How the hell do you focus those manual focus lenses on modern DSLRs? Very carefully....

The finest lens design in the world is pretty meaningless 
unless you have a plan to focus it well. 

I've been writing a lot recently about my admiration for older Nikon lenses and my tendency to select older, manual focus-only lenses in my day to day work. To recap: I am currently making good use of the Nikkor 25-50mm f4.0 zoom lens, the 55mm f2.8 micro Nikkor, the Rokinon 85mm t1.5, the Nikon 105mm f2.5, and the Nikon 135mm f2.0 lenses on my two Nikon DSLRs; the D810 and the D750. I'm pretty sure that anyone who has tried to just pull up a modern digital camera to their face and focus an older lens quickly will tell you that the (non)focusing screens in all the modern cameras are pretty much crap for manual focusing. The screens are optimized for visual brightness but not for the acuity necessary to discern (accurately) sharp focus. What's a guy to do?

Some one asked this morning if I had a trick to using these lenses and if the whole focusing issue with manual focusing lenses and DSLRs is overblown. No and no. I wish I had some special trick to nail sharp focus every time but I don't. And since I don't have a trick then, no, I don't think this design fail in modern finders is overblown. That being said I am certain that the vast majority using DSLRs are using them exclusively with auto focus lenses. 

In real life, each of the lenses I use is handled differently. If I am using the 24-50mm lens it's usually outdoors and I'm using the wide end of the lens to capture a scene or a building or something that asks for wide angle. If it's Austin/Texas blue sky sunny I just zone focus with that lens. The beauty of the older lenses is that they usually have very well done focusing scales that are very accurate. Much more accurate than the focusing scales on the new lenses. The single focal length lenses even have hyperlocal distance markings on the barrels which give you another advantage. 

So, if I'm walking around downtown with the 25-50 I might have the camera set to M or A and the lens set to f11. I know from looking at a lot of depth of field tables over the years that by setting the lens at eight to ten feet on the focusing ring that, in the 25-30mm range, I'll have sharp focus from infinity down to about five feet. If I'm really concerned about high sharpness of objects closer to infinity I'll move the focusing ring closer to between 15 and 30 feet. I know with certainty that anything further than 20 feet that I point my camera at will be in sharp focus. I don't have to fine tune for each frame. The depth of field covers it well. 

If I am shooting out on the street with a 35mm MF Nikon I might set my aperture ring to f11 and if I put my infinity setting on the yellow, color coded line on one side of the center focus hash I can look on the other side of the corresponding yellow hash mark and see that I can be reasonably in focus from about 8 feet to infinity. I can walk through the streets and shoot with abandon, knowing that anything in that range will be in focus. 

That takes care of a lot of wide angle stuff but what about the longer focal lengths? Well, first of all I think that very fast. longer lenses give you a certain advantage because, unlike the wider lenses, the apparent focus wide open tends to pop and in and out with more certainty. It's one of the reasons faster lenses were so popular back in the manual focus only days. The "in focus" was more apparent with the brighter lenses and the narrower depth of field. Win, win. 

When I shoot with the medium telephotos in the studio focusing is definitely an issue. Bugs the hell out of me. But when I shoot portraits in the studio I am almost always using a tripod. I use a tripod because it helps me to "anchor" a composition but also because I like to use continuous lighting and a tripod allows me to use slower shutter speeds than I can normally hand hold. If I am using a tripod then with both of my current DSLRs I can go into "live view" and punch in to see a magnified section of the image and really fine tune focus. I also tend to shoot about one f-stop smaller than I might with an AF lens. Instead of shooting the 105mm wide open I might use it at f3.5 instead. It's not much but I'm hoping to cover myself, at least a little bit. 

In each of the Nikons I use there is a three light system of focus confirmation that can be very useful. The issue I have with it is that it's too undiscerning. There's a green arrow on either side of a center dot. If one the arrows lights up then you are out of focus and, supposedly, when the center dot lights up you are in focus. My issue is that the center dot stays lit though a bit of travel of the focusing ring. In other words the indicator is very lenient as to what is in and out of focus. I conjecture that the system was devised with the idea that most people are shooting at f5.6 or f8 and that depth of field will cover them. But I don't shoot that way.

What I have found though is that each camera tends to help me back focus just a little bit when I wait until I hit the center spot of the green confirmation light exactly. I have experimented quite a bit and now I use the "too close" arrow and the "confirmation dot" in tandem. My goal with longer telephoto lenses (85-200) is to hit just at the spot where the "too close" light and the "confirmation dot" blink back and forth and then give a tiny nudge until the green dot wins. At that point I can shoot wide open with reasonable certainty of getting the shot. 

