10 Steps to Manual Mode: Focus Basics

lady bug on a leaf
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This is the fifth part of the 10 part series: 10 Steps to Manual Mode.

You can access the series here—> 10 Steps to Manual Mode Series.

In this fifth part of the series, we are going to talk about focus basics.

landscape photo of canyonlands national park

What is Focus?

Focus can be a complicated terminology about how your camera and lens work to make something clear in your picture.

But for this post, I am going to make it a simple definition: when something is in focus in your photo it is clear and defined.

Making your subject in focus in your photos is key to a great photograph.

What does focal plane mean?

Definition: the plane that is perpendicular to the axis of a lens or mirror and passes through the focal point.

In normal words, the focal plane is the range of space where everything will be in focus depending on your depth of field.

If you are shooting wide open (small f-stop number), your depth of field is going to be smaller.

If you are shooting stopped down (large f-stop number), your depth of field is going to be bigger.

The vertical plane your subject is in is the focal plane.

So if 3 people are standing side by side, they are more likely to be in focus, even at a small f-stop.

But as soon as one person takes a step forward or back, they will be out of focus. How out of focus depends on the depth of field for that aperture number.

Choosing Your Focal Point:

Most camera brands do things a little different, but the idea is the same.

DSLR cameras have focus points you can use to choose where you want your sharpest point to be in your picture.

They may be dots or squares or something else, but they work the same.

When you take pictures with a point and shoot, most of the time the focus is dead center in the picture. You snap a shot and everything is in focus.

When you are shooting in manual mode (which I hope you are!), you should choose your focus every time. Your focal point will probably not be dead center (think rule of thirds), so you shouldn’t just automatically focus there.

The fancier and more expensive your camera, the more focal points it offers.

little boy eyelashes

4 Focus Modes on Your Camera:

  1. Auto Focus- In this mode, the camera finds and chooses the focus to use. If you are going thru the work of shooting in manual mode, you don’t want to use this mode. You want to find the focus on your own.
  2. Single Focus- In this mode, the camera focuses when you press half way down on the shutter, and by the time you finish pressing all the way down, the camera takes the picture. This is the mode you want to use when your subject is still because it doesn’t use as much battery.
  3. Continuous Focus- In this mode, the camera continues to find focus all the way up to the instant that you snap the picture. This is good for action pictures when your subject is constantly moving. But the constant refocusing can take up more battery than the single focus option.
  4. Manual Focus- If you use manual focus, you are using your hand to turn the lens to focus your subject. This is how it was done in the “old days” and how many professional photographers still focus. It takes a lot of practice to learn to focus manually, but you can focus things better this way. Especially if you are trying to focus on a subject in the dark (night photography) or on a busy background.

How do we use focus to take better photos?

For this post, we are going to assume that focus means getting a sharp image where you want it to be sharp.

That doesn’t usually mean the whole image, but where you put the focus dot of your camera on the point you want sharp when you take the photo.

So if you use f/2 to take a photo of a person, you would focus on their eye (you almost always want the eye in sharp focus) and then the rest of the photo will be in varying degrees of blurriness depending on how far away it is from the eye (this blurriness is called bokeh).

little boy looking at the camera with blue eyes

Back Button Focus:

Back button focus is a setting you can add to your camera to allow you to set your focal point with each photo more easily. It is kinda technical, but once your set it and get used to using it, you’ll never go back. No more of this focusing, then recomposing a shot!

Here is an awesome tutorial that tells you all about why you should use back button focus and how to set it on your camera—> Back Button Focus Explained @ Cole’s Classroom.

3 Tricks to Get Proper Focus Every Time:

  1. Do not let the camera pick the focal point. Use the focal points available in your camera to choose where your photo should be the sharpest.
  2. If you are focusing on a face, always put your focal point on that person’s eye. If the eye is out of focus, it makes the whole shot look bad.
  3. If you are shooting a landscape shot that you want to be all sharp, focus half way thru the photo (distance wise) to get a larger depth of field.

Action Steps:

  1. Choose the focus mode that is right for you.
  2. Set up your camera for back button focus and learn how to use it.
  3. Practice moving focal points around in your camera to find the right focus.

This is the fifth lesson of ten that will be coming in the next few weeks.

Next week we will talk about light metering and how to use it properly for great photos. Click here to go to the next lesson —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: Light Metering Basics.

Focus is a key element in photography. If your shots are out of focus, you are going to look like an amateur no matter how well you do other things. It takes some time to learn how to focus properly and get a sharp shot.

Moving targets (like kids and animals) are even harder to get in focus. For that you might want to use a high shutter speed and continuous focus.

As with anything else, just keep practicing on focus and it will get easier. I hope this tutorial has helped you know understand the focus basics and where to start.

What tricks do you use to get better focus for your photography? Let us know in the comments below. And if you found this tutorial helpful, please share. Thanks!

One comment

  1. Sharon Smith

    Great post!

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