understanding focus modes

Your digital camera has a variety of sophisticated focus modes. Which one should you use?

It should be simple to pick the right focusing mode, but I've been mentally challenged with about the various modes and I imagine you have too.

Understanding focus settings may seem a bit confusing at first, but once you understand the differences, it gets easier getting a basic grasp will help you get sharply focused subjects in your photos.

Each digital camera manufacturer has it's own naming system. You can use any one of three major types of focusing techniques to get nice sharp photos:  manual focus, pre-focusing, and auto-focus.

1. manual focus

MANUAL FOCUS. Let's face it. we're all lazy and we like short cuts. I'm no different than you in that respect. We all like those "set it and forget it" simple ways to accomplish things.

Manual focus is done by switching your auto-focus off and physically turning a ring around the lens barrel until you see your image become clear. There are also some systems that have you push down a manual focus button, but those systems aren't real popular. 

Sometime manual focus is the best mode to set on your sophisticated digital camera."Humming Bird and Flower"

Here's the deal. With manual focus you're in the driver's seat of exactly what's in focus in your photo, and as the photograph's creator, you want to be in control, right?

Using manual focus by focusing directly on your main subject is a technique that works well in a situation like this hummingbird and flower photo. Auto-focus could easily fail you if your camera focuses on the more distant background.

That's one of the biggest complaints photographers have with autofocus, the camera picking the wrong thing to focus on.

The key to success with manual focus is picking the right spot to focus on and understanding a little bit about depth of field.

2. Pre-focusing

Pre-focusing on the barrel gets your focus point very close to the target before it even enters the framePre-focused on barrel

PRE-FOCUSING is easiest to do by holding the shutter button down halfway. This will help avoid the annoying delay in taking your picture called shutter lag.

This is very useful if you are photographing a moving subject and want to capture it at a specific spot.

If you pre-focus on an object that is the same distance as your moving target, your camera will not have to change its focusing distance. This barrel racing photo is a perfect example of using this focusing technique.

You can also try aiming your camera at that spot, hold the shutter button down halfway, and then follow your subject using the digital camera's screen or its viewfinder. When you actually take your photo, the camera will react quicker, and your timing will be more accurate.

Some high end digital cameras actually have a focus mode called pre-focus which is extremely fast. See your camera's instruction manual for that one. Auto-focus has several options and is by the most popular mode used. Understanding those options can be very valuable.

3. continuous (AF) Auto-focus

Continuous (AF) autofocus is one more of the auto-focus options. It works by continually focusing on a subject.

Continuous AF can be helpful, though not always perfect, when shooting subjects that are not moving too fast. It will use up your camera battery a little bit faster than the standard autofocus mode, but it's well worth using if you are serious about getting sharp photos.

4. multiple area (AF) Auto-focus

MULTIPLE AREA (AF) auto-focus is one of the new kids on the block and works well in many situations. This mode has your camera automatically focus using multiple distance points within your camera frame.

This is good for average snapshots where you want everything in your photo to be reasonable sharp. It works great for group photos of people or other objects that are somewhat close together within your composition.

Your camera is a sophisticated, advanced computer with a lens and a sensor. It's like a luxury sports car with amazing power, but if you don't know how to drive it, what good is it? 

Focus points inside canon DSLRCanon DSLR Focus Points

Your camera will detect all of the important focus distances within your photo, take an average, and set the focus point so that everything important is reasonable sharp.

This photo on the right shows the inside the viewfinder of a Canon DSLR. It has 9 different focus points. They can be used individually or collectively to get a sharp photo.

You can set your options to have the focus points light up when exact focus has been achieved.

5. Spot focus (AF) auto-focus

SPOT FOCUS (AF) auto-focus is used when you want to use one small precise spot on the screen to determine what will be sharp in your photograph. I use this focusing mode more than any other. I like to focus precisely on my subject's eyes, or on one specific distance. I want the very most important element in the photo to be sharp as a tac. 

If the desired object you want to be sharp is not in the center of your composition, you may have to get the sharpness set first by using the Press the Shutter Button Halfway Technique described above.

6. face-priority (AF)

Face-priority (AF) Also know as Face-Detection. This is a digital camera focus mode that scans for facial details. It's an amazing advancement in digital photography. Some give exposure priority to the face as well to get perfect exposure under unusual lighting conditions.

standard focus modePentax Standard
Focus Mode

Many digital cameras have focus modes for specific shooting situations like this Pentax Optio W60 camera.

The menu button brings up the little icons on the screen for the available focusing options. This photo shows the mode chosen as standard auto-focus.

You also have macro focusing mode and super close macro mode. The One push PF function allows you to release the shutter at the right moment.

focus modes advice

The newer cameras have several different modes to choose from for focusing and unfortunately, they all have slightly different operations from one camera to the next.  The best way to learn your specific camera's focusing modes is to study your camera manual.

Reading the camera manual for me is like waiting in the doctor's office.

Boring as hell, but the benefits are worth waiting for. 

The manuals are often poorly written, often reading like they were translated from a foreign language in a hurry.  It can be confusing, but that is the best place to start. Don't waste your time reading the other 137 pages of worthless content.

Just go straight to the section on focusing modes. Read it twice slowly. then toss the manual back into your camera bag. A good second option; you can purchase one of the camera-specific guide books that have been written by photographers. I did this with my Canon 70D and it was easily worth the $10 for the Kindle download.

I've found out that the best selection of "how to" books on cameras can be found at Amazon. If you read the reviews of other buyers who both 1) have your specific digital camera and 2) have purchased the book, you will get a better evaluation of that camera book.  Here is a link:

With the advancements in technology in cameras, lenses and focusing systems, it is advantageous for you to educate yourself a bit with an extra camera accessory like a valuable book.

To take full advantage of what your camera can do for you, not just with an understanding of focus modes, but also with many of the capabilities of your new camera as well, you've got to read up on it a bit.

Keep shooting. Keep learning. Keep improving.

Article published by Bruce Lovelace


Bruce is the publisher of this website. He is the author of the book "Improve Your Photography Instantly."  Read more on Bruce on his Bio Page. He's been known as The Traveling Photographer ever since 1994. Read more about this website.

View some of Bruce's photos on Instagram.   Visit the Facebook Page. Watch him on YouTube.  Bruce runs photo workshops for kids and adults, and provides one-on-one photography coaching.

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