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08-15-2007, 09:19 AM   #1
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Low Light Manual Focusing?

Hi everyone. This is my first post here aside from the one in the introductions forum. This looks like a really cool website with a lot of knowledgable people here; I'm sure I'll be able to learn a lot!

I've been using point & shoot digital cameras for a few years now and just recently decided to move up to something more. I went with a K100D and got the kit lens and the FA 50mm f/1.4. I'm very happy with everything so far, but I'm having one problem.

Since the places I shoot are so dimly lit the autofocus hunts a lot and I've switched to using manual focus. The problem is that I'm very bad at manually focusing! A lot of the shots I take are out of focus because I just can't seem to tell in the viewfinder. Does anyone have any advice for getting better at manually focusing other than "practice makes perfect?" I'm definitely going to practice as much as I can but if you have any tips I'd love to hear them.

Here are a few shots I've taken with the 50mm that show what I mean. These are the better ones and they're still looking really soft.



Big Apple Monday-1317.jpg on Flickr - Photo Sharing!



Big Apple Monday-1333.jpg on Flickr - Photo Sharing!



Ithaca Hayloft-0670.jpg on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

08-15-2007, 09:22 AM   #2
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Exif data would help a lot. To me they look more like motion blur than out of focus.
08-15-2007, 09:24 AM   #3
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QuoteOriginally posted by Deni Quote
Exif data would help a lot. To me they look more like motion blur than out of focus.
You can get the EXIF data by clicking the Flickr link and then hitting "More Properties" near the lower right corner of the page (under the camera link). Flickr mangles the EXIF data when it resizes and I don't have access to the original files right now. Sorry about that.
08-15-2007, 09:36 AM   #4
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QuoteOriginally posted by sjl7678 Quote
You can get the EXIF data by clicking the Flickr link and then hitting "More Properties" near the lower right corner of the page (under the camera link). Flickr mangles the EXIF data when it resizes and I don't have access to the original files right now. Sorry about that.
For the first photo:

Camera: Pentax K100D
Exposure: 0.033 sec (1/30)
Aperture: f/1.4
Focal Length: 50 mm
ISO Speed: 3200
Exposure Bias: 0/10 EV
Flash: Flash did not fire

X-Resolution: 240 dpi
Y-Resolution: 240 dpi
Software: K100D Ver 1.00
Date and Time: 2007:08:14 00:45:27
Copyright: All Rights Reserved
Exposure Program: Manual
Date and Time (Original): 2007:08:13 22:37:18
Date and Time (Digitized): 2007:08:13 22:37:18
Shutter Speed: 4906891/1000000
Metering Mode: Center Weighted Average
Sensing Method: One-chip colour area sensor
Exposure Mode: Manual
White Balance: Manual
Focal Length In 35mm Film: 75
Subject Distance Range: Close
Tag::TIFF::0x882A: -4, -4
By-Line (Author): Steve Losh
Copyright Notice: All Rights Reserved


I'm a noob so take my opinion for what its worth (significantly less than $.02):

Try not to shoot at longer than 1/125 hand held. If you can't get under 1/125 with the correct exposure, deploy the dreaded flash. ISO 3200 f/1.4 on my M series 50 f/1.4 is super soft and noisy too.

08-15-2007, 09:45 AM   #5
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QuoteOriginally posted by matiki Quote
I'm a noob so take my opinion for what its worth (significantly less than $.02):

Try not to shoot at longer than 1/125 hand held. If you can't get under 1/125 with the correct exposure, deploy the dreaded flash. ISO 3200 f/1.4 on my M series 50 f/1.4 is super soft and noisy too.
Yeah, I really, really don't like using the flash. I know how annoying it is when people take flash photos of me while I'm dancing or playing and I don't want to be "that guy."

Even when using ISO 3200 and 1/60s shutter for most of those photos (1/30 for the drummer because she was in a dark spot) it's still really underexposed; I tried going to 1/90s but it just got ridiculous.

