Three Steps to Accurate Focus Every Time

June 6, 2018

All too often, photography tutorials begin with the exposure triangle: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. While those three variables are the core of every photo, there’s one technical skill that everyone should master first: how to accurately focus on a subject.

 

I begin with this skill in every class and lesson that I teach. And every time, I see eyes light up with that “Ah-ha!” feeling. Most new camera users just trust the camera to focus for them right out of the box. But I’m all about taking control of the camera and creating photos with intention. You are the artist, not the camera.

 

Since you’re just like me and want to take complete control of your camera, I’ll share with you my three-step process for accurate focus every time. In a nutshell, here are the three steps:

 

  1. Before you press the shutter, select your autofocus point.

  2. When you press the shutter halfway*, choose between single- and continuous-autofocus.

  3. When you press (and hold) the shutter completely, choose to create a single photo or multiple photos.

 

*For those who use back-button focus, this same step applies.

 

 

 

A Few Important Tips

 

Before I dive a little deeper, here’s one important tip: stop using your LCD screen on the back of the camera to take photos. The “live view” mode on your screen simply can’t focus fast enough. In fact, you’re giving up much of the expensive technology in your camera if you don’t use the viewfinder to focus. From now on, use the viewfinder. The autofocus points are much faster.

 

Now that your eye is in the viewfinder, understand that the default method for focusing your camera is a half-press of the shutter button. When you press your shutter halfway, one or more of your autofocus points should flash, letting you know where in the scene the camera decided to focus. If your camera doesn’t focus automatically, look at your lens and make sure the little autofocus switch is on “AF” or “A.”

 

(Since we’re talking about holding the camera, there is a “correct” way to hold it. Your left hand should go under the lens, not to the side or over it. That way you can rest the lens in your hand for a steadier image. Also, you should bring your arms and elbows as close to your body as you can--you’ll be steadier that way.)

 

Step 1 - Before you press the shutter button (selecting your autofocus point)

 

Before you press the shutter button, you need to select which autofocus point is best for your photo.

 

Looking through the viewfinder, you’ll see an autofocus layout that might look something like these:

 

 

Most cameras have at least two autofocus point selection settings, “automatic” and “manual” selection. (Some cameras call manual selection “single point” or something similar.) It’s time for you to take control of the autofocus points by choosing manual selection. Now you can scroll through each autofocus point to pick the best one for your scene.

 

Since every camera is a little different, you need to figure out:

  1. What term(s) does your camera use to reference manual autofocus point selection?

  2. What menus do you need to access to choose manual autofocus point selection?

  3. What buttons do you need to press to manually change your autofocus point?

 

For now, stick with the center point. It’s often the most accurate and fastest autofocus point. (More and more cameras, though, are equipped with excellent autofocus points throughout the viewfinder. Experiment and find out what’s best for your camera.)

 

But what if you don’t want to focus on the center of your scene? Try the “focus and recompose” technique. Put the center point on what you’d like to have in focus, press your shutter button halfway, then slightly tilt your wrists to get the composition you really want.

 

Here’s a Pro-Tip for you: for portraits, always focus on the subject’s eye. In fact, focus on the eye that’s closest to the camera.

 

 

Step 2 - Pressing your shutter button halfway (single or continuous autofocus)

 

When you press the shutter button halfway, your camera will use your selected autofocus point to bring into sharp focus what the point is centered on.

 

When you press your shutter button halfway, you need to decide whether you want your camera to focus once or to focus continuously.

 

Why focus once? If your subject is stationary, then your camera does not need to focus continuously. Your camera will bring your stationary subject into sharp focus instantly.

 

Why focus continuously? If your subject is moving, then your camera’s continuous focus mode will allow you to use your autofocus point to track your subject as it moves and keep it in sharp focus. To use the continuous focus mode, you have to hold the shutter button down halfway the entire time. As soon as you lift your finger, the camera stops focusing. (And when you press more fully, the camera will take a photo.)

 

Since every camera is a little different, you need to figure out:

  1. What term(s) does your camera use to reference single or continuous autofocus?

  2. What menus do you need to access to choose single or continuous autofocus?

  3. What buttons do you need to press to manually change your autofocus point?

  4. Where on your display panel can you see which autofocus mode you have chosen? What icons or words are used to denote each autofocus mode?

 

I mentioned “back-button focus” earlier, but here’s a little more about this Pro-Tip: To make things easier, especially continuous autofocus, consider using a technique called “back button focus.” Each camera has a button or two on the back that allow you to assign a custom function. Many photographers assign that button to evaluate the light in the scene and focus the scene. What’s great about back button focus is that you can focus once, let go, and take numerous photos. Pressing the shutter does not reset your focus or your exposure.

 

Don’t forget about Manual focus. This isn’t actually an autofocus mode. I just didn’t want you to forget that you can switch the lens to manual focus and use the ring on the lens to focus. Find the switch on your lens that is labeled A/M or AF/MF. That’s how you switch between auto and manual focus. Macro photography is almost exclusively manual focus. Manual focus is also fun to play with when shooting video.

 

 

Step 3 - Pressing (and holding) the shutter button completely (create one or multiple photos)

 

When you press (and hold) the shutter button completely, you can choose to create one image, several images, or set a self-timer to join the photo.

 

Why create one photo? Similar to choosing your autofocus mode, if your subject is stationary and relatively unchanging, then you should choose to create one photo when you fully press the shutter button.

 

Why create several photos? Similar again to your autofocus mode, if your subject is moving or changing, then creating several photos will allow you more opportunities to create the photo you envision.  Choosing to create several photos is good for wildlife, sports, energetic kids, and anything that moves. Most cameras allow you to control the time between each photo taken. Just know that the number of photos in a row you can take is limited by the speed of your memory card. If you’re shooting RAW photos, each one is about 25MB. If you want to shoot three-photos-per-second, then you need a card with a write speed of at least 75MB-per-second.

 

Since every camera is a little different, you need to figure out:

  1. What term(s) does your camera use to reference single or multiple photos created?

  2. What menus do you need to access to choose single or multiple photos created?

  3. What buttons do you need to press to manually change between single and multiple photos created?

  4. Where on your display panel can you see which autofocus mode you have chosen? What icons or words are used to denote each autofocus mode?

 

There you have it--the three steps you need to follow for accurate focus every time. As long as you figure out the terms, menus, and buttons related to each step, then you’ll have this important technical skill mastered. Don’t let the camera predict your focus any more. Take control and create with intention!

 

Want a little more help? I have a huge education section on my website! You'll find free articles, mentoring, and upcoming class information. 

 

Aaron Taylor is a stay-at-home-dad and professional portrait and product photographer. Aaron is forever blessed to be in love and married to his best friend and partner in parenthood. Most of his time is spent chasing his curious, energetic kids, a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. Aaron lives in Columbus, Ohio. Before moving to Columbus in the summer of 2016, Aaron was a high school English and Drama teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. He spent ten years in the classroom and earned National Board Certification in English Language Arts. Give him his family, a good cup of coffee, and a homemade cookie or three, and all is right in Aaron’s world.

www.aarontaylorphoto.com

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