Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.
This is a continuation of the discussion on focus started in Part 7. In that post I concentrated on various features cameras may have related to focusing, especially when it comes to autofocus. In this post we’ll talk about how to put some of that information into practical use.
You may also want to refer to the post on depth of field if you’re not already familiar with the cincept.
Sharp Focus Attracts the Eye
A basic principle of creating images is that whatever is most sharply in focus in a photo will quickly attract the viewer’s eye.
The human eye is naturally drawn to certain things, and that tendency is magnified when looking at a photo. When you read or watch videos about composition you learn how you can use leading lines to direct the viewer’s gaze, or how bright spots and vivid colors can distract from the intended subject. We’re also immediately drawn to faces.
Knowing these tendencies helps in making decisions about focus. Being thoughtful and deliberate about focus helps assure that someone viewing your photo sees what you want them to see.
Focus and Recompose
One of the primary techniques for making sure a subject is sharply in focus is called Focus and Recompose. This is allows you to both accurately focus and create a pleasing composition while using the center AF point.
In the previous post I mentioned that the center AF point is usually the most accurate, along with being the default position when a single point is used. But much of the time, in order to create a more dynamic composition, your subject won’t be in the exact center of the frame.
So the trick is to put the center AF point over your subject and half-press the shutter button to achieve focus on your subject. Once the green box lights up to tell you the lens achieved focus, keep the shutter button half-pressed and move your camera until the composition you desire is framed, and then take the photo.
As long as you keep the shutter button half-pressed once achieving focus, focus is locked. It won’t change even though your center AF point is no longer on your subject.
The benefit of Focus and Recompose is that it’s quick and easy. You save a step by not having to reposition the AF point within the frame before focusing and shooting. If you are at a location taking a lot of different types of photos while hand holding the camera it’s a fluid focusing method.
Like any skill, you need to practice this a bit if you haven’t done it before. But you might be surprised at how quickly it becomes second nature and you no longer need to think about what you’re doing.
Manually Selecting an AF Point
Many cameras offer the ability to manually select an AF (autofocus) point other than the center point. There are three methods for doing this, though some cameras offer only the first one.
The first is by activating the AF point display on your camera’s screen or viewfinder, and then using the 4-way buttons on the camera back to move the active AF point around the frame. (The active AF point is usually indicated by a colored box around it.)
The second method of moving the AF point around is by using a joystick on the camera back. Though it’s called a joystick, it’s often just a small button for your thumb to maneuver. Joysticks are usually only included on very expensive cameras. Some mirrorless ILCs have them, and many DSLRs do.
The third method is with a touch screen. (See below.)
No matter how you move the AF point, the principle is same as Focus and Recompose. Your subject isn’t in the center of the frame and you want to make sure your subject is sharply in focus. But in this case, instead of moving the camera, you move the AF point to cover your subject.
This method of autofocusing is especially useful when shooting several exposures on a tripod. Since nothing is moving, you can set your AF point to the appropriate spot in your composition once, and then not have to think about it again until you change the composition or move your tripod.
While shooting on a tripod is the most obvious situation, many photographers use this method for most or all of their shots, even while walking around and shooting hand-held. They prefer moving the AF point to using Focus and Recompose.
There isn’t a right or wrong choice. Whichever method feels most natural to you is the one you should use.
Touch Screen Focusing
Touch screens on cameras are becoming more common. It varies by manufacturer and model as what you can do on a touch screen. Some are quite limited and some can be used for focusing, shooting, photo review, and menus.
If your camera allows you to select AF points and has a touch screen, chances are you can use the touch screen to select your AF point, rather than the 4-way buttons or a joystick.
My new camera’s touch screen lets me toggle between just choosing an AF point, just focusing where I touch, or focusing and taking the photo when I touch the screen.
So if your camera has a touch screen read up on it to see which functions it has. You might find that moving the AF point or focusing with a touch suits your style best. Though be aware that if you need focus to be on a tiny spot in the composition, focus by touch may be less accurate than the other two methods.
I primarily shoot using the viewfinder, but being able to focus and shoot with a touch comes in very handy when I’m shooting at an awkward angle and using the tilt screen to frame the composition.
If your subject has eyes, be it insect, bird, mammal, or human, their eyes must be in focus for it to be considered a successful photo. (Occasional exceptions for artistic reasons not included.)
If you can see both eyes of your subject, but the head is at an angle, focus on the closest eye.
Using Single Point AF helps with accuracy. Making sure you have enough depth of field can also help.
Most cameras offer face detection, and some even have eye detection, as a focusing aid. Face and eye detection currently only work for humans.
