How To Use Focal Lock To Create More Precise Digital Images :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Use Focal Lock To Create More Precise Digital Images

by David Peterson 5 comments

If you've been reading some my articles on composition, you know that it isn't always such a good idea to place your subject directly in the center of the frame. Unfortunately, whenever you place your subject a little to the right or to the left, you open up a whole new problem when you press the shutter button to focus. Instead of focusing on your subject, your camera ends up focusing on some unimportant piece of the background.

It happens all the time, especially when you hand your camera over to your inexperienced friend. Your camera doesn't know that you're trying to get an image of a smiling face. Every time you press down the shutter button, your camera not only resets the focus, it tries to focus on the center of the frame.

Fix Your Focal Frustrations With Focal Lock

How can you prevent this common problem? It's surprisingly easy. Focal lock is programmed into most digital SLRs, and even point-and-shoot cameras, these days. To activate it, simply press the shutter button halfway down. This causes the camera to keep its focus on the original point you decided to focus on. If you release the shutter or press it all the way down to take your picture, you'll reset the focus.

Here's how most photographers use focal lock to keep their cameras focused on the important parts of the scene. First, pick where you are going to focus your camera. In the case of the photo at the top, let's say it's the child's face. Next, center your camera on that point (on his face) and then hold your shutter button halfway down. Them while holding the button you can reframe your shot to produce something more visually appealing.

Photographers are always reframing their shots. It's the best way to produce an interesting composition. Most pictures with the subject in the center fail to excite viewers. It's probably the way we're wired, but we tend to enjoy images where the subject is slightly off of center much more. Some people like to call this the rule of thirds.

After you reframe your shot (remember, you're still holding the shutter button halfway down), you can press shutter all the way down to take the picture. Usually, if your camera is in continuous fire mode, you should be able to keep taking one picture after the next with the same focus settings. But be careful about this. As soon as you hear the motor noises coming from your lens, your camera is "trying" to focus on something else.

A Handy Trick For Sports Photography And Action

Every time you take your finger off of the shutter button, the focal lock disengages. If you want the same focal point in your photo, you have to focus on your subject all over again. This can get troublesome after awhile, especially if you're taking a lot of photos. Thankfully, there's a more permanent solution.

Just after you focus, you can switch your lens from automatic focus mode to manual focus mode. As long as you don't twist (or touch) the focus ring on your lens, the focal point will remain the same - even if you take your finger off of the shutter release button. Of course, when you want to focus on something else, you will have to switch your lens back to automatic focus mode. It's a bit of a tradeoff in convenience, but it works!

This technique is very useful when you're taking action shots. Let's say you know someone is going to be doing something at a particular place - like you know there will be a motorbike at that point of the track in the photo to the right. You can use your camera's automatic focus mode to focus on the point of interest (also known as pre-focusing), and then you can switch to manual focus mode to take a continuous stream of photos. Because the camera isn't "trying" focus in between frames, you'll get a nice sequence of uninterrupted shooting.

For many sports photographers, switching back and forth between automatic and manual focus modes is the only way to get the job done. They don't have to hold their finger over the shutter button while they readjust their camera on top of their tripod. Sometimes it can take quite awhile to reframe your shot. That's when this trick is worth its weight in gold.

How's your luck with your camera's focus? Are your subjects always crystal clear, or can you see your grandmother's paisley blouse better than you can see your aunt's eyes? Upload both types of photos to the gallery for this tip, or just take a look at others' works. Not sure how you upload? Check out my video tutorial. And if there's anything you're struggling with, let me know. It might form the basis of a future tutorial.

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  1. Michael Henke says:

    Although the switching to manual focus to lock the AF seems like it may prove very useful (I'm surprised I've never seen it mentioned before), I'd still like to better understand the "focus and recompose" method you mention initially.

    I'm a bit confused, however, about how the shutter release handles AF. Initially you state that after pressing the release halfway to focus, pressing it all the way will reset focus and focus prior to releasing the shutter.

       "If you release the shutter or press it all the way down to take your picture, youll reset the focus."

    If focus resets automatically upon fully pressing the release, how can you actually lock focus? For focus lock to activate with a half press, it seems that upon pressing fully (moving from half press to full press), the shutter should release w/o resetting focus.

    Can you clarify?


    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Michael,

      You're mostly right. When you use the shutter to lock focus, it's only locked while you hold the button down half way. Once you release the shutter, focus is reset.

      Then you use the focus lock setting/button, it keeps the locked focus until you set another focus (usually by pressing the button again). The shutter button does not unlock focus.

      I hope that helps.


  2. Pat G says:

    This may sound stupid but I can't seem to figure out where the camera is focussing. They told us to use matrix focussing not spot metering but that way how do you know which one of the little focus marks should be centered on the person's eyes? I've tried to look for the red light. Do you move/reframe so that the red light is on the eyes? If you do that, then doesn't it upset the way you have framed the picture? Some of my pictures come out crystal clear/well focused; many others are very fuzzy/out of focus. What should I do to to be more confident of where the camera is focused?

  3. Aldis says:

    Well... I am old skool, I know. But I trust myself, and myself alone. Meaning: on my camera AF is off by default.

    Regarding Nick's question. I am afraid he has supplied too little info regarding the colour problem - why is orange so excessive in his images? There are many ways one can reduce particular colur or overall saturation or whatever it is that needs reduction. But they depend on the particular case and purpose.

    Good luck taking good photographs!

  4. Nick Brenner (CCHS) says:

    Hi David!
    Do you know perhaps how tp get the orange color out of color negatives when I scan or photograph them, and using a program like photo shop elements.
    Thanks in advance for replying!

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