The dawn of autofocus was not with the SLR . . .

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by jay_hector, Sep 15, 2010.

  1. Rather, the introduction of the Canon Sure Shot back in 1982 (I say 1982 as that's when I got one IIRC, but it might have been early 1983) was the first general use of AF by sports photojournalists, at least in the world of Formula 1 and auto racing. I say this as a lifetime Nikon user, but Canon was first and the Sure Shot is the only Canon I've ever owned (and still own it).
    My comments here are prompted by this PN thread . . .

    And some of the comments from the thread such as . . .
    " 90% of what I shoot is sports so AF is a must."
    "JDM: The market has changed. Not the just the equipment market, but the expectations of the photo-buying market. Yes, people (including me!) used to get by fine - by different market standards - with gear that couldn't focus in the dark, track sprinting receivers, and shoot at 10fps. But people were also a lot more resigned to having less to pick from, results-wise. I sell photos to people who - just in the last few years - clearly have a very different sense of what's possible and what they should be able to expect when it comes to action shots. Not all of 'em. But enough of 'em. And they're frequently the ones with the more disposable income to spend on such. I only mention this because I get referrals from people who've seen the results I got for someone else, and want the same. It takes these tools to reliably produce them."
    "The standards for sports photography was greated raised when AF became popular 20 years ago, and that was precisely why Nikon lost its market leadership to Canon at that time. The standard was seriously raised again when digital became the norm since the high film and processing cost is now gone."
    "Yes, it used to be done like that. Try capturing both a quarterback throwing a football to a wide receiver at ground level. You could probably get maybe 60% in focus at f2.8 but that would be about it.
    I'd laugh if I saw a photographer at one of my sporting events shooting film because they used to make a living doing it that way then."
    I think Henry Posner's comment captures the truth best . . .
    "Maybe this is semantics, but IMO the expectations for sports photography was raised when AF became popular 20 years ago. The standards remain the same. As a pro part of my job is to set expectations. YMMV. My personal opinion."
    In my opinion the only expectation raised was that the use of an AF SLR/DSLR and AF lens allowed anyone with minimal effort to get a good looking grab shot and not a great image. A sharp, well exposed autofocus shot at 10fps does not a great image make, as your soccer mom can do this now with the right gear (and many do have the right gear nowadays).
    I've excerpted this interview (part of the interview) from 1983 with William Motta, who was art director at Road & Track from the '50s to the '90s, as his comments then about the new autofocus gear are still appropriate today. I was a contributor to R&T in those days and some of his comments refer to me (not by name), such as the comment about "overlooking the broad photo of a place like Austria" which was referring to my shot from Austria that must have been sitting on his desk at the time. I, like Henry, had to set the expectations. Bill would take art shots and use them in a journalistic setting, which paid off for me and R&T. I've put a few links after the interview that you might like to see with some examples from R&T.
    The interview is one of many with photogs and editors from the museum exhibit, "Passion and Precision: The Photographer and Grand Prix Racing 1894-1984" . . .
    D.K. I would like to talk about making pictures of racing. As art editor of Road and Track do you have any idea how many pictures of racing cars you look at in a year?

    W.M. Hmmm. Good question. We probably get a minimum of 100 shots, probably more like 300, or 300 from about five or six photographers: David Phipps, Geoff Goddard, now John Blakemore, Nigel Snowdon, Jeff Hutchinson, various people. So you can say we probably get at least 1,000 photographs from each Formula One race. When you multiply that by the number of races in the schedule.

    D.K. When I first talked with you, you had several feet of slide sheets on your desk from Long Beach.

    WM. Yes, Long Beach. Because a lot of local photographers are involved and send their stuff. It is easy to get two or three feet-15,18,20 thousand photos.

    D.K. And you can basically print about six pictures?

