Sometimes I let enthusiasm get the best of me. Case in point: yesterday, I hit three cemeteries in one afternoon, ’cause, hey, I love a good cemetery. There was only one small issue: Well into shooting at the third cemetery, I realized that the shutter speed was suspiciously high, even taking into account the broad daylight on gray and stark white stones. Since the last time I’d used the camera was a couple of nights before to shoot a school play (no white stones, low light), I’d had my ISO on 1600 the whole time.
That doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, since 1600 is within acceptable limits as far as noise goes for my particular camera, and you’re not going to see too much noise in daylight anyway. When you stop to think about it, though, the higher ISO leads to loss of detail, which is hard enough to get sometimes when the light is harsh, and which is also a bad thing when you like your photos sharp.
So. Before you shoot, check your settings. During your shoot, check your settings. Oh, and by the way: after you shoot? Check your settings.
Taking a camera in and out of a camera bag can lead to things being inadvertently set to something other than what you would’ve wanted, especially if, like me, you’re all thumbs. All those buttons, knobs and dials are great when you need to set something on the fly, but it also means that it’s that many things that get poked, turned, or prodded unintentionally. Suddenly, you’re shooting on manual focus at an insanely low shutter speed with a wide-open aperture, when that wasn’t what you wanted at all.
The kicker is when it’s not even your fault. Sometimes, due to a camera’s firmware, changing one setting can lead to a cascade of other settings changing, as happens with mine when I go from JPG to RAW and back; all of a sudden, the camera decides that I’d like to shoot smaller, lower-quality JPGs, when I have other thoughts on the matter.
But then, sometimes you’ve nobody to blame but yourself. I haven’t yet had the chance to go over every last photo from today’s shoot. And if push comes to shove, I could go back to any of those locations and reshoot. But let’s face it: on one hand, that isn’t always going to be possible. Sometimes you only get one shot. On the other, even if and when you can go back, that’s taking time away from other places you could be exploring instead. Don’t do that to yourself. Make sure you’ve got your settings right the first time.
Very few words today… mostly photos, and goosebumps. I was fortunate enough to be in Hoboken as the shuttle Enterprise, atop its SCA 747, made its last flight. Needless to say, if you’re old enough to remember the beginnings of the shuttle program — and to have seen the tragedies that befell the Challenger and Columbia — it was one hell of an experience to be able to see the shuttle one last time, and to be able to leave the experience with fond memories. — PB
No, you haven’t wandered onto the wrong blog, and no, I haven’t lost my mind (yet). There’s a reason that the battered short story collection on the left is on a photography blog, and a reason it’s one of my favorite books in my whole collection.
Sudden Fiction isn’t just a title, it’s also a genre unto itself. They’re sometimes called “Flash Fiction,” sometimes “Short Short Stories.” In any case, the aim is the same; tell your story quickly, minimally, generally in five pages or less. It sounds like a gimmick, at least ’til you start reading. The authors here, and in the other Sudden Fiction titles that followed, are a pretty varied lot (Bradbury, Cortazar, Borges, Oates, and Paley, alongside other, lesser-known authors), and the stories themselves read almost like punk tunes. They’re epigrammatic, lean, terse… taciturn, even. Nothing is wasted.
I learned a lot from this little book as I set out, somewhat clumsily, to become a writer. It’s one thing to stretch storytelling to its limits; some writers read as though they’re paid by the word. It’s good practice, though, to say only as much as you absolutely must to get your point across. These are as much sketches as stories, with an economy of line and shading that allows, or even encourages, the reader to imagine what’s going on outside the frame of the story.
So what’s this got to do with photography? If we accept that a photo’s worth a thousand words (let’s suppose for the sake of discussion that there’s some volume of verbiage behind the visuals), I realized that my photos sometimes have the same problem as my writing used to. There’s a lot going on in any scene we photograph. We sense, on some instinctive level, that there are any number of stories in each of the visuals we try to capture, and there’s an urge sometimes to want to tell all of them at once.
