Focus point selection or focus and recompose? – Photography for Beginners Series
A sharp image depends on much more than a fast shutter speed (although that is important). Focusing is a skill and there are lots of different ways you and your camera can focus on a subject. Today I am talking about two focus techniques and discussing which you should use. Focus point selection or focus and recompose?
If you really want to get the full benefit of these beginner sessions during which I am delivering the 101 on controlling your camera in manual mode then it is a great idea to go back to the start and make your way through the episodes one at a time. Then you will understand everything I am talking about here. I always find that those who take short cuts end up giving up because they have gaps in their knowledge so don’t let that happen to you.
Last time I went over autofocus modes and I mentioned that, because I shoot both moving and still subjects I just keep my camera set to continuous autofocus mode because I know that will allow me to achieve sharpness for both.
But, there are lots of photographers who would not be able to keep their camera set to continuous autofocus like this.
This is because they focus using a technique called ‘focus-and-recompose’.
If you have never heard of this then I am going to explain what it is using an example.
So let’s say you are taking a photograph of a friend. Let’s say you want to place them off to the side of the image slightly. More often than not an off-centre subject is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye than a centred subject and I will be covering this in a lot more detail when we get to composition. And if you think about it, more often than not the subject you want to focus on will not be in the centre of the scene.
So let’s say your focus point is in the middle of your frame which is where it is by default when you buy your camera. Before I go on I want to make sure you all understand what your focus point is. The focal point of your image is where you have chosen to focus. Your camera’s focus point will be represented by a small circle, rectangle or square which lights up when you press your shutter button halfway. You may have lots of focal points which light up or you may just have one.
If you are taking a portrait of someone you would usually place your focal point on the nearest eye because it is important that the eyes are sharp. So let’s say you do just that. Your friend is now pretty much smack, bang in the middle of your photograph because of this.
But you don’t want them there. You want them slightly off to the side of your image. So what do you do?
Well those who use the ‘focus-and-recompose’ technique focus on their subject’s eyes by pressing their shutter button half-way down. They then keep their finger lightly pressed down on that shutter button and they move their cameras ever so slightly to place their subjects to the side of the frame. As long as they have not lifted their finger from the shutter button the focus will have stayed on their subject’s eyes even though their focal point is now pointing at something else. They then fully press down the shutter button to take the photograph.
As long as you keep your finger lightly pressed down on the shutter button your focus should stay where you want it whilst you recompose the scene.
This is called the ‘focus-and-recompose’ technique and loads of photographers use this very successfully.
There is nothing wrong with this technique. I used it for years before someone taught me a different and much more accurate way. But it does have its issues. Let me outline why I don’t recommend the focus-and-recompose technique;
- It requires a lot of practice. When you first start using this technique you will miss focus all the time. Pressing that shutter button lightly down is a skill in itself. All too often you will just press it all the way down and take a picture without meaning to. Or you will press it lightly down then start to move your subject over to the side but will lift your finger off by accident and your camera will then refocus on whatever your focal point is now pointing to. As you gain experience then, yes, you will get much more skilled at it and this will happen less and less.
- In Episode 3 I talked to you about the fact that you can use a wide aperture to emphasise your subject and throw your background and/or foreground out of focus? Well the focus-recompose technique is much less accurate when your aperture is wide and your depth of field is shallow. If you have quite a small section of your scene from front to back that is going to be in sharp focus then it is far too easy to move your focus point to a part of your scene that is actually outwith your sharp focus!
- Thirdly, focus-recompose only works well in single servo or one shot autofocus mode because you need to be able to just focus once then lock focus on your subject whilst you move your camera to recompose the scene.It won’t work well at all when your camera is in continuous autofocus mode. If you think about it a bit that makes sense. When you are in continuous autofocus your camera can refocus again and again as long as your finger is holding the shutter button halfway down. So as soon as you tried to recompose your shot your focus might shift to something else.N.B. You can get around this issue if you switch to back button focusing (which is awesome by the way). It just so happens I have a podcast episode all about it right here…
- And lastly, focusing and recomposing with fast moving subjects is pretty hit-and-miss. If you have a fast moving toddler running towards you and you want to place them off to the side of your frame, you are going to have to focus on them using your central focus point and then, at lightning speed, you will have to recompose that shot to place them off-centre and press the shutter button before they run out of the focal plane completely.
Now there are ways around some of these problems but they involve learning about even more buttons and settings on your camera and I think there are more than enough to contend with as it is! When I used the focus-recompose technique I used to miss focus all the time. As soon as I switched away from it my images were almost always sharp.
So what is the technique I use now?
I compose my scene just the way I want it to look. I place my subject in the scene where I want them to be and then I simply select the focus point nearest to them.
Yes, you have more than one focus point! Some of you will have lots and lots! You don’t have to use the focus point that is in the middle of your frame.
To do this you need to make sure you are on the correct setting. With Nikon DSLRs you want to look for your autofocus area mode settings. You will have single point focus, dynamic area focus and auto area focus. You will be able to move your focus point in both single point focus and in dynamic area focus. With entry-level Canon DSLRs you want to look for your AF point selection settings. You will probably have manual selection and automatic selection. You will only be able to move your focal point in manual selection.
