There are three elements of a photograph that I consider more important than any other. I consider them such because I feel you have to nab them right at the moment you take the shot – not afterwards – if you want to end up with a good photograph. Or at least one with potential. What are these elements I speak of? Exposure, composition, and focus. Get these three elements right, and with some minor touching up – that is very possible on even the most basic editing app – you could end up with a good (or great) photograph
You might argue that exposure can be corrected to a fair degree (and more so if you shoot in RAW) when post processing. You maybe right if you do, but come on! We all want to get that exposure as close to perfect as possible, straight off the camera, right? I do, at least! But alright, even if you leave exposure aside, focus and composition are two parts of a photograph that I find near impossible to fix afterwards. So while you can change and fix many other aspects of a photograph any time after you’ve taken it, exposure, composition and focus are three parts of the shot that you do not want to have to adjust later on. Definitely not
That’s why I consider it so important to perfect these elements right at the moment you take the shot. I’ve covered the basics of exposure and composition already – check them out if you haven’t yet – and today I’ll be covering the third and last of them: focusing
Yes, pretty much every digital camera comes with some sort of autofocus system, most of them pretty fancy ones at that, and if you have anything like a DSLR, you should not have trouble achieving focus. But there are a lot of ways you could go wrong – a lot of mistakes you could make without realizing it – and therefore a lot of times when you think you’ve got focus right, but you haven’t, and you go home all satisfied, only to be extremely disappointed with one shot that has everything right but focus. To help avoid these situations, today I’ll be going through some basic, yet useful techniques that I’ve been using to get consistently well-focused images; hopefully they would have a similar effect on your own work too. Alrighty
How To Get Sharp, Focused Images
Focus your eyes! Adjust the viewfinder diopter
Let’s start with this very important, yet often overlooked point, a tip that one of my friends – an early mentor, if you will – taught me back when I was just starting out. If you’re using a DSLR (or any camera with an optical viewfinder), adjust the diopter to suit your eyesight. This allows your own eye to see a clear, focused image through the viewfinder, as you look through it. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, how can you focus correctly if you don’t know when things are correctly focused?! Before you do anything else, adjust your viewfinder’s diopter. Read your manual if you don’t know how
Once that’s done, you can go through the basics of the autofocus system of your camera
Understand Autofocus (AF) points
AF points are those tiny little boxes on your viewfinder and are what your camera uses to detect a subject and focus on it. These are placed around your viewfinder, and each point can be used to focus on the area of the frame that it covers. These points are selectable – read your manual to find out how – and will probably turn red when activated to show which one you currently have selected. Quite easy to understand, really
To focus, compose your shot through your viewfinder. Next, select an AF point that falls around the area that your subject is in. Half-press your shutter, and the camera will lock focus on the area of the subject that the selected AF point covers. Once you have focus lock, press the shutter button fully and you’re done!
AF points come in two basic types: cross-type points and regular (single) points. Without going through too much detail over this, just know that cross-type AF points are more sensitive and therefore more accurate, so it is easier to focus using this type of AF point
Some cameras come with just the one cross-type AF point, usually in the center of your viewfinder, surrounded by many (8, 10, or more) regular points, while more expensive cameras come with, say, 19 AF points, all of which are cross-type
As cross-type AF points are more sensitive and accurate, when selecting the AF point to use, it is smart to choose a cross-type point, which will get you the most accurate results, especially in tricky (low) lighting conditions and so on. If you have just the one cross-type AF point, and it is not in an area that covers your subject, you can switch to a regular AF point that is better situated to focus on your subject…or you can use the Focus and Recompose technique, discussed below. Read on!
Either way, know your viewfinder and the AF points on it like the back of your hand – know which ones are regular, which ones are cross-type, and how many are there, and how they are spread out – so that when necessary, you can change them without having to stop to think
NOTE: Not only pricey DSLRs come with these selectable focus points. Almost all new compact cameras (at least the higher end ones) come with selectable focus points too. Make sure you know how to use these!
