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Friday, 15 July 2011


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I don't own a camera with this feature (or one with live view), but these columns once again shook up the truth that there is no `One True Path', a lesson that applies to all cameras. Thank you.

I do have a body with ECF though, which is sort of like an early version of this. Still a shame Canon never used that technology in their digital bodies.

I completely desagree with MR. Kennerdell, eye finder are fundamental in photography now as it was 100 years ago. It's impossible to see the photograph you are taking if you do not isolate yourself from the subject. the lcd screen is completely useless for composition. may be I'm idiosyncratic, but I don't like or feel taking photos with my arms up and walking like a zombie in the street.
that is why there still rangefinder and dslr on the market.
you say that now also professional are using small compact cameras with no eyefinder, let me tell you that in the market you can find only two compact cameras (that are not really so compact) with an useless small eyefinder, you can add the ricoh grd III + the eyefider you have to buy separately.
so everybody is using the lcd screen just because the are only lcd screen cameras. that's all.

I love it when someone debunks the wisdom the photography intelligensia. Eventually, someone like yourself actually tries the new technology, and finds that using it will not bring down civilization as we know it. I got interested in photography a couple of years before Minolta brought out its Maxxum line of cameras, and I can still remember the howling about how autofocus would be the ruin of "real" photography. We survived, and millions of fantastic photos have been made with autofocus cameras. As you've demonstrated, "real" photography will survive cameras without viewfinders, and face detection too.

I've never tried the technology mentioned, but... Isn't it a practical solution and implementation of advice often given when people want to improve? ie Look for new or unique viewpoints, and/or place the camera at the subject's level.

We do live in interesting times.

Absolutely and totally agree...not a big fan of auto-focus, seems to work better and is far more intuitive on some brands than others (and with a decent screen, easier to just focus yourself than mouse around the focus points til you get the one you want), but using my little Canon point-and-shoot digital, when I saw that little green box covering the face and floating around as I moved the camera, I was totally in awe. As a guy that generally just photographs people, and generally only one person in the frame at a time, this is the auto-focus I've been waiting for, AND, it will be the feature I look for on my next pro-grade camera....

Ah, that moment of the light bulb turning on in my head :)

I have always ignored face detect AF, now I have a reason to give it a try - thanks!


Thanks for an interesting series John! I recently acquired an X100 and have discovered a problem - I am "left-eyed." This means my nose hits the LCD panel on the back and my right eye is completely blocked.

After reading your articles and some of the posts from Ken's X100 reviews I am going to restart on the X100 using it without the viewfinder.

Thanks again,

Being irreverent for a moment, this "shoot-from-the-hip" style could lead to interesting products, like quick-draw holsters for cameras or showdowns at high noon competitions in camera clubs.

Might work at weddings too. Or during riots.

Jokes aside, you're getting some interesting pics. It's an odd approach since so much emphasis has been traditionally placed on seeing what you're shooting. There are terabytes written on the subject, people freaking over 95% coverage finders or complaining that EVFs will never be good enough. I've never used large format, but after reading Mike's description yesterday, it occurred to me that at the moment of tripping the shutter, you don't really know what you're capturing with those either.

Well I was up early this morning, hoping Part II was on my computer! Great! Funny, just a few days ago I decided to turn on face detection on my $79 used Canon A490 (which for the price takes pretty good pictures)& being one of those who snubbed the whole concept of face detection, I was glad to see your post! I'm out with it today...perhaps I can regain some of that "shoot from the hip" fun I used to have at events with my TLR and waist level finder. One thing I've discovered too is that if one is a more experienced photographer of the "old school", one can actually use some of these more modern conveniences even more effectively. Thx for the tips!

Interesting, though trickier than the points in the last post, inasmuch as it assumes, or at least enforces the idea, that the human face should be the focal point of any given photo. As I'm sure, often enough, it should be, but some of my favorite pictures (for example, the bottom left one here, by Jack Pierson: http://goo.gl/u9Brx -- sorry, it's the best example I could find online) would have been ruined if facial auto-detect was on. I can think of a couple of William Klein photos that wouldn't have existed, too. Which doesn't, of course, mean you shouldn't use it, if faces are what you want to single out; but in a weird sort of way, I like the almost random-feeling focus that you sometimes get with regular AF. This sort of thing lets your pictures look more, for lack of a better word, 'professional', but the 'inspired amateur' look has its place, too. In the Pursat photo, my eye is drawn to the man in the background with the baseball cap -- maybe precisely because he's harder to read -- which is just to say that focus isn't always focus, if you know what I mean...

