Triggertrap Mobile 2.0: Manual Focus only


Cover photo by Martin Sanderson.

If you've had a chance to play with our shiny new Triggertrap Mobile 2.0 Beta for Android, as soon as you've managed to collect yourself from the gasping awe of how gorgeous it is, you'll have noticed a pretty significant shift in how we do things: It requires your camera to be in manual focus. The same is going to be true for Triggertrap Mobile 2.0 when it launches in the near future. There are a few reasons for why we decided to stop supporting automatic focus, but the biggest reason is that auto focus never really made sense in the first place.

Think about it: When you're taking photos with Triggertrap Mobile, part of the point is that you're away from your camera, and you're leaving it to do the hard work.

Over the years of working with automatic triggering, I realised a few things about automatic focus...

Autofocus causes blurry photos

When you are doing automatic triggering, you’ll probably not be there to check whether your camera’s auto-focus is correct. That means you may come back to a memory card full of blurry photos, if it turns out that your auto-focus was struggling. And, with the ghost of Murphy hanging over us, trust me when I say this: Your autofocus will struggle at the least convenient times.

It's a basic idea, really: If you can't measure something as you go along, measure it at the beginning of the process, and then don't change it later. So that's what we did.

Autofocus is a crappy compromise

In shots like this, the autofocus is going to be really tempted to focus on the bits you don't want.
In shots like this, the autofocus is going to be really tempted to focus on the bits you don't want.

To allow for the auto-focus to do its thing, we have to delay the shutter triggering.

The problem is that the camera doesn't report back when it has successfully focused, so we have to pre-select the duration of the focusing signal.

For some set-ups (high contrast scene with loads of light and a great camera lens), 0.2 seconds is plenty. For other scenes (low contrast scene with low light and poor lens on a body with poor autofocus feature), 2 seconds wouldn't be enough. In other scenes again

Basically, offering automatic focus is a horrible compromise, because nobody gets exactly what they want. Or, put differently: with autofocus, everybodyloses.

"Fixing" the compromise causes problems

This settings screen has been known to make grown men cry.
This settings screen has been known to make grown men cry.

The final thing we realised, is that in trying to 'solve' the above compromise of long-versus-short-focus-duration, we had created a monster.

When we first created our Outputs settings screen, we wanted to create the most flexible, most powerful triggering app in the world, but it turns out we misjudged our audience, and that a lot of our customers are actively scared of our 'outputs' settings screen. In fact, most of you decided to stick to the presets we had created, and ended up avoiding the Outputs screen altogether.

Half a million app downloads later, and we had to stop lying to ourselves: Our customers aren't just hard-core photography nerds like us. Yes, there are photographic übergeeks among you, but the vast majority of you are passionate amateurs who really want to try timelapse and sensor-based photography, and you who really don't give two flying monkeys about the fine differences between a "Trigger Pulse Length" and a "Delay after Trigger".

So, we took a leaf out of Jonathan Ive's book, and decided to simplify, simplify, simplify.

With automatic triggering, you generally know where your subject is going to be, so relying on automatic focus is a bad idea... If you want something done properly, you've got to do it yourself, after all!
With automatic triggering, you generally know where your subject is going to be, so relying on automatic focus is a bad idea... If you want something done properly, you've got to do it yourself, after all!

What are the advantages of Manual Focus, then?

Aaaah. That's better.
Aaaah. That's better.

There are many. Here's some of them:

  • We are able to trigger the camera after 15-30 milliseconds, instead having to wait around for 1,000 milliseconds whilst the focus is doing its thing
  • It takes a lot of the guesswork out of automated triggering. Once you've got your set-up sorted, you get consistently well-focused photos.
  • Focusing manually is a dying artform, perhaps, but with the advent of Live View, getting the focus 100% perfect is achievable (even if your eyesight isn't what it used to be) -- and chances are you'll be able to do a better job than your autofocus can.

But... I don't know how!

Ah! Well, that one is easy to fix - Digital Camera World has a great introduction to manually focusing your camera.

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