Photography Basics : Let’s Talk Focus

I have been getting a lot of questions about focus recently, and I think it’s a good topic to discuss because so many of you are new to DSLRs and focus can be a sticky issue at first (and always to some extent!)

Here is a common scenario:

You get a new DSLR and you immediately realize that when you use program mode with your kit lens, the camera wants to use the flash all the time but your pictures look god awful, probably not much better than your point and shoot! So you do some research and maybe come across a post like mine that tells you to NEVER us your pop up flash. Aha!

So you set your DSLR to force the flash off. Now, you are maybe still in program or even AV or TV mode but you notice that your images are always blurry.. so you do some more research and learn that you need to upgrade that crappy kit lens to something like the universal first upgrade lens the 50mm 1.8 (nifty fifty).

Now, you can open up your aperture all the way to 1.8 and let TONS of light in.. yippee!! And at first you are so happy, because you are getting tons of beautiful lens blur (bokeh) and your images are staring to look more artistic. Awesome. But then, as your eye starts to become more trained you notice that your images look “soft” if not downright out of focus compared to the images of photographers you admire.. but you don’t know why.

Sound familiar? Yeah, to me too, because this was ME a year ago!

There are TWO main reasons (Ok actually three in my case, but the last one is more rare) that you might not be nailing focus:

1) Focusing technique
2) Settings (aperture/depth of field and shutterspeed)
3) A problem with the lens itself – again, rare but it happened to me so I want to include it.

Let’s tackle them in order..

Focusing Technique – Yes, there are actually techniques to achieving good focus!

The first focus rule is that you should always (except for certain artistic situations) strive to have the subjects eyes in focus, so you should use the forward eye as your focal point. Ok, that one is easy, but I have to say it because I didn’t realize this when I first started shooting!

Now for the more technique part: There are TWO methods to focusing, one is called “focus recompose” and the other is to toggle the focal points on your DSLR to manually choose the focal point closest to the eye of your subject in the composition in front of you.

There are actually two other types of focusing, one where your camera automatically tries to select one or two focus points FOR you and also AI Servo mode, but I don’t recommend these modes because we are striving to learn and control our focus, not let the camera make it’s own decisions. So for the purpose of this post, lets assume and/or turn our focus mode to use manual focus select.  To do this, you need to press the autofocus select button –  on canons it’s the button circled on the top right and then use the joystick arrows to move the focus points around on the rebel models:

afselect

OR my preferred method which is to use the wheel that is just behind the shutter to toggle:

changing focus points on the rebel xsi

Ok, so lets put this to practical use..

So assume I want this composition for my image:

Notice his right eye is closest to me and the one that I want to focus on:

focus2

So I want to use that focus point that is closest to his front eye by manually toggling my focus points to get to the one closest to where I want to focus which is what I actually did to take this image.

Now, you can imagine the downside to this is that if you want to change your composition around a lot, it can take a bit of time to keep toggling these points.  So that’s where the “center recompose” method comes in more handy.

To focus recompose you set the center point as your focus point, then you move the center point to the area you want to focus on, lock focus and then recompose.

So for example  to compose this image I would move my camera over Jasper’s face until the center point fell on his forward eye.  I would depress the shutter halfway to lock focus and then without lifting my finger I would move the camera back to compose the image the way that I wanted even and only THEN would I press the shutter all the way down to take the picture.   For you visual learners, here is a youtube video demonstrating that method.

There is a rather large caveat when using the focus recompose method which is that when you are shooting with a VERY narrow depth of field it can actually cause focus errors because even that little shift to his eye and back will cause your focus to be off.   There is an entire web page devoted to “why focus recompose sucks” and it is true in certain situations.   Those situations are when you have a really narrow Depth of Field (DOF) caused by your settings and distance to subject (and also your lens’ focal length.)

Narrow DOF is a bit beyond the scope of what I want to discuss today (click here to read about it on wikipedia), but as a general rule the closer you are to your subject and the wider your aperture, the shallower your DOF will be and in THOSE situations, even the slight shift of your camera angle while focus recomposing can actually make the focus fall somewhere other than where you intended.

