Help me fix my portraits

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Pint of Brew New Member • Posts: 14
Help me fix my portraits

Hi all, short summary: I think I'm getting an unreasonably low hit-rate for correct focus on my portraits of young children & toddlers. I'm here to ask for help. Long-winded details below.

The birth of my first son in 2018 convinced me to get back into photography after a long hiatus, having left when digital became meaningful mid-90s. I did my reading, and settled on an E-M10.iii. A 45mm f1.8 was quickly added, and my keen father was happy to take both (and a 12-40mm f2.8 of his own) off my hands to help finance a used PEN-F. My glass collection grew by several, but by a long shot my main lens is a 17mm f1.8, and  tied-for-second-place position the 45mm f1.8 and 30mm f3.5 macro.

My subject is overwhelmingly my two children, currently 3 and 1.5, and most of my pictures are environmental portraits at a fairly short distance. I quickly worked out which settings worked best for me:

  • shutter priority, depending on how animated they are, between 1/160 and 1/250
  • either auto WB or bright sunlight (6500K?)
  • JPEG L-SF natural colours
  • no messing about with gradation, curves, tone, contrast, and other malarkey
  • Noise filter OFF, Jesus what a mess that thing is.
  • ESP metering (remember when back in the good-old days of OM40 it was called "Electro-Selective Pattern"?)
  • S-AF with face detect i, and middle cluster
  • IS to Auto

A couple of years into this, and my focus hit rate wasn't the best. I assumed this was just (1) how shooting kids just is (2) as good as it gets with the contrast AF of PEN-F. A great deal on an E-M5.iii saw me swap to that body, and ebay the PEN-F for slightly more than I bought it used. Surely, the new and improved PDAF would improve things?

Well, I think the hit rate went up, though it's hard to tell because in the few weeks I've had it, I also messed about with CL 5fps and C-AF, C-AF/TR, single shot C-AF, 5-point cluster, 9-point cluster... Also because I keep fiddling with settings and retrying, my kids start to become evasive, or more animated, and I'm no longer "ambushing" them with the cam, so they try and dodge me and present odd angles, or whip their heads around or charge me or whatever other shenanigan which causes much more reasonably lost focus.

I'm fairly confident it's bad focus that's costing me images, as most of the time eyes and central face will be slightly soft, but in for example the fall-out zone, the facial hair on the temple is razor sharp, or the fringe of hair on the front and the tip of the nose or the fabric of the bib is sharp. It can't be high ISO noise (even in daylight, with 1/250 some times I end up with 2000 ISO) and it doesn't look like hand shake or subject movement (blurriness is blooming, not moving).

A friend came over recently and lent me his Fujifilm X100V. I left it on zone focus with face detect, shutter prio 1/250, and the hit rate was amazing. Embarassing even. Now this isn't a "help convince me to swap systems because camera X is better than Y" point, but it made it clear to me that the hit-rate I had come to consider good, was not.

Of course, words mean nothing because what I call Sharp you might call Sloppy, and what I call "bad hit rate" you might call "actually pretty good, toddlers are a nightmare", so let me put my money where my mouth is and share some examples for you to contextualise.

To reiterate and be clear: I am not interested in discussing framing, WB, colours, or anything else that does not improve image sharpness (which I believe is failing from missed focus, but I'm happy for you to convince me otherwise).

Here are some examples of what I think is good sharpness:

This is one of my best portraits, if only the diner behind was not wearing a white shirt...

What a life, eh?

All well so far, eyelashes are clearly visible, skin shows texture, and even follicles in some cases, all lovely images at near max aperture. But well over half of my pictures are just slightly missed like these:

I'm tempted to say lack of sharpness is because of the 1250 ISO but in truth, the shirt just under his chin is a lot sharper than his face, so my only possible verdict is either his face was moving too fast for the 1/160 speed (and I'd expect the top to be more blurry than the chin, which it is not), or the cam just missed the focal plane.

I don't think anyone can argue this isn't missed focus; the shirt on the right shoulder is impeccable. The face is mush...

C-AF badly let me down here, 1/200, 800 ISO

Perfect example; subject moving slowly, S-AF & face detect, 1/250, 800 ISO... Hair in front of the ear? Sharp as a razor blade... Face? Mush.

This one is just a mystery to me... 1/200 and he's basically standing still staring at me, 500 ISO, eyes are still blurry ... Am I being unreasonable? Doesn't the bib look sharper than the face, or am I misinterpreting higher contrast in the fabric for sharpness?

This is ISO 400 and f1.8, is it actually in focus, and I've just got unreasonable sharpness expectations from such a tight crop at this sensitivity?

And perhaps more helpfully, here's two shots back to back with the same exact settings, first one pin-sharp, second one not so (though admittedly it's still pretty crisp). I mean, in isolation, the second image obviously isn't bad, but when I've seen gems like the first one, I can't help wishing I could nail that much precision every time...

Why can't they all be this good? Probably need more cocopops on the TG-5 is my guess....

Zoom in and you'll see the face is not as sharp. Still one for our Christmas cards...

My last bastion of trouble shooting is to take off face detection. Judging by the green squares, it always sees where it should be and nails it. Looking at the pics before sharing on media for grandparents & family though disappoints about half the time. What are your thoughts? Am I just paranoid?

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Olympus OM-D E-M10 Olympus PEN-F Olympus TG-5
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