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How to use autofocus properly

Your DSLR camera is designed to take sharp photos, no matter whether it is entry level or top of the range. If you’re not taking sharp photos, it is not because there is something wrong with the camera and it’s not because there’s something wrong with you. It’s simply a matter of learning how to use autofocus properly and then making autofocusing decisions based on that knowledge.

Just because it says autofocus on the tin, doesn't mean that your camera automatically focuses on the right part of the photo.Click To Tweet

To master photography, the best thing you can do for yourself is not take the easy route. In many ways I think we’re at a disadvantage with our high tech cameras these days. Because the cameras are so clever, we don’t need to be. They make it too easy for us to pick up and start shooting. However, the moment you take the easy route, learning to take control of the camera becomes intimidating.

When you first pick up your camera you’ll photograph anything and everything…just so you can take a photo and play with your new toy. This is the best time not to go the easy route, because the moment you get one good photo the easy way, you won’t want to continue with the frustration of fully understanding what went into it.

When I say easy route, I mean auto, but I’m not talking about manual focus versus autofocus. I hardly ever use manual focus. Why would I when autofocus is so awesome?

Well, except for these times… The 9 times manual focus beats autofocus

But back to how to use autofocus… When we know that the camera will focus for us, we think that’s all there is to it. It’s misleading.

Focus is one of the biggest stumbling blocks when people first pick up a camera. Using the default autofocus mode on your camera is part of the reason that this is a problem. This is for two reasons:

  • You can’t get the right focus, because your camera is not a mind reader (despite what you paid for it).
  • You don’t know the best autofocus mode to use for the situation (yes, there’s more than 1).

The good news is that this is a really easy fix with practice. Before you can start practicing though, you need to know that autofocus is a two step decision process.

Two autofocus decisions:

You need to answer two questions to make your autofocus decisions:

  1. Is my subject moving / about to move, or is it still?
  2. Where do I want to focus?

Let’s look at these questions and their answers in greater detail so that you can learn how to use autofocus.

1. Is it moving?

Depending on what you’re photographing, you can select one of two ways to autofocus:

  • Continuously
  • Focus once and hold

In other words, you need to decide on the autofocus mode. The key to sharp focus every time is understanding and using the correct autofocus mode for the situation.

Set the autofocus mode using the autofocus (AF) mode selector button. This will vary from one camera make and model to another. For example:

  • On the Nikon D7000 for example, while looking through the viewfinder, you would select your focus mode by holding down the autofocus mode selector button and turning the main command dial to change focus modes.
  • On the Canon Rebel XS (or 1000D) example press the right cross key. Your choices will appear on your LCD screen, then turn the main dial to select your autofocus mode.

Because terminology differs between brands, I will mention only Nikon and Canon throughout this tutorial, as they are the biggest brands. We’d all get very bored if I ran through the terminology of every camera make each time.

Further reading: How to focus on fast moving subjects

Autofocus modes in more detail

Continuous Servo

AF-C (Nikon) or AI Servo (Canon) – when the shutter button is part depressed the camera will focus and continue to adjust focus on the subject if either you or your subject moves. AF-C is what I use pretty much all the time – perfect for busy little kids!

How to use autofocus to take a sharp photo

Single Servo

AF-S (Nikon) One Shot AF (Canon) – when you part depress the shutter button to focus, the camera will focus and hold that focus. If you keep holding the shutter button half way down and recompose your shot by moving your camera, the area you focused on will still be in focus.

There is a danger with this method, particularly when shooting with a shallow depth of field, that in recomposing, your subject is no longer within your area of focus. Either you or your subject might have moved.

Read about depth of field here: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition

Using the autofocus mode properly on your DSLR camera

But that’s not the end of the autofocus story when deciding on how to use autofocus.

2. Where do I want to focus?

Once you’ve selected which autofocus mode you want to use, you need to decide what part of the photo you want in sharp focus. In other words, which autofocus area to use. There are 4 to choose from:

  • Single point
  • Dynamic area
  • Auto area
  • 3D-tracking

Let’s look at when and why you’d choose each of these autofocus areas, but first, here’s a handy cheat sheet of focus area modes.

Autofocus (AF) areas in more detail

Maybe the reason your photos are sometimes out of focus is because your camera is focusing on the wrong part of the photo? This is where we solve that problem.

Single point AF

You manually select one point for the camera to focus on. With single point autofocus, there is no question ever about what it is that you want to focus on. The camera is not part of the decision making process.

This is my preferred autofocus area – it puts me in complete control of the shot. In fact, I can’t remember when last I used anything other than single point autofocus.

With Nikon you select the single point by depressing the shutter to see the focus point and then using the multi-selector dial to move it to your subject.

For Canon press and release the AF point selection button (39) and your options will be displayed on the LCD screen for you to choose.

To be a great photographer you need to develop your inner control freak - don’t let the camera decide on what’s important.Click To Tweet

Dynamic area AF

You manually select the main focus point and the camera will hold that focus and track temporarily, so if the subject moves you can catch up by moving your camera. Helpful in panning.

Auto area AF

AF-A (Nikon) or AI Focus AF (Canon) – the camera switches between single area AF and dynamic area AF automatically. If the camera thinks the subject is still, it chooses single area AF. If the subject moves, it changes to dynamic area AF.

This is the default setting on beginner cameras and, in my opinion, the reason so many beginners struggle for so long with nailing focus.

3D-tracking (Nikon only)

Once you’ve focused on your subject using a selected focus point, the focus point automatically changes to track the moving subject across the autofocus points, whether you move the camera to follow your subject or not.

IMPORTANT TIP: I would not recommend using auto area AF, as how does the camera know what you want to shoot? Even with face detection it won’t always get it right.

2 further essential points on autofocusing:

If you really want to nail your autofocus, these points are key.

  • Back button focus
  • Staying calm when you click

Let’s take a closer look at why.

Back button focus

Once you’ve mastered autofocus mode selection and autofocus area selection, do yourself a favour and learn about back button focusing. Trust me, once you’ve gone back button, you’ll never go back.

With back button focusing you can track your subject until the exact moment everything aligns perfectly. At this point you will already be focused and able to take the shot without delay.

Using the shutter button to focus delays the moment and can lead to missing the shot because:

  • In that split second your subject may have moved out of the area of focus, so your shot will not be sharp, especially if you’re shooting with a shallow depth of field.
  • Even worse, your camera might “hunt” for focus at exactly the moment you want to take the shot, causing you to miss the shot. “Hunting” for focus is when the camera, in trying to lock focus, works through the full focus range of the lens.

Read about back button focus here:  Why back button focus is your BFF, and how to use it

Depressing the shutter button

This may seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but in the heat of the moment we do some strange things. So, I’m hoping that by stating the obvious, you’ll subconsciously be aware of it and won’t:

  • Jab your shutter down
  • Stab at your shutter button

Just depress the shutter button calmly. No amount of force is needed to make it happen faster.

When you jab or stab at the shutter button, you could also be clenching up your hand and moving the camera slightly at the critical moment. If this happens, all your careful focusing flies out the window and you end up with movement blur in your photograph.

Wrapping up autofocus:

  • Set your autofocus mode to continuous
  • Select your single focus point manually
  • Position your focus point on your subject and track using back button focus until the moment is right
  • Be cool. Depress the shutter calmly

USEFUL TIP:  When photographing a person, always focus on the eye nearest to the camera. As viewers, our eyes are drawn to the eye closest to us in an image, so it should be the sharpest point in your photograph.

If you have any questions about getting sharp photos with autofocus, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our focusing tips have helped you to understand how to use autofocus properly, share that too.

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