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Photography 1.08: How To Know What To Focus On

Updated on June 12, 2020
Photography Focus profile image

Here's another article in my series teaching the basics of photography. I have over 30 year professional photography experience to share.

Knowing what to focus on when you are framing up a photo is important. As you learned in the previous article, when you take photos with a camera the whole picture may not be in focus.

This can be a bit confusing if you’ve only been used to using your phone to take photos with. Phone cameras usually get most of the photo in focus, so where you focus is not an issue. Your camera lens and sensor are much larger than the ones in your phone and this makes where you focus necessary to pay attention to.

Controlling where you focus helps you to make better photos. Once you’ve taken a picture, if the focus is not where you want it to be, you cannot change it. Other aspects of photos, like exposure, can be changed later on the computer. An out of focus photo cannot be fixed.


What Do I Focus My Camera On?

You focus on what’s most important in your composition. This is up to you to decide.

You must think about what you can see through your viewfinder or on your camera’s monitor and select where you want it to be sharpest. This will be the part of your composition that people will pay most attention to when they look at your photos.

One key rule that applies in most situations is: When your subject has eyes, focus on them. If you’re taking photos of a person, your dog or a statue, focus on the eyes.

With any subject without eyes, it’s really up to you to choose where to focus. Think about what you are seeing. What’s the most interesting or important part of your subject? This is where you should focus.

Where you choose to focus will affect the look and feel of your photos.


Why It’s Important to Focus Your Camera

Not all of a photo is always in focus. There are many variables that can affect what’s known as the depth of field (DOF). This is the area in a photo that is acceptably in focus (sharp).

If you do not focus well your main subject may not end up being sharp enough. The photo will be ruined. This becomes more critical when you have what’s known as a shallow DOF.

Creating pictures with a shallow DOF is very popular. Blurring out the background can create beautifully isolated subjects. It’s a great technique to use for portraits. But if you focus in the wrong place your subject may end up being out of focus and your background will be sharp.

Where ever you focus, every part of your composition that’s parallel to your camera will be sharp. For example, when you’re photographing two people and you want them both in focus, stand them next to each other. They will be on a plane parallel with your camera. If you have one person stand forward or back from the other, both of them may not be in focus.


How To Control Where Your Camera Will Focus

Modern cameras have various auto-focus functions and controls. The default focus settings on most cameras typically rely on the camera’s programming. This is because the camera manufacturers want to make it easy to take photos. This does not always result in the most interesting or creative photos.

To be in control of where your camera will focus you need to practice and understand how to choose the right settings. These topics require a whole article to cover, so I’ll not write much about them here. Keep reading this series of articles to learn more about the focus options on your camera.

Some modern cameras with touch screens allow you to control focus by touching the screen where you want your picture to be sharp. This is convenient if you prefer to use the screen rather than the viewfinder on your camera.

Using your camera’s viewfinder you will see some rectangles showing potential focus points. When you half press the shutter release button, the rectangle where your camera will focus lights up. Some camera brands highlight the focus area in different ways, but the method with rectangles is the most common.

When you see that the place in your composition that you want to be sharp is highlighted, then it will be in focus.

If your camera is not focusing where you want it to, you’ll need to experiment with your composition or the auto-focus controls (which I’ll cover in another article.) You can also try manually focusing your lens.


Photography Challenge 1.08

Lens - Standard

Exposure Mode - aperture priority

Focus Mode – Default

Location – Outdoors

Time – Any time of day

Set your camera’s exposure mode to aperture priority for this photography challenge. Select the lowest f/stop number. This will mean the aperture in your lens is as wide as it can be. This way you’ll be able to see where your photos are in focus more easily.

Find a flat or nearly flat surface to photograph. Something like a signboard or a brick wall. The surface will need to have some detail in it.

Position yourself so you can point your camera at the subject so they are parallel. Focus and take a photo or two.

Next, move in closer to your subject and take a photo or two at about a 45 degree angle to it. Then change your position so you’re at about a 15 degree angle. You’ll be quite close to your subject. Take a few more photos.

Each time, try to focus at about the same distance away for each photo. To do this don’t refocus between photos, just move until you can see the part of your composition that is sharp. It may help to disable the auto-focus. This is done either with a switch on your lens or on the camera.

You could also try this challenge with a person as your subject. First have them stand facing straight on to the camera. Then ask them to turn to 45 degrees and 15 degrees.

Don’t forget to take some notes about what you are doing and what you are observing is happening. These will be helpful for you when you’re reviewing your photos.

When you look at this series of photos on your computer, take notice of how much of each photo appears to be in focus.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Photography Focus


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