Focus and Recompose: the good, the bad, and the ugly

by Katy Regnier

One of the first “rules” many photographers learn is the rule of thirds – images are generally more visually appealing if the subject is not smack dab in the center of the frame. It can be fun to push that rule and to have subjects that are even more off center and come up with more visually interesting compositions.

Focus and Recompose: the good, the bad, and the ugly photo

Sometimes starting to experiment with new and exciting compositions with the subject off center can lead to images that are less sharp, and the camera’s side autofocus points are often blamed for the error. If you haven’t ever noticed or thought about autofocus points, they are indicated by the small red dots that light up inside your camera’s viewfinder when you take a shot, signaling that your lens has locked focus on that spot. Your camera by default should be set to choose the focus point automatically, however, once you start taking images with the subject off center, sometimes the camera will mistakenly choose a focus point on a different object other than your intended subject. The most popular remedy for this problem is focus and recompose.

What is focus and recompose and how can I do it?

Focus and recompose simply means choosing your camera’s focus by depressing the shutter half-way with your subject centered in the frame, and then “recomposing” your image by moving your camera while keeping the shutter depressed. On most cameras this will maintain the focus you have selected even though you have not yet taken the picture, and you can keep a “lock” on your subject even if it is well outside the limits of your camera’s autofocus points. The center autofocus point is often touted as being the most sensitive or accurate, so many photographers will set their camera to manually select focus points and select the center focus, seeing that as the most accurate way to focus and recompose. Now when you take a picture, your subject should be directly under that center focus point every time you press the shutter and that will lock your focus before you recompose. If you are taking pictures of a person, their eyes should be used as your point of focus.

Sounds simple. Are there any catches?

Yes, I’m glad you asked. Depending on the lens and camera combination you are using, as well as your aperture and distance to your subject, you might not ever notice any problems with this method. Focus and recompose is, for the most part, a very valid and useful method for capturing sharp images. The problems, however, start when you start experimenting with wider apertures and closer distances to your subject. If you are not familiar with depth of field, it is (to put it simply) the distance in front of and behind your focal plane that will be in focus in your image. If you’ve ever taken an image with a macro lens you may have noticed a diagonal line of focus running through the image – this is your “focal plane” being illustrated by your shallow depth of field. The focal plane is an imaginary line, drawn parallel to the face of your camera’s lens. The wider your aperture the smaller your depth of field, meaning that your focus needs to be more accurate for your image to stay sharp. If you are using a lens with an aperture of 1.8 and shooting wide open, depending on your distance and focal length you may only have inches (or fractions of an inch) in focus in front of or behind your subject.

If you are standing directly in front of and facing a subject and recompose by turning your camera to move that subject off center, the distance to your camera’s focal plane will remain constant (because you have locked focus) but that distance will no longer be the same as the distance between your camera and the subject.

Even though the distance between yourself and your subject hasn’t changed, the fact that the camera is using a focal plane parallel to the face of the lens means that when you angle your camera you have essentially moved that focal plane behind your subject. If you are standing fairly close to your subject and using a wide aperture while shooting, that movement may even be enough to throw your image slightly out of focus. This is in fact a very common reason that photographers might feel that their lens has a backfocusing error – when in fact they have effectively been moving the focal plane behind their subject just by virtue of recomposing the shot. Confused? I thought you might be so I’ve drawn a diagram. I think this is best explained in pictures.

Focus and Recompose: the good, the bad, and the ugly photo

And a few real life examples to further illustrate the point. The following images were all shot with a 28mm lens at f1.8 with the exact same distance to subject. In the first image I focused using the center focal point and took the image.

Focus and Recompose: the good, the bad, and the ugly photo

In this image I used the same center focal point but shifted the subject to the bottom of the frame (keeping the same position horizontally but changing my angle in the vertical direction).

Focus and Recompose: the good, the bad, and the ugly photo

And finally I used the same center focal point but shifted both horizontally and vertically, moving my subject to the bottom right hand corner of the image.

Focus and Recompose: the good, the bad, and the ugly photo

It can be hard to see the difference in a web-sized image so I have cropped each image to 100% on the eye (which I used to focus) so that you can see the loss in sharpness on the second and third images.

Focus and Recompose: the good, the bad, and the ugly photo

While it’s impossible to know exactly how much any given image will be affected by this issue because there are simply too many variables (lens choice, distance to subject, f-stop, etc), here are a few rules of thumb.

