Understanding Normal and Cross-Type Focusing Points

Understanding Normal and Cross-Type Focusing Points


Look through the viewfinder of any DSLR camera and you will see several dots, or squares, that represent individual points at which the camera is capable of focusing. The purpose of these focusing points may seem fairly obvious, but not all of them are created equal. When you press the shutter button (or back button) halfway, some of these points will light up, indicating that everything at that specific spot is crystal clear and your photo will be nice and sharp.

However, the speed at which your camera can focus on one of the points, as well as how accurate the focus will be, depends greatly on whether the individual focusing point is a single or cross-type. Understanding the differences in how they operate can help you decide which ones to use to take better photos.


Most DSLR cameras use what’s called a phase-detection focusing system – whereas most mirrorless cameras, point-and-shoots, and mobile phones use a separate system called contrast-detect. In a DSLR, most of the light coming through the lens is reflected upwards by the mirror, to the optical viewfinder, which lets you see precisely what the camera lens sees.

However, a tiny bit of light is also sent downward to a series of sensors that are capable of figuring out whether the image is in focus. The science behind this involves splitting the incoming light, and comparing two beams, to essentially see if they match up. If not, an electronic signal is sent to the focusing motor, to adjust the lens until the image is in focus. All this happens in a fraction of a second, but these fractions matter in photography, and can often be the difference between a tack-sharp image and a blurry shot.

I used my camera's cross-type focusing points to make sure this picture of a holstein cow was tack sharp.

I used my camera’s cross-type focusing points to make sure this picture of a holstein cow was properly focused.

The problem with traditional phase-detecting systems is they get a bit stumped if there are a lot of vertical lines in the spot where they are trying to focus. To see how this works for yourself, print a sheet of paper on your computer, with nothing but vertical lines. Tape it to a wall, and try to focus on it with your camera. If you are using one of the focusing points on the outside edge of your camera’s viewfinder, your lens will likely spend a few seconds hunting for focus but will probably never find it. However if you turn the paper sideways and try again your camera will likely get things focused fairly easily. This is because when light is sent to the phase-detection sensors in your camera, the sensors don’t have enough information to determine focus, if all it sees is vertical lines.

While most of the time when you are out taking pictures, you are probably not shooting images of vertically-lined paper, this example does illustrate how your camera’s autofocus can get slowed down, and become unreliable under certain conditions. Ironically, in this test, your camera will find focus much better if you use the live view function. That employs a contrast-detection focusing method which is also used in most mirrorless cameras, and while it is a bit slower, can have some advantages over traditional phase-detect systems.

Test your camera's focus sensors with nothing but a lined piece of paper.

Test your camera’s focus sensors with nothing but a lined piece of paper.

To address this issue, most camera manufacturers have implemented cross-type focusing sensors that work fine when focusing on images with horizontal and vertical patterns. On high-end models (like the Nikon D5 or Canon 5D Mark III) there are several clusters of cross-type focusing sensors, but lower-end models (like the Nikon D3200 and Canon Rebel T3i) usually have just one, right in the center. This means that the center autofocus point will likely be significantly faster, and more reliable, than the points on the edge. You can see the results yourself by repeating the test from earlier with the center focus point, instead of one on the perimeter of your viewfinder.

Using your camera's cross-type sensors can help ensure your pictures are perfectly focused.

Using your camera’s cross-type sensors can help ensure your pictures are perfectly focused.

The real-world implications of this are quite significant, and may very well change how you approach your photography. Many people use an automatic setting that allows their camera to look at all the available focus points, and determine which one should be used to set the focus. But, if you know that the the cross-type points will give you consistently better results, you might try using them more often.

This is especially useful with sports and fast action, but other types of photography situations can benefit from utilizing cross-type points also. Portrait, family, and wedding photographers often utilize the focus-and-recompose method to nail focus with a cross-type sensor, then shift their camera’s field of view to get precisely the composition they want. If you shoot landscapes you might not need speedy autofocus, but using your camera’s cross-type sensors may help your focus be more accurate.

Of course all this doesn’t mean that the normal focusing sensors on your camera are worthless, just that knowing which ones are cross-type can often give you an advantage you might not have otherwise had.

My Nikon D750 has 15 cross-type sensors all in the middle. To get this shot I used a cross-type sensor to nail focus and then recomposed by slightly shifting my camera to the right.

My Nikon D750 has 15 cross-type sensors, all in the middle. To get this shot I used a cross-type sensor to nail focus, and then recomposed by slightly shifting my camera to the right.

One other point worth noting is that mirrorless cameras use phase-detection focusing more than they used to, and some are implementing cross-type sensors too. Just because this technology started with DSLRs does not mean it will be forever limited to these types of cameras, and as manufacturers continue to innovate we will likely see more, and better, focusing options in the years ahead.

To help you figure out how many cross-type focusing points your camera has, you can do a little searching online, or look at the list below. I have compiled some data based on the more popular camera models for you:


  • 70D, T6/T6i: 19 points, all cross-type
  • 60D, T5/T5i, T4/T4i: 9 points, all cross-type
  • T3/T3i, T2/T2i: 9 points, 1 center cross-type
  • 6D: 11 points, 1 center cross-type
  • 7D: 19 points, all cross-type
  • 7D Mark II: 65 points, all cross-type
  • 5DSR, 5D Mark III: 61 points, 41 cross-type in 3 columns (middle, left, and right-side)


  • D3300, D3200, D3100: 11 points, 1 center cross-type
  • D600, D610, D7000, D5500, D5300, D5200: 39 points, 9 cross-type (clustered in center)
  • D750, D810, D7100, D7200: 51 points, 15 cross-type (three center columns)


  • a6000: 179 points, 15 cross-type
  • a77II: 79 points, 15 cross-type
  • a77: 19 points, 11 cross-type
  • a7II: 117 points phase detection, PLUS 25 cross-type points
  • a7R II: 35mm full frame: 399 points (phase-detection AF) APS-C: 357 points (phase-detection AF) / 25 points (contrast-detection AF)


  • K-5: 11 points, 9 cross-type
  • K-3: 27 points, 25 cross-type

Have you ever tried using cross-type focusing points? What have your results been like, and what other tips and tricks do you have for other dPS readers? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Michael

    Simon, it’s very good article related to focusing points functionality. I always use cross-type center point for all my shots and recompose if necessary in my Canon 6D. Works the way I want all the time.
    People eyes must be tack sharp.

  • Great article. I wondered about this for some time now, and have even read a few articles about it but they made my eyes gloss over. This was easy to understand and interesting. Thanks!

  • Mkirby

    I have a 6D also. So do I still select a point but use my center cross-type point to focus and re-compose to my chosen point? Or just leave my selected point on the center cross-type point, focus, and re-compose for the composition that I am going for?

  • Mkirby

    I have a 6D also. So do I still select a point but use my center cross-type point to focus and re-compose to my chosen point? Or just leave my selected point on the center cross-type point, focus, and re-compose for the composition that I am going for?

  • I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Jim.

  • Exactly. When ultimate sharpness matters, I like to make sure I’m using a cross-type focusing sensor too.

  • If you want to make sure to nail focus precisely you would probably want to use your center cross-type focus point and then recompose to get your shot.

  • Chris Smith

    great stuff and easy to follow. thanks a ton. so, does this imply we should be shooting in matrix metering mode (Nikon D610)? i’m always concerned, obviously, about getting tack sharp focus and i’m not as reliable in achievement as i prefer to be. but while researching previously, it seems most say center-weighted metering is the way to go unless shooting landscapes. but for action, i thought either center-weighted or spot-metering (when shooting indoor fine arts performances, for example) was preferred. in your leaf example, i would likely have shot that with fewer focal points and center-weighted, but maybe this is why i don’t get as many tack sharp images as i expect.

  • tonyc0101

    I used to think that too, but you have to remember that in those instances, you want to meter for the scene and not for the subject, here’s why: with performances, the lighting is designed specifically for light vs shadow for dramatic effects (and to tell a story). If you were to meter for the subject, your camera will be thrown off to average for both the light and shadow that isolated on the subject and would ignore everything else (the scenery or other characters and props). Likewise, with sports, your camera will overexpose for dark uniforms and underexpose for bright ones, and you’ll (most-likely) find yourself editing “back to natural”. So, Matrix or Evaluative metering would be the way to go in those instances.

    However, it is possible that you’re confusing Metering with Focus Points, which can either be working together or apart from each other, depending on your settings.

  • Kathleen Kent

    Very good article. Question: does the type of lens on the camera body effect the focusing points?

  • Good question Kathleen. The answer is no, the focusing points are not affected at all by the lens you have on your camera. However, some lenses do focus faster and more sharply than others but this isn’t really related to the focusing points themselves that are part of the camera body.

  • Libby Blake

    Great article, many thanks.

    I have recently purchased a Nikon D5500 which has the 9 central cross-type points. One problem I’m having at the moment is that when I set up the focal point and then recompose the image by shifting the camera slightly, it immediately refocuses under the cross-points, even though I’ve half-pressed the shutter which on my old camera (Nikon D3100) would lock the focal point. Somewhat stumped on that at the moment!

  • Your camera is probably set to AF-C which means it will continually refocus until you take the shot. One solution would be to use back-button focus so you can lock focus, take your finger off the back button, and then recompose the shot how you want.

  • Brian C.

    You have not made the case for a cross-type point being more “accurate” as you’ve stated. You’ve made the case for it picking up focus faster & more reliably. This is not the same as accuracy. Would you please specify why you claim the cross-type point is more accurate?

  • Fri

    And what means this (Canon 80d) ? :
    AF Points:
    19-point cross-type AF
    All AF points are cross-type at f/5.6.
    Center AF point is cross-type at f/2.8.

    Different aperture means different AF points ???

  • Ms. Xray Misandrist

    this still doesn’t explain what the heck they are or do

  • Donald Devine

    The lens can affect the number of cross type focus points.
    Canon 7d Mark ii specs state “* The number of AF points and cross-type AF points vary depending on the lens used.”

    Great article BTW…

  • Donald Devine

    I recompose a lot, but be mindful of wide open aperture. f2.8 or less can often leave a focus plan which is very narrow and the movement to recompose even the slightest bit can destroy your focus. Get to know your lenses, slant a yard stick against the wall at 45 degrees. Photograph mid way up and you can determine how wide your focal plane is. Or calibrate lens, but that would be a different article. (hint hint)

  • Beth

    which would you rather have the 6d or 80d? I am unsure of this full frame vs APS-C formatting making a difference.

  • It depends on what you’re shooting. 80D is great for action and wildlife, whereas 6D is going to be much better for low light and the FF will be an advantage for portraits too.

  • Beth

    Do you consider children wildlife haha? I will mostly be using it for portraits however one of the subjects is 3 years old at the moment and quite wiggly. Thanks for your response!

  • I don’t have any experience with Canon cameras specifically, but as a Nikon shooter who has both crop and full frame bodies I do prefer full frame for portraits and kids. And I do have a couple of my own as well 🙂

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