We end up cramming the frame with more information than it needs, more than it can hold, even. We forget that sometimes that our photos don’t all have to be shaggy dog stories. They’re allowed to say their piece, and then be quiet. Our photos don’t and can’t tell the whole story, and we need to free them from that expectation. Like the stories in this collection, they work best when we take them for what they are: snapshots of simple moments in time, taken one at a time.
In a post a couple of days ago (Rule 32: Don’t Take Unnecessary Photos), I briefly touched on the time we waste on photos that just aren’t worth it. I chalked it up, at least in part, to the fact that quite a few of us hate to head out with a camera, only to return with an empty memory card. I think there’s a bit more to it than that, though.
First, see your subject for what it is. We don’t always do this; sometimes we’re superimposing our expectations on the subject, thinking a few moves ahead to what it will look like once we’re done fiddling with it. Our expectations can color our perception to the point where they become the reality we see, although not reality as it is. We know what we want the photo to look like, which is fine, but not when you keep a photo that’s not worth it because you’re attached to the idea of it, or when you throw away a shot that’s good on its own merits because it doesn’t measure up to some nebulous ideal.
Second, pay close attention to what’s in your viewfinder. What’s just as counterproductive as a careless choice of subject is when we put more faith in “post” than we do in the fundamentals. So what if it’s blurry, or crooked, or the exposure’s off and the subject’s not all that interesting? We have an unsharp mask, a crop utility, and a clone tool, dammit! Only that’s not quite how it works. As I’ve mentioned before, you’re not only making more work for yourself by shooting carelessly, you’re also decreasing the odds of getting what you’re after. Postproduction takes what’s already there and enhances it… not just the good stuff, but also, sometimes, the glaring flaws we’d counted on it to fix.
Finally, be honest — brutally so, if necessary — about the end result. We often convince ourselves that our work is awful; sometimes we’re right. Sometimes, however, what we’re disappointed in isn’t the photograph itself. It’s the distance between what was in front of us when the photo was made, and the expectations we’ve placed on that photo. If you stop to think about it for a second, I’m sure you can think of photos that came out just as you envisioned them, as well as some that didn’t, and others still that you felt were better than you had any right to expect. None of these things present problems in and of themselves.
However, it’s entirely possible to be crippled by our own expectations. On the one hand, we may think a photo is worse than what it is because we had something else in mind. On the other, we may also think it’s better than it is — or think we can improve or “save” it — because what we expected, or wanted, has become ingrained in what’s on the screen or the print.
We can’t always set ourselves free of our own expectations, nor can we realistically sharpen our perception to a point that it’s going to be 100% reliable 100% of the time. What’s left is the reality — sometimes disappointing, often stranger, but also many times far beyond our expectations. If we want to save ourselves some serious headaches and wasted time, it starts with acknowledging that reality (even if it’s an artistic, and not more tangible) reality. That means setting your work free from your excuses, from what you meant to do or thought you ought to have done, and to acknowledge that this piece of work, at this point in time, is done. You owe it to what you’ve done, and to yourself, to let it stand or fall exactly as it is; get the hang of that, and you can begin to move closer to what you’d like it to be.
Let’s start off by explaining what Portrait and Landscape are, exactly, for anyone reading this that doesn’t know. Portrait orientation is a more generally reserved for… well, portraits, like Figure 1. Landscape orientation for landscapes, as in Figure 2. Makes sense, right? So what’s with Figure 3, which shows a portrait (of sorts) in Landscape orientation?
This is worth thinking about since it’s one of the first decisions we make when we decide to make a photo. Here are a few things to think about when you choose whether to shoot in Landscape or in Portrait:
First of all, where’s the eye going? Also bear in mind that once the photo’s taken, you’re effectively trying to lead your viewer around by the eyeballs. Where do you want their eye to go? While there’s a lot that goes into composition, a general rule of thumb is that landscape tends to lend itself to “panning” (the eye’s following the horizontal axis), whereas portrait favors “tilting” (the eye follows the vertical axis) Sometimes there will be lines within the photo that draw the eye, but just as often it’s the shape of the subject itself (or the interplay of its various shapes) that’s doing the work for you.
