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Get better focus: choose your own focus points!

March 7, 2012

Learning how to choose your own  focus points will help you take much better photos.  When your camera is set on one of the auto modes (auto, portrait, etc.), or in one of the other shooting modes but still set up on the original factory settings, your camera chooses the focus points for you.  Within your viewfinder, as you press your shutter button halfway down, you will likely see one or more lights light up where the camera is choosing to focus.  Sometimes the camera chooses a “logical” point to focus on, but sometimes it doesn’t.  For example, if you are taking a photo of a child wearing a busy patterned outfit, or sitting against a high-contrast backdrop, the camera may choose to focus on the outfit or backdrop instead of on the child’s eyes.  See how blurry my main subject is here?  The camera focused on the blanket instead:

When shooting portraits, you almost always want to have the eyes in focus.  You will be more likely to get the eyes in focus if you choose your focus point instead of letting your camera do it for you.

Here I chose my own focus point, and focused on the eye on the right (the rule is to focus on the eye closest to the camera!)

If you are in one of the advanced shooting modes (like Aperture priority: A or Av, or Shutter priority: S or Tv, or Manual: M) you can select your own auto focus point (AF).  This is not the same as changing to manual focus (which is when you adjust the focus using the focus dial on your lens).  The specific directions for how to choose your own focus points depend on your camera model, so now would be a good time to break out your instruction manual.  Look for something in the table of contents called something like “Selecting the AF point”  If you can’t find your instruction manual, you can look it up online!

Once you have found how to change your AF point, you can use your dial or arrow buttons to move the point around in your viewfinder.

There are two ways to manually choose your focus point.

The first is called “focus-recompose“.  This is when you use the center focus point and while you hold the shutter button halfway down, you “recompose” or adjust your camera so that your subject isn’t centered anymore.  This can be helpful because it’s one less button to adjust when you’re snapping away.  However, it doesn’t work well if you are photographing using a very shallow depth of field (small amount in focus, like a close-up shot using with a small f/number like f/1.8-f/3.5 for example.  Because the depth of field is so shallow, the simple act of moving your camera can cause you to miss focus.

The second way is called “toggling“.  It is still a method of auto-focusing, but you change the focus point to being the one closest to where your subject is in the frame.   While looking through your viewfinder, you move or “toggle”  your focus points around to get your desired composition.  This can be more accurate than focus-recompose, especially with a shallow depth of field.  With a still subject (such as a sitting/sleeping child) you might have time to toggle your focus points.  With practice you can get faster at it.

It is worth trying out both methods to see what feels more natural to you!

~Sonja (MWAC host)

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