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Photography Focusing Basics for Beginners

Updated on September 27, 2012

There’s one thing that can really mess up a good shot, and that’s to have your subject out-of-focus. When your subject is in focus and other factors are OK, such as white balance, framing and others, you’re good to go! Every amazing shot that you will see has been focused well -- guaranteed. This topic of focusing can be broken down into several elements which we will look at.

For starters, Focus \ˈfō-kəs\ is defined by Webster-Merriam dictionary as:”a point at which rays (as of light, heat, or sound) converge...” In the discipline of photography, light is that which converges at a point to focus on a particular subject, to have that subject being sharp. We manipulate our equipment, set ourselves in particular positions with reference to our subject(s), or change the position of our object in reference to ourselves to achieve good focus. Every D-SLR lens, whether zoom or prime, has a focusing ring that you can turn clockwise or anticlockwise to achieve focus on a particular subject. More specifically, you won’t necessarily focus on the entire subject, but rather on a specific point of the subject.

If it ain’t sharp it’s soft!

When there isn’t anything in a photograph that is sharp, then soft focus will come into play. Soft focus is not desirable, and it’s ultra difficult to correct such a mistake with software. There are a few reasons that can cause your shots to come out with soft focus, including camera shake, autofocusing issues and of course when a photographer just has a bad shot by missing the focus using the focus ring. Other nuances can affect the focusing including lens filters. Sometimes these affect what the camera actually ‘sees’ wrongly, and you end up getting a soft focused shot.

Autofocus, AF Points and Focus Tracking

It’s safe to say that modern D-SLRs have autofocusing systems that help a photographer to take accurate shots in a short amount of time -- and to be lazy at times! … as there’s not much use of the focusing ring these days. Anyway, D-SLRs will use several autofocus (AF) points from which a photographer can a choose specific focus point (single AF point) such as when taking portraits, or allow the camera to automatically choose points such as when taking sports shots. This is otherwise known as Focus Tracking. An autofocusing mechanism relieves you of having to use the focusing ring, and helps you to take photographs faster -- at least in theory, because some lenses may not focus as quickly as you may like. Research is needed if you’re selecting lenses to utilize autofocus.

Continuous Autofocusing and Autofocus Lock

Things get even more interesting, because you can also utilize continuous autofocusing which may be activated when you half-press the shutter release button of your D-SLR. This is great when you’re following a moving subject. Another cool feature is AF Lock, which allows you to do just as the name suggests. This can be useful in sport photography when you’re focusing on an athlete and you have persons coming into your foreground. So instead of your camera re-focusing, it is fixed on a certain parameters so that you get that shot fast!

An era of patient photography gone?

From a past era, focusing could only be done manually. This took time, patience and skilll. It’s a skill that may be a bit rarer now since we are blessed and even spoiled with Autofocus mechanisms that are being rapidly improved to be faster and more accurate. They are absolutely necessary with particular types of photography that require speed and accuracy in focusing, but there are other types of shots that photographers could opt for manual focusing. Portraits, still photography, landscape photography and so on are some types that you can take your time and get the shot. Photographers who use manual focusing speak of a certain mystical satisfaction that they receive, as it’s not just capturing the image, but even moreso the process of making the image.


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