A lot of beginners feel intimidated or put off as soon as the word “manual” is mentioned, but manual focusing isn’t a mysterious and arcane art. It’s actually easy with the right type of camera. It can be frustrating on more basic P&S (point and shoot) cameras, but still doable when necessary.
With manual focus (MF), AF points become irrelevant. You are not constrained by where they are located in the frame. You choose what most needs to be in focus in your composition and then simply use the camera’s back buttons or the lens focus ring until it’s sharply in focus.
You can manually focus anytime. Some photographers use lenses that don’t have autofocus, and some simply prefer the ease and flexibility of manual focusing. Experienced photographers can often focus faster manually than a lens can focus automatically. If you start using manual focus and realize it better suits your style go ahead and use it all the time.
For many of us, it’s easier and quicker to trust the camera’s autofocus than our eyes. I’m slow at manually focusing. I keep adjusting back and forth several times to make sure my subject is sharp. So autofocus is my mainstay.
However, there are times when even autofocus lovers want to or have to manually focus. Two of the more common situations are when you want a subject at infinity to be sharply in focus and in low light conditions.
Some cameras, especially less expensive ones, don’t handle infinity autofocus that well. So if you’re shooting mountain peaks in the distance you’ll often get better results if you manually focus the lens on the mountains.
Though I should note here that whether or not objects in the far distance need to be critically sharp depends on your composition and intent. In most instances, even in landscape photography, there’s usually something in the foreground or middle ground that is more important and needs to be sharpest. So it’s okay if mountains in the distance are a little soft. They serve as context or backdrop. But if the mountains are the most important and dramatic part of the photo, you want them as sharp as possible.
In low light there’s less contrast and autofocus often “hunts“ (shifts back and forth) as it attempts to achieve focus. Sometimes it misses focus, other times it just takes too long. At night, if your subject is not illuminated by artificial light, autofocus won’t work at all. In these situations manual focus is required.
Another situation in which manual focus may be the best choice is when shooting portraits. With some cameras it can be difficult to get autofocus to precisely nail the eye instead of nose or eyebrow. You can save time and frustration by just doing the focusing yourself.
How usable manual focus is depends a lot on the type of camera you have.
The majority of basic P&S cameras only have an LCD screen (no viewfinder) and the lens collapses into the body. What this means is that you have to watch the screen while manually focusing, which can be difficult in sunlight, and focusing is done with the 4-way buttons on the camera back, which can be frustrating.
Some cameras have a viewfinder that is optical only, with no electronics to aid you. Many people have no trouble at all focusing using an optical VF, but it can be difficult for others.
The two things I personally find necessary for easy and reliable manual focusing are an electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a focus ring on the lens barrel. The focus ring lets you easily fine-tune your focus and the EVF helps make it clear when you’ve achieved focus.
As a beginner using manual focus the best thing to do is to take more than one photo to be sure you get a good one. This is especially important if you are taking a photo that is significant to you at a location you can’t easily return to. Take a photo, then check your focus, and take another one. Do this as much as you feel is necessary, or if you think you could have bumped a button or ring that affects your focus.
You don’t ever have to use manual focus if you don’t want to. Like pretty much everything else on your camera, it’s there as an option and it’s up to you when and if you want to make use of it. But never using it means some types of photography, namely night photography, won’t be an option for you.
Most cameras that have a manual focus mode also offer at least one type of manual focus assist. The two most common types are magnification and focus peaking.
With magnification, as soon as you start to manually focus, the center of the frame becomes magnified on the screen or in the EVF. The magnification enlarges part of your subject so you can better see when you’ve achieved sharp focus. Lightly touching the shutter button or actually taking the photo makes the magnification disappear again.
Focus peaking is when the camera adds a highlighted outline to objects when those objects are in focus. The highlighting can be in different colors, like blue, green, or red, and many cameras let you choose which color you want to use. Focus peaking isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s useful and correct more often than not. Though you’ll notice that with some subjects there’s little to no highlighting and you have to rely on magnification.
Some cameras offer additional MF Assist options that sound good, but in practice often don’t work very well. My new camera has one that’s supposed to partially mimic the split prism common in film SLR lenses. I was really looking forward to it because split prisms made focusing very easy. But unfortunately it turned out to be difficult to use, so I stick with magnification and peaking. (They can be used together.)
VF Diopter Adjustment
If your camera has a viewfinder it might also have a little dial next to it to make diopter adjustments, just like you can do on binoculars. This lets you set your VF to correct for your shooting eye since not everyone has perfect vision.
When you look through the VF after autofocusing, if everything is a bit blurry, adjust the dial until it’s clear. This lets me shoot accurately without my glasses since I don’t need strong corrective lenses. (Glasses can be a bit of a hassle when using a VF.)