Landscape is great for creating a sense of context, since it practically begs you to provide some background for your subject. Portrait orientation, on the other hand, is helpful when you want your subject to be the center of attention. Of course, that’s only a guideline, since the way you frame the shot in either case (and specifically, how close or far you are in relation to your subject) can either isolate or contextualize your subject just as well as the way you’re holding your camera.
And that, in a roundabout way, brings us to another consideration. We’re conditioned by years of seeing things presented in a certain way. So much of what we see — television, the monitor on which you’re reading this, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks — is in Landscape that we expect certain kinds of scenes to be presented that way. It’s expansive, inclusive, and informal. On the other hand, so much of portraiture, from Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington to Platon’s portraits of world leaders, relies on what we’ve come to read as the formality of the Portrait format. Using one format where the other would normally be used is a way to work against type on a subconscious level; a horizontal portrait, for instance, can make someone seem more approachable.
Using the Rule of Thirds sometimes also means changing your orientation. If you’re using your viewfinder or LCD’s grid lines (or even just eyeballing it), you may have something that lines up perfectly where it “should” on the grid lines. However, it could also be an awkward, or otherwise ineffective, composition. Try changing the orientation and reframing the shot. This is also true when you’re shooting more than one person, since a vertical photo tends to emphasize closeness (something to bear in mind if you’re shooting a group of friends), whereas a horizontal photo, if not framed properly, can make your subjects seem a bit lost or insignificant.
Here’s what I’d like you to do: Experiment. If you tend to shoot everything in one orientation, try the other. Or, if you tend to shoot certain types of subjects with the same orientation, change things up and see what it does to your composition and framing. If you’re all about context, see what happens when you zoom in on the details; this can have the added bonus of making you notice, and appreciate, details you might’ve missed or otherwise passed over. If, on the other hand, you’re all about detail, enjoy the forest and skip the trees for a bit. Sometimes these small changes can make a big difference, especially at times we’re starting to feel things getting a bit stale.
And here’s something else to try, just for fun: Instead of aligning your camera in a conventional portrait or landscape orientation, use a diagonal line within the photo (even if it’s a diagonal created by a vanishing point) as a guide to align the camera. Take Figure 4 as an example; the landscape format would tend to lead the eye from left to right, and in fact the signs do just that. At the same time, however, the slight diagonal tends to lead the eye “upward” at the same time. The results aren’t always going to be spectacular (indeed, the jury’s still out on Figure 4), but I’ve found that this can be effective at times when you have a really busy frame. When you’ve only got one strong subject, it just looks like they’re toppling over, but if there’s a lot going on, tweaking your orientation can be an option to slow your viewer down. Not only can this give you a different perspective (literally), it’s also a way to play with the leading lines within the photo and where the viewer’s eye is led as a result.
So you’re finally on your way to figuring out this whole photography thing. You already know you should have your camera with you; you’ve shot photos by the hundreds, if not the thousands, always working to hone your craft; and you’ve trained your eye to look for a photo opportunity in nearly everything you see. All well and good, right?
Here’s the thing: there is such a thing as trying too hard. Mind you, I’m not talking about the effort that goes into getting the composition you want, or making sure your settings are the optimal ones for whatever you’re shooting — that’s time well spent. What I’m referring to instead is… well, trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Sometimes, whether it’s because of the lighting, the weather, or even just the subject itself, there’s something in front of you, but there’s just no photograph there.
I understand that itch we all get, and the need to scratch it. You know the one I’m talking about; you’ve been walking through a location for what seems like hours, and you’ve yet to see a single thing worth photographing. Everything looks flat and dull, and before you know it, you start to feel a bit flat and dull yourself. Your shutter finger gets itchy, maybe your eye starts to twitch a little because it’s been away from the viewfinder for too long. You’d hate to spend a perfectly good day out with a perfectly good camera only to come home with an empty memory card. So you compromise. You settle on shots that, on a better day, you wouldn’t bother with, or you start trying to compose interesting shots of topsoil.