Furthermore, if your DOF is extremely shallow and your subjects eyes are not squarely facing you on the same plane, it’s likely that even if you do get the front eye in focus, the back eye will not be because it is further back or on a different focal plane.  This is why shooting at wide open apertures when subjects are close to you is very tricky for nailing focus, and one of the reasons that people start to notice they have focus issues when upgrading to the nifty fifty..

After all, with the kit lens you can’t go wider than say 4.0, which means that your DOF is narrow enough that you won’t have these issues! (You may have OTHER issues, but that’s a whole other matter :)

Here’s an example:

Looks ok small, but when you look at it larger, you can see that his back (left) eye is softer focus than the right eye. This is because I was really close to my subject and I was shooting at 2.8.  To get both of his eyes in focus I would need to have either backed up, closed up my aperture a bit or positioned him so that his eyes were both the same distance/angle from my camera lens (yea right!).

So don’t be like me when I first got it and dial your nifty fifty all the way open to 1.8 JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN when  3.2 or even 3.5 will still give you enough light and lovely bokeh and a lot more wiggle room in regards to focus.

Which brings me to Part II: Settings!

Settings are extremely important as you can tell from the above few paragraphs, and often the aperture is too wide open, but even MORE likely is that your shutter speed is not fast enough. Well, I shouldn’t say that it’s more likely, what you really need to do is examine your images and see if the entire image is soft or if there is an area in focus but just not the area you WANT to be in focus! If the area in focus is not the one that you intended, chances are you are dealing with too shallow DOF or a focus technique issue.  If your entire image is out of focus (OOF) or soft then most likely you are not using a high enough shutterspeed to freeze the action of your quick moving toddler!

The general rule is to double your focal length with shutterspeed.. so if I am using a 50mm lens, I need AT LEAST a shutterspeed over 1/100, but for babies you really need much more than that because I think that rule was written with cooperative adults in mind!

If you had all the light in the world (or are using a speedlite),  you would be able to keep your shutterspeed always up over 1/200th or so. But we all know that doesn’t always happen, so what are your options? You can sacrifice either your aperture opening wider OR crank up your ISO to let in the extra light to be able to keep your shutterspeed high.  Now before reading this longwinded neverending post, you MIGHT (like I used to) always choose to open your aperture all the way to 1.8, but now you know that you will have a hell of a time getting perfect focus at 1.8, so you might want to compromise and go a little less wide on the aperture and compensate with raising your ISO.  Yes, high ISO produces noise on entry level DSLRs (this is one of the main reasons I upgraded to the mark II) but you can run your images through free community versions of noise reduction software like noiseware and neatimage.

I used to always err on the side of lowering my shutterspeed because I HATED the noise I got on my rebel at 400 ISO or above, but then I realized that motion blur was ruining my images a lot more consistently then too much noise – there is no software that can take your OOF image and make it in focus!

All of what I just said in the previous few paragraphs assumes that you are shooting in manual mode. Why? Because if you are shooting in P, AV or TV modes you will not have the kind of control you need to MAKE the correct trade offs and decisions about where you have room to let more light in, SS, aperture or ISO.   Ask me how I know this is not the right thing to do…

Ok, I’ll show you!

Here is an image I shot of baby Jasper:

jasper week 1 color

Totally OOF. And now that I look at the settings in Flickr it’s very obvious why! I was shooting in AV (aperture priority) mode with my aperture at 2.8 – ok, fine, but the necessary shutterspeed that the camera gave me for the amount of light I had in the room was 1/15th!!! I should have shot in manual mode, opened my ap up a little bit more AND either raised my ISO even higher or better yet, found more light so I could just raise the shutterspeed with out having to up the ISO higher than 800.

And now the last possible (rare, but not as rare as it should be) reason you are not nailing focus well..

A defective lens

After months of not getting my focus correct, I noticed that almost ALL of my images were not focusing where I wanted them to, even when I DID toggle the focus points and use a wide enough aperture and fast enough shutterspeed.  These images look something like this one:

A blurry subject which is where I wanted my focus to fall, but an IN focus area (notice that the zebra stripes in the left foreground are perfectly sharp). Now, this can happen in some images, but this was happening in ALL of my images, even when I did use a narrower aperture or a high shutterspeed. At this point, I started to suspect that there might be something wrong with my lens.

