Photography, Filmmaking, and Design Explorations

Focusing Techniques

I shoot with the Leica M8 rangefinder, which means focusing is always manual. This was a deliberate choice. I take pride in my ability and skill to manually focus for each of my photographs. I also like that I can pick up just about any camera, old or new, familiar or unfamiliar, and make it work.

“Focus manually, why, exactly?”

Remember guideline #2 from a previous post, “Do Not Blame the Camera”? I believe the following are not good reasons to lose a shot:

  • “My autofocus couldn’t get a lock.”
  • “My autofocus was too slow to get a lock.”
  • “My autofocus focused on the wrong thing.”

If a shot is going to have a focus-related problem, it should clearly be my fault because as photographer I am responsible for the final image, not the camera.

Speed Focusing: Focus, Reframe, Shoot.

I am able in most cases to manually “Focus, Reframe, Shoot” . . . . As fast as I can say that phrase. Sometimes autofocus is faster than I am. But my focus always goes right where I put it and I know it’s in the right place, every time.

Normal Focus – Over-Rotate and Then Slide Back

This is a technique that I adapted from an observation I made when watching users during Graphical User Interface (GUI) testing. When scrolling, 99% of users pull the interface’s slider one way slowly toward the target. (The target is a known location, about half-way down or up a document.) Users do this because they don’t want to “miss” their target. However, it’s much faster to move the slider quickly past the desired stopping point (gross motion) but then reverse direction gently (fine motion) to nail the spot. Always faster. Here’s how I use this principle with focusing:

  1. Over-Rotate: While paying close attention to your subject, quickly spin your focus ring slightly past the point where you see your subject is in focus. (Do not attempt to find the focus point slowly. “Drive by” the point of focus and then stop.)
  2. Slide Back: Now, smoothly but quickly dial the focus ring in the opposite direction until you’ve nailed the focus.

Infographic for Quick Focusing

Fine Focus – Lean and Then Slide Back

Very fine focusing is required when I’m shooting with a very narrow depth of field, at an aperture of f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4, f/1.2, with macro, etc. I’ve seen most beginners with manual focus “see-saw” their focus ring back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, trying to “find” focus. Waste of time. I do this, instead:

  1. Over-Rotate and Slide Back with your focus. Fast.
  2. STOP using the focus ring.
  3. To find fine focus, use your body from the waist up: Pivot at the waist to lean forward until you pass the point of sharpest focus in your viewfinder, then slide back to nail it.

Pre-Planning Helps

I normally make decisions about my aperture/speed/ISO, manually dial them in, and then forget about them until I must change them due to a radical shift in my light. This lets me concentrate on “Focus, Reframe, Shoot” without distraction.

Already Focused?

I take advantage of focus, once I have it. If the subject hasn’t moved but I’m already focused, it’s just: “reframe, shoot.” As fast or as slow as I want to shoot. This is another advantage over autofocus, which will seek a new lock on the subject every time, even when it doesn’t have to.

Practice

I challenge myself with shooting things that are in motion. I suggest that if you want to improve, shoot in what you think are impossible conditions but make them work. Also, work with your lowest available aperture to develop the skill. You can switch back to f/4 or f/5.6 once your skill is automatic.

Some Expectations

It ain’t easy, folks. Realistically expect that you will need to take several thousand manually focused photos of people moving, moving objects, etc., before you have an automatic level of skill. Also, expect to miss shots. You will. But every missed shot is an opportunity to think more about why you missed it, which is useful in learning.

Why I Prefer Rangefinder Focusing

  1. To get focus with a rangefinder camera, you align two images in the camera’s viewfinder. If the two images are aligned where you want your plane of focus, you’re in focus. Confirmed. Done.
  2. Rangefinder focusing relies on Vernier Acuity (more at Wikipedia about this), to which the eye is quite sensitive. This permits fast and accurate manual focusing in all conditions. Bright. Dim. Etc.
  3. The “focus patch” inside the viewfinder is small, while the remainder of the view in the viewfinder is just a view, unaffected by the focusing procedure.

Maybe a bit about Zone Focusing in another post.

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