I’ve always heard you don’t remember much you learn in college. You forget much of what your professors say and what was written in those oh-so-expensive books you buy every semester. However, I still remember one story my photojournalism professor told us when he was explaining sports photography.
He was talking of one of the all-time best sports photographers and how he would sit on the street and practice tracking cars with his lens, keeping them in focus as they drove closer and further away. He would do this over and over again for hours on end.
“Yeah, not fun,” is what my professor said.
“But, that’s what it takes to be the best.”
Well, that stuck with me as I started my photojournalism career and I was zealous in my manual focusing for the first two years.
No matter, if it was basketball, softball or football, I would manually focus.
Sometimes, I would be right on track and get great shots, but I would also miss and there would be many between shots where my focus was just a little bit off and I would miss a key moment.
In my third year on the job, I then learned a very critical piece of information from another photographer who woke me up from my own high-minded notion of sports photography.
That notion was “it’s OK to use automatic focusing.”
After that, I switched to automatic tracking with center-point focus area and it hasn’t let me down since.
I immediately cashed in on the dividends and started catching three in-focus peak action shots ever minute and my sports photography started being much more dynamic.
Now, in most situations I usually begin by trusting the camera’s focus before my eye. If it’s not sports and the object I’m shooting is in a static location I’ll usually autofocus and then flip it off and keep shooting. That way I know the focus is right on point and the camera won’t change it every time I push down the button and thereby lose time and shots.
It’s treated me very well, but there’s always certain situations when the autofocus won’t help you.
I’ve known this and had the lesson reinforced to me on a wedding shoot in Milwaukee recently.
As most photogs know, weddings are usually located in non-ideal venues for actual photography. Yes, I know it’s surprising that the couple chooses the location based on wanting a beautiful ceremony and not what the photography finds easiest to work. Usually the lighting ends up being very poor.
This particular wedding was darker than most, set in a church in Milwaukee that used to be a factory building with very small windows and little to no-natural light coming in. The main source of light were scattered candles around the room and then whatever stage lighting would bounce across the room. Many times I’d have my autofocus spinning back and forth and not being able to find a point to focus on in the dark.
This happened right during the processional and as most people know the processional is a very important part to a wedding and not the part where you want to find yourself taking out-of-focus pictures.
Fortunately, I knew exactly what to do and after manually focusing on the first couple down the aisle, I immediately focused on a row of chairs right next to where I wanted to get the shot of the people walking down the aisle.
With my manual focus set, I then waited for each couple to hit the mark and then pressed the button, letting my flashes around the room light the couple up, getting a shot that was well-exposed and in focus.
Obviously, a better-lit venue is much more ideal, but if you ever find yourself helpless in the dark hopefully this can help you still come away with some great images.