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Auto Focus and Exposures

For the last few months my output has felt less like an artistic process and more like just button pressing as I have tried to move forward to using the Nikon F5 on a more constant basis.

I have stepped away from having much to write about here – not just because of the amount of traveling I am doing at the moment – but also because the films I am getting from the F5 all are disappointing me in the same way that digital used to do a couple of years ago.

After thinking about this and forcing myself to review why I am getting terrible images time and time again – it comes down to two critical issues.

One is focus and the other is exposure and for the sake of hopefully helping others who find themselves in the same dead end alleys as I am currently – I will share my current issues here.

Focus is the single biggest difference between a manual camera and cameras from the 90’s onwards where auto focus became the industry norm.

Auto focus works at a speed faster than you can think about the process of focusing – leave alone make the manual changes on a camera yourself.

You can change the zone for the focus (with the F5 having 5 zones that can be used) but you do not go through the same thought process when you allow the camera to track focus for you.

Focus and aperture are two sides of the same coin as aperture controls DOF and this in turn allows you to make focal choices when setting up your shot.

I thought that simply making the aperture choices on the F5 and running the camera on auto focus and AE would allow me to take better pictures as I would only be thinking about the DOF choices and little else and this simply hasn’t proved to be the case.

I am finding that I am getting images that are out of focus or in focus in the wrong areas more than I have ever had with a manual focus camera and here are some examples of this (with these being some of the best of a whole host of bad images).

So yes, I am using a DC lens here with the aperture at minimum – and you would be right in telling me to stop using the DC lens and to learn to focus properly – but I should remind you that I am not blaming the camera for this as it is very much my fault when I get a bad image.

The point here for me is that if I do not have full control of the focus of a shot that I don’t go through my essential mental process of questioning the use of the right aperture with the right focus and end up with images that are just wrong as I attempt to push the aperture and DC control too far.

For me this feels like running a DSLR on the A setting where you are more often than not surprised at the shot that the camera has chosen for you. (By the way – A stands for Auto and not Awesome!)

So, this week whilst I am in Sri Lanka I am going back to basics with a Nikon FE running it in fully manual mode and a Nikkor 50/1.2 fully manual lens on the front whilst I try and improve my thought process.

The second thing I am going to do is pick up the F5 again when I am back in HK at the weekend and use it with safer apertures and probably not with the DC settings on the Nikkor 135/2 DC and slow myself down (which is difficult when the camera can pump out 8fps).

The second issues is more complex than me having to except that I just have poor skills and take bad pictures – and that is the exposure problem I am having on the F5.

The F5 has amazing metering – or so all the reviews I can find about it tell me and the matrix metering was both revolutionary for it’s time and remains cutting edge some twenty plus years later.

I however am getting continually over exposed shots from the F5 in all three metering modes. When I compare the reading of the shot to a hand held meter they are always within one stop of each other – yet the shots are continually over exposed with the only option being turning the highlights down as far as post processing programs will allow (which would suggest way more than one stop of over exposure to me).

I have tried bracketing (as the computer control on the bottom back of the F5 lets you chose what sort of bracketing you want) and again get the right shot at -1 settings and if I also turn the highlights down post process.

The issue here isn’t that simple though as the shadows are correctly exposed in the shot with no exposure control and so running the camera with -1 or 01.5 on the exposure control is going to give me under exposed shadows against correctly exposed highlights.

If I was using the camera for only B/W images then this wouldn’t be a problem as I could easily adjust in processing the film and know that I would be following the adage “expose for shadows and develop for highlights” but I am using it primarily for colour and so rely on a very good local lab to develop for me.

How do I know that the lab isn’t the problem? Because I have had them process film from other cameras at the same time as the F5 and the issue has only been F5 specific.

So this is an open question for anyone who reads this blog – and it doesn’t matter if you have an F5 or not – what am I doing wrong? I am starting with the assumption that it has to be something I am doing and not a problem with the camera – especially as then it is easier to fix.

Apologies if this reads a bit like a stream of badly put together prose but putting my thoughts into words like this often helps me work through problems and find solutions.

I promise next post to be more upbeat about taking pictures and also to attempt to have something more interesting to say for you to read (hopefully…).

Posted by simon on April 3, 2012
5 Comments Post a comment
  1. 04/3/2012

    Are you sure that your shutter speeds are accurate? Maybe the camera exposes a bit longer than it wants to based on its readings.

    • 04/3/2012

      Thanks for the reply and I was thinking that and had planned to get it to a technician to CLA and check. nothing else seems to make sense I don’t think

      • 04/3/2012

        If the over exposure is systematical you could also do with a negative exp compensation. My entry level Canon DSLR has similar issue, so I tend to have a half stop negative compensation permanently.
        Hope you will figure it out eventually. Personally I agree with the focusing issue. I also prefer manual focusing, but the AE can be very convenient at times.

  2. 04/4/2012

    What happens if you start shooting Portra 400? I hear it’s great +-2 stops, so exposure isn’t an issue.
    Are you doing your own scanning?

    • 04/4/2012

      My colour film of choice is Portra 400 and Ektar 100 and think you can push/pull both.
      I scan myself a lot of the time and so make exposure adjustments on the scanner too – but sometimes don’t have the time to scan 5 or 6 films and so use the lab


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