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.
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.