The Best Autofocus Most Photographers Never Use
Photography is so complex that there are a million approaches behind it. However, there is one thing that almost every photographer can agree on: you have to focus right! Otherwise it ends up blurry and the photo doesn’t clearly portray what you wanted to present. Blur isn’t necessarily bad though. If you want to convey a sense of abstraction, it works very well. Even if you didn’t nail the focus, an otherwise incredible photo remains great despite that flaw. Sometimes it even makes it seem more real and vivid.
Although manual focus is certainly a precious option, I’d say that most photographers shoot with the three primary autofocus modes. Some prefer continuous autofocus, others pick the one shot autofocus and yet others love the convenience of the automatic autofocus. We could debate for hours which one is technically the best for any given situation, but at the end it’s up to you. Your choice of autofocus largely depends on your style of shooting and your subjects. Whatever helps you focus on what you want to capture is the best autofocus for you, right? There is no right or wrong, there is just a right and wrong for you and your photography.
In order to perfectly capture the golden moments in front of me, I tried all three modes individually for months on end. For a long time I had the feeling that a mix of all three was my final solution…till I realized that my solution was the problem. I spend so much time and energy on these three modes that I didn’t even think about looking for something else. I only discovered the fourth, hidden autofocus mode when I ended up in a bad rut in 2012. I was so lost with my photography that I couldn’t even focus on taking photos at all anymore.
Frustrated and sad I looked at my camera back then and thought to myself: “What have I done wrong?” I loaned money from my sister to trade in my Canon 500D for a Canon 5D Mark II. I finally got the gorgeous 50mm prime lens I wanted to have for a long time. To make sure that it wasn’t my lack of knowledge, I educated myself constantly. I read all sorts of photography articles online and bought an extensive photography 101 book.
It almost drove me nuts after a few months. “How is it possible that my photos don’t really improve?” I wondered. I had the best gear, knew every little rule, trick and technique in the book and I took photos every day. I was stuck so badly that my biggest passion in life was dying right in front of my eyes. The only thing that kept me sane was the fact that I tried it all. There was not one single thing I didn’t try to bring my photography back to life.
Till I discovered one cold evening in February 2013 that there is a secret fourth autofocus mode. Nobody I’ve met up to that point ever mentioned it to me. I’m sure someone somewhere wrote or talked about it, but it seemed nonexistent to me. It dawned on me when I read a quote by Charles Bukowski about the ideal conditions and myths of creativity. To put it in a nutshell, he said: “If you truly love creating, you’ll do it after a 16 hours day in a coal mine, whether you are on welfare or take care of 3 kids in a small room.”
Although I’m not the biggest Jay-Z fan, I listened to one of his most famous songs called “99 Problems”. I looked at my Lightroom library filled with thousands of photos and jokingly sang "I solved 99 problems, but at least "ich" ain't one!" In German, "Ich" means "I". All of a sudden it hit me like a ton of full-frame battery-pack bricks. Yes, I solved 99 photography problems, but I forgot to solve the biggest of them all: me.
I’m the problem behind my photos.
It’s not my camera,
it’s not my lenses,
How could I claim to know the ins and outs of photography if I couldn’t even produce the photos I envisioned? I knew every camera brand, every type of lens, every focal length, every technical setting and all of the three autofocus modes by heart, but the one autofocus mode that truly captures my heart, I didn’t. Optimizing things that don’t relate to you as a person are always easier to do, aren’t they? To this day I'd rather look for the law in my unemotional gear than in my emotionally vulnerable self. Even though it hurts to do it, I'd rather suffer for a while to create the unique self-portraits I want my photos to be then comfortably present technically perfect "descriptions" of life. Once you switch your focus towards yourself, you are the marble and sculptor at the same time. It demands a lot of suffering as Alexis Carrel famously claimed, but boy will it pay off!
I tried anything out there to solve my photography problem with little to no effect. However, when I focused on myself through “autofocus”, my photos reached levels I have never even dreamed of before. Doesn’t that by implication mean that I focused all the time on the 1%, while the true challenge lies in the 99%, which relate to me as a photographer? I mean if you had to improve someone's novels, would you start with the typewriter or pen?
