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Face-Detect Autofocus: For the Road

Generally my idea of a relaxation centers around staying home and passing time by working on photographs, watching TV and cooking. I'm a homebody, a proud homebody. I'm also a mamma's boy, what the Italians call a mammone, but I digress.

I'm usually quite happy with a trip once it's over in spite of all my pre-trip complaining. After the bags are all unpacked, the first thing I like to do is upload my photos. Although I do try to take some arty photos when traveling, I limit myself so that I can enjoy being a tourist. If I want to do a photo expedition, that's fine. But a regular trip, in my opinion, should not also morph into a photo expedition. For that reason, I often zoom by my photos of monuments from dutch angles and spend time looking at photos of myself with the group I traveled with.

These photos often suffer the same fatal condition--the people I find to take pictures of me and my companions miss focus at an alarming rate. Take a look:

In both cases, I approached a fellow tourist toting a serious camera. At the top of St. Paul's cathedral in London, I felt relief that the person next to me was carrying a Canon 5D Mark III with a 24-105 L lens on the front. My thought was, if you can handle your 5D, you can point my Fuji X-E1 (already set to auto-everything) and will make sure we're in focus. I asked this man, who happened to be a Canadian, to take our picture, and he obliged. We had to keep moving, so we said a quick good bye. The clear London skyline framed by four blurry faces. I cringed thinking of how happy I was to ask this individual to take our picture.

This is where face (and eye) detect autofocus steps in. This feature is becoming the market standard in the photography industry. Sony's Real Time system has really impressed me when I've used it on a Sony RX100 mark VII. But the system doesn't even need to be that good. The face (and eye) detect system on my Fuji X-T3--I've kept the firmware up to date--certainly works. I've asked other people to take my picture with both of those cameras and been happy with the results.

You may know every nook and cranny of your camera's menu system. You may have dialed in all your settings down to the color and direction of your focus peaking. But when you're a tourist, you will be in situations where somebody else will choose the decisive moment. That random person won't be heavily invested in what your picture looks like and will probably assume that all they need to do is push click. Face (and eye) detect autofocus is a system that fits that situation. You and your smiling friends stand a better chance of ending up in focus if face detect auto focus is on your camera and turned on.

You may be thinking--well, I can just check the back screen and ask them to take another picture if focus was missed. In my experience, the back screen is too small to check focus with any accuracy. Plus, it's often awkward and I think inappropriate to hound the same person for another picture. Moreover, I never want to get in the way of my group's plans by staging a prolonged photo shoot interrupted by my criticisms of a stranger who was willing to do me a favor.

Often lists of best travel cameras discuss lens length and maximum aperture. In my experience, the travel pictures I care about most are group portraits taken during the day from relatively close distances. In these situations, the lens can be quite short and there's usually enough light for the pictures to be taken at f/8. For that reason, the focusing system becomes the most important feature for a happy outcome.

Many of today's manufacturers make cameras with good face and eye-detect autofocus systems. My recommendation is this--if you're about to take a family-or-friends trip, make sure your camera has a respectable face-detect autofocus feature and turn it on before you step out the door. That way, you can be less concerned about blurry faces ending up in your slideshows.

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