Getting the focus perfect in our photographs is something that we all struggle with. If you are particularly frustrated, or just hoping to improve, these tips should help!
1. Faster shutter speed. When you end up with a blurry photo, the culprit is often your shutter speed. The shutter speed is just what it sounds like: how long the shutter on your camera stays open to expose the sensor to light. If the shutter is open too long (a slow shutter speed), your camera can’t “freeze” the image and you end up capturing movement instead. Setting your camera to sports mode (usually a little running guy) will make your camera choose a higher shutter speed.
On your DSLR, you also have the option to use Shutter Priority mode (and manual mode, of course), which allows you to choose your shutter speed. When photographing people, you usually don’t want to let your shutter speed fall below 1/125, or even higher if you are photographing something fast-moving, such as sports or toddlers.
2. Give your camera more light. One of the reasons your shutter speed might be slow is that there is not enough light for your camera to work with. This means that the shutter needs to stay open longer in order to get a correct exposure. Open the curtains, go outside, or use a flash (if you absolutely have to).
3. Choose your focus point. If your camera has the option (if you have a DSLR, it does), change your settings so that YOU choose what the camera focuses on, rather than leaving it up to the camera. On my camera, this option is called single-point auto focus and can be found in the “custom settings” menu (on my Nikon D80) or the “shooting menu” (on my D3200).
(Ignore my grimy screen!)
Once you have changed this setting, you can move the focus point around in your viewfinder. This way, you can be sure the camera doesn’t accidentally focus on the background instead of your subject. (TIP: This does not work in any of the auto modes, but it works in manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and program modes.)
You can see that in this photo, I moved my focus to the point over my son’s eye, rather than leaving it in the center or letting the camera choose. If it was in the center, it would have focused on the peacock. If my camera had been in auto, it might have chosen the peacock feathers to focus on because they offer such great contrast. Which brings us to….
4. Focus on contrast. Cameras see everything in terms of light and dark and they need contrast to focus on. If you point your camera at a blank white wall and press the shutter button, it might try to focus for a second, but then it will give up because it can’t “see” anything. This also happens if it’s too dark for the camera to detect something to focus on.
Our brains are drawn to faces and, more specifically, to eyes. When photographing people, the eyes are where we usually want to focus. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing to have the eyes in focus, but the eye is a great source of contrast.
The camera’s love for contrast also means that you have to be conscious of what is in the frame. Be aware of focus-stealing objects and settings. If you know you are going to be taking pictures of your son, you might want to avoid dressing him in a striped shirt. If you stand your friend in front of a brick wall, make sure she stands a good distance in front of it so the camera has an easier time focusing on her. In the peacock picture above, you can see that, because my son is a good distance away from the contrasty peacock feathers, they weren’t in danger of stealing the focus (as long as I had my focus point in the right place).
5. Don’t make your depth of field too shallow. The “depth of field” is the area in your photo that is in focus. The setting that has the most influence on this is the aperture. The larger your aperture is (or the smaller the F-stop number), the smaller your depth of field will be. It’s tempting to set the aperture as wide as possible for that great blurry background, but remember that it makes it harder to nail your focus when you do! If you shoot wide open, your depth of field can be less than one inch, which means that if your subject moves even a tiny bit, you will miss your focus.
6. Practice, practice, practice! When I was first learning to use my camera in manual mode, I would take more than 100 pictures a day! You don’t have to be that crazy about it, but if you use these tips and practice often, you will see an improvement in the focus of your photos.