Going beyond your camera’s focus settings

We have all expressed frustration with blurry images at one time or another. Let’s face it, getting the right focus is complicated. Just knowing your camera’s focus settings does not guarantee a sharp photo. Getting the right focus requires you to go beyond technical settings. Here are few tips to keep in mind when you are trying to get the right focus.

Acquiring Focus Lock Takes Time

One of the things that most camera manuals leave out is the fact that focusing in your camera is not instantaneous. It takes finite amount of time for camera to lock on to your subject. The exact amount of time depends upon a number of things including the subject you’re trying to capture, ambient light, your camera’s focusing sensor, the maximum aperture of the lens, and more. If you fire a shot before it’s focused, you come away with nothing more then out of focus blurry images.

Some cameras can be configured to not take the shot without getting a focus lock, but in this case you may simply miss the shot instead of capturing a blurry photo. If you have ever tried to catch a wave crashing against the rocks or the exploding lava in the Hawaii or an insect with a long lens, you’ve run into this limitation.

One of the best ways to get around the limitation is to set the camera’s focus ahead of time. If you are trying to photograph a butterfly, set the focus of the flower and wait for the butterfly to land on it. This allows you to avoid the focusing delays and capture photos like the one above.

Pay Attention to Your Shutter Speed

We all know that focus is related to DOF… but why pay attention to shutter speed? The primary function of focusing is to get a sharp image, whether it is part of the image or the full image depends on what you are trying to accomplish. But the sharpness of a scene doesn’t simply depend on focus, but also on shutter speed. You need a fast-enough shutter speed to overcome the motion of the camera, the motion of the subject, or to overcome external factors such as the wind.

One of the common mistakes that beginner photographers make is to select a small aperture to maximize the DOF. This results in a very show shutter speed and blurry photo due to subject motion. This is exactly the challenge I faced when shooting this sea urchin while filming our In Sharp Focus course on Big Island of Hawaii.

Big Island, Hawaii, USA

I was able to get around it with some help of my camera’s focus assist function. This allowed me to select an optimum aperture value and then balance my exposure using shutter speed and ISO.

Where NOT to Focus

Knowing the limitations of your camera’s focusing sensor helps you avoid areas on which you shouldn’t focus. For example, camera focusing sensors have a hard time locking onto a low contrast area. Trying to focus on a texture-less sky results in your camera hunting for focus. Similarly, thermals (wavy lines you see on the horizon) caused by hot surfaces also throw off a camera’s focusing sensors as we found out while shooting lava flows in Hawaii.

  • Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii, USA

    Thermals near lava flows, Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii, USA

  • Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii, USA

    Focusing near thermals resulted in this out of focus shot, Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii, USA

  • Avoiding thermals resulted in this sharp photo, Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii, USA

We were able to get sharp photos of lava flows like these by avoiding the focusing thermals you see in the image above.

As you can see from the examples in this article, getting the right focus is more than just knowing your camera’s focus settings. It’s about developing a solid focusing workflow that uses creativity and technical knowledge to choose the optimum focus settings for any given situation. This is exactly what our upcoming In Sharp Focus course is all about. Filmed in the diverse terrains of Hawaii, this course shows you how to develop your focusing workflow to get sharp images every time.

Furthermore, when you combine this course with Josh Cripps’ Practical Lightroom Tutorials Vol-4, you get a firsthand look at how a professional photographer captures and edits images from start to finish.

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About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.

Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams