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9 Tips to Help you get Sharp Focus at Night

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Autofocus is so good on modern cameras that most photographers use it all the time. It seemingly never lets you down. But, let’s say it’s nighttime and you are going to do some shooting. You find a good spot. You set up your tripod. You go to focus your camera using the autofocus. You can feel the camera’s focus ring twisting back and forth, trying to focus. But it never gets there. The camera keeps hunting for a focus spot but never finds one.

Uh-oh.  What are you going to do now?

Tower Bridge, March 2011

Actually, this problem doesn’t arise only at night. Your camera will typically have trouble focusing in any really dark scene. So here are some tips for dealing with that situation and focusing your camera when it is dark:

1. Aim for the bright spot

Sometimes you can still use your autofocus. Even though it is dark, most night scenes will have a bright spot or two. They might be streetlights, or a lit-up building, or even the moon. That bright spot can be used to set your autofocus.

To do so, find a bright spot that is reasonably close to your desired plane of focus (i.e., the same distance away as your focal point). Autofocusing on that point should take care of your problem. Just focus on that bright spot in a normal fashion and your camera is now focused on something the same distance away as your subject. You should then be able to take your picture with proper focus.

Green Park, November 2012

2. Focus on the edge

Most cameras focus using something called contrast detection. That means the camera will have the best chance at finding something to focus on if you aim at the area of high contrast between something bright and the dark background.  So don’t aim your focus point at the middle of the bright spot in your frame. Rather, focus on the edge of the bright point. The camera will use the contrast between the very light and the very dark tones to focus.

CaCoast

3. Use a flashlight

If you are attempting to autofocus on a relatively close subject, you can use a flashlight to assist with the focus. This is one of the many reasons to keep a flashlight in your camera bag.

To do that, shine your flashlight on your subject. That will lighten it up enough for the camera to focus on it. Set your focus, then you can turn off the flashlight and take your shot.

4. Recompose after focusing

Assume you now have your focus set using the methods set forth above. But to get that focus, you had to move your camera away from your desired composition to focus on the edge of a bright spot. Move your camera back to your desired composition to get the shot. Don’t refocus as you do so though – just move the camera and take the shot with the focus you’ve already set. (You will need to either hold the shutter button part way down, use focus lock, or focus and then turn off the AF so it doesn’t attempt to refocus once you have recomposed – or see #5 below.)

BigBendNight

5. Use back-button focus

It is times like this, when you want to take a shot with out refocusing, that back-button focus really pays dividends. If your camera allows it, go into the menu and set up your focus so that it is not triggered when you press the shutter button halfway down, but rather is triggered when you press a button on the back of your camera. That way since your focus is not set with the shutter button, when you take the picture by pressing it there is no chance that your camera refocuses.

6. Manually focus using the lens scale

If there is nothing for you to use to set your autofocus, you might have to use the dreaded manual focus. But don’t worry, it is not difficult. In the dark, it is often easier to focus manually than hunt for something to use for autofocus.

Higher-end lenses make it easier to manually focus. In a high-end lens there should be a scale on the front that tells you the distance (in both feet and meters) at which you are focused. Use that to set the focus.

You might need a flashlight to see the scale.  This is yet another reason to keep a flashlight in your camera bag.

TopOfLens

7. Manually focus by guestimating

If you cannot find a point to focus on, and your lens does not have a distance scale, all is not lost. You can guestimate and get it right in a lot of cases.

To do so, make sure you are shooting with a high aperture value (small opening, large f-number). That will create a wide depth of field to give you some wiggle room in your focus. Specifically, the wide aperture will make a wider range of things acceptably sharp in your frame.

In addition, be sure you are shooting with a wide angle lens. This is not the time to try anything telephoto. The wider angle of view creates a more forgiving environment for your focus.

With a wide aperture and the wide angle of view, you have a broader latitude in your focusing. Now manually focus your camera. If you are shooting a broad scene that extends to infinity, set the manual focus just shy of infinity. The latitude you built-in will make things acceptably sharp all the way to infinity and a certain distance in front of your focus point as well. That will give you the best chance of having the whole scene in focus.

St. Paul, November 2012

8. Use Live View

If you can see anything on your camera’s LCD using Live View, then you can use that to manually focus. This is frequently better because you can zoom in on your subject and clearly see if you have nailed the focus. Try using this whenever possible, as it allows a degree of control over focus that is not otherwise possible.

9. Remember you get a do-over

One of the beautiful things about digital photography is that shooting is free. Unless your scene is moving in front of you, you get a free do-over. Use it liberally. Take a shot, look at it on the LCD, and if the focus isn’t right, just do it again. If your camera allows it, go ahead and zoom in on the preview to clearly see the detail and whether or not you have nailed the focus.

