Focus versus Exposure

Focus or exposure, which is the most important? Some might even wonder why ask the question when both are critical to a great print. I would even venture to include modern movement photography where the focus may be blurred on purpose because even then the focus is a conscious decision. However, when photographing moments, as opposed to still life, quick decisions are made sometimes at the expense of others. Here I describe Which I believe is more critical based on countless rejects that would have been great photos.

So we begin with a moment brewing. We see something that we know is developing into a photographic opportunity. It could be a child, pet, spouse or someone unknown. It could be family photography or street photography. Now we have seconds. No time to use a light meter or lens type. What we have is what we wil use. Do we adjust the shutter speed or the f-stop? What about our deapth of field, will we get the subject in focus? Is it narrow enough focus to blur the background and keep it out of the way, yet still visible?

Ok, too much thought, now we missed it as evidenced by a photo of what happened just after the perfect moment! Some of the best photography I have is of my family. Knowing the subject makes it easier to predict a moment. Knowledge makes it easier to frame and orient the subject.

I have too often put photos into Lightroom and pulled up the full view to see the face was not really in focus, or or the image slightly doubled indicating movement and slow shutter speed. Portrait photography seems most pleasing when the eyes and eyelashes are crisp. I’m not including motion shots, like a group interacting at a party. I’m referring to the pauses in daily life. The momentary look over one’s shoulder or the pause to listen or look up.

In that regard, I believe focus wins over exposure hands down. Exposure can be manipulated too well with todays software, but focus is a single chance. When in doubt I leave the f-stop alone and ratchet up e shutter speed a notch (1/2 step) and concentrate on focus.

I typically focus on hair. The hair has lots of fine detail and can be quickly judged in focus at the edges. If you don’t know, I use rangefinders almost exclusively. An autofocus brings different challenges.

I have recently been using a Leica X-1 with great success. The 2.0 firmware did indeed increase focus speed, but I have used the manual focus well because the sweet spots of the lens appear to be around f/5.6 (traditional Leica lenses are around f/4.0). I use the deapth of field scale and set it to the range I expect to be in.

In any case, when using autofocus, I keep the autofocus set to the middle point so there is less guess work on the part of the camera. I point at the subject, focus, recompose and press the shutter the rest of the way. Focus. Focus is the key.

I’ll talk a little more about exposure and the impact of lens quality in another post. For now, I would practice the art of quickly focusing and getting it perfect.

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