Get Sharper Photos By Using the Right Focus Mode

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Let’s face it…

There’s a lot of skills you need to master to take a gorgeous shot like the one above.

On the one hand, that’s part of the beauty of photography – it requires work, dedication, and skill to perfect the photos you create. There’s an investment there that makes your images that much more meaningful.

On the other hand, there’s the potential to get a little confused and even a bit discouraged when things don’t go quite right and the images you create aren’t what you had imagined.

If you ask me, one of the primary culprits of bad photos is simply not getting them sharp.

There are plenty of reasons why sharpness might be an issue – camera shake, not using the lens’s sweet spot, and perhaps most importantly, not using the right focus mode.

In this guide, I explore the primary focus modes on your camera and what each is best suited to do.

Single Shot Autofocus

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Single shot focusing has been around for decades and is the default setting on most cameras.

If you have a Canon camera, single shot focusing is referred to as “One Shot;” on a Nikon, it’s referred to as “AF-S.”

Nevertheless, these modes do the same thing – they are used for subjects that are static.

For example, if you’re taking a portrait of your wife and she’s standing still, single shot focusing will work like a charm.

How Does Single Shot Autofocus Work?

All you do is depress the shutter button halfway to acquire focus on your subject.

By maintaining pressure on the shutter button, the focus is locked such that you can recompose the image.

For example, for a portrait, you would focus on your subject’s eyes to ensure they are sharp. Then, depress the shutter halfway to lock focus. After that, you can recompose the shot – shift the subject to the left or right of center as seen above – and the focus will remain locked, so long as the shutter remains half-pressed.

By and large, single shot focusing is what most amateur photographers will use, again, so long as the subject isn’t moving around too much.

See single shot autofocus in action in the video above by Jared Polin.

Continuous Autofocus

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As the name implies, continuous autofocus constantly adjusts the focus to keep the subject sharp.

This is an ideal setting in situations in which the subject is on the move, be that a bird in flight, your dog running around in the backyard, or your kids splashing around in puddles.

If you’re a Canon shooter, continuous autofocus is referred to as AI Servo, while Nikon systems refer to it as AF-C mode.

How Does Continuous Autofocus Work?

{source 0}{/source}Just like with single shot autofocus, in continuous autofocus mode, you depress the shutter button halfway.

However, because this mode is used for action shots, you have to maintain the half-pressed state as you track the moving subject, being sure to keep the subject in the frame.

For example, if you’re photographing a bird in flight, continuous autofocus maintains focus on the bird as it flies along its path, so long as you keep the bird in the camera’s field of view.

The camera will handle all the focusing adjustments on your behalf, allowing you to get a sharper photo. However, photographing fast-moving subjects is difficult to do and requires a lot of practice.

See how AI Servo autofocus works (and how it compares to AI focus and single shot autofocus) in the video above by the Academy of Photography.

Automatic Focus

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There’s another type of focusing that can come in handy on occasion – automatic focus.

Canon cameras refer to this as AI Focus and Nikon cameras refer to it as AF-A.

Either way, automatic focus takes the guesswork out of choosing between single shot and continuous autofocus.

In other words, based on the information the camera gathers about the subject, it will decide if single shot or continuous autofocus is more appropriate.

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This can be advantageous if you’re photographing a subject that is occasionally still and occasionally on the move.

For example, you might use this mode to take a photo of the mountain biker above when he’s standing still, and then again as he gets underway and rides toward you.

The problem, of course, is that no matter how fantastic your camera is, it will never be able as adept at making decisions about the appropriate settings as you are.

Since you already have a better understanding of single shot and continuous autofocus, you can make the decisions regarding which mode to use and likely get better results than if you let your camera guess as to which mode is most appropriate.

Manual Focus

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A great way to terrify a beginner photographer (and plenty of enthusiasts, too) is to throw around the word “manual.”

Manual focusing is far less common than the autofocus modes discussed above, yet it still has its applications in photography.

This is especially true if you tend to work with architecture, still life, macro, and the big one – landscapes.

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By using manual focus, you can get pinpoint accuracy of the sharpness of the image.

Without getting too technical, manual focus allows you to use the hyperfocal distance technique to maximize the depth of field in the image.

When shooting a macro shot, for example, you’ll have your camera mounted on a tripod and won’t have a need to focus and recompose the image once the shot is setup. That negates the use of autofocus, so manual focusing is the way to go.

Similarly, when photographing a landscape, you won’t need to track moving objects, nor will single shot autofocus generate the ideal depth of field. Again, manual focusing can get you sharper photos with improved results.

Manual focusing can also be advantageous if you’re shooting at a very large aperture.

Remember, aperture impacts depth of field – as the size of the aperture increases, the depth of field decreases.

That means that if you’re shooting at f/1.2, f/1.4, or even f/1.8, the depth of field can be razor thin.

When you use autofocusing techniques, it can be hard for your camera to nail the focus given the very shallow depth of field, so switching to manual focus can prove to be a good choice.

Learn how to use manual focus mode in the video above by CNET.

Final Thoughts

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As noted in the introduction, there is plenty that can go wrong during a photo shoot that causes your images to lose sharpness and be soft.

That means you need to take control of how you focus so you can give yourself the best opportunities to get tack-sharp photos.

Next time you’re out shooting, give each of the focusing modes discussed above a try – even manual focusing.

I think you’ll find that they aren’t as scary as they might sound. Besides, adding this skill to your skill set will only make you a more productive photographer with better images as a result.

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