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Understanding Focus 101: Get To Know Your Camera

Understanding Focus 101: Get To Know Your Camera

To get great photos you need to have thoroughly understand how to focus, in addition to lighting, exposure, and composition. Years ago I was photographing a wedding and a guest came up to me and asked if I, too, manually focused. “Oh heavens no. I would miss every moment if I did,” I told her. She quizzically replied, “But how do you get anything in focus?! In most all of my photos the one thing I wanted in focus isn’t in focus.” I asked for her camera, pushed one button and quickly saw what I was suspecting. Her camera was still on its factory setting where it decided what it thought should be in focus. Ack!

The reality of the situation is that that setting is useless and should not even be a possible setting. You will never ever ever ever find yourself in a situation where you say to your camera, “Go ahead, you pick. You know better than I do.” Your DSLR does not have a clue. Point and shoots and even most Smartphones nowadays have face detection and really they do a pretty good job. Unfortunately DSLRs – from entry level to the most expensive kind – do not have this added feature.

Many of you may know everything there is to know about focus (there’s a ton!), but for those of you who do not I am thrilled to be given this platform today to teach you something that is going to rock your photo-loving world!

Understanding Focus:

What is a focus point:

The first thing we’re going to learn is that on your camera there is what are called focus points. Some cameras have 9, others have as many as 61.

focuspointsExample Understanding Focus 101: Get To Know Your Camera
Every DSLR gives you the ability to change your focus points to ensure that what it is you want in focus is nice and sharp.

Misc Feb 2012 061 Understanding Focus 101: Get To Know Your Camera

Note: If all of your focus points are lit up when you go to change them then that means all of them are active and your camera is left to choose which one it feels in the mood using. Our cameras are great, but they’re pretty stupid when left up to their own devices. Don’t let them boss you around.

How to lock in your focal length:

The next important thing to understand is that when you focus on something you are not sending out a hidden laser beam at what it is you want in focus and saying, “Camera focus on that flower.” Instead, you are locking your focal length and locking the plane in which you want in focus.

The best way to try this out is to take a picture of a flat surface, like a wall in your house with a print hanging on it. If you square your shoulders to that wall, focus on the print/frame and snap away everything in your picture will be in focus, even if you are shooting wide open (i.e. 1.4). Next, angle yourself to the wall. Stand with your shoulder just a foot or so away from the wall and take a picture of the frame at an angle (again, with your aperture nice and wide). You will now see the area of the frame you focused on and the foreground and background of your image will be softer in focus (how much depends on how wide your aperture opens on your lens).

Now, let’s move on to something that is SUPER important. So, jump around for a bit, get your blood flowing through your brain and tune in closely…

Two ways to focus:

When you focus you can do it one of two ways: (show picture examples)

1. Set your center focus point (the fastest and most accurate one) on what it is you want in focus, lock your focus by pressing your shutter button half way down and then without releasing your finger, recompose to get the composition you are after and snap away.

or…

2. Go ahead and figure out the composition you want, then change your focus point to the spot you want in focus and snap away.

Many photographers swear by option two, saying it is the best way. I photograph only people and most of those people are children. If I took the time to change my focus point for every shot I was after I would miss 90% of the split-second moments I love capturing.

JessicaCudzilo Understanding Focus 101: Get To Know Your Camera

For this reason I only use option one, locking my focus and making a quick recompose before snapping. There is a downside to this option and it is one that is important to note:

Once you’ve locked your focal length you have to be very careful of how much you move. You can move up or down or side to side, but if you move forward or backward your focal length will no longer be on what is you want in focus. What I always tell my students is to imagine their lens pressed up to a piece of glass. This will help you have a visual on what direction you can move.

If you like to shoot wide open (i.e. with a wide open aperture like 1.4 or 2.8) this is all the more important to be mindful of because your depth of field is so shallow (sometimes as shallow as an inch!) so you have very little room for error. There is nothing more frustrating than looking at what could have been a beautiful image on your computer screen only to see that the eyes (the most important thing to have in focus ALWAYS) are soft and the nose or hair is sharp. Ack! That is not a good image and photographers all over the place are displaying those types of images on their portfolio sites. Be informed and don’t be one of those people. High-fives!

