Improve Your Manual Focus to Improve Your Autofocus. Huh?
Long ago on another planet, photographers shot action with a 4×5 Speed Graphic. I used to hang out with a really cool dude, Roger Tory Peterson, one of those old Speed Graphic photographers who photographed birds in flight (most know of Roger for his paintings in his bird guides). We were photographing Clapper Rails and he asked my secret for getting such sharp focus so quickly (this was in the 80s). I told him, “Practice.” He said it was the same thing he did with the Speed Graphic (don’t know what a Speed Graphic is, Google it!). I said I couldn’t even imagine hand-holding such a camera let alone getting a shot of movement shooting with it. His reply is a classic which still holds true today. “What option did I have if I wanted the photograph. I did what it took.”
Today, a lot of photographers sink or swim by their AF mode. The thought of manually focusing seems as foreign to them as focusing a Speed Graphic still does to me. You’d be surprised though how much of my “autofocus” relies on tricks, tips, and habits I perfected shooting manually. For example, I still manually focus on where I think a subject will be when I start to pan with them. Or, to get an eye sharp on a bird, I focus on the breast. Or, using a plane of focus to get my subject sharp even though I’m not actually focusing physically on the subject. These and so many more are techniques I perfected shooting manually that translate to autofocus beautifully. This Northern Gannet I shot with the D5 / 180-400VR used another technique from manual focus days. By watching their flight pattern, I prefocused where I wanted the bird in the frame sharp and the background blurred to tell the story of One of Many. Then I followed the Gannet and when it became sharp, I shot.
Sharpness is the second strongest element in a photograph the mind’s eye goes to. It’s so important, ask yourself how many out of focus photographs you have kept in your files? And the opposite holds true for many, just getting a subject sharp is the mark of a great photograph when in reality, it’s a given that doesn’t even could towards greatness. You’d be surprised though when you take over focusing how much your photography will improve. It’s pretty simple really, improve your manual focus to improve your autofocus.