Continuous Focus Mode :: Digital Photo Secrets

Continuous Focus Mode

by David Peterson 1 comment

Getting the action shot can be difficult. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that it is typically harder to take a great photo of a moving subject than a stationary one. It's the bottom of the 9th and you snap a picture just as your son steals home for the win. You may think your shot is a winner only to find your son is actually a blur, and you didn't really capture the moment like you hoped. You can switch solely to landscape shots or take up tortoise photography, or you can learn how to photograph a moving target more effectively. There is a simple change you can make to your auto focus settings to do just that.

Auto Focus Mode Settings

You may not realize it, but if you have not changed your auto focus mode settings then the default is an automatic setting in which your camera analyzes the scene and chooses the mode for you. If it detects motion it chooses continuous mode, or if it thinks your subject is still it selects the single shot mode. This often works out well but there are exceptions. If you are photographing a motionless subject against a moving background (like a crowd of people walking behind) your camera detects motion and chooses continuous mode. On the other hand, if you subject moves only slightly your camera may not make the switch. If you want to have more control and a greater chance of getting the clear, action shot you can select the auto focus mode before you take the picture.

In some cases, you may make an artistic choice to take a blurry photo to show motion or speed.

If your spouse is crossing the finish line of the biggest race of their life, you probably want to freeze that moment in time with a clear, sharp image.

Continuous Focus Mode

Disclaimer: If you shoot in auto mode, you cannot make adjustments to your auto focus settings. If you are shooting in program, shutter priority, aperture priority, or manual mode you can choose this option.

When choosing an auto focus mode, you should be able to choose from several modes including One-Shot/AF-S mode or Al Servo/AF-C mode. In case you are dying to know, the One Shot or AF-S (single) mode is ideal for taking pictures of still subjects. Once you depress your camera's shutter button halfway, your camera focuses and does not continue to adjust focus. If you are taking pictures of buildings, or flowers, or cooperatively posing adults this is probably your go-to mode. You may be thinking to yourself that you are not a sports photographer so you need not read on. On the contrary, you may be surprised that even toddlers can suddenly have the speed of an NFL running back when the camera comes out. Day to day shots of less than cooperative children may necessitate a different approach.

If you are trying to get a shot of a subject on the go, then switching over to Al Servo or AF-C (continuous) mode is a good move. In this mode you frame your subject and once you press the shutter button halfway, your camera continuously detects movement and adjusts focus accordingly. If the subject moves further from or closer to the lens, the camera adjusts focus. You will likely hear and/or feel your camera making these adjustments. Cool, right? Keep in mind that like any other auto system this is not fool proof and if there is lots of chaotic movement your camera can still be confused.

How to Do It

If you are ready to try, take these steps:

  • Change your camera's auto focus mode setting to continuous.
  • Frame your subject and depress the shutter button halfway. You should hear your camera making focus adjustments as your subject moves.
  • Press the shutter button down all the way to take the picture.

Coupling Continuous Focus with Dynamic Area

There is another camera setting that you can use in conjunction with continuous focus mode to take better pictures of moving subjects. In addition to changing the auto focus mode, you can also change the auto-focus area mode. For stationary subjects a single focus point is ideal. For moving subjects, try the dynamic area mode. Again, you need to be shooting in P, S, A, or M mode to have this option. Another trip into your camera's menu settings is also required. The dynamic area setting allows you to select a single focus point by toggling the focus point box on the screen to the desired area, but if the subject within that focus point moves after you depress the shutter button halfway the camera looks to the other focus points for information. This is based on the idea that your subject will likely wind up in one of the other focus areas. So, you choose what to focus on initially by moving the focus point brackets, but your camera adjusts focus as your subject moves.

If you want to try this in conjunction with continuous focus mode, then change the setting in your camera to dynamic area. You will now see a single focus point in brackets that you can toggle around with your arrows. Place the brackets on your subject and depress the shutter button halfway. As the subject moves, your focus point brackets will not move but focus adjustments are being made. So if your child is running out on stage right, place the focus point brackets there, depress the shutter halfway when she is in the brackets, and shoot.

Use these auto focus settings to photograph a group on the move and freeze their action.


If you are shooting in continuous focus mode and have tried it in conjunction with dynamic area mode but your action shots are still blurry here are a few other things to check.

  • Is your shutter speed too slow? Try shooting in shutter priority and choose a faster shutter speed (at least 1/250).
  • Do you have enough light? If you are taking photos in a gym or auditorium setting this can be a problem. In low light, your camera calls for a slower shutter speed resulting in blurry pictures. Again, use shutter priority mode and bump up your ISO to combat the low light situation. This is a big issue, so I wrote a full article on the topic: How to take photos of fast moving sports without blurring the subject, and have created a video answer to this question to purchasers of my Digital Photo Secrets video course.
  • Are you shooting in burst mode? Shooting multiple frames with each click of the shutter can increase your odds of getting that perfect shot.

The most important thing is just to get out and take some shots. Try the auto focus settings described in this article and shoot lots of frames of moving subjects. Eventually you will take a winner!

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  1. Lester Wallace says:

    David, I take a lot of bird pictures (at least I try). Birds do not set still for very long. They hop and move and always take off just as I have them in focus. Would these tips work well for what I am doing? The continuous focus and changing the focus area I mean.

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