by Harry Flashman
How good is Auto-Focus
Today’s young photographers have grown up with Auto-Focus (AF),
so they will be unaware of the first AF cameras with ‘whizz’
‘whizz’ ‘whizz’ as the camera tried to focus, especially in low
I always felt that I could focus manually faster than the AF
could, and what was even more important, I knew what were the
important items in the frame - the electronic “magic eye” did
Things have changed. Quite frankly, today’s AF is better than
me. Now that I need glasses as well, I am unsure whether I have
the focus ‘sweet spot’ correctly, whilst my AF does, with a
However, since almost all new cameras are AF, the following tips
will try and ensure that you do get the sharp results that you
think you’re going to get from the important AF feature.
There are unfortunately many situations where the magic AF eye
just cannot work properly. If there is no contrast in the scene,
then the AF will not work. If you are trying to focus in a “low
light” situation then the AF will “hunt” constantly looking for
a bright area. When trying to shoot through glass or wire mesh
the AF can become totally confused as well. No, while AF is now
almost 100 percent universal, it is still not 100 percent
The focusing area for the AF system is a small circle or square
in the middle of the viewfinder, so if you are taking a picture
of two people two meters away, the camera may just focus on some
object that it can see between your two subjects. Very often
trees. Those trees are two km away, so you get a shot with the
background sharp and the two people in the foreground as soft
What you have to do is use the “hold-focus” (sometimes called
“focus lock”) facility in your camera. To use this facility,
compose the people the way you want them, but then turn the
camera so that one person is now directly in the middle of the
viewfinder, in the AF focus point. Gently push the shutter
release half way down and the AF will “fix” on the subject.
Generally you will get a “beep” or a green light in the
viewfinder to let you know that the camera has fixed its focus.
It will now hold that focus until you either fully depress the
shutter release, or you take your finger off the button. So
keeping your finger on the button, recompose the picture in the
viewfinder and shoot. The people are now remaining in focus, and
the background soft and fuzzy, instead of the other way round.
So what should you do in the other situations when the AF is in
trouble? When all else fails, turn it off and focus manually!
Sometimes, in the poor light it is possible to shine a torch on
the subject, get the AF fixed on the subject and then turn off
your torch and go from there. But this is only when you cannot
turn the AF off!
Another focusing problem is when photographing a moving subject.
When say, for example, you are attempting to shoot a subject
coming rapidly towards you, the AF is unable to “keep up” with
the constantly moving target. The answer here is to manually
focus at the point where you want to get the subject to be
photographed and then wait for the subject to reach that point.
As it approaches the predetermined point, rip off four of five
frames and you have it. A sharply focused action photograph.
Here’s another great tip from the photographic studios of the
glamour and portrait photographers - when taking a portrait
shot, focus on the eyes, nowhere else. Very, very carefully
focus on the eyelid margins and you will have a super shot, no
matter how shallow your depth of field may be. The eyes have it!
Finally, remember that AF is merely an electronic ‘aid’, you
have to make sure it is helping you get better pictures. Look
carefully at what the pre-view screen is showing you before
tripping the shutter.
And a bottle of dark paint
first photography studio was painted white. Not externally, but
internally. My next studio was painted black internally, and was a much
better studio. Why? It all came back to the well-used phrase in
photography “painting with light.”
Looking at the origins of the word “photography” it does indeed mean
“painting with light’, but I would like you to think about the opposite
- “painting with dark.”
In the initial stages of learning photography, the novice photographer
is always looking for more light, but the biggest mistake is too much
‘light’, not too little.
With automatic flashes that pop up out of the camera, and others that
come on as soon as the sensor decides it is getting too dark, it is
difficult as a raw novice not to have shots that are very bright and
absolutely bathed in light. Unfortunately, this is not the best way to
show shape, form or evoke an air of mystery.
Undoubtedly the subject will now be well lit, but you have also removed
shape and form from the photograph. You see, the way to convey shape is
by showing the shadow the object casts. No shadow and it looks flat.
Incorporate shadow and “Hey Presto!” you have invented 3D.
Shadow has another benefit - it gives an air of mystery to any picture.
Dark shadows allow the viewer to imagine what is being hidden. Your
photograph “hints” at something and the viewer’s mind does the rest from
Here is an exercise for this weekend. Let’s put some shadows into your
photographs. Let’s do a portrait to incorporate shadow. And let’s do
this indoors and without flash guns or any fancy equipment, and get a
‘professional’ look to the final print.
Find the largest window in your house or condominium and put a chair
about one metre away from it. The chair should be parallel to the
window, not facing it.
Place your sitter in the chair and position another chair facing the
sitter. This one is yours, as you will take the photo sitting down.