Destin

Conclusion

These tips will help you set your focus at night or when you are in a very dark scene. In fact, some of these tips will also help in broad daylight when the camera thinks it is dark because you are using a 10-stop neutral density filter. Try them when your autofocus is hunting but not finding the focus. You should be able to nail the focus in almost any situation.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, beginning photographers should be sure to check out his new book Getting Started in Photography, now available in the Kindle store!

  • Adam Sanford

    Good article!

    I also only use the **center AF point** in near-dark conditions. Many SLR bodies’ center AF points are more precise (in general) and some new models’ center points are even more sensitive to low light.

    Also, take care with #4 above if you are shooting something very close and/or shooting at a very wide aperture (say f/2.8, f/2, f/1.4, etc). Half-button pressing and recomposing with wide apertures may nail the focus in the original framing, but reframing the shot may your subject out of the working depth of field.

  • tanguerochino

    One trick I use:
    Set camera to manual focus.
    Open aperture as wide as possible (smallest number)
    Turn on live view to compose and manually set focus.
    Take a picture to confirm if desired. Adjust focus if needed.
    When correct focus point is set, reset aperture to the proper values and take the picture.

    If opening the aperture does not brighten live view enough, then upping the ISO value may help boost the brightness on the screen. Just don’t forget to reset the ISO (and aperture) before taking the final picture.

  • fmguarda

    very good reading! i’m such a cliche…

  • Joe Schmitt

    Nice article! Those are very good techniques. I’ve used most of them and agree. Thank you for taking the time to help others.

  • Thanks Adam. Good points as well.

  • That is a good idea. You may already do this, but you could also zoom in using live view to make sure your focus is dead on.

  • Great advice, thank you .. tweeting.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    wow.. excellent photos!!!!!!!!!!! anyway, i always use manual focus even for sports.. ;). D810 is quite poor for manual focusing compared to cheaper D5100.

  • Gordon

    Get a camera with focus peaking. It is that simple. I gave up ovf cameras three years ago except in the studio.

  • Sascha Kleiber

    @tanguerochino: That’s the way i do it too. 😉

    Another good tipp is, if you’re using live view to manually focus, keep the stabilzer switched on for focussing! It really helps keeping the image steady. Just don’t forget to switch it off for taking the shot.

  • Kenny

    Use Live View I never thought of that as I love the Viewfinder. And I also love Nighttime Photography…..Thanks..I’ll have to try it..

  • Jeff Boggess

    Thanks Jim. Great article. I may have missed it, but what kind of camera are you using? Canon and Nikon arguments make my eyes glaze over like a good old Mellencamp/Springsteen debate. I was born in a small town, but still like the chili dogs at Tastee Freez, you know? So I’m just going to pick one and roll with it. Sorry for the long rambling comment. Keep up the good work.

  • Michael Owens

    Thanks for sharing Jim.

  • Darryl Lora

    Great article Jim. Very easy to not only follow, but to undestand as well,,,thanks heaps

  • Michael Owens

    A lot of people don’t realise they can use live view, and then digitally zoom that view and check focus sharpness right there.

    I always use that method when in complete darkness, set my torch (flashlight) down where I want my focus and live view and zoom. Manually dial in my focus. Retrieve my torch, and take my shot.

  • Dorin M.

    Sometimes I use a combination of #6 and #9: manually focussing by trial and error. If the shutter speed is fast enough, I take a picture, then move the focus lens 1mm away, take another picture, repeat.
    Out of 10 pictures one should be ok 🙂

  • Jeff

    Pay attention!
    The f-stop numbers on the distance scale does not match the actual Depth of field on crop sensor bodies. This is because the aperture is not the same. For a good explanation of aperture and crop sensor watch this videos by Tony Northrup:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5zN6NVx-hY

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtDotqLx6nA

    There are several apps to calculate your Depth of Field. Search the App Store or Google Play for a Depth of Field Calculator. Then you know exactly what your Depth of Field and Hyper Focal distance ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmlhVZrcsbY ) is.

  • zumzum

    One mistake though, wide aperture reduces dof, narrow or small increases. But indeed, with wide aperture lens it’s more easy to focus.

  • Mike

    What about when you’re doing a Christmas concert at night in a church

  • Thats what I do as well. I use the live view and zoom in 10x on a star while at f/1.4 or f/2. Sometimes if the location allows I take my computer and teather to my camera and get even sharper focus.

  • Richard Taylor

    See tip 1 and 2
    (I shoot classical music concerts, indoors).

  • greeblehaus

    Great tips!

