One of the most common problems photographers face is nailing focus. It’s always annoying when you think you’ve taken a good image on location and then go home to find your subject is slightly blurry. Here’s how to make sure your photos are always in focus.
Focus is super important for photography. It’s a big part of taking sharp images and also a way to guide the viewer’s eyes. Humans are automatically drawn to the sharp areas of an image. If you miss focus, something will look subtly wrong, like in this shot of mine.
I messed up and focused on the guy’s hands. I love this shot otherwise but, sadly, since the focus is off, all I can do with it is use it as an example of my failings! Let’s make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.
Select the Correct Aperture
Focus and depth of field are related. The greater the depth of field, the more of your image will appear in focus. This means that aperture is a big part of focus—or really, a big part of how easy it is to focus.
Photojournalists and street photographers have a maxim: “f/8 and be there.” In other words, at f/8 with a normal lens, as long as you don’t focus on the background or the extreme foreground, everything in your shot will be in focus.
Conversely, if you’re using a long lens and a wide aperture like f/1.8, the depth of field could be just a few centimeters. We looked at this in full in my article on how to focus with wide aperture lenses.
If you want your image to be in focus, you need to select the correct right aperture for the job. Unless you need to use a wide aperture for creative or exposure reasons, you should pick something between f/8 and f/16. It makes things infinitely easier. If you need to use a wide aperture, go right ahead, just know that you’ll need to work that bit harder to keep your images sharp.
Decide Whether To Use Manual Or Autofocus
There are advantages to both manual and autofocus, especially when you take control of autofocus as we advocate here at How-To Geek. In general, you should default to autofocus unless:
- You’re shooting using a tripod and want to focus at a specific distance rather than on a specific point.
- You’re taking photos of the stars.
- It’s too dark for your camera’s autofocus to reliably find focus.
- You’re shooting a set up action photo and want to pre-focus on the point where everything is going to happen.
- You’re focussing through something like a field of grass, a tree, curtains, or anything else that will throw of autofocus.
- Autofocus has failed.
I love manual focus and use it a lot for landscapes, but it’s just too slow to use most of the time.
If You’re Focussing Manually…
If you’ve decided to focus manually, we’ve got an article that walks you through the right way to do it. The main takeaway is to use your camera’s Live View screen and zoom in to 10x (or however far you can zoom in). This way, you’ll be able to make sure the smallest details are in sharp focus.
If You’re Using Autofocus…
If you’re using autofocus, you have a few more decisions to make. You need to decide which autofocus point, or combination of autofocus points, and what autofocus mode to use.
Your camera will give you the option to use a single autofocus point, a group of them, or the whole autofocus sensor to find focus. In general, a small group of autofocus points will give you the best balance as you can place it over your subject and let the camera do the rest, without fear of it finding focus on something random in the background.
You should use a single autofocus point if you’re shooting with a wide aperture lens and need a very specific thing to be in focus, such as your subject’s eye or a small bird in a tree.
You should use the whole autofocus sensor when you need to be flexible, like when you’re doing street photography. If you’re not sure where your next subject is going to be, it’s okay to let the camera decide on a different focus point for every shot. This is especially effective when you’re using an aperture of f/8.
For more on autofocus points, check out our guide to getting the most out of autofocus.
You also have to decide what autofocus mode to use. The three options are:
- Single autofocus (One-shot AF or AF-S), which finds focus then stays locked.
- Continuous autofocus (AI Servo or AF-C), which keeps trying to find focus.
- Hybrid autofocus (AI Focus or AF-A), which acts like single autofocus until your subject moves and then acts like continuous autofocus.
I recommend you use continuous mode and back button autofocus, but that’s an advanced trick. If you’re just starting, hybrid mode is the simplest and most flexible to use. If you know you’re shooting subjects that are always moving, switch to continuous. If you’re shooting landscapes or other subjects that aren’t going anywhere quickly, you can switch to single.
Sometimes when you’re using autofocus, your subject won’t fall exactly under the autofocus point or group you want to use. If this happens, use single focus mode, place the subject directly under the autofocus point you’re using, half-press the shutter button to focus on your subject, then keep the shutter button half-pressed to keep focus locked, recompose your image, and full press the shutter button to take the photo.
Check After You Shoot
Focus is one of the few things you really can’t fix at home. It doesn’t matter if you just missed focus by a few centimeters, you probably won’t be able to do much with a blurry image. This means you have to get the photo right on location.
Every few minutes, take the time to go back over the photos you’ve shot using your camera’s screen. If there are any photos where you were using a wide aperture or might have missed focus for some other reason, zoom in to 10x and check; the screen is too small to know for sure without zooming in. If the photo’s not sharp, you can always take the photo again. If it is, then you know you’re safe.
Being able to get focus reliably is an important skill for photographers to master. Even in tricky situations, you need to be able to come home with the photos you wanted to take.
Image Credits: Canon.