If I am shooting for my own enjoyment I am okay with trusting this dancing dot method and I find it pretty quick to shoot this way in the field. If my kid was running a cross country race I would rely on a different method if I wanted to shoot close to wide open. 

If I am photographing a real sporting event (swimming or running) and want to use a manual focus lens I rely on refocusing at specific points. If Ben were to run by in a race I would have a focus point in his path that I had prefocused on with one of the above methods, this way I would be able to concentrate on just shooting rather than managing an AF sensor or trying to "spin the ring." In a group of runners it's almost impossible to keep an AF point where you want it and pre-focusing can give you more keepers. 

But realistically, I use the MF lenses mostly in controlled situations and mostly when using a tripod. I compose the shot, switch to live view and punch in to a magnified view to attain perfect focus and then I switch out of live view to viewfinder mode and shoot until I change position or my subject moves. The added benefit is that I am focusing at my taking aperture which eliminates the chance of optical focus shift upon stopping down. 

When I am shooting fast moving stuff the optical benefits and characteristics of the MF lenses; the qualities I like them for, are secondary to getting the shot. In these kinds of jobs I don't have so much hubris that I risk outrageous failure so I am quick to switch over and use my lenses with AF. The 24-120mm replaced the 25-50mm and the 80-200 replaced the 85, 105 and 135. They get the job done. 

So, there are reasons to use both. My green dot method works for me most of the time and if I didn't do this for money and clients I would be comfortable using the MF lenses all the time. In nearly every situation I come across there's ample time to work on focusing. And who knows? With enough practice I may yet be able to focus accurately on the screen of a D810.  But I wouldn't count on it....

Rule of thumb. It's better to focus once and lock it down than to keep refocusing. Subjects don't move as much as one might think. That being said, if your photography depends on sharp images of moving objects with shallow depth of field then you might want to relegate your MF lenses to some other tasks and go with the sure thing.

Look versus reliability.

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Lotta really good cameras came out this year but if I had to choose the one that set the enthusiasts' world on fire and changed the aim point I'd have to pick a camera I don't own...

Of all the cameras in the equipment case that I've squandered my hard earned 
money on I would have to say that my favorite camera to hold in my hands
and take photographs with would have to be the Olympus OMD EM-5.2

But it's not 2015's photo world changer.

That honor would have to go to the Sony A7R2. 

And here's why: Sony made a halting, tentatively, half-assed start with their A7 cameras. When they were announced I had high hopes for the line but my first test with them back at launch in 2013 was disappointing. The shutters were so loud that, if you were photographing human models, you would have to stop shooting to give them verbal directions because, otherwise, they would never hear you over the nerve-wracking clatter of the horrible shutters. Just cheesy.

The bodies were a bit too small and seemed, delicate to me. The evf finders were no better than those in cameras that had been on the market for quite a while. But most damning was that, even though Sony seems to be the source of all imaging sensors, they cut corners on both their raw files and their Jpeg processing. Similar sensors in Nikon cameras just spanked the hell out of the Sony trio at the outset.

There were people who embraced the cameras. Mostly people coming straight from DSLRs who were finally willing to at least try the seductive reality of electronic viewfinders for the first time. The praise they have for their Sony A7 (original lineup) cameras is partly a sigh of relief that came from embracing the new viewing and reviewing technology that underlies the mirrorless experience; not from the superiority or enhanced usability of the cameras themselves.

I wanted to like the Sony A7; and especially the A7R, but after many attempts at a warm embrace I left them on the curbside and moved on with my life.

That was then. But life and camera design move on. I think Sony had a good bit of success with the new cameras and a large part of the success is wrapped around the fact that the cameras give one a reasonably priced entree into full frame imaging with high quality sensors and the ability to use a very wide array of third party lenses from many sources, and from across decades. Whatever the reason I think Sony's collective camera design brain sent the message to the Sony Borg that there really was a market for their wares and, if they had a flagship product to rally consumers the fight to sell more product in the channel would be easier. They needed a "halo" marketing product to prove that, as far as image quality was concerned, they could go toe to toe with the best on the market. They might even better the high point.

The product that I think will come to define the Sony A7 line as a workable group of cameras for high aspiration non-professionals and people who mostly make a living with their cameras will be the A7R2. Not only because they put in their best sensor, and keep improving the processing via firmware updates, but because they finally paid attention to the quality of the mechanical offering. The camera is no longer a melange of composite panels and metal but is now a more robust, all metal construction. The finder optics and finder resolution is much better. The body is beefier and feels much more solid in one's hands. Coupled with a battery grip it finally feels adequate as a support for heavier lenses like the Sony Alpha 70-200mm f2.8, along with an Alpha adapter.

