Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

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There’s no feeling quite like the dread that sets in when you are reviewing your photos from the day and you notice that some of those stellar images you snapped are soft and out of focus. For photographers who like to shoot with a wide aperture, sometimes hitting your focus is like walking on a tightrope – and missing by just a tiny little bit can seriously ruin your day.

An image showing accurate focus with a wide aperture - Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

The watch is the focal point of this shot, and some careful technique helped ensure that it stayed tack sharp.

Editing can do a lot to save a picture; you can make areas of it brighter or darker, you can modify colors and add your own distinctive style – but there’s no way to completely fix a shot where the focus simply missed.

Fortunately, when shooting in controlled situations, there’s a useful trick for making sure each and every shot is in razor-sharp focus.

Why are some of my shots out of focus?

In a perfect world, cameras would adjust correctly to the lighting and dynamics of every shot and deliver focus with pinpoint precision. Unfortunately, reality gets in the way.

There are a few reasons why your shots sometimes come out a bit soft, meaning that the camera has decided to focus a bit too far in front or behind the target you were actually aiming for.

Lack of contrast

Cameras determine focus based on contrast. When you try to focus on an object that doesn’t have much contrast, say a smooth white wall, for example, there isn’t contrast for the camera to lock onto. Sometimes the camera will hunt for a focus point, shifting back and forth for a few seconds, and then give up. Sometimes the camera focus will latch onto a different part of the picture, putting your true subject out of focus.

An image of a Christmas Tree ornament where the autofocus grabbed onto the wrong spot in the image - Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

This shot was supposed to be focused on the red ornament, but finer details in the background and the flicker of lights grabbed the attention of the camera’s autofocus instead.

An image of a Christmas tree ornament with accurate focus - Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

After flipping over to manual focus and choosing the focus point more deliberately, the final shot looks a whole lot better!

This can also be a problem in low light conditions. Once again, the camera doesn’t have any strong contrasts to grab onto and can miss its target.

Bad focus caused by user error

As much as we hate to admit it, user error can cause some missed focus problems too. If you lock your focus on a target, then either move the camera or wait too long and allow the target to move significantly from where it once was, the resulting shot isn’t going to be razor-sharp.

Another common problem for shooters using autofocus is when the focus locks on an unintended part of the image, leaving the main subject blurry. One good way to counter this is to choose a more specific focus mode, such as single point focus.

A chess board image with accurate focus managed using Live View - Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

The focus of this shot is tight on the King, emphasizing the piece’s importance in the game.

A chess board image with missed focus - Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

Here the autofocus grabbed a different part of the frame, leaving this picture without a clear subject or purpose.

Slow shutter speed

Some blur that looks like missed focus could also be the result of using a shutter speed that is too slow. The resulting movement in the camera from pressing down the shutter button can blur out the fine details in your shot.

If your shot isn’t turning out right, take time to consider whether it might be because of one of these common problems before you throw your camera at the wall in frustration.

So how can Live View help me with focus?

Live View is a mode where you can see through your lens using the LCD screen on the back of your camera. It can be used to pinpoint your focus in situations when your subject isn’t moving and your camera is on a tripod.

The advantage of using the camera’s LCD screen is that you get a 100% accurate look at how the picture is going to turn out once you press the shutter button.

Using Live View on a camera for accurate focus - Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

The camera is set up in Live View mode, ready for precision focusing.

Live view set to magnify the image five times

In Live View mode, you can focus up to 5 times magnification.

Live view set to magnify the image ten times - Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

Some cameras can even zoom to 10 times magnification, helping guarantee that the focus is precise, even at f/1.8.

This technique is mostly useful at wider apertures when your camera’s autofocus may miss its target, even with using single point focus. When shooting at a wide aperture of f/4 or lower, the margin for error is very slim. With an extremely narrow depth of field, missing your focus by even a couple of centimeters could make those crucial details in your shot looks soft.

If you are taking a landscape photograph and are using a narrow aperture (such as f/16) to keep as much detail in focus, there is a lot more room for error.

What about using the single point focus mode?

For precision focusing, the single point focus mode goes a long way.

This is a mode where you can choose just one point for the camera to automatically focus with, rather than allowing the camera to consider the entire scene.

A good opportunity for using single point focus - Focus Challenges and How Live View Can Help You Get Razor-Sharp Images

Single point mode was a good choice here in order to make sure the focus was accurate on the orange insect.

When you need to nail a tough shot on a moving subject, single point focus is definitely the way to go. For stationary subjects, however, shooting in manual focus mode and using Live View to ensure your focus is tack sharp removes any potential for trouble. Even single point focus can have issues with accuracy in dark or low contrast situations.

Read more here: 6 Ways to Use Live View to Get Sharper Image and here 4 Tips for Using for Live View to Get Sharper and More Creative Images.

Less misses, more keepers

Discovering what subjects you like to photograph and chasing unique moments with a camera is a thrill. And practicing your focusing technique and using tricks like Live View focusing can help you make sure you come home with more and more keepers after every shoot!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Frank Myrland is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he's been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.