To make a long story short, I STILL wasn’t entirely sure that it wasn’t my fault even after I sent it in to Canon to be serviced, so felt very vindicated when the lens returned from Canon and they confirmed that it did indeed need to be adjusted.

Like I said, this sort of thing is rare for a new lens, so is definitely not the first thing you should suspect if you have focusing issues, but if you really focus on technique and settings and still see no improvement after giving yourself ample time to master these skills, you might start investigating this option.

Ok, now – any questions?? ;)

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Christine says:

this is helpful thanks….ive always shot to focus center…is that okay? i mean i can focus upper right on the eyes per say if i had to but its all about composition choosing where to focus?

ariana says:

Yes Christine, that’s how I do it now in fact (focus recompose method!)

Lacey says:

This is seriously genius! I have been kicking myself for so long about focus and how irritating it is to attempt a photo to just have a weird part of it in focus. THANK YOU!!

Kristen says:

Thanks so much! I just took the kids out to take some pics for Chritsmas cards. They were Ok but I didn’t get to the park until about 45 min before sun set. I was SO scared that if I bumped up my ISO they would be a ton of noise (which happend at the same park before with not enough light) so I opend up the aperature. Any way every pic was susper soft and not sharp at all…so frustrating. I think after reading this I finally get it! Thanks so much!!

EmmyJ says:

I haven’t had a chance to try your recommendations but I can’t wait! This focusing issue and many others in your blogs are the exact questions I’ve had as I learn my new DSLR and 85mmm 1.8 lens. You are a mind reader. Thank you for helping and I look forward to more great info to improve my pictures! I have 2 boys under two so I’m trying to perfect my focusing skills – not always easy to keep up with my 22 month old:)

Hi! I’m new here… just found you/your blog! :)

Thank you so much for this! I’m always so grateful to photographer who share information and take the time to teach me! I can’t wait to go home and practice – love all that focus recompose info!

Thanks,
Mary

Amy S. says:

Great tutorial. Thank you!

Jennwith4 says:

Wow awesome post! Cant wait to practice today. Just started with my T1i yesterday. I have the kit lens and saving up to get a 50mm 1.8 very soon. Thx for the info!

Really good focus description and tips. I think this is one of the most important aspects of great photography.

Lauren says:

thanks ariana!
I’m torn on getting a 30mm since it wouldn’t work if I upgraded to a mark II. It’s interesting…I’ve seen on some other sites people recommending an 85mm lens for portraits… but that seems to long for indoor shots (especially in my smaller house).
Suppose I could always keep 2 camera bodies or sell the older one at some point. So many lens options it can be overwhelming. I’m considering doing some part time photography work as well (I have done a few shoots for friends)…so that’s a consideration too. So great to have a resource like your blog for insights from you!
I’m cautiously expecting my 2nd miracle baby in March (my doctors said a first would be impossible without IVF)…and want to get my camera ready before then. Oh yeah… and print out the million photos I haven’t yet and do a scrapbook for my son. That’s another post though. : )
I bet you have some great photobooks/scrapbooks!!! Do you have a post on that?

ariana says:

Lauren, definitely get something better than the kit lens first, then if you can swing the $$ the mark II is great! I personally liked the 30mm focal length better on the crop sensor, Sigma makes a 30mm 1.4 that was my favorite lens before I upgraded to the mark II :)

Lauren says:

so somehow I missed this post when it first was written. I think I will re-read it 50 times though. I’ve been having a terrible time with focus with my 50D and the standard lens it came with. This will definitely help!!! You have no idea… thank you so much!!!!!
I’m trying to decide which lens to get first..and it looks like you recommend the 50. My current standard lens is a 28 to 135..and I would like an upgrade of that lens as well… but trying how to figure out how to spend money best first. (I do mostly shots of my 22 month old). I’m strongly considering the MarkII as well at this point.. but not sure if the lens upgrades first would be what I really need. What do you think???

ariana says:

Ashley, I missed this when you posted it originally.. I hope they got your camera fixed! Give an update if you ever come back..

