting it. This has usually been expressed by middle-aged men acting as gatekeepers who want to keep photography for those who take the time to learn the technicalities of it. Their predecessors probably decried the invention of the pocket calculator and insisted on carrying a slide rule instead.
Although being a late middle-aged man myself, I haven’t got a problem with this new technology. In fact, I celebrate it. Why should creating good photographs be limited to those with the mathematical skills and technical understanding to do all the things the camera can work out automatically? Is that not a kind of snobbery? This democratization of photography is great. Anyone can achieve more interesting and compelling results much more easily than ever before using these facilities. Moreover, these advanced features can be seen as a gateway to learning other techniques, just as scene modes are in cameras.
Many photographers started their photographic journey with entirely automated settings: auto exposure, auto ISO, autofocus and tracking, scene modes, and more recently AI assistance. These features helped them discover the joy of achieving an image they could hang on the wall. They were used as a stepping stone to learning how to take those photos. They would lead to them wanting to learn more and discover the joy of creating photos themselves, without relying on those tools that made photography easy.
Automation Doesn’t Stop You from Doing it Manually
Despite these advancements being available, those of us who enjoy doing everything manually can still do so and get the satisfaction of applying our learning and expertise. Moreover, if we want to, we can also choose to hand over the heavy lifting to these automated functions and get the shots we want to achieve, freeing up our minds to concentrate on the photograph’s story and composition and not the technical process.
What unique features does your camera have? Do you use them? Or do you like to shun automation in favor of doing everything manually? It will be great to hear your thoughts in the comments.