I wasn’t sure whether I should publish this article or not. I’m already looking forward to the comments saying “Sweet dude, yet another ‘gear isn’t that important’ article”. To be honest, they are right. I’m not going to argue with them. In order to underline the importance of the photographer, I have to shift the focus away from the gear. This article states that gear and basic rules are the ABC and grammar of photography and nothing more, but it doesn't stop there. If you understand it well, you know that it goes far beyond that statement. It opens a whole new world if you dare to explore it. You just have to ask yourself, whether you want to write visually well-written, factual description of life around you or truly express your inner creative child through a genuine connection between your inner and outer Universe.
If you’d rather create visual poetry though, you have to switch on the autofocus from now on. How much of Stephen King’s success as an author do you attribute to him and how much percent to his typewriter? Would you attribute 99% of Picasso’s success to his pencils? Whether you look at Kurt Cobain, Alfred Hitchcock, Vincent Van Gogh or any other insanely creative person, they all used to autofocus as much as they could. The final creative answer to photography never lies in the world around you nor in the tools you use to capture it, it lies within you. You can even calculate it. Count the seconds it takes to find a golden moment and figure out a unique way to capture it and the seconds you actually use your camera. Click!
As long as you don’t auto-focus, you are neglecting your inner Universe, which makes you and your photos 100% unique. Without autofocus, you can only see a blurry signature of yourself in your photos. If you don’t feel your own photos from the bottom of your heart and soul, they are probably not from there in the first place. They depict reality around you, but not your reality. Your perception of the outer Universe, i.e. people, animals, things and places around you, is 100% determined by your inner Universe. That to me consists of the creative trinity between your eye, heart and soul. Maybe you define your creative spirit differently, but for me this philosophy worked incredibly well. The connection of the world around you and within you is what I call a 100% unique photograph that can't be replicated. The more you express it, the more a signature appears that can't be replicated. It's yours! That’s how you stand out among 2.6 billion photographers by default.
Explaining to someone how the three classical autofocus modes work takes 10-15 minutes. Give them an hour to practice and they know how to do it. However, as you can imagine, it takes time and effort to master the hidden autofocus mode. It’s much more complex and not only involves you as a photographer, but especially as a human being. It’s a holistic approach to life and photography as far as I understand it. How could you capture the best black and white photos, if all you see are colors around and within you? If your current job drains sucks your soul and energy out of you, there is no fire in your heart left to express your true soul in your photos. If you constantly lie to yourself in the mirror, how could your photos depict a 100% honest version of yourself?
Your photos don’t begin with your camera - they end there. Don't analyze the finish line, focus on every single step to get there. The road, your state of mind and what happens around you. Some marathon runners are motivated by the company of others, some aren't. Even though there are 2.6 billion runners next to you, at the end of the day everyone has a different starting time. When you finish or not is not determined by an external finish line, it's your own. If you autofocus well enough, you are so emerged in your very own journey that you only vaguely perceive the other participants. But who says you can't motivate each other and celebrate tiny and big victories together?
Photography begins the second you experience your first conscious moment of the day. Whether you capture it as a memory is a whole different process that doesn’t create the moment in the first place. It’s you, it was always you and will always be you.
To be honest, I divide my photography journey into pre auto-focus and post auto-focus. From 2011-2012 I only used the three regular modes and I created photographs that I liked, but rarely loved from the bottom of my heart. They lacked depth to me. From 2013 till today I’ve been using the fourth, hidden autofocus mode and it changed my life and photography forever. I left my old office job a year after I discovered it and nowadays I work as a fine-art photographer full-time.
Whether you aspire to do photography for a living, doesn’t really matter. The more you look within you, the more your life and photography gains the true focus it needs. The best photo in the world does not only show a golden moment in perfect focus, it also focuses on the photographer that created it. Whether you consider this article pure bliss or absolute bogus, at least ask yourself this:
If you discover a hidden road somewhere, isn’t it tempting to take just a few steps to see...
...where it might take you?