Depending on your camera and your knowledge of it you might need to check your manual or do a google search to find out where you control these settings and how to change them. Different cameras will have different names for these settings but what I can tell you is that you want the setting that allows you to select your focus point.
N.B. Some cameras have a focus lock button or switch. You need to make sure your focus lock is not on or you won’t be able to select different focus points. If you don’t know how to do this just look up focus lock in your manual.
So how do you select your focus point?
Well let’s start with Nikon. Again, I apologise if you are not shooting with Nikon or Canon but it would just be impossible to cover them all so instead I have a list of forums you can use to post a question relating to your specific brand and model of camera;
So with Nikon you are looking for your Autofocus Area Mode settings. You should have single point, dynamic and auto. In auto mode your camera decides where to focus. You do not want this! So the options left are either single point area focus or dynamic area focus. The difference between these is that with single point focus you choose one precise point in your scene to be in sharp focus. With dynamic area focus you do the same but the areas around this will act as a backup in case your subject moves. I am usually in dynamic area focus mode because I like the comfort of this back up since I photograph fast moving little people a lot of the time!
So once in one of these modes Nikon users simply use their back arrow buttons to move their focal point around the scene. These arrow buttons are to the right of your screen. So all you need to do is press lightly down on your shutter button to see your focal point light up and then move it around using your arrows until it is over the point you wish to focus on. Easy!
Canon users – you will have the option of either automatic AF point selection which will allow your camera to choose your focal point for you or manual AF point selection which allows you to select it instead. Manual is what you need for this.
Once you are in this mode you will be able to move your focus point around your scene using either the dial or the arrow buttons to the right of your screen. If your focal point stops moving just simply press your AF point selection button again and it will start to move to your command again.
How do you know if it is moving?
You will see it moving both through your viewfinder and on your screen. I always use my viewfinder so that I don’t miss any action!
You might have all sorts of other options on your camera. Examples might be 3D tracking or face detection. There is no harm in trying them out, however, I am going to stick my neck out here and say that you are almost always better to keep control of where and how you want to focus. Let’s not overcomplicate things.
So now that I have told you how to set up your camera so that you can select your focus point, and indeed, how you actually go about doing that. I am now going to touch on the challenges you will encounter when you use this technique. Nothing is perfect and I am sure that is becoming clear as you progress!
- You might be limited with the number of focus points you have available to you. There may not be a focus point available to you in exactly the place you want it to be. However, there will be one nearby. To get round this what you can do is alter your composition a little so that your focus point is where you want it to be and then you can crop your image a little afterwards to get the exact composition you want.
- The next challenge is going to be learning how to move your focus point quickly and without getting into a muddle. I move mine so fast and without even thinking now but I certainly didn’t start out like that!
When you are beginning your journey into manual control you are going to get in a flap all the time. That is a promise. I remember tearing my hair out with everything I had to think about at once when taking photographs.
To take a photograph in manual mode there is so much to remember and consider and there are so many different things your fingers need to do. Unfortunately all of this is happening at the same time. Your brain is whizzing with a zillion different settings and your fingers are trying to keep up. I wish I could tell you that there is a way to avoid all of this. There isn’t. You have to go through this stage. You have to just accept it will take time before you are skilled. You have to have faith that as long as you keep practicing you will eventually reach a time when you are doing everything with hardly a second thought.
OR you can be lazy, give up and go back to the restraints of automatic shooting.
Remember when you got into a car for the first time. If you live in the UK it was most likely a manual shift car. I remember my first ever driving lesson. I remember thinking how could I be expected to check my mirrors, change gear, balance my clutch and gas pedals and steer all at the same time??!! I remember being amazed that people could talk or listen to the radio at the same time as driving. Fast forward a year and it was all second nature to me. I was driving places and hardly aware of what my hands and feet were doing.
It will be the same with your photography. If you stay in manual mode and keep practicing with the settings I have recommended then this will all become second nature very soon. So many people give up because it all just gets too much for them at the start. It is not because it is difficult, it is trying to coordinate everything between brain and fingers in such a short time period that really gets to them. If only they realised that if they just pushed through for a little while longer they would reach that place where it all just comes together. They will have taken a photograph without hardly a thought to button pressing and it will be the most fantastic feeling!
So I suppose the question is – are you willing to go through the tricky stage to get to the amazing stage? And if you are then you have to realise that this will only happen with lots and lots of practice.
TEA BREAK TASK
I want you to set up your camera so that you can select your focus point. So this will be dynamic area or single point for Nikon or manual selection for Canon.
If you have another brand then check your manual, google the question or post it to a forum.
Once you are all set I want you to practice composing a scene and then selecting the focus point closest to the part of the subject you want to focus on. Do it over and over to get some practice.
Is there more to achieving sharpness? You bet there is! If you are still struggling with out-of-focus images then check out my list of reasons for why this might be happening to you!
I would love to hear from you on this! Do you use this technique already? Are you a devout focus-and-recompose user? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or on social media.