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Six Tips For Better DSLR Autofocus And Sharper Images – Q&A

By Matthew Saville on October 29th 2013

Question

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.

tips-for-sharper-images-and-nailing-focus-650 tips-for-sharper-images-and-nailing-focus-earrings-650 tips-for-sharper-images-and-nailing-focus-reception-650Nailing 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

Answer

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”.

[Rewind:  Top Ten Nikon Customizations You Need To Know!]

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.  ;-)

tips-for-sharper-images-and-nailing-focus-ring-650 tips-for-sharper-images-and-nailing-focus-ring-cropNikon D700, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G @ f/1.8

Autofocus Calibration?

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,
=Matthew Saville=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

37 Comments

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  1. Arec Kurzawa

    To THE AUTHOR

    Canon 5D mk2 and Canon 50D and many others do have function to zoom to 100% in playback mode – have you heard of MAGIC LANTERN ? 

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  2. Paul Empson

    Top tip… always double check you’ve set your AF ( C, M or S ) back to your regular setting… especially if you’ve used Manual… it’s so easy to forget and zap away thinking “I’m on fire today, nailing every focus…” only to realise, too late… you’ve left it on M after doing the macro images…

    I did this at a wedding the other week… fortunately it just was my paranoia… I had set it back to S…

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  3. Jamie Hosmer

    Matt, I just found this article and have to say thanks for the advice. Can’t wait to try the one button zoom you advocate.

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  4. Jill Schindel

    Thank you – another excellent article!

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  5. Duncan Thorn

    Update: I found the back focus, and must say it is an improvement over point and shift, but too bad Nikon don’t make it where you can just push once to lock focus, and push again to unlock, like they have with the AE control. Or do some other models have this feature? Holding the AF lock is going to take some getting used to. Now if they can just get more than the centre point to focus accurately…….

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  6. Duncan Thorn

    I don’t see anything in the d7000 manual about the ability to back focus rather than the shutter. Is this option not on the d7000?
    Also, why is it we can send a man to the moon, but dslr makers cannot get all the focus point except the centre ones to accurately focus? I have tried point and shift, and single point using the outer focus points, and they are always soft, even with the sharpening increased to 7 of 9. I shoot using jpeg not raw. I will try setting the focus to continuous, as opposed to auto, as i mainly shoot models who are moving continuously.
    Thanks for any help.
    Duncan.

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  7. Daniel

    Thanks Matthew for the great article. Sorry to insist but as English is not my language… I have a 6D and from what I understand on sharpening you mean I go and put one of the picture styles to maximun and work with that one.
    But that will ot affect my Raw file when I put in in LR, right??? It is only that I will see much better the previews on the LCD of the camera, right??
    Thanks and best regards
    Daniel

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    • Matthew Saville

      Correct, turning your in-camera sharpening all the way up will not affect your RAW images in Adobe software, or most other RAW converters. However if you ever shoot video or JPG, beware!

      =Matt=

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  8. Kim

    Awesome article, Matt! Thank you!!
    One question: While shooting with on camera flash (D3s w/SB800), why is my shutter not firing some times when I’m trying to take pictures and the focus is set on my subject? It’s like it’s delayed and then it goes off after I’ve held the shutter release down for what seems an obscene amount of time or doesn’t fire at all. It happens when I’m on Single Shot or Continuous Mode. Flash is set on manual.
    Thank you!!

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    • Matthew Saville

      Kim, in single shot focusing mode, the camera by default will refuse to fire until it has confirmed focus. In other words, it will not fire until after “the beep”. Of course most people turn off the beep noise, but that is basically what you’re getting. If you’d like your camera to fire likety-split, you can either customize AF-S (single focus, not to be confused with AFS-G lenses) …to be “release priority” instead of “focus priority”, OR you can just switch to AF-C (continuous focusing)

      Hope this helps!
      =Matt=

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  9. Jay

    Thanks Matthew for the great article. Quick question, with the 6d, this means for events such as weddings, its better to stick to the centre point ALL the time? Also, focus and recompose technique will be a hit and miss too right?

    Cheers

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    • Matthew Saville

      Jay, yes the 6D’s center AF point is by far the most reliable in extremely low light or nasty flare, however in normal daylight conditions, especially if you understand the “orientation” of the focus point sensor. (it is more sensitive to horizontal or vertical lines, depending on whether it’s the top or side focus points…)

      Focus+Recompose isn’t the ideal method, but it works well if you do it right and your subjects aren’t going nuts…

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  10. steve bryson

    Interesting article, thanks Matthew.

    It’s only recently I’ve started using continuous focus for anything other than sports/motor-x and, without the ‘beep’ I couldn’t work out why it wasn’t locking focus confirmation….

    The only problem I have about leaving my 7D behind when I upgrade is losing my new KatzEye Optics split prism. Just awesome screen, no perceptible light loss yet, with amazing customer service.

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  11. Jill Aeschleman

    Hi Matt!

    Thank you so much for you article! It was extremely helpful. I have just one question. I have a Canon 5D Mark III, and could not find “where” to crank up my “In camera sharpening”….? Can you send me an email as to where to find this? Thanks so much!

    Jill
    :)

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hey Jill,

      You’re going to want to look in the “Picture Style” menu section on a Canon DSLR. On the 5D mk3 it is in Shooting Tab #3. (I think these are the red tabs?) Use these settings to turn up your in-camera sharpening. Just so long as you heed the warnings I mentioned for anyone who shoots JPG or video!

      =Matt=

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  12. andy

    excellent article matthew !
    wich mode would you use for concert-photography ?
    regards from cologne,
    andy

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    • Matthew Saville

      If you’re in the pit shooting upward at wider angles, or faster apertures, I’d be using Continuous Focus / AI Servo, and either 1-point or 9-point focus assist. I’d probably use the center AF point a lot, or the AF points that are in that center column. Unless I had a 5D mk3 or a 1Dx, in which case I might consider using the off-center cross-type AF points…

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  13. Tyler Brown

    Interesting read, I could have used an article like this a few years ago. Most of these points here I learned from experience. I remember at some point saying to myself, “I have gotten a lot better at autofocus.” We easily forget that there is a level of skill and appropriate strategy to using automated systems.

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  14. paul

    I use a Sony A77, with EVF, but find that to get the best out of it, I use the rear panel, electronic 2x zoom, wide open for shalow dof, focus, lock, then close down for the required dof. drop back to normal view and that should give me a near perfect shot. Also with the EVF I get a much more realistic idea what the final result will be like. Thanks for the article, the tips are good, but as always, in most informative articles, they are Canon Nikon biased. I have an EOS 500D which I enjoy, but the A77 is a wicked peice of kit.

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    • Brandilee

      Thank you for talking about the Sony A77! I have one as well but have been struggling with focus! I’m going to use this article along with your tips and get back to my manual to see if I can change some settings and gain better knowledge of making the most of this awesome machine ;0) Can you give me your opinion on lens brands for the A77? I’m wondering if Sigma would be a good choice over Sony.

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  15. Bob Heathcote

    Great article, BTW. Going to share this for sure

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  16. Bob Heathcote

    I think in Canon’s DPP software it will take your in-camera settings and carry them into their raw converter as the default which of course you can override, at least that was what I remember using it years ago.

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  17. Silvia

    What happens if you crank up sharpening when you import your RAW pics into programs like Aperture? Is the in-camera sharpening lost? I’m still not clear about it.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Correct, Silvia, the in-camera settings (other than white balance) are ALL lost when you go into a third-party RAW conversion program such as Adobe programs, Apple Aperture, and others.

      The only programs that retain in-camera sharpening on the computer are the culling programs like Photomechanic that you aren’t going to be using to actually edit your images, anyways.

      There are options to view images based on their in-camera previews in certain RAW programs, but again so far with Adobe / Apple this is only for culling as far as I know, and does NOT affect the editing of the RAW file itself. Only your name-brand software has this capability for now. (Nikon View NX / Capture NX, or Canon’s DPP software. Even then, you can STILL “undo” the sharpening if you want, without any harm being done to the RAW file.)

      =Matt=

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  18. Carissa

    My question is where to focus on from a distance? I find up close the eyes are easy to focus on, but from a distance that doesn’t work for me. Focuses behind the subject. Then I try to focus on the neck where it meets their shirt since there is more contrast, works sometimes. Any tips on this? Where to focus from a distance?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Carissa, are you talking about focusing from such a great distance that the AF point is actually bigger than the person’s entire upper body? If this is the case, then it simply becomes a matter of precision. Your center AF point should be able to nail focus if you hold the camera steady enough and aim very accurately. The off-center AF points on the other hand need to be mastered and used properly. Often times, a non-cross-type AF point is the culprit and you simply need to place the AF point over an area of detail that gives the Phase-Detect AF system something to “grip”. But that’s another article for another day!

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  19. Leroy Skalstad

    Matt, How do I find one click zooming to 100% on my Canon 5D3? I called Canon tech support and they were stumped

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    • Matthew Saville

      Leroy, on the 5D mk3 it is a two-step process.

      First, in the Playback menu tab #3, set Magnification to Actual Size.

      Now, whenever you hit the default “Mag” button, (on the left hand side of the camera) your camera will go straight to 1:1, and if you properly locked an off-center focus point on your subject, it will go there. (Otherwise it will default to dead-center, but it’s still a huge help either way!)

      If you want to be able to do this with just your right hand while shooting, then next you want to customize your “SET” button. This is in the 2nd tab of the C.fn tab: Disp / Operation. Find the “SET” button in this area, and set it to “Mag / Reduce”.

      Voila! You now have access to by far the coolest customization that nobody knows about. Spread the word!

      =Matt=

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  20. Joel Cyr

    Great Stuff!!
    I was just wondering about changing the sharpness on your picture style. Does this actually affect what goes onto your computer or just what you see on the LCD. If it does affect it (and I shoot mainly in RAW too), is it ok to leave it maxed all the time?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Yep, Joel, if you shoot RAW 100% of the time and never shoot professional video, then you can leave your in-camera sharpening turned up permanently and it will never affect your images in Adobe or other RAW converter programs. It will only appear in computer programs such as Nikon View NX or Fast Picture Viewer or Photomechanic, which are programs that read off the in-camera JPG preview…

      =Matt=

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  21. Nik Simpson

    Just got back from a Safari to S. Africa where I was using a Canon 100-