When the Fastest Autofocus Isn’t Fast Enough

horse race

Sometimes, even if you’ve got the fastest autofocus camera/lens combination in existence, manual focus is the better option. The above shot is a good example. Even though I shot this image on a Canon 5D–definitely not the world’s fastest–I would have still used manual focus for this shot no matter what camera I had with me.

This is the finish line of an amateur horse race in Laredo, Spain. It was a prelude for a race with million-dollar English thoroughbreds and high-paid jockeys. (Check out my much-better image of that race here. A subscription to my awesome, 100-percent-free newsletter required. But you’ll get a lot more tips–all free–because I send a lot of exclusive content to subscribers only.)

Anyway, these horses are doing somewhere around 45 Kph. (That’s almost 30 miles-an-hour.) Also, I haven’t cropped the image any, this is the full frame. They tore by me so fast it would have been impossible to get this picture by just waiting for the horses to enter the frame–panning was essential, especially in this case, using the 5D with it’s relatively slow 4 fps motor drive. I shot it with my 24-105 L lens, set around 90mm. And, as I mentioned, it was manual focus.

But wait, you say. “I’m no good at manual focus. My camera focusses way faster than I can.” Well, here’s the thing. In general, I agree, cameras are faster at focussing than we are. But I was at the finish line of the race. I knew where the photo I wanted to take was going to happen. By pre-focussing on the spot, I was already ready. All I had to do was pan with the leading horses, watching them through the viewfinder and rip the motor drive when they came into focus.

I used a high ISO speed (ISO 1000, and it was sunny day) so I could shoot at 1/1200 of a second at f/8. I needed the fast shutter speed to stop the action, obviously, and the small aperture would give me some leeway with the depth of field. (Note, if I hadn’t been panning the camera, an even-higher shutter speed would have been required.)

This, by the way, is how professional photographers have shot the finish line of horse races for years. Actually, what they would do is set up a camera on a small tripod and fire the camera by remote control, but the zone-focus principle is the same.

rainbow trout

But what about when you don’t know where the action is going to be? What then?

I don’t think there’s any better example of this than trying to get a shot of a salmon (or in this case, a steelhead in Bronté Creek, Canada) leaping a waterfall in search of search of its upriver spawning grounds. Okay, you know where the waterfall is. And if you sit beside it for long enough, you’ll learn where the fish are most likely to jump. But you can’t see them coming. Suddenly they’re there, flying through the air, and then they’re gone. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Well, manual focus is also the answer here. (And yes, a lot of luck, too.) The reason is simple. It is impossible to get that tiny red rectangle of an autofocus sensor in your viewfinder on a target moving this fast and this unpredictably. Leaving aside the unspeakable things this does to your composition (bullseye!–thank goodness for cropping) it’s just ridiculously hard to do. Easier, but still hard, is manual focus, which also allows for micro adjustments if you’re good enough. Click the above image for a larger version; note the focus is spot-on the eye.

After a few fish jump, you get a rough idea of where they’ll be. So you sit, prefocussed, and wait. You’re going to have a hit-miss ratio that will make you thankful you’re using digital equipment and not film. It’s hard. You have to get lucky. But, as with a lot of things, the harder you work at it, the luckier you get.

, , , , , , ,

2 Responses to When the Fastest Autofocus Isn’t Fast Enough

  1. javier 07/03/2014 at 9:49 pm #

    I think it’s more like a 50-50 thing, in terms of autofocus vs manual. But I think you’re right, there ARE lots of situations where manual is better, even for fast moving subjects. Makes you think. Thanks for the post.

  2. Mike Randolph 07/03/2014 at 9:58 pm #

    Thanks Javier. Yeah, each situation demands its own approach, and generally speaking, autofocus is much faster. But there are other considerations, such as composition, but that’s another story. Basically, I think it comes down to this: It’s the skill of shooting at the right moment (manual focus) versus the skill of aiming that little red rectangle on the right part of a fast-moving subject. Yes, there are zone-focussing features that cameras have, but they’re just not that fast. Or that accurate. In the above example, getting the fish’s eye in focus using autofocus would be next to impossible. Thanks for your comment.

Leave a Reply