An autofocus (or AF) optical system uses a sensor, a control system and a motor to focus fully automatic or on a manually selected point or area. An electronic rangefinder has a display instead of the motor; the adjustment of the optical system has to be done manually until indication. The methods are named by the used sensor: active, passive and hybrid.
Autofocus systems rely on one or more sensors to determine correct focus. Some AF systems rely on a single sensor, while others use an array of sensors. Most modern SLR cameras use through-the-lens optical AF sensors, with a separate sensor array providing light metering, although the latter can be programmed to prioritize its metering to the same area as one or more of the AF sensors.
Through-the-lens optical autofocusing is now often speedier and more precise than can be achieved manually with an ordinary viewfinder, although more precise manual focus can be achieved with special accessories such as focusing magnifiers. Autofocus accuracy within 1/3 of the depth of field (DOF) at the widest aperture of the lens is not uncommon in professional AF SLR cameras.
Most multi-sensor AF cameras allow manual selection of the active sensor, and many offer automatic selection of the sensor using algorithms which attempt to discern the location of the subject. Some AF cameras are able to detect whether the subject is moving towards or away from the camera, including speed and acceleration data, and keep focus on the subject – a function used mainly in sports and other action photography; on Canon cameras this is known as AI servo, while on Nikon cameras it is known as "Continuous Focus".
The data collected from AF sensors is used to control an electromechanical system that adjusts the focus of the optical system. A variation of autofocus is called an electronic rangefinder, a system in which focus data are provided to the operator, but adjustment of the optical system is still performed manually.
The speed of the AF system is highly dependent on the maximum aperture offered by the lens. F-stops of around f/2 to f/2.8 are generally considered optimal in terms of focusing speed and accuracy. Faster lenses than this (e.g.: f/1.4 or f/1.8) typically have very low depth of field, meaning that it takes longer to achieve correct focus, despite the increased amount of light.
Most consumer camera systems will only autofocus reliably with lenses that have a maximum aperture of at least f/5.6, while professional models can often cope with lenses that have a maximum aperture of f/8, which is particularly useful for lenses used in conjunction with teleconverters.
Between 1960 and 1973, Leitz (Leica) patented an array of autofocus and corresponding sensor technologies. At photokina 1976, Leica had presented a camera based on their previous development, named Correfot, and in 1978 they displayed an SLR camera with fully operational autofocus. The first mass-produced autofocus camera was the Konica C35 AF, a simple point and shoot model released in 1977. The Polaroid SX-70 Sonar OneStep was the first autofocus single-lens reflex camera, released in 1978. The Pentax ME-F, which used focus sensors in the camera body coupled with a motorized lens, became the first autofocus 35 mm SLR in 1981. In 1983 Nikon released the F3AF, their first autofocus camera, which was based on a similar concept to the ME-F. The Minolta Maxxum 7000, released in 1985 and badged Dynax in some markets, was the first SLR with an integrated autofocus system, meaning both the AF sensors and the drive motor were housed in the camera body, as well as an integrated film advance winder — which was to become the standard configuration for SLR cameras from this manufacturer, as it would for Nikon. Canon, however, elected to develop their EOS system with motorised lenses instead. More recently, Nikon have also adopted this strategy with their AF-S range of lenses; their entry-level DSLRs do not have a focus motor in the body.
Active AF systems measure distance to the subject independently of the optical system, and subsequently adjust the optical system for correct focus.
There are various ways to measure distance, including ultrasonic sound waves and infrared light. In the first case, sound waves are emitted from the camera, and by measuring the delay in their reflection, distance to the subject is calculated. Polaroid cameras including the Spectra and SX-70 were known for successfully applying this system. In the latter case, infrared light is usually used to triangulate the distance to the subject. Compact cameras including the Nikon 35TiQD and 28TiQD, the Canon AF35M, and the Contax T2 and T3, as well as early video cameras, used this system.
An exception to the two-step approach is the mechanical autofocus provided in some enlargers, which adjust the lens directly.
