There is nothing more disappointing than coming back from a vacation and loading up your images only to find some of your favorite shots are out of focus. But there are things you can do while shooting to avoid or eliminate this problem. Learn and practice these simple tricks to make sure your images are always in focus.
Use a fast enough shutter speed
Most modern cameras do a pretty good job of getting things in focus if they know what to focus on, but they can’t do anything about motion problems. Your pictures may be out of focus because the subject was moving, or your hands were moving, but in either case, shutter speed is the culprit. Whether you shoot in full auto or one of the more creative settings, you have to keep an eye on your shutter speed. A good rule of thumb is not to let the shutter speed drop below the focal length of your lens. So for a 50mm lens, do not use anything slower than 1/50th of a second.
You can also practice better ways of holding your camera and pressing the shutter. Brace yourself against a solid object when possible. Pull your elbows into your body and let your arms form a steady platform, like a tripod. Support the camera firmly with both hands and then gently roll your finger across the shutter button.
But you may still be shooting too slow if the subject is moving. For children and pets, try to stay above 1/125th of a second. If you are shooting something moving faster, like vehicles or planes, then take it up to 1/1000th or faster.
Pro Tip: If you are shooting propeller-driven aircraft, you don’t want to freeze the props completely. This looks fake, like the plane or helicopter is magically floating in the air. Take it back down to about 1/250th. You may have to practice a few shots to get it right. You want the props to be visibly spinning but not so blurred that you can’t make out the blades.
Use the correct focus mode
To get your subject in focus, your camera needs to know what the subject is. The default settings on most cameras is a zone or wide focusing mode. What this means is that the camera looks at the whole scene, determines what it thinks the subject is, and then focuses on that. Most of the time, it will get it right, especially if the subject is large and centered in the frame. But sometimes it guesses wrong, so you have to give it more information.
One mode a lot of photographers use is the single point focus method. Refer to your camera’s manual to learn how to restrict the focus area to a single point. You can then aim that point at the subject, grab your focus, and then recompose the frame, or better, move the focus point within the frame, so it covers the subject. In this way, the camera will focus on precisely what you want.
Pro Tip: Refer to your camera’s manual and learn if it supports something called back-button focus. Usually, when you half-press the shutter, the camera meters the exposure and sets the focus. But this might give you the wrong focus point, a bad exposure, or both. What back-button focus does is allow you to separate the two. You will still use the half-press of the shutter to meter your shot, but will press a button on the back of the camera to achieve focus.
Use adequate depth of field
There are whole chapters written about depth of field, but in simplest terms, it refers to the closest and furthest points from your camera that are in focus. Your depth of field could be miles or fractions of an inch. You need to learn how to control the depth of field to make sure that you have not only the main subject in focus but everything in front of and behind the subject that you want in focus. Things that affect depth of field include the focal length of your lens, how close you are to the subject, how close the subject is to the background, and the aperture you are using.
The use of depth of field is entirely subjective and depends on your particular vision for the image, but there are a few rules of thumb that most photographers will follow. If it is a landscape image, you want everything in focus from the closest point through infinity. This is best achieved with wider angle lenses and small apertures, such as f16 or f22.
On the other hand, if you are shooting a person, you will probably want them to be in focus, but the background to have a soft blur, known as bokeh. But you need to be careful not to have too narrow a depth of field. You must have the eyes in focus, but unless you are trying to be creative, the rest of the face should also be sharp.
Finally, if you are shooting a flower or something very close up, your depth of field will be minimal. So it will be essential to balance a small aperture with a fast enough shutter speed to get a sharp image with as much as possible in focus.
Pro Tip: If you are not comfortable using other modes on your camera, or you have a point and shoot without advanced controls, then use the creative modes and let it do the work. These are indicated by a face, a mountain, and a flower on one of your dials.
Getting images in focus is a critical element of photography. Learn these simple tricks that affect focus and practice to make sure all of your images are tack sharp.