I'd always taken the one-eyed view for granted . . . until I asked my wife (then my daughter) to take a picture with my DSLR, only to find that neither could close one eye and look through the viewfinder.

My ideal street camera would be a wide angle square format with a flip swivel screen that permits reasonably accurate framing while hip shooting.

Face detection is now on my check list.

I heartily agree John.

Excellent advice! Mike, you should create a new article tag, "Photographic heresies." That way TOP readers can easily link back to pieces like these when they read on photo forums that "Serious photographers only use eye-level viewfinders" and "Face detection is only for beginners" and other such conventional "wisdom."

Face detection these days also exposes for the face if you want.

The use in your examples certainly gave you more depth of field control than hyperfocal snap photography that many people would have used.

As a software programmer I delegate a wide variety of levels of control to computers, from "execute the next instruction" to "show me whatever's new, using the usual presentation method".

The square around the face, the histogram, and the exposure-previewing live view let you confirm some things before the shot, so instead of delegation, it seems like the camera and I are partners.

Some painters and sculptors have an assistant that applies brush-strokes or carves out chunks of rock for them. This is a little like that, but this being photography, it all happens a lot faster.

I decide I'm going to point the camera and focus on the face. Everything after that is just mechanics, no matter how you do it, right? Well, maybe not. What about those tiny moments leading up to the moment you press the shutter? Who or what should be in control?

It depends, it really depends.

I've been meaning to give face detect a try, but was just too lazy. If you have several faces at varying distances, will the camera (in auto mode) adjust the aperture and focus distance so that all faces will be in focus?

Haven't tried scene modes either, for the same reason. Perhaps Part III of your article?

Thanks for your articles.

Your openness to at least trying some of the newly available modes is to be admired.

Love the trans-species bit...

I feel that the difference between being a 'serious' photographer who uses these tools (or explores them) and a casual photographer who may be a slave to them, is that the former is intentional about the process. In other words, your core photographic skills and experience are still in play. You know why the tool will help in a given set of circumstances.

I prefer to compose at eye-level. I prefer to focus and re-compose.

But tonight I am taking my daughter to a Taylor Swift concert. The star has a huge online community and my kid is meeting up with a mass of over-excited tweens. I will have my GF1 and 14 lens ready. The facial expressions are crucial, but change in an instant. face detect is one button away. Perfect. I'll be shooting from the hip, because spontaneity is the key.

I have been shooting with an E-PL1/2 and 20mm 1.7 over the past year or so. Most of the time I don't use the VF-2 finder because it gets in the way. For me, the viewfinder is very useful with manual focus legacy lens. Without the finder I tend to push the camera forward when focusing and then move it back toward my eye for the shot. Because of this I ofter miss getting the focus exactly right.

I've never used the face detection except by accident. Sounds like I need to give it a try

When anyone belittles "non-viewfinder shooting," simply invoke the name 'Garry Winogrand.' Shuts'em up like duct tape.

Ironically, if you DONT have a viewfinder, face detection is almost necessary....

A lot of these innovations may reduce the level of technique required, but if you are working hard as an event or wedding photographer, they can also reduce your failure rate and stress levels.

Knowing how to do both is important. Pilots need to know how to fly by stick and instruments and navigate by compass, as well as using autopilots and GPS. There are always times when automation doesn't work.

Whilst I do grant that instead of just taking pot luck, “live view” does allow the images to be “visually” composed from all sorts of previously unavailable viewpoints, I still think the use of the LCD radically alters the relationship between the subject and the photographer. Well at least it does for me.

With a traditional SLR, film or digital, I certainly don’t feel I’m “peering into a machine” but instead looking through one. Using the viewfinder as a frame to select and edit the subject and to exclude the wider world beyond the camera however the experience is totally different when I am using my medium format Mamiya RB67. The sheer size and clarity of the viewfinder image allows a totally different experience.