  • The wider the lens you are using the more opportunity there is to dramatically recompose. The more you move your subject in the frame the more you’ll notice a focus shift.
  • The lower your f-stop the shallower your depth of field which means you will notice the effect more.
  • The closer you are to your subject the shallower your depth of field which also means you will notice the effect more.
  • While moving your subject in one direction or the other (horizontally or vertically) will have an effect, moving it to any corner (diagonally) will have the greatest effect.

All of this is not to say that you shouldn’t focus and recompose or that focus and recompose is not a valid tool. It’s just important to always know the mechanics of how your camera works and how the variable at play will affect your final image. Once you know how things work you can make an informed decision about how you want to shoot each image, and your photography (especially focus!) will improve as a result.

Focus and Recompose: the good, the bad, and the ugly photoKaty Regnier, California
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Katy is a San Diego native who is addicted to sunshine and ocean breezes.  She got her start in photography while still in high school and fell in love with wedding photography while planning her own nuptials in 2006.  Shortly after she took the leap and left her job as architect to open her own business  – it hasn’t always been easy but it’s been an amazing journey of learning and growing.  Now mother to three amazing children (a set of crazy four year old twins and a baby) Katy has discovered the joy in capturing all of life’s most simple moments at home.  When not working as a lifestyle wedding and family photographer, she can be found crafting up a storm, curling up with a good book or lying on the grass daydreaming.  Katy prefers to live a simple and loving life, guided by her favorite Dalai Lama quote “Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.”

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38 Responses to “Focus and Recompose: the good, the bad, and the ugly”

  1. Ligia McDonald Pueringer
    Oct 19 2012 at 11:08 am #

    Awesome explanation, thanks for the tips.

  2. Kristine
    Oct 19 2012 at 11:30 am #

    So how could you take the 3rd photo (of him in lower right corner) and have it be in focus?

    • Oct 19 2012 at 5:04 pm #

      Good question – and I’m sure there are a lot of different answers, and like I mentioned, it really depends on the exact conditions (lens, distance, aperture) so in a lot of cases you can focus/recompose and be totally fine with focus. If I have an image in my head that I *know* will most likely come out soft by focus/recomposing I have on occasion shot wider than I want the final image to be and just achieved the off-center composition by cropping once I get into photoshop. It’s obviously not an ideal situation but I’ve found that (for me at least) it can be one way to get a nice sharp image where my subject is way outside the range of my focus points.

  3. Oct 19 2012 at 11:51 am #

    I like using a mix of focus & recompose, and changing focus points. It depends on what I’m taking a picture of and how many photos I’m taking in sequence (eg if I am taking several, I’ll choose the best focus point so I don’t have to keep focusing & recomposing over again… though recently I’ve also started playing around with back button focusing which helps with that as well.)

  4. Lori Barwick
    Oct 19 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    This is all very good. I am still trying to work in the BBF along with recomposing. So challenging.

  5. Oct 19 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    Such a great article Katy! Thank you for the diagram and the 100% crops to further show the focus.

  6. Oct 19 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    Great article! This is a very good explanation of something most people aren’t very aware of, and the diagrams sum it up perfectly. Despite its shortcomings though, I actually STILL use focus-recompose almost exclusively. If the lens is wide enough for the focus error to be high, the DOF is usually wide enough to cover the error. If you ARE shooting at an open aperture on a wide lens, then you’re definitely asking for trouble focus-wise… however, even the best Canon and Nikon wide angles are pretty soft in the corners at max aperture anyway, so even perfect focus technique doesn’t usually get you a sharp image.

    This does become a big issue in MF digital though, where the lenses are sharper, DOF can be narrower, and the sensors are more capable. Hasselblad even has a rather novel solution in the H4D onward. The camera pays attention to its orientation when it focuses, and if you focus-recompose, it will take the lens, rotation, tilt, etc into account and adjust the camera’s focus point to account for the error. Neat stuff.

    • Oct 19 2012 at 5:01 pm #

      Thanks for the thorough response, Doug! I’ve always loved your work so it’s fun to hear you weigh in on what you do while you shoot. I’ve never used a Hasselblad (only in my dreams!) but it’s amazing to hear that they have cameras advanced enough to correct for this kind of thing!

