You see pretty light, a fleeting moment, or a stunning vista and rush to grab your camera to document it.
You look at the back of your LCD screen only to be disappointed that you missed focus and your image is a blur.
Your shutter speed was high enough to stop the motion, so what gives? Keep reading for a few tips to achieve sharply focused images.
1. Slow down
You’ve probably heard the expression “spray and pray.” Randomly firing off shots hoping that something will land in focus isn’t the best or most effective way to shoot. Just because your subjects are moving quickly, doesn’t mean that you have to be as well. Really take the time to slow down and think about what you’re wanting to capture. Take deep breaths. Take a step back to survey the scene. Be present and unhurried.
Try to visualize your final image beforehand and anticipate the moment rather than taking 50 shots and hoping you come away with something you like. I find that slowing down helps me see moments more clearly and while I will take less images, I will end up with more “keepers” when I make a conscious effort to slow down.
2. Focus and recompose
Sometimes the area we want to focus on in the frame doesn’t fall on a focal point within the viewfinder. In this case, try the focus & recompose method.
Move the viewfinder around and use a focal point to achieve focus. Then, while keeping the shutter half-pressed (or the back button, if you’re using back button focusing) recompose the image within the viewfinder. Your focus will remain locked where you set it unless you change your distance to your subject or your subject moves out of the focal plane. This is most effective with relatively still subjects.
3. Tracking focus mode
If your subject is moving, they are likely to move out of the focal plane and the focus & recompose method won’t be your most reliable method of achieving sharp focus. Switch your camera to tracking mode (AI-Servo for Canon users, AF-C for Nikon users) and hover your focal point over the subject as they move throughout the frame.
Keeping the shutter (or back button) pressed will keep the camera continually focusing on your subject regardless of where they move within the frame. This is great for quick-moving subjects and action shots.
4. Manual focus
In certain situations, taking complete control of your camera by using manual focus will be the best way to achieve sharp results. When you’re shooting in backlight or other scenarios with low contrast, lenses have a tendency to hunt for focus and it can take a while before it locks in place. Even then, the focus doesn’t always land where you want it to be. In this case, it can be easiest to switch to manual focus and dial it in by hand.
Many cameras have a symbol in the viewfinder that help you see when you’ve achieved focus on your target. Another time manual focus comes in handy is with macro work. When you’re shooting at such close distances as in macro work, lenses can hunt for focus. It’s much faster and more accurate to use manual focus mode in this case.
5. Smaller aperture
Sometimes shooting wide open isn’t the best option. If you’re always shooting at f/1.4 it’s easy for your subject to fall right out of that razor thin focal plane. This is made even thinner when you’re shooting wide open at close distances.
In everyday shooting, try using a smaller aperture such as f/2.8 or f/3.5 to ensure you achieve sharp focus. In macro shooting, it’s common to shoot quite narrow, at f/7.1 or so! A slightly closed down aperture is more forgiving and makes it easier to nail focus on your subjects. It’s a technique I use all the time, especially with wiggly children and in my self portraiture work.
6. Easier lighting
Some lighting situations make achieving focus more difficult than others. When you’re shooting into the light in a backlit situation (be it a sunset or bright window light), it can make it really difficult for the camera to lock focus on your subject. Easier lighting options for tack sharp focus include open shade and soft directional light where more contrast makes it easier for your camera to lock focus.
7. Use a tripod
When shooting at slow shutter speeds, it can be difficult to achieve sharp focus when hand-holding your camera. This can happen when shooting macro images that require a narrow aperture or when you’re trying to balance deliberate motion blur against a sharp background.
If no tripod is available to you, you can try using a shelf/ledge/railing to brace your camera. If none of those are available, try bracing your arms against your body and leaning against a wall to steady yourself.