Saturday, May 3, 2014

Focus on Focus

Focus is one of, if not the, most important technique(s) to master in photography. A mis-composed photograph can be cropped or adjusted in post-processing, as can an overexposed or underexposed one. But a photograph where the focus is off cannot be salvaged. Knowing how and where to focus is critical for improving your photography. (Having other issues with focusing? Read Why Won't My Lens Focus?)

(Interested in boosting your photography with a community of like-minded photographers? Join the BYP 52 Weeks Challenge on Google+. Committing to taking a photograph a week can make a dramatic difference in your photography. Our first week's topic for May 4-10th is Focus.)

How to Focus

You need to be using manual autofocus point selection. (Don't panic, this is not the same as manual focus.) Most camera's default will be automatic autofocus point selection. In automatic mode, your camera analyzes the scene before it and it selects which autofocus point to use for setting the focus for your photograph.

Autofocus does not know your subject | Boost Your Photography

The problem is that in automatic mode, you are trusting your camera to know what your subject is and what you want in focus. Taking a picture of a group of people in front of a tree? Your camera may decide that the tree is more interesting and capture the tree in focus and the people blurry. Taking a portrait of a friend? Your camera may decide that their ear or nose needs to be in focus and that the eye and smile should be out of focus.

Focus on Focus | Boost Your Photography
View of the 9 autofocus points on my Canon T1i

Take charge. Switch your focusing mode to manual autofocus point selection and choose the middle autofocus point. Now, you know exactly where your camera will be using its autofocus and setting focus for the entire picture. This gives you technical and creative control over the focus.

Shooting with a point-and-shoot camera? If you press the shutter down halfway, you will see a box (usually) that indicates where your camera has chosen to focus. If you do not agree with the choice, let up on the shutter and try again. You can also use the "focus and recompose method" below.

Focus and Recompose

Now you have set only the center autofocus point for your camera to use, and you may be asking "But what if what I want in focus is not in the exact center of my picture?" An excellent question. Then you can use the "focus and recompose" method or choose a different autofocus point.

First, determine your composition. I liked the off-center placement of the Canadian goose in this photograph, giving him/her space to look off into, but my autofocus point is only on the grass. Then, move your camera slightly until the part of your subject you want in focus is in the exact center (I used the goose's eye). Press the shutter down halfway; this will lock the focus. Then you can move the camera back to the original composition, push the shutter the rest of the way down and take the picture. That's all there is to "focus and recompose!"

With a point-and-shoot, the process is the same. Determine the composition, and then move your subject into the exact center. Press the shutter halfway, and the focus box should match your subject. Then recompose and press the shutter the rest of the way to take the photograph.

If you know that you will be taking a series of photographs with an off-center subject, then you can also change which focus point you have selected. If your subject is in the bottom right, then go into the manual autofocus point selector and move the autofocus point to the bottom right instead of the center. (Just remember to always move it back when you are finished. Camera Zero will keep you ready for next time.)

Autofocus Modes

Another consideration with focus is knowing which autofocus mode your camera is using. DSLR cameras have several options for autofocus modes. My default is 'One Shot' (Canon) or AF-S (autofocus single for Nikon). In this mode, the camera will find and set focus individually for each shot.

Another autofocus mode is AI Servo (Canon) or AF-C (continuous-servo AF; Nikon). In this mode, the camera will attempt to track your moving subject and adjust the autofocus accordingly. This is a good mode to use if you are shooting sports or motion photographs, where you want to capture a quickly moving subject.

The final common autofocus mode is AI Focus (Canon) or AF-A (auto-servo AF; Nikon). In this mode, the camera determines whether you are shooting a still or moving subject and adjusts the focus accordingly. This method can take a little bit longer for the camera to find and lock focus than when using One Shot / AF-S, which is why I do not use it for a default.

Take Control of Your Focus

Setting your autofocus mode and changing to manual autofocus point selection will make an immediate difference in your photography. You are now in control of where the focus will be in your picture. Being able to control and set your focus will keep your subject in focus and help make far more of your photographs "keepers."

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.
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