Camera Focus Guide: How to Take Sharp Photos Every Time

One of the biggest frustrations in photography is taking a competition-winning photograph…only to find out it is badly focused. Even post-processing cannot help you save an out of focus shot, so knowing how to attain camera focus is an important skill to master.

By fully understanding and consciously taking control of your camera’s focus mode and focus points, you stand a far greater chance of ensuring you achieve the photo you desire. This also minimizes the chances of repeating an out-of-focus nightmare.

Focus Modes of Your Camera

Leaving your DSLR in automatic mode may allow you to ignore many of seemingly intimidating functions. However, it can often prove costly when it comes to focusing.

Each of the camera focus modes has a situation when it is best used. This is usually decided by whether the subject is moving or stationary and the level of your photography skills.

1. Single Focus

Known as ‘one shot’ in Canon or ‘AF-S’ in Nikon, this is perhaps the most straightforward of the camera focus modes. Simply press the shutter button halfway to activate the automatic focus. Once your subject has been locked in, it will remain locked in focus whilst you keep your finger on the half-depressed trigger. You can either press the button fully to fire the shutter or release the button to refocus.

The great advantage of this focus mode is that it allows you to press the shutter release button halfway and recompose your photograph. The focus will remain fixed as long as you keep the shutter release button halfway down.

This focusing method is ideal for any stationary subjects. The distance between the intended subject and the camera must remain the same. Examples include portrait photography, still life photography and landscape photography.

A photo taken using Single Focus method
Single focus mode is great for subjects that are stationary. A photo by JV Garcia

2. Continuous Focus

Continuous, or ‘AI Servo’ for Canon and ‘AF-C’ for Nikon, is designed to help you keep your subject in focus, even when it is moving. The halfway press of the shutter release button causes the camera to initially focus on the subject. However, unlike the Single Focus mode, the continuous focus will constantly refocus on the subject as long as you are pointing the camera towards it and keep the shutter button half-pressed.

An example is if you are trying to take a photo of your dog, and it keeps moving towards you. The single mode would be OK if the dog doesn’t move. If it moves, your photo will be out of focus even if you keep the shutter button half-pressed in Single Focus mode. The Continuous Focus mode helps prevent this situation by constantly refocusing as the dog gets closer.

This camera focus mode is great for sporting events, energetic children or fast moving wildlife.

A photo of dogs playing, taken with Continuous Focus Mode.
Using Continuous Focus Mode on these active dogs helps to track them and take a sharp photo. A photo by Mark Galer

3. Single/Continuous Focus

This mode is an automated mode that will choose between single and continuous focus for you. Designed to help out beginners, this mode is absent from some of the more professional models. Ideally, you should aim to choose one of the two previously mentioned focus modes. Mainly because many photographers complain that this method fails to correctly focus most of the time.

4. Manual Focus

We should also touch on manual focus (MF). If you find that none of the automated focus modes allow you to isolate and focus on the exact point of your choice, an alternative is to do it yourself, manually.

Manual focus puts complete control in your hands and requires no focus points or mechanical assistance, allowing you to turn the focus ring on your lens, pick the point of focus, and fire the shutter.

Look for the manual focus (MF) switch located on the side of your lens to enable this.

A photo taken with manual focus mode
Using manual focus helps when you need to be in control or when the camera just can not automatically grab the focus. A photo by Seabass Creatives

Camera Focus Points and Selecting Them

Focus points are the arrangement of small boxes you see through your viewfinder. Generally speaking, entry-level cameras will have fewer boxes, usually somewhere around 10. While professional-level DSLRs have much more with the newest having over 60 configurable points.

Your camera can use any one of these points to grab focus, but it is also important to understand that some of these points are actually better than others. Knowing which and choosing the right one can help you speed up the focusing process.

Camera focus points on a Canon 6D
Types of focus points – An example from Canon 6D camera

If you are not sure what focus points your camera has, take a look at your DSLR’s manual. Mainly, there are two types of focus points:

1. Cross-Type Focusing Points

These focus points are capable of detecting both vertical and horizontal lines to grab focus onto. This capability means it is more likely that a cross-type point gives a better and faster focus than normal focus points. When you look through the viewfinder, normally you can find cross-type focus points in the central area.

2. Normal Focusing Points

Every focus point that is not a cross-type focusing point is a normal focusing point. Without the ability to detect horizontal lines, these vertical-only detectors can be slower to activate. These fractions of seconds can make a difference when you have a moving subject or low-light conditions.

3. Auto selecting focus points

When you use the ‘auto mode’ on your camera and press the shutter button halfway, each box becomes active and searches for any subject. As soon as a box is successful in finding a subject, this becomes your focal point and at the complete push of the shutter button, you have your photo. This first-win system often results in a “wrong part of the right thing” outcome. For example, the camera may choose to focus on a human subject’s mouth instead of the eyes.

However, this setting may be helpful when shooting a variety of subjects in a short time. Perhaps you can’t spare crucial seconds to readjust the focus point. The camera can make an attempt at focusing the correct part of the image.

4. Manually selecting focus points

A far better approach is to always keep the camera set to middle focus point and recompose once you have attained focus. This is known as focus and recompose method. Middle focus point is usually a cross type focus point and will result in faster focusing.

To do this, go to your camera settings and select the middle focus point. Then aim your middle focus point on your subject and half press the shutter button. Once the focus is attained, recompose the shot as needed while still half-pressing the shutter button.

Photo by Elliot Pelling

How to Focus on a Subject (Finally!)

Now that you understand how to select focus points and modes, let’s take a look at how to actually initiate the camera focus on your subject. Like everything else on your DSLR camera, there are multiple ways to initiate focus.

1. Half Press the Shutter

The two-stage shutter button is the most common method of focusing. By pressing the shutter release button halfway, you activate the focusing mechanism. To indicate that a subject has been found, you will usually hear a beep or see a highlighted (red) focus point. At this point, a complete press of the button will fire the shutter. However, a release of the button will remove the fixed focus and allow you to press halfway again in order to re-engage or change your desired subject of focus.

2. Back Button Focus

A method with many benefits, Back Button Focus allows you to use a rear-facing button to control the focus. This is ideal for many sports events or fast-moving objects that remain a similar distance away but may be moving too fast to refocus. Once you have your initial focus, the shutter can be fired and released as you please without having to worry about refocusing. To learn more about Back Button Focus please read the linked article.

3. Focus Ring (Manual)

When the automatic focus just can’t find what you want it to, there’s a manual focus. Manual focus puts the camera’s focusing capabilities fully in your control. This method can be much better than automatic focusing when you are in low light conditions, shooting through glass or wire fences or shooting macro subjects too intricate for the auto focus to identify.

What is your most commonly used setup for focusing? Do you prefer to use the single or continuous mode? Share your style or a sharp photo that you are proud of in the comments section below!

Camera focus guide

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About the author

Elliot Pelling

Elliot Pelling is a wildlife photographer and passionate conservationist. Working as he travels, Elliot spends most of his time trying to experience the very best of the natural world and inspire others to protect it by educating and increasing awareness through images of animals in their natural environment. You can follow his journey on Flickr.

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