How to focus a digital camera
3rd September 2015

How do you focus a camera?

One of the things that will often ruin a great photograph is poor focusing. Even entry level Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras have so many functions it is easy to be convinced that the camera has it all in hand. When you look through the viewfinder all manor of boxes, dots and dashes can be flashing back at you so it is no wonder this most basic function is left to chance.

Now I am not suggesting you switch to manual focus, modern cameras have the capability to get it spot on when they are used correctly. Just to clarify, there are two manual options commonly referred to on a DSLR, manual focus and manual exposure control. Manual exposure control is where you set the ISO, aperture and shutter speed to balance the incoming available light sources to ensure you get a picture you can see. One that’s not to dark or not to light means you got the idea but it is a little more complex than this as the three settings have different effects on the look of the image. This is also referred to as manual settings but this is another lesson entirely!

manual camera settings

Manual focus is simply the individual rolling the focus ring to get the subject they require in sharp focus. This option is usually selected by a switch on the lens or body of the camera or sometimes both. The image below is of the option buttons on my D7000, this has both. The lens has M/A or M to designate the Manual/Auto or full Manual options. The body then has A/F an M setting for Auto Focus and Manual options. As you can see, my camera is set to M/A for Auto focus on the camera and A/F for Auto Focus on the body.

manual and auto focus

I rarely use manual focus unless it is too dark for the auto focus sensor or if I am doing macro work (super close up photography commonly of flowers and insects).

Because the things I photograph are generally not moving at all or at best not very fast, I work in AF-S mode with a single focus point. On my camera, you press the A/F M button on the front left side of the body and then by turning the command dials you can switch between a single point and multiple points.

AF points
This image shows different focus point options depending on your camera model.

I find this gives me maximum control and when you get used to it, it is far quicker to frame your image with your primarily subject in focus. Using one focus point means I choose what the subject is that I want to focus on. There are two ways you can do this, rotating through the focus points or by using a focus-lock approach.

If you look again at the above focal point diagram you can see that three of the layouts have a single red box. This highlights the focus point that is in use, where the object inline with that point will be in focus. On my D7000 I can choose to scroll through either 39 focus points or 11 but only one will be seen at a time. In the last example of the five focus point layout above you can see only one, red focus point. In single point mode this is what you would see through your cameras viewfinder if you scrolled over the centre point. You could choose to scroll left or right, up or down depending on where your primarily subject is that you wish to be in sharp focus.

camera settign selection
This image shows the single point selected above the AF-S non-tracking focus option.

This setting is perfect if you have rested your camera on a tripod and are photographing products or your business premises but it is time consuming if you are photographing your team at work. In this situation, select the centre single point and use the focus lock method.

Here, you point the camera directly at the subject, lining the focus point up with their face or their hands working on the product for example. Once you have the point you want draw peoples attention to, half-press the shutter release button. This will cause the camera to focus, making the focus square flash red and you are likely to feel the lens barrel move. It is important you do not release the half pressed shutter button, nor do you press it all the way in.

With the shutter button half depressed, you reframe the image through the viewfinder, perhaps using the rule of thirds to place your subject to the left or right of the frame, leading the eye into the scene. Remember, if you want to take more than one of the same scene, perhaps if someone blinked or the action wasn’t quite right, you need to go through the focus-lock-reframe process again each time.

It might sound long winded but if you have a practice you will find it is a lot quicker than scrolling through the focal points each time trying to line one up while both you and the subject moves a little.

Using this setting is great for portraits, landscapes and still life. So in a business sense, photographing your place of work, your products or your colleagues is a lot more precise than using the camera in its smart focus options. The other smart tracking settings are great for sport where the subject can be defined and then followed by the camera. They are a little more tricky to get used to and often result in the camera selecting the nearest or largest object to focus on.

Give this a go and tell us what you think. If you have any questions please ask away and I will be more than happy to help. If this has been useful, take a look at the article ‘Taking better marketing photos’ for some more tips.

About Lisa Cooper

Lisa Cooper is a photographer and marketing writer working for Print-Print Limited, promoting business and building your brand through quality print marketing. If you’re interested in small business promotion then please get in touch