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Monday, June 4, 2012

Photography 101-A focus technique

I think I've decided to do a series of posts this summer on Photography 101, really basic stuff. I adored teaching, and as much as I love being a mom, I really miss my teaching days.  And I also adore photography.  So combining the two seems to be a natural.  I will whole-heatedly admit that I do not know everything about photography.  Far from it indeed!  There are many photographers out there that know much more than I do... photographers that make me feel certain that I need to stop taking photographs all together, sell my camera, and better invest my time in baton twirling and role playing games.  But I love photography so I keep at it!  I will also add that I'm not all that creative.  But I do love taking photographs, and I even love practicing.  And I do know that if I can do this, (with all these little people running under foot) that anyone can!  

I know all those settings, buttons, and numbers look intimidating!  So I'm gonna take it slowly, (I'm aiming on posting a lesson a week) and I promise to make each post easy peasy and use plain ol' words.  I'm going to skip the lessons on physics and just explain how to do something step by step the easy way.  Perhaps the comment section can serve as a place for conversations and please ask questions because if you have a question, I guarantee others do too.  I'll answer in the comments too.

For the sake of brevity, I'm going to use Canon lingo.  The same stuff exists on Nikon cameras, they may just be in a slightly different place or called a different thing.  If you can't figure out the Nikon translation, please ask, and we'll figure it out together.

So let's get started with you're choice, focusing.

There are many techniques to get sharp focusing.  Ironically, focus is one of the things I will recommend you KEEP on the automatic setting!  In most cases, your camera can focus better than your eye.  But there are several settings that will give you more control over your focus and will enable you to get sharper crisp images.  I'm gonna go all grandpa on you and show you a basic old technique, focus lock then recompose. Way back in the stone age, circa the 1980s, this is how I was taught to focus.  It stuck, and a tiny version of this technique is what I use the majority of the time.  Lots of folks do it this way.

The first thing you will need to do is to make sure your lens is set to AF (auto focus as opposed to MF/manual focus).  There will be a little toggle switch on the side of your lens.
It will probably look like this.   
The second thing is to figure out on your DSLR how to set your camera to one shot focusing.  There are several way to change settings, but to keep things simple, I use the LCD screen on the back for all changing settings.
On the Canon, look at the LCD monitor on the back, toggle and select Auto focus/AF section. 
See where it says "one shot,"  on the LCD monitor?  This is the Auto Focus/AF section on the LCD monitor.
This camera is already set for one shot.
If your camera says something different, like "al focus" or "al servo," then select here (usually by pressing the select button) and change to "one shot."

After pushing select, you'll have a choice to make.  Pick "one shot."
This camera has 3 choices, and is selecting for "one shot."
Third, one more setting we need to set is the focal point.  The focal point is the specific place you tell the camera to focus.  To start, we want the focal point to be right in the center of the frame.  It's a separate button on the camera like this-
Push it and look at your monitor, It should look like this-
You may have more or less focal points on your camera.  This camera has 9 of them.  All of them are selected here.
You'll also be able to see this through your view finder!
Toggle around until only the center dot it lit up, and select.

It might sound like a lot of steps to get to this point, but it's really not.  It'll take you only a few seconds to do these few steps once you get into the habit.  
So now we're actually ready to take a picture. 

Fourth, look through your view finder put your subject in the dead center of the view finder right where the focal point is.  (It's ok, if this isn't how you want to compose your photo.  You get to change it later.)   An additional note---if you're getting a close-up, and your subject is a person, put the subject's eye(s) on the focal point.  The eyes are the most important thing in a portrait and the one folks take notice of most.  

The fifth step is to push the shutter release (that's the button that you actually push to take a picture) half way down.  You'll see that little focal point dot in the middle light up, and probably hear a beep too.  When that happens, that means that what you have the focal point "locked" in on that point.  As long as you keep your finger pushed half way down, the focus won't change.  

Sixth while keeping your finger pushed half way down, (very important to keep your finger pushed half way down at this point!) you can move your camera around and "recompose" your photo.  Most all photographs do not have the subject matter in the center.  So what you originally focused on will stay in focus and "locked" as you move the camera around a bit, as long as the subject (or you) don't move.  And because of this, you may want to start practicing this techniques with fruit, or plants, or rocks, or things that don't move around like squirrely children.  