Know your camera’s AF modes
Cameras usually have two basic AF modes: Single Focus and Continuous Focus. On Canon cameras, they are known as One Shot Focus and AI Servo respectively. On Nikons, they are dubbed Single Servo and Continuous Servo. Other brands have probably titled these modes similarly, but you will have to figure that out. There are probably more modes on each camera, but these two are basic ones that any camera will have
Anyway…the difference between the two? Well, using Single Focus, you half-press your shutter button, and the camera uses the selected AF point to detect the subject and its distance from the camera, and locks focus on it. As long as the button is half-pressed, the camera remains focused on that distance i.e. it is focused at that single distance, for a single shot
Using Continuous Focus, you place your subject in the camera’s ‘tracking’ area (read the manual!), and once you half-press the shutter button, the camera will begin to track this subject, continually focusing on it, even if it moves. The focus is never ‘locked’ as such, but is continually active and changing as it detects movement of the subject. This way, you can continue to click and capture multiple images that are all focused, without having to re-focus between each shot
I think this is rather obvious, but let me break it down anyway: Single Focus is ideal for stationary subjects, while the more power-consuming Continuous Focus mode is best suited for moving subjects
Stop using the Multi-Area AF mode
A sub-mode of the Single Focus mode, if you like, this mode – usually titled Multi-Area AF mode on most cameras – uses all the AF points that your camera has at once, and attempts to detect your subject and focus on it for you. This is not what you want. You’re the photographer – you pick the subject. Turn this stupid mode off, and pick a single AF point. Place this over your subject, the subject that YOU know to be the one you want to focus on, and half-press your shutter button to focus. That’s what you should be doing! Using the Multi-Area mode, the camera might assume the large chair in the background is the subject, and not the person standing to the side
Decide where to focus
Alright, so you know what focus points do. You know what AF modes there are. You know you should pick a single (preferably cross-type) AF point. Now what? Pick a spot on the subject, place the AF point over it, and focus! Right?
Sure, but knowing to pick the right spot on the subject is an important part of it. You see, AF points work by detecting areas of contrast on your subject. That’s part of how it judges how far the subject is so that it knows where to focus. So placing the AF point over a spot with little or no contrast would mean that even a good AF system would struggle to lock focus. For example, if you’re shooting a stationary black car, placing the AF point over the plain black paint of the car door, for example, will result in the camera struggling for focus. It probably would never focus if you keep pointing it there. However, if you move the AF point to an area where there is contrast i.e. contrast between the black paint of the door and the silver of the door lock, your camera’s AF system should handle that pretty much instantly
Focusing on the plain color of a person’s shirt might not work well, but if you move your focus point to the person’s face, where there is contrast between skin, eyes, hair, etc., that should work fine
So yeah, picking the spot to place your AF point when focusing really determines the speed of which you will lock focus. It will also get you consistently accurate results
Focus and Recompose
Alright, you’ve probably heard of this technique. It gets a lot of stick from some people, while some people find it works perfectly well. I’m in the latter group. Either way, what does it do? What does it involve? Why use it at all?
Imagine this. You have picked the center AF point on your viewfinder, as it is the only cross-type one and is most accurate. However, your subject is not in the center of the frame. It is more towards the lower right corner of the frame, and you want it to remain that way, to achieve a nice Rule of Thirds composition. What do you do?
You have two options. First, you could select another AF point, one that is closer to the subject, and use that to focus. This could work, but then again, it might not. You might not have an AF point that is near the subject, and even if you do, it might not be a cross-type point, and might struggle to focus accurately. Besides, it takes time to change AF points, and you might not have this amount of time
The other option is to focus and recompose. How? Simple. Point the center AF point at your subject. Half-press the shutter button till you lock focus. Then, still half-pressing the shutter button, you RECOMPOSE your shot so that the subject is back at the right place (on the lower right corner of the frame) and once you’re happy with the composition, you complete the shot by pressing the shutter button completely. Job done. As the focus was locked on the subject, and continued to be locked as you recomposed the shot, the final photograph should have your subject in focus, and in the exact place you wanted it to be in the first place. Brilliant, right? Yeah. You probably know of this technique already, but I had to mention it here. I use it very often
Why do some people avoid this technique? Well, in theory, it doesn’t sound like it would be too accurate. Why? Because when you first point the camera at the subject (using the center AF point) and lock focus, the camera locks focus to that particular distance. It detects the camera-to-subject distance, and tells the lens to focus there. However, when you recompose your shot, the camera-to-subject distance marginally changes, meaning that when you take your final shot, the camera is not focused exactly on the subject any more – it is still focused at the original distance – which means that, technically, the focus would be slightly off in your final image. Yes, it is a very marginal change in distance, but it sounds like it could be enough to affect accuracy, right?
Well, that’s up to you to decide. You can be like many others, and take this theory as it is and believe it. Or you could believe the rest of us, people who’ve tested this theory repeatedly, in many different situations, and found this error to be absolutely negligible. Really
I find that using the central AF point – which, even in the best camera, is the most accurate one – along with the Focus and Recompose technique to work almost all the time, and works far better than having to change the AF point to less accurate ones everytime I want to shoot an off-center subject. It’s faster too. This is how I take pretty much all my shots. Do not be afraid to try this technique. It’s perfectly accurate, and really works!