When I use the RB67, either handheld or on a tripod, I don’t feel I am not looking through it as such but instead feel I am actually inside the camera, able to move and walk around the subject, making micro adjustments to the composition as I go, until the image feels right and I take the picture. This experience is totally different from “live view”.

With live view I feel totally removed from the subject and instead am definitely not “peering into a machine” but peering at one. Whilst I remain totally aware of everything going on outside of the camera, instead of seeing the subject on the LCD screen, it feels like there is a screen blocking the view and obscuring the subject.

The LCD screen can only give the vaguest indication of the final image, just the basic composition of the largest elements but nothing of the smaller subtle elements that make up the image. This is not to deny it is possible to take good images with a compact or live view camera, it’s just that the LCD screen always seems to prevent me from engaging with the subject and I can never get in close like I do with my medium form film cameras.

I always leave my S95 in face detect mode. It defaults to regular AF if it can't find a face. The other important thing about face detect AF is that it also adjusts exposure for the face. In both of the examples, the faces would probably have been overexposed to some extent otherwise.

I recently picked up a refurbished 60D. I agree, it is liberating to use the flip LCD and live view to compose weird angle shots. It too has face detect.

I was about to write a response to these two posts, but realized that everything I wanted to say here was clearly stated in my featured comment to the x100 review.

Very insightful and potentially liberating.

I'd love to see a photo of your camera strapped to your hand; I've tried zillions of such arrangements for half as many years but haven't yet hit on anything that works really well.

Thanks for the face tome!


Once again, I'm agreeing with Mr Kennerdell. The first time I tried a camera with face-detect AF it was a revelation; as a street shooter, no other modern camera feature has helped me more. And yes, I call it a "feature", and will defend it when I see it called "gimmick" by those who do not care to understand how useful it is when shooting people.

John: Thanks for your open-minded, pragmatic (and admirably succint) appreciation of current cameras' overlooked potential. I've just revisited your excellent 1998 article Street Shooting In the Orient, where you advocated "glancing through the viewfinder only when necessary": clearly, it's even less necessary today. I'll follow your example and factor in face detection capability when shopping for cameras. I'd already wondered why Fujifilm, who've long had advanced face detection on some of their point-and-shoots, don't seem to have enabled it on their new X100; the other camera I've been considering lately, Nikon's D7000, seemingly has face detection in video and live-view modes, but not otherwise, though when I had one in hand for evaluation, it didn't occur to me to consider this feature. Thanks for pointing out my shortsightedness in snubbing face recognition as an 'amateur' feature beneath the notice of serious photographers. Your lucid thinking is much appreciated, and very well illustrated by your grab shots.

Wow! I'm going to run out and buy one of these nifty cameras!

Wait a minute... I already have one! Never bothered with face detection, though... didn't even think it was useful. Not sure I even knew it was there.

Thanks, John... I'm going to try this out myself.

"I've never used large format, but after reading Mike's description yesterday, it occurred to me that at the moment of tripping the shutter, you don't really know what you're capturing with those either."

Well, actually you do, you're just not seeing it on the ground glass. You're looking at the real thing as you shoot.


I've always had face detection switched on in my Canon S95 - indeed, it's the default setting - and generally it's worked well, a feature which helps to make photography more spontaneous, for which the S95 is good.

Recently I found one case where face detection seemed to cause a problem: photographing small alpine flowers in Switzerland, the camera always seemed to be focusing on the wrong part of the picture. Switching from face-detect to AF on the centre of the image worked way better with the alpines. But apart from this one special case I can't see any reason to switch it off.

I find face-detect AF quite useful. A lot of the futzing around I do with my D700 is adjusting the focus point to about where the face is, and then adjusting the framing so the focus point is on an eye in the face. Automating that speeds things up (I use FDAF in my small cameras, currently an Olympus EPL-2). (The D700 can focus in conditions the Olympus essentially can't, and much faster too; for example it can track a musician's head as it moves while they perform. So I still end up using the D700 for many of the low-light photos. And of course it produces better files under low-light conditions, too.)