If you photograph anything that does not consist of moments taking place in a matter of seconds than I would suggest changing your focal points. It will give you the best chance at getting what it is you want in focus tack sharp.

Bogan Zimmer Wedding 045 Understanding Focus 101: Get To Know Your Camera

This is only the beginning, friends. There is so much more to understand about focus and most everything else is affected by your distance, your chosen aperture, the lighting, your shutter speed and your ISO. If you want to learn even more I would highly suggest taking a fabulous class that covers all of this and more. And, the teacher is pretty cool, too. It’s me. icon wink Understanding Focus 101: Get To Know Your Camera More info on my class can be found here.

Jessica Cudzilo is the founder of The Define School, an unconventional online school for the evolving photographer. Registration for her October 15th class, From Auto to Manual, is now open. You can sign-up here.

 Understanding Focus 101: Get To Know Your Camera

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13 Comments

  1. 1

    Thanks for posting! However, there are a few points in this article that I believe could use come corrections:

    ARTICLE POINT 1: “It’s never appropriate to let the camera choose the focus point” (paraphrased).
    WHY THIS IS INCORRECT: Imagine a sports or action situation. For example, you’re at the finish line of a cycling race. The cyclist is sprinting up the left side of the road, so you’ve specified a focus point on the left side of your viewfinder. You’re snapping away in AI Servo mode, which focuses continuously on the cyclist. However, what happens if the cyclist swerves over to the right side of the road for whatever reason? Your camera will still try to focus on whatever’s on the left side of your viewfinder (i.e. nothing), and your subject (the cyclist) may or may not be in focus. And there’s not enough time to manually change the focus point, as by the time you’ve done this, the race is over and you’ve missed your shot.
    HOW I WOULD CORRECT THIS STATEMENT: “It’s never appropriate to let the camera choose the focus point, IF the subject and camera are stationary. If either one is in motion, it’s often acceptable for the photographer to let the camera have some control over the focus point.”

    ARTICLE POINT 2: “Focus-and-recompose is an excellent technique that photographers should use often” (paraphrased).
    WHY THIS IS INCORRECT: While the article touches on some of the limitations of focus-and-recompose (e.g. if you’re doing this, neither you nor your subject can be in motion), the article misses the major problem with focus-and-recompose: the geometry of focusing on a spot and pointing the camera in a different direction can lead to backfocusing. This page goes into more detail about this issue: http://digital-photography-school.com/the-problem-with-the-focus-recompose-method
    HOW I WOULD CORRECT THIS STATEMENT: “Focus-and-recompose is an good technique that photographers should use sometimes, as long as your depth of field is sufficient to account for the shift in focal plane OR you step backward a bit after recomposing.”

    I do agree with the author’s larger point, that it’s extremely important to understand (a) how to use your camera’s AF system, and (b) its limitations. Our success as businesspeople depends on it!

    • 1.1
      Austin Banderas says:

      Thanks to the Author and MCP for this information. It is well presented and highly informative for the novice shooter. For the professionals; we all know that the focusing and composition techniques vary with the types of photographs we shoot. From still life, to lifestyle, to fast action, we each have our favorite techniques. To attempt to describe all of these in a short blog that is expressly directed at the novice, is asking for too much.

      For the shooter capturing the cycle race, you are free to let your camera choose the focus point for you, that is your right and if it works for you then by all means keep doing it. However, consider this… You indicate that in shooting the race you set your focus on the left side of the track–presumably on a stationary object where you expect your subject to appear. Then if the cyclist appears and swerves right, your camera remains focused on an empty space where the cyclist used to be. May I suggest that once you have your cyclist in view, you set your focus on him/her and using the continuous focus feature of your camera, you can now pan and track the cyclist wherever they move to. Problem solved.