A LOT of the photos I deleted when I got home were definitely out of focus even more than these, so I'm still looking for advice on manually focusing better. If I can get good enough that I'm at least getting most of my shots in focus and not deleting 60%+ of them right off the bat I'll be able to keep more and pick better composed ones rather than settling for the moderately in focus ones.
08-15-2007, 10:12 AM   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by sjl7678 Quote
Yeah, I really, really don't like using the flash. I know how annoying it is when people take flash photos of me while I'm dancing or playing and I don't want to be "that guy."

Even when using ISO 3200 and 1/60s shutter for most of those photos (1/30 for the drummer because she was in a dark spot) it's still really underexposed; I tried going to 1/90s but it just got ridiculous.

A LOT of the photos I deleted when I got home were definitely out of focus even more than these, so I'm still looking for advice on manually focusing better. If I can get good enough that I'm at least getting most of my shots in focus and not deleting 60%+ of them right off the bat I'll be able to keep more and pick better composed ones rather than settling for the moderately in focus ones.
I hate flash too, but I'm going to buy one anyways because my m50/1.4 is just not going to cut the mustard on its own (I suspect you'll come to the same conclusion after your own soul searching).

I don't think you have a focus problem as much as an exposure problem. This is a good article I read about film photography (very applicable to digital though). Take a look at the f/2.8 vs. f/22 photos of the chairs. It's a clear illustration of just how short a DOF you have at wide apertures.

Exposure - photo.net

If you stopped down a bit, you'd have an easier time focusing on more subjects. Additionally, if you used flash you'd be able to get the exposure time up to 1/125 or faster and reduce motion blur.

Again, just my noob adjusted $.02
08-15-2007, 10:51 AM   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by sjl7678 Quote
I'm still looking for advice on manually focusing better.
Try one of the split prism focusing screens. I have the katzeye and really like it. It is a joy to be able to focus manually with confidence.
08-15-2007, 11:10 AM   #8
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QuoteOriginally posted by matiki Quote
I hate flash too, but I'm going to buy one anyways because my m50/1.4 is just not going to cut the mustard on its own (I suspect you'll come to the same conclusion after your own soul searching).

I don't think you have a focus problem as much as an exposure problem. This is a good article I read about film photography (very applicable to digital though). Take a look at the f/2.8 vs. f/22 photos of the chairs. It's a clear illustration of just how short a DOF you have at wide apertures.

Exposure - photo.net

If you stopped down a bit, you'd have an easier time focusing on more subjects. Additionally, if you used flash you'd be able to get the exposure time up to 1/125 or faster and reduce motion blur.

Again, just my noob adjusted $.02

That's a pretty awesome site, thanks for the link.

I'm really trying to avoid flash as much as humanly possible. Photography is just a hobby for me so it's not a get-good-photos-if-you-want-to-eat situation; if I can't get them to come out perfectly without flash it's not the end of the world. I'm just going to do the best I can.


I've heard of that other kind of focusing screen but I don't know exactly what it means... can someone enlighten me?

08-15-2007, 11:15 AM   #9
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QuoteOriginally posted by sjl7678 Quote
That's a pretty awesome site, thanks for the link.

I'm really trying to avoid flash as much as humanly possible. Photography is just a hobby for me so it's not a get-good-photos-if-you-want-to-eat situation; if I can't get them to come out perfectly without flash it's not the end of the world. I'm just going to do the best I can.


I've heard of that other kind of focusing screen but I don't know exactly what it means... can someone enlighten me?
Anyone feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it's like the screen on my 35mm yashica...

There's a circular area in the center that is split in two but butted right up against each other (imagine a circle cut in half and reassembled). The two halves kind of focus separate from each other and when both focus to look like a single circle that's in focus, you're focused.

You can tell you're out of focus when one half of the circle doesn't match the image quality and/or lightness/darkness of the other.


