By John Kennerdell
(Continued from Part I)
About a year ago a young photographer came to me with a question I'd never heard before. What did I think about "face detect" autofocus?
Probably I sighed. Then said something about how modern cameras left us with so little to do that any half-competent photographer just might want to decide where to focus on his own.
There was one problem with this expert advice—I'd never used the feature, not for a single frame. Every photographic instinct told me I was right. But then ignorance is a splendid way of maintaining our pet prejudices. So I resolved to give face detection a fair shake.
Sawannakhet, Laos, 2011. Shot more or less blind from inside a bus by holding the camera out a small ventilation window. I suspect conventional AF would have locked onto the gloved hand or the bright end of the metal bar at the center...or maybe not. In any case, face detect got this one right.
First let's be clear what we're talking about. This isn't like those silly modes that snap when people smile or won't shoot when they blink. It's simply an algorithm that finds and focuses on faces. It lights up a rectangle around the face in question so that you know what it's doing. The newest versions lock specifically onto eyes. I've spent several decades learning how to do just that, first with manual focus and then with autofocus, so I couldn't very well object to the concept. The only question was whether it worked well enough to actually serve the photographer, or if it just got in the way.
As it happened I already owned a camera that offered this feature, a little Micro 4/3 Olympus. So I put on the 20mm lens, turned on face detect AF (it doesn't help that the icon is a smiley face), and tossed it into the bag for my next trip. Three weeks and a couple thousand exposures later, I had my answer.
Pursat, Cambodia, 2011. Here's a clearer example, shot from the waist. Without recomposing, no conventional AF system could have known that my interest was the face in the corner, not that nice contrasty arm in the center.
In a word, it was a slam dunk. OK, that's two words, but seriously: I got hundreds of shots that I probably wouldn't have without it. By the end I was attempting things I wouldn’t have even considered without it, and a lot of those worked out too. It wasn't perfect of course, but it raised my percentage. Ultimately, what more do you want?
Let me stress that this was all full-on freestyle photography. I don't even own an eye-level finder for this camera. I carry it strapped to my right hand and shoot fast and loose, from any position that feels promising. The screen is fairly visible even at oblique angles and the image stabilization helps keep things sharp. Add this—intelligent, reliable AF, with no need to try to focus and recompose—and it was as if the last piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.
Many photographers, especially more experienced ones, will of course have no interest in face detection. Many, after all, have no interest in taking the camera away from their eye, and there's nothing wrong with that. Others, generally younger and newer, are already routinely using it without a second thought. No doubt some are doing fine work with it. Me? I’m not young or new and I'll probably still leave it turned off much of the time. But at least now I know when to turn it on. And, hopefully, when not to give advice about things I've never tried.
• • •
Non-viewfinder shooting has never been for everyone—it almost seems to offend some photographers' sense of order in the universe—but with even top photojournalists now wielding little digicams, never mind snapping with their iPhones, it's clearly gone legitimate. The "perspective of a paralysed Cyclops" (that annoying Mr. Hockney again) is not to be underestimated: most of the great and good photographs of the past half century have been framed via eye-level finders. But the one-eyed view will likely never enjoy such dominance again, and perhaps that's not a bad thing.
John Kennerdell is a writer and photographer based in Southeast Asia.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by expiring_frog: "Thanks for the tip John, something to try on my new camera. Also, what wonderful pictures on your website!"
Mike adds: Not to toot TOP's horn, but this marks the public debut of John's new site. His old one, Studio Hatyai, has been down for some time, and this is the first time Indochina Photoelectric has emerged from beta. I haven't spent any time there yet, but I plan to.
Featured Comment by Louis: "I took some photos in the crypts under Paris and my compact had no problem recognising faces in the mounds of skulls in the gloom!"
Featured Comment by Friedrich: "I like the humility and pragmatism that shine through this article. That's something to strive for."
Featured Comment by Gordon Lewis: "Some cameras, such as the one in my HTC Incredible 2 Android smartphone, take this feature one step further by allowing you to tap the screen to where you want to shift the point of focus. This comes in handy when there is more than one face in the frame and you'd prefer to choose which one to focus on. I wouldn't describe it as fast or elegant, but it works."
Featured Comment by Diego: "Part three—smile shutter! Or how about automatic scene recognition? In-camera merge-to-HDR?"
Mike replies: Now, now, sarcasm isn't necessary.
Featured Comment by Hans: "Like you I initially dismissed this as another annoying gimmick. But then I tried it and was amazed by how well this feature works. When I first ran a few tests, I noticed it was even able to lock onto faces on the TV!"
Question from Dahlia Lee: "Good article! What camera did you use for these street photos? Which one would you recommend for the face detect feature?"
John replies: Hi Dahlia, I used an Olympus E-PL1, just because it was the only camera I had with this feature. (At least I thought it was—now I see that one of my Canon DSLRs has it too.) I have no idea which brands or models do it best, but I'd suspect that all the newer ones are are good enough. It's a bit of a "black-box" feature, so the main thing is to experiment and get to know your camera so you can begin to predict how it's going to respond to different situations.
Mike adds: Does anyone know of a list of cameras with Face Detection? I haven't found one anywhere, and compiling one seems like it would be a lot of work.
Answer from Adam Lanigan: "Dpreview.com to the rescue. It has a database of cameras (433 in all) that can be filtered by various characteristics and features. It's located here. Under 'Show Advanced Filters' is an option for Face Detection, which cuts the list to 'only' 121 cameras. You can further specify by any other combination of criteria to find your oh-so-perfect shooter."
Featured Comment by Ed Hawco: "Here's where it's a bust for me: you're set in 'face detection' mode, and then you see a great shot in which you want to focus on an object in the foreground with the onlookers in the background slightly blurred. Beeep! Beeep! Sorry. No can do. Face detection says MUST FOCUS ON FACE.
"So you start spinning through the menus trying to find where you turn that feature off (which could be anywhere from two to ten clicks, depending on the camera). By the time it's off, the background people have moved on, the foreground subject has flown to Florida and all that's left is you swearing at your camera.
"One thing I like about my Lumix LX3 is that I can change focus method (manual, autofocus macro, autofocus normal) and aspect ratio without even looking at the camera. I just turn the switches on the lens barrel. It takes milliseconds and I know the positions by feel.
"If there was a camera with face detection switching that fast and physical, I would embrace it. Otherwise, no, because ultimately I would rather miss a shot because of my own incompetence than miss a shot because the camera overrides what I want to photograph."