If you’re really struggling with the shot, to a point where it’s not simply a matter of getting the basics right (composition, lighting, settings, et cetera) as much as it is a nagging feeling that maybe you’ve got your subject wrong, listen to what your instinct is telling you. Let it go. Trying to find the right photo at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, is like trying to find an Eames chair at Wal-Mart. It probably isn’t going to happen, and if it does, it’s probably going to be a pale imitation of the real thing. There’s no shame in leaving the camera at your side, or putting it in its bag. Nor, for that matter, is there anything wrong with waiting ’til something comes along that’s really worthy of your, your camera’s, and your audience’s attention.
Some photo opportunities come up fairly regularly, whether it’s your favorite park or an event that takes place around the same time every year. As it turns out, there are some events in the offing that will make for some very interesting photography.
The first of these is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The flight of the shuttle Discovery to Washington D.C. on April 17 made for some memorable scenes — and incredible photo opportunities — as the shuttle and modified SCA 747 (Shuttle Carrier Aircraft) overflew several of the area’s landmarks. Just a few days from now, on April 23 (between 9:30 and 11:30), it will be New York’s turn; the SCA will be shuttling the Enterprise (the shuttle, not the starship) from Dulles Airport to JFK. From the website of the Intrepid Museum:
Come to Intrepid on Monday, April 23rd to watch the historic flyover of Enterprise and the NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), the 747 bringing the space shuttle to New York City. Be among the first to welcome Enterprise to NYC as she flies up the Hudson River at a relatively low altitude – mounted atop the 747 – while passing her future home, the Intrepid Museum. The Museum and Pier 86 will open at 10am and the flyover is expected to occur soon thereafter.
In June, the Enterprise is scheduled to be moved by barge from JFK to the Intrepid. At that point, a display area will be built around the shuttle, which is expected to be on public view by July, so there will be more chances to get snapshots later if you miss the 23rd. In the meantime, since the Museum’s going to get very crowded very quickly, I’d suggest other vantage points along the Hudson, especially along the waterfront on the New Jersey side; there should be some prime viewing space in Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City and Bayonne especially. While no flight path has been announced (save for the fact that the Statue of Liberty and Intrepid will be on the itinerary), I’d be very surprised if lower Manhattan — especially Ground Zero — isn’t also on the flight plan.
The other event is an annual, worldwide extravaganza, Atlas Obscura’s Obscura Day 2012, which takes place worldwide on April 28. Past years have seen events take place in locales as widespread as Australia, Rome, New Zealand, Berlin, Japan, the Phillipines and New York, with tours of such sites as the Circus Maximus, River Fleet, and Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. The emphasis is on the unusual, unknown, and overlooked, so even if you’re familiar with an area and its history, you’re likely to learn something new.
This year’s events include a tour of the Fermilab Particle Accelerator, a tour of the street art and graffiti of Berlin, and a tour of Boston’s African-American history. Many events are sold out, but check their website… and be sure to keep an eye out for next year’s events.
Photo editing program Picnik has been discontinued and goes offline today, leaving a mix of flotsam (frustrated amateur photographers) and jetsam (advanced amateurs and pros who habitually looked down their nose at Picnik users) in its wake. I don’t plan on joining in that particular debate, but I did notice that several people were genuinely dismayed that Picnik would be no more. At about the same time, I first heard of PicMonkey, which touts itself as a replacement for Picnik, coded by some of the same people who’d made up the original Picnik team. Question is, is it any good?
I didn’t exactly get off to a great start with PicMonkey. The first photo that I tried to upload, a 3.96 MB JPG from my SLR, prompted the following message:
Oh, the humanity! This photo is Hindenburg-huge and PicMonkey might burst into flames. Try again with a smaller one, okay?
