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Focus is a very big subject in photography and one that confuses a lot of new and even intermediate photographers. One of the confusing factors is the difference between focus modes and drive modes, or release modes (depending on the camera brand you use).

The first point to note is that release modes and drive modes are the same thing. It’s just that different camera brands have different names for these two modes. 

Why the confusion between focus modes and drive modes?

In my opinion there are two main reasons:

  • They have similar names (you’ll see what I mean in a moment)
  • They are both very important for achieving sharp photos, but for different reasons

Let’s first look at focus modes.

Best settings for sharp portrait photos

What are focus modes?

There are four focus modes – one is manual and the other three are all autofocus focus modes. The three autofocus focus modes are:

  • Single
  • Continuous
  • Auto 

How you select a focus mode will depend on your camera. All brands are different and even different models of the same brand differ, such as in the photos below of my Nikons. So, the best thing to do is look in your manual to find out how to set focus modes. In entry level cameras you might have to use the menu system. Cameras higher up the range are often fitted with buttons and dials so that you can quickly change focus modes.

The focus mode you choose to use will depend on what you’re photographing. So let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each focus mode.

Nikon focus modes for portrait photography

Setting focus modes differs between camera brands and even between models of the same brand. On the left – my D810. I set autofocus or manual with this switch. While looking through the viewfinder, I push the button the button to see and select theAF  focus mode. On the right – my D700. I set focus mode to Continuous AF, Single AF or Manual with this switch.

What is Single AF focus mode (AF-S)?

Single servo, or Single focus mode is a good choice for photographing stationary subjects. That can be anything, as long as it isn’t moving, because the moment it moves, it will be out of focus. Likewise if you move, your subject will then be out of focus.

With Single AF your camera will focus then hold the focus for as long as you part depress the shutter button.

To use Single AF mode:

  • To focus, part depress the shutter button to focus
  • The camera will lock focus at that point
  • You can then fully depress the shutter button to take the shot
  • Or you can recompose by moving your camera slightly to the side
  • As long neither you nor your subject moves forwards or backwards, the area you focused on will still be in focus

Downside to single focus mode

If you’re using a very wide aperture for shallow depth of field, your subject could very easily not be in focus when you recompose. This is because with a shallow depth of field, the slightest movement can have an impact.

What is Continuous AF focus mode (AF-C)?

Continuous servo, or Continuous focus mode, is perfect for ensuring sharp focus regardless of movement either by you or by your subject. The clue is in the name – with Continuous AF your camera focuses continuously while you part depress the shutter button.

To use Continuous AF mode:

  • Position the focus point on your subject
  • Part depress the shutter button for the camera to focus
  • If you or subject move forwards or backwards, the camera will continue to adjust focus on the subject as long as you keep holding the button part way down
  • Make sure you keep the focus point on your subject as they move
  • To take the shot, fully depress the button

I use continuous focus almost all the time – like 99% of the time.

Downside to continuous focus mode

Because the camera constantly seeks focus, if you move the camera, and therefore the focus point, away from your subject, it will focus away from your subject. 

What is Auto AF focus mode (AF-A)?

This is a fully automatic focus mode available on entry level cameras and is the default setting when you buy your camera. It’s a combination of single and continuous focus modes in that the camera detects if the subject is moving or stationary and automatically focuses accordingly.

The exact way you select Auto AF will vary from one camera to the next. To use Auto AF mode:

  • Select auto mode to shoot in
  • Select AF-A in the list of focus modes in the menu

Downside to Auto AF mode

Your camera is often mistaken and focuses on the wrong part of the image and / or thinks the subject is still when it is moving and vice versa.

I always advise using program mode rather than auto mode and strongly suggest not using Auto AF mode. You’re not in control of the shot and there’s too much of a risk that you’ll miss the shot you want.

What’s the best focus mode for portraits?

For sharp photos and a relaxed shoot that allows natural movement to capture a person’s personality or connection between people, continuous focus mode is best, especially when photographing young children as they never stop moving.

Further reading: Nail your autofocus, get the shot

What are release modes / drive modes?

Now let’s look at how many photos you can take with one push of the shutter button, because that’s what we’re talking about with release / drive modes. As I mentioned, different manufacturers use different names for the same thing, so release mode is the same thing as drive mode.

The one thing all cameras have these icons in common… Yay for some consistency for once!

The difference between single, continuous low and continuous high drive modes

The three drive modes / release modes we’ll be looking at are:

  • Single
  • Continuous Low
  • Continuous High

Now do you see why confusion creeps in? These drive mode names sound very similar to focus mode names! But they have very different functions.

Drive modes have nothing to do with focus. They’re all about how many photos you can take in one go when you push the shutter button.

I won’t go into how to set your release mode, because, again, different cameras have different ways of doing this. As you can see from these photos of my Nikon D810 and D700, it can even vary between models of the same brand. 

If you have an entry level camera you might need to change the setting using your camera’s menu system, rather than using buttons and dials like on the higher range cameras.

Nikon drive modes for portrait photography

The drive mode controls are positioned slightly differently on my D810 (left) and my D700 (right).

Single drive mode (S)

This is self explanatory – when you push the shutter release button in single release mode, you can take a single frame, one photo.

Continuous Low drive mode (CL)

To take a slow burst of images, switch to Continuous Low release mode and hold the shutter release button down.

The camera will continue to take photos until its buffer (i.e. internal memory) is full. How many images it can hold while writing to the memory card depends on your camera, your camera settings and memory card.

After a burst of images the memory card access light on the back of your camera will stay on until all the images have been written to your memory card. Don’t switch off your camera while the light is still on.

What’s great about Continuous Low drive mode is that, because it is relatively slow, you can take just a single image at a time if you prefer simply by lifting your finger off the shutter release button fairly quickly once you’ve taken your shot.

Further reading: 3 creative photography tricks using continuous shooting mode

Continuous High drive mode (CH)

This is also self explanatory – Continuous High drive mode works the same way as continuous low, but at a faster pace. Exactly how fast depends on the frame rate of your camera. You can find this information in your manual, just look for frame rate or frames per second (fps).

For very fast action, where the fraction of a second can make the difference between getting or missing the crucial shot, like in sport, use continuous high. 

Be warned, though, that in Continuous High release mode, your memory card will fill up fast with very similar images.

What focus and drive settings to use for fast moving subjects

Here I used Continuous AF focus mode and Continuous High drive mode to ensure that, as this wonderfully lively dog barrelled down the hill towards me, my camera was able to keep him in focus and I was able to shoot off a fast burst photos to catch him in full flight so that I could select the best photos later on my computer.

What’s the best drive mode for portraits?

Continuous Low drive mode is the most versatile drive mode for portraits as you can take a single frame or a slow burst of frames to ensure you capture a moment when there’s movement, laughter or a moment between people. Plus you won’t fill your memory card as quickly as with Continuous High drive mode.

Further reading: The ultimate sharp focus guide for photos you can be proud of

How to use focus modes and drive modes together

So now that you have a good understanding of focus modes and drive modes, let’s put them together for sharp photos.

If you’re photographing a:

  • Stationary object – Single focus mode and Single drive mode
  • Slow moving object – Continuous Focus mode and Continuous Low drive mode
  • Fast moving subject – Continuous focus mode and Continuous High drive mode

You can use either Continuous focus mode with all drive modes. 

However, if you use Single focus mode with either of the continuous drive modes, you’ll run into difficulties. That’s because, with Single focus mode, your camera focuses once. It will focus again only when you depress the shutter button again. So, with Single focus mode selected, if you hold the shutter button down in either of the continuous drive modes and your subject moves, your camera won’t track the subject and continue to focus.

My favourite combination of focus mode and drive mode settings

As a portrait photographer, the combination of settings that I use a huge part of the time (almost all the time) is Continuous focus mode with Continuous Low drive mode. 

I also use back button focus all the time. 

This combination gives me the versatility to photograph still or moving objects without changing any settings. I can also focus and recompose if I wish, even though I’m in Continuous AF focus mode, by just lifting my thumb off the focus button on the back of my camera.

This is because the shutter release button is purely for taking the photo. With back button focusing, the focusing aspect is removed from the shutter release button and is instead assigned to the back button.

What’s more, if I need to change to Continuous High drive mode for some quick action, it’s just a flick of a switch, so I’m always ready. 

Further reading: Back button focus – how to use it and why it’s your BFF

Best of all worlds!

How you choose to use your camera’s tools is entirely up to you. Over time, and by experimenting with all the settings, you’ll find the combination that works best for you. In the process, you’ll get to know your camera better, which is guaranteed to improve your photography.

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By Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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Focus modes and drive modes – the differences
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