Passive AF systems determine correct focus by performing passive analysis of the image that is entering the optical system. They generally do not direct any energy, such as ultrasonic sound or infrared light waves, toward the subject. (However, an autofocus assist beam of usually infrared light is required when there is not enough light to take passive measurements.) Passive autofocusing can be achieved by phase detection or contrast measurement.
Phase detection is achieved by dividing the incoming light into pairs of images and comparing them. SIR TTL passive phase detection (secondary image registration, through the lens) is often used in film and digital SLR cameras. The system uses a beam splitter (implemented as a small semi-transparent area of the main reflex mirror, coupled with a small secondary mirror) to direct light to an AF sensor at the bottom of the camera. Two micro-lenses capture the light rays coming from the opposite sides of the lens and divert it to the AF sensor, creating a simple rangefinder with a base within the lens's diameter. The two images are then analysed for similar light intensity patterns (peaks and valleys) and the separation error is calculated in order to find if the object is in front focus or back focus position. This instantly gives the exact direction of focusing and amount of focus ring's movement. 
Although AF sensors are typically one-dimensional photosensitive strips (only a few pixels high and a few dozen wide), some modern cameras (Canon EOS-1V, Canon EOS-1D, Nikon D2X) feature Area SIR sensors that are rectangular in shape and provide two-dimensional intensity patterns for a finer-grain analysis. Cross-type (CT) focus points have a pair of sensors oriented at 90° to one another, although one sensor typically requires a larger aperture to operate than the other. Some cameras (Canon EOS-1V, Canon EOS-1D, Canon EOS 30D/40D) also have a few 'high precision' focus points with an additional set of prisms and sensors; they are only active with 'fast lenses' of certain focal ratio. Extended precision comes from the increased diameter of such lenses, so the base of the 'range finder' can be wider.
Contrast measurement is achieved by measuring contrast within a sensor field, through the lens. The intensity difference between adjacent pixels of the sensor naturally increases with correct image focus. The optical system can thereby be adjusted until the maximum contrast is detected. In this method, AF does not involve actual distance measurement at all and is generally slower than phase detection systems, especially when operating under dim light. Furthermore, as the autofocus system does not calculate whether the subject is in front focus or back focus, focus tracking is not feasible. As it does not use a separate sensor, however, contrast-detect autofocus can be more flexible (as it is implemented in software) and potentially more accurate. This is a common method in video cameras and consumer-level digital cameras that lack shutters and reflex mirrors. Most DSLRs use this method (or a hybrid of both contrast and phase detection autofocus) when focusing in their live-view modes. Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras, including Micro Four Thirds, exclusively use contrast measurement autofocus except the new Nikon 1 series. Their manufacturers claim performance comparable or even faster than phase detection systems , though it is unclear under what conditions (e.g., dim light) these claims hold true.
Technically it can be implemented as high pass filter and some system which conscientiously moves lens around the point where filter output is highest. Digital processing is not required. Photo cameras sweep only once before taking picture, while video cameras need to sweep continuously in small steps that are almost unnoticeable. This method can also be used to precisely focus security cameras, without seeing actual image.
The assist lamp "activates" passive autofocus systems in low-light situations in some cameras (Nikon). The lamp projects a regular pattern of visible or IR light onto the subject, which the camera's autofocus system uses to achieve focus. Many cameras that do not have a dedicated autofocus assist lamp instead use their built-in flash, illuminating the subject with stroboscopic bursts of light. The strobe bursts aid the autofocus system in the same fashion as a dedicated assist light, but have the disadvantage of startling or annoying living subjects. Another disadvantage is that if the camera uses flash focus assist and is set to an operation mode that overrides the flash, it may also disable the focus assist and autofocus may fail to acquire the subject. Similar stroboscopic flashing is sometime used to reduce the red-eye effect, but this method is only intended to constrict the subject's eye pupils prior to the actual shot being taken, and thus reduce retinal reflections.
In some cases, external flash guns have integrated autofocus assist lamps that replace the stroboscopic on-camera flash. Another way to assist contrast based AF systems in low light is to beam a laser pattern on to the subject. The laser method is commercially called Hologram AF Laser and was used in Sony Cybershot cameras around the year 2003, including Sony's F707, F717 and F828 models.