Leaving aside for a minute the fact that neither the content nor the tone of that error message brought joy to my heart, it’s not exactly encouraging when an editor isn’t suited to high-quality (read: larger) JPG files. I don’t expect an online editor to handle RAW files. They’re enormous, after all, and there’s the added complication that there’s no single RAW standard; each manufacturer has its own format. That’s fine if you’re coding a desktop app (it’s expected that the functionality would be built in), but I’m betting that the PicMonkey folks, like so many others who’ve posted web-based applications, are figuring that their average user isn’t going to be using their service to process RAW files. However, I do expect that they can handle JPGs of a reasonable size.
Okay, so let’s try that again with a smaller (2.48 MB) photo, an oldie taken from a Kodak compact.
Figure 1: Basic Edits
The Resize utility allows you to reproportion an image if it needs to be made smaller without cropping. You know, like a 3.96 MB JPEG that you can’t up– Oh, never mind. Bonus points for the Crop utility allowing crops not only for common print sizes (4×6, 8×10, etc.) but also for common web uses (avatars, Facebook timeline photos and the like). Rotate… well, you can’t really screw that up, can you?
AutoAdjust is a mixed bag. More often than not, leaving it to the program to automatically fix your levels, white balance, brightness, and other settings ends up with things being far out of whack. On another photo that I tried (not pictured here) the lighting fixes were reasonable, and — best of all — the saturation wasn’t too heavy-handed. On the image shown, auto adjust did acceptably well on lighting, but the saturation was overdone to a degree that our subject looked as though he’d been hitting the bottle.
Sharpness control works better than expected; here, you’re getting sharpness, clarity, and an unsharp mask, and if you use the controls judiciously, you don’t have the same degree of sharpening artifacts that you can get from many other programs. It’s not going to rescue a photo that’s terribly out of focus, but if you’re looking to punch up something that’s already reasonably in focus, it’s a good fix.
Exposure controls: Auto worked reasonably well here, probably because the photo was reasonably well-exposed to start with. Brightness, highlights, shadows and contrast are controlled with sliders.
Color auto adjust seems to have its own ideas about the kinds of lights you’re shooting under (in another image that I tested, the program appears to have decided that a handful of mozzarella balls were bleu cheese); the entire color cast of your image may bear no relation to reality. Luckily, you get slider controls over saturation and temperature, as well as a neutral color picker. I would’ve liked to see something with finer tonal control over color, but I didn’t expect to find that here.
Next we come to the Effects screen (Figure 2). This is one of the bits that gave PicMonkey’s predecessor a bad name in some circles, since most of this tab is made up of the kinds of presets people tend to use to rescue pictures that weren’t very imaginative to start with. Cross-processing, Holga, that sort of thing. You’ll have to scroll through a fair amount of crap to get to the good stuff, namely the Dodge and Burn, Curves, and Clone features. Each of these works as advertised; it just would’ve been nice to put the more advanced stuff where it can be easily seen, accessed, and used (i.e. not buried beneath a flea market’s worth of “art” filters).
Figure 3 shows the Touch Up screen. There are programs — some of them very pricey — that I’m sure do a much nicer job of touching up human subjects. Then again, if you were using one of those, you probably wouldn’t be using PicMonkey. For the most part, the features here work well.* I didn’t have the chance to try out the red eye fix (my solution to that has usually been to try avoiding red eye in the first place), but the rest of the features are fine, provided that A: you choose the right brush size, and B: you don’t use a heavy hand. Ignore either of those pieces of advice and you’ll end up with photos that look touched up, and rather inexpertly at that.
Figure 4 shows the Text screen, which is self-explanatory. I might have liked to see more options to contour or otherwise shape the text, but I underscore “might,” since if I’m going to be honest, this is an option I don’t use very often.
Figure 5 is Overlays. I think that the caption says about all that needs to be said here. Let’s get rid of all that froufrou and move on to the next screen, Frames, shown in Figure 6. While many of the features shown previously have their uses in touching up before you print a photo, this section really seems better suited to work on the web; applying a Polaroid look to a 4×6 seems a little silly unless you’re a Cultural Studies grad student trying to make some sort of comment on how “meta” your photography is. But again, if you’re doing something that’s related either to the web, or maybe a newsletter or page layout, I could see some of these being somewhat useful.