The dial can get accidentally bumped out of place while handling the camera, so you may need to reset it occasionally. Every once in a while I’ll notice when using autofocus my subject still looks blurry after I get the green box. The problem is the EVF adjustment, not the autofocus. (Though it can take me a few minutes to figure that out!) If I were trying to manually focus when that happens I’d have trouble.
Creative Use of Focus and DOF
While focusing is primarily about making sure your photo is sharp, there’s a creative aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked. What you choose to focus on not only demonstrates what your subject is, it can also affect how the subject is perceived.
The same exact composition can have different looks and convey different moods depending on where you choose to focus and on how much depth of field you allow.
Take street photography as an example. You’ve chosen a spot with people walking by in the foreground, bicyclists in the middle ground, and an interesting shop storefront in the background.
Do you want the whole scene in focus to capture a slice of life? Choose a smaller aperture for greater depth of field and focus somewhere in the middle. If you do it this way you need a stronger subject to counterbalance that a lot is going on in the photo, like maybe someone with a dog on their bike.
But what if you want to emphasize the shop? Choose a wider aperture and focus on the storefront. Pedestrians close to you will be soft. They still add to the ambience of the photo, but the viewer’s eye will naturally go directly to the sharply focused shop. If a cyclist is the most important aspect of the image focus on them and allow the foreground and background to go soft.
If you’re not sure what will make for the most pleasing or most impactful photo try it two or three different ways. Try different apertures and try focusing on different parts of the scene.
Different people looking at the photos will have different opinions about which one they like best or which option was the “correct” one. But it’s all subjective. What matters most is creating an image that conveys the feeling you were trying to capture in that moment.
Focus is absolutely critical when you’re dealing with an extremely shallow DOF.
In many types of photos there is enough wiggle room that you don’t have to be exactingly precise with your focus. But with a very shallow DOF you want to make absolutely certain that the most important part of the image is the point that is sharply in focus. Use manual focus or a very small AF point to help.
Macro or closeup photos of flowers are a good example. What needs to be sharpest? The texture of the petals, a dewdrop, the stamen, a bug?
There often isn’t an objectively correct part that absolutely must be in focus. It’s entirely up to you.
To close, I should add a disclaimer that focus isn’t always everything. It often depends on the type of photo. There are many famous photographs from well known artists that are not very sharp. Sometimes creatively capturing an emotion or story is more important than technical perfection.
Note: WordPress compression lowers the resolution of photos displayed on pages. Click each pic to see better detail.
Photo #1 is an example of what often happens when you’re not paying any attention to focus whatsoever. It was taken a few years ago with my old pocket camera and I left choosing focus completely up to the camera in its multi-point mode. The nose is in focus and the eyes are not. Oops.
Photo #2 is another example of missed focus. But in this case I was paying attention and the miss is only by a fraction. When working with such a shallow DOF being off by even a tiny amount can ruin perfection.
Here the front petal edges are sharp, but the center is ever so slightly soft. I wanted that furled center sharp. My guess is that I swayed on my feet just enough to make the difference. A solid stance helps with good camera technique. If I had taken more than one photo I’d have come away with what I wanted.
Photos #3 and #4 show how a similar scene has a slightly different look based on focus and DOF. I’d gone to a familiar location with my brand new camera, not to get great photos, but to play around with the controls and get used to it in my hands.
In photo #3 I used f11 for my aperture and using the center AF point focused in the middle of the scene. This made almost everything from near to far mostly in focus. (The people are much sharper in the original.)
In photo #4 I used f5.6 and used the touch screen to focus on the closest log on the left. The nearby logs are in focus, but beyond that things are noticeably soft, including the people.
This is an example of how neither approach is right or wrong. People in the background being in focus or not provides a slightly different look and feel. It just depends on what you’re going for. If you want to de-emphasize them throw them out of focus. If they’re integral to conveying the feel of the moment, keep them in focus.
Photos #5 and #6 show how changing where I focused in the same scene changes the subject and tells a slightly different story. In this case the two photos were taken only 20 seconds apart, using the same exact shutter speed and aperture.
In #5 the subject is a fellow photographer out enjoying the snowy day. Notice that the falling snow isn’t an obvious part of the photo.
In #6 I focused closer to me. By doing so the fast falling snow became the subject, and the out of focus photographer is merely the backdrop.
(It’s not a very successful experiment because I should have also increased the shutter speed in order to lessen the motion blur of the falling flakes and give them more definition. One of the many times I slap my head while looking at photos after the fact and think, “I shoulda….”)
Photo #7 is an example of a situation in which manual focus is required, autofocus won’t work.