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Friday, 13 August 2010


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well, Mike, if you realized it, then why didn't you just keep your trap shut!


I was taught to focus on the eyes, usually the left eye.


Dear Mike,

Agreed that excessive technical analysis misses the point of art. But in a classic example of "Do as I say..."

I think the focus point is exactly right for this photo. If the face were directly lit, lack of sharpness in the eyes would be intrusive. But the face is shadowed and low in contrast; the amount of detail doesn't really jump out. In contrast (ahem), the rim-lit temple and hairs are the areas that best show detail contrast and the eye is likely to notice them. Which just happens to be where the best plane of focus is.

Now that said, there are two major cases I can think of where accurate focus matters. The first is the one you mentioned-- large aperture, shallow depth of field portraiture, where more often than not you really do care about exactly what part of the face is rendered most sharply.

The other, far more pernicious case, is outdoor photography where the subject is effectively at infinity (often, but not always, landscape photography). In that situation, everything is in a single "plane" optically speaking, and it's all equally in focus... or out.

That's the situation where most photographers are likely to get pictures that aren't quite as sharp as they ought to be, if the camera's not doing its job, whether it's functioning as a focus indicator for the photographer or as the device actually doing the focusing.

It's also the sneakier one, since there's no obvious give-away that the focus plane is off. Everything's just a bit less crisp.

(To anticipate some comments, no, stopping down doesn't eliminate that problem-- see previous columns of mine on how blurs combine).

pax / Ctein

I took that shot with my 50/1.4 Summilux, pretty close to wide open and dad's a little shaky on his feet, so I was pleased that the focus point was as close as it came out to be. And hey, as Ctein might say, you can't tell in the print!

I'm not sure that I agree that it is such a bad habit to discuss the technical qualities of "real" photographs. I think it is precisely in terms of real photographs that the technical niceties take on meaning. As we look closely at a powerful image the import of the "technical" qualities comes into focus. Now you have a context in which to decide how critical critical focus is to you.

Looking at this photograph I can decide if it matters to me that the focus is not on his eyes. If it were mine, perhaps I could recall what happened -- did I think I had focused on his eyes? If so, what went wrong? Now I can start making "unreal" photographs so that I can get a handle on the problem. Is the rangefinder off? Do I and my subjects move too much to use a wide open aperture? Would a smaller aperture work? Can I live with the higher ISO? Should I send the camera out for repair or try to improve my technique? What are my next steps?

These are essential questions for someone who is serious about her/his craft. Without a real photograph (i.e. one that matters) there are no useful answers to those questions.

Yes, I think the focus is exactly right too--I didn't say it wasn't. I said picking the plane is a compromise, which I think this picture illustrates as well as any.


Mike, I'm sure Ms. Osterberg, is happy for the notice, as all the rest of us would be, and more than willing to indulge some tech speak.

It is a wonderful portrait of the gentleman.

I don't think your comment takes anything away from Maggie at all, Mike.

One of my most liberating moments, photographically, was seeing a Karsh exhibit at the McMichael gallery. There were good, big prints of the iconic portraits, including Hemmingway. Standing in front of a big print, I could immediately see that Hemmingway's eyes weren't really in focus. The plane of focus on that large-format camera was somewhere up in Hemingway's whiskers. (No doubt a bit of swaying-subject matter-issues.) I now feel free to embrace the totality of a photo and not nitpick details to death. Better to create a great photo than to create a technical exercise.

Focusing issues like this were terra incognita for me until recently, as 99% of my photography involved landcapes or buildings. I knew all about hyperfocal distance, depth of field preview and rationally apportioning the available sharpness.

Imagine my surprise when I started taking more photographs of people using fast primes, mostly an 85 mm f:1.8 and a 135 mm f:2. I love the shallow depth of field look of wide open available light shots; but my photos were consistently awful due to focus issues. I was simply unable to catch a telling gesture or fleeting expression, and have the eyes in focus. Either a or b, never both. A poignant moment, only the focus was locked on the tip of my subject's nose, and the eyes were terribly soft. Or I managed perfect focus...of a completely forgettable instant. I got some good photographs using off-camera flash with narrow apertures, but it felt like cheating.

It finally dawned on me...this people photography is harder than it looks! I'm now getting some better photographs, after being chastened by experience. Catching the decisive moment (sorry!) with the near eye tack-sharp at f:2 takes some serious concentrated attention and cat-like reflexes. And autofocus really likes to focus on noses; manual focus has been a lot more trustworthy.

Okay, most of my people shots still suck. But the proportion of gems is rising slowly.

Hello Mike:

You could have titled this post "Perils of Pixel Peeping"...

...because, the exact plane of focus in this image is not apparent to me when the image is viewed, on my monitor (72 ppi), at 1024 pixels(14")wide. It is, as you say, apparent at the next larger size (2500 pixels wide).

Do you think this alleged missed-plane-of-focus camera error would have an impact in an 8x12 print (the approx size if the 2500 pixel file was printed @ 200 DPI), or if printed in a book like Szarkowski's "Looking At Photographs" (where sharp, accurately placed, plane of focus doesn't seem to be an imperative)?

I don't think I would have noticed. Partly because the initial impact of the image took my breath away...and mainly because I don't pixel peep.

Personally, I think this image would fit in nicely with the collection in the aforementioned book.

I guess the lesson is to not post the largest size of your image on the www.


Cheers! Jay


Shame on you, the only fricking thing that matters in a great image is the image. "."

Camera, lens, film, digital, PS, not PS, proper !@#$ anything - could care less if the image works.

Pixel pee all you want, but how do you know she did not want the eyes just a bit soft? Are there rules of photography that can not be broken (portraiture; focus on the eyes, the eyes are the path to the soul - o, please - I don't think so, open up your mind and stop looking too far.


Dear Mike,

Yeah, I shoulda started out with "what you said," as I was adding my chorus of support to your postscript.

pax / Ctein

It's a nice image.

Actually, I think the eyes and face are fine. What I found odd was the double image around the man's shoulders. That's a very odd out-of-focus effect...perhaps you can coin the term bobokeh.

But it's still a cute shot.

sorry but a summilux wide open (at 1.4) from approx 6ft will give give you about 2 inches dof ! - f4 would have given 7 inches dof

no - it won't eliminate the problem , but it will alleviate the problem

Not to disparage your articles, Mike (after all, the articles get the discussion going), but the comments section at TOP is priceless! No other photography-related website can come close to providing this kind of entertainment.

According to Friedlander something HAS to been in the plane of best focus...

I have appreciated for some time how challenging it can be to nail focus. One of the hopes I have for the DEVIL (digital electronic-viewfinder interchangeable-lens) camera is that it might give us more accurate focus. When well implemented as it seems to be in many of the DEVIL cameras, contrast-detect autofocus either eliminates or corrects for many of the variables in a focus system because it is determining focus within the actual image. I haven't bought a DEVIL camera yet--waiting to see what may come from some of the big players like Canon or Nikon--but I think that at least some of these cameras have already demonstrated that contrast-detect autofocus can be taken seriously.

On the one hand I agree with Mike that it is often quite acceptable to have near misses with focus. However, there are other instances where nailing focus can make all the difference.

So now all good images should include a ruler and a resolution chart for the pixel peepers?

"but the comments section at TOP is priceless!"

You said it!


I always confused why my old manual lenses always give better results, especially in the image sharpness.

After reading this, I think I found the bug. It's the AF system.

(And maybe why Nikon has to offer focus override system like in AF-S :))

Everybody has gotten caught up in the "individual picture" here but its this comment - "A little slop in the focus is something that some camera-consumers are not even aware of—and therefore, it's something that camera manufacturers can get away with. Whereas if you look into it (even if you don't look into it very hard) it quickly becomes clear that exact focus of a camera on a subject is not a trivial problem at all." That needs discussing. Camera - Lens manufacturers are not taking pride in their equipment (or because of the mighty $ they don't feel they need to). There was a day you bought a camera and lens put in a roll of film and off you went to make great images. Today you buy a camera and lens and you don't know for sure if they are at their optimum. Why is it now that in the digital world the manufacturers "give" you "fine tuning" controls for your lenses?

Thanks, Ken!

I should add that this wasn't a static portrait, dad was walking towards me and I towards him (I was getting the dog from the sunroom in the photo, to take for a walk...) and I did a quick raise-twist-snap to get that photo. So, there's a shallow DOF going on, along with subject, camera and photographer motion. Add those together with the OOF fuzzy bits on Dad's robe and LightZone's quirky handling of zone boundaries and Voilà! We've got bobokeh!

(I love that word and am going to start using it all the time now! Also, if the Bobokeh is in a photo of a cat, it must be capitalized, in honor of my cat Bob.)

@ Wendy D: I understand your general sentiment. But I believe Maggie shot this image with a Leica M8 and a Leica 50mm F1.4 Summilux, a combination that lacks neither "pride" nor hands-on focus control.

"Sharpness is a bourgeois concept." - HCB

It's interesting how we discuss these issues as though we all see the same things.

"...because, the exact plane of focus in this image is not apparent to me when the image is viewed, on my monitor (72 ppi), at 1024 pixels(14")wide."

Even in the small blog image, I noticed softness in parts of the face. In the 800 pixel wide version brought up by a click, it was distractingly apparent - to me that the plane of focus is behind the eyes. As it happens, I have 20/10 visual acuity in one eye. I just don't see quite the same world as the vast majority of people. For me, the somewhat soft eyes and very blurry nose are distracting, and detract from an otherwise quite wonderful image.

BTW, I've been playing with the demo version of Focus Magic, which seems to do a pretty good job bringing better focus to the eyes and nose. That both the Motion and Lens Blur functions improve it, seems to suggest that the blur may be a combination of focus and movement.

Actually, the first thing I noticed was the halo around his head, possibly from USM or the PS Shadow tool. Why that would be the first technical issue I see is a more subtle and complex mixture of physiology and some mysterious interplay of the variations in human vision and taste.


Having had the slightly "missed focus" pointed out to me, my first thought was what Maggie herself said here in the comments, "dad's a little shaky on his feet." Just like my Dad. Focus may be spot on, but in those milliseconds between focus and release ...

That's a beautiful shot, Maggie.

Dear cb,

Friedlander is right when you're talking about relatively close subjects. When you're outdoors and the subject matter is all several hundred focal lengths away or more, it all lies in a single plane, focus-wise. A focus error throws everything uniformly out of focus, and nothing in the scene is tack-sharp.


Dear Wendy,

My column last Thursday touches on your question; next Thursday's addresses it more directly. But, in short, quality control has not gotten worse over the decades. Contrariwise, my non-statistical opinion is that it has steadily gotten better over the past 40-50 years.

The reason you have heard more about substantial QC problems in recent years is that it is (finally!) getting talked about more. I haven't had reason to believe the problems are more common or serious.

That time when "you bought a camera and lens put in a roll of film and off you went to make great images?" Sorry, that was only blissful ignorance.

Pax / Ctein

Hi Mike, good catch, but as others have mentioned I think it's fine that the focus ended up where it did.

My own folks might be even older than Maggie's, and I think some of their finest portraits these days are when the focus is off a bit, making it nice to bracket a bit and use old lenses, often printing and sharing the ones that may not be the sharpest.

As we know from Ms Osterberg's response, this particular focus plane was happenstance.

But, weirdly enough, for my taste, the picture is actually better for it: the way it is, you get all the wrinkles in focus, and nothing else. As the cliché goes, wrinkles are the memoirs of one's life, and this memoir halo, however involuntary, reminds me of saints' portraits, and looks truly wonderful, I think.

Having had the slightly "missed focus" pointed out to me, my first thought was what Maggie herself said here in the comments, "dad's a little shaky on his feet." Just like my Dad.

Ctein said:
When you're outdoors and the subject matter is all several hundred focal lengths away or more, it all lies in a single plane, focus-wise. A focus error throws everything uniformly out of focus, and nothing in the scene is tack-sharp.
Aha! Thank you!
I had wondered what the heck was going on there! Intermittent softness that I couldn't quite eliminate was a problem!

Could you describe what actually occurs sometime? Here, or in a future column?


I first have to say that life is full of compromises. It's evident that this was not done in a studio, and that is an element of that adds to the mood and candor of the image.

On the other hand, I'd say that there is room to discuss the wide-open-shot-aesthetic that is so popular today. DOF is not a bad thing. It can be quite nice looking at a composition of sharp elements that work together from corner to corner. It may be that a some shots would be better stopped down a bit to capture the whole subject.

In this case, given the available light, it probably was not possible. Life is full of compromises and Ms. Osterberg has made an impact (wasn't this the point of creating the image?). In any case, it's good to discuss what would be desired in a perfect world given the compromises to be made. I don't feel this post takes anything away from the image but I do feel better about the choices I make for having read it.

This focus thing is very present. Not for nature scenic photographs but for portraits.
I never noticed a lack of focus in the film days (I photographed with a Canon EOS 50E mostly on slides - even in projection never noticed big failures in focus, and with a Mamiya RB 67 mostly B&W but never made enlargments beyond 50x60cm.
When I switched to full frame digital (Canon EOS 5d) I noticed a lot of misfocus in pictures I was certain I focused on the eyes (the set of lenses remained the same as in the film days). Now 100% on screen in Lightroom every little misfocus jumps out at You.
It is very annoying, the biggest problem is when I focus very quickly with my 85 f1.8 - the camera lights correct focus and in certain cases the focus is way off - the entire face comes out of focus - let/ say some 10cm off!!!
The problem is less present with my 50 1.4 and almost none with the 135 f2L, so I always thought it was a lens problem - go figure.

It is true about the focusing of cameras, It doesn't matter whether I use a 50mm f1.8 or a kit 18-55 my focus is forward of know points used to the tune of several MM. This was dtermined by using single point focus in auto and manual. when I look at the image on my monitor the focus point is near the tip of the nose. Big difference than the center of the eye. I live with it and when I send the body in for service I will have it adjusted, I hope.

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