I'm surprised people are so locked into absolutes. John's article doesn't assume the faces/eyes must always be the focus of a photo; he talks about a technique (technology) for focusing on faces/eyes. I really think it's uncontroversial that quite a lot of photos include people as major elements, and that photographers frequently want the eyes of a person in a photo sharp; hence such a technology is of potential interest to many photographers. That's all. It's not a universal issue, it's merely a common issue.

I would tend to agree with Nick that eye-level finders are as fundamental now as they were 100 years ago -- but I think we mean opposite things by that (I could be misreading Nick, but the opening sentence saying he completely disagrees with John set the tone for my interpretation). I'll make a somewhat strong and contentious statement: nothing as simplistic as a viewfinder style, sensor size and shape, or capture method has ever been or ever will be "fundamental" to photography.

Like a lot of the other commenters above (and probably a lot of lurkers), I'm going to give face detection a try. I don't generally photograph people I don't know (architecture and landscapes don't glare at you when you take their picture), but this could be a great thing for taking pictures of my kid, who usually doesn't sit still well enough for my usual focus-and-recompose routine to be highly effective. I don't know why I hadn't thought to try it before.

Don't know of any list of cameras with face detection, but the Nikon D3 and D3s have it in their "Auto Area AF" mode. And it works remarkably well in difficult situations, like shooting live jazz performances in really dark venues. Took me a while to get comfortable handing that decision over to the cameras, but frankly they have a higher 'hit rate' in those situations than I do.

It's a tool, to be used as appropriate. Someone who knows what they're doing can use it when they want faces in focus and turn it off when they want more control.

The trouble is that it's probably buried under a small mountain of menu options, so getting to it to switch it off and on might be a problem.

Regarding my previous post, Nikon does not claim that the D3 family has face detection per se. To be more precise, they state in the manuals "Auto-area AF: Camera automatically detects subject and selects focus point. If type G or D lens is used, camera can distinguish human subjects from background for improved subject detection." Whatever it is or it isn't, this mode nails focus on faces in a range of situations.

I am a viewfinder addict, but I did try other approaches in framing a shot. Yes, "Why not"?

I am also a big fan of face detection! Not necessarily because of AF but because of auto-exposure: at least in my camera the recognized face is automatically put into "Zone VI". So no need for compensation for backlighting, no need to spot meter a face (and add +1 EV). I think face-detection AE is simply brilliant.

Finally a good reason to update my K20D :-)

"If there was a camera with face detection switching that fast and physical, I would embrace it."

Panasonic's GH2 for one has the focus mode (face-detecting, tracking, all area, single area) on a dial.

I think all of the new mirror-less ep1-like cameras have face detection (don't know about Leica). I'm less sure about dslr's. I have it on my E5 and use it for sneaky shots of my daughter on occasion. As long as the face isn't in deep shadow focus is usually good.

Even my K5 has face detection as one of the three autofocus settings in live view.

That makes it easy to switch between normal eye-level shooting, and live view with face detect.

I’m curious as to how well this works when there are multiple faces, as Ed Hawko points out, and understand that auto-focus using Live View is problematic for some photos on some cameras (i.e., too slow to be useful on Canon’s, otherwise cool, 60D). Someone smarter than me should make an accessory device that works with any camera using something like its’ USB port or its’ Blue Tooth functionality to send a TTL image to a high-res screen in the hand (or worn around the wrist of the hand) which is not holding the camera. Then, you could compose and focus as you wish, use the best auto-focus mechanism in the camera, and get even more harder-to-reach photos.

I don't really understand Ed Hawco's complaint. Either you have a camera where you can override the autofocus trivially, or you have a camera where you can't. Face detection doesn't enter into it any more than using the wrong autofocus mode or selecting the wrong autofocus point does.

How about face detection combined with matrix metering, whereby it only focuses on Keanu Reeves' face?

Seriously though, one benefit that impressed me in real world use was that in some cameras the face detection mode also limits the metering to the face, and thereby avoids the usual problems in backlit situations.

