As a photographer, one of the most important steps you take is to set your focus point to guide your viewer’s eye to the subject of your photo. If your subject is out of focus, you don’t have a good photo.
Snapshots are easy to take, but if you want to take great photos, you need to create with intention. First, you have a vision. You can see in your mind’s eye what you want to capture in your photo. Then, it’s your job to select the settings that will make your vision a reality.
What is a focus point?
When you look through the viewfinder of your DSLR (or at the LCD screen of your mirrorless camera) and tap the shutter button, an array of focus points will show up on the screen. These are what you will choose from.
If you are shooting in Auto Mode, your camera will decide on which point to use for focus. This is how you end up with the back of someone’s head in focus while your subject, who was farther away from you, ends up blurry. Definitely not what you intended!
When you shoot in Program, Aperture, Shutter or Manual Mode, you can set your focus point.
On my Canon Rebel t5i, there are nine possible focus points to choose from. Here, I’ve chosen the center point.
My Canon 5D Mark IV is a professional camera and offers many more points. You’ll notice that I’ve chosen the smallest possible focus point, also in the center this time.
My Sony a6000 mirrorless camera takes a different approach, so I choose Flexible Spot. If I’m shooting something that is moving, I’ll choose Medium. If my subject is stationary, I’ll choose Small.
On all cameras, you’ll be able to move your focus point around, if you choose only one. Depending on the photo, I either choose to use the center point or move it around. If I choose the center point, I’ll be focusing and recomposing. Either way, I’ve set my focus point on my subject.
Quick note: This is not the same as Auto Focus. You want to keep Auto Focus turned on for almost all of your shots. It’s what does the actual focusing and is generally much better than any manual focusing you could do. You just need to give your Auto Focus some guidance on what you want it to focus on.
Cameras can’t read your mind
Even with the improvements in AI (Artificial Intelligence), your camera doesn’t know what you, as the photographer, want as the subject of your photo.
I shot this photo during the Christening of our granddaughter. 😍 She was sleeping blissfully through the service. (Yes, she definitely woke up when the water touched her head!) Of course, I wanted her to be the subject, with her eyelids in focus. I didn’t want my daughter’s shoulder and hair to be the subject. However, without setting my focus point, the camera may have chosen what was closest-my daughter.
A focus point trick for difficult shots
On a trip to Singapore, we stayed at a hotel where I had a wonderful view of the iconic Marina Bay Sands over the rooftops of nearby buildings. Unfortunately, I had to close one eye and peer through a decorative metal screen to see it. So, how could I get a photo of it?
This is what the camera thought I should be focusing on. Yes, it’s a very cool shot, but you certainly can’t make out the iconic building in the distance.
This is much better!
For both shots, I had chosen a low aperture number (wide aperture) of f/4.0. For the second photo, I didn’t move. Instead, I set my focus point on the Marina Bay Sands in the middle of one of the round openings.
Remarkably, the screen is hardly visible in the photo. If I had used my lens that has a low aperture number of f/2.8, I suspect the screen would have disappeared completely.
Try it with wildlife photography
One of the fun challenges of going on safari in South Africa is the vegetation. It’s very different from Kenya and Tanzania in that respect.
You’re often faced with the dilemma of an animal hidden in the branches of a tree or in tall grass or bushes. You can see the animal with your eyes, but your camera sees the grass or the tree branches in front of the animal.
This leopard was almost completely invisible in the grass. We slowly drove the safari truck forward and back, looking for an angle where we could see her eyes. Then, it was simply a matter of setting the focus point on her closest eye. That blurred out the grasses in front and behind her.
Both this photo and the next were shot in Aperture Mode at f/5.6. I was using an extender on my 70-200mm lens to shoot at 400mm. The extender added two stops to my lowest aperture.
This fellow (I really have no idea if either of these leopards was a he or a she… 😉) was lounging in a tree, watching our truck. Unfortunately, there were a lot of branches between him and us. I loved how he straddled the large branch he was lying on, almost as though he were riding side-saddle.
Can you see how the tree branches below him are colored a strange color of brown? That’s actually additional branches that are out of focus.
My favorite approach
As a general rule, I shoot in Aperture Mode when presented with these problems and set a low aperture number (wide aperture). This reduces the depth of field. My goal is to have my subject in focus and the rest of the photo out of focus. Then, I set my one focus point on my subject’s closest eye. If my subject is a thing instead of a person or animal, I’ll have to decide what the most important aspect of it is and focus on that.
Now it’s your turn
Have you tried setting your focus point? Depending on your camera, you may have to go into the Menu to limit it to one point and not a region or the whole scene.
Why not take some time to study your camera and figure out how to do this? Then, create some practice scenarios with your subject behind something else. (I recommend using cereal boxes. It’s really easy to focus on the words on the boxes and also easy to tell which box is in focus!) Now, take a photo with the camera on Auto Mode and see what you get. Then, switch to Aperture mode, set a low number, and try to place the focus on your subject!
Interested in more information about the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore? You can read about it here. (There is actually an infinity pool on the top of that building!!! Good grief. 😬)
I write more about shooting through things using your focus point in this blog post.