Street Photography and Manual Focusing

My Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm f0.95 lens and my Olympus E-M1 have now been best street photography buddies capturing London street life for nearly 2 months. I have to admit I had not really ever ventured into the land of manual focusing mostly by fear of being totally useless at it (resulting in missed opportunities) but also because when you have a choice it’s tempting to be lazy and stick to AF (I am in no way calling AF users lazy!)

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So what does one do facing such a situation? Take the plunge, buy an expensive, manual focus micro four thirds lens hoping for the best! I know, it makes no sense but trust me, necessity is the best drive for learning something new.

It definitely poses a challenge and anyone pretending it’s not is either gifted with super-powers or is a super-liar.

But that’s what challenges are made for, embrace them and end up able to say you’ve learnt something and:

1.       It wasn’t that impossible

2.       You’ve come out stronger with a new skill

There’s just something exciting about being in control. Your camera may have the best and/or fastest auto-focus in the world, nothing has a better ability to decide what is the best thing to focus on than your own eye/brain. You’ll also find that in low light, or in situations where a particular scene has less pronounced levels of contrast, the AF may struggle a little, a bit like riding a bicycle on ice.

I would compare auto focusing (and any auto function actually) to driving an automatic car. It's just a little bit boring.

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So I received that new shiny and heavy lens that’s built like a tank and started practising on anything static. OK, that’s actually not too hard, especially with modern cameras equipped with image magnification and focus peaking. I started using those two but quickly ditched them.

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The next step is moving object, so you practice on anything which isn't moving too fast.

Now a cool trick I have adopted is to compose my shot first and pre-focus on a particular spot (maybe a metre or two ahead of me) where I anticipate someone walking through. Then as the intended person does what they’re supposed to, shoot continuously 3-4 shots from the hip (the tilt screen on the OM-D E-M1 comes useful) and you’re 99% guaranteed one will be in focus.

I also use manual focus for those deliberate out-of-focus shots which can be attractive on some occasions. Or those shots where the focus is on another element of the photo, less logical to your camera’s auto-focus.

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I’m really glad I bought that lens , if not simply for it’s gorgeous shallow depth of field or ability to shoot so well in low light. It’s given my street photography and photography in general a new approach. I feel like I’m learning a skill, I feel excited again about shooting. And well...when I don't feel in the mood for it, when I need a break, I use my Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 on auto-focus.

So go ahead and flick that dreaded manual switch for a little while and see how you get along.