Nikon F3 + Nikkor 50mm/f1.4 Ai-S focus test

A couple of months ago I did something very stupid or, being gentle on myself, something very unwise. I toke a camera which I’ve never used before to a somehow important photo session.

I bought the camera from a friend and, despite being pristine, I like to try my new gear before using it on something important no matter if it is for work or for personal pleasure. The light meter could be off, something could not be working properly, etc…

During the session the F3 felt amazing. So solid, perfect weight, good viewfinder displaying both speed and aperture (sweet!), aperture priority and a top speed of 1/2000, great for using big apertures in daylight with a 400 ISO film. It’s so simple to operate and it really allows me to concentrate only on choosing the right aperture and getting the framing right.

On the other hand it was my first time using a lens that opens at f1.4. I like fast lenses not because they are “fast” but because they allow a much shorter depth of field. To me, on a very personal level, having a lens that opens at f1.4, is not about getting that extra stop in low light. It’s about having the chance of isolating the “subject” even more.

Look at this example. Focus on the lips at f1.4.



Now look at this one. Also at f1.4. Notice that the shot is so “soft” it looks like almost out of focus.
With the lens “fastness” comes a price and the price is softness.


Some shots left me wondering exactly that. I couldn’t even tell if they are in focus or not. I needed to be sure of what to expect from this lens at f1.4. Was the camera focusing right? Are my eyes too tired for manual focus? Was it my plain lack of skill?

There is a simple trick using Photoshop to see if a picture is in focus and finding out exactly what’s in focus.

Please click to see it big.

Screen shot 2014-05-20 at 9.50.34 PM
See how the focused areas pop out? We can even see the decrease of focus on the different parts of the image. Look at it this way:

Screen shot 2014-05-20 at 9.57.03 PM

The lips are not the most “in focus” part of the image. Look how the hair on area 1 pops out. That was my focus distance. I was front focusing and that’s why the tip of Joana’s nose is “more in focus” than the lips, because the tip of the nose is closer to the lens. Than yes, the lips and area 4 seem to have the same level of softness. For last area 5, where focus breaks completely.

Verdict? My fault! Missed focus.

Let’s move on to the other shot and do the same.

Screen shot 2014-05-20 at 10.05.47 PM

Sandra is in focus, overall, but if we look closer we can see that the focus was exactly on her lips. Can you see it? Lower lip and tip of the nose.

Screen shot 2014-05-20 at 10.08.04 PM

It is clearly visible that Sandra’s upper lip and eyes don’t have the same “sharpness” of the lower lip and the nose.

So, this is a simple trick to check focus.

1 – Open you image.
2 – Duplicate the background or layer where the image is.
3 – Go to the menu Filter > Other > High Pass.
These files are about 25MB each and I’ve used a radius of 5 pixels on the filter.

That’s it.

The next examples were all taken at f1.4 and as you can see the camera is focusing right and the lens performs very well wide open. Click to see large.




  1. iamamro said:

    This is great. I have the same camera and lens (they were my mother’s) so I will try this myself. Thank you, once again

    • Oh please do my friend, please do, it’s an amazing combination.

  2. dehk said:

    That was one of my favourite lens, I am sure you’ll get used to it in no time.

    • Visually it feels “round” and “gentle”. I am truly loving this lens.

  3. Don’t be that harsh on yourself! There is always uncertainty with analogue and our models (and anybody who expects results) should be aware of that :))
    You’re a great photographer, right on!

  4. Know what? The last three “examples” are actually some very interesting compositions…

    • Really? I did that just to show the effect of the filter. 🙂
      Thank you Alessandro.

  5. ‘Sharpness” is not necessarily something you want for portraiture. Unfortunately, Photoshop and digital has forced aesthetics that incorrectly suggest that the only good images are those that are “tack sharp”.

    • My limited English skills might have been misleading.

      I understand what you mean Arthur and I agree. What I was trying to find out by doing that experience using a Photoshop trick was if the camera was focusing right.

      I got a lot of out of focus or misplaced focus shots from that session and I thought that maybe it was my eyes, I just started to wear glasses, or something with the camera itself.

      By “sharp” I meant “in focus”.

      I’m a graphic designer and as a client I do get a lot of pictures from professional photographers that no longer are portraits but… digital hybrids. A portrait, a person, a face… is treated the same way as a bottle of wine, a recipe on a plate, a car… images are products. I’m not saying I agree, it is what it is.

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