Ashley says:

Ariana! Ok I owe you a HUGE thank you! So friday night I did the focus test on my Canon 50mm 1.4…totally front focusing!!! I had my husband try it out as well…same results! So we called Canon because its still under warranty…I was bummed I would be without my fav lens, but knew it would be for the best!!! Then when I was googling about it I found a few posts where the 20D was front focusing! So I tried out all my lenses…all results were the same…borrowed my neighbors 40D…and pics were right on! So this whole time its been my camera front focusing & its not all me! Its a huge difference too! So my camera is off to the shop today! I a ust praying it will be back before my 2 shoots this weekend!!! So thank you for posting this! I never thought it was the equipment! I ALWAYS thought it was me!!!!

ariana says:

Ashley, I only touched on this briefly in the post, but also taking a step back can help immensely because the depth of field won’t be so shallow! It gives you more wiggle room :)

Ashley says:

I love this! I so need it! I have been shooting pretty wide open & it always drives me nuts that one eye is in focus & the other isnt! I have the 50mm 1.4 & I love it, but I think I will really love it now!!! I am going to try not to go under 2.8 ever, & usually stay around 3.5 & hopefully I will have better focus! I can’t wait to try it & play! I have twin 17 month old boys, who are napping at the moment…can’t wait for my “subjects” to get up so I can practice!!! I also worried about the noise in Higher ISO but you are right…noise is better than blurry OOF pics!

Alli says:

Thanks so much for writing and sharing this great information! I just got my 50mm in December and I am slowly figuring out the focus (of course like you said I started out using 1.8 ALL the time just because I could!). I found this so helpful!

Becca says:

Oh I am SO blown away by this – thank you so much for the easy-to-follow tutorial! :-) I LOVE it!!

anne marie says:

OMG i can’t take it that you have a mark II! your images are stunning and so is this tutorial.

ariana says:

Great Lisa!

Carol, the AF/MF switch means autofocus or manual focus, you should leave it on AF unless you want to focus manually using the lens ring (it has nothing to do with manual mode on the camera). Hope that helps!

carol says:

Thanks for the WONDERFUL tutorial! i have a question regarding manual mode. I own a Rebel XSi and currently trying a Sigma 30mm 1.4. i do use M settings on the camera but there is a switch on the lens thats labelled “AF”and “MF”. Do i need to switch the lens to “MF” when i am already on M mode for the camera!

Really appreciate your tips and beautiful blog :)

Lisa E says:

Marci,

I have the Canon Rebel T1i and love it. It is the newest rebel and has HD video. I read reviews and it has similiar features to the Canon 50d. It is a great camera. Alot of my issues is user error and lack of photography knowledge. But I am learning! Ariana has helped out alot!

Ariana,

As for the flash, that was my issue this past weekend. My SS was really high. I kept in in P mode last night (to see what the camera settings were) and it was a low SS. I have the flash in ETTL mode and had to adjust the flash output to 1/3. The pictures turned out good.
As always, thanks for the information!

ariana says:

Hi Marsi, any of the entry level DSLRs will be a huge step up from a point and shoot. I started with the Canon Rebel Xsi, there is a newer version out now that also has video if that is something you’d want.

I don’t know too much about Nikons, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that one is better than the other, particularly in the entry level market. The only edge that canon may have is that there are more cheaper lenses available for canons and more on the second hand market too.

Marci says:

Ariana, it was so lucky of me to have come across your blog, especially this entry!

I am currently using a Casio point and shoot and it works great for me most of the time, and it’s so little that I have it with me all of the time. However, I am ready to start doing more. I want to be able to focus better, be able to take better pictures in mixed lighting and in general be able to play around with different techniques. I am a novice, but I am learning alot by playing around with all of what the Casio has to offer to figure out what the heck I am doing.

What would you recommend for a someone like me who is looking into breaking into something better, more versatile and all around more capabilities? I’ve heard great things about Nikon.

Thanks in advance for your advice.
Marci

Jen says:

Great tutorial Ariana! Very clear and well-written.

And some good news for xti users (and the newer Rebels too, I’m guessing)… you can toggle focus points using the main dial as well. I don’t have my camera with me right now, but I belive I just hold down the AF point selection button while i turn the dial by the shutter. That changes the focus point that’s highlighted in the viewfinder. Saves you from having to take the camera away from your eye!

