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We tend to take autofocus for granted, it’s that good. Sometimes, however, we need to switch off those autofocus modes and take control ourselves using various focusing tools.
For those of us that cut our teeth in the pre-autofocus days, modern manual focusing can sometimes be a little more tricky than we were used to. Film cameras used a few simple but effective devices to enable us to get tack sharp focus, quickly. The most common of these was a split screen in the viewfinder. It was simple and efficient.
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The complexity of digital cameras and the efficiency of modern autofocus has negated the need for older style focussing aids in the viewfinder.
That’s not to say however that focusing aids have been removed altogether, we just have a more modern interpretation of them using up to date technology. Today we are going to look at these aids.
First used on mirrorless cameras, focus peaking is finding its way on to more and more DSLRs. It requires you to use live view, pretty much the default on mirrorless cameras but an addition to DSLRs.
This is because focus peaking projects color onto the edges that are in focus. It works out the areas of sharpest contrast and hence focus and highlights those edges in color.
It's an extremely simple way to get fast and accurate focus, a kind of modern-day version of the split screen focus aids of old. One of its big advantages is that it shows you the depth of field on a stopped down lens, however, this can also be a disadvantage as there is no way to determine the exact point of sharpest focus.
Focus peaking as seen on a Sony RX1. By Kārlis Dambrāns
The Focus Assist Function
This is perhaps the most commonly used focusing aid on DSLRs but is also found on mirrorless compact cameras too. Its simplicity lies in the fact that the autofocus sensor simply tells you which way to turn the lens to get the sharpest focus for the set focus point.
Small arrows in the viewfinder tell you which way the lens needs to turn. As the subject comes into sharp focus, the arrow light will go out and will be replaced by a small illuminated dot.
If you go too far the opposite arrow will illuminate indicating that you need to turn the focus back a touch. Like focus peaking, it is a simple and efficient way to focus, but you are relying on the camera’s autofocus sensor to give you accurate focus information.
Focus Assist simply tells you which way to turn the lens ring to achieve focus. By Lenny K Photography
Using Digital Zoom
Another technology from mirrorless that is finding its way into DSLRs, digital zoom also requires the use of the camera’s live view. As it’s name suggests, using this mode zooms the image into to the focus point, giving the photographer a more accurate indication of sharpness.
It’s best to position the focus point over a sharply defined edge giving the eye something accurate to obtain the focus. Many cameras will have a button on their body to zoom the image quickly. If not, you can often assign one of the function buttons to digital zoom.
Digital zoom allows you to magnify the image on the LCD. By Hanumann
Mark I Eyeball
Modern viewfinders are not perfect for manual focusing but it is still perfectly possible to use them in most situations. One prerequisite if using just the viewfinder screen is to make sure the eyepiece is calibrated to your eye.
Many of us have slight eye defects and this can affect the way we see the sharpness on screen. Many modern cameras have a diopter adjustment.
This allows us to tune our eyes to get the sharpest view. When focussing manually using purely the screen, move the focus ring slowly, allow it to go slightly past what you think is the sharpest point then carefully bring the focus ring back.
If the shot is not time critical, you can always double check focus by zooming into the preview image.
Digital Split Screen
This last one is solely the preserve of Fuji camera at the moment but like all good ideas, there is a chance that it will migrate to other manufacturers.
It is effectively the digital equivalent of the old split screen focus aid of film cameras and works in exactly the same way. In the centre of the screen are two semi-circles. When the subject is out of focus, the image is not aligned between the two halves.
When the two halves align, the subject is in focus.
A split screen focus aid. By John Loo
Manual focus is an important skill to have. Whilst modern digital cameras do not appear to have the same easy to use aids as cameras of old, they do in fact have some very useful technologies to help us.
By practising focusing manually, understanding and using the aids, you will soon become a proficient proponent of the dark art of manual focus.
DSLR photography is a complicated thing to get yourself started wth. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, we have a course in mind that would really suit you down to the ground! Introducing “Essential Photography Skills: Beginner Digital SLR Training.”
- Use These Tricks To Improve Your Manual Focusing Skills by Dzvonko Petrovski
- Know Your DSLR Camera: What Do All the Controls Mean? by Jason D. Little
- This is How the Focussing System on Your Camera Works by Dzvonko Petrovski