5 Beginner Tips for More Autofocus Success

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When you’re just starting out, it can sometimes be frustrating trying to get sharp photos. The camera’s autofocus often seems like it has a mind of its own. Here are five quick tips that can help you get the autofocus under control.

AI Servo AF or Continuous Focus will continue to track moving subjects.

AI Servo AF or Continuous Focus will continue to track moving subjects.

1. What is your subject doing?

If your subject is sitting still and not moving, be it a person, a still life, or a landscape, you’ll want to choose One-Shot autofocus (AF-S for single on Nikon).

One shot AF allows the camera to focus, and then as long as the button is depressed, focus will stay locked.

This is useful if you want to focus and recompose your shot, especially if an autofocus point doesn’t cover the area you want to be in sharp focus (see #2 below).

If your subject is moving, such as a child at play, an animal, or a car, change the autofocus mode to AI Servo AF, or Continuous AF (AF-C, depending on the brand of camera you have). This means the camera will continue to focus on the subject even as it moves toward or away from you.

Just be sure to keep the AF point on your subject. The image above was taken using AI Servo AF with the center point as the active focus point.

If you use AI Servo (AF-C) with automatic point selection, you will most likely start tracking with the center focus point, and as your subject moves, the AF point will automatically shift to another area to maintain focus.

Some cameras offer the option of letting you choose which point focusing starts with before shifting to other points. In manual autofocus point selection mode (not to be confused with manual focus), you choose one point and keep your subject covered with that one point.

2. Check your AF point selection mode

Using Manual AF Point Selection I was able to keep my brother in focus despite the fact that my sister in law was closer and covered by an AF point. Automatic AF point selection would have selected her instead.

Using Manual AF Point Selection I was able to keep my brother in focus despite the fact that my sister in law was closer and covered by an AF point. Automatic AF point selection would have selected her instead.

If you find your camera isn’t focusing where you want it, check your AF point selection mode. All DSLRs offer at least two modes. There may be other options as well, but most people use one of these two main modes. The first is automatic AF point selection. This means that all AF points are active, and in one shot mode, the camera will try to focus on the nearest object to it with detail. This means that if something between you and your subject is covered by an AF point, the camera will focus there, rather than where you want it to. This can be a problem if trying to photograph through a window or fence as well.

To combat that problem, you’ll want to choose a single AF point. This will most likely be called Manual AF Point selection, depending on the brand of camera you have. This mode allows you to choose which AF point you want to use, giving you the ability to choose the one that covers your subject, regardless of what’s between you and the subject.

3. There are two types of autofocus points

AF_PointsMost modern cameras have two types of AF points: Single-line, and Cross-type.  Single line AF points are able to focus on lines going either horizontally or vertically. Which one it reads will depend on how the AF point is oriented. Horizontally oriented AF points can focus on vertical lines, and vertically oriented AF points can focus on horizontal lines.

Cross-type points are simply vertically oriented AF points, overlaid with horizontally oriented ones. So a single cross-type AF point can read both vertical and horizontal lines, making it more likely that it will be able to focus on the right object. Why is this important? If you have selected an AF point and the camera is unable to focus on the subject, it could be that there isn’t any detail that the AF point can pick up. A cross-type AF point has a better chance of finding a line of detail to focus on. Try selecting one of the cross-type points in your camera. Most of today’s DSLR’s have at least one, if not more.  Check your camera’s manual to find out where the cross-type points are in your autofocus array.

4. Learn how to change AF points without taking your eye from the viewfinder

Once you’ve learned to set Manual AF Point Selection, and have started using a single AF point, you’ll want to practice selecting an AF point quickly without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Some cameras offer a single control such as the joystick type controller on the EOS 5D Mark III, while other cameras such as the EOS Rebels require a combination of a button push and spin of the dial to change an AF point. The faster you are able to do this, the less likely it is you will miss a key moment.

5. Try to compose with the AF point you are using exactly where you want it

Putting the AF point right on her eye meant that despite having a very shallow depth of field, I was still able to focus on the eyes and keep them sharp, without having to recompose.

Putting the AF point right on her eye meant that despite having a very shallow depth of field, I was still able to focus on the eyes and keep them sharp, without having to recompose.

Many people who are just starting to do photography often stick to the center AF point for focusing, and then lock focus and recompose the shot to put the subject where they want in the frame.  For most shots, this will work just fine. However, there is a chance that when recomposing, you are actually shifting the plane of focus enough that your subject will no longer be sharp.  This is very likely when you are close to the subject with a shallow depth of field.  To avoid this, choose the AF point that is closest to, or covers your subject. For instance, when shooting a portrait, use the AF point that covers your subject’s eye.

Your thoughts

Keep these five tips in mind the next time you take out your camera.  What are your favorite autofocus tips?

I have had people who let running water confuse them, unsure which AF mode to select. Yes, the water is moving, but the stream is not, it stays the same distance from the camera, so you would use One Shot AF for a shot like this.

I have had people who let running water confuse them, unsure which AF mode to select. Yes, the water is moving, but the stream is not, it stays the same distance from the camera, so you would use One Shot AF for a scene like this.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

  • maybe this works with nikon or olympus but with Canon no rules work. Focusing with Canon is always like lottery. How Canon algorithms work is japanese drunken mystery.

  • JvW

    Canon manuals say take the cap off the lens, Bello, not off the bottle.

  • Guest

    I’ve heard you finally stopped eating soup with your hands. Hopefully it’s not too depressing for you. 😉

  • JvW

    One thing that experience taught me: if you use continuous focus instead of one shot, wait a sec for the camera to focus when you half press, before fully pressing to take the photo. Canon doesn’t give focus confirmation in AI-Servo, and doesn’t block the shutter release when not in focus, even in one shot drive mode. I imagine Nikon and others will be somewhat the same.

  • Albin

    I’d only add a word about focus lock – AFL in Canon. Often it’s a mug’s game trying to keep continuous or servo AF on a moving subject, but depending on lens, distance, aperture and DOF, locking focus on a nearby fixed object will allow following the action without sweating about focus. I’ve used a lightpole for bike races and soccer goalposts. Sometimes it’s better to step back and use more telephoto for more DOF (note that amount of background blurring is NOT indicative of the acceptable focus depth of field.)

  • Nuwanjith Ulpathakumbura

    nice article..I shared it on my photography group and page https://www.facebook.com/nuwanjithulpathakumbura.photography .thanks a lot for this amazing lessons. I expect more..! 🙂

  • Roger Lambert

    Do you believe that stepping back AND using more telephoto will give you more DOF? I think that is not going to be true. The longer your focal length, the LESS DOF you will get – and it is pretty much a linear relationship to your change in focus distance.

    But your point about prefocusing on an equidistant object, and waiting for the subject to get in range is great advice. I call it “sniping” (as opposed to “machine gunning”)

  • Roger Lambert

    Nikons allow you to choose whether the shutter will release only when the focus is locked. But that means using focus and recompose can become impossible on some Nikon models.

  • Phloss

    When shooting team sports (like rugby) on servo AF I move the focus point down so the final image isn’t dominate by grass

  • GariRae

    How about using the back focus button which essentially locks in focus plane by removing the focus from the shutter. Initially it feels like an odd habd position, but many professionals use this technique for both static and moving subjects. Also works very well when using remotes.

  • GariRae

    Set the back focus button and you thus separate the focus from the shutter. You can then recompose to your hearts content on a selected focus point, as long as your “subject” remains in your chosen DOF plane. For moving subjects, just keeo the back button pressed as you shoot and the camera will continue to focus on you selected focus point. In this way, focus is completely directed by the photographer.

  • Oscar Torres G

    Nice tips. Thanks a lot.

  • Ramneek Kalra

    Point number 5 is really nice, I have been making the same recomposing mistake quite a lot…
    Thank you for this article..

  • Johan Bauwens

    On my 1D4 the focus is always spot on, even in the dark of a concert or a fast moving dog outside.

  • Dave Knapton

    I recently set up back button focusing and continuous focusing on my Nikon D7100. I’ve never looked back. For static subjects, lock in the focus then wait for the decisive moment and shoot. for moving subjects as GariRae comments, keep the back button focusing pressed and shoot when ready. Might take a bit of getting used to but separating the functions of the shutter release has I think played a big part in a recent improvement of my photography and success rate.

  • Roger Lambert

    Yes, I have been using back button focus for a decade. I can’t imagine going back to sharing exposure and focus on the same button.

    But, what I was trying to say is…on many Nikon models, you need to reset the default setting for shutter release – so it actually releases instead of reacquiring focus. IIRC, there is at least one older intro-level Nikon DSLR that doesn’t have this menu selection – Back button focus would not allow focus and recompose if the recomposition put the focus point too far away from the original focus point. Quite a bug.

    The Nikon configuration still, as of early this year, anyway requires you to keep pressing that back button. All Canon dslr’s have a better system (at least for me) – In AF-S, once you press the back button, you can take your finger off and the camera’s focus will stay at that distance all day long, or until you refocus again with the back button. A lot handier, I think.

  • Isidora Pavlovi?

    as a beginner dSLR user, I found this article really helpful, thank you!
    after practicing at home, I decided to try it out on real people and went to the park with some friends. everything was going great until they wanted a photo of them standing together. they were standing next to each other (photo) but i didn’t know which AF point to pick if I wanted the focus to be on both of them. not knowing what to do, I turned on the automatic selection. it would be real useful if I knew what to do when I’m in that situation next time. please help

  • VKM

    useful for me thanks

  • Mark

    Johan: That is because you have one of the top of the range professional series cameras.

    Take a 5D MKII as a good example. It comes with 9 focus points of which only the centre one is cross type. In a FF camera costing thousands of dollars. Its focussing system is often complained about.

    I have witnessed it first hand where it can be a lottery as to whether it really has locked properly. When you look on a big screen you often find that it did not but it wasn’t perceptible enough when taking the shot. That the MKIII moved to a 61 point system is telling.

    Whilst my 5D MKII takes beautiful photos when it gets the focus right I have lost patience with Canon’s lack of innovation and seeming indifference to where the market is going. They are being left behind and do not seem to care. Even using the Sony sensor in the G7X they managed to create a slow focussing lemon. The A7 II looks distinctly like what will be replacing my Canon equipment.

  • Mark

    I’d recommend using back button focus where available as it allows you to track focus by holding your thumb down whilst allowing you to snap at will with the shutter button.

  • Johan Bauwens

    I used to own a 5DII as well, sold it because of this focus problem.

  • JvW

    There may be a lot to complain about, but comparing a digital camera from 2008 to one from 2012 -with 2014 cameras in the back of your head- will of course yield big differences, it’s electronics. My model T Ford’s top speed is only 72 k/h! (45 m/h for the Imperial people:)

  • Abegail Clave

    Thank you so much for posting this article and for explaining clearly every bit of it. Now it’s time for me to go out and practice what I’ve learned out of this article as I was just guessing and trying to discover some tehniques whenever I use autofocus.

  • mirza

    cause they standing next to each other, Ur focus is on both…. when the aperture its on the widest, focus plane is very narrow.. when aperture is getting smaller(bigger f number) more of the space u will have in focus……

  • Stoffers

    Funny, my 70D has 19 and all are cross type. I guess that’s the good thing about using a newer model and not complaining that a camera that’s almost 7 years old doesn’t have the features of one that’s a year old.

  • Steve Skeen

    As a newbie to taking pictures using something a bit more sophisticated then a camera phone or a simple point and shoot camera, I have found the information here to be very useful and easy to understand. I have already learn much by visiting this site. Please keep the information flowing, Great work.

  • Steve Skeen

    Well, that explains what I have been doing wrong. I always though one should focus looking thru the small end of the bottle.

  • UtiliZLife

    I’d like to add a little interest, sensationalism, and possibly unknown fact to this conversation…

    … Nikon RULES, period! 😛

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