Cameta 101: Getting the Most Out of Focus Modes

Most modern digital cameras have a variety of focusing modes to help you get sharp images in many different situations, but for many novice users, anything beyond “auto” or “manual” is a mystery.  Here, we’ll break down the most common focus modes, and provide some useful tips that will help improve your photography experience.

Single Shot Autofocus activates when the shutter release button is pressed halfway (although some camera models also have an “AF on” button).  This will keep the focus locked on the subject until the button is released. It is useful for framing a shot by focusing first, holding the button down and moving the camera to compose your shot. Your subject will remain in focus until the button is fully depressed or released. If the camera focuses on the wrong area, or if you decide to change which area should be in sharp focus, you can release the shutter button and press it again to focus on something else.

Continuous Autofocus is useful for moving subjects, especially when you are shooting sports or children who just won’t stay still. When the shutter button is pressed halfway, it will continually try to keep your subject in focus. When looking through the viewfinder, you will see that any movement by the camera or the subject will result in the camera refocusing. Some models have an option to vary the speed of this action.  While fast speeds are great for tracking moving objects, slower speeds prevent your focus from quickly changing when something temporarily gets between you and your subject. Some cameras with Live View mode can even recognize a specific area of your subject, and track that area with surprising accuracy, but in my experience the autofocus speed slows down too much for this to be useful when shooting fast-moving subjects.

Newer cameras with live view also feature a Facial Recognition Focus Mode, which locates faces within the frame and keeps them in constant focus. In this mode, you will see boxes around the faces (typically yellow) of the main subject(s), and also some smaller white boxes for people that the camera deems as a secondary subject. Some models can detect many faces, and the camera will attempt to have everyone in focus when taking a family shot.

Focus Point Selection is as important as selecting a focus mode, as this determines exactly where in the frame the camera will focus.  Focus points are shown on your viewfinder and/or LCD screen, and you can manually select which point, or group of points, is active, and in turn the camera will focus on what is on those points. Understanding focus points is useful for all types of images.  For instance, when shooting portraits, you would typically want the eyes to be in sharp focus. By aligning a focus point with one of the subject’s eyes (see right, notice the red focus point on the right eye), you can be sure the most important part of your portrait will be crisp and clear.

Some cameras have less focus points than others, and sometimes, you may need to use single shot focus mode as described above with just a few points to achieve the desired focus.  This requires a bit of practice, but ultimately offers plenty of control for most shots.  Higher end cameras usually have dozens of focus points, making the process of locating and locking on your subject quick and easy.  In addition, most cameras have the ability to automatically choose which points to focus on, and typically, they do a good job of figuring out what is happening within the frame and focusing accordingly.  This is helpful when you are short on time, or if you want shooting to be as easy as possible.  On the other hand, the camera can’t read your mind, and may not focus on exactly what you want.

Manual Focus is the most basic mode. Proper focus is determined by adjusting the focus ring on the barrel of your lens until you are happy with the image.  While focusing manually may seem difficult, it is usually the best way to achieve creative, dynamic photos.  After all, cameras don’t think outside of the box… they are set to do what should be done and not what an artist would do. With manual focus, you can experiment and even take some purposely out-of-focus shots if desired (see left).

It is also the best way, in my opinion, to shoot macro shots.  For example, in macro photography, you are usually very close to your subject, and the image will have a shallow depth of field (meaning if one spot is sharp, other areas closer or further away will be blurry). You may be taking an image of a butterfly on a flower, with the butterfly as the subject (see below), but the camera may autofocus on the flower instead. Manual focus allows you to quickly focus exactly how you want, without moving the camera or changing focus points, and shoot away. Some people just like to take as much control as possible, and this mode is the one for that.

These are the basic modes that most cameras are capable of. At a later date, we will go over some advanced focusing techniques, to help you get creative with your photos and get the most out of your camera.

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