    WM. Yes, five or six photos are what you are dealing with. What happens then, unfortunately, is you start culling very savagely. Computer photographs, the laser things, are beautiful, but you can't use them much. Any kind of trick is good once, and then it is passe. What makes one photograph better than another, that is a really tough deal. You look at 15,000 photos from Long Beach, and if you are lucky a half-dozen shots stand out from the others. Those that say something journalistically about the race — more than just aiming and pointing a camera. Another significant thing is what the autofocus cameras are going to do to this whole business. They are terrifically competent. The Canon Sure Shot and the Nikon Autofocus, everybody has one. It takes just as sharp a photo in the pits as the regular Nikons or Canons. It allows you to get a grab shot that you couldn't get if you had to focus in a short time. It's not like walking up to a driver and sticking a big strobe light in his face, firing it off, and having the guy blind for the next 30 seconds. Doing that is rude and stupid, and hurts everybody. It's a problem of intrusion into the driver's concentration. A little flash like the autofocus is small enough that it lights up the inside of the helmet, gets sparkle in the driver's eyes. It allows you to get an impromptu shot that can be good. Technology is going to change the way we look at Formula One racing photos and what we perceive as good.

    D.K. I guess part of the definition of being a good photographer is the consistency and the ability to deal with a lot of situations?

    W.M. But how do we relate to this guy who is lucky in the new age of equipment that has made him a good photographer? How do you avoid getting a photo that is the same as they are getting? That's tough.

    D.K. There is a certain ability of problem solving that the top-level photographers have.

    W.M. But there are so few that do more than just document what is going on in front of them. Very few put their own personality in the photos. Guys like Klemantaski did unusual, dramatic photography because they were prepared. They knew the races, they knew the track, they knew the drivers. They anticipated what might happen. The one image that made Klemantaski important, or others in that period, wasn't that they had to have 300 photos from the race. Maybe they had two dozen, maybe less, but every one of these was carefully planned and executed.

    D.K. You bring up a process that I think is fascinating. It is the combination of logic and intuition, and how photographers use that. The problem we discussed with those autofocus cameras: Is it almost entirely intuition?

    W.M. It's luck. There is a certain amount of intuition, but to get a photograph that is important, you have to know the drivers, know who is doing what in qualifying. It has to be a piece of journalism. Blakemore, Snowdon and the rest of them out there getting their photos printed, are the guys who have done their homework. They know which drivers are in contention, where to be in the pits, who possibly could win the race and where to be in case he is coming close to the end of the race. He knows the potentials of the cars and the drivers in those situations. He anticipates and is right there with the right equipment to do it, with autofocus or not. What we are seeing are fewer and fewer outstanding photographs, at least in Grand Prix racing, because the driver is becoming less and less seen. You may have noticed that very few drivers even have their names on the cars. You have to keep track of the numbers on the helmets.

    D.K. The color of the helmet?

    W.M. Yes. And sometimes even that isn't relevant. The helmets are no longer distinctive. Time was when you knew Graham Hill's helmet, knew Stewart's and Clark's, even Gurney with a plain dark helmet. Everybody's helmet was'important. 'Now, it's amazing, almost as if they don't want to be known or develop personalities.

    D.K. Talking about lack of color and personality, with Lauda as the exception....

    W.M. I think that's true. Who else can you name now that has the kind of color and did the outrageous things that Innes Ireland and Moss would do? They were really crazy when they got away from the race track. Now drivers get into their executive jets and fly off to the next race. You don't know anything about their private lives, their families. They just don't do the colorful things that I suppose we'd like to see our heroes do.

    D.K. As an editor, given unmarked slides, could you tell whose photographs you were looking at?

    W.M. That is getting harder to do. What we are doing at Road and Track is trying to back away from the cars a little more. We spent the last year or two getting all these images of the technological advancement of cars, sort of overlooking the broad photo of a place like Austria, or whatever. We are discovering that we need to get back to that and show what the place is like.

    D.K. That is one of the attractions of road racing, that it is essentially a landscape art, whether in the city or countryside. You take photos yourself?

    W.M. Yes. Probably shot as many covers for the magazine as anybody.

