How to Use Focal Lock

How to Use Focal Lock


At a recent wedding I handed my camera over to a friend to take a shot of my little family and I. We posed for a few shots, looking forward to getting home to see how they turned out (it’s amazing how few shots we have with the three of us all in them).

I didn’t think to check how they came out on the LCD after my friend took the shots and it wasn’t until I got home and downloaded them on my computer that I realised we’d been victims to the old ‘focus between the heads on the background’ mistake. The shot was similar to the one to the left where the couple is out of focus but the lady in the background between them is pin sharp.

You can see what’s happened immediately when you look at the images – my friend quickly raised the camera to his eye – put us in the middle of the frame assuming that the camera would know where to focus and took the image.

The camera unfortunately didn’t know where to focus and decided that the it would focus upon the garden behind us. As a result we were treated as the foreground and thrown out of focus.

This is a common mistake that many digital camera owners make (I’m sure we’ve all done it). Digital Camera manufacturers are now making cameras with ‘face recognition’ technology to overcome it (where the cameras look for faces and make sure that they are the focal point) but most of us are stuck with cameras that don’t have this yet and need to learn about ‘focal lock’.

It’s a very simple technique and something that virtually every digital camera (and most film cameras) have the ability to do. Here’s what you do:

  • Pose your subject.
  • When framing your subject put the central point of your frame on the point that you want to focus upon (the face of a person is generally the best point).
  • With the subject’s face in the centre of your image half press down on the shutter button (not fully). This will tell the camera to focus on that point.
  • Without letting go of the shutter (it should still be half depressed) move your camera to frame your shot as you want it (ie the person’s face doesn’t need to be centred now).
  • Once you’ve got the framing right press the shutter the rest of the way and the shot will be taken with the right focussing even though the centre of your image might not be the person’s face.

This technique is not just useful for taking photos of people when they’re not central in your shots but can also be used in many other types of photography. For example in Macro shots when you want to place the insect or flower that you’re photographing off centre (using the rule of thirds) you might want to use focal lock. Similarly if you were taking a landscape shot but wanted to focus upon a house in the foreground that was off centre rather than the horizon you’d use this technique.

This technique is one that most people know but it’s something that beginners should master in the early days of their photography as it’s something you’ll use constantly. It might take a little practice but after a while it will become second nature to you.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Liz Wiener July 5, 2013 04:03 am

    I am using manual focus to preset the focus for a shot where I use a 100 Neutral Density filter for slow shutter speeds. The problem is, after I set the focus, of course without the filter, it's very hard to keep it while I am attaching the filter. The focus ring moves. I've heard that I can purchase magnetic clamps for the filter, but then there may be vignetting. Is there any way to really lock the focus?

  • AnnMarie Barton September 4, 2012 08:21 am

    I have been taking family pictures....I finally got my pictures sharp and looking good after a lot of practice and playing with settings and a lot of reading. I did a family photo shoot and all the pictures that had 1-4 people came out sharp and clear....when I put all 10 in the picture it didn't come out so clear and sharp and of course that is the one they want to blow up to a 20 X 24. Any suggestions what settings when taking a group of people and not just a few people so they are all clear. I am thinking I should have had my aperture F8-F22 and maybe not down on F2.8 to blur the background. Any suggestions and ideas would be awesome since I have more photo shoots approaching. The rest of the pictures are great just the 5-6 I took with all of them is a little out of focus...I am going to watch photo shop tutorial to see if I can correct it so they can still order their print.

  • Melody Tregear March 31, 2012 01:00 am

    Thank you Keith. Will do...

  • Keith March 30, 2012 04:01 pm

    Melody ...

    Check to see if you have "AI Servo" on ... you should use "One Shot" setting ...

  • Jan Shanhun December 30, 2011 08:42 am

    Really helpful tips re fireworks thank-you. Will go suss out my spot in advance!

