Without a sharp area in a photo, it can be very hard to get people interested in looking at it. Making sure you focus on the right thing will determine where someone looks in a photo and whether that contributes to the story you’re trying to tell.
In this article I’ve outlined where to you should focus in a photo depending on the situation. Different styles of photography require different approaches to how and where you need to focus. There may be subtle differences for specific situations, but I’ll try to give you a general idea for a beginner photographer.
If are a beginner photographer, or just need a clear refresher and wants more information about all the different focus modes before you know where to put your focus point read this article about focus modes in modern digital cameras.
Landscape photographers primarily use manual focus to make sure their photo is sharp. They have more time with their location and conditions for the extra precision that manual focus gives.
Most digital cameras have a manual focus assist peaking option which allows you see clearly what is in focus. But where should that focus point be?
Where to focus in a landscape photo is determined by whether there is a single clear subject in frame or if it’s more about the overall view. Having a single subject makes where to focus easily understood, but if the image is about the wider view, then place the focus point in the middle of the scene.
If you’re shooting between F/8 – F/16, as landscape photographers typically do, then placing your focus point in the midground of the shot will help cover a wide enough depth of field that will make most of the scene look sharp.
If you use a small aperture (F/2.8) for example, then sharpness won’t look as wide across the shot. Instead, it’s best to use smaller apertures (if needed) for single-subject landscapes.
Image: Aim to focus 2/3rd into your landscape when using a mid-small-sized aperture.
With wildlife photography the trick is to keep up with the potentially erratic and unpredictable movement of your subject. To help with keeping your subject in focus in a wildlife photo use a subject tracking focus mode or the closest option you’ve got.
For cameras that don’t have a dedicated subject tracking mode use continuous AF (C-AF) mode means that while you have the shutter button half pressed the camera will shift its focus points to follow a moving subject in a scene.
Use a frame burst drive mode to help take numerous photos as the subject moves too. Keeping your half or fully pressed down on the shutter will mean focus points are constantly locked on to your subject.
You will need to make sure that your shutter speed is adequate for the movement of your subject to avoid blurred shots. Getting the focus in the right spot doesn’t guarantee a sharp picture if the shutter speed is too slow for the motion.
Place the focus point on the largest area of the animal’s body if you’re at distance from it. If you’re close, then aim for the eye/head.
Image: With wildlife photography use a tracking mode and aim to focus on the largest part of the animal’s body.
For most portraits where your subject is still you can use a single-spot focus mode, but if you are shooting groups of people a wider (centre-weighted) focus mode would be more appropriate.
Given that the eye of any living subject is one of the first places a viewer will look at a portrait then this should be where to focus on your model. Regardless of the aperture you are shooting your portrait at the eye should always be the focus point unless the image is stylised to require something different.
Use a single shot focus mode if your subject is stationary and place your single spot in the middle of the scene. Lock focus and then recompose for the best composition.
If your subject is moving a lot (action portrait or children running around etc) then treat the focus more to shooting wildlife with a subject tracking mode.
Image: Unless abstract or stylised for a certain look, portrait photos should always have the focus point on the nearest eye of the subject to the camera.
The joy of still life and product photography is that you have full control and time to over the situation. This means that not getting your photo sharp is unforgivable.
With product photography chances are you’ll only have one main subject making it easier to choose which item to put focus on. Given that you have time you can use manual focus, the same as landscape photography, and make sure the focus is on the main product in the shot.
Alternatively, if you have several objects in your scene that needs emphasising, don’t spread them too far apart. Keep them grouped close together and use a centre-weighted or zonal focus mode to cover the objects that need to be sharp.
Image: Use manual focus with product photography or a widespread AF-S mode instead.
Not getting your photo sharp means your shot will be missing the crucial element that makes it engaging and enjoyable to a viewer. Take time to make sure where you focus and which mode to do that with is correct.
It’s also wise to double-check that your shot is sharp afterwards. You may not get a second chance to shoot once you’ve left the location!
If you’ve enjoyed this guide, check out our other articles below.
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