Pandemic Face Masks Are Really Screwing Up Autofocus

Pandemic Face Masks Are Really Screwing Up Autofocus

With masks required basically everywhere, I’ve been able to get away with small things, such as not shaving as often since no one can see my face. Unfortunately, what makes personal grooming easier makes autofocusing a bit harder as my camera struggles to find a face with a mask on.

Pre-pandemic, I had a choice about camera gear for my photojournalism students. The choice came down more or less to mirrorless or DSLR. I’ve been a DSLR user for more than a decade, and it seemed like an easy choice, but then Canon loaned me an EOS R, and boy, was I hooked. The controls were, to put it nicely, “experimental,” in that they deviated from almost every norm that Canon has established over decades, and the camera itself didn’t have as many touchpoints as this 5D/1D user wanted. What’s up with that weird touch bar in the back, right?

However, the guts of the camera were what really won me over, specifically, its eye-detection autofocus. It sticks like glue, making fiddling with autofocus controls a thing of the past. I’d used eye and face-detection in cameras before, most recently before that in the Fujifilm X-T30. It was okay there, but nothing earth-shattering. I was a bit more disappointed with my next eye-detection encounter in the Fujifilm X-T200. I know it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison with an EOS R, but if a camera claims to have something, it should work. I would go so far as to say that face detection still works better on an EOS R with people wearing masks than the X-T200 without.

When I sat down to really think about it, the set of controls I use the most on my DSLRs is anything involving focus, but what struck me was how little of those controls I had to touch with good, reliable autofocus. But the pandemic has revealed some of the camera’s shortcomings in that area, where committing acts of photojournalism or portraiture are made more difficult when subjects are wearing masks. Whereas the normally reliable eye-detection picks up eyes with surety, masks with any sort of interesting design seem to throw it off quite easily. Masks also confuse the face detection algorithms it seems, since I’d often notice the camera reverting back to “normal” autofocus with several green boxes on the screen highlighting the area of focus with only the occasional face detected.

Certainly, some more detailed, scientific testing would need to be done by camera manufacturers, but autofocus certainly feels thwarted a bit with face masks.

Eye-detection on my EOS R worked inconsistently once a mask was introduced.

Eye-detection on my EOS R worked inconsistently once a mask was introduced.

I’m sure that Canon isn’t the only brand struggling with this issue. I’d imagine that engineers are wringing their hands about what the best way to handle this situation is, after years of training algorithms to recognize unmasked faces, how do you deal with only half of a face? It’s possible that a firmware update could solve these issues, but companies don’t seem to be issuing any that address this yet. The pandemic could be with us for some time to come and face masks for some time after that. It’s certainly worth thinking about.

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32 Comments

Greg Silver's picture

Then take them off!

jacob kerns's picture

Um okay? Remove the mask!

Dorin Calugarean's picture

First world problem.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

It’s silly to shoot people wearing their masks, other than photojournalistic scenarios. Just take it off and keep your distance.

-- Most of the time, the masks don’t even coordinate with the outfits.
-- If you can’t see their face, what’s the point.

With that said, the Eye-AF on my Sony a7iii works with face masks.

Given how good the AF on the Canon R5 (maybe even R6), I wouldn’t be surprised if it works on those also.

Eric Mazzone's picture

It works okay on the R5 when someone is wearing a mask. It may or may not find the eye, but even shooting f/1.2 I was hitting enough shots with good focus on the eyes last week for it to be worth it. More often with the R5 and masks than I got with the R without masks, and far more often than with the 6D without masks.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Yeah, it works, just OK. Without masks, it's like the EOS R never misses, or at least that's been my experience.

Eugen Hoppe's picture

Even my RP have no issues with masks since the eye AF works great!

Timothy Turner's picture

Use the center focus point on the eye the recompose and take your photo.

Carsten Müller's picture

FTW. Is this an issue now. Move your focus point. Use center focus and recompose after focusing or use manual focus instead. If you can't work around this on your own, maybe you should start over and learn how to operate your camera.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

It's a bit of a pain to move the focus point on the EOS R compared to the Canon's with the joystick (5D, R5, etc.). The four-way controller is an OK substitute but just OK, at least to me. (Yes, I know I can use the touch screen but I have a big nose, so I tend to leave it alone).

Eugen Hoppe's picture

If Touch & Drag is on and you touch it with the nose by mistake, simply flip the screen next to the camera. I often move the Focus point with my left hand and hold the camera with the right. for me its perfect

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Hmm, never thought to try this way, but certainly worth a shot! Thanks for the tip.

Kirk Darling's picture

The only difference a mask should make ought to be specifically "face detection." Eye autofocus should work fine. Ordinary contrast or parallax autofocus should work just as well.

If you can focus on anything other than a face (like a vase), you should be able to focus on a face wearing a mask.

This is not a problem.

Eric Mazzone's picture

The eye detection systems require finding the face first, THEN it can find the eyes.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Try manual focus and everything else manual while loading your next film frame. Do I want to read about someone crying about autofocus when the cameras of today are one hundred time easier to use than what we had? nope! Try keep shooting a thousand frames may be, and you should get at least one keeper.
It's not because I am older that I criticize you, it's just about common sense and nothing else. Can you push a nail with a hammer? because as a photographer I use plenty of tools to build sets, work with dry wall, compressor, drill, sander, welder or what ever and no one trained me to improvise. Don't rely on AI for everything because beside your camera your brain is still your best tool as a photographer, so use it.

Timothy Turner's picture

I just looked at your portfolio, your auto racing photos are very cool.

Simon Drew's picture

This used to be a proper photography site...

Stuart Carver's picture

Says the guy with only 1 comment and no photos in his gallery.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I didn't know that you needed to upload a portfolio on this site to have an opinion about the junk articles we keep getting here.

Stuart Carver's picture

I think it gives your opinions more credibility, especially when commenting to call other photographers rubbish etc, not that the comment above did that, but it is definitely a theme across photography social media.

Klaus Noergaard's picture

Unsharp mask!

Michael Krueger's picture

I've photographed festivals and concerts for several years, the EDM crowd likes masks and I've never noticed an issue with my D750 photographing them.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I have a D750 and it's been a favorite camera of mine for years, my workhorse for everything. But the EOS R face/eye detection is something else.

Timothy Turner's picture

I have a friend who is a medical photographer and has been working in the OR for many years, and guess what every one wears on their face in the OR, you guessed it a mask, and his photos are always sharp. If this is all it takes to throw off your game, maybe photography is not the profession for you.

David Henry's picture

It's easy, use single point focus, not the automatic detection routine and focus on an eye.
I've been doing that since 2006, which is to say ever since I've had a camera that does autofocus well (the Nikon F4), it works like a charm and will never be confused by someone wearing a mask.

Jan Holler's picture

You must be kidding!

Stuart Carver's picture

I own a Fuji, according to the Internet they can’t focus anyway, wondered why all my shots were blurry and shit,

Timothy Turner's picture

I feel your pain I use Pentax, once I did a photo shoot with a bunch of roosters " the pictures came out a little COCK EYED. " BADUMBUM BASH!!!

Dan Ostergren's picture

THESE MASKS TERK ER JERRRRBS!!!

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