    D.K. What are your motivations behind your work? Both photo and painting?

    W.M. I enter the subject at various levels. I want to historically preserve some of the images for the library, for reference later. Try to anticipate things that are going to be journalistically interesting for the story. Third, to get things that I can use as a reference for paintings. The photographer is being pressured to deliver and make a living. They are trying to tell a story with their photographs, so they can sell them. I don't think many of them think as artists in negative space. But for the Klemantaskis and Weitmanns, that was part of the discipline of taking photographs, thinking about where those elements are in relation to this format, on that ground glass.

    D.K. And it changes in a millisecond!"
    The links are to my lucky Long Beach shot that first got me published in R&T, the forward of Passion and Precision, the original layout and resulting Best Sports Stories 1983 winning photo that Bill earned for me, and the layout of the Austria shot from R&T that Bill referred to.
  2. stemked

    stemked Moderator

    Sorry I didn't read the whole post. Anyway Pentax put its first autofocus body out in 1981, the ME-F, I think Olympus may have had a SLR body out around the same time. I think that pre-dates the camera you are talking about. Anyway the info is here:
  3. stemked

    stemked Moderator

    Looks like I'm wrong too. While Pentax apparently made the first autofocus SLR, Leitz (Leica) and even Konica had autofocus cameras that pre-dated them. There's a whole wiki on it you can look into.
  4. The first autofocus camera was the Konica C35AF, 1977:

    Autofocus system licensed from Honeywell.

  5. What I said was, "The introduction of the Canon Sure Shot back in 1982 (I say 1982 as that's when I got one IIRC, but it might have been early 1983) was the first general use of AF by sports photojournalists, at least in the world of Formula 1 and auto racing."
    I didn't say that was the first AF camera, but the first to come into general use by professional sports photojournalists (and since I was shooting F1 I specified so). My other point was that AF didn't raise the bar at the top of sports shooters in the long run, but rather the bottom rung was elevated. AF did not raise the quality of images from the top shooters then, and AF/AE/10fps are not necessary to do top quality sports photography today either. As Bill Motta said in the interview posted, AF in the long run would make it easier for average shooters to produce better photos because of the technology. Henry Posner in the PN thread linked seems to be one of the few to understand this.
  6. How about the ubiquitous, old school box camera? Which of course had "no" focus.
  7. Marc, I didn't know about the Konica from 1977. Interesting.
    I had always assumed the first autofocus was Polaroid's -- their SX-70 Sonar OneStep, introduced in 1978. Interestingly, the SX-70 line was probably the first production instant SLR with a folding body. (I'm just parroting from this web page. I don't really know much about the SLR aspect of this camera.)
    The ultrasonic autofocus was a pretty cool item. It used a sonar ranging apparatus and could focus in the dark. (Try THAT with your sissy fast primes on your 1-series bodies!) The assumption, of course, was that the correct focus point was the closest point in the frame. The camera would emit an ultrasonic signal, listen for its return, compute distance according to the time lag, and focus accordingly.
    Although that model of camera was supposedly fairly expensive (can't remember -- wasn't in the market), the sonar unit was actually fairly cheap. We would buy them in the early 80's and cannibalize them for the ultrasonic transducers ("speakers"). These transducers were perfect for reproduction of bat vocalizations in the 120 kHz range. They were built like condenser mics, though, and had to be fed a 50V bias voltage.
    I'm not a Polaroid officionado, but I have to say there's a lot of really innovative stuff attributable to Mr. Land and his company. :)
  8. Here's another link that explains how this system works. It's actually very clever, and the correct focus would be achieved much faster than anything we have today.
  9. Right you are Sarah... I have one of those, too:


    Jay: You've made your case wrt sports, but I just wanted to make sure the more general historical record was clear.

  10. Marc, thanks for posting the link. The video at the bottom of the page is delightful.
  11. Re the SX-70 camera. Just out of curiosity: Could a battery film pack be replicated in order to make the camera functional again?

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