  • BlackEternity

    What often helps me to get proper focus is using center & recomposing my shot.
    Basically when I use Autofocus, I let it sit at “Wide” for my Alpha A6000. I can push my center button on the dial to overwrite the “wide” temporarily and force it to focus dead center.
    Because I always have rule of thirds grid on, it’s easy to know where the center focus is.
    Then I use center focus on my spot I want, hold it and recompose my image to my needs.
    Helps when I don’t have the time to use manual focus to nail it, but can’t allow wide focus to grab focus of something that I don’t want.

  • Von Will

    Great tips as always Frank. You have given me some good reminders that I sometime forget when shooting. I call this “Whats in the Fridge” https://www.flickr.com/photos/phyguy/ https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2a5f5b5739fd7ce1e8fe264c2a1fa2f6e624a405fdad9c1597f614cf2b3594d3.jpg

  • Márk Szabó

    I had a lot of trouble with my 50/1,4 on 6D.
    The solution was:
    – use only center focus point
    – servo af
    – tracking sensitivity: +2
    – acc/dec tracking: 1
    – 1st, and 2nd image priority: focus

  • ManiWebify
  • pete guaron

    Great article thanks Frank.

    Have you ever been asked what YOU would like “them” to do, in the next model of the camera you’re keen on? High on my wish list was a tilt screen – they (Nikon) didn’t do it for my D810, but I see they’ve done it on the D850 – too late Nik, it’ll be AGES before I need to replace the D810, so you’ve probably missed me with that one.

    But still high on my wish list is a screen with a much sharper image. How can I possible focus in Live View, to get a sharper shot, with a screen on the back of the camera that doesn’t give a sharp image to start with? And yes I am fully aware of the ability to magnify the image – but magnifying a fuzzy image doesn’t make it sharper. So far I’ve used 5,000 clicks taking macro shots with my D810, so I’m not kidding about the limitations the screen on the cam creates when trying to focus more sharply in Live View.

  • Joel Tejeda

    I try to use this technique, whenever I can…one of the perks of digital cameras… https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ab4f66c69c58cb667ab5f4333d2c238cbde3e5f8919485fd720608943372a638.jpg

  • Jean-Paul Dercq

    Must say that mirrorless camera not only help the focus with the magnification, but also with the assistance focus or focus peaking: it allows to forget the (calcul of) hyperfocal because you can exactly see where the focus points. Its why ( with other reasons) I think that DSLR will be (tre)passed out in the next ten years…

  • Tikaro

    Modern DSLRs have two different autofocus systems, one works when using the optical viewfinder with the mirror down to illuminate a dedicated AF image sensor, and is called Phase Detection AF.

    The other system is for live view still and video modes, it uses the main sensor and is called Contrast Detection AF. Canon’s dual pixel AF (DPAF) is, I believe, a hybrid system where AF pixels are paired with the imaging pixels in the main sensor and are used only in Live View still and video modes.

    Phase detection is based on the alignment of two separate images on the AF sensor taken at different angles through the lens. Of course some level of contrast is a factor for the algorithms detecting image alignment, but phase detection AF is better than contrast detection AF in scenes with lower contrast.

  • Stacey

    I also use a wireless remote combined with using live view zoomed in to fix the focus point more accurately too. Its lowered my overall shot count and upped my keeper rate considerably. I do lots of macro work with my food and still life. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/747b672e6e22320e92a17980275f166c67e5852fa50e77585e8e51fad2e0ac78.jpg

  • Terry Laraman

    Great article Frank!

    I have one hell of a time getting sharp images of my salt water aquarium. I hope this helps me out. It would be nice if someone would write an article on photographing reef tanks, corals and fish. There are lot of aquarium/photographers out there that could really use the help.

    Cheers!

  • oldclimber

    A couple mistaken assumptions in the digital camera age have to do with automatic adjustments, specifically exposure and focus. (Ignoring newly touted technology that claims to take ‘infinitely focused’ shots). While High Dynamic Range does expand the apparent exposure range by combining several different exposed images, each one still is taken at a specific setting of f/stop, shutter, and ISO.
    Focus, as well, may be handed off to the wizardry in the camera’s automatic settings, however the final instant the shot is taken will always only be focused on one distance from the lens. Speed affects the possibility of blur from movement, but that will affect the entire image uniformly, with moving objects adding or subtracting from the overall effect, ex: panning. F/stop can alter the apparent depth of field, and so focus may be less critical. Live View shows exactly what the image sensor is reading, so focus should never take one by surprise. Still, many misunderstand the mysterious choices made by internal “multi-focus point” algorithms, assuming the camera is magically capable of focusing on many different points, even at different distances, while the real story is the camera is “deciding” for you, which one of many options is most likely the one you the user would be content with. You might however decide to focus between fore and distance, to get the best overall focus using a small f/stop, while the camera will insist upon sharp focus on whatever objects it recognizes, a very different approach. Even if manual focus is not your
    thing, knowing how to lock onto focus, then recompose the framing without the focus re-setting itself, is essential for moving beyond basic snapshots.

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