Sharp focus is essential to a good photo, especially if you want it to be bigger than a thumbnail image on social media.
Before you can actually focus your camera on the part of the image where you need it to be sharpest, it helps to know where to focus.
Once you know where to focus can you decide what focus mode you’re going to use to achieve the type of focus you need.
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Read more about focus modes here: Nail your autofocus, get the shot
Bad advice online
I’ve seen some really bad advice given on Facebook for photographing groups of people. Here’s what I see the most…
1. You can photograph groups at f2.8 – NO
Not true – that’s just half the story! You can, but there are other variables to consider. If you can’t understand why others can do this and you can’t, keep on reading. There’s nothing wrong with you or your camera, you just need more information.
2. The more people in a group, the higher the f number needs to be – NO
Also nonsense. If they’re all standing in a straight line facing you, it makes no difference if you use f1.4 (don’t) or f16. I’ll tell you why in a moment.
3. You have to shoot wide for background blur – NO
No. That’s just one way of doing it. In fact, that could sometimes be the reason your group photos aren’t sharp.
How to get sharp portrait photos
So, let’s dive right in with where to focus with portrait photography for sharp photos. We’re going to look at where to focus in photos:
- With one person in shot
- When there are two people in shot
- For a group of people
- When photographing a large group of people
1. Where to focus with one person in shot
Of course, this is going to the be the easiest option as you just have one person that you need in focus for a portrait to look good.
The trick with portrait photography is always to focus on the eye of your subject. In particular, the eye nearest the camera.
The reason for this is that we are drawn to a person’s eyes. If they are turned sideways at all, we look at the eye nearest to us. So, you want the first place a viewer looks in your photo to be the sharpest part of your photos.
2. Where to focus with two people in a photo
If one person is looking to camera and the other isn’t, focus on the nearest eye of the person looking at the camera.
If they’re both on or near the same focal plane, and are looking at the camera, focus on the eye closest to camera.
If you plan for one person to be out of focus, that person shouldn’t be looking at the camera. The reason for this is that your viewer will be drawn to all eyes looking at them.
So, if a person is blurry, it is better that their gaze doesn’t tug at your viewer. This makes it more restful for viewers to look straight to the person in focus. The composition of your photograph should then direct the viewer towards the other person, so they’re not pulled in two directions at once.
3. Where to focus for a group of 3 – 6 people in a photo
Before we get into the details
At this point I must stress that I’m talking about posed groups where you want everyone in focus.
For candid photography of groups, refer to the previous section, because for candid shots you’d decide first who is the most important to have in focus.
Now this is where things starts getting a little more complex, because not only do we have to think about focus, but we also have to consider depth of field.
Aperture, lens focal length, distance from camera to subject and your camera as well (full frame or crop) all affect depth of field and therefore how much of an image will be within acceptably sharp focus.
I’ve written about depth of field before, so won’t go into detail now. I’ll just mention that, because there are 4 variables to take into consideration, it differs for every shot. The best thing you can do is download a depth of field calculator app to your phone.
Fill in the details for your shot and it will give you the size of your depth of field. Obviously, you can’t go doing this before every photo while you have a group of people waiting to be photographed, so must first practice, practice, practice.
Meanwhile, for a quick demonstration, here is a great depth of field simulator to help you understand how and what changes depth of field.
In a short amount of time you will start to get a feel for what will work for you, depending on:
- what you photograph most,
- what camera and lenses you use and
- how you like your image to look in terms of front to back sharpness.
Then you won’t need to rely on your depth of field calculator any more.
Further reading on depth of field: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition
Getting into the details of where to focus
So, with all that said, where is the best place to focus when photographing 3 or more people in a posed group?
Well, if they’re standing in a straight line, on the same focal plane, facing the camera, you can focus on any eye near the middle of the group.
I always choose an eye of the person in the middle, just in case the group is not in a 100% straight line. Then, if one person is slightly in front of the the middle person and another is slightly behind the middle person, at least they’ll still all be in focus.
If you focus on the front person, the middle one would be okay, but the back person might not be, depending on your depth of field. They might be, but they might not be. It is an easily avoidable problem, so you may as well just go with the middle person.
If they’re lined up at different distances from the camera, I still focus on the middle person. I just make sure that I have a wide depth of field to be certain that they’re all in focus.
I choose the middle person, because there is a distance both in front of and behind where you focus that will still be acceptably sharp.
However, the distance behind the focus point is larger (two thirds) than the distance in front (one third). In other words, you have less space to work with in front of the person in focus than behind the person in focus.
4. Where to focus when photographing a large group of people
So let’s say you have a large group of people lined up in three rows in front of you. Where would you focus?
That’s right – on somebody in the middle of the middle row!
If you have 4 rows of people lined up, the best place to focus is on the person in the middle of the second row.
Because of the distance in front of the focal point versus the distance behind the focal point. The row in front occupies one third of the distance in front of row 2. Row 3 and 4 occupy two thirds of the distance behind row 2.
The exception to the rule (there’s always an exception!)
Just two small points to make here.
- If you’re photographing a bride with a group of people, always focus on the bride! Unless of course, from a composition point of view, your intention is for her to be out of focus. If that is the case, ensure that she is out of focus enough for it to look intentional.
- As mentioned earlier, remember, if she is out of focus, to ensure that she is not looking at the camera.
That’s it! You’re all set to photograph any number of people, confident that you’re focusing in the right place.
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