[Tip] Focus and Recompose: When auto focus isn’t working for you


One of the most challenging things to overcome is ensuring the camera is focusing on the correct subject. Many of us prefer auto focus as it’s usually right, right? Not always. Whether you shoot Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Fuji, Pentax, Panasonic, or any other brand of camera, chances are the auto focus tends to focus on the closest object to the lens. This isn’t always the subject you are interested in having in focus. Add to this moving subjects and you have an auto focus nightmare unless your camera has an intelligent tracking system like the Canon 7d Mark II or Sony A7RII. An easy fix is to choose a focus point, then focus and recompose.

Let’s break this down a little bit first. Many cameras don’t know what they’re looking at nor do they know what you care about. They’re not programmed to understand composition theory or anything about aesthetics in general. They don’t know a wall from a person or any other object. Some cameras do know a face from anything else, but it can also be easy to confuse. With that said, the camera is dumb. The camera’s main job is to find focus and often times it’s ┬áto find focus on anything. It doesn’t matter what it is and usually ends up being the closest subject to the lens. This method of focusing is fine until the scene becomes layered with objects. Changing lighting conditions such as that at a club or concert can also confuse the focus system.

When you can’t trust auto focus, but you don’t want manual focus, the next approach is to manually choose a focus point on the camera. How you do this will vary between cameras, so please refer to your manual on how to choose focus points. The advantage of choosing a focus point is that now you are telling the camera what to focus on, to an extent. Rather than looking at the entire composition to find something to focus on, the camera will now only find focus based on the subject that lies in front of the selected focus point. Many times, photographers will choose the center focus point. Often, the center focus point is a cross-type focus point, meaning it can find focus based on vertical contrast as well as horizontal contrast. You don’t have to choose the center point and your camera may not include a cross-type focus point in the center or it may offer more focus points as cross-type. Either way, choosing a focus point grants you, the photographer, control over the subject to remain in focus.

The next problem to overcome is that of composition. If we continue with the example of choosing the center focus point, the problem is that centered subjects often looks amateurish. This is where “recompose” applies. The idea is to focus on your subject, then recompose the shot, or move the camera so that the composition is ideal, then snap your photo. This can be achieved by half-pressing the shutter button and holding it. This acquires focus and holds focus. If you shoot with back-button focus or have a camera capable of this, using back-button focus is much more comfortable in doing this. Once focus is acquired, continue holding the shutter or back-button focus button, then reposition the shot. Once the shot is to your taste, press the shutter completely down to snap the photo.

This trick works extremely well for moving subjects like sports or live performances too, but there’s a trick to getting the great shot. It relies heavily on anticipating the shot and predicting the action’s movement. Since people move in patterns in a lot of their activities, it may not take long for you to predict the movements. Begin by finding focus as described above, ideally when the subject is in a position that is not of interest. Then compose the frame into one which you are interested in and predict your subject to move into. Once your subject is in the position and action in the frame, snap the photo. This eliminates lost time attempting to focus on the subject, which could cost you the ideal shot.

The focus and recompose trick does have another challenge, though. When you gain focus, it is only for the distance you originally focused for. If you’re using a telephoto lens or a wide aperture, the area of focus can also be narrow due to the shallow depth of field caused by these. If your subject moves closer or further from the lens, there’s a chance it will be out of focus, even just slightly. So it’s important to predict your subject’s movement and be quick to snap the photo.


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