On our reliance on the tech and not ourselves

When you have been around something for a while, you see changes happening. It is inevitable and is what makes our world turn. 

My time with cameras spans from manual focus, manual exposure and manual wind on to now. All of the modern advancements are a boon, but I got along without them fine before.

This was bought home to me two days ago, when I was asked to shoot an indoor, high school swimming event. My first reaction was "I am not equipped for this like I used to be when I used SLR cameras". This is the bugbear hanging over me at the moment. Most mirrorless (any that I have used) have poor (read no) actual focus tracking.

The problem stems from the on sensor contrast detection focussing. The sensor has to be able to see the image formed to focus on it and cannot predict what or where that will be. Phase detection (SLR) auto focus system allows the camera to focus independently of the sensor, so they can literally be shooting one image and focussing the next at the same time. The advantage of contrast detection in mirrorless cameras though is their speed and accuracy, including face detection when acquiring the first focus hit.

Newer mirrorless cameras have advanced here adding phase detection or similar into the mix, but none of mine have it.  

The event went well enough. The OMD with the 75-300 managed plenty of slower moving or distant subjects, even in the poor lighting and the non firmware updated OMD with the 40-150 managed to grab a few good single images of faster, nearer subjects, and I had no trouble with side on subjects who stayed in the same focus plane. Even without focus tracking, the old OMD cameras are still fast at first bite.

 Hopefully ok to use this as the subject is as well disguised as your average comic book superhero. Single shot AF aimed at a point in the water just in front of the subject, about the edge of the wake. 

Hopefully ok to use this as the subject is as well disguised as your average comic book superhero. Single shot AF aimed at a point in the water just in front of the subject, about the edge of the wake. 

The big problem was the wastage. It took far too many image to get some good ones. That is mostly down to lack of practice, time constraints, getting the feel of the event and needing to be better organised, but could a better AF tracking camera have helped? The research treadmill started straight away. EM1 mk2, EM1 mk1 with latest firmware (dirt cheap), a Panasonic with their DFD focus or another SLR, just for sport? I noticed some familiar feelings surfacing. Auto focus, no matter how fast or clever cannot read your mind* and it reduces good timing skills to tracking speed and frame rates. Literally anyone with a steady hand and a good enough camera can now shoot field sports. They will get better with practice, but the starting point is "competent". My fear was that relying on AF fully would mean the finishing point would also only be competent.

Lets get back to my steely eyed perceptions of the "good old days".

When I started out I used to hang around with a newspaper photographer who could, at the drop of a hat, shoot the front grill of a moving car, three out of three times with manual focus. It was so quick, I could not ever believe I could learn that and in truth never really did, but I did get a lot quicker. Armed with a motor driven Canon F1n or T90 and Tokina 300 f2.8 (really sharp with a very light focus ring), I could follow a seagull in flight or switch from near to far action pretty quickly and slowly learned to trust my timing and instincts. I new that as long as I practiced with my gear, I could beat any early AF system (at least of any camera I could afford) and got to choose the when and where of the image capture, not leave it up to the randomness of AF. This netted me a front page and several back pages of the local paper and plenty of "show off" images for family and friends. Incidentally, manual exposure control also became an art form at this time. These skills were a necessity of being a capable photographer, not an option for the curious.

Even with an Eos 50D or 1Ds mk2 I preferred to use predominantly MF. The hit and miss magic of AF did not feel like it was me. Sure I was a hobbyist with nothing to loose, but still, my go to was full control. Motor sport, canoeing, football and tennis were all possible with MF. Plenty of great and classic images were taken before AF and that was with the limitation of film.

Nothing beats the feeling of the perfectly timed image, that came down to skill.

 A bit over processed, but the original is long gone in the great computer melt down of 2010. 50D and 400 f5.6 manually focussed. Most of the images that day were ok to good, with a few misses and a few crackers and no AF.

A bit over processed, but the original is long gone in the great computer melt down of 2010. 50D and 400 f5.6 manually focussed. Most of the images that day were ok to good, with a few misses and a few crackers and no AF.

So when did I wimp out and decide I needed tracking AF to shoot sport? About the time I switched to M43 and I became aware of the perceived weakness these cameras had with tracking (A lay off from sports photography also helped to muddy my perceptions). I had not needed it before, but suddenly I did not have that safety net. All sports photographers will tell you that practice, timing and "reading the game" are their most important skills. A really fast camera makes some shots possible more often, but the fail rate, even with the latest and greatest is still too high to allow laziness in the photographer.

Will I buy a new camera for sports?

No. The EM5's have tons of legs left, allowing me to practice (without wasting film!) and their very high frame rate is helpful for those must get shots. High school sports are not the toughest assignment I have had, so I will make do.

*Another AF issue is with off centre focus choice. One of the reasons I left SLR's behind was the difficulty of focussing them in the corners using the peripheral of my vision, especially at wide apertures. Most modern focus screens are calibrated for f4-5.6 viewing, assuming AF use. This makes near instant, wide open, edge or corner focus difficult. The Pen comes closest to this with the "up to the eye" rear screen touch focus option, but MF is still the best way.

There is no way intuition for a composition can be added to an AF system except, possibly with eye control AF (Canon again? Anyone else?).