Understanding Autofocus Modes – Which Should You Use?

Understanding Autofocus Modes Explained (1 of 1)

One of the questions that I get asked the most often is – how can I get sharper photos? Unfortunately, it’s a tough question to give a specific answer because there can be a handful of reasons why you may not be getting as sharp of photos as you’d like, but I can tell you that many times it simply can be a result of not using the correct autofocus mode.

Understanding the differences between different autofocus modes might not be at the top of your list when you first get your camera but you certainly need to have an understanding of what the different modes are and more importantly – when to use the different autofocus modes.

So lets get you right up to speed so you can have the confidence of knowing all about choosing autofocus modes.

Single vs Continuous Autofocus – What it is & When to use

  • Single Area AF (Nikon: AF-S / Canon: One Shot AF)
    • In single area autofocus, once you lock focus on your subject the camera will not retain focus if your subject moves.
    • When to Use – Stationary objects and/or in low-light conditions.
    • Continuous AF (Nikon: Continuous AF-C / Canon: AI Servo)
      • Unlike single area autofocus, once you lock focus on a moving subject the camera will do its best to follow your subject keeping them in focus.
      • When to Use – Use for sports, birds in flight or pets and people when moving.

How the Photographer/Camera Chooses Autofocus Points

  • Single Point AF Area Mode
    • Using single point AF area mode, you pick a single autofocus point to focus on your subject with. Note: the camera only uses 1 focus point in this mode.
    • Use for macro, portraits or other stationary subjects for autofocus precision.
      Understanding Autofocus Modes
  • Dynamic AF Area Mode
    • Dynamic AF area mode you are still able to be in control and choose the focus point however the camera uses a larger area to retain focus if your subject moves.
    • This mode only works when in continuous AF mode.
  • Auto Area AF – Using Auto Area AF mode, the camera is analyzing the scene and choosing which subject to focus on.  The ease of not having to manually select a specific focus point can be often at the detriment of the camera mistakenly choosing the wrong subject or thing to focus on.
    • The only time it makes sense to use this mode is if you can’t look through the viewfinder to accurately pick the focus point or if you just want to be able to point and shoot.
      Auto AF Points1
      Auto Area Autofocus was used on this photo since we were holding the camera out aimed back at us for a quick self portrait and couldn’t look through viewfinder.

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Why is it Necessary to Manually Choose the AF Point?

Today’s cameras are pretty “smart” but they still are unable to know exactly where you want to focus.  Autofocus modules today use contrast or phase detection to guess where to focus and when you have numerous objects in the frame, there is a good chance that your camera will by mistake, choose to focus on something other than your intended subject.  If you are using fast prime lenses and shooting at wide apertures like f/1.8 any missed focus of the camera will be easily to see and the shot will be unusable.  The key is simply to always choose the autofocus point and take control and tell the camera exactly what you want in focus.  If you are taking a portrait – focus on the eyes.
Auto AF Points Single AF Points
Top Photo:
This is NOT the autofocus mode you’d want to use for a portrait – the camera can focus on the shirt, a hand, the chin, anywhere it chooses, unless you specifically choose to focus on the eye as shown in the bottom photo.

Key Takeaway – Autofocus Modes

It is always a best practice to take control of your camera and always use Single-Point or Dynamic AF Area mode and use the thumb pad to manually select which specific autofocus point to use to ensure properly focused photos.  Use Single-Area for portraits and still objects and use Continuous AF for moving objects.  Only use auto area focus in very specific exceptions that require it.

As always, I hope this quick read has been helpful to you!  If you want more photography technical tips, head over to the “behind the lens” section right here.

Chat soon!
Cole