  7. Andrea G.
    Oct 19 2012 at 2:20 pm #

    Thanks for the great explanation!

  8. Lori
    Oct 19 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Great article–so very helpful. Thank you!

  9. Camille
    Oct 19 2012 at 6:54 pm #

    Thank you! I’ve been having focus issues, so I’m reading refreshers. This was perfect!

  10. Oct 19 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    Great examples. Thanks for putting this together!

  11. jen
    Oct 20 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    Is it better for the camera to be set to One-Shot or AI Servo when focusing/recomposing? Or does it not matter? Thanks!

    • Oct 24 2012 at 6:13 pm #

      I tend to keep my camera in one-shot while focusing unless I’m specifically focusing on a moving object (swinging child or running subject, etc) – I’ve heard it’s more accurate for still (or mostly still) subjects. AI Servo is continually re-focusing as long as you have your shutter depressed so I don’t think it would work well with focus/recompose, but I’ve never tried it.

  12. Elodie B.
    Oct 21 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    Great great tutorial Katy !
    Your diagram is really helpful.

  13. Karen
    Oct 22 2012 at 9:14 am #

    Great explanation!! I prefer to toggle between focal points rather than use auto focus to get the clearest images but when taking pictures of active children it can be challenging to toggle while trying to capture that ‘perfect shot’. Auto focus frequently chooses something other than the main ‘focus’ of the photo to focus on. What are your suggestions for taking clear shots quickly?

    • Oct 24 2012 at 6:20 pm #

      Hi Karen, I think it really depends on what kind of camera you’re using and how you’re toggling focal points – and also how much practice you have. I shoot with a canon 5d or 5d mark ii and with both of those cameras I can toggle focal points with a little toggle selector nubbin (sorry for the non-technical term, I’m not sure what it’s actually called) on the back of the camera. I don’t have to do anything else, I can be using my camera like normal and just hit that one button without having to enter any menus or anything and it is SO fast to choose a focal point, but that’s also because I’ve been shooting this way for years. I know I had to think about it a lot more when I first started. So I’d take a look at your camera’s manual and see if there is more than one way to choose your focal point – and if so are you using the fastest one? Other than that, just practice as much as you can! Kids are fast!

      • Karen
        Oct 25 2012 at 12:34 pm #

        I have a Nikon d600 and this is what I’ve been doing as well, using the little arrow buttons on the back of the camera to move the focus point around before a shot!! It’s getting easier! Thanks for your help!

  14. Adele Humphries
    Oct 22 2012 at 11:03 am #

    thanks for putting together such a well-written post Katy. Really helpful explanations here.

  15. laura
    Oct 23 2012 at 7:39 am #

    Thank you for such a great article.

    I am just curious, would the loss of focus be minimised if you you choose to use a focus point that is closest to where you want to put your subject in your actual picture, i.e. using one of the outer focus points? I have never tried focus recompose, it is something I must try to play with more.

    • Oct 24 2012 at 6:16 pm #

      This is something that people tend to disagree on – there is one camp that says that choosing the focal point closest to where you’d like your subject is more accurate than recomposing, but the other camp claims that your center focal point is the most accurate – and that it’s better *enough* that you are better off using it all the time. I am not sure if anyone has a definitive answer on this. I find that just for myself – the five focal points that make a cross – top, bottom, right and left sides and the center – are fairly accurate but I don’t usually have much luck with the diagonal outer ones. I have heard great things about the new focusing systems on some of the newer canons (have my eye on the 5d mark iii) and I think those probably have better focus on the outer points, but I’ve never tried one

  16. Melissa Wolfson
    Oct 23 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    I saw a couple of references to Back Button Focusing which implied to me that it is a different method, and I just wanted to make sure I was understanding this correctly. Back Button Focusing has the exact same limitations, right? All it does is remove the need to press the shutter button half way.

    This is an excellent post. I really hadn’t thought of the change in focal distance when recomposing. This explains a lot of my soft focusing problems. Funny thing is I am new to photography but I have been reading like a mad woman and this is the first time this has sunk in. Thank you!

    • Oct 24 2012 at 6:21 pm #

      Back button focus does have the same limitations – all it does is allow you to push the focusing button one time rather than holding down the shutter. It doesn’t change any of the limitations in recomposing.