Edit - this site should provide more detail and better answers:

Custom Focusing Screens - KatzEyeOptics.com
08-15-2007, 11:31 AM   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by matiki Quote
Anyone feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it's like the screen on my 35mm yashica...

There's a circular area in the center that is split in two but butted right up against each other (imagine a circle cut in half and reassembled). The two halves kind of focus separate from each other and when both focus to look like a single circle that's in focus, you're focused.

You can tell you're out of focus when one half of the circle doesn't match the image quality and/or lightness/darkness of the other.


Edit - this site should provide more detail and better answers:

Custom Focusing Screens - KatzEyeOptics.com
That sounds pretty good. What about the 'blacking out' that I've heard occurs above a certain aperture... would I be unable to use my viewfinder at, say, f/16? I shoot a lot in low light but I don't want that to be the only thing I can do...
08-15-2007, 11:50 AM   #11
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QuoteOriginally posted by sjl7678 Quote
What about the 'blacking out' that I've heard occurs above a certain aperture... would I be unable to use my viewfinder at, say, f/16? I shoot a lot in low light but I don't want that to be the only thing I can do...
Since focusing (and composing the scene) occurs with the lens wide open, that's all that matters. If you have your 50mm f/1.4 lens mounted, it doesn't matter if you're shooting at f/1.4 or f/16--you're focusing at f/1.4 either way and will be fine.

Blackout tends to be a problem when you have a slow lens, like a f/5.6 telephoto, and add teleconverters, making it an f/8 or f/11 lens wide open.

On the pictures you included:

The drummer picture seems to have a plane of sharp focus that's in front of the head. Look at the shiny rim of the drums. I don't think motion blur is a big problem in this one, because there's not a whole lot of blur in the drumsticks, which presumably were moving quickly (compared to the face). So, yeah, chalk that up to focus error.

In the second one, there's reasonably sharp focus on the girl's ring. I would think the face of the girl nearest the camera would be in about the same plane, suggesting motion blur is the problem, but it's hard to tell.

In the third one, the girl's face looks reasonably sharp. The guy's isn't, but his shirtsleeve is pretty good. Chalk that one up to shallow depth-of-field.

Last edited by mph; 08-15-2007 at 11:56 AM.
08-15-2007, 12:55 PM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by mph Quote
Since focusing (and composing the scene) occurs with the lens wide open, that's all that matters. If you have your 50mm f/1.4 lens mounted, it doesn't matter if you're shooting at f/1.4 or f/16--you're focusing at f/1.4 either way and will be fine.

Blackout tends to be a problem when you have a slow lens, like a f/5.6 telephoto, and add teleconverters, making it an f/8 or f/11 lens wide open.
Ah, that makes much more sense. I'll definitely take a look at getting one of those.

QuoteOriginally posted by mph Quote
On the pictures you included:

The drummer picture seems to have a plane of sharp focus that's in front of the head. Look at the shiny rim of the drums. I don't think motion blur is a big problem in this one, because there's not a whole lot of blur in the drumsticks, which presumably were moving quickly (compared to the face). So, yeah, chalk that up to focus error.
I agree on this one... this is exactly why I'm looking for focusing help.

QuoteOriginally posted by mph Quote
In the second one, there's reasonably sharp focus on the girl's ring. I would think the face of the girl nearest the camera would be in about the same plane, suggesting motion blur is the problem, but it's hard to tell.
Actually her hand is at about a foot further away than her face, so this one is probably a combination of my focusing on the hands instead of one of the faces and motion blur from her moving.

QuoteOriginally posted by mph Quote
In the third one, the girl's face looks reasonably sharp. The guy's isn't, but his shirtsleeve is pretty good. Chalk that one up to shallow depth-of-field.
Yeah, the tiny DoF is posing a challenge. I'd like more DoF but the lights are always so dim I can't seem to afford stopping down to f/2 or f/2.8; even at ISO 3200 I'd lose a ton of detail.


Thanks for the comments; they definitely make sense and give me something to think about and work on!
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