Autofocus Technology is Changing, Here’s Why It’s Not Just Bells & Whistles Anymore
We’ve all heard this argument before: “My current camera gear works fine, so why should I care about new camera technology?”
It’s a common counter-argument when debating if a photographer should upgrade to the latest camera technology, or even pay attention to it. Some photographers scoff at any feature they deem to be nothing more than “bells and whistles”.
While “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is certainly an intelligent, logical argument to make, every now and then something does come along that is so big, it changes everything. And if you don’t at least follow along and pay attention, you may really miss out as a photographer, or, as a camera manufacturer, you may get left in the dust.
Nikon F3 AF, one of the earliest cameras to offer autofocus technology
(Now that’s a huge viewfinder!)
For example, when cameras first gained autofocus capability, that was big. In fact, it was one of the biggest milestones in the history of cameras. However, believe it or not, most serious pros scoffed at the idea, at first.
Pros thought autofocus was a terrible idea; they believed manual focus was the only way to reliably capture professional quality results. And for a while, they were totally right. AF technology was terrible, at first. But it got better, and eventually, it was the only way to capture certain types of photos, images that would have been extremely difficult to capture before. Now, many photojournalists, action sports photographers, and wildlife photographers can’t imagine working without autofocus.
Well, things are about to change, once again. Not in such a massive way as the invention of autofocus itself, but in a more complex, advanced way. I’m talking about the whole new way of thinking that goes with the new autofocus technology available in cutting-edge mirrorless cameras, and yes, even in some DSLRs’ live view.
Face-detection. Eye-detection. Touchpads. frame-filling AF point spread. And, my personal favorite: nearly zero AF microadjustment!
Previously, I would have never trusted an f/1.2 prime lens to nail focus on a dark, active dance floor. Now, I feel like I trust face-detection autofocus more than I ever trusted DSLR autofocus on a dance floor. (On Canon and Sony, that is. I haven’t tried Nikon’s Z-series face-detection at a wedding reception yet, that’s coming soon!)
Bottom line: I’ve never seen so many in-focus shots at f/1.4 and f/1.2, as I have with the latest generation of mirrorless cameras and native lenses.
Eye-detection autofocus has proven to be even more “nuts” (that’s a scientific term; it means shockingly good) when it comes to nailing focus at super-fast apertures, even in bad light. Within 1-2 camera generations, I envision myself using a completely different workflow to nail focus on wedding and other types of portraits, whenever a subject is holding relatively still and facing the camera. Eye-AF (Sony’s technology) is just so good, the keeper rate is far better than any previous focusing tricks or methods that I used on my DSLRs.
And, as I’ve mentioned in my reviews of the various full-frame mirrorless cameras in the last year, for the average photographer, any small advantage that DSLR autofocus may have in certain conditions is overshadowed by the simple fact that I’m finally free of my AF nemesis: fine-tuning, AKA microadjustment. Good riddance!
Yes, the technology still has some wrinkles to be ironed out. Yes, a flagship DSLR still has superior focusing capabilities, in certain lighting or with certain types of action. But like I said, for the average photographer, and even for most working professionals, the balance has definitely tipped in favor of on-sensor, next-generation autofocus technology.
Any camera manufacturer that delays in at least figuring out this technology will be missing out on the next generation, the new mindset behind how a camera operates. Using a touchscreen to control the AF points feels so intuitive now, I actually wish they’d replace the tiny little AF point joystick with a slightly larger pad that accepts both button-push type and touch-sensitive input.
Firmware & Software Updates For Cameras
One of the major changes in this regard has been the recent trend among a few camera makers recently: the trend of adding significant improvements, or even totally new features, to a camera, via a free (or sometimes paid) firmware update.
The Sony A9 just received a huge, free update to its autofocus technology, enhancing the subject tracking and Eye-AF capability. Eventually, the same or similar updates will be available for the A7III and A7RIII.
The Sony a9‘s AF update is so impressive, I’m surprised they didn’t charge money for it! It’s like a secret free mod pack for your camera.
This type of competitive, tactical move by Sony will be a very welcomed one to existing camera owners, and it will also hopefully encourage competitive behavior from other camera makers. Indeed, in the past both Canon and Nikon have done “major” firmware updates, and there are already rumblings that they’ll be taking things up a notch with their full-frame mirrorless systems too. Canon and Nikon have already announced updates to their EOS R and Z7/Z6 cameras’ autofocus systems (respectively), but they could be even better in the future.
Sony Real-time Tracking will mark a whole new generation in AF tracking
Firmware & Software Updates For Lenses
In addition to software/firmware updates that significantly improve the autofocus capability of a camera body, we’ve also begun to see small improvements and compatibility troubleshooting, for lenses themselves. It used to be that a lens was just an optic, and the camera was in charge of everything. Now, the lens communicates with the camera, and provides all kinds of information to the camera, and in some cases, can even make decisions related to focus accuracy.
For example, a recently announced update to the Zeiss Batis 40mm f/2 offers improvements to autofocus when using Sony’s impressive Eye-AF technology. Also, it instructs the lens to automatically stop down the aperture when focusing extremely close, to avoid a loss of sharpness and to increase depth of field.
A Totally New Way Of Focusing
In the last 15 years alone, the number of autofocus points in a camera has gone from 5-7 to 500-700. The number of autofocus options has gone from “single” or “continuous” to, well, an array of options so numerous and complex that I could spend an entire article explaining the different autofocus options and features for each brand of camera.
Many photographers are already re-training their brains to use the rear touchscreen to move their AF point around the viewfinder, instead of a tiny little “joystick button.” The Joystick button was incredibly useful when your camera only had 9-11 AF points, but now that it has hundreds, moving the selected AF point around is going to require a whole new way of thinking.
Wide AF point coverage is a major advantage for full-frame mirrorless
Some photographers have significantly reduced the amount of “moving the AF point around” entirely, by relying much more on a larger AF point zone, and face-detection or eye-detection autofocus features to nail focus in portraits, which has begun to be a truly superior way of shooting in the last few years. Both Canon and Sony’s on-sensor autofocus, even in DSLR form on the 5D mk4, are uncanny at “tap to focus” face detection when shooting in live view.
So, here’s the bottom line, folks: technology is going to keep marching forward, and pretty soon certain technologies which we dismissed only yesterday as “professionally unacceptable” or “not better than what I’ve currently got” will all of a sudden be far superior to the current methods we know.
In fact, many photographers who are more comfortable being early adopters than I am have already come to rely on things like face-detection and eye-detection in their autofocus, and this whole article may be old news to them! As a more “play it safe” photographer myself, though, I am here to say that this bell & whistle is here to stay.