Well, maybe not so much of a secret, to those who are following along. Did you know the Sony A6300 has continuous eye-detect (as opposed to face-detect) autofocus on demand?
In the whole development of cameras, two of the major problems have always been a) how to see what you're taking a picture of, and b) how to place focus where you want it.
Finding the view is more or less a solved problem, although optical viewfinders (OVFs) on single-lens reflexes (SLRs) are at this moment giving way to electronic viewfinders (EVFs) on mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILCs) in interesting ways. Note, though, that the classic solution, the reversing and inverting flipping-mirror and prism of the classic SLR, is a pretty highly convoluted and technically involved way of making viewing the target so simple!
As the quality and feeling of the steering goes a long way toward defining the character and "personality" of a car, the character and "personality" of cameras is to a large extent determined by the method of finding the view. From the direct aerial image projected on the frosted groundglass of a view camera, to the separated sighting window of a rangefinder-style VF, to the screen of an iPhone acting as a large EVF, a catalog of viewfinding methods over the centuries would be a long list—wire sports finders, magnifying chimneys on Hasselblads, tiny little mirror finders clipped to the front of folders. Some you put your eye up to, some you look at from a distance. Some corrected, some not (some, both: on most TLRs the image is inverted [right-side-up] but not reversed [flipped right-to-left]).
Focusing is a different matter. Despite the long application of insanely clever human cleverness and a whole bunch of money being thrown at engineers over the years, where to place the focus is still a judgment call, and how to get the camera to do it quickly and accurately can still be a headache. Autofocus (AF) technology is highly technological and highly sophisticated, but can still be a pain in the katuschka and can still actively frustrate the camera operator, who still believes he or she should be the boss. We now fuss over whether the AF system uses phase-detection AF or contrast-detection AF or a hybrid of the two, how many AF points the camera has and which type they are, how big the focus box is, where it is and how to move it around, when to employ active AF (the little red beam emitted by the camera in low light)—and how to check focus after the picture's been taken. (I can name some photographers whose focus placements I simply disagree with—E. O. Hoppé, for instance, habitually focused too far into his scenes for my taste.) Now there are new means of seeing where the plane of focus is, such as focus-peaking, which shows visually in the viewfinder where the plane of focus is and even gives some idea of depth-of-field (DoF). Even the most sophisticated systems can be fooled, because the system makes assumptions based on typical focus placements in typical scenes and and you might want to focus somewhere else. Or, the system can work fine but just take too long to do it, as when you have to fight a balky touchscreen to get the focus point to stay where you want it.
One recent innovation, face detection, looks like a marketing gimmick but might very well not be, as our twice-a-year contributor John Kennerdell explained in his article "The Liberated Camera, Part II" in 2011. (Maybe they're like back-up cameras in cars in that respect. I thought those were a gimmick too, when they first came out, but now I think they're an essential safety feature—they prevent 150 or more instances a year of parents backing their SUVs over their own toddlers, which is as horrifying an accident as I can imagine. I don't have a toddler any more but I'd never buy a car without a back-up camera.)
Sony's gone one better than face detection on the A6300. It's a custom feature and you have to know how to set it—there are various tutorials on YouTube and you could always take the last resort, overcome your resistance, and actually consult the camera manual—but it can recognize the eyes of your subject within the face, place two tiny little focusing patches on the eyes, and then track the subject's eyes as they or you move about. Even if the subject leaves the frame and then reappears, the camera's focus will latch on to the eyes. (Here are instructions.)
Gimmick? I'm thinking not.
The feature was inherited by the A6300 from the A7SII where it first appeared. Eye-focus exists on other cameras, but the A7SII and A6300 are the first cameras on which it can be continuous (i.e., tracking)—on other cameras it's single-shot only. (This is according to Gary Fong, who has a nice video tutorial.)
It's not often a new feature comes along that you just have to try. But I think portrait photographers and wedding photographers, especially, are going to be eager to try this feature to see how well it works for them.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Gato: "I have been using Panasonics with face detect for some time now, and since the first of the year have had models with eye detect. For a people and portrait guy like me it's just plain great. The Sony version sounds like a bit of an upgrade, maybe even more useful. I'll have to look into it. Panasonic attempts to find the near eye and focus on it. When it works it's great, but it will fairly often pick the wrong eye. In theory one can switch eye, but the process is cumbersome. I'd like to see two refinements: An easy way to toggle between the eyes, say with a function button. And an option to find both eyes and attempt to focus so they are equally sharp. Even if it's not yet perfect I still get the most consistently accurate focus ever in portraits—and that's after many, many years of photography."
Oskar Ojala: "I use single shot eye focus on my A7RII all the time. It's great. The funny part is that with 42 megapixels and high resolution lenses it still gets the focus right, no easy feat. I don't bother with a DSLR for people pics anymore. Eye focus allows me to focus on the composition and subject without worrying about focus, just the way it should be."
Michael Tallman: "Just a slight correction, the A7RII was the first camera to introduce this feature, and the RX1RII also has it. I can vouch for it being an absolutely amazing feature that I use all the time for wedding/people photography with both cameras."
Speed: "I just checked. The Canon EOS 5Ds and 5Dr manual uses 55 pages to explain the auto focus system and settings. My favorite is 'Case 6. For subjects that change speed and move erratically.' Immediately following is a single page...'MF: Manual Focus 1. Set the lens's focus mode switch to will be displayed on the LCD panel. 2. Focus on the subject. Focus by turning the lens's focusing ring until the subject looks sharp in the viewfinder.' Life used to be simpler. Not better, just simpler."
Lenya: "Mike, where is this katuschka business originating? Some New York or Milwaukee slang? Катушка is this. At least, that is how I always thought of a катушка, how I grew up with a катушка, how I played with a карушка, and so on, and so forth. How did it turn into derriere in your beloved home country?"
Mike replies: I'm sorry. "Pain in the katuschka" was just an expression that the coolest English teacher in my high school, Jim Kearney, used to use instead of "pain in the ass." I always thought he simply made up the word.
Mr. Kearney is still an English teacher, although for many years now at a different school in Milwaukee. We were in touch a few years ago. Perhaps I should ask him!