      • 1.1.1

        “May I suggest that once you have your cyclist in view, you set your focus on him/her and using the continuous focus feature of your camera, you can now pan and track the cyclist wherever they move to. Problem solved.”

        Problem *almost* solved. This would often work, but not always:

        You’re assuming that it’s acceptable to pan the camera, changing the composition of the image. You’re also assuming that the photographer can pan instantaneously and accurately, so that the cyclist never leaves the chosen focus point.

        Both of these assumptions are not always true. Perhaps I want to frame the finish line in a certain way (not caring so much about the cyclist’s position within the frame). Or, perhaps I suck at panning :) (With super telephoto lenses, panning can sometimes be physically difficult.)

        To be clear, the technique you suggest of panning with the subject is a good one, and I often use it myself in my sports work. However, I stand by my point that there are times where it’s OK to let the camera choose the AF point. Certainly not all the time, but sometimes.

        • Hi Marty,

          I hope you saw my reply on Facebook. :) I was writing from my phone (hence the brevity) and unable to tag you.

          • Hey Jessica, I finally saw your reply on here. Thanks for the comment!

            I did a bit more thinking about the focus-and-recompose issue, and I came to a realization: My response to your point 2 (re: focus-and-recompose) was incorrect. I was wrong.

            When focusing-and-recomposing, the act of pivoting the camera will result in different regions of your photo being out of focus (compared to the picture composed with focus locked on, say, the eyes); however, since the eyes of your subject are still 4 feet away, and the focal plane of your picture is effectively a sphere with your camera at the center, the eyes will remain in focus when recomposing the image.

            You were right! I was wrong. (And the website I linked to is also wrong. They use a straight line for segment “C”, when, in fact, it should be an arc with the camera as the center.)

            Thanks for making me think!

            For the record, this is the third time in my life I’ve ever been wrong about anything

  2. 2
    Teri says:

    Great post! I wanted to offer a correction on one thing though…

    “Point and shoots and even most Smartphones nowadays have face detection and really they do a pretty good job. Unfortunately DSLRs – from entry level to the most expensive kind – do not have this added feature.”

    Actually, Sony dslr cameras offer this function. I shoot with a Sony alpha camera and use the face recognition feature all.the.time.! Love it!

    Thank you for your contributions in helping make ‘wanna-be’s’ into photogs! ;-)

    • 2.1

      Thank you for the correction, Teri. And, that is just one more reason why Sony is in many ways more advanced than Canon OR Nikon. If only Sony could figure out a way to make their lenses the same quality as Nikon’s and Canon’s and for the same price…

  3. 3
    Jodi Birston says:

    My photos improved dramatically when I changed my dlsr to back button focus. Look it up in your manual

  4. 4
    Sue says:

    Thank you for this posting. It was very helpful!

  5. 5

    Thanks this is a good post – very helpful. One of my new year’s resolutions was to learn how to take better pictures with my camera, so i’ve enjoyed reading about specific elements of taking a good picture. Now that it’s October, i’m finally getting around to actually trying to take a class – so i was very excited to follow the link, and i love the sound of the Define Schools class, but the site says it’s full! Are they offering any others?

    thanks

  6. 6

    This is very helpful, thanks, but at the moment with my new 5d mk3 I am trying to get focus on lots of peeps in a large group shot or photos of my kids with a landmark in the background. I am really struggling with this , even with a huge DOF and in landscape. It is limiting my focus points, the Auto setting is picking lots of points in the 61 to focus on, but I don’t want to be in auto. There must be a way to have heaps in focus for a landscape shot with someone in the foreground! I am sure there is a simple way to get them all on, but I am not there yet! Does anyone have any tips/suggestions? I would really appreciate them. I am only an amateur just wanting to ‘shoot’ my kids!

    • 6.1

      If you are closing up your aperture and still not getting as much in focus as you would like try simply scooting back from your subject and preparing to crop later. There are plenty of times when I need to shoot wide open due to low light, but want a lot in focus. I simply move back (distance dictates a lot!) and then crop later. I hope this little tip helps. :)

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