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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!