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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉 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.