> "If there was a camera with face detection switching that fast
> and physical, I would embrace it."
> Panasonic's GH2 for one has the focus mode (face-detecting,
> tracking, all area, single area) on a dial.

Also the G2: http://a.img-dpreview.com/reviews/PanasonicDMCG2/images/topleft.jpg

None of the others have the dial, but the focus mode menu is one click away plus you can probably map face detection on/off to a q.menu item.

Btw, the G2 + 20/1.7 combo is on overstock at Adorama for $609: http://www.adorama.com/IPCDMCG2BKP2.html . Given that the lens itself costs $379 and is much in demand, this seems like a wonderful bargain (which I have been unable to resist).

Loving your articles John. Truly creative individuals always keep an open mind and will try whatever colours are available on their palette.

Re: Ed looking for fast mechanical switching to/from FDAF: Panasonic G2 allows the selection/de-selection with switch/knob top left camera. Unfortunately the new G3, otherwise seemingly such an improvement has, I believe, lost that control entirely.

The "Auto Area AF" face mode on Nikons works very well. The D300s was very snappy - I was able to walk down the street snapping faces without breaking stride. The D700 seems a little slower in comparison.

One Better!

My camera has a setting that only allows the shutter to operate when there are >no< faces in the frame. F8 addresses all focusing matters.

Works perfectly for me.

Does anyone know of a camera that has an EVF or (preferably) a screen that would allow me to compose with an inverted live-view image (i.e. flipped about the horizontal axis)?

I know there's a way to do this with tethered shooting, but it's not practical to carry a MacBook along with me for that.



Thanks for making me discover that AMD (Automated Mug Detection) could be put to such creative use – indeed, to any use at all.
And thanks to Mike for hosting this current run of inspired guest contributions. It takes talent to be a good writer; it takes genius to be a good editor and host.


"Does anyone know of a camera that has an EVF or (preferably) a screen that would allow me to compose with an inverted live-view image (i.e. flipped about the horizontal axis)?"

Most of the cameras that allow the LCD to point to the front in "self portrait mode" do that automatically but only when the screen is facing forward. If you use an external LCD , the ones sold as rearview mirror cams for cars have a switch to do that.

I had used "traditional" phase detect AF and MF with SLRs for roughly ten years when I got myself a Panasonic GF1. I noticed that it has face detect, something which I hadn't tried before. It quickly proved to be a splendid feature, it makes casual snaps of people very easy to do, particularly with Panasonic's fast AF. I also feel that it enables me to focus (no pun intended) on things like compositions more instead of trying to ensure that the focus is correct. I haven't tried fancy DOF effects with it, but let's face it (again no pun...), most photos involving humans as the main subject have the face in focus. I think this is one of the really useful innovations that new camera technology has brought us.

Thank you for this interesting post. I like your flexible way of approaching things. My first digital camera was the Canon g2, which then had an articulated LCD and i really got lot of pleasure to shoot with it.
Presently i do also own an Olympus E-P1, but I tried to use face detection for street photography without succes : the camera was always focusing on the nearest object, often very near of the frame. I found it disappointing. May be Olympus improved the algorythm of the Successive models. I came to the conclusion that it was just set to avoid focusing on the background when two people were posing in front of the camera.
May be that I should check whether the algorythm of the Panasonic G1 is any better...

"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."

Olympus PL1 will let you map the Function or record video button to Face Detect on and off.

Other cameras probably have the same ability.

Well how interesting. I must admit I turned off face autofocus in scorn on my epl2. Will now give it a try.

On other fantastic Olympus news, the lenscap I dropped on the busiest street in the city without noticing was still there 24 hours later, and despite being run over by thousands of cars was still workable. In fact scarred in a cool way! Yay to me.

I have set up the prog button to switch instantly to manual focus, so I don't have a problem with turning off the face focus.

Diego jokes about in-camera merge-to-HDR, but this feature has been in the iPhone 4 since its release. When enabled, the camera shoots two frames which are automatically merged. For myself and others I know this has considerably improved shots in difficult-to-impossible lighting conditions, especially given such a small sensor.

What matters is to be in the right place at the right moment. Thats the difficult part and the camera can never do it for you. But why not let it help you with the rest?

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