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Portraits Auto focus or manual?

Stephen Hipperson , Sep 29, 2011; 12:49 p.m.

I'm interested in soliciting opinion on whether it's better use autofocus or manual focus using the eos system. To be frank I don't do many portraits, but those I do I find very few really nail the focus on the eyes when I use auto focus and I'm generally happier with manual focus. Clearly it depends on the actual situation, but I'm really referring to sit still and shut up portraits as opposed candid/dynamic portraits - (I'd never be able focus manually on something moving).

Responses

John A , Sep 29, 2011; 01:00 p.m.

Sounds like you have answered your own question. You work the way you are most comfortable and confident. Those qualities come through when shooting and can affect your subject and even your own actions.

S. Grant , Sep 29, 2011; 01:30 p.m.

In available light> manual focus using live-view.
With strobes> auto-focus single point.
If you are using an EOS dslr with the live-view feature, I feel that available light portraits work out really well when you position the focus box where you want the subject's eye to be located in the frame, then magnify to 5x and focus and shoot.
Regardless of EOS model I think that using AF if the best way to go when using strobes, but be realistic with your aperture for depth-of-field and try for somewhere between f/4-f7.1 until you know what your body/lens/subject distance are going to produce together for your standards.
If you are manually focusing using the viewfinder, well, that can be a mixed bag depending on the focusing screen and throw distance of the focus mechanism where many variables play out.

Jan H. Voigt , Sep 29, 2011; 01:47 p.m.

I second John, sounds like you answered your own question. As a completely manual focussing person (exept for my old digital P&S which focusses way slower than I do manually), maybe I can give you some advice. I'd suggest to try a split-image focussing screen, this makes manual focussing easier and faster - at least for me. A good rangefinder is nice for focussing on the eyes, too, however, there is no coupled add-on rangefinder for SLR's yet, although with today's electronics that shouldn't be a technical problem.
For something moving, just some hints: You often don't really need shallow depth of field. Use a slower aperture and a slower shutter speed, blur the background by moving the camera with the object. You can sometimes even use a quarter second or so with the aperture completely closed for half of the measured exposure and fix the moving object by using a flash. In both cases, of course, you have to preset the distance.
I don't know how deep you dug into the settings of your camera yet, nor do I know what settings your camera provides, maybe you just need to set the autofocus system to one spot in the middle, focus on one eye and then recompose. But maybe the spot is not small enough or not exactly in the middle of the screen so that you measure the nose or something in the middle. Deeply recessed eyes are hard to nail even for a good autofocus system.
Whatever you do: Do what suits you best!

Harry Joseph , Sep 29, 2011; 09:21 p.m.

"Clearly it depends on the actual situation, but I'm really referring to sit still and shut up portraits as opposed candid/dynamic portraits -"
====================================================
Tell you the truth, I prefer autofocus over manual even for "sit still and shut up" portraits. AF has gotten so good in the last few years that I don't see how manual focusing would make things any better. I usually focus on the eyes, so I set my focusing point there and leave it there. The expressions, pose might change, or the sitter might twitch a little bit, but the focusing is still spot-on. There are a few situations where I might choose manual focus, but not many.

Stephen Hipperson , Sep 30, 2011; 06:38 a.m.

Thanks all for your input.
John A - absolutely.
S. Grant - unfortunately I don't have 'Live view' . I'd agree with you about strobes.
Jan H. Voight - I dropped my question into the eos area specifically, as I appreciate there are other solutions for other cameras. I guess my 'disappointment' is about the seeming lack of accuracy of the AF on my camera (a 30D -sorry should have added that). Even with centre point focussing it often decides to put the plane of focus somewhere else.
Harry Joseph - I invariably focus on the eyes in my portraits. But using just the centre spot or a all the focus points I fail to get focus more times than not.

Maybe its a case of 'do more, practice makes perfect' and all that. Maybe I'm too fussy too, I often see portraits by others that have missed the focus, yet they seem to be happy to commit the print to paper. The focussing on camera can just grab any contrasty straight line sometimes despite have specific point as the focus point.

Steve Smith , Sep 30, 2011; 06:53 a.m.

"sit still and shut up" portraits



Do you have that on your business cards?!

Jan H. Voigt , Sep 30, 2011; 09:34 a.m.

Sorry, but I didn't know that your camera doesn't support the groundglass exchange officially. However, there are split-image focussing screens for the 30D:

http://www.katzeyeoptics.com/item--Canon-30D-Focusing-Screen--prod_30D.html

not exactly cheap, but if it works for you, it might be worth that money.

Stephen Hipperson , Sep 30, 2011; 04:02 p.m.

Steve Smith - maybe that's why I don't get many requests! Maybe it should be the other way round... 'Shut Up and Sit Still' ... 'SUSS', I like that. SUSS Portraits a speciality!
Jan H. Voigt - thanks for the link, the option looks very interesting, with the company concerned providing comprehensive info. I'll give it some thought, haven't got the budget for it at the moment as I'm saving for a 5Dx...

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