By far one of the biggest hurdles in mastering your DSLR, especially for portraits and candid / action photos, is mastering the art of autofocus. AF systems are so complex these days, I frequently do private coaching that is ENTIRELY focused (pun intended?) on achieving more consistent focus and sharpness!
You may think you’re doing the right thing, you may know your camera pretty well, but you still find that photos seem to be “okay” on your camera yet definitely soft when you get them on your computer. This morning I answered a question in which someone mentioned holding their breath every time they click, and having everything look okay in the viewfinder / camera LCD, …but to no avail.
Nailing focus in poor light or in close quarters at fast apertures
is not easy, but with practice you can get very consistent results!
Canon 5D Mk2, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8,
Nikon D700, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
Okay first things first: as any sniper will tell you lol, holding your breath WHILE you pull the trigger is almost the right idea, but not quite. Actually, you should be gently EXHALE as you click the shutter. Also, as we learned from Zombieland Rule #2: Double Tap! This really only applies at very slow shutter speeds, but if you do find yourself trying to hand-hold at 1/20 sec, two or three clicks will give you a better chance at eliminating camera shake.
So, there’s that. Unfortunately that’s only a very, very small aspect of the whole equation and since this is such a complex area, let’s break it down point by point:
1.) Never trust your viewfinder
Unless you have a custom Katz Eye focus screen, your DSLR is just not designed to display precise focus in the viewfinder. This is because consumers these days want bright viewfinders. If you’ve ever looked through the ground glass of a view camera or a medium format camera, (both of which display DOF and focus WAY more accurately) …you’ll see just how dim they are. Yes, some camera have manual focus assist options that can work well, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here. The bottom line is that your stock viewfinder is a very bad gauge of focus unless you are photographing still-life fine art or something.
2.) Learn to discern sharpness on your LCD
Unlike your viewfinder and contrary to popular belief, you really CAN determine PERFECT focus on the back of your camera. I have heard people talk about how it is different from their camera to their computer, and every time it comes down to just learning what perfect sharpness looks like on the LCD screen. There are two things you can do to help with this: First, figure out which level of zoom best represents “actual size” on your computer. Newer Canon DSLRs like the Canon 6D and Canon 5D Mk3 now use the term “actual size” for one of their zoom ratios, yay! Second, crank your in-camera sharpening WAY up. (Picture Style / Picture Controls) I turn mine all the way up since I always shoot RAW, however don’t forget to turn it back down if you ever shoot JPG or if you record video. In-camera sharpening is DEATH to fine detail in JPG images and movies, however it makes a jaw-dropping difference for determining focus quickly on the back of your camera when shooting RAW.
Get your camera on a tripod, get focus in the general vicinity of an immobile subject such as a tree trunk in a park, and slowly adjust focus manually as you click photos. Especially at f/1.4-f/2.8, you will see a VERY definite “perfect focus” point. More importantly, you will also start to see what “just slightly soft” looks like. That is actually the critical part; being able to spot “not quite sharp” photos immediately.
3.) See if your camera has the 1-click 100% zoom customization for image playback
If your camera is able, you ABSOLUTELY MUST program the custom function for one-click zooming to 100% during image playback. The 5D mk3 and 6D have this feature, unfortunately the 5D mk2 and most all other Canons do not. (Except the flagships, of course) All semi-pro Nikon DSLRs have had this feature since like 2005 I believe, and now The “prosumer” D7100 has it as well. (Though the D600 does not!)
In case you’re wondering what the heck “1-click 100% zoom” is, here’s the best way I can explain it: The instant you click an image and it shows up on the back of your camera, you can say goodbye to clicking “zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom, scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll” …just to check the sharpness of one face. With this customization, a single click (usually the “OK” or “SET” button) takes you right to 100% magnification, and if you used the correct off-center focus point, it will even zoom in to that exact off-center spot! On Canon you want to set your zoom to “Actual Size”, and on Nikon you want to set it to “Medium Magnification”.
Okay, now that we’ve got the “interpretation” of sharpness down, let’s talk about actually ACHIEVING consistent focus and sharpness while shooting.
4.) Master all your focus modes
Practice single and continuous focus, (One-Shot and AI-Servo, for you Canon users) …on subjects that are moving slightly, or not at all, or all over the place. Try both focus modes in every situation, and see what works. Oh, and ignore those new “auto” modes that let the camera decide. Anyways, chances are you’ll find that single focus is just not really a good idea unless you are a good distance away from your subject, and they are holding relatively still. In every other scenario, continuous focus is a good idea.
On the other hand, continuous focus works, well, continuously! If your finger is on the trigger, the camera is focusing. This can be annoying if your focus point can’t be perfectly positioned over a subjects’ face, …or if that focus point is not very reliable. What to do? Read on…
First I still need to mention that on most newer cameras, there are also dynamic AF modes that use multiple AF points to try and grab and track moving subjects more consistently. I like Nikon and Canon’s newest 9-point focus assist modes a lot, for things like processionals and dance floor madness. Otherwise, I just leave my camera in the regular one-point focus mode. (Beware of Canon’s “pin-point” focus mode, it is extremely finnicky for anything that moves even the slightest and I only recommend it if you really know what you’re doing!)
5.) Figure out your preference and customizations for camera control
Okay, about the continuous focus / AI-Servo problem. Indeed, most people use the shutter release button to focus, simply because that’s the first logical way to do it. However this really only works if you’re in single focus and you focus+recompose. Or if you move your focus point around constantly, to the exact spot you need it at the exact composition you want to click. (And, like I said, if you can TRUST that off-center focus point in the first place!)
Personally, I use the AF-ON focus customization 90% of the time. Also known as “back-button focus” or “thumb focus”, it is an advanced technique that moves the AF function to the back of the camera to be operated by your thumb only. Needless to say it takes a while to get used to, however it is oh-so-liberating once you get the hang of it! Since your shutter no longer performs AF, you can shoot photos any time without worrying about perfectly placing your focus point at the exact moment you click. Of course if you’re in single focus, your camera may refuse to fire if you haven’t locked onto something yet, but that is a separate function that can be turned off anyways. (Though I don’t usually use that customization.)
6.) Think like a tripod!
Doing common wedding / portrait photography things like bending over to get an angle, or shooting straight forward in general, are just begging to result in an abysmal keeper rate for any subjects that are closer than ~10 feet away, and/or shot at any aperture faster than f/4. All the camera knowledge in the world cannot save you, if you shift your body forward by just six inches between the time you focus and the time you click.
There are plenty of websites out there that talk about stance, how to hold the camera, and how to click the shutter. Plenty of people can not only match but handsomely beat the “shutter speed rule of thumb” …for example pulling off a 1/25 sec shutter speed on a 50mm prime would be considered quite incredible, while hand-holding at 1/50mm would be just decently impressive. Either way, you want to keep your shutter speed up, and “set yourself” so that you reduce fore-aft sway. A lot of people joke about it, but your caffeine intake can affect the “think like a tripod” philosophy too. ;-)
At the end of the day, sometimes your camera just can’t be trusted. It’s time to calibrate your autofocus! You can of course simply take in all your cameras and lenses for service if they are under warranty or if you feel like paying quite a bit, however the technique itself is pretty simple and harmless to experiment with. We’ll have a full tutorial coming soon!
Until next time,