5 January 2018

2017 was the year of my manual-focus epiphany.

We visited my brother-in-law and his family over Easter Weekend. When our two families come together, there is a chaos of kids, so I didn’t want to have to bother with changing lenses. So, I put my native, auto-focus Panasonic 20/1.7 on one GM5, my adapted, manual-focus Canon New FD 50/1.4 on the other GM5, and left my other lenses at home. The 20/1.7 was a lens I’d loved since I started in MFT. I’d had the 50/1.4 for about a year, and it was becoming a favorite too.

And then something happened: I found I didn’t want to use the native 20/1.7 and only wanted to use the adapted 50/1.4. Some of it might have been the focal length, but I think most of it was the feel and deliberation of mechanical manual-focus and mechanical aperture selection. It slowed things down enough to give me time to think about the photographs I was making. Using the adapted 50/1.4 felt like swimming naked in the ocean; I felt completely immersed in the process.

So why didn’t I just throw the native 20/1.7 into manual-focus mode? Because focus-by-wire feels makes me feel like I’m focusing while drunk.

I think this was the photograph that catalyzed this phase change, taken that weekend with the adapted 50/1.4:

Since then I’ve used my auto-focus lenses less and less. All of what I consider to be my best photos of 2017 were taken with manual-focus lenses.

Am I getting rid of my auto-focus lenses? No. I sometimes get asked by friends to photograph events, and auto-focus lenses can give better results on moving subjects. The key is that in these circumstances, getting a good result is more important than enjoying the process.

However, now, at the start of 2018, I haven’t used my auto-focus lenses in my own photography in months. I occasionally miss focus, but my process has improved and my images are stronger. I enjoy my photography more than ever.

See Also

Hamish Gill on the abuse of automation in cameras: “The ultimate irony of this is that when I use my fully manual meter-less film camera, I find the process of having to think about what I’m doing so greatly more meditative than the process of using a camera where I can shoot in a way that I don’t have to think at all.”

Barney Britton on how a rangefinder slows him down: “It’s a substantially less versatile tool, which forces me to slow down and think more about the photographs I take (and what kind of photographs I take).”

Richard Butler on the importance of the shooting experience: “I value cameras that give me a sense of control over the proceedings, that makes me feel I’m playing a role in the resulting photographs.”

© 2018 Alan Watson Forster