How to Focus

Getting Sharper Pictures

If you are forever typing into Google ‘how to focus my photos’ or ‘how to get sharper pictures’ then stop scrolling and start learning.

What will you learn in this guide?

  • What makes a picture sharp
  • What are focus modes
  • Autofocus AF-S / One Shot
  • Continuous AF-C / AI Servo
  • Hybrid Autofocus AF-A / AI Focus
  • Which focus mode should I use?
  • Why your camera won’t focus

What Makes a Picture Sharp?

When a photo is in focus it is judged by our eyes based on the clarity on a subject’s outline. Basically how defined that object is against another. Sure, in most photos you’ll be able to see the shape of a subject clearly enough but making it pin-sharp will increase the drama, aesthetics and connection with an audience.

Your camera’s way of knowing how to focus is based on colour values. Pitting 2 well-defined areas of different colours against each other makes it easy for your camera to get the shot sharp. If you’re working with lots of tints and shades of the same colour it can be a lot harder. 

Give your camera an easy life and try to use opposing, or obviously different colours in your foreground and background.

What Are Focus Modes?

Though your camera knows how to focus, it’s up to you to tell it where to concentrate on. There are 3 main types of focus modes available in most digital cameras. There are generic names to each, but some manufacturers will create their own name to make the marketing seem fancy!

Either way, we’ll have a look at each of these focus modes and by the end, you’ll know how to focus and get those sharp shots for every type of occasion.

Autofocus / AF-S / One Shot

Firstly, autofocus locks focus based on the distance to your subject. As long as your subject stays at that distance, your photo will be sharp. In some instances, your camera may not take the photo if your subject is moving.

But the benefit is that autofocus allows you to recompose whilst retaining focus. Imagine that you focus in the middle of a frame, but your main subject looks better further to the left or right.

To know how to focus in AF mode, all you need to do is keep your shutter button half-pressed to firstly lock focus on your subject and then (whilst still half-pressing the shutter button) shift your composition to suit. As long as you don’t change the distance between camera and subject then your shot should still be sharp.

how to focus autofocus example iphotography

Continuous / AF-C / AI Servo

Secondly is a continuous focus mode which places multiple autofocus ‘points’ on your subject and continues to adjust these points while your subject moves. You need to keep the shutter button half-pressed and your subject framed as they move for the focus to track correctly.

This is ideal for capturing movement in your shots. Athletes or just leisurely cyclists all benefit from AF-C. So on how to focus with movement, it’s best that once you’ve spotted your subject, track them by half-pressing on the shutter button and move the camera to keep them in the frame. 

When you are ready to take the photo, fully press the shutter down, and the camera will focus on your subject for a sharp photograph.

how to focus continuous focus athlete example iphotography

Hybrid Autofocus / AF-A / AI Focus

But if you let the camera decide how to focus and when, this method merges the functionality of the autofocus and continuous. Basically it begins as autofocus but your camera needs to lock in focus on a stationary subject first. Only then can you can take the photo as you would in a traditional autofocus mode.

But – and here’s the magic – if your subject starts moving, the autofocus stops and the continuous method takes over to track your moving subject. It gives you the best of both worlds.

Warning – Be aware though, if you recompose a stationary object quickly in AF-S mode, the camera may think the subject is moving and release the AF-S too soon. Try to keep the camera still until you’ve got your subject in the frame.

how to focus hybrid focus bird example iphotography

Which Focus Mode Should I Use?

It’s all good knowing how to focus and which options are available to you but it’s equally as important to know when to use each mode for the right situation. You may already have a good idea from what we’ve discussed already but here’s a quick overview.

Autofocus

Still Life

Posed Portraits

Cityscapes

Landscapes

Manual Focus

Low Light / Night-Time

Macro

Long Exposure

WARNING: Why your camera won’t focus and why your shots are blurred

Despite learning about focus modes you need to be prepared that no matter what you try sometimes you just won’t be able to lock on. Why’s that?

There are a few scenarios as to why your camera won’t focus and what results in blurred photos:

out of focus images set of 4 iphotography course

“You might be too close to your subject”

If you are too near the subject, then your camera may not be able to focus. Every lens has a minimum focus distance that you need to maintain.

“You need more contrast”

We said before your camera knows how to focus but if you don’t give it the right amount of contrast in a shot then it won’t be able to work properly. Imagine trying to photograph a white sheet of paper in the snow. Mix up those colours and look for tones that contrast, the heavier the contrast the easier you’ll lock on.

“Shutter speed is too slow”

Camera shake can account for areas of blur that occur during your exposure, even if your subject isn’t moving. Make sure your shutter speed is faster than the equivalent of your focal length (the reciprocal rule – important for long focal length lenses). For instance, shooting at 100mm, your shutter speed should be 1/100th or faster to avoid camera shake. 

Shooting handheld at 1/125th or slower is asking for blur to creep into your shot. Don’t chance it, get a tripod if you need to drop down slower or hike your ISO in worse case scenarios to keep the shutter speed suitable.

“Touching the camera during a long exposure”

Most cameras have a self-timer so if you’re shooting on a tripod at a slow shutter speed you may want the blur of a long exposure but no camera shake on top. Simply set the self-timer to 2 seconds which will stop you having to hold the camera during the exposure. Ideal if you’re only going to get one chance.

“Rushing the shot”

We’re all guilty of it – we think the camera is faster than us, but we can be wrong. Stopping to take a shot and instantly moving off as soon as we’ve hit the shutter button is a disaster movie. Just slow down and make sure you’ve given your camera to complete the full exposure cycle. Older cameras can slow down over time and may not be as nippy as you thought. 

Take a breath and pause before you take the shot. Get into a comfortable position so your arms, elbows and feet aren’t moving or shaking. The tiniest of movements can happen during a quick shot and spoil the entire moment.

photographer at sunset on the beach with camera on tripod iphotography how to focus

Summary

Fingers crossed we’ve helped you out of a sticky spot and now you know how to focus your subject and get those pin-sharp pictures you’ve been craving. If you’re ready to show off your wonderful creations, then upload your pictures to the iPhotography gallery.

If you’re not a student already, click here to get signed up!

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