Is autofocus too easy for street photography?

Mar 13, 2016

Matthew Boggs

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Is autofocus too easy for street photography?

Mar 13, 2016

Matthew Boggs

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Today is the day. You are finally going to do it. You are finally going to be a real  street photographer. You’ve loaded up your grandad’s Leica, you finally bought that battery for that Canon AE-1 that has been sitting on your shelf for so long. You are going to drive into town and do some “street photography”.

You can picture it now, just like Vivian Maier before you and Cartier-Bresson before her. You are going to go out there and zone focus away. Metering? Who needs it!? Sunny 16 has your back! Or perhaps you are the new breed of street photographer. Your brand new A7RII just got here, or maybe the adapter for your Fuji X-E2 finally came in. You can’t use auto focus with that! That’s not what Cartier-Bresson would have wanted!

Maybe you finally found that Canon FD 50mm 1.2 at the right price. Maybe your trip to the local vintage camera store got a little out of hand and now you have three more 50mm’s to add to the seven you already have. Not to worry. You’re no stranger to slapping those lenses on an adapter and with focus magnification, focus peaking and if you are stylish enough to shoot Fuji, a digital split prism, you are all set.

You’re there, you made it. It’s sunny, a little cloudy. Perfect. You load your film. Portra today? Maybe Tri-x. You format your cards, make sure your lens caps are off and you’re off to shooting.  Oh there is a farmers market today? Awesome! Oh, there’s  the perfect shot. A lady with a pink parasol. Alright, think. F/2, ISO 100, 1/1600….and click. “What a great shot,” you’re thinking, you round the corner, check your camera….OUT OF FOCUS?! BUT I WAS SURE I GOT IT! (the guy shooting film still thinks he nailed it)

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If you shoot any sort of manual focus camera, modern or vintage you know this struggle. But manual focusing isn’t always just crying about missing focus. There are many advantages to manual focusing. You can (usually) focus on anything in the frame, not just where your focus points are. Manual focus never hunts,  never slows down in low-light (although you might). Manual focus never accidentally focuses on the wrong thing.

BUT.

There is one huge disadvantage to manual focus though.

It’s hard as hell to manual focus!

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A little background on me. I have been shooting for about six years, and I started doing more street photography within the last two. I shoot street usually with either a Fuji X-E2 with the Metabones “Speedbooster” or An A7II, both with a host of adapted manual focus glass (17mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 58mm, 135mm). In fact, I do not own a single autofocus lens for either of those cameras.

Suffice to say, I am no stranger to manual focus.

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Then something changed. I was driving through town when I came across a farmers market. I decided to stop and grab one of my cameras and go shoot for a bit, but I soon realized there was a problem. I had just come from shooting a Lacrosse game and the only camera I had with me was my Nikon D600 (a catastrophe, I know). What was I going to do?! Could I just use auto focus and hope that Cartier-Bresson wasn’t watching from beyond?

I decided to go for it and what followed was the most stress free 45 minutes of street photography I have ever experienced.

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Oh! There’s a lady with a dog! CLICK. Perfectly in focus.

Wow, a guy painting a picture on the sidewalk! CLICK. Tack sharp.

This continued on and on until the farmers market finally had to pack up and leave. I was a street photography god, I could shoot anything! I raced home, jammed my card into the reader and blew through the import. Every. Single. Shot. Was. Perfect. Tack sharp, every time.

I couldn’t believe it.

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No no no, I could believe that everything was in focus.

What I couldn’t believe was that it didn’t matter. I didn’t care. Some of the shots were good. Some were better than good. But when I looked at them, I found that I didn’t like any of them.

I slowly started to realize why.

I didn’t take any of these pictures. The camera did.

Sure I framed them, but that’s it. I didn’t manually expose, I didn’t manually focus, I didn’t even choose where to focus. The camera did all of that by itself.

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I felt no connection to the images. Yeah they were my pictures but they sure didn’t feel that way.

Don’t get me wrong, auto-focus is amazing. I could not shoot sports or editorial or any of the other stuff where getting the shot is all that matters, but in my opinion. Getting the shot is not all that matters in street photography.

The thing is, yes, manual focusing and manual exposing is hard as hell. That is the reason it’s amazing.

When I get “the shot” on my D600, I can sit back at my desk and say “that’s a great shot.”

When I get “the shot” on my Fuji, (manual lens, manual exposure) I can sit back at my desk and say “that’s MY great shot”

That’s why I do street photography. For me. I don’t get paid for it, I have never sold nor am trying to sell prints (although if you’re buying…). I do it because for me, it’s pure photography.

Why use a French press if you are just going to use Walmart brand coffee?

For me, auto focus is the Walmart coffee of street photography. Sure sometimes you just need to wake up, but when I do have time to bust out my press, I sure as hell am not going to put store brand pre-ground coffee in it.

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Maybe I am just a pretentious artist, but for street photography, my dial is staying on manual.

About the Author

Matthew Boggs is a sports & street photographer based in Georgia and is Photo Editor at the KSU Sentinel.  You can see more of his work on 500px, or say hi through Twitter.  This article was also published here, and is shared with permission.

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39 responses to “Is autofocus too easy for street photography?”

  1. Chris 'Sharky' Wright Avatar
    Chris ‘Sharky’ Wright
    1. DIY Home And Garden World Avatar
      DIY Home And Garden World

      :)

  2. Alex Lincon Avatar
    Alex Lincon

    “I didn’t take any of these pictures. The camera did.”
    The reasoning behind this article sounds like the author began to “spray and pray”, rather than think through the pictures. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what camera/mode/lens/focus you use to get the photo if you end up with a compelling photo. To say “the camera did the work” means we should abandon all cameras and stick to pencils, though they do the work too.
    It’s a weak argument. Use autofocus, use P mode, use auto ISO, use whatever works for you. Just know that these don’t translate into great images. Technically correct images, sure, but great images come from capturing a scene well and nothing will change that.

    1. Norman Fox Avatar
      Norman Fox

      I love your attitude Alex.

    2. Gregg Bond Avatar
      Gregg Bond

      This! Saying the camera got the shots is like saying Van Goghs Starry Night was painted because he had the right shade of blue handy.

      Also pretty sure the D600 has a manual focus mode….

      1. Frank Nazario Avatar
        Frank Nazario

        With nikons all you have to do is put them in manual and click in the lense manual and you have your own personal hell to burn in… i personally preffer a compelling story in the shot than a “manual accomplishment empty in context”

    3. ThatsWhatWasSaid Avatar
      ThatsWhatWasSaid

      The author sounds like the type that brings a typewriter to a coffee shop instead of a laptop. Auto correct is too easy, only real writers use white out. Elitist hipster douchnozzle is too good for Walmart coffee too. Using manual focus isn’t even that hard. Put it on three meters and wait for something to get that close to you (or get that close to something). These pics are terrible anyway.

  3. Nadine Lianne Spires Avatar
    Nadine Lianne Spires

    I use manual mode with AF, not because I’m lazy or because I don’t want to but because my eyes don’t allow me to use Manual Focus. I have an issue with my eyes and using MF causes heavy strain as well as the fact that I can’t always trust my eyes. But that doesn’t mean my camera is taking the photo. I am.

    1. Iain Mack Avatar
      Iain Mack

      I grew up with manual everything.
      But like you say. As my eyes have got older it’s harder to manually focus. Rest of my settings are manual though. :)

    2. Shachar Weis Avatar
      Shachar Weis

      Obviously, you are not worthy of owning a camera. Stop taking pictures at once.

    3. Nadine Lianne Spires Avatar
      Nadine Lianne Spires

      YES SIR!!!

  4. Andrew O'Dowd Avatar
    Andrew O’Dowd

    No, the hard bits are initially finding the courage to approach people and then capturing their story. Next question.

    1. ezer_kopttá_ukránni_szét Avatar
      ezer_kopttá_ukránni_szét

      The hardest part is finding something interesting. Streets are boring nowadays. People are blend, uninteresting, have no style and attitude. Cars, scaffoldings, cheap adverts are everywhere.
      And I am writing this from London :(

      1. Frank Nazario Avatar
        Frank Nazario

        You are burned by the city… get out of it to a totally different city or go to the coast…..when you return you will have a better perspective.

    2. DIY Home And Garden World Avatar
      DIY Home And Garden World

      Yup Amazing comment thanks

  5. Tod Heckert Avatar
    Tod Heckert

    what about when your eyes are not that good and trying to focus is hard for people. just because you use autofocus don’t mean your not a photographer. getting tired of all these articles saying stop using auto or your not a real photographer. your a photographer no matter what you use or how you use it…

  6. Stephen Masiello Avatar
    Stephen Masiello

    Shoot however makes you happy. Just remember that your process really doesn’t matter to other viewers. They’ll only see and care about the result, not how you arrived there.

    1. Frank Nazario Avatar
      Frank Nazario

      Bravo!
      “There is nothing worst than a sharp photo of a fuzzy idea”- Ansel Adams.

  7. Shachar Weis Avatar
    Shachar Weis

    Using a camera is too easy. Real photographers use stone slabs and a chisel.

    1. Frank Nazario Avatar
      Frank Nazario

      ROFLMAO!!!!!

  8. Dan K Avatar
    Dan K

    street photography is not about the execution. It’s storytelling and making something deep and visually compelling.

