Most photographers have the problem at least once. You take an amazing photo, open your image on the computer and sigh in frustration…you missed focus and the image is blurry. If that sounds like you, let us help you understand all about camera focusing with this complete guide.

What is Focus in Photography

Understanding focus in photography is essential to creating sharp and clear images.

Focus refers to the level of sharpness and clarity in a photograph. It is achieved by adjusting the camera’s lens so that the light coming through it converges at a specific point, known as the focal point. This point is where the subject of the photograph appears sharpest.

Controlling focus helps create a clear and sharp image. Focus can also be used creatively and artistically. By controlling the focus, you can draw attention to certain parts of the image, create depth and dimension, and add visual interest to your shots.

Four Reasons For Blurry Photos

There are a few reasons for blurry photos:

  • Faulty or dirty equipment
  • Incorrect aperture
  • Missed focus (using the autofocus systems incorrectly, point, or firing the shutter before focus is achieved)
  • Motion blur

A dirty lens or camera sensor can affect camera focus make your photo appear blurry. And occasionally, your lens and camera aren’t working properly, causing out-of-focus images. If your images are consistently out of focus despite correct settings otherwise, your equipment may need calibrating or repaired. Lots of new photographers are quick to blame their equipment, but usually, the photographer is to blame. Ask me how I know…

So let’s jump into all the things about focus in photography!

Letter tiles spelling out the word focus.  Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Focusing in Photography – Manual vs. Autofocus

When it comes to physically focusing you camera, you have two main options: manual focus and autofocus.

In manual mode focus, the photographer physically adjusts a ring on the lens until the image looks to be focused correctly. This is similar to adjusting the focus on a microscope or binoculars.

In autofocus mode, the camera focuses the lens for you. How the camera focuses depends on some additional settings, which we will cover below.

When to Use Manual Focus vs. Autofocus modes

Most photographers use manual focus only on static scenes when there is time to make small adjustments. It takes time, coordination, and sharp eyes to nail focus manually. Landscape photographers, astrophotography, macro photographers and some portrait photographers prefer manual focus for ultimate control.

Autofocus is usually faster and often more accurate than manual focus. The camera can find and lock focus on moving subject faster than we can manually. And in my case, it’s autofocus mode is more reliable than my middle-aged photographer eyes.

Camera Focusing for Beginners – How Does Autofocus Work?

If you’re a nerd and want to know the nuances of camera focusing, you’ll need to understand phase detection and contrast detection. But in short, the camera’s computer, software, and sensors work together to determine how to focus the camera correctly. It happens incredibly quickly, usually in just fractions of a second.

How to Use Manual Focus – Switch the Focus from “M” to “AF” on your Lens and Camera

Most modern cameras have an external witch that controls focus. Look for a switch near or on your lens that read AF/M or AF/MF. To switch to manual focus, flip the switch to the “M.”

Some lenses also have what’s known as manual-override focusing. To manually overide the autofocus for a single shot, adjust the focus ring on your lens. Your camera will hold that focus until the next time you halfway press the shutter button.

How to use engage Auto Focus – the basics of focus

To focus your camera with autofocus, you’ll simply hold the shutter button halfway down. From there, the camera does the work!

Camera Focusing for Beginners – Your Camera’s AutoFocusing Modes

Now let’s dial it down a little bit more. Most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras have two different types of autofocus modes you can choose: single-servo and continuous-servo. Knowing which one to use when gives you more control and improves your chance of sharp, crystal-clear images.

Single-servo autofocus focus mode

Single-servo autofocus means once your camera acquires focus, it won’t adjust the focus until you tell it to find focus again. Once you press your shutter halfway down and the camera achieves focus, it will hold focus at that point until you press your shutter halfway down again to refocus.

Single-servo works great when the subject is still and you aren’t moving the camera. Since neither moves, you can let the focus stay in one place. It works great for landscapes, macro, still-life, commercial or portrait work where your subject doesn’t move.

Single-servo is also known as AF-S on Nikon or One-Shot on Canon

Continuous-servo focus mode

Continuous-servo autofocus means that as long as the focusing button is held down, the camera continually adjusts focus on that point.

Continuous focusing is needed when you are photographing moving subjects or if the camera is moving. Choose continuous-servo for sports, wildlife and even portrait sessions where the subjects are moving around.

Nikon calls continuous-servo focus mode AF-C, while Canon refers to it as Al-Servo.

Auto-Servo Autofocus

Some cameras Auto-Servo Autofocus. This third mode lets the camera choose between single-servoe and continuous servo. – that analyzes the scene and automatically picks between these two options.

Personally, I like being in control of my autofocus mode, so I never let the camera choose. In fact, my camera stays on AF-C the majority of the time.

Tower and couple in background at the end of a pier with a fence in the foreground. Photo by Marco Chilese on Unsplash

Understanding Autofocus Areas

Now that you’ve told your camera how to focus, you’ll need to tell it where to focus. Autofocus area modes tell your camera which area of the scene you’d like in focus.

You can tell where your camera is focusing by looking for the focal boxes (or sometimes circles) in your viewfinder. You may see several small boxes or a single one.

Single-Point Autofocus is the simplest autofocus area mode, and it is best used when you want to focus on a specific point in the frame. In this mode, the camera focuses on a single point that you select, and the rest of the frame is ignored. This mode is particularly useful for portrait photography or when shooting a subject that is not moving. Single-point is also handy when shooting in poor light.

Dynamic-Area Autofocus, on the other hand, is more complex and flexible. It is designed to track a moving subject and keep it in focus. In this mode, the camera uses multiple autofocus points to track the subject as it moves around the frame. Dynamic-Area Autofocus is particularly useful for shooting sports, wildlife, or any fast-moving subjects. It also comes in handy when shooting in situations where the subject is likely to move unpredictably, such as in street photography.

Changing your focus point

If you want to change which focus point the camera uses to find focus, you can easily do so on most cameras! This helps you control exactly where the camera focuses, telling it where your subject is in the frame.

The exact method for toggling focus points may vary depending on your camera model, but here are some general steps that can be followed:

  1. First, locate the focus point selection button on your camera. This button is usually located on the back of the camera near the LCD screen.
  2. Press the focus point selection button to activate the focus point selection mode. This will display the focus points on the LCD screen or in the viewfinder.
  3. Use the camera’s directional controls, joysticks, or touch screen to select the focus point you want to use. You can usually move the focus point around the frame to place it on your subject.
  4. Once you have selected the focal point, half-press the shutter button to lock focus on your subject. You can then recompose the shot as desired and fully press the shutter button to take the photo.

The number, type, and spread of available focus points varies by camera. Experiment with different selection points to help you find the best method for your shooting style and camera setup.

Focus and recompose vs. toggling

Focus and recompose and toggling focus points are two different techniques used to focus in photography.

Focus and recompose involves first selecting the focus point, half-pressing the shutter button to lock focus on the subject, and then recomposing the shot while still holding the shutter halfway down. This technique is commonly used when there is not a suitable focus point on the camera for the subject you want to focus on.

Toggling focus points, on the other hand, involves manually selecting a focus point from the camera’s available focus points to focus on the desired subject. This technique is useful when there is a specific focus point you want to use or when the subject is off-center in the frame.

While both techniques can be effective in achieving accurate focus, toggling focus points is generally considered to be more accurate and precise. Focus and recompose increases the chances of you missing focus, particularly when using a shallow depth of field or when shooting at wide apertures. But toggling focus points takes practice and takes more time.

Focusing Recap

Confused yet? I understand…there is a lot to understand when it comes to focus in photography! Let’s think it through as a series of steps so you understand what all is involved.

  1. First, decide if you want to use autofocus (camera runs the focusing mechanisms) or manual focus mode (you manually adjust the focus using lens focusing ring).
  2. Next, choose your auto focusing mode, either single-servo or continuous servo to tell the camera when to focus/refocus.
  3. Now choose the overall autofocus area mode you prefer – single-point autofocus (a small, precise area) or dynamic-area autofocus (using several autofocus points together as a little mini-focus team).
  4. If using single-point autofocus, decide if you want to focus and recompose (lock focus under a single toggle point then recompose your scene to place the subject where you want) or if you prefer to toggle the focal points using the toggle button on the back of your camera.

Back Button Focus

Here’s one more technique to consider using to improve your ability to achieve great focus lock…back button focus.

Back button focus (or BBF) is a technique used in photography where the focus function is assigned to a different button on the back of the camera. This allows the photographer to focus on the subject independently of the shutter, which is used only to take the photo.

One of the primary benefits of BBF is that it allows for greater control over focus and depth of field. By separating the focus function from the shutter trigger button, you can focus on the subject and then recompose the shot as desired without losing the focus point. This can be particularly useful when shooting fast-moving subjects or in situations where the subject is likely to move unexpectedly.

BBF helps to reduce the likelihood of accidentally refocusing the shot. It’s possible to accidentally refocus the shot when the shutter is half-pressed. With back button focus, this risk is eliminated, as the focus is controlled by a separate button on the back of the camera.

I personally use and swear by back button focus. It may take some time to get used to, but now using the shutter trigger for focus seems weird!

To set your camera for back button focus, consult your manual.

The Focus Distance Limiter Switch

The focus distance limiter on a camera lens is a useful feature that allows photographers to limit the focusing range of the lens to a specific distance range. This feature is particularly useful for lenses with a long focal length, such as telephoto lenses, where focusing can be slow and difficult, especially in low light conditions. Your macro lens might also have a focus lock limiter switch.

Look for a switch on the side of your lens with a number and an infinity sign. That’s the focus distance limiter.

The focus distance limiter actually changes the range of focus distances that the lens will attempt to focus on. This means that the lens will only search for focus within the specified range, which can help to speed up the autofocus process and reduce the amount of time it takes to find focus. By limiting the range, the lens is less likely to focus on objects that are outside of the desired focus range, which can help to improve the accuracy of the focus and reduce the chances of getting out-of-focus shots.

This doesn’t affect the “zoom” of a lens. You’ll still be able to zoom a zoom lens. The switch just controls the set distances you are trying to photograph, which makes it easier to focus.

I often have my focus distance limiter turned on for my telephoto lens for wildlife photography or sports photography, so that my autofocus doesn’t try to focus on objects in the foreground.

Depth of Field and Focusing

As I mentioned before, sometimes what we first think are focusing problems, are really depth-of-field problems.

Depth-of-field refers to the range of distances in an image that appear acceptably sharp, while camera focusing refers to the process of adjusting the focus of the camera lens to ensure that the subject is in sharp focus.

Depth-of-field is affected by several factors, including aperture, focal length, and subject distance. A wider aperture (i.e., smaller f-number) and longer focal length can produce a shallower depth-of-field, while a smaller aperture and shorter focal length can produce a deeper depth-of-field. Additionally, the distance between the camera and subject can also affect depth-of-field, with closer subjects having a shallower depth-of-field than distant subjects.

Understanding your camera settings, depth of field and how it affects what is sharp in your scene is a key component of photography. If you’re routinely missing focus but feel your technique is good, revisit depth of field and make sure you’re using the correct aperture for your image goals.

Blurry sunset. Photo by Andrew Ruiz on Unsplash

Motion Blur and Focusing

Motion blur refers to the amount of blur that occurs due to the movement of the subject or the camera during exposure. We think of it as a focusing problem, but that’s not quite right.

Motion blur can occur in several ways, such as when the subject is moving during the exposure or when the camera is moving while taking the shot. This can result in a blurry image or a loss of detail in the subject. To reduce motion blur, photographers can use faster shutter speeds or use a tripod to stabilize the camera.

Here are four things you can do to reduce motion blur in your images and improve your focus in photography:

  1. Increase shutter speed: Motion blur is often caused by a slow shutter speed. Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the motion of the subject AND fast enough to eliminate camera shake. A general rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed at least as fast as the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. For example, if you are using a 50mm lens, use a shutter speed of at least 1/50th of a second; for a 200mm lens, use at least 1/200th of a second.
  2. Use a tripod: A tripod can help to stabilize the camera and eliminate motion blur caused by camera shake. By keeping the camera steady, you can use slower shutter speeds without introducing motion blur. When using a tripod, be sure to turn off any image stabilization or vibration reduction features on the lens or camera, as these can introduce blur when the camera is mounted on a stable platform.
  3. Use burst mode: Burst mode, also known as continuous shooting mode, can help to eliminate motion blur by allowing you to capture multiple frames in rapid succession. This can increase the chances of getting a sharp image, especially if the subject is moving quickly.
  4. Use a faster lens: A lens with a wider aperture can allow more light to enter the camera, which can help to increase the shutter speed and eliminate motion blur. Additionally, a wider aperture can create a shallower depth-of-field, which can help to isolate the subject from the background and make it stand out more in the image.

Can Image Stablization Help with Camera Focusing?

Image stabilization is a technology in your camera or lens that compensates for the movement by adjusting the position of the lens elements to keep the image stable on the camera sensor.

By reducing camera shake, image stabilization helps improve the accuracy and speed of camera focusing. This can be especially helpful in low-light situations, where slower shutter speeds are needed to capture enough light, and camera shake is more likely to occur.

What Does it Mean to Set your focus to infinity?

Setting the focus to infinity means adjusting the focus ring on a camera lens to the point where the lens is focused on a subject at an infinite distance away. This is often marked on the lens as an infinity symbol (∞).

When you set the focus to infinity, it means that everything in the distance, from the point of focus to infinity, will be in focus. This is particularly useful when shooting landscapes or cityscapes, where you want everything in the distance to be sharp and clear.

Not all lenses will have an infinity point.

Canon camera hanging around a neck of someone with long hair.

Is the center focus point always the best one to use?

While the center focus point is often the most accurate and sensitive, especially in low light conditions, the best focus point to use will depend on the composition and focus needs of the particular shot. That may or may not be the center focus point.

In some cases, the subject may not be located in the center of the frame, so using the center may result in an off-centered focus. In this case, it’s better to use one of the other focus points that is closer to the subject. Many modern cameras have a variety of focus points spread throughout the frame, allowing you to choose the one that is closest to your desired focus area.

Experiment with different focus points and modes to find the one that works best for your particular shooting style and subject matter.

Use good technique

When I miss focus, it’s usually because I’m in a hurry and am not holding my camera correctly. Slow down, use good posture, and make sure your technique is correct!

  1. Use both hands to hold the camera steady. Grip the right side of the camera with your right hand, and place your left hand underneath the camera to support its weight.
  2. Tuck your elbows in close to your body to provide additional support for the camera.
  3. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and lean slightly forward to use your body as a brace for the camera.
  4. Take a deep breath, exhale, and then gently press the shutter to take the shot. Try to avoid jabbing at the button, as this can introduce camera shake.

What is the “sweet spot” of a lens?

The “sweet spot” of a lens is the aperture setting at which it produces the sharpest image.

In general, most lenses tend to produce the sharpest images when closed down a few f-stops from their widest aperture setting. Why? Here’s some geeky science stuff for you: at wider apertures, light enters the lens at a more oblique angle. That angle can result in optical distortions and aberrations that can reduce image sharpness. By narrowing the aperture a few stops, the angle of light entering the lens is more perpendicular, resulting in sharper images.

The exact sweet spot of a lens can vary depending on factors such as the focal length, the quality of the lens, and the subject being photographed. However, a good rule of thumb is to start by narrowing the aperture to around f/8-f/11, which is a common range for many lenses. From there, you can experiment with different aperture settings to find the sweet spot for your particular lens and shooting conditions.

What do photographers mean when they say a lens is sharp in the corners?

“Sharp in the corners” is a term used in photography to describe the level of sharpness and detail that is visible in the corners of an image, particularly in wide-angle shots or images with a shallow depth of field.

Some lenses, particularly wide-angle lenses, can exhibit a phenomenon known as “corner softness,” where the corners of the image appear less sharp and detailed than the center of the image. This can be caused by a number of factors, including lens design, optical distortion, and aperture settings.

What is focus stacking?

Focus stacking is a type of focusing method. It involves taking multiple photos of the same scene, each with a slightly different focus point, and then merging the images together in post-processing to create a final image with a much greater depth of field than would be possible with a single shot. Focus stacking is an advanced technique and not something you want to take on when you’re still mastering focus in photography!

Tips for focusing your camera

  1. Asses your images to find where things are breaking down in your focusing process. Are you truly having trouble focusing? Or you using too slow of a shutter speed or too wide of an aperture?
  2. Use the correct technique for holding your camera.
  3. Focus on a specific area of your subject. If it’s an animal or person, make sure your focal point is on the eye. That’s the first place most viewers will look. If it’s a flower or plant, put your focal point on the area you want the viewer’s eye drawn to.
  4. If your camera is having a hard time finding focus in a scene, put your focal point over an area of high contrast, such as where white meets black or a shadow meets a lighter area.
  5. Your camera’s sensor may have a hard time locking focus in low light conditions. Use your camera’s autofocus assist system (look in your manual to see if your camera has it) or add light to your scene. Sometimes even a small flashlight held on your subject can make the difference!
  6. Read the manual. I know, I know…it’s dry as dirt. But reading the manual to understand your camera’s autofocus system and how each mode works will help in the long run!
  7. Try back button focus! It may feel weird at first, but for most people, BBF helps them solve many focusing issues.
  8. Consider manual focus. In some situations, manual focusing is more accurate and faster than autofocus, such as in poor lighting or subjects with less contrast.
  9. Use a smaller aperture for more depth-of-field. If you want to ensure that the entire scene is in focus, consider using a smaller aperture. This will increase the depth-of-field, which can be helpful in landscapes or other wide shots.
  10. Check your focus after taking the shot. Always review your images after taking them to make sure that the subject is in focus. Zoom in on the image to check for sharpness, and adjust your focus as needed.
  11. Try focusing manually for shooting night scenes. Your camera probably can’t achieve focus with such little available light.
  12. Zoom in on the Live View mode to check if your focus is correct. It was an essential tip that helps focus photography, even for photographers taking stills and having time for fine-tuning. 4. Zoom into Live View mode to check for correct focus. Images that look sharp in small images can be seen in lower contrast. Take a look at the pictures you can see from behind the camera, always zoom and check that your eyesight is correct.
  13. Don’t confuse low image quality with poor focus. Sometimes, the photography conditions are so poor that even when we acquire focus correctly, our images still look soft or out of focus.

Achieving focus is one of those photography basics critical for any shutterbug- whether you’re into landscape photography, wildlife photography, or portrait photography. With some practice and study, you’ll be the boss of your camera and nailing the focus on all your shots!