Problem unsolved: autofocus

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How to have your subject focused in your photo is a problem as old as photography itself.

From the early rangefinder mechanisms, all the way to the technological breakthrough of auto focus, and far beyond: come to this day, focusing is still a problem yet to be solved in full.

This statement of mine may come as a surprise to you. After all, most present digital cameras are equipped with hundreds of auto focus (AF) points with lightning fast accuracy, right?

Furthermore, features like Face Recognition, Eye Recognition, Closest Eye Recognition, Smile Detection, AF Tracking, Animal Eye Recognition… — just to name a few — are so common these days.

However, if you ask me, the very fact that camera manufacturers are still rolling out new AF technologies, 40 years since the first integrated AF camera was released, only proves we are still not entirely happy with current AF systems.

Hence I say focusing is still a problem yet to be solved in full.

What’s the main issue?

The main issue seems to be the lack of a truly fast and intuitive method allowing the photographer to select his desired AF point in the split second the shutter button is being pressed.

Due to the absence of this intuitive method, camera manufacturers have no other option but to pass this task to the camera electronics, letting the camera guess, at best, the most likely focusing point the photographer would select on a given situation.

As a result, we started seeing Face Detection and all these features mentioned above which are, as said, technology developed to guess the photographer’s AF intent when taking a photo.

As sophisticated as these systems had become now, they are certainly not fail-proof. And a camera picking up the wrong AF point is one of the most irritating things for a photographer.

Therefore, many photographers — myself included — still prefer the focus and recompose method, for it’s truly intuitive and fail-proof because the photographer is the one in control, not the camera.

Canon’s Eye Control AF

There was an exception though. Had you ever heard about Canon’s Eye Control AF? Canon actually introduced in the early 90’s a high-tech system in their SLRs allowing the photographer to select the AF point with the eye.

Simply speaking, you just had to look at your desired AF point and the camera would select it for you — a very simple and intuitive method.

The first camera with this technology was the Canon EOS 5. Later on, this was also implemented in the EOS 3, for which I am a proud owner. I bought mine in the late 90’s. It’s a heck of a camera, with an excellent grip and built like a tank.

In the EOS 3, you can actually calibrate the Eye Control AF to suit your eye. According to the camera’s manual, the more you calibrate, the more accurate the system becomes.

Eye Control switch shown in Off position. 

So how good was Eye Control AF?

Unfortunately, in my EOS 3 it didn’t work for me for the simple reason I wear glasses. Going back my memory lane, I recall repeating the calibration process countless times, but no luck.

I did make my own experiments without glasses though. And it worked fairly well, especially if I reduced the number of AF points from the densely packed 45 to just a few, with more distance in-between them.

Witnessing the Eye Control AF working as it was meant to be, but only without my glasses on, I had a glimpse of how good and intuitive this system was. On the other hand, it further exacerbated my frustration for not being able to make it work under normal circumstances, i.e. with my glasses on.

Since the EOS 3 did not feature diopter correction, the only way for me to use Eye Control AF would be to ditch my glasses and use contact lenses. Too much trouble.

Which means I resumed to the good ol’ focus and recompose method, going down from 45 AF points to just 1 single AF point in the center of the frame.

This was in the late 90’s, but guess what… Fast forward to 2020, and I’m still doing the same. I appreciate Face Detection and all these stuff, but I prefer to be in control.

Bring back Eye Control AF

Try to Google search Canon Eye Control AF and you will find several forums where this topic is still being discussed among photo enthusiasts. Mostly, you will find two groups of people: the ones who claim the system worked perfectly for them, and the ones who claim exactly the opposite.

But in one thing they all agree: everyone would like to see Eye Control AF back to current cameras. And I back that up myself.

If you think about it, it was 30 years ago when Canon first introduced (and then dropped) this feature. But technology had evolved so much since then. Common sense tells me that with current technology and know-how, Canon — or whichever other camera manufacturer — would be able to make it work perfectly now.

I hope it happens one day. If it does, I’d finally drop the focus and recompose method that I’d been using for the last 30 years.

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