Sony EYE-AF – how to set and use it on your camera


EN follows. RO: Versiunea in limba Romana este aici.

I must admit, the greatest confusion users encounter in Sony’s mirrorless cameras is related to one of the most important and ground breaking features this market has ever seen. We are talking of course about:

Sony’s EYE-AF feature

First of all, what is EYE-AF? The easiest answer is this: when the camera detects a face, if we press the EYE-AF button, then it will focus straight to the closest eye to the camera.

Why would I need EYE-AF and how it helps me?

Same as the above example, where the aperture was wide open to F1.4, it is very important that we focus exactly on the eye when our DOF (depth of field) is shallow, which happens more often when we choose a longer focal length and a fast aperture.

So, when we use a portrait lens, let’s say the classic 85mm f/1.4 (as is the wonderful Sony GM 85mm f/1.4), it’s crucial to focus on our model’s eye. The smaller the distance between the photographer and the model, the shallower our DOF is. We call it “razor blade” DOF. This means little room for error in focusing. The slightest error of focusing can have the tip of the nose in focus or the ear and not what we intended, the eye.

This is where the excellent EYE-AF feature comes in handy. It was introduced with the first Alpha 7 series camera, but it worked only on AF-S mode. It became more and more advanced with every new generation, so good that, on the latest cameras (the Sony A7III, A7RIII and A9) it not only works on AF-C mode and burst shooting, but it gets the eye in focus even if the model wears glasses (normal and sunglasses) or the face is not completely visible, objects gets between the model and the photographer etc., you got the point. Recently, Sony announced that they are working to make it work also on animals, to the delight of wildlife photographers, me included.

Here is an exemple on how useful EYE-AF is and how it works:

Or the below example, an older test of mine when I was comparing the Sony A7R II (first to have EYE-AF with continuous focus) versus the Sony A9, the camera that took the tracking focusing to levels beyond imagination.

Then where is the confusion?

The answer is once again simple. There are two features in Sony’s mirrorless cameras with similar naming:

  • EYE-AF
  • EYE-Start AF

The firs one is revolution, the second is a dinosaur. Why is the second one still present in current cameras it still boggles my mind, the same I cannot explain myself why EYE-Start AF is present in the menus,

Sony A9 – Menu>Camera1>AF2>Eye-Start AF Disabled

while EYE-AF, the most important feature of our recent times, is somewhere hidden in the Custom Buttons settings.

Sony A9 – Menu>Camera2>Custom Operation1>Custom Key(Shoot.)>Page2>Center Button

If we take a look how deep you need to navigate into the menus to define this function, then there’s no question why so many users cry over internet that their cameras cannot focus on the eye, or worse (confusing it with EYE-Start AF), the function is disabled.

What the hell is EYE-Start AF?!

Ok, let me tell you about the elephant dinosaur in the room: EYE-Start AF and why is always mostly inactive/disabled.

First of all I call it dinosaur because it comes as inheritance from the Minolta cameras (company bought by Sony to develop their Digital Imaging range). When it was first introduced, this function was also ground breaking to the industry of that time.

EYE-Start AF is nothing else but a way to move focus point and start auto-focusing by just looking into the optical viewfinder at what part of the scene you want in focus. It monitors photographer’s pupil and where it looks and moves automatically the focus point. Smart, isn’t it?

Still, why is not working on new cameras, why is mostly inactive/disabled and why it’s still in the menu?

If you’re waiting again for a simple answer, well is not that simple 🙂

First of all, this worked because of the way cameras were built: using an optical viewfinder and a mirror, both missing in mirrorless cameras (duh!). Secondly, automatic focusing at those times relied on a few focusing points, not 693 as in the Sony A9. So it wasn’t that difficult to “guess” where the photographer looked into the scene.

Still, how can we make it work on the current mirrorless cameras? Well, if you use both “old” lenses (A mount) coupled with the LA-EA4 adapter. And only with this adapter, not others, because it incorporates it’s own focusing mechanism and a translucent mirror inside (as in the Sony SLT cameras).

This is the only way to get EYE-Start AF function to become active in our menus. But, you’ll lose the incredible focusing capabilities of your camera, because focus will be handled by the adapter, for a function not that useful in current times.

It’s way beyond my understanding why this function is still in the menus (and mostly inactive as we all have discovered). I just hope one day Sony will burry it completely, or at least move it in a “Legacy” called menu.

Now, let’s get back to current EYE-AF!

Let me show you how I customise my cameras to use this function at it’s maximum:

I was telling you in the clip above I’ll give you my reason for using “back button focusing” technique using the AF-On button, while detaching the focus from the shutter button.

Moving to mirrorless from dSLR made me change completely my shooting habits, in a good way. Before the switch I was shooting Single shot (one photo per shutter press), now I shoot bursts (Continuous high for fast paced action, BIF, sports etc. and Continuous low at events and portrait sessions).

Also, before I was shooting AF-S, now I shoot exclusively AF-C to get the most advantages of the fast new generation cameras.

So, using the back button focusing technique using the AF-On buttons, becomes the fastest way to switch from a way to another of focusing type. More precise: as long as you keep the AF-On pressed, you’ve got continuous focusing with subject tracking. You take your finger out of the button, focus freezes on the last focusing point (as in AF-S) and I can always press the shutter button without being afraid it will engage focusing again and ruin my plans.

It’s a technique with not that steep learning curve, but after you master it, it gives you only advantages (and nailed shots in every situation).

As a conclusion

I hope I’ve managed to solve the mystery of EYE-AF feature and make you understand the difference between it and the older EYE-Start AF. If I’ve forgotten anything to cover in this article, please use the comments section to ask your questions and I’ll gladly answer.

I’ll end this with another clip to show you how useful is this eye focusing feature in your camera and how capable it is to focus even when something gets between you and your subject (like a fence, window, net etc.), or when the face is not completely visible, plus lots of other situations like low light. Enjoy!

What I wish Sony will do in the future to solve this misleading and confusing situation between EYE-AF and EYE-Start AF?

First ditch or put EYE-Start AF in a Legacy menu, then bring EYE-AF closer to the user by renaming the Face Detection area in Face and Eye detection and give us an option to automatically enable eye detection, something like this:

Author: Alin Popescu

Inginer ca formare, grafician ca meserie, fotograf ca mod de viata, Alin este pasionat de tot ce inseamna tehnologie si scrie articole detaliate pe intelesul tuturor.

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2 Comments

  1. Ey there! it is the same making videos?

    Post a Reply
    • ON video EYE-AF tracking not working yet. Can’t wait for Sony to make it available too.

      Post a Reply

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