The final seventh step is that when you have your photo composed the way you want it, push your the shutter release down the rest of the way and take the shot.  

In a nut shell-
1---set your lens to auto focus (AF)
2---set your camera's Auto Focus setting to "one shot" focusing
3---set the focal point to only the center
Now you're ready to take the photo
4---put your subject on the center focal point
5---push the shutter release down half way to "lock" the focus
6---recompose your photo however you like
7---press the shutter release down the rest of the way to take the shot

Oh wait... there's one more HUGE important thing I haven't mentioned yet...

It may take a while to do steps 4-7, but with practice you will get lightening fast at doing these 4 steps.  If your subject is moving around, you have to do these 4 step quickly and automatically to get the shot in focus.  But with practice you get faster, and it will become habit.  (and on another post, I can also talk about different techniques for focusing moving objects.)  But this is how I take 99% of my photos even, of moving kiddos.

Wanna see how well you did?  On your camera, when you are viewing the photo you just took, (or on your computer later on) zoom in on the eyes, and see how you did.  It's all in the eyes I tell you.  Look to see if the image (or eyes if it's a person) is in sharp focus.
Same button (red arrow is pointing to it) to zoom in.   See the little magnifying glass under the button? But when you are viewing a photo you took, this button will zoom in this time. 
And to get you practicing and provide inspiration, I have another link up below.  I'll pick a couple of my faves to highlight and link to on the next Photography 101 post!

Be sure to pick the next Photography 101 topic over there on the right sidebar.  There's a new poll up.


  1. Definitely something I need to work on more...especially with a F-stop of 2.8 and below..then it gets more difficult for me. I do the same thing you do, but in the classes I have taken on line they swear by changing the focal points instead of recomposing and that whole back button focus thing. I want to try it, I'm just so used to recomposing the shot though.

  2. Sharon-I think the toggle to a new focal point, is still a variation on this technique, since the eyes are rarely directly on any focal point after all. And I find the focal points other than my center one, have a harder time "locking in," especially in low light and/or when contrast isn't as obvious.

    Re the back focus button, I hear photogs/pros talk about it, but when push comes to shove, or they want a really crisp pic, I hear them say they use focus lock instead. At least that's what I've run into. But I do want to practice this technique more too.

  3. Thank you for this post! I took photography back in high school (and even won a few awards), but that was 15 years ago. While I still have that old Canon from the 1970's (and it is only on it's 2nd battery), I recently bought a new Canon DSLR. I need to learn/remember what I'm doing before my first child arrives in a few weeks! I look forward to all the experimenting, and your future photography lesson posts.

  4. Hey Nancy, Please keep these post coming. I have always loved photography but have never been able to get the pictures that good. I think part of it is I don't know the differences between all of the lens (what they all do, what I should really have, does the lens really make that much of a difference), and how to edit the pictures on photoshop to make them really good. I am going to love all of the new tips. Thanks in advance.

  5. Hi Nancy,
    Thanks so much for these posts.
    Please keep them coming.
    I am so excited to work through them all with you.

  6. Oh, and I forgot to say.
    I voted for bokeh over there on the sidebar. But I'm bracing myself to hear from you that the only way to achieve it is to set my aperture to 1.8 or someplace mine won't go!

  7. This is wonderful. Voting for f-stops next!!!

  8. Good article! Folks tend to 'not' read the manual which would describe the focus lock too - and maybe I'm just old school but I still do a lot with manual focus!!

    The challange for today will be finding sufficient translucent 'black' filter so I can photograph the venus transit over the sun this evening! I used to have a bunch of over exposed x-ray film that made great 'blackout' filter media!

    hugs - aus and co.

  9. Ohhhh thank you so much for this!! I sooooo need this!! I'm SO excited!! Thank you again!!

  10. Thank you for sharing :) looking forward to reading/seeing your future posts/pics! I enjoy it every time :)
    // Monika

  11. QUESTION: so when you say "recompose" the shot, I assume you only mean move the camera up/down/left/or right not forward or backward? Will that throw off the focus? - Elissa Jones


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