Manual Focus: Follow or Pre-Focus?

Like the 400mm, my 200mm f/2.0 is a very large-maximum-aperutre lens, and like the 400, I use it wide open. The result is clean backgrounds and fast shutter speeds, with the downside of having razor-thin depth of field.
Like the 400mm, my 200mm f/2.0 is a very large-maximum-aperutre lens, and like the 400, I use it wide open. The result is clean backgrounds and fast shutter speeds, with the downside of having razor-thin depth of field.

I own two genuinely spectacular vintage manual focus Nikon lenses: the 200mm f/2.0 and the 400mm f/3.5. Both are capable of incredible imaging, since both were made during an era of craftsmanship in photographic manufacturing unmatched by any today.

As this player prepares to round his way toward home, I had to follow him with the focus as he ran.
As this player prepares to round his way toward home, I had to follow him with the focus as he ran.

I don’t use these lenses as often as I think I should, and the reason is simple: they don’t have autofocus. I shoot a lot of sports, and autofocus, especially the very precise and fast autofocus in my Nikon D2H cameras, is a problem solver. Select the center sensor as your starting point and bam! Instant focus.

With these two manual focus gems, though, I am the focus mechanism, and I take a little pride in the notion that after 15 years of using autofocus, I can still focus, shoot, and chew gum at the same time.

There are a lot of techniques for managing focus manually, but the main means are follow focus, which, like it sounds, is where you follow the action and focus continually as it moves, and pre-focus, where you try to predict where the action will happen and set your focus to that point.

Both have advantages, and both have drawbacks. If you have a pretty good eye and decent hand-eye coordination, follow-focus keeps pace with what’s happening on the field, whether it’s a runner storming down the baseline in baseball, or a basketball forward driving to the goal.

The author wields his 1980s-era 400mm recently.
The author wields his 1980s-era 400mm recently.

Pre-focus works really well for sports in which players start or stop at a specific location. For example, all batters in baseball start in the batter’s box, and all basketball action ends up in the vicinity of the basket. Pre-focusing on areas like that can produce very impressive results.

A friend of mine in the Houston area sometimes shoot Houston Rockets basketball, and prior to the game he mounts a camera behind the glass of the backboard on the court. He pre-focuses his lens on an area just in front of the edge of the basket, since allowing the autofocus to operate while he is away from his camera would be unreliable. He then shoots with the camera using a remote release.

Most of the time when I pre-focus I remain ready to follow focus. For example: I will be pre-focused on home plate in anticipation of a runner scoring, aware that the throw might get away from the catcher and allow the other runner to take third base.

Like everything else in photography, manual focusing takes a lot of practice. Many younger photographers might think of it as a dead art, but as long as I want to be able to shoot with some of history’s greatest older lenses, I am keeping my skills, and therefore my photos, sharp.

Using my 400mm, I pre-focused on this batter laying down a bunt. You don't have to concentrate on the player moving when you pre-focus, but it limits you to a small zone of sharpness.
Using my 400mm, I pre-focused on this batter laying down a bunt. You don’t have to concentrate on the player moving when you pre-focus, but it limits you to a small zone of sharpness.
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4 Comments

  1. “Many younger photographers might think of it as a dead art”

    I will un-humbly assume I am included in “younger photographers”, if only because I’m relatively new to the photography world.

    A more correct phrase to define our thinking is that it’s a “soon-to-be dead art”.

    More experienced (“older”) photographers constantly quip that it’s a valuable tool; my argument is that it’s becoming less valuable for the average hobbyist — autofocus is getting faster and more accurate, while most new lenses have MF rings that go from infinity to macro in a quarter-turn.

    Also note that the average hobbyist is using a camera with a tiny and dark viewfinder. (Canon Rebels, for example.)

    I had no idea how people were manually focusing with DSLRs until I peered through the viewfinder of a higher-level camera, seeing how bright and large it was…

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  2. Of course, one was made in 1987, while the other was made in 2007 (my sources on this are shoddy, but the dates seem right)…

    That inflation about matches the rise in car prices or gas prices over the same period of time. 😉

    But unlike many newer/younger photographers, I AM willing to admit that I’m unwilling to learn manual focus the way longtime photographers were once required to.

    (My new camera allows 10x zooming while using Live View, as I manually focus the lens. I’m still playing with it…)

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  3. On second (third?) thought, my responses above seem a little instagatory, and for that I apologize. I meant only to throw a little light on how the “other side” (less experienced photographers) views things.

    As for your actual subject: follow focus or pre-focus, I’ll admit to having used the latter method several times. Mostly, this was when using a 2x teleconverter on my 70-200mm lens (the combination didn’t allow autofocus) in baseball and softball games.

    Knowing that the pitcher will release the ball X distance in front of their original stance, I would pre-focus on that spot, timing my shutter release to coincide with their arrival at that location.

    Occasionally, I achieved decent results with this method:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/saintseminole/4718043352/

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