  9. catlett Avatar
    catlett

    I really just gave this obvious click bait article to see the comments, fully knowing that pretty much everybody would disagree with the pretentious premise. Mission accomplished. I did get an extra bonus reading that the pretentious author doesn’t even know how to manual focus a D600. If you really want to blow your mind check this article that gives you the best of auto and manual focus out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFieMrruIg8

  10. catlett Avatar
    catlett

    I really just gave this obvious click bait article a read to see the comments, fully knowing that pretty much everybody would disagree with the pretentious premise. Mission accomplished. I did get an extra bonus reading that the pretentious author doesn’t even know how to manual focus a D600. If you really want to blow your mind check this article that gives you the best of auto and manual focus out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFieMrruIg8

  11. Ralph Hightower Avatar
    Ralph Hightower

    Yea, I am amazed at the autofocus of my DSLR, but I can also do manual focus. My 5D Mk III doesn’t have the split-image/microprism focusing screen to aid in focusing like my Canon A-1 and F-1N has; but I have had to switch to manual focus on my 5D on occasion. I’ve been using manual focus lenses since 1980. Photographers using DSLRs have it so easy these days with auto-everything.

  12. E Avatar
    E

    I didn’t cheat on my wife – my p**** did it!

    A nonsens article…

  13. George G Avatar
    George G

    At least he has something to blame for the poor quality of street photography, most of the pictures are not street photography but photography on the street.

    Only one the tells a story is the lady with the dog.

  14. Peter Svensson Avatar
    Peter Svensson

    “Matthew Boggs is a sports & street photographer”.

    Clearly he’s NOT! He’s just a clueless person that apparently knows next to nothing about photography and is stupid enough to let the whole world know it. What a class A Jerk!

    1. DIY Home And Garden World Avatar
      DIY Home And Garden World

      +1 this

  15. Matthieu Hilckmann Avatar
    Matthieu Hilckmann

    It’s a bit of a silly argument not to use auto-focus: it is my eye that catches the scene and the camera is the tool to help me catching it. Using auto-focus doesn’t diminish the pleasure of getting the shot.

    1. DIY Home And Garden World Avatar
      DIY Home And Garden World

      Agreed… Awesome reply

  16. Sean Avatar
    Sean

    Seriously? I think the author takes his craft way to seriously. If there were Auto-Focus cameras back when Cartier-Bresson started out he wouldn’t have used it? Please. It’s NOT about how you take the shot IMHO. The people viewing your image will almost NEVER know HOW you took it …or care for that matter. If you feel that you need to use manual for some inner satisfaction but honestly using autofocus does not make an image any less great. And even so, many, like myself do a lot of shot from the hip anyway. NOT to mention almost ALL modern lens you can turn off AF.

    1. Jim Johnson Avatar
      Jim Johnson

      Cartier-Bresson called his book “The Decisive Moment” for a reason. I guess he didn’t get around to putting together the collection for “The Best Focus Method”.

  17. Francis Bacon Avatar
    Francis Bacon

    Manual EVERYTHING… Nikon F w/ 24mm
    GoTo website and pan to the far left images.http://www.baconlinks.com/Silverlight/SL_B&W.html

  18. Riccardo Maria Mantero Avatar
    Riccardo Maria Mantero

    splendid!

    1. DIY Home And Garden World Avatar
      DIY Home And Garden World

      Thanks so much for that:D

  19. DIY Home And Garden World Avatar
    DIY Home And Garden World

    Hooked on this kind of thing! Anyone love DIY as much as me?

  20. Alf-Einar Trenulltre Avatar
    Alf-Einar Trenulltre

    I never shoot on anything but manual mode. For anything. I think all the other choices on the dial is cheating. But that’s me. Manual or autofocus depends on what I’m shooting. I always use backbutton focus and choose my focal point before reframing though, so it’s hardly the camera that is autofocusing. More like a mechanical manual ocus instead of turning the focus ring. Does this make sense? Haha

  21. JOhn C Avatar
    JOhn C

    Lately my interaction with DIYPhotography is like a abusive relationship. I keep thinking things were good before, and they will get better again. Sadly they don’t. Apparently this guy needs a basic class on his camera. He is too stupid to figure out how to set manual, while simultaneously being elitist. He doesn’t realize he can do spot auto and recompose to get the shot he wants. He doesn’t acknowledge that with setting he can control what is in and out of focus (within limits of course). I’m not sure who is more stupid, the guy who wrote this, DIY for posting it, or me for reading AND responding. I guess DIY is getting it’s clicks, this guy got his 15 minutes of fame, so I must be the stupid one.

  22. Mark Avatar
    Mark

    Hey lighten up everyone. The author is clearly laughing at his own foibles and expressing how he personally gets pleasure from photography. Personally I enjoy a mix of manual and auto focusing according to the situation. No big deal. Good on the author I say!