If you struggle with blurry images, then this article is for you. Learn how to get tack-sharp images by understanding and using the correct focus mode and focus area on your camera.
What are Focus Modes on a Camera?
One of the best things about modern cameras is the ability of the camera to focus on your subject very quickly. As you press the shutter release button down, the camera will quickly focus on what it perceives to be the subject of the scene and then releases the shutter to take a picture.
The focus mode that is set on the camera determines how the camera will focus.
For example, does the camera focus on a subject and lock, or does it continuously try to refocus if the subject is moving.
Both are very important in different situations, but if you have the wrong one set, your images will be blurry.
Focus Modes on Nikon Cameras
If you shoot with a Nikon camera, listed below are the focus modes that Nikon offers. Many other brands are similar to the Nikon focus modes as well.
When your Nikon camera is in this focus mode, the focusing mechanism will focus on a subject and lock. If the subject moves, the focus will not change but remain where it was initially focused.
When in this mode, you press the shutter release button all the way down and the camera will quickly focus and then take the picture, or you can press the shutter release halfway down to lock the focus. Finish pressing the button down to finish taking the picture.
If the subject moves, you will need to release the shutter release button and refocus by pressing it halfway down again.
When your Nikon camera is in this focus mode, the focusing mechanism will focus on the subject and then continually refocus on the subject.
This mode is used for tracking a continuously moving object. Press the shutter release button down quickly, and it will almost work just like the AF-S focus mode.
However, if you press the shutter release button halfway down, the camera will track the subject as it moves by continually refocusing. Finish pressing the button down when you are ready to take the picture.
This Nikon focus mode is a hybrid of the two focus modes mentioned above and can be used for both still photography and video.
In this focus mode, the camera tries to detect if the subject is stationary or moving, and then either locks the focus like AF-S mode or continuously refocuses like AF-C mode.
This mode is designed for beginners and works well most of the time.
This Nikon focus mode was created specifically for video and is very similar to AF-C, where the camera is continuously refocusing for the subject.
AF-F is the newest of all the modes and tries to create a smoother refocusing experience for video, refocusing slower and more steady. This slow, even refocusing is good for video, but inadequate for fast moving subjects, so avoid this mode if you are shooting action shots with fast moving subjects.
This focus mode will continue to be refined and get better, but again, is meant for video only.
Focus Modes for Canon Cameras
Canon ONE SHOT AF
When your Canon camera is in this focus mode, the auto focus will focus on the subject and lock the focus.
If the subject moves, your subject will be out of focus in your image unless you refocus on the subject. You activate the camera’s focusing mechanism by pressing the shutter release all the way down to have your camera focus and take a picture in quick succession.
Or, you can activate the focusing mechanism by pressing the shutter release button halfway down. This will cause your camera to focus on the subject, but not take a picture. Finish pressing the shutter release button down when you want to take the picture.
In this Canon focus mode, your Canon camera will focus on the subject and continuously try to keep the moving subject in focus.
This mode is used to allow your camera to continuously track a moving subject.
As long as you keep the shutter release button pressed, your camera will continue to try to focus on your subject if you move or if the subject moves.
Canon AI FOCUS AF
This Canon focus mode is a hybrid of the two above modes, ONE SHOT AF and AI SERVO, and is designed for video.
When you use this focus mode, the camera will try to detect if the subject is stationary or moving and adjust the focus mode accordingly. When your subject is moving, this Canon focus mode will work to smooth the focus mechanism to keep the subject smoothly in focus the entire time without random zoom searching.
This works well for video, but not for action shots with fast moving subjects, as the focus mechanism can move too slowly.
At the end of this article is a video that will teach you how to adjust and select the focus mode on your camera. This video will cover how to make these adjustments directly to your camera and will also show you how to choose the focus area, or how to tell the camera what to focus on before taking the pictures. So stay tuned.
Before we get to that, have you decided which focus mode should you be using? If you need help, continue reading.
Which Focus Mode Should You Choose?
Your focus mode selection should be determined by what you are shooting. If you are a sports or wildlife photographer, you will choose AF-C (AI SERVO).
This focus mode will allow you to focus the camera on the subject and track the subject with the focus until you take the picture. You focus the camera by holding down the shutter release button halfway, or by pressing the AF-ON button (if you have one).
For nature and portrait photography, set the camera to AF-S or ONE SHOT AF to get the best results.
Especially as you are learning these focus modes, this mode will allow you to lock your focus helping you to be confident that your camera has focused precisely where you desire.
Selecting What the Camera Focuses On
Now that you understand how to control the focusing mechanism on your camera through the focus modes let’s learn how to select where the camera focuses in the frame.
There are two types of focus areas with your camera, multi-area focus, and single point focus.
This focusing method has many names: 9-point focus, 21-point focus, zone focus, etc. These names all mean the same thing, your camera is focusing on an area rather than a particular point.
Take a look at the image below and notice that two of the focus points are red. These red points, or darker points on some cameras, demonstrate where the camera is focusing.
When using a Multi-Point focus area, you as the photographer are not in control of where your camera focuses.
The camera tries to determine the subject of the image and focus on that subject, and it often gets it wrong. Multi-Point focus area is how most cameras come new from the factory. As a beginner, this is a good thing as it allows you not to have to worry where the camera focuses.
However, as you improve as a photographer, you will want to change this to single point focus area, as described in the next section.
Single Point Focus
When using this focusing method, the camera only focuses using a single focus point, a focus point that must be selected by you, the photographer.
As someone who wants to become a better photographer, this is the focus area you should be using. You should be in control of where your camera focuses. Take a look at the image below to notice how there is only one focus point selected.
As the photographer, I moved the focus point to that location to focus on my subject, which is the family.
Setting the Focus Mode on the Camera
Now that you understand camera focus modes and focus areas, it’s time to set them exactly how you want them set.
I created this video to show you visually how to change the focus mode and select the focus area on your camera.
It can be completely different for every camera, so if the video doesn’t cover your camera, refer to your owner’s manual.
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Hopefully, you can see how imperative it is for you to set the focus mode and focus area on your camera for the type of subject you find yourself shooting.
During weddings, I will often change from AF-S to AF-C, depending on what my subject is.
For the bride walking down the aisle and for the dancing shots, I prefer AF-C or AI SERVO.
For the portraits and detail shots, I prefer AF-S or ONE SHOT AI.
Each mode has its place, and you as the photographer must determine which is right for you.