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Understanding Focus Modes

Get this nailed and your photos will be given a huge boost!

By Mia Rose

focus modes
Image Copyright: Josh Austin

Getting the hang of focus modes is a key step in becoming a better photographer. As always, what might seem confusing settings at first, are actually very simple tools for helping you to get great pictures.

Focusing plays a big part in taking sharp images, so it's crucial to the technical quality of your shots. But choosing which part of a scene to focus on is also a creative decision, which influences composition and the way that your subject is presented.




Choosing a Focal Point

Image Copyright: Josh Austin

Choosing a focal point is an important decision. It tells the viewer, 'this is what the picture is about'. Now, composition and exposure also have a big role in drawing attention to the focal point. But, ultimately, where your camera is actually focused - where the sharpest point of the image will be - is critical.

So it's important to learn how to use your camera's focus modes in order to give you the best chance of focusing properly in every photo. If you tell your camera to focus on the wrong part of the scene you can lose vital details and spoil an image. So let's take a look at the 3 focus modes at your disposal on DSLR cameras.


3 Focus Modes

Digital SLR's allow you to choose between 3 focus modes: 1 manual and 2 auto-foucs. The 2 auto-focus modes are called: Single Shot and Continuous. Each mode has its own benefits, so I'm going to help you work out which is best for the job at hand.

First, a quick note on 'focus points'. All cameras have a certain number of focus points, which are an important part of the auto-focus system. A beginner DSLR might only have a handful of focus points, whilst a high end model will have dozens.

When you half depress the shutter button your camera locks on to an area in the scene that's nearest to the active focus point. Generally speaking, the central focus point is the most accurate. Most photographers use this focal point all of the time, then re-compose the shot as necessary.


1. Single Shot Mode

This auto-focus (AF) mode is used for taking a single shot. When you half depress the shutter release button the camera will search for an area to lock on to that's nearest to the focus point you're using.

Once it's locked-on, the focus indicator will light up and your camera might 'beep' to say that it has locked focus. The focus will be held until you fully press the shutter button to take a shot, or let go of it.

When to Use Single Shot Mode

Single Shot AF mode is great when you don't have time to use manual focus. It's especially good for portraits or candid shots, where your subject might be moving and you only have a split second to capture them at the moment you want to.

I love taking photos of of my dog on the beach and use this mode by hovering the active AF point on her eyes and pressing the shutter button when I'm ready to take the shot.

focus modes
Image Copyright: Josh Austin
focus modes
Image Copyright: Josh Austin


2. Continuous Mode

With this AF mode, the focus remains active even whilst the shutter button is half pressed. It continues searching and locking on to anything that passes through the AF point.

When to Use Continuous Mode

Continuos focus mode is the most useful of the 3 focus modes for fast moving subjects, like sport or wildlife. I use it when my dog is charging around the beach and I've got less chance of getting a sharp result using Single Shot mode! It allows be to track her movement and constantly re-focus as she moves closer and further from me, until I take the shot I want.

focus modes
Image Copyright: Josh Austin
focus modes
Image Copyright: Josh Austin


3. Manual Mode

Manual mode is also very useful at times. In fact, I'd say learning how to manually focus is a really basic part of becoming a better photographer.

Manual mode is usually activated by a switch on the lens. This mode deactivates the autofocus motor, allowing you to take full control and focus entirely by hand using your lens's focus ring.

When to Use Manual Mode

Manual focusing takes more time than using the other 2 focus modes. But it allows you to be really careful and precise. This makes it suited to shooting stationary subjects - like still lifes.That beautiful arrangement of fruit and flowers is not going to move, so you can take your time to get the focus just right.

focus modes
Image Copyright: Josh Austin
still life
Image Copyright: Josh Austin


Eliminating the aid of your camera's sophisticated AF system by switching over to manual focus may seem a little risky, but a modern camera is a clever piece of equipment.

If you've bought a DSLR in the last few years, it's likely to have a Live View function that will allow you to magnify your shot by up to 10 times. This makes it easier to hone in on a specific area of your subject and, with some careful adjustment of the manual focus ring, get it crisp and clear.

You can continue to fine tune the focus by turning the focus ring until you have it just right. Then simply press the shutter release button fully to take the shot.


Dealing With Low Detail Scenes

If you're shooting a cloudless sky or large areas of single colour, you may find that your lens hunts for an area to lock on to without success. This is because a DSLR's focusing system needs to edges and areas of contrast to lock on to.

I find a good solution is positioning your active AF target point over an area of high contrast or clearly defined edges, then half-pressing the shutter button to trigger the autofocus before recomposing the shot.


How to Focus for Self-Portraits

Chooing and using tripods...

Wondering how to use focus modes when it comes to self-portraits? Unless you're holding the camera and pointing it towards you, how do you focus on something that, well...isn't there! Easy!

Set your camera up on a tripod and set the Drive mode to Self-timer at a 10 sec interval. Place an item, such as a hat, in the part of the scene you'll be standing in, and then half-press the shutter to lock the focus on it, before switching to Manual mode so that the focus stays on the same point.

Take a test shot to ensure your timer is long enough for you to get into position (and that you fit in the frame!), then start shooting. This is one of my favourite photography projects.


So make sure that you start putting these tips to use, because incorrect focusing really does destroy the quality of pictures. It's really easy to focus well if you give it a bit of thought before shooting. Think about what kind of subject you're dealing with, and which of the focus modes would work best.


The Photography Crash Course: 17 Short Lessons To Camera Mastery

Where Next?

Taking sharp photos

Photography composition

Understanding depth of field

Return from Focus Modes to Digital Photography Basics

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