The investment that Sony made in Olympus seems to be paying off with some good technology transfer in the form of a five axis, image stabilization system that works well. Much work was done to ensure cleaner and more nuanced Jpeg files and a recent firmware upgrade gave users beefier, less compressed and higher bit depth raw files. The imaging pipeline currently sits near the top of the DXO sensor rankings. Toe to toe with the Nikon D810.

But the one thing that got my attention and put the A7R2 firmly in the "great camera, I should get one some day!" category is the new shutter. Nice to have all the imaging system stuff better figured out but it still would have been meaningless to me if the shutter rattled along like a Yugo with a quarter million miles on the speedometer and hundreds of marbles in the trunk. A camera with great imaging is always sabotaged if the handling, audible and visceral aesthetics suck.

So Sony finally listened. Either to pundits or their customers or their own inner sense of pride as camera designers, and they worked on making the shutter significantly good. Tremendously good. They've lowered the register of the noise that it makes and done away with a large part of the high frequency clatter-ation that drew the attention of bystanders and camera haters. The shutter is nearly in the rarified field of, "acoustically enjoyable" machines. And this makes all the difference in the world.

So, why is the camera my pick as the break through camera of the year? Because it has just about everything a high end mirrorless user would want for the first time ever in the mirrorless/evf-enabled space. It's got a state of the art sensor that's got resolution to spare. It handles noise as well as just about any advanced camera on the market today. The in body image stabilization is competent and welcome. The shutter is significantly better and rated to work for half a million cycles. The camera works with an incredibly wide array of lenses from just about every maker. Love that Nikon 135mm f2.0? It's one cheap adapter away from being equally wonderful on the Sony.

But then there's also the bonus set of features! The camera does full on, 4K video and according to almost all sources of video knowledge and lore, it's a 4K codec that does a great job as far as sharpness, detail, color and utility. It may be a better file than the ones that video people are trying to squeeze out of the A7S2 (the 12 megapixel model).

The camera is a decent size now that it's been pumped up a bit. It feels great in one's hands (subjective, for sure) and the shutter is no longer an offensive pile of sound crap and vibration.

What's not to like about the camera? The usual stuff people complain about when moving from battery sipping behemoths with large power reserves, and, as always, the lower performance of the AF system when tracking fast moving objects. It is true, the ubiquitous Sony battery (used across most of the line and the RX10 cameras) is a weakling compared to the batteries in full sized DSLRs. While the A7R2 may be about 300 shots from a fully charged battery my Nikon D750 gets anywhere from 1200 to 1500 shots from its battery.

There is a cure for the battery problem and it's a simple one.  Buy more batteries. Carry a couple extra in your pockets. Change as needed. (Or buy into my KickStarter campaign to manufacture plutonium based fission batteries like the ones they use in military satellites. Those last a very, very long time but we are having issues with those damn environmentalists about disposal and some issues regarding manufacturing safety. In the long run I am sure we'll get some regs changed in congress. The bulk of our Kickstarter money is earmarked to pay off politicians...). Seriously though, the Sony batteries are small and not super high capacity but a battery grip is useful and also adds a better gripping design for handholding the camera.  I never asked for cameras to be small, I only wanted mirrorless for the advantages of shooting with EVFs...

The second issue is one that rarely effects my shooting and that's focusing fast moving objects and tracking focus with fast moving objects. I think each generation of mirrorless camera improves in this performance parameter and, for my uses, the camera's focus is more than adequate. In fact, the majority of my intended use for a camera such as this would be to use it with lenses from other companies. Leica, Nikon, and Leica..  In that kind of use the camera also excels because it comes complete with both image peaking and quick image magnification for fine focusing. For an ad shooter that's a perfect combination.

To distill, Sony gets my honor of innovative camera of 2016 because they have single-handedly brought to the market a flagship for the EVF/Mirrorless concept with a camera that checks every box on my list of features. The whole A7 line is the first to implement a full frame sensor with the mirrorless design set. The shutter and mechanical handling is finally in the first rank. And the 4K video is most certainly state of the art as regards video in still cameras.

Had the camera hit the same price point as the one it replaced (the A7R) I would be even more enthusiastic. In a few months, when Sony rushes out a replacement for the A7R2, and the prices drop, I'll probably add one to the drawer. The neat deal is that one embedded in the Nikon system can easily rationalize buying this body as a supplement to the Nikon bodies, since all of them can (with adapters) use the same lenses. And that is one of the genius features of mirrorless cameras, as a class.

Interesting to handle and write about a camera that I haven't been compelled (yet) to rush out and buy. That alone is a paean to how pleased I am with my current Nikon cameras. And at the same time it's probably and indicator of why the camera market is in decline... too much good stuff that works to well. Why rush to replace?

But if you are in a rush to replace, consider using this link:  Sony A7R2 and other stuff...