What is the focus and recompose technique? And how can you use it to capture photos that are both sharply focused and well composed?
In this article, I take you through the ins and outs of this powerful method. I explain:
- What the focus and recompose technique actually is
- When you should use the technique – and when you should avoid it
- An advanced method that’ll instantly double your focusing capabilities
So if you’re ready to level up your photography skills, then let’s dive right in!
What is the focus and recompose technique?
Broadly speaking, here’s how it works:
- You select a single focus point in your camera viewfinder.
- You half-press the shutter button to lock focus.
- You physically move your camera left, right, up, or down in order to recompose for a better composition.
That’s it! It’s a simple process, but it’s hugely effective.
You see, successfully focusing and composing images without this method can be tough. If you simply point your camera at the subject, lock focus, and press the shutter button, you’ll end up with a boring composition – one that features the main subject smack-dab in the middle of the frame.
And if you start by creating a good composition, you’ll struggle to quickly and successfully focus the lens. If your subject isn’t in the center of the frame, you’ll need to fiddle with buttons or your LCD screen to select the perfect focus point, which takes time and can cause you to miss key moments. Plus, every camera includes a finite number of focusing points, and if your subject falls outside or between these points, then you’re out of luck.
Take a look at the image below. Note the 51 focus points offered by my Nikon D750. Then check out the red pulley mechanism, which I wanted to photograph. See how it lies outside the focus-point spread?
Without the focus and recompose technique, I’d need to adjust my composition so the pulley sat in the middle of the frame. I’d lose a lot of the interesting structure on the left-hand side, I’d lose some of the rope hanging down from the pulley, and the overall image would’ve appeared far more bland.
But with the focus and recompose technique, I was able to center my focus points over the pulley, half-press the shutter button to lock focus, then adjust my composition until I got the shot I wanted.
When should you use the focus and recompose technique?
I love using this technique to get perfect focus, but it’s not perfect for every situation. So before you start focusing and recomposing with abandon, I’d like to discuss scenarios where it works – and scenarios where it doesn’t.
In general, focus and recompose is a great way to capture stationary subjects. If you’re photographing a statue, for example, you can focus, adjust your camera until you find a solid composition, then take your (beautifully composed!) shot. The same approach works great for buildings, landscapes, and still lifes; those subjects remain motionless after you lock focus, so you can spend as much time as you need choosing a good composition.
Focus and recompose is also great for subjects that display limited movement. In portrait photography, for example, your subject may move subtly after you lock focus, but this (generally) won’t be enough to hurt the final image. For the next image, I focused on the subject’s eye, locked focus, then adjusted the composition until I got the result I wanted:
That said, I’d advise against the focus and recompose technique in two scenarios.
First, when you’re photographing a rapidly moving subject; by the time you’ve recomposed, your subject will likely have moved past the plane of focus, resulting in an out-of-focus image.
For example, if you’re photographing a dog running toward you at high speeds, you might lock focus when the dog is 15 feet away – but by the time you’ve recomposed and snapped the shot, the dog will only be 11 feet away (and far past the plane of focus). You’ll run into the same problem when photographing birds in flight and sports players on the move.
There is an exception to the above advice, however. Your lens focuses along a plane parallel to the camera sensor. Once you’ve locked focus, any move forward or backward by your subject will result in an out-of-focus result – but the subject can freely move up, down, left, or right without causing problems (because they’ll remain within the plane of focus). In other words, as long as the subject moves parallel to your camera sensor, you can focus and recompose without issue!
You should also avoid the focus and recompose technique when shooting with a very shallow depth of field. Most attempts to recompose cause the plane of focus to shift slightly, and while this isn’t a problem when working with a deep depth of field, a razor-thin depth of field won’t be so forgiving.
Say that you’re capturing a portrait at f/1.4. You focus on the subject’s eye with your camera’s central AF point, then you turn your camera so the subject’s head is positioned against the corner of the frame. The subject’s eye will no longer be in focus, even though you deliberately focused on it moments earlier. The act of moving the camera – combined with the tiny depth of field – causes you to lose perfect focus. Focus and recompose fails.
Alternatives to the focus and recompose technique
There are two broad alternatives to the focus and recompose technique:
1. Manually selecting the perfect point
If you own a camera with plenty of focus points and a touchscreen, you might be thinking:
Do I really need to bother with focus and recompose? Can’t I just select the perfect point to consistently nail the focus?
Such a technique does work, and I encourage you to try it in situations where nailing the focus is absolutely critical. If you’re using an ultra-shallow depth of field, carefully selecting the right focus point is a great way to shoot.
However, selecting the perfect focus point can get tedious and can slow down your photography, even with a touchscreen-equipped camera. That’s why I prefer to use the focus and recompose method as long as I have enough depth-of-field leeway for sharp results.
And it’s also worth noting that plenty of cameras don’t feature hundreds of focus points and/or touchscreens, in which case focus and recompose is the best way to capture sharp shots.
2. Letting your camera select the focus point
Most cameras offer various autofocusing modes designed to identify your subject and select the right focusing point.
Some of these modes are pretty poor; for instance, basic “Auto” modes will often misidentify your subject (leading to a lot of frustration).
However, certain modes can be very handy, especially if you’re shooting moving subjects. If your camera offers some form of continuous tracking, I encourage you to use it when photographing birds, wildlife, and sporting events. In the latter situations, the focus and recompose technique will simply be too slow to get the subjects in focus, but your camera’s continuous tracking algorithm will often manage to keep up with your subject, even as it moves across the scene.
And if your camera offers some subject-specific tracking – such as eye tracking, face tracking, animal eye tracking, or car tracking – you should definitely try it out. These modes aren’t perfect, but they often do a great job of keeping specific subjects in focus, whether stationary or in motion. Handy, right?
Moving beyond the basics: back-button focusing
As I discussed above, focus and recompose works well when your subject is relatively stationary, but it fails with moving subjects.
This leads to a serious dilemma:
What do you do when faced with a subject that moves sporadically? A dog, for instance, might sit still for a few moments, then run in a circle, then sit still again, then jump in the air, and so on. When the dog is stationary, focus and recompose will do a great job – but when the dog is on the move, some form of automatic tracking is the better choice.
You can switch back and forth between the two options, of course, but that takes precious time. The best option is to instead use something called back-button focusing.
Back-button focusing lets you set a button on the back of your camera (often the AF-ON button) to focus the lens. You can then set your focusing mode to some sort of continuous AF (so that your lens constantly refocuses as the subject moves).
When your subject is in motion, you can hold down the back AF button to keep it in focus. But as soon as your subject stops moving, you can let go of the back AF button. The focus will remain locked, and you can recompose and shoot without worry! Once your subject begins to move again, you can press the back button, and the tracking will resume. Make sense?
Note that you will need to adjust your camera settings to achieve these capabilities; we describe all the details in our comprehensive back-button focusing guide.
The focus and recompose technique: final words
Well, there you have it:
Everything you ever wanted to know about focusing and recomposing! Hopefully, you now feel confident using the technique – and if not, just spend some time practicing and you’ll get the hang of it.
Do you plan to use the focus and recompose technique? When will you try it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- Understanding the Focus and Recompose Technique
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES