How to use autofocus settings (focus modes and AF area modes)

What is AF in photography?

AF stands for autofocus in photography and is a feature of all modern cameras. Mirrorless cameras have the advantage over DSLR cameras of auto eye AF, which detects faces and focuses on the eye automatically, which is incredibly useful for portrait photography. However, the AF system of DSLR cameras have AF options for sharp focus.

New photographers get confused about AF in photography, because there are 2 different focus settings that sound quite similar, which I’ll explain in this article. They are:

  • Autofocus area mode (AF area mode)
  • Autofocus modes (AF mode)

How to use your camera’s autofocus modes properly

Your camera is designed to take sharp photos, no matter whether it’s an entry level camera or top of the range. If you’re not getting sharp photos, it’s probably not because there’s something wrong with the camera. Most times it’s just learning how to use focusing modes and autofocus area modes properly. 

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

How to select the right autofocus area mode to use

Don’t be tempted to take the easy focus route

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 modern cameras are so clever, we don’t need to be. They make it too easy for us to pick one up and start photographing.

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 (or what appears to be easy), because it’s actually the long way around to getting a good photo.

You need to understand how focus works – manual focus and autofocus.

When I say easy route, I mean auto, but I’m not talking about manual focus versus autofocus. I mean auto mode – some beginner photographers get auto mode and autofocus mode confused. Auto mode is a camera setting that does everything for you in terms of exposure and also decides on where to focus. Autofocus is just for focusing.

I hardly ever use manual focus, except for low light photography when the camera has a hard time autofocusing even on stationary subjects. Why would I when autofocus is so awesome?

Well, except for these 9 times when manual focus beats autofocus!

But back to how to use AF in photography properly. At first we assume that the camera will just focus for us, we think that’s all there is to it. It’s misleading.

To make the most of your camera’s autofocus abilities, you need to be out of auto mode. If you’re not comfortable with aperture priority, shutter priority or manual mode, use program mode. It’s like auto mode, but better.


Your camera’s default autofocus setting is not great

Focus is one of the biggest stumbling blocks when people first pick up a camera. Using the default autofocus mode on your camera is partly why it’s 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 focusing mode to use for the situation (yes, there’s more than 1)

The good news is that there’s a really easy fix. You just need to know the two steps to every autofocus decision and then practice.

Focus on moving subject approaching herd of cows

The two step autofocus decision:

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

  1. Is my subject moving / about to move, or is it still? This decides the autofocus mode
  2. Where do I want to focus? This determines which autofocus area mode to use

Let’s look at these questions and their answers in greater detail to understand how to use autofocus properly.

Focusing modes

There are three focusing modes:

  • Manual focus (MF)
  • Continuous autofocus (Continuous AF)
  • Single autofocus (Single AF)

As we’re talking about autofocus in this tutorial, I won’t discuss manual focus mode here.

1. Autofocus mode decision: Is it moving?

Depending on what you’re photographing, you can select one of two AF modes:

  • Focus continuously
  • Focus once and hold

The key to accurate focus every time is understanding and using the correct autofocus mode for different subjects.

Because terminology differs between brands, I’ll mention only Nikon, Canon and Sony in this tutorial, as they’re the biggest brands. We’d all get very bored if I ran through every camera make each time… and I couldn’t possibly know them all.

How to choose autofocus modes for portrait
As she was skipping down the road towards the camera I used single point autofocus, continuous AF and back button autofocus for a sharp image

Continuous servo AF for focusing on moving subjects

If your subject is moving, switch to continuous servo AF – in other words, continuous focus.

  • AF-C (Nikon and Sony)
  • AI Servo (Canon)

To use continuous autofocus mode:

  • Part depress the shutter release button (aka the shutter button) for the camera to autofocus
  • It will continue to adjust focus on the main subject if either you or your subject moves while you’re holding the button part way down
  • When you’re ready to take the shot, fully depress the button

NB: If you move the camera away from your subject, it’ll immediately begin focusing elsewhere, at whatever is in front of the focus point.

Continuous focus is what I use pretty much all the time – perfect for busy little kids and other fast-moving subjects!

Outdoor fashion photoshoot with cows
With the subject sitting in one place, single servo would work fine. That said, I actually have my camera set to continuous focus all the time, because I always use back button focus. It’s just personal preference.

Single servo AF for focusing on still subjects

Single servo AF is a good choice if you’re photographing stationary subjects such as:

  • Still life
  • Landscapes
  • People that aren’t moving

Again, different brands have different names for it:

To use single autofocus mode (AF-S mode):

  • Part depress the shutter release button to focus
  • The camera will focus and hold that focus, even if you move the camera away
  • If you keep holding the shutter release button half way down and recompose your shot by moving your camera, the area you focused on will still be in focus

NB: There’s a danger with this method, particularly when photographing with a shallow depth of field, that your subject might be out of focus when you recompose. Either you or your subject might have moved.

How to use autofocus to take a sharp photo
Even with a slow moving subject like this father and son playing on the carpet I used continuous focus, single point AF and back button focusing. As the boy was the main subject I focused on him (specifically, on his eye closest to camera)

How do you change focusing modes?

To change focusing modes, you need to use the autofocus (AF) mode selector button in conjunction with another dial. The exact process will vary from one camera make and model to another. For example:

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

But that’s not the end of the autofocus story when deciding on the best way to use autofocus for what you’re photographing.

2. Autofocus area mode decision: 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 mode to use. There are 4 AF area modes to choose from:

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

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

Choosing which autofocus area mode to use

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.

You’ll need to refer to your manual to find how to change autofocus area modes on your camera as it varies so much between brands and camera models that I couldn’t cover all of them here.

If you don’t have your camera manual anymore, check out this amazing website – ManualsLib – it has free online manuals on probably everything!

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

Auto area AF

Remember right at the beginning of this tutorial when I said, don’t be tempted to take the easy route? I was talking about auto area autofocus mode.

It’s the default setting on beginner cameras and, in my opinion, the reason so many beginners struggle for so long with nailing focus for sharp photos.

In this mode the camera will automatically choose where to focus, like point and shoot cameras. Because it recognises skin tones, it’ll focus on a person rather than anything else.

If there are many people in shot, it’ll focus on whoever is closest to camera. If it can’t detect any skin tones, it’ll focus on the biggest and closest object in the frame.

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.

It’s clever stuff, but there’s a lot left to chance. My advice… DO NOT USE THIS AUTOFOCUS AREA MODE! (Okay, that was a bit shouty, but it’s important.)

IMPORTANT TIP 1: 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.

Outdoor portrait with cows in the background
As this was a fashion shoot, the model’s outfit was the most important part of the image, so I focused on her using single point autofocus (but how beautiful is that bull in the background?!)

Single point AF area mode

With single point autofocus area mode, there’s no question ever about what you want to focus on. The camera isn’t part of the decision making process.

  • Manually select one point for the camera to focus on
  • Then move the focus point to where you want to focus

As a portrait photographer, single point AF is my preferred autofocus area mode on a DSLR camera – it puts me in complete control of the shot. I’ll admit though that it can take some getting used to, especially when photographing kids and animals as they never stop moving, which keeps your thumb very busy moving the focus point around!

USEFUL TIP 2:  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.

Dynamic area AF

With Dynamic area autofocus you can choose the number of AF points you’d like to use. Your options depend on your camera make and model. On my Nikon D810, for example, I can choose between 9, 21 and 51 autofocus points.

  • Select the dynamic area you’d like to use
  • Manually select the main focus point
  • The camera then engages the surrounding focus points to temporarily track your subject’s movement and maintain focus
  • If the subject moves you can catch up by moving your camera and not lose focus as easily as with single point autofocus

Dynamic area autofocus is helpful for photographing fast moving subjects, such as birds. It’s also great for panning photography as it gives you a little more wiggle room to lock focus than a single AF point.

autofocus settings for moving subject
An example of panning in photography where dynamic area autofocus would be a good AF choice.

