Thursday, August 7, 2008

Don't Forget Your Manual

By Suzanne Williams

I bought a new camera this year, an Olympus SP 550 UZ. As do all digital cameras, it has its good points and bad points. Its good point would be the 18x zoom capabilities. I have been able to capture photographs that I could not with my previous digital camera. There is nothing like standing a great distance away and taking a photograph that looks like you were much closer. On the other hand, one of its bad points involves automatic focus.

I probably don’t need to point out that focus is extremely important in a photograph. The choice of what gets the sharpest focus can make or break a photo. Well, I realized early on that given a small subject in front of a busy background, this camera becomes incredibly confused. The background will be sharp while the actual subject matter is totally lost.

I suppose one shouldn’t give inanimate objects a personality, but somehow my new camera has taken on one. It’s either hopped up on zoom, “Yeah! Awesome!” or incredibly confused by where to focus, “I can’t find it. Where’d it go?”

I am all about buying the latest gear, the best camera, the longest lens. DSLRs for the masses, I say. But even given you own one, which I do not, all cameras have their flaws. A good photographer will always learn to work around their camera’s capabilities. If your camera has a situation that it particularly doesn’t do well, then focus your attention on what it does do well instead. However, there will always be times when you just “have to have” an image, but you find that your camera won’t let you have it.

So I asked myself how I could overcome my camera’s shortfall; how can I help it overcome its confusion? And as a result, I began playing around with manual focusing settings. Now to go from being able to stand 10 feet away and still zoom in macro close to that dragonfly, to using manual zoom takes quite an adjustment, and the biggest adjustment is body position.

Whenever you are using manual focus, you will have to move your physical location. To put it simply, walk backwards or forwards until the subject is in focus. Sometimes it is only a matter of leaning your torso and at others you have to physically get up. I soon discovered that this turns photography into a physical sport. After an hour in the grass chasing the tiniest of damselflies, I was exhausted, my knees hurt, and my back ached.

But I will say this, I just can’t argue with the results. I would never have been able to capture this damselfly wheel without using manual focus. By fixing the focus distance at about 3 feet, adjusting where I was sitting in the grass, and paying close attention to my LCD screen, I was able to take a photograph I would have missed otherwise.

This method also works well for moving objects. One afternoon I sat and photographed bees nectaring on pickerel blossoms. Using manual focus enabled me to not worry about focus at all, but concentrate instead on the movement of the bees to and from particular flowers. And it eliminated the waiting time I would ordinarily have between photographs.

I feel like we have overcome a great obstacle, my camera and I, and she is grateful to me. Okay, maybe not, but I did learn something. There is a reason the manufacturer puts all those manual settings in there. And as a photographer, I need to learn to use them and, more importantly, remember to use them because sometimes they are the best way to achieve optimum results.

Rambur's Forktail Damselflies in a mating wheel

Rambur's Forktail Damselfly Wheel

Suzanne Williams Photography
Florida, USA


Tracy Ruckman said...

Wow - what an AWESOME photo!! And great article.

I use the auto focus most of the time because of my poor eyesight - the camera "sees" better than I do.

Does eyesight affect the use and results of manual focus?

scw1217 said...

Truthfully I use automatic focus most of the time myself. I save manual focus for those special moments...With manual focus you mainly need to watch your camera's lcd screen. You are watching for the object to come into proper focus. As long as you can read what's in the viewfinder or on the screen, you'll be fine.

Rachel said...

That is a great pic!! How long did you have to sit and wait on them to land there...without flying off? I snuck up on a bee a few weeks ago and got a really awesome pic of it with auto focus on the macro/micro setting with my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ3 (which I TOTALLY LOVE)...

As Tracy stated, my eyesight is probably not THE greatest for focusing in manually however. Its pretty close to 20/20 but sometimes (ok most of the time), I just let the camera do the work for me.

Great job!

scw1217 said...

Rachel, all in all it probably wasn't that long. But it felt like forever because I was trying to manually focus while keeping myself still enough to not disturb them. Plus I was at ground level and sitting in the dirt. Glad you liked the photograph and thanks for commenting!