  • Llaup Ecraep

    grate artical once again my rule of thumb is if ya aint got it first time just keep trying no harm in that but ya cant keep a speeding car speeding all the time cos ya havent got the shot so you have to master it first time around in that case loving the tips guys thanks i all ways use live view easer for me as i havent got viewfinder simples as Jeff Boggess says (make my eyes glaze over like a good old Mellencamp/Springsteen debate.) true words on saying that try using youre by focals on the view finder not good

  • David Palmer

    I also turn off the AF doing night photography. Even when the AF thinks it found something, it can still be off by a lot. Frustrating to go out at night or early in the morning only to find everything fuzzy when it’s on the computer and you heard the AF chirp when it thought it was in focus.

  • Grace Muncey

    Really don’t understand why manual focus is that bad… use it all the time! Sometimes the camera just won’t focus on what I want it to, or it’s just not as fast or precise…

  • Shane McDonald

    Excellent post and the example images are excellent, especially the Tower Bridge shot!

  • KSA

    Very good article!

    This is my recent results of following these tips https://500px.com/photo/94042379/arctic-polar-night-wonderland-by-full-life-photo-adventures-?from=user

  • Dave

    A friend of mine taught me this 6 months after I started photography on a DSLR. I coulda kissed him.

  • Camera Man

    use this for wireless live view from iPad, can control the focus remotely too.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/969220052/camsformer-high-speed-triggeringwireless-camera-co

  • If I were writing this article, I would have done #8, use live view, and that’s it. 🙂 I do tons of night photography and it’s all I’ve ever done. Of course, you need to have a camera with good live view.

  • That would be a short article! But, yeah, that is an important thing to do. I’d say I use Live View over half the time myself.

  • Good point! Nice work on the article.

  • richard staples

    when taking pictures at night time of buildings, when I do everything to focus perfectly, my pictures aren’t as crystal clear as say the ones above of the bridge. Any light source tends to have like a halo affect around it. Is it due to settings? Normally my settings are like a few second exposure, ISO-100-1000, and largest aperture my lens can do.

  • There is nothing jumping out at me on your settings that would cause that. When you say largest aperture, do you mean largest size or largest f/number (they are the opposite)? Either way, I’ve not experienced that. A way to counter this is adding contrast in Photoshop. Specifically, local contrast to your structures will make them appear sharper and more detailed. Hope that helps!

  • richard staples

    Large aperture being like F4.5. (Max my len’s can do)

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  • helpful article 🙂

  • Robert

    Sometimes the guess method really is the best depending on the circumstance.

    One year when it had snowed really heavy where we were I wanted to go downtown to capture the snow before the city woke up. Right when I got there a train showed up. Not wanting to miss it I ran up a hill to catch the shot. Problem was with limited time I couldn’t plan it perfect. So I threw my camera in manual mode and snapped off a burst of shots waiting for the train to come into focus. I initially had tried auto mode but it simply wouldn’t work because of the large light from the train front.

    I am not usually a train photographer but I did enjoy the shot.

  • Jillian Cain

    Your photos and article are wonderful, thanks for posting. When I photograph a night skyline the lighted signs on buildings are always blow out. I have a Canon 7D and tried all 3 metering modes, on manual and auto focus. My camera’s sweet focus spot is f7.1 so I usually use that or f 8 and up. ISO is 100, on a tripod. Are there any tricks to keeping the bright lights from blowing out? I am focusing on the edge of a building, not the lights. I posted a small screen shot of what is happening below:

  • Thanks Jillian! I have another article on DPS about getting proper exposure in your night shots. I cannot link in the comments, but if you copy this it will take you to the article. http://digital-photography-school.com/tips-for-getting-proper-exposure-for-night-photography/. In particular, check out Tip #6. Basically, use spot metering and meter on the bright spots. Then set your exposure so that the light meter reads between +1 and +2. Your highlights will be bright (because you set the exposure at +1 to +2) but will not be blown out.

  • Jillian Cain

    What a great tip, to actually spot meter on the bright spots in the photo, and then try +1 and +2. I will try it, I have been trying to get this shot for a very long time and I always run into this problem. Now if it would just stop raining in Florida. BTW, your link worked when I clicked on it. Thank you so much, I will give it a try on a clear night. I’m a fairly new photographer and I love to learn, this is my website: http://www.jilliancainphotography.com

  • Hello! I’m even a photographer (which I love), but recognize that it is also an excellent article that your pictures are wonderful !!!
    Greetings:)

  • Randy Yent

    that is without a doubt one of the best focus hacks I’ve ever read. Thank you. I have struggled with night focus and never thought of such an easy solution.

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