Finally, in Figure 7, we see the Textures screen, which allows you to apply different textile, metal, stone, and paint textures to your photo. I’ll confess that I have fun with these sometimes, especially with a photo that’s otherwise so awful that I couldn’t do much else with it, or when I’m trying for something more abstract. Some of this, however, reminds me of the brief time my wife and I spent looking for wedding photographers, and how both of us cringed at higher-priced packages that featured otherwise lovely photos ruined by someone deciding that they all needed an “artistic” effect. These work, strictly speaking, but they’re probably best used sparingly.
The verdict: I never quite understood the hostility directed at Picnik. Yes, there are a lot of “fauxtographers” out there who tended to rely a bit too much on the more gimmicky features that make your photos look like a third grader’s scrapbook gone wrong. But really, you could do the same overwrought and tasteless crap to your snaps with a higher-end program like Photoshop or the GIMP; that’s not a fault in the software, but in the photographer. PicMonkey is often pitched as a replacement for Picnik, and has many of the same features, a very similar layout, and offers much the same results.
My quibbles with the program are mostly minor; I’d love to see support for larger file sizes, or to be able to work with them without first having to use another program to resize them. But I also realize that this is a web-based application and that larger files take up a lot of bandwidth and memory, both of which are at a premium (ergo, don’t get your hopes up for batch processing/editing, either). If you’re looking for, or in the habit of using, one of the “lighter” desktop photo editors, like Google’s Picasa, PicMonkey is a viable alternative, with the added bonus that it won’t take up real estate on your hard drive that could be used for your photos instead.
Stop and think about some of the best images you’ve shot. Not necessarily the most technically proficient. The ones that, for all their flaws, you wouldn’t trade for anything. I know I have a pile on my hard drive, mostly of people I love just being their usual selves, or of things I’ve experienced that, even though I won’t soon forget them, I’m glad to have the photographic reminders of. I’m sure you have them too, blurry or hurriedly-composed shots (if you even gave a second thought to composition) of a thousand memorable moments.
A lot of what we think of as “art” catches those same everyday moments. The only difference is, there’s just a bit more attention paid to the finer details.
That brings me, in my usual roundabout way, to the writer Robert Fulghum, who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, and other bestselling collections of essays. This isn’t Thoreau or de Montaigne territory. Fulghum’s essays aren’t often concerned with events that wouldn’t happe to anyone else. He described What On Earth Have I Done, his last essay collection, as “adventuring out into the world as it is and noticing it and talking about it… being aware out there and being aware in here.” His essays, in other words, are more often written about the moments in life that we too often pass over or take for granted, in order that we might stop, reconsider, and quit taking them for granted.
Another Robert — Robert Doisneau, whose centennial happens to fall this week — shared Fulghum’s knack for observing (and, in the case of his best-known image, Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, recreating) intimate everyday moments. Doisneau begain photographing at sixteen, and while he would one day be regarded as a street photographer on par with Henri Cartier Bresson, he started out taking photos of the cobblestones beneath his feet because he was too shy to approach human subjects. By most accounts, that shyness never quite left him. Thankfully, though, it also didn’t keep him from capturing images that became synonymous with a certain notion of France, but that also gained fame in the world at large because their everydayness resonated with the rest of us.
It’s understandable to want to make a grand statement, and to want leave our mark on our craft, if not the world. With very few exceptions, though, life’s not usually made up of such sweeping, grandiose stuff. Our lives can seem — or even be — stultifyingly ordinary. But take a look around your own life, and your own world as it is. A pretty eventful place, no? Dive in!
