basic photography tips // choosing focus points

The influx of DSLR or “fancy, expensive cameras” means that moms all over the US are the ones trusting themselves to take their family pictures and sometimes with great results! I totally get it, why pay someone each year to do something that I can do myself? People have said “wow, your pictures are great…you must have a really nice camera!” more times than I could ever count. The problem I’ve seen with this mindset is that most of the time you are expecting these cameras to perform the way that a point and shoot would but with better results.

Unfortunately, this is not the case and most of the time it leaves you with very inconsistent performance. Maybe one awesome shot that you love every now and then out of hundreds that you take. The problem is that a HUGE part of photography is actually the photographer, having a nice camera will not give you amazing images.
One fall day I was at my house and I received a frantic call from a close friend:

“My husband bought me this fancy camera and I decided to take our fall pictures at the pumpkin patch today and it’s not working! Can you help?!”

As I struggled to hear her over the screaming children in the background I asked her to explain to me what was happening.

“my kids are all sitting here for a picture but the camera is focusing on a leaf and the rest of the picture is blurry, or the pumpkin is in focus but their faces aren’t…every time I take a picture it’s different…what is going on?!”

I chuckled to myself as I thought about all the moms in the pumpkin patch that day desperately trying to work these “fancy” cameras and maybe 1 of them getting a decent shot out of it. I shouldn’t laugh but this has become something I hear all the time. Let me let you into a little secret…a camera is a piece of equipment and cannot be trusted. If you have your camera set on auto focus, it will decide which object is closest to the camera and that is what will be in focus. Your camera will be the one choosing what leaf, pumpkin or if your lucky, face it wants to focus on. This means that you are completely at the mercy of this very expensive piece of equipment for whether or not you will actually be able to see your beautiful kids smiling at the pumpkin patch. This is one of my very first tips I give to people who want to take consistently good pictures so I thought I would share it with you today!

Turn auto-focus OFF and put YOU in control of what you are focusing on.
So lets start from the beginning. What is “focusing”?

Just for a second as you are looking at this screen notice your peripheral vision and the things that surround you. Do you see how the screen is clear in your vision and things that you aren’t looking at are kind of blurry? That is exactly what’s happening in your camera, where you put your focus point will be clear and everything else will kind of blur out. The amount of blur depends on the lens you have and the settings either you or your camera choose but those setting are a whole other ball game I will get into next week. When you decide to choose your focus point you are able to focus on whatever point you choose, when I take pictures of people I always set my focus point to their eye so that their face is in focus and everything else blurs from there.

I took my camera out and set it to Automatic Focus Mode and here were the results:

Looking in the back of the camera and even on the screen, some of these images might look “in focus” but lets take a closer look. I switched back over to Manual Focus Mode and focused on her eye in the picture on the left. On the right you can see the zoomed in versions of the auto-focused images. Do you see the difference now? The top image was the best of the auto-focused bunch but the hair to the left of her eye is what is completely in focus and her eyes are slightly blurred. Even I was surprised that out of 4 shots my camera didn’t manage to hit the focus perfectly!

basic photography tips // choosing focus points // crystal lake family photographer

Obviously every camera is different but I’m going to try and guide you through the basics of selecting your focus points (check your user manual for specific instructions) *AF stands for Auto Focus

  • Press the AF Point Selection button at the rear of the camera (this will differ by brand and model) and the display will confirm that multi-point Automatic AF is in use.
  • To switch from AF Auto Select to “Manual AF Point” mode in Canon and “Single Point” mode in Nikon, press the AF Point Selection button as in the previous step but then press the set button. The camera will now switch from multi-point selection to using only the central AF point for autofocus.
  • You’re not limited to using the central AF point in Manual Select mode. After switching to single-point AF, you can use the arrow keys to switch to any of the other eight (or more) AF points.
  • Manual AF point selection works in any of the various AF modes, I would recommend using “AI Focus” in Canon or “AF-C” in Nikon for fast moving subjects.
  • So that you don’t have to scroll through all the different points every time, you can lock the focus onto a certain point. You do this by holding the shutter button down slightly, recomposing the shot, then fully press the shutter to take the shot. This often works but it’s easy to come unstuck. For this to work your AF mode will need to be set to “One Shot” in Canon or “AF-S” in Nikon.
  • It’s usually more effective to pick the AF point that’s closest to the point you want to focus on, 
so any subsequent camera movement will be minimal. Selecting the most appropriate AF point not only ensures more accurate light metering, but focusing as well.

Shooting in manual focus mode is a skill that you need to learn and practice. While you will have more time to get it right when shooting still objects – it can become more difficult when shooting moving subjects – so practice, practice, practice!

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