3D-tracking (Nikon only)

This autofocus area mode is specific to Nikon and is a great idea in theory, but can be a bit slower to focus than dynamic area. It’s also a bit unreliable, depending on background and what you’re photographing.

  • Focus on your subject using a selected focus point and keep the shutter button depressed
  • The selected point automatically changes to track the moving subject across all autofocus points, whether you move the camera to follow your subject or not

How to move the focus point

Once you’ve selected the autofocus area mode you want to use, you’ll need to position the focus point on your main subject. Moving the focus point is the same with all autofocus area modes.

To move the focus point on a Nikon:

  • Depress the shutter button to see the focus point
  • Use the multi-selector dial to move it to your subject

It’s very similar on a Canon:

  • Depress the shutter button to see the focus point
  • Use the main dial to move it to your subject

The first time you use it might feel a bit cumbersome moving the focus point around if you’re used to using autofocus auto area mode, but you’ll soon get used to it and you won’t look back. Your photos will always be sharp where you want focus to be!

How to use focusing modes for sharp images
Even though the paraglider was slow moving, I used my favorite AF settings: back button autofocus with single point AF and continuous AF mode

2 further essential points on autofocusing

For the best results using autofocus, these points are key.

  • Back button focus
  • Staying calm when you click

Let’s take a closer look at why they help with sharp photos.

Back button focus

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

With back button autofocusing you can track your subject until the exact moment everything aligns perfectly. At this point you’ll already be focused so you can take the shot without delay.

Using the shutter release button to autofocus 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 won’t be sharp, especially if you’re using 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 it. “Hunting” for focus is when the camera’s autofocus system, in trying to lock focus, works through the full focus range of the camera lens

Back button focusing does reduce battery life, because your camera is continuously focusing. However, as a wedding photographer I always packed a spare battery so never had a problem, even for all day weddings.

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 will 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.

Focus on female model in front of cows

Autofocusing tips for portraits – use a single focus point

Here’s a quick step by step guide to the best autofocus mode for portraits, as well as the best autofocus area mode to use.

  • Set your focusing mode to continuous autofocus (AF-C mode)
  • Select your autofocus area mode as single point autofocus
  • Position your focus point on your subject
  • For portrait photography make sure to focus on the eye closest to camera
  • Track the selected subject using back button focus until the moment is right to take the shot
  • Be cool
  • Depress the shutter button calmly

Of course everyone is different, but as a portrait photographer using a DSLR camera, these are my best AF settings for portraits.

Using the autofocus mode properly on your DSLR camera

Advanced focusing tips for sharp photos

Once you’re comfortable with autofocusing modes and how to use autofocus area modes, you might want to access the custom settings on your camera for advanced autofocus features. Especially if you photograph subjects that move. Such as:

  • Birds
  • Sports where individuals are in frame, such as dancers, divers and skiers
  • Sports with teams of two, such as skaters and dancers
  • Individuals in sports competing against several others in frame, such as runners and cyclists
  • Team sports, such as football, rugby and hockey

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about getting sharp photos with different focus modes and autofocus area modes, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my focusing tips have helped you to understand how to use autofocus in photography, share that too.

9 thoughts on “How to use autofocus settings (focus modes and AF area modes)”

  1. Wow, thank you for this article. I have been doing photography for over 15 years, and I never knew there was more than 1 kind of autofocus. I guess most of my exemplary photos got that way by accident. So I have a few questions.
    1. Does every Nikon model do 3d tracking?
    2. You mentioned that you use continuous servo when taking pictures of active kids. Is that used in conjunction with 3D tracking or are they two separate actions used for separate occasions? And if they are separate, how is the 3D tracking different than the continuous servo?
    3. When using continuous servo, do you continually hold the shutter button halfway down like you do with the single servo?
    4. What would your advice be to me in this scenario? Me following my very active 3 year-old niece around her house that is not brightly lit and wanting to get more in-focus pictures than blurry pictures.
    Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I really am happy to have all the available resources on this site. I have learned a lot.

    • Hi Rachel

      Thank you so much for your comments.