The solution isn’t necessarily to try and escape what we see as mundanity (though that can be helpful sometimes), so much as to observe it closely, even lovingly. Both Roberts’ works endure as they do not because the people in them are extraordinary; it’s because they’re extra ordinary. They’re so normal that we’re pulled into these little microcosmic worlds sometimes in spite of ourselves. We’ve known, or even been, these people; these portraits, whether with words or photographic processes, are familiar to us because they’re drawn from a life we recognize.
On the Web:
The official Robert Doisneau site in French here, and in English via Google Translate here. Robert Fulghum’s official site is here.
If you’re anything like me — which, for the purposes of this post, means you’re just about blind as a bat without your glasses — autofocus can be a godsend. It’s pretty useful for a host of other reasons and situations as well. Shooting sports or animals, shooting from the hip, shooting at odd angles… there are times that it’s a good thing that the camera can take care of at least one variable for you, and generally do it pretty reliably. There are times, however, when AF isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and you need to eyeball your shot for the best results.
Shallow DOF (Depth of Field): This comes into play in two situations. One is when you’re using a lens wide open (say, in the 1.4-3.5 range), either to let in more light or to blur your background. The other is when you’re using a long lens. Someone who knows the physics of these things could probably explain far better than I could, but for whatever reason, a lens racked to 300mm at f/8 acts very much like a 50mm at f/1.8. In either case, your focal plane (the part of the photo that’s in focus) can be razor thin. While autofocus will pick something to focus on, the camera’s idea of what should be in focus may not be the same as yours.
Low Contrast/Lousy Lighting: Whether your camera uses contrast detection or phase detection for autofocus, both systems require varying degrees of contrast in order to work well (there’s a better explanation here). Bottom line: if there’s not much contrast (your subject’s color and lighting is similar to its background, for instance) or if you’re working in low light, your camera’s AF may “hunt” for a focal point.
Stealth: In low light (where your AF assist light is likely to go off) or if you’re using older, screw-drive AF lenses (which are cheaper than their newer counterparts, but can also be noisy), you may inadvertently draw attention to yourself at a time when you’re trying to stay incognito.
“Busy,” Cluttered, or Active Scenes: I usually love my camera’s AF system, but there are times that it works a little too well. I had initially tried a couple of shots of the deer in Figure 2 using autofocus, only to find that the little AF point in my viewfinder kept skittering between blades of tall grass rather than locking on the deer, where I wanted it. Similarly, if you’re trying to shoot through a chain link fence or a window (especially if the window’s dirty, or if there are reflections you’d rather didn’t distract from the subject), you may find that the AF keeps wanting to focus on what’s closer.
Portraits: If you’re filling the frame with your subject’s face (and, for that matter, even when you’re not), you usually want your subject’s eyes in focus. Not their cheek, their nostrils, nose hairs, unibrow, et cetera. And it never fails that when you’re close in on your subject, your autofocus will focus on anything but the eyes.
Moving subjects: This one may seem counterintuitive, and it takes practice, but if you’re dealing with a moving subject, it can help to manually focus rather than hoping the AF locks on correctly. It’s especially true when you’re dealing with a subject that’s moving through a scene with lots of foreground/background distractions.
Static Subjects: If you’re photographing, say, your dinner, it’s not likely to run away on you (I hope). Using manual focus at a time you don’t necessarily have to can be useful because it forces you to slow down, but also because it can give you the ability to fine-tune what you want in focus.
Prefocusing: This isn’t purely manual focusing, but I’m going to add it here because it’s related. If your AF system is having difficulty acquiring your subject for one of the reasons above (or any of the others) but you don’t want to turn AF off for some reason, you can manually focus on your subject (or at least get close to correct focus) and then let the camera take over.
Last, but by no means least, there’s the Stubborn Camera. There will be times that your camera will, for reasons known only to itself, focus on anything and everything but your subject. You could be taking a photo of a black spider on a white wall, and your camera will seemingly fall madly in love with a nondescript part of the wall, totally ignoring the spider. Or it will focus on the clouds, rather than the bear that’s looming over you, threatening to… well, in that case, I think focusing is the least of your problems.
Have any tips you’d like to share? Comment below, or feel free to inbox me!