Reason? This way you keep the camera at the same level as your subject’s
face and you will get a more pleasing portrait. If you photograph from a
position below the subject you tend to give them “piggy” nostrils and it
shortens the look of the nose. In a country where ‘big noses’ are
considered desirable, this is not the effect wanted.
Now, make sure that your auto flash is turned off. This is important
with point and shooters that can fire off as soon as light levels are
lower than usual. Look through the viewfinder and position yourself so
that the sitters face is almost filling the frame. Notice that the side
of the face away from the window light source is now in shadow. If you
have the ability to meter from the lit side of the face, then do so. But
if not, just blast off a couple of frames on auto and let the camera do
To change the brightness to darkness ratio is quite simple too. Use some
black velvet close to the sitter’s face, on the side opposite the
window. The black velvet absorbs the light that wraps around the face,
emphasizing the shadow. Painting with ‘dark’ light!
You should also slightly angle the sitter’s chair so that one shoulder
is closer to the camera and get the subject to turn their head to face
the camera again. Try angling in both directions so you will get a
choice of shots.
Another variation to try is to place a thin voile net over the window,
or draw any transparent curtains. This will soften the light and is
particularly effective when taking shots of women. Again go through the
For a portrait study such as this it is worth taking many shots.
Remember that you are not doing 20 identical shots - make variations in
pose, lighting and exposure. There are also facial expressions to change
- laughing, smiling, serious or sad. It is very easy to end up with 20
different shots. And as an added bonus, you will have some with an air
of mystery. Try it this weekend.
Fooling the diners
Now that ‘selfies’ seem to be the most important photographs that anyone
can take, have you noticed that straight after the posted selfie comes
pix of what the person ate? Even pie and peas.
Another reason for photographing food is a restaurant’s web site with
many of the more switched on restaurateurs posting photographs of their
food on FB as well!
Unfortunately, while these people may be great cooks, many are not great
photographers. And if your photo of pies looks unappetizing and in a
strange shade of green, then you will not have people knocking the doors
down to try them.
Actually, food photographers are some of the highest paid professionals,
because it is one of the more difficult areas of photography. For
example, 20 years ago I could command 30,000 baht a day photographing
food. There are even people called ‘food stylists’ who prepare the food
to make it ‘look’ appetizing, as the taste does not matter in a
I was given the job to photograph 10 ice cream cones for a restaurant
chain. They wanted all 10 of them standing up, all different flavors and
looking attractive. This was not easy.
First off, how do you get 10 ice cream cones to stand upright with no
obvious support. The answer was wooden skewers through the back of the
cone going into a block of polystyrene covered with black velvet
Next you have to check the lighting flash heads and focus, using
polystyrene balls on top of the cones, as ice cream melts too quickly.
After you get all that set up properly you have to be ready to scoop up
the ice creams and place them on the cones without any drips. You need
three people to do this as ice cream under studio lighting melts in
under 30 seconds.
Having taken one shot, if you are lucky everything will be fine. The
reality is that you will need to take the shot several times to get
everything correct, all the cones exactly parallel to each other, and no
drips on the black velvet. That one shot will take you one day, so you
can see why food photography is so expensive.
Have you ever tried photographing champagne? There’s never enough
bubbles to make it look sparkling. To get over this, drop some sugar
into the glass. Only a few grains are enough to give the almost still
glass of champers that “just opened” fizz look to it. For a catalogue
shot you also have to bring the light in from the back of the glass, as
well as from the front. This takes two flash heads, or at least one head
and a reflector.
While still on wines, if you try and shoot a bottle of red wine, it
comes out thick dark maroon or even black. Restaurateurs who have tried
photographing their wines will agree. So what does the pro shooter do?
Well he has a couple of courses of action. First is to dilute the red
wine by about 50 percent and secondly place a silver foil reflector on
the back of the bottle. So what happens to the half bottle of red that
was removed to dilute the wine? The photographer has it with dinner.
This is one area where there are more fraudulent practices than any
other. Cold food can be made to look hot by sprinkling chips of dry ice
to give “steam” coming off the dish. Not palatable, but it looks OK.
Cooking oil gets brushed on slices of the cold meat so that they look
moist and succulent.
That is just for starters. In the commercial photography studio, the
dedicated food photographer would erect a “light tent” of white
polystyrene and bounce electronic flash inside. Brightness is necessary
to stop the food looking grey and dull. Lighting is just so important.
If you do not have bright sparkly light then potatoes will look grey,
and even the china plates look drab and dirty.
And for the chap in FB with the green pies, stop taking the photos under
fluorescent light, but take your pies outside and shoot them under
sunlight. They will then look as good as they should taste!