      Not every Nikon has 3D tracking, but I don’t know which models they are. I do know that, of those that do have 3D tracking, it works better on some models than others. For example autofocusing on the D750 is better than the D7000.

      The problem with 3D tracking is that the camera struggles to focus when the subject is close to a background, or if the background is a similar colour to the subject. I’ve also heard that green can confuse it, particularly grass.

      When talking about continuous servo and 3D tracking, we’re talking about two different aspects of focus: autofocus modes (continuous servo and single servo) and autofocus area modes (single point, dynamic area, auto area and 3D). It’s confusing, because they sound similar.

      With continuous servo, the camera focuses continuously whilst depressing either the back button focus button or half depressing the shutter button. With single servo, once focus has been locked it is held until you fully depress the shutter button. If you or your subject moves in that time the subject will be out of focus.

      For this reason you can’t use the 3D tracking auto focus area mode when you are in single servo mode.

      I use back button focusing, so I keep the back button continuously held down and depress the shutter button only when I want to take the shot. If I weren’t using back button focusing, I would, like you say, hold the shutter button down half way while in continuous servo mode.

      I’ve written about back button focusing here:

      Getting sharp photos of a busy 3 year old indoors when there is not a lot of light is more of an exposure challenge than a focusing challenge. You’ll need to bump up your ISO so that your sensor is more light sensitive, widen your aperture so that as much light as possible hits the sensor and then keep an eye on your shutter speed so that you don’t get movement blur. With busy little children I wouldn’t shoot below 1/250th. I would favour f4 with a busy child as, if you went wider to say f2.8, you’d have a very narrow depth of field to work with.

      Have a look at our post on photographing indoors:

      I hope this helps and thanks again for asking your questions – I know others will find it helpful.


  2. Very useful and informative. while editing it is possible to improve exposure, white balance, colour balance but cannot do anything if the photograph is not clear due to motion blur, out of focus etc.

    • Recommended settings for photographing people with their pets – portraits not candids? Indoor without special lighting. I struggle with maintaining a good focus point, having a smaller f stop for depth of field, a faster shutter speed for wiggly pets and I can’t use a flash and am relying on natural plus fluorescent overhead lighting. Not the best of circumstances. What settings would you recommend for the focus point? Using a Nikon D3200 and I do these for work (I work at a vet office and it’s just pics of staff with their pets for our website). Thank you for any insight? I’ve done several of these and keeping everything in focus has been a real problem!

  3. Hi Jane,
    I been reading your explanation every single day for the last week as I found it so useful. Many many thanks 🙂
    I use canon camera. To shoot a dancing couple photos if I use al servo operation w continuous low drive mode, do I need to hold the back button all the time to keep focus?
    Do we always get better image if we choose manual selection AF instead of Auto Area AF?
    Thank you again.

  4. Hello Jane,

    Thank you for this post. I use my Nikon D810 to take a lot of self-portraits. I usually will manually focus on an object placed where I will be standing and use the self-timer to take the picture. The results aren’t always great LOL. Can I use auto focus for this type of photography and, if so, what settings do you recommend? Thanks in advance for your response!

    • Hi Ralph

      Here’s how I do it with my D810…

      For my last self portrait session in the studio I positioned a lightstand where my face would be and adjusted it to my height, placed a marker (my lens cover actually :D) beneath the center of the lightstand on the ground to mark where to stand. I wasn’t including my feet in the shot. I focused at my eye height on the lightstand. I used the same system for sitting down shots.

      I use autofocus. The key is using back button focus, because this removes the focusing function from the shutter button so that you use it just to take the shot. Because it isn’t used to focus, after focusing you don’t run the risk of the focus changing when you take the shot. If you don’t already use back button focus, you’ll get all your answers in this article –

      Self timer set to delay of about 10 seconds (can’t remember off the top of my head), maximum number of shots (9) with a 2 or 3 second delay between shots.

      I experimented with F4, F5.6 and F8 apertures and all were sharp. (I’m so obsessive about tack sharp focus on the eyes that I annoy myself.)

      Good luck!
      (This is such a long reply that I think I should write a detailed post on how to do it – thanks for the idea!)


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