I still remember the first time that I realized I could pick my own focal point.

Lying on my bed late at night, my six month old snuggled up against me as I browsed photography blogs, I came across a blog post that showed two photographs taken a breath apart. The first photograph was focused on a couple; the second photograph was focused on the grass in front of the couple.

I thought this was magic! “How did the photographer do that?!” I thought to myself. I studied those two photographs for fifteen minutes and, showing my complete naiveté to all things photography, I decided that the photographer must have had an awesome, magical, mind-reading camera. I knew that the photographer had to have done something in-between the photographs, but I couldn’t think of what it was, so I shut the tab and continued on my late night photography browsing spree.

As the weeks went on, I kept thinking back to those photographs. I knew that I was missing something about focus but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. I am completely self taught and, because of this, I didn’t even know that focal points existed. Even worse, I did not belong to any photography forums and, without the correct terminology, I couldn’t even find anything on Google to help me in my dilemma. Eventually, I realized that the answer to my question was in my camera manual and, when I figured out how to select a focal point, my whole world changed. I couldn’t believe how many doors focal points opened for me!

Then a funny thing happened. Several months after I taught myself how to focus, I realized that my photographs weren’t really that sharp. It’s not that my photographs were out of focus, exactly, but they weren’t quite in focus, either. They were soft and not well thought out. The softness made my photographs feel amateurish and, looking at my photographs next to photographs taken by experienced photographers, I often felt flustered and like I would never be able to master focus. Part of me wanted to give up or, at the very least ditch wide open apertures and start shooting at safe apertures but, honestly, I’ve never been a play it safe kind of girl.

So! Determined to learn how to nail focus at f/1.4 at a second’s notice, I started photographing everything. I photographed books. I photographed my one year old. I photographed flowers. I photographed furniture. I photographed shoes. I photographed skies. I photographed rings. I photographed people. I photographed my husband sleeping. I photographed my clothes. I photographed chocolate chip cookies. I photographed popcorn and lace and clovers in spring grass.

And finally! After tons of practice, I learned how to master focus. And while learning to master focus? I learned lots of ways to miss focus, too. So! Today! I thought it would be fun to share the three common habits that lead photographers (including me!) to miss focus.

get in focus pictures by Lissa Chandler

1. We don’t pay enough attention.

When I do not pay enough attention to what I am photographing, the first thing I mess up is focus. While I’m sure different photographers drop the ball in different ways, focus is the first thing that goes out the window for me. When learning photography, we worry so much about correct exposure – apertures and shutter speed and ISO – that focus can fall by the wayside. We want our images to come out balanced, not too dark or too light or too blurry or too grainy and, because of this, it’s easy to get wrapped up in exposure rather than focus. But! To make amazing photographs, we need to pay attention to both!

Another way that we don’t pay enough attention? We distract ourselves. Maybe we’re focused on making our clients comfortable or we’re focused on getting the shot as quickly as we can or maybe we’re just feeling really self conscious or maybe we just fumble because we’re thinking about a to-do list waiting for us on the counter. Whatever it is, if we’re not focused on achieving sharp images, we’re not going to achieve sharp images. Sharp images don’t happen unless we make them happen and, if we do not pay attention, we’ll miss focus if we are not deliberate about where our focal points fall in the frame.

clear focus with a blurry background by Lissa Chandler

2. We try to go too fast.

This is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when learning focus. If I slip focus on a photograph, I can almost always look at that photograph and realize that I was going a mile a second and not taking the time to breathe between shots. Mastering focus takes time – especially when shooting at wide apertures, we need to be very conscious of where our focal points fall. If we do not pay attention and get wrapped up in a flurry of making things happen as quickly as possibly, the caliber of your focus will go down. This is true for all apertures but, again, shooting at wide apertures takes time and, even when you’ve shot wide open for years, it takes concentration to select the correct focal point.

how to get sharp photos by Lissa Chandler

3. We don’t practice enough.

Learning correct focus took me over a year. At the time of learning focus, though, I thought I had learned everything about focus in just a few weeks. Because of this, I felt cocky about my work – I had learned something new and, super proud of my new skill set, I often overlooked when my photographs were soft or just kind of pushed it aside if I realized that I slightly slipped focus. After several months of this, I realized that I needed to buck up and learn more. To practice focus, I would sometimes shoot one object at several different apertures and, afterwards, look at the photographs to see what I liked best. After doing this, I learned to slow down and really, truly focus on my subjects – whether that was the face of a person I had just met or a flower sitting on my kitchen table. Doing this made me appreciate my subjects more and, coincidentally, the more I slowed down, the easier I found it to nail focus if I needed to quickly. Don’t forget to practice like crazy even when you think you’ve got it all figured out.

how to nail focus by Lissa Chandler

And Bonus! Learning composition helped my photography immensely.

Learning composition helped my photography in more ways than I could ever possibly list. And best of all? Experimenting with new compositions really helped me with focus. When I tried out a new composition – whether it was a close composition or a wide composition or weak composition or a strong composition – I didn’t feel complacent. I felt excited because I no longer felt like I was shooting the same thing over and over. Since I didn’t feel complacent and because being creative made me even more passionate about photography than I had ever felt before, I paid more attention to my photographs and, by extension, paid more attention to my focal points. Everything about focusing had to be more deliberate – if I was using a camera with only a strong center point, I had to focus and recompose and, if I was using a camera with lots of strong focal points, I had to carefully select a focal point so that the part of the frame I wanted to be in focus would be in focus. And over time? This helped me learn focus better than anything else ever could have.

So! Get out there and practice focus! If you are not sure how to select your focal point, consult your camera manual and, as soon as you have read the basics, just start shooting. Selecting your own focal point will help you take total control over your photographs and your artistic vision and, years after mastering focus, I am still totally in awe of the fact that a simple shift in focus can change the entire feeling of a photograph.

If you’re not selecting your focal points already, make the switch! You will LOVE it!

When I do not pay enough attention to what I am photographing, the first thing I mess up is focus. Don't be like me and follow these tips instead!