Single Point Focus :: Digital Photo Secrets

Single Point Focus

by David Peterson 4 comments

Have you ever taken shots you are excited about only to find that they are blurry when you view them on your computer screen? It is so disappointing to realize that those 1st birthday shots are just not quite in focus. Nothing ruins a potentially great photo like blur. There are lots of things that you can do in post processing to improve your photos, but sadly making a blurry shot focused is not one of them! Focus is probably the single most important thing that you need to get right in camera. It is time to take steps toward taking tack sharp images.

Nailing focus is key to a great photo. If you are using your camera's default settings and/or shooting in auto mode then your camera is using its automatic grid system for autofocus. This typically works well when you are shooting at a small aperture (high f-stop) or have a simple composition. On the other hand if you are opening up that aperture or have multiple things in frame that your camera could focus on, you may end up with your intended focal point a blur. The image above is the kind that could easily "trick" your camera's auto focus system. With the lollipops and other items in the foreground it's likely you could end up with very sharp lollipops and a very blurry daughter.

The grid system is sometimes compared to throwing darts at a bull's eye. Sometimes you will achieve sharp focus and other times you will not. Do you want to leave the focus of those special shots to chance?

Single Point AF

I am guessing your answer is no, so it is time to try single point auto focus. Once you change this setting, you have essentially disabled the option of using the entire grid of focus points. This might also take you out of Auto mode, so also read up on how to shoot in program mode before making any changes to your focusing method.

Each square in the viewfinder is a different focus point

With your camera in single point focus mode, you will see all of the focus point brackets when you look through your viewfinder, but you will only use one set. You can use the arrow buttons to toggle around in the frame and select the focus point you want. Remember, if you are photographing people you want to place the focus brackets right between their eyes. If they are facing at an angle to you, then place it on their closest eye. The eyes are everything in a picture of a person!

If you are shooting multiple people or things at a large aperture (low f-stop number), it won't be possible to have everything in focus so choose which bracket to use carefully. If you want more of the composition to be in focus then choose a smaller aperture (higher f-stop number). To achieve focus in a group shot, my suggestion is to sacrifice depth of field and choose an aperture in the f/5.6 to f/11 range. Focus on someone that is about 1/3 of the way into the group (do this by placing the focus box on their eyes), then use the two step shutter (depress the shutter button halfway to focus, and then take the picture). Then zoom in on their faces in the viewfinder to check for sharpness! Don't trust what it looks like without zooming in. Unless you have superhuman vision, you can be fooled into thinking it is focused when it's not! I speak from sad experience on this one. If you find their faces are not clear, try a smaller aperture (higher f-stop number). (If the blur is due to a slow shutter speed in low light conditions, then bump up your ISO and try again.) You want each one of those birthday party attendees to be in clear focus. (In the image below, the subjects are all on the same plane, meaning they are not in front of or behind each other. This simplifies things so you can just place that focus brackets between the eyes of the center child and snap away!)

Choosing a Single Focus Point

The center focus point is the sharpest, but you may be composing a picture where you want to focus on something that is off center. If you are keeping the rule of thirds in mind with composition, this will likely be the case.

To accomplish this you have two options. You can focus using the center point focus box, depress the shutter button halfway, and then shift your camera to get the area of focus where you want it before taking the photo. This is called the "two step shutter" or "focus and recompose" method (as I explained above), and it can be quite challenging. If you move your camera nearer or further from your subject after initially focusing it, your photo will be blurry. I prefer to use the arrows to toggle the focus point brackets until the one I want to use is directly on the focal point of my photo. Once the bracket is in place, depress the shutter button halfway until it is focused, and take the photo. So for the image below, you would select focus point brackets in the top right portion of your viewfinder to focus on the boy's eyes.

One last tip: If your subjects are darting to and fro, and you are still having difficulty getting them in sharp focus you may want to try switching to continuous focus mode. This still allows you to choose the focal point of your photo by toggling the brackets, but your camera also attempts to adjust focus as your subject moves. Switch from all points focus to single point today, and you will be amazed at the creative control you have. No more blur, sharpness here you come!

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  1. Andrew says:

    Great advice for budding sharp shooters! It's a simple technique to master that will improve everyone's photography.

  2. Tammy says:

    This has totally helped me a lot. Thank you

  3. Harish Nair says:

    Really helpful tips.............

  4. Mary Riedel says:

    How about a stationery or stationery-in-flight hummingbird. Would Spot or Single Point AF be best? I've gotten some good photos but sometimes everything is a slightly off, or the bird is sharp but even the very near by plant stem is blurred with blurriness increasing further away from the bird. I normally use a telephoto zoom lens at 200 or 300mm which naturally reduces depth of field.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.