Also, I made the switch to BBF a few weeks ago too. And really loving it! Oh, photo forums, where have you been all of my life?

And finally, I’m loving the sigma 30 1.4. Thank you! One of these days I’ll get my blog up and running and show you what it’s up to these days.

Abbey says:

Ariana, this is a great post! I can totally relate to your example of one of the eyes not being in focus. It’s happened on way too many pictures and is frustrating! I posted a thread on ILP and learned that it was due to depth of field and I was shooting too wide (1.8). Also, I was doing focus/recompose which I’m sure didn’t help either. Now, I’m using BBF on my 40d and toggling my focus points and it seems to be getting better.

Amy says:

great post! thank you! i have a number of really nice canon lenses from some old school SLRs. when i try to attach them to my rebel it says there is a communication error. does anyone know if there’s a reliable adapter i could use?

Fiona says:

Hi

Thanks for this post. I am not as pro as the rest of you – in fact I’m a complete novice when it comes to composing great photos, but I have just ordered a ‘bridge’ camera Sony DSC HX1 and want to learn how to use it properly. (Ariana you may remember me asking you how to use my crappy little point and shoot to get great pictures of my baby….I’ve given up and decided to upgrade!) This is a great read. I don’t know if my camera will have all the features you mention ( I am going to download my manual before my camera arrives and have a look at it!) but there are some tips that I have definitely found useful! Would love to see more of this type of stuff! Keep it coming.

All he best. Fiona

ariana says:

Lisa, I’m not sure what you mean, the flash should synch up to your camera if it’s in ETTL mode, but if you use the flash in manual mode you will need to adjust it up and down. But maybe what you are having issues with is synch speed.. every camera has a shutterspeed limit that you can use your flash with. I think most models it’s 1/250 or something.. faster than that and you get black “curtains” from seeing the shutter. With flash you get to use really low shutterspeeds because the flash freezes the motion, so it’s best to use a really low shutterspeed to let as much ambient light in as possible which negates that “flashy” look! Not sure if that is all stuff you already knew, if so – sorry!

Jill – glad my timing is so impeccable ;)

Jill says:

As always, you rock! Somehow you seem to know the *exact* issue that I’m dealing with at the moment. I got a “nifty fifty” for Christmas and have been questioning my focusing techniques ever since. GREAT post!

Lisa E says:

Ariana- Nice post! I needed this months ago! I bought the nifty fifty and still got soft pictures. Since reading this, It is b/c i was shooting in Av mode and the shutter speed was set really low (1/50). I also wasn’t focusing correctly.

Since then I have learned about BBF (which I love and can tell a difference), received my new Tamron 28-75mm lens, and learning to set my exposure (shooting in M now). Now I need to pay attention to where I am focusing and centering and recomposing. WOW there is so much to this!

I also purchased the canon 430 speedlite. My problem is in low lighting when I go to use my external flash, it is reacting off my camera settings in M. it was like the flash wasn’t syncing up to my camera. Does that make sense?

Kimberly says:

Oooh…. and now I’m even MORE jealous of you with your MkII!!!

ariana says:

@Kimberly, yes pretty much that’s it! As far as your other questions, I don’t know because the Mark II has a dedicated BBF meaning that you don’t have to change or set anything, you just press that button and as long as you have it depressed you can use the shutter to just fire (it disables the shutter focus). So basically you can switch back and forth without changing any settings.

@Pam, I should have mentioned about that rule that it isn’t as exact on the lower end.. meaning you really shouldn’t EVER go below 1/60th no matter how wide your lens. In fact, even 1/60th is pushing it. 1/125 is better for an adult and faster even better for kids. Where that rule really comes into play is when you are using telephoto and macro lenses you need even HIGHER SS because of the potential for camera shake at those higher focal lengths. So what is ok for a 50mm is NOT ok at 200mm.

@Alica, I’ll see what I can do :)

Alicia says:

oooh – I 2nd a tut on BBF!

pam says:

Great post, and very timely for me. I have been inspired to take my Digital Rebel out of P mode and had some decent results with AV mode. Maybe today I will be brave enough to go all the way to M!