Autofocus is achieved by combining minimum 2 methods at one time:
- Active and passive methods.
- Phase detection and contrast measurement.
The double effort is typically used to speed-up and improve AF function. In July, 2010, Fujifilm announced a compact camera, the F300EXR, which included a hybrid autofocus system consisting of both phase detection and contrast-based elements. The sensors implementing the phase detection AF in this camera are integrated into the camera's Super CCD EXR.
Comparison of active and passive systems
Active systems will typically not focus through windows, since sound waves and infrared light are reflected by the glass. With passive systems this will generally not be a problem, unless the window is stained. Accuracy of active autofocus systems is often considerably less than that of passive systems.
Active systems may also fail to focus a subject that is very close to the camera (e.g., macro photography).
Passive systems may not find focus when the contrast is low, notably on large single-coloured surfaces (walls, blue sky, etc.) or in low-light conditions. Passive systems are dependent on a certain degree of illumination to the subject (whether natural or otherwise), while active systems may focus correctly even in total darkness when necessary. Some cameras and external flash units have a special low-level illumination mode (usually orange/red light) which can be activated during auto-focus operation to allow the camera to focus.
A method variously referred to as trap focus, focus trap, or catch-in-focus uses autofocus to take a shot when a subject moves into the focal plane (at the relevant focal point); this can be used to get a focused shot of a rapidly moving object, particularly in sports or wildlife photography, or alternatively to set a "trap" so that a shot can automatically be taken without a person present. This is done by using AF to detect but not set focus – using manual focus to set focus (or switching to manual after focus has been set) but then using focus priority to detect focus and only release the shutter when an object is in focus. The technique works by choosing the focus adjustment (turning AF off), then setting the shooting mode to "Single" (AF-S), or more specifically focus priority, then depressing the shutter – when the subject moves into focus, the AF detects this (though it does not change the focus), and a shot is taken.
Trap focus is possible on some Pentax, Nikon, and Canon EOS cameras. The EOS 1D can do it using software on an attached computer, whereas cameras like the EOS 40D and 7D have a custom function (III-1 and III-4 respectively) which can stop the camera trying to focus after it fails. On EOS cameras without genuine trap focus, a hack called "almost trap focus" can be used, which achieves some of the effects of trap focus.
AI servo is an auto focus mode found on Canon SLR cameras, although the same principle is used with Nikon cameras, known as "Continuous Focus". Also referred to as focus tracking, it is used to track a subject as it moves around the frame, or toward and away from the camera. When in use, the lens will constantly maintain its focus on the subject, hence it is commonly used for sports and action photography. AI refers to artificial intelligence: algorithms that constantly predict where a subject is about to be based on its speed and acceleration data from the autofocus sensor.
- Fixed focus
- Circular polarizer, the only polarizer to work with some SLR autofocusers
- List of Nikon compatible lenses with integrated autofocus-motor
- Plenoptic camera, a camera that enables focusing in a postprocessing step
- ^ Nikon Technology Predictive Focus Tracking System
- ^ Olympus® Launches the PEN® E-P3: Are You PEN Ready?, Olympus
- ^ The World's Fastest Level of Light Speed AF, Panasonic
- ^ Fujifilm Launches Powerhouse 15X Long Zoom Point and shoot Digital Camera: The FinePix F300EXR, Fujifilm, USA
- ^ Trap Focus for Nikon Users, by Kenneth William Caleno, January 28, 2009
- ^ How to shoot sport, Ken Rockwell, 2006
- ^ Focus Trap or Catch In Focus, April 4, 2009
- ^ EOS Documentation Project: Almost Trap Focus, by Julian Loke
- ^ AF Servo: Camera System: Glossary: Learn: Digital Photography Review
- Norman Goldberg. Camera Technology : The Dark Side of the Lens
- Sidney Ray. Applied Photographic Optics
- Ralph Jacobson, Sidney Ray, Geoffrey G Attridge, Norman Axford. Manual of Photography: Photographic and Digital Imaging
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