Do not move your camera after focus is locked
Like I said in the previous bit, moving the camera after focus is locked will mean focus in your final shot will be off. Moving the camera slightly to recompose your image is usually fine, as (like I just mentioned) the error in this case is negligible; but moving your camera directly towards or away from the subject will cause the camera-to-subject distance to vary significantly, and this will cause serious focusing errors. So whatever you do, after you lock focus, do not move your camera. If you do, focus again
For landscape photography, use the Hyperfocal Distance
The hyperfocal distance is defined as the closest distance to which you can focus your lens while keeping objects at infinity appear sharp. When focused to this distance, everything from half this distance all the way up to infinity should be in focus. Acceptably sharp focus
Most often, having everything in sharp focus in a landscape is very desirable. Right? Therefore, shooting at the hyperfocal distance, which gives you just that, is ideal for this type of photography, isn’t it? Yes it is
The calculation of this distance is not something I’m going to be covering here today, but there are plenty of articles (and automatic calculators, I believe) that will help you out in this regard. Google it! Once you know more about it, and you know how to calculate this distance for your lens and its focal length, simply focus this lens to the hyperfocal distance, and watch the magic unfold!
If you have no way of calculating it on the spot, a safe bet for distant landscapes is to focus your lens to infinity. This should ensure that almost everything in the frame is in sharp focus
To focus to the hyperfocal distance or to infinity, you can use your lens’ distance scale and focus manually; but if you want to focus automatically at some spot, remember to make sure it has decent contrast!
For portraiture, focus on the eyes
I talked earlier of picking a spot to focus on. In landscapes, focusing at the hyperfocal distance is usually ideal. In portraiture, however, focusing on the eyes is what is considered most desirable. Get the eyes focused sharply, and everything else seems to fall into place. It just works. Don’t try to figure out why it is such. Just know that it is so! And as eyes have plenty of contrast, any AF system will lock focus instantly!
In another cases, focus on what you want
Rather obvious. If your photograph does not fall into the landscape or portrait category (and of course, many wouldn’t), focus on whatever part of the scene you want to be in focus. Just place your selected AF point over this spot and half-press your shutter button. Recompose if necessary, and shoot
Try Manual Focus
In some situations, if things are too dark, and/or not contrasty enough, your autofocusing system might not be able to cope, and you may need to switch to manual focus. Focusing manually can often be slow, but this is sometimes the only option you may be left with. Just make sure you are aware of how much time you have to get it done, and practice – you’ll soon get faster at it. And unless you have a suitable focusing screen, I recommend you try manual focusing through your LCD, where you can clearly see, and zoom in, so that you know when your subject is in focus
Focus twice on the subject
If you have time, focus twice on the same subject. This will maximize AF accuracy, and will negate any errors that the AF system might have made due to reasons you might not realize at the time
Watch your shutter speed
If you shoot handheld, make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to do so. A common error is to shoot at a slow shutter speed, and then mistake the blurry result of camera shake for an out-of-focus image. If you need to shoot at a slow speed to get the right exposure, of course…use a tripod!
Lastly, once you’re done with your shoot, examine your shots on your computer very critically. Zoom into each one – 100% is ideal – and make sure the subject is in perfectly sharp focus. If it isn’t, delete or discard it. I know it can be very depressing to get a really good shot only to find it is slightly out of focus, but trust me, you do not want to keep these. Having such images in your collection, and sharing these, will only make you appear rather amateurish. It’s true. Be critical of your work, always…and if your best shot of the shoot is not in focus, use that as a lesson and do better next time!
And that’s all I have for you on the topic. Focusing is an absolutely critical part of photography, like I mentioned in the beginning, and I’m rather embarrassed I kept putting off writing this important article until now! Anyway, I hope you learned something new from this post. A lot of this is pretty basic stuff, but there’s always something you can learn even by re-reading the basics, so I hope I managed to pass something across!
Leave a comment if there’s anything you’d like to ask, or if there’s something you’d like to add. I’m sure there might be some comments about the Focus and Recompose thing – so let me just clarify that what I mentioned on this technique is my opinion! Don’t go bashing me on that! Alright then. Thanks for reading. Until next time
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By Heshan Jayakody All content in this post, including images, is my own, except where noted
- Quick Tips for Taking Better Portraits from Nikon (nikonusa.com)