I actually figured out yesterday on my own (so proud) that I had my lens too wide open to get more than one eye (of my son’s) in focus.

My new lens is a 30mm f/2 – so I should strive for at least 1/60 shutterspeed? Good to know, even though, yeah…toddlers. They move a lot.

Kimberly says:

So… is your standard method now: BBfocus + toggle focus points? No more center-recompose? Which CF do you have it set at… I know there are several different metering-focus-shutter options and I’m trying to determine the best one to use…

Lisa says:

It’s like you’re in my mind. I can’t wait until tonight when I can read this in more detail, I have a feeling it’s going to change my world :) Thank you so much for this post!!!!! I’ve been having focus issues but was kind of embarrassed to ask about it on the photography message boards because I felt like such a novice. I’m so glad I’m not alone!

Lindsay says:

Thank you for this post! This is totally me right now. :)

While I’m learning to get better at focusing, I’ve found that if I fire off a bunch of shots then I’m bound to get at least one that’s usable. Not a long-term solution, but it works while I’m still getting the hang of it!

PS – Baby Jasper is soooooo cute!

Kimberly says:

I think my 40D and your MkII have a similar menu function (under CFIV?) for separating metering and focus. I will look forward to your input… I’m struggling to get really comfortable with it. It’s SO hard to break a habit so ingrained as shutter-button focusing is for me, and I’ve not been able to find anyone on the boards who uses it to troubleshoot with me. But I’m keeping at it! :)

ariana says:

Michelle, yes that IS a typo! I had caught it and fixed it but you must have been reading the post while I was editing it :)

Kimberly, I think it’s just a matter of getting used to it.. well for me I loved it instantly, so it’s mostly been a matter of REMEMBERING to use it! But once I press that BB, the ability to just fire off a bunch of frames is just awesome. Maybe it’s a positioning thing? Like where the button that you use is located compared to where it is on the mark II?

Michelle says:

I could just hug you for this post!! This is EXACTLY what we went/are going through!!! I have a sony alpha and we upgraded a couple months ago to a 50mm 1.4 sigma lens. Would you believe it if I told you I take about 99.9% of pictures at 1.4f??!? I KNOW it is hurting my focus, but I LOVE the light…this was very helpful for me in terms for trying to nail better focus.

THANK YOU!

Also, unless I am totally confused (very possible), I think you have a type-o in this sentence under Baby Jasper’s picture: “I should have shot in manual mode, opened my ap up a little bit more AND either raised my ISO even higher or better yet, found more light so I could just raise the shutterspeed with out having to up the shutterspeed higher than 800.” Did you mean, ‘up the ISO higher than 800’?

Thanks, again – I love reading your blog! :)

ariana says:

Good, glad you all found it useful- it took forever to write!

Kimberly, I LOVE back button focus – I never tried it on my xsi because you have to go into the menu and change some settings there and I just never got around to giving it a whirl. Then, I discovered by accident that the Mark II has a dedicated back button focus button so you can switch back and forth between shutter focus and BBF. And I have to say it’s AWESOME! I didn’t really get it until I tried it – I will have to do a post about that in the future for sure :)

Kimberly says:

Thanks for this great post! You have a natural ability to teach.

What are your thoughts on back-button focus? Have you tried it? I’m experimenting with it right now… it’s recommended by a lot of photogs but it’s just not intuitive yet.

I haven’t tried toggling my focus points… quite easy to do on my 40D… I’ll have to give that a whirl!

Leigh says:

Awesome post! My Canon 50mm f/1.8 is being delivered today so this was perfect timing for me. I hope you continue to regularly post photo tutorials/tips- they’re really helpful.

ariana says:

Alicia, 3 focal points is pretty measly :( You’d better get really good at focus recompose! ;)

Liz, if there’s any part that needs further explanation let me know!

Liz says:

thank you so much . . now, i’ve got some work to do to figure this all out!!

Alicia says:

another stellar tutorial – fantastic job!
Now I’m sooo bummed that my Nikon D40 only has 3 focal points – I just cannot seem to get ANY kind of usable composition when I use any of those 3 points – so frustrated!