Avoid Focusing Pitfalls In Photography

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'Fresh' by D. Travis North

I uncovered some of my old contact sheets from when I was learning photography in high school.  As I glanced over the hundreds of photos I shot, I realized two things:

  1. I took an unhealthy number of photographs at the girls lacrosse practice.  I was 16 and crushing on an attacker – it wasn’t really about the photography.
  2. The majority of my failed shots would have been great shots if I had just gotten the focus right.

Admittedly, this second point is probably much more useful to you.  I would hazard a guess that a good portion of anyone’s failures are a result of poor focusing as well.  It’s not always easy to focus perfectly.  Even the well practiced will still have some problems.  But to help you get it right more often, here are just a few pointers to help you out:

  • Don’t Overuse Autofocus – Autofocus is a great tool, but you shouldn’t depend on it.  Half the time, it will focus on the wrong thing, or it will focus just off.  And it is especially poor in low light or low contrast scenarios.  Develop a comfort level with manual focus, and you’ll have the most control.
  • Mind Your Depth of Field – The narrower your depth of field (larger apertures or smaller f-numbers), the less margin of error you’ll have.  You can give yourself a margin of error by increasing your depth of field (decrease your aperture size).  But just because you have a large depth of field, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to focus.
  • Focus Close For Deep Shots – Here’s a scenario:  You’re photographing a tree in a large field with a wide depth of field (small aperture).  What do you focus on?  The tree?  No.  You actually want to focus much closer.  Of the entire depth field, about a third of it falls in front of the focusing plane, and two thirds fall behind.  So if you focus on a point at the nearest edge of the tree’s canopy, you can be assured the whole tree will be in focus – and those closer branches won’t be blurry.  When in doubt, focus on a point closer to the camera.
  • Mind Your Shutter Speed – Trying to hand-hold a camera with a slow shutter means you’ll get some blurry images.  Obviously, this isn’t a focusing issue – but I wanted to remind you of this fact because it will affect your troubleshooting methods.
  • Don’t Always Trust Your Viewfinder – Point and Shoot cameras often have a simple, but separate, lens that is always in focus – many don’t even have a viewfinder.  SLR viewfinders allow you to see through the lens, but at a wide-open aperture.  The depth of field through the viewfinder is going to be much more narrow than in the resultant photograph.  If you have a Depth of Field Preview button, use it.  Otherwise, shoot some test shots and review on the LCD display.

Bonus For Manual Focus Lenses – Most modern lenses have a free-moving focusing ring.  But many older lenses (and even a few current lenses) actually have distances marked on the focusing ring.  If you have one of these lenses and you know the distance to the object, you can simply flip into manual mode and focus by distance without even looking through the viewfinder.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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