Would You Use Eye-Controlled Autofocus?

Over two decades ago, Canon introduced a very unique feature in some of their film SLRs: eye-controlled autofocus. Recently, the company filed a patent that shows a similar system being worked on. Is it a feature you would like in your camera?

Coming to you from DP Review, this interesting video takes a look at eye-controlled autofocus in the Canon EOS 3, a film SLR from 1998, and examines the prospect of its use in more modern cameras, as Canon recently filed a patent for a new system using the technology. Of course, it's important to remember that just because a company files a patent, it doesn't mean the product will eventually come to market. Still, as cameras gain more and more autofocus points, something numbering in the high hundreds or even thousands, it can be a bit of a tedious and inefficient process trying to select a focus point. If a camera could follow your eye and use that as a starting point once you pressed the AF-On button, that could be a very useful way to get around the issue. Is it something you would like to see? Check out the video above for more on the topic. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I'm shocked every time a new DSLR comes out and this particular feature hasn't been carried over from the old SLR bodies. I'm not sure why it would be so much more difficult to include the feature in the new generation of cameras. Anyone with a technical answer?

I'd be more inclined to ask why you wouldn't use it.
The answer would probably be boobs though.

I remember as a kid watching a documentary about Tretiak. The Soviets used eye tracking technology to see where he'd look on a two-on-none breakaway. I didn't understand when they mentioned looking at the mini-skirts just making their way into the USSR at the time. I remember my dad just laughing at my confusion.

I think I'd like it. Maybe have it where if I blink twice, it goes into wide-area mode. Then, if I blink twice again, it goes into moveable spot mode. :)

Only if it worked a million times better than how it worked with the EOS-3. I've heard people have more success with cameras like the Elan 7E which only had 7 AF points to choose from, while my EOS-3 has 45 making any kind of precision next to impossible aside from any periphery points or the center point (and even then....). It also would have to work better in terms of tracking your eye while autofocus is engaged: with the EOS-3 at least you can't have the camera in AI-Servo and have it track your eye around the frame, you need to disengage AF, look at a new AF point, then re-engage AF and hope it uses the one you're trying to use. In addition, with my experiences at least, you can't just be glancing at a point: you need to look with uncomfortable intent at the spot you want.

That all said, I'd like to think that 21 years of technology improvements would make it work much better than the 35mm film days so I'd be into trying it again if it came back.

If you're curious about trying the older tech for yourself, I wouldn't recommend springing for an EOS-3. Get an Elan 7E instead: the points will be easier to control and you can find them for much cheaper than the EOS-3.

Mine worked great! Once properly calibrated it rarely missed. I loved it.

I've calibrated mine multiple times and in a variety of conditions as was recommended by the manual. It slowly got better than the initial calibration, but I still never felt that I could really trust it 100% of the time so I generally just keep it off now.

100% this. Between posing our subjects, reframing the shot to avoid obvious distractions, my eye is all over the frame. I count on my AF-ON button to do its job before I take the shot. I can see this feature causing more problems while solving none.

I think when this was in vogue, the heavy users were sports photographers or journalists. Given the speed of how things move in the NFL / NBA and used to move in Beirut or the ZA townships at the time, everything was likely centre frame. If you were looking somewhere else, it was likely with your other eye, watching out for linebackers or something more vicious. I don't think that this feature was meant for carefully composed frames.

I remember the scene from Bang Bang Club where Ken Oosterbroek defends Marinovich's photo of the man set on fire from criticism of its framing with a phrase very similar to "try to keep your eye on your viewfinder when someone is taking swipes at the back of your neck with a machete"

One answer would be to make a half-press of the shutter release a focus point lock.

Exactly. That’s why that idea was mentioned in both the article and the video.

Perhaps a combo of eye tracking and facial focus would make for something pretty perfect. I hate it when face focus overrides my selected focal point and focuses on the wrong subject.

Another thing I would love to see that Canon used to have was the depth of field function... choose your foreground and your background and the camera would selected the proper aperture and focal depth to make sure everything was sharp.

That’s going to be a no for me dawg

I had an EOS-3 when they first came out. It worked well, but needed to be calibrated regularly. I had it at the same time as an EOS-1, which became my prime body at the time. I thought it was a great feature.

Didn't like it in the EOS3 and it irritated my eye. But I would give it another shot.

Most of the time I wouldn't be interested in a tracking implementation. I'm too busy scanning between overall framing, on-screen information, and various image elements. I'm comfortable with a single fixed focus point, reliable AF on that, and the freedom to look wherever.

A precise enough implementation together with an AFP-L button to one-shot it instead of fiddling with a D-pad of touchscreen may be neat though.

Too bad the whole concept is probably encrusted with weird patents to be enforced in a Texas backwater.

I didn't work for me the first time around when I had it on my EOS 3, therefore I am sceptical if it works now.

SLRs sucked at first, too. I have an Exakta from the 1930s. Compared to a Leica from the same era, SLRs really sucked.

But things get better over time.

I loved it in my Eos 3. You had to run the alignment a few times for it to get used to your eye - I think that's what a lot of people didn't understand with that camera. Anyway, I still have it if anyone wants to give it a try :).

I used to shoot weddings with that feature all the time. It was fast and accurate. You want that person? Look at em and bam! In focus!

Since I look all around the frame, I'm not certain how this would work for me.

If it worked well I'd think it would be a no-brainer for some types of photography unless there's a better AF alternative. Imagine taking a picture of an animal that's facing left or right. Assuming you're a normal photographer and want the eye(s) in focus, AF that reliably locks on the eye would be preferable but AF that recognizes whether you're looking at an eye toward the right of the frame or the left of the frame would be far better than having to push multiple buttons to move a single AF point. I'd imagine that focus stacking would also be another place where eye-controlled AF would be helpful, because you'd simply look at successive spots (with a half-press of the shutter release or a full press of a back button) to change your focus distance.

For those who say they look all over the frame I ask what is the AF doing while you compose your shot, and where are you looking when you do your final focus and release the shutter. If eye-controlled AF would cause problems why wouldn't any other method cause the focus to change as you frame the shot?