Getting an image in focus is one of the fundamental goals of most photographers. When we start out we’re often happy to let the camera lead, but over time and through experience we find that the best results from autofocus come when you take control and direct it.
In this tutorial we show you how to get sharp images by learning not only how to focus a camera, but keep it stable and take creative control.
How to focus a camera: 01 Gauge the light
Judging the best light in which to shoot is one of the first lessons photographers learn. Quite simply, it’s very hard to focus when the light is poor.
If your subject is in shadow, see if you can move them to a better lit spot, or see if changing your vantage point makes a difference. Don’t be afraid to up the ISO to increase your camera’s light sensitivity if you would rather not use flash.
Most decent SLRs generate tolerable levels of noise up to ISO 3200 and many can cope way beyond this rather conservative level.
Don’t write flash off completely, though. Wind the flash output down and bounce the light against a wall or ceiling and you can get more subtle indoor lighting that lifts colours and boost sharpness without giving that amateurish, ‘deer in headlights’ look or a crudely underexposed background.
How to focus a camera: 02 Choose the AF points and AF mode
Depending on the light and subject, you next need to decide whether S-AF (Single autofocus) or C-AF (Continuous autofocus) is best for your subject and scene. Different makes of camera also offer all sorts of AF modes now, too, so it’s worth scrolling through your options.
As a general rule, I tend to select S-AF and use a single focus point for a static subject, such as a portrait. This is because you can carefully set the AF point over your subject’s eyes.
For moving subjects I to use the C-AF option, again placing the AF points over the area I want to be sharpest.
There’s no harm in activating more AF points. Just make sure they cover the critical areas of focus for your scene. The smaller the focus area, or the fewer points you use, the more precise you can be with the location of the point of focus ,but the harder it is to keep the active area over a moving subject. It’s a balancing act.
How to focus a camera: 03 Try manual focus
Once you’ve mastered shooting with your different AF modes, it can be a great learning experience to switch over to manual focus.
Manual focus can often produce better results with subjects such as night photography and landscapes. Fireworks, for instance, may cause your autofocus system some confusion at night, as it won’t know where you want to lock focus. The same with landscape photography, where big, sweeping vistas can be full of details your AF will want to focus on.
Manual focus may seem scary, but if you zoom into the area of critical focus with Live View, it gets a lot easier. Many cameras now offer a feature called focus peaking.
Focus peaking displays a colour – often of your choosing – over your focus points, and as you manually focus the scene, this colour appears to indicate it is in focus. Many photographers use this because you can soeasily see which parts of the image are in focus.
How to focus a camera: 04 Check the aperture
It’s very easy to get into fixed habits with aperture choice, where you always shoot wide or narrow – wide to blur out the background on landscapes and let in lots of light, narrow to ensure maximum depth of field in landscapes or cityscapes. Don’t forget the mid-range apertures.
They will be closer to the sweet spot of your lens, namely the aperture width that gives consistently sharp results.
Shooting wide open is a cool technique, but the very narrow depth of field means crucial areas can easily become soft. At the other end of the scale, very narrow apertures can also generate softness through a process called diffraction.
How to focus a camera: 05 Always use your tripod
Some photographers hate carrying a tripod around – and I’m one of them – but really, the best way to achieve perfect focus is to use a tripod regularly.
Tripods are persistently popular because they are a cheap and consistent way of ensuring stability, particularly with subjects that don’t tend to move much or get impatient, such as landscapes or plants.
I sometimes use a tripod even when shooting a portrait. If you’re clear about why you’re using it, people will often be patient and wait for you to set it up.
If you’re like me and don’t like carrying the extra weight, it’s worth investing in a good carbon fibre travel tripod, which is far lighter than other models. Also, look for one with clips on the legs (rather than screws). These make them more portable and quicker to set up.
But perhaps the greatest advantage of tripods is that they slow you down and force you to think more clearly about your composition.