  • Melody Tregear October 6, 2011 07:07 pm

    Hi Darren,
    Just a quick question: do I leave my setting on autofocus or manual focus? I ask because I've been trying to use this technique, but the minute I move the camera, even though the shutter is pressed half-way, it wants to start re-focusing. I've only recently acquired my first DSLR, having only ever used a compact and I'm really battling with my focus.
    Kind regards,

  • Steven February 16, 2011 03:48 am


    In that case I would try and pre-focus (guess) using as large a DOF as you can while maintaining an adequate shutter speed. Then pray a bit and make sure he takes many photos.

    Basically, "shooting from the hip", with the same roll of the dice outcome.

    But, you may get lucky.

    Bringing a P&S along is not a bad option either :)

  • craziemutant February 8, 2011 08:17 pm

    @Steven I sense sarcasm but that may be just how I read it. But either way, this whole thing still strays from the original problem. Non-photogs taking the photographer's picture with their DSLR. I handed off my camera to my sister than a worker some where the other day and both pics came out with me/us(the subject/s) out of focus because they didn't know how to properly do so. I don't see a solution but to sit them down and teach them if you know them or just bring a point and shoot as a back up. Apparently it's a hard concept to grasp.

  • Steven February 1, 2011 07:20 am

    Focus lock is still a bit of a hit or miss since the photographer may unintentionally move the camera away from the plane of focus. For macro work you are shooting manually anyway (or should be).

    Before trying focus lock I would try:

    1- set a different focus point inside the camera.
    2-take a photo

    This may be slow at first, but the more you use it the faster you will be at selecting and shooting. At some point you wont have to look at your camera at all to make these adjustments.

    If you cant swing that, and/or you camera has a very limited number of focus points or what you want to capture does not fall on one of the points you can try this trusty method that has been used for a very long time:

    1- Set lens to MANUAL

    2- Focus your lens with YOUR HAND

    3- Take a picture

  • craziemutant January 22, 2011 06:59 pm

    @Elsie He seems to have strayed from his original point. But here, he explains to use the focus lock um...function when the auto focus misfocuses your subject. Say you're photographing a child and his ice cream. So you go ahead and try to auto focus. You want him to the left of the frame so you get all this wonderful action in the back. But little to the center is a balloon vender in the background that catches the camera's focus instead. You don't realize it and snap anyway. You're now left with a shot of a balloon vender and a child with his ice cream out of focus.

    To counter this, before you take your shot, you want to aim the center of your viewfinder at the child. Then half press the shutter button to auto focus on him. While still half pressing the shutter button, compose your shot the way you want it. In this case, to the right to show the action. Like the balloon vender. Now that everything's set and the child hasn't dropped the ice cream, press the shutter button the rest of the way to take your shot. You should now have a child with his ice cream in the fore ground, in focus, and the balloon vender along with what ever else in the back ground, out of focus.

    Now to talk about how he started the article. He was speak about how you hand off your camera to someone else to take your photo. They just perhaps know about the half press, auto focuses, not knowing what it was focusing on and assumes their subjects i.e. you, are in focus and just takes the shot. When in reality, you weren't focused and grandma in the background was. He then suggests the practice of the focus lock, which is a great tool you'll most likely use often from now on, but does not explain how that helps the situation he started with. You see, it took his whole article then my whole comment to explain it again. Try explaining that to the guy you hand your camera to in about 30 seconds. You're probably better off handing it to a fellow photog that knows about focus lock.

    P.S. Sorry about the long comment. =/

  • Elsie January 21, 2011 04:24 pm

    I am still not clear about focus lock. If you focus on persons face and lock in the focus why not just push shutter rest of way down and take the picture

  • craziemutant January 19, 2011 06:49 pm

    @jennyg Manual focus is you focusing. So it's always stopped at whatever you focused your shot at. Focus lock won't apply to manual focus because the camera isn't controlling it. You are. That's what manual means. Does that make sense?

