Focus on This
Being able to control your camera’s focus is one of the most important aspects to becoming a better photographer.
Not many factors can wreck a photo quicker than the subject being out of focus – yet learning to take control of Auto Focus is often glossed over by new photographers. Adjusting the Aperture and Shutter Speed certainly seem more “hands on” to making photos – but in reality the camera does a pretty good job getting the exposures right. Even when it misses it doesn’t miss by much and that can often be adjusted for the better during post processing. Missed focus however.. there’s no real fix for that.
Every shot you take should start by looking through the viewfinder and pressing the shutter button halfway down. This will start the Auto Focus process and tell the camera to take an exposure meter reading. Do this every time. I’ve seen folks just mash the shutter and when it doesn’t come out right they simply continue to spray and pray. The only thing worse than one bad photo is 10 copies of that bad photo. A more productive process is to Shoot, Inspect, Adjust, then Re-shoot.
Auto Focus gets glossed over largely because, well, it’s Automatic right? I mean there’s always been the manual focus (twist the focus ring on the lens) so if you turn on Auto that’s it! If only it were this simple. As with most things camera related, there are settings for your settings..
Most cameras have similar Auto Focus options, but they may use different names. You should understand the concepts, so regardless of what brand you may use, you can apply the logic.
There are essentially two inputs you should become familar with. One controls What to focus on, the other How to focus.
Per the What to Focus on; you can select between Auto-Area, Single Point, Dynamic and 3D tracking. The last two are fancy versions of the first two.
With Auto-Area, the camera looks at the scene and tries to determine what you’re photographing. It’s easy for the camera to get confused and pick the wrong point, thus trashing your photo. For this reason, I am almost always on “Single Point”. This option allows you to move the “focus indicator” around to pick what in your viewfinder will be in focus. Typically you use a thumb wheel or arrow buttons, and cameras vary from having 3 to more than 50 points to choose from. The camera is still focusing automatically, it’s just that you’re now saying “Focus on THIS” rather than letting the camera guess.
The other two settings basically add “image tracking” to keep a moving object in focus if it moves away from my original AF Point. I often use the “Dynamic Area” which allows the camera to track the object as it moves across my viewfinder, but still relies on me to tell it what single point to look at initially.
The other area to discuss is “how to focus”, by this I mean that the camera be set to Single Focus (focus on the object once then never again) or Continuous Focus (as the name suggests, keeps focusing on the object while you have the shutter pressed half way down). Finally, there is often an “Auto” setting here as well, which allows the camera to choose which to use. This is actually a decent selection as it’s not difficult for the camera to distinquish between a still object and one in motion.
It’s typical that one or both of these adjustment buttons are close to the shutter. Camera manufactures have become very adept at placing the “most important” buttons closest to the shutter button since your finger is already there. Holding down this AF button on my camera allows me to quickly rotate between AF-S, AF-C and AF-A. So coming upon wildlife, I’ll quickly switch to AF-C to keep the subject in focus while’s it’s moving.
One of the many advantages of Digital Photography is the ability to look at your LCD after taking a shot. The problem however is that EVERYTHING looks sharp and in focus on that tiny little screen. Make it a habit to quickly zoom in on that image to see if you got the focus right.
Lastly, lets talk quickly about where to focus.. For people and animals, it’s important to focus on the eyes. If the eyes are out of focus, the picture often won’t “work” as the subjects feel detached. Now for every single “rule” in photography there are dozens of amazing photographs that violate it. With focus points, you’re telling someone what’s important in that picture. Here’s is a variation of the first picture, same animal, just a different focus point. While the first picture generally triggers “awe, how cute” the second one is more comical/entertaining. All just by changing the focus point.
So as a recap, become familiar with the AF settings on your camera. By understanding what it’s attempting to do you’ll be better equipped to fix mistakes when they happen. I’ll suggest that using Single Point (either with tracking or not) along with Auto AF Mode will give you more control and result in better photos.