  17. Oct 23 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    Great and very helpful piece! Like another poster above, I prefer to toggle focal points but sometimes find it challenging when chasing little ones – any advice (or is it just to continue to practice toggling faster)? And re BBF – which I do – do you feel this method has a real benefit? Would you recommend only using BBF for very still subjects? Thank you for a great piece!

    • Karen
      Oct 24 2012 at 4:31 pm #

      Can you explain Back Button Focusing??

      • Oct 24 2012 at 6:30 pm #

        Back button focusing is just switching your camera’s autofocus from being triggered by your shutter button (which is standard) to being triggered by a second button on the back of your camera’s body. (with Canon cameras you use a custom function to set it up) You push that button once and let go – and then until you push it again your camera will stay focused on that spot. The pros being (I suppose?) that you can take a series of images with exactly the same focus and it’s easier to focus/recompose because you don’t need to keep the shutter depressed. If you search it online I’m sure you’ll come up with a lot of lists of why it’s great… for me it wasn’t helping my photography so I stopped doing it, but I know a lot of photographers swear by it! Everyone has their own preferred methods of shooting :)

        • Steve
          Jan 15 2013 at 6:08 pm #

          Karen,

          I use this technique for my landscape photography. I do a lot of sunset pictures with the camera on the tripod. By setting the focus with the back button, I can use my remote, pressing it half way down, and it lets me set the shutter speed to optimal light. It’s even easier when set to AV because the exposure is set automatically when the remote is depressed half way. As the sun goes down, and with cloud movement, the light is constantly changing, so I can take a long sequence of photos without disturbing the camera.

          I also use this in sports photography. With AI Servo, you can hold the back button down and following the moving target while using the shutter button to capture. I’m sure there are a lot of other uses for this technique.

          Steve

    • Oct 24 2012 at 6:24 pm #

      I was a BBF fan for a while – maybe a year or so, but honestly I didn’t find that it improved my work at all. I think it’s just one of those personal choices, does it feel right to you? It didn’t feel right to me so I went back to focusing with my shutter button. I do think that practice with toggling will help a lot – as will taking a look at your camera’s manual to see if there are options for how to select focal points, I feel like on my camera there are 2 or 3 ways to do each thing and I have experimented with each to see which felt most natural while shooting. I never use BBF anymore :)

  18. Oct 25 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    Katie…Thank you so much for that! It helps explain my focus ‘issues’ when using my wide angle lens.

  19. meagan
    Dec 13 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Hey, I think i finally get this now! It’s taken a few days to sink in, but i have noticed this problem in my images… especially when i’m shooting close to my subject at wide aperature.

    My question is on the back button focusing. Wouldn’t a solution be to use the back button focus method – which will lock your focus – but use Al Servo focusing method, where the camera is tracking the focus? This seems to me that the camera would make the minor adjustment to the focal plane when you recomposed, no?

    • Dec 14 2012 at 12:53 pm #

      Hi Meagan,

      Thanks for the question – I haven’t tried what you suggested, I actually rarely use the AI servo function because I find I get more consistent sharp focus with one shot mode. It might be worth a try, but I’d guess that you might still have issues. Your camera can only lock focus on its designated focus points, so if you are trying to focus on an object that is outside the range of the focus points (generally true if you have a very off-center composition) I can’t imagine it would be able to track it with AI-servo since you would be moving your subject outside the range of the focal points… I could be wrong though, since I’ve never tried it!

  20. Kim Peterson
    Dec 24 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    Thank you for this wonderful tutorial!

  21. Jan 12 2013 at 2:58 am #

    That was a helpful article, thank you!

  22. Apr 14 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Katy,

    The losses in sharpness in the vertical and diagonal re-composition might be due to the edge and corner of frame. It is a common sense that the lens’ resolution is worse in the edge and even “worser” in the corner. Pls advise.

  23. Estela
    Aug 13 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    Katy, is it fair to say then than in the first photo of this post, with the couple holding hands, the best way to get this type of image is toggle your focus points to the couple?

    I am beginning to feel like you. I was getting used to BBF but only if I used it to recompose. However, my focus was not as sharp so it must be the limitation of the “recomposing” technique.

    Thanks for your answer,
    Estela

  24. Debbie
    Oct 10 2014 at 9:51 pm #

    So is this an example for using BBF or AE Lock?

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