  • jennyg January 18, 2011 03:17 pm

    I shoot with a nikon d5000, I do use auto focus and I do use the "focus lock" technique a lot. I used to just hold the shutter halfway & recompose my photo but i found the camera trying to "refocus" to where ever the main focus point is. I then realized that I have to HOLD down the AF/EF lock at the same time as the shutter, kind of unconfortable but i do it & it seems to work. I havent used manual focus yet because the few times I tried using it my subjects were out of focus. does the same technique work for manual focus. Focus and Recompose? I shoot in manual mode, AF single (most of the time).
    Also I was told it's best to use the center focus point and recompose your frame so that you get used to using that focus point all the time instead of switching it around and forget where was your last focus point and then you'll get an out of focus picture/subject... I know I made that mistake quite a few times :-)

  • craziemutant January 15, 2011 03:58 am

    That's great and all. But how do you explain that to the person taking your photo at a party in less than 30 seconds?

  • Jeremy January 13, 2011 02:46 am

    There are two ways to make sure that both faces are focused....

    1) Use a small enough aperture (f11, f16, f22, etc.) that that depth of field is deep enough to render both faces in focus, or

    2) Ensure that both faces are in the same focal plane as seen by your lens. If one person is slightly behind the other, you have to be sure that you position yourself so that they appear to the camera that they are standing equally side by side. If so, they will both be in focus.

  • Jane January 12, 2011 07:26 pm

    How would you get both faces in focus?

  • sumit December 31, 2010 03:38 pm

    that's a beautiful tip one which I had been using for quite sometime now, however, I do run into this problem with my Nikon AF 50mm f1.8 on the D3000. I have to manually focus it and do end up with the focus a few feet behind the subject. Haven't had the problem with 18-55 AFS or 55-200 AFS. (PS: Normally, I do not use auto focus). I've tried adjusting the dioptre and all. Not really sure why this would be happening only with a particular lens. Any clue on this one?

  • D Morgan December 30, 2010 04:22 pm

    I see a problem with focusing and then re-framing depending on what meter mode you are in. If you are in manual, the faces should be fine. But, suppose you were in spot meter mode? You would have the same problem with exposure that you had with focus, you would be metering on the background and not the faces.
    Do the cameras not meter on the focus point when using the spot meter mode? If so, you should select the focus point that falls on the face and then the metering for the subjects faces will be correct.

  • Geoff December 30, 2010 04:20 pm

    OK, now I'm baffled. The picture used as an example in the article was, according to the details on Flickr (if you click through), taken on an Olympus Trip 35 on Ilford XP1 film.

    Er, the Olympus Trip (nice little camera) didn't - and doesn't - have auto focus..... so the idea that you'll be focusing on the subjects and then recomposing makes no sense. (Being a film camera, there is no LCD on the Trip either, so trying to check the picture that way would have disappointed).

    I agree that it makes a good example to illustrate focus lock.... but perhaps you could put a genuine mistake in its place.

    Looking down through the comments here I had to chuckle at the person that was (correctly) pointing out the mistake in using the phrase, ".....a shot of my little family and I". Shame he couldn't spell GRAMMAR.

  • Carolyn Wonders December 30, 2010 03:39 pm

    I have read your "How to Use Focal Lock" and that is very helpful but just have a question about it. I have had that exact problem many times of the camera focusing on the background and not the people in the foreground and end up having to delete many photos like that but I'm still learning. I have a Canon Rebel EOS XS and am still learning all the settings. I does have "AF" points that I can change around and it does clear up some of the pictures. BUT, my question is: once you have your subject in frame and have focused on their face but want the subject to the right or left in picture and move your frame around, won't the person then be out of focus or will the camera "remember" that you have focused on the person and keep them in focus even though they are not to the right or left in the frame? I'd appreciate your expert advise on this.

  • Stephen November 21, 2010 10:09 am

    Hey, I have a Sony DSC-H2, and I love it. No matter how gentle I push my shutter button down it fires. I do have the option of setting AF to either single, continuous or monitor. Would that be the reason why I can't seem to find the sweet spot with the button?

  • ash March 9, 2010 08:27 pm

    one of my phrases was totally wrong.
    I meant that I am shooting at f./5.6 as I want my depth of field to be quite shalllow on my 85mm... ( I basically only want the eyes in focus) and I am using Kinoflo's which ask for slower shutter speeds than strobes.
    ( next time I should proof-read my reply before pressing the submit button).

  • ash March 9, 2010 08:24 pm

    So now my question is how you would apply this techniques in practice while having your camera on a tripod ( ballhead or geared 410 Manfrotto head) shooting a moving model in a studio ( and by moving i mean just changing poses and not running around). I dont want a depth of field of an average 5.6 or 8 since I am looking on a 85mm as I want the depth to be quite shallow.
    You will basically need to keep the tripod head open for moving and then adjusting most of the time but somehow i was wondering if there is a more 'convenient' method.
    Very happy about any suggestions.

  • anonymus December 23, 2009 06:35 pm

    Jerry Matchet wrote :
    Composition is the “grammer” of photography. It would be best when writing about it to use correct English grammer. Your sentence “At a recent wedding I handed my camera over to a friend to take a shot of my little family and I.” is grammatically incorrect. It should read “…. of my little family and me.” Object of a preposition “of” requires the objective case.

    LOL, here's a guy poking fun at your grammar when he spells it wrong. Go back to school buddy..

  • Jeremy November 18, 2009 01:41 am


    Yes. It works great. In fact, to the point of the article, that is really the way to do it. The AF Lock being on the back of the camera (usually the * button, set by a custom function on Canon DSLR) will not change autofocus when the shutter is pressed. Therefore, you, as the photographer, can properly compose and meter the shot and then even take a test shot of the group. Then, hand the camera off to the surrogate to take the real picture with you in it. They stand in the exact same place that you are (and use an aperture with a wide enough depth of field to accommodate the camera not being in the exact same position).

    This way, you no longer have to even brief them on "click the shutter button halfway to focus," which many people just can't seem to grasp.

  • Julia Shinkle May 9, 2009 04:22 am

    Does anyone know if this will work the same way if I have my AF button set to the back of Canon 40D. Would I just do the same technique but only use the back button instead?

  • Colin April 26, 2009 08:10 am

    hi great tip on focal lock ill try it on a few things !

    Clkd you please advise me on a marco lenes im looking to buy a cannon 100mm f2.8 is that a good marco lenes ? or wld you advise on another if so what ? im into insects flowers etc

    Thanks Colin

  • Jeff April 17, 2009 02:59 am

    I have found that using focus lock with my DSLR can still lead to _slightly_ out of focus images. Recomposing your image with the focus locked will shift the focal plane, however slight it may be. If you stop down to f/8 or f/11, you can usually eliminate this problem.

  • Jerry Matchett April 13, 2009 10:56 am

    Composition is the "grammer" of photography. It would be best when writing about it to use correct English grammer. Your sentence "At a recent wedding I handed my camera over to a friend to take a shot of my little family and I." is grammatically incorrect. It should read ".... of my little family and me." Object of a preposition "of" requires the objective case.

  • David February 10, 2009 02:46 pm

    Great article - Thanks!

  • noBrains February 6, 2009 03:59 pm

    Think the technique works perfectly with Point & Shoot camera's. With the SLR (atleast canon) you need to set the focus mode to single (AI or AI Servo doesn't work) think that is the reason canon says use Manual focus. This is a good technique but guess its better to use manual you know exactly what you are focusing on.. you are pro now.. using SLR's ;)

  • Nicole January 14, 2009 07:07 pm

    Thanks, dazzazm.
    Thanks to a comment in a flickr group, I did play around with the single shots and voila it works.
    I lock the focus and it stays locked.

    Thanks for your help! It's great to find people on the web that give tips without judging the person on the other end :)!

  • dazzam January 14, 2009 01:34 pm

    There are three focal options: no focusing, focus and lock(allowing the camera to then fire when you press shoot), continours focus but not lock(camera is capable of firing as soon as you press shoot, regardless of whether subject is completely in focus)
    I think you will find that you have your camera set on continuous focus. The camera will continue to try and keep the focal point in focus right up till you take the photo. In fact you will be able to take the photo even if the camera hasn't determined the optimum focus.

  • nicole January 6, 2009 08:43 pm

    This worked all fine with my P&S, but I seem not to be able to convince my DSLR (Nikon D300) to do this for me.
    I checked the setting, set it the way this "should" work and yet, every time I lock the focus and try to frame the pic the way I want it, the focus moves with the camera and searches for another object.
    This is driving me insane ;)

    Any ideas?Pretty please :)

  • Daoist56 January 1, 2009 12:39 am

    I have used the described technique many times and have found it to be mainly useful. However, it is useful to remember that the AF of most cameras works best on edges, and I've had disappointing results when focusing on the face edge only to have the eyes slightly out of focus - and this has happened at not particularly low f-stops).
    I struggle with focus a lot and would prefer to use manual focus all the time, except that I wear graduated bifocals and that makes it nearly impossible. I long for my old Pentax K1000, which had an exquisite focal spot in the viewfinder. I wish manufacturers would give us more tools for manual focusing and rely less on AF!

  • Rob Stradling August 11, 2007 09:54 am

    While I'm (sort-of) flattered that you chose my pic to illustrate your point, I should point out that it was taken on film, with an Olympus Trip 35. This camera has set focus positions, and I had forgotten to adjust before shooting. What I got was interesting, but I actually digitally blurred the above version in order to *decrease* the clarity of the background, to a point where I felt that the subjects were less swamped by it.

  • Esther Landau December 29, 2006 03:05 pm

    Could this be why I got a perfectly focussed shot of our caterpillar one time (manual setting on a Canon Powershot SD700 IS) and then could never repeat it? As I zoomed in or out, I would see the image come into focus, and then it would settle just past that point - very frustrating! Is this the problem, then? Because I felt like I had the worm in the middle of the frame when I focussed...


  • Mark Allanson November 16, 2006 03:06 am

    In the case of using a DSLR, One of the documents on the Canon website (can't remember now, it was a tips and tricks pdf of sorts) warns against using this technique, instead it says you should manually select your focus point so that the focal point used for focus is over the subject.

    This is the way I have always handled this situation, but is no good in the case where you are handing the camera over to an inexperienced user.

  • Fred Thwaites November 12, 2006 12:43 pm

    As a newcomer to photography (I bought my first camera a digital Canon S3IS in July 2006)I wanted to take some photos at my Daughters Wedding and I was mistified why a painting on the wall came out in perfect focus whilst they were a little out of focus.I now know why thanks to your tip on Focus Lock.
    Thanks Darren

    Regards Fred

  • Sebastien Wains November 11, 2006 01:20 am

    @babbling dweeb

    Indeed, this technique should work for regular people shots at good distance (1 meter ?)

    For macro shots at low aperture, change your AF zone to where you want it to focus or simply manually focus.

  • babbling dweeb November 10, 2006 04:34 am

    This is a good technique, but only if you are far enough away and using a large enough aperture -otherwise you will still be left with a image that is out of focus. Most of the time this will work, however, if your DOF is shallow, the image will be out of focus.

  • John Flinchbaugh November 10, 2006 01:17 am

    To take this idea to a logical conclusion in the case of handing off the camera: If you can, prefocus the image for your ad-hoc photographer, hit the manual focus button (my Canon PowerShot S2 has this easily available, THEN hand it off. That may beat trying to explain the normal process to someone on the spot.

    I'll have to try to remember to do this next time.