All images open in a lightbox.

After a good solid decade of working with cameras, the one aspect that still seems to get me worried is getting images in bloody focus, and here is why.  

I have a deep inbuilt, unneeded, irrational fear that after working on the lighting, styling, makeup and everything else, I am going to mess up a perfect moment by getting the focus wrong. The reason I worry is that I have and I am sure we all have missed a moment due to messing up the focus. I for one must have countless images where everything was spot on, apart from focus. 

My need to shoot as wide open as possible needs control of both the camera and subject. The image on the right has a very fine depth of field, which we can see at 1:1 below. It’s not perfect but is within my comfort zone considering the wider composition. This leads to two questions, which I will try and answer, Why not use autofocus and best practice for manual focus methods with digital cameras, in other words, this short article will be a quick look at why shooting manual is important if you like shooting low depth of field portraits.

These days camera very good, auto-focus modes for all types of photographers and all sorts of genres, but over the years, I come to adopt the ‘back button’ manual focus style of focusing when it comes to most work and especially low depth of field portraits.

There are a few reasons, mostly all linked to me having total & full control of the camera. From the exposure to the focus – I want control. This does mean a few extra moments in the step up, but it is worth the time and effort to get that shot that you want. This image below is a great example.

Model: Stephanie Rebello
Camera: Panasonic S1R & 50mm S Leica
Post Process: Infinite Colour Panel and B&W panel.

The vial is going to cause auto-focus all sorts of problems, most of them would be mitigated by shooting a higher f-stop producing a wider area of the subject in focus, but, this is exactly against what I am trying to do with the image. Using manual focus and a bit of camera control is the only way around this.

Talking to your subject, using a monopod or a stable shooting situation in conjunction with slowing down the shooting process will let you dial in your focus and get the shot.

 

‘It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.’ –
Paul Caponigro

Most modern cameras, like the Panasonic S1R that these images were taken with, have awesome things like focus peaking and ways to zoom in or ‘punch in’ to check where the camera is focused.

Without ‘punching in’ to check, it is all too easy to focus the camera on the nose, ear or in this case the vial. When in total control of your focal plane, you can set it exactly where you mean to, which I try and set as the bridge of the nose and not the eyes. This means when shooting lower than f2, I can get the eyes just past the middle, keeping the forehead and nose relative focus too. This could be good practice for when your subject is on an angle to the camera too. It means you don’t have that odd situation when one eye is in critical focus and the other eye void of all detail.
The image below works for me as the focal plane & angle are wide enough to get detail from the forehead, eyes and lips, while the tip of the nose it at the very edge.

Why shoot Shallow.

Shooting shallow depth of field for me has always rewarded me with images that seem to carry depth. Combine this with 3-point lighting set up and you can create images with a soft foreground and background really lets your subject ‘pop’. In this instance, since I am using a studio and plain backdrop, the shallow depth lets your subject feel part of the image rather than looking ‘stuck on’ like they might do if your whole image is super crispy and sharp from front to back. 

Creatively using aperture and depth of field is rewarding and adds to your storytelling ability and really worked well with the whole vibe of this shoot.

 Whats 3 Point Lighting? 

This idea, to keep it short is about using 3 light sources to create depth. These could be two additive elements and a reflective one or using careful positional awareness and a single light. 

I think it of just making sure you have Shadow, Midtones and Highlights that give a broad contrast range that is placed to give shape and shadow where you need them. This idea is among the oldest techniques and is more widely used in the film world. It is where the terms, Key Light, Fill Light and what would be a hair or rim light came from.

Focus Peaking

Using all the tools that your camera can offer is always going to be a wise idea. One of the very best is Focus peaking. It works by detecting and outlining areas of the image that are in focus. I have set my highlight to show in bright blue so that I have a quick easy reference to areas in focus.

Direct Focus

Being able to punch in to check critical focus is super important. When the Panasonic is in manual focus mode, hit touch the lens focus control wheel and the camera will zoom in to a pre-mapped area that you select. This means super quick adjustments are easy.

Summery

When in full-auto mode, unless you know just what your camera is doing will be taking away your voice at best and at worst, changing it. This is not saying there are a time and a place to use all the automatic features. There very much is, but my thoughts are that we should know how they work, when they work and when they won’t work. Over the years, I have wanted more and more control of the camera, this has meant adopting more of a manual style of shooting.

Is it more work, yes. Is it riskier, not really, once you get into the habit of checking stuff, working slowly and thinking through the images, the rewards are there to get. I know shooting manual focus is not going to be for everyone, but those who want that extra level of control, shooting manual has never been easier with all the digital aids that mirrorless cameras give us.  

Images like the ones below of the lightbulb are the sort of images, along with portraits that really do well with manual focus. Most if not all auto systems would have focused on the nearside or frontside glass if left to its own. Moving the focus point to the side of the lightbulb would have been a good workaround, switching to manual, using peaking is faster while punching in with live view lets us make a micro-adjustment and ensure there are no mistakes. Shooting still life with manual just makes sense, especially if the camera is on a sturdy tripod.

Photographing a wet lightbulb would be a nightmare challenge for any autofocus system. We are trying to get a critical lock on the very centre of the blub. While the bulk is wet, all sorts of distortion would be messing about with the auto-focus system. Make sure you click the image to view it large.

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