I’m sure we’ve all experienced focusing problems.
You know – you have an otherwise pretty good shot, but the subject is just ever so slightly out of focus.
And the toughest part is that you often don’t notice the focus problem until you’re back home, checking your photos out on your computer screen!
No amount of sharpening in Photoshop is going to save an out-of-focus photo, either. That means it’s imperative to get it right in-camera.
The question is, what are the best ways of getting tack-sharp photos?
We provide the answer to that very question in this post.
Single Shot Autofocus vs Continuous Autofocus
Single shot autofocus is typically the default setting on most cameras and is the most common way to focus for most shots.
It gets its name because the camera focuses and maintains that focus for one shot, which is how most of us shoot most of the time for things like portraits, landscapes, and other still subjects.
Using single shot autofocus is extremely easy, too.
Just depress the shutter button halfway, which instructs the camera to focus.
The camera will maintain focus on the subject until you either take the shot by pressing the shutter button all the way or you release the shutter button altogether.
The problem, of course, is that to lock that focus, you must keep the shutter button depressed halfway, and that can be tricky at first.
You’ll likely end up with a few “oops” shots from accidentally pressing the shutter button all the way. Likewise, you’ll probably find that you accidentally release it sometimes, too, meaning you have to start the process over again.
But, once you get the hang of it, you can use single shot autofocus to acquire focus on your subject (say, the eyes of a person in a portrait), lock that focus, and recompose the shot.
For example, in a portrait, your initial framing might have the model in the middle of the shot while you’re locking focus on their eyes.
But once you depress the shutter button halfway, you can then recompose the photo for a more pleasing look, but still maintain focus on the original target. This is called the focus and recompose technique, and you can see it in action in the video above by Matt Granger.
So what happens if you’re photographing a subject that isn’t stationary?
That’s when you need to switch to continuous autofocus.
As the name states, continuous autofocus continually adjusts its focus to maintain a sharp subject.
Whether it’s your kids playing soccer, your dog running after a ball or a bicyclist riding by, continuous autofocus is the mode to use for a sharp photo.
Similar to single shot autofocus, you simply bring the camera to your eye and depress the shutter button halfway to acquire focus.
The difference is that since the subject is on the move, you need to track the subject to keep it in the frame.
What’s more, with the shutter button depressed halfway, the camera will continue to adjust the focus as the subject is moving around.
For example, if you’re photographing your child riding their bike, you would frame the shot as they start out, depress the shutter halfway, and so long as you keep your child within the frame of the shot, the camera will adjust the focus as they get nearer or further away.
There is one caveat, though.
Sometimes it’s advantageous to select which autofocus point the camera uses to determine focus. This is especially true when using continuous autofocus.
Letting the camera do it itself (a process called automatic focus point selection) works fine in most situations, plus it’s quick, so when time is of the essence, automatic is the way to go.
But the camera typically tries to focus on the nearest object in the shot for focusing, so if there’s foreground elements in the way, you might end up with a sharp foreground and a blurry subject.
You can get around this by manually selecting the autofocus point, which is discussed in the next section.
Manual Autofocus Point Selection
As noted above, manually selecting the autofocus point that’s used for acquiring focus is ideal for situations in which you need even more control over focusing the shot.
This typically occurs in situations in which the subject is moving, when you’re working on a macro shot, and even for landscapes, in which you might be shooting through something (i.e. foreground grasses) that you want blurred.
Though the process for selecting which autofocus point is active varies from one camera to the next, typically there’s an AF button on the back of cameras that allows you to access the selection menu.
From there, simply use the arrow buttons on the back of your camera to select the point you’d like to use.
Then all you do is frame up the shot, ensure the active autofocus point is over your subject, and press the shutter button!
See how to select autofocus points on a Nikon camera in the video above from Camera Guides.
Back Button Focusing
As I noted earlier, the problem with using autofocus is that it’s easy to release or trigger the shutter from the half-pressed position. That means a lot of mistake shots.
You can get around that problem by using a technique called back button focusing.
Back button focusing takes the focusing job away from the shutter button and places it on a button on the back of the camera.
With separate buttons for triggering the shutter and focusing, you can actually see how the camera has focused in the viewfinder before you press the shutter button.
Just frame the shot, press the button on the back of the camera to acquire focus, release the button, and press the shutter to take the shot.
This is a great technique for all kinds of photography, from still subjects like portraits to subjects that might be on the move, like nature and wildlife photography or sports.
Another cool thing about back button focus is that when you release the back button, the camera’s focus is locked.
That means if you’re taking a photo of your kid playing sports and someone walks into your field of view, the camera will keep its focus on your kid, not the person that walked in front of you.
That’ll come in handy, right?
Virtually all modern cameras have autofocus systems that work pretty darn well in most situations.
However, there are times that call for you to take control of the focusing duties.
Macro photography, in which the camera and the subject are mere inches (or less) from one another is a prime example.
That’s because even cameras with the most sophisticated autofocus systems can struggle to acquire focus on a subject that’s so close.
By using manual focus instead, you can avoid having the autofocus system hunt around for a focal point and just do it yourself.
A simplistic explanation of how to do that is this:
- Switch your lens to manual focus (marked MF on your lens barrel).
- Bring your camera to your eye (or use live view) to frame the shot.
- Depress the shutter button halfway to acquire focus.
- Turn the focus ring on your lens to perfect the focus.
- Take the shot.
When using manual focus, doing so in live view can be a lifesaver because you can zoom in on your subject to check the focus, and if it’s off, you can adjust it right then and there.
That means no more surprise out-of-focus shots when you get home!
Wrapping It Up
Your camera gives you plenty of options for focusing such that you can get the sharpest images possible.
It’s really just a matter of exploring each of the options above, learning how to use them, and identifying which one is most appropriate for the current shot.
But there are other ways to get a sharper photo, too.
You can use hyperfocal distance to get the maximum sharpness and depth of field at any aperture.
You can also use what’s called focus stacking, in which you blend several different exposures together, each of which has a different focus point, to get a final composite image in which everything in the shot is tack-sharp. You can check out focus stacking in the video above by Gavin Hoey and Adorama TV.
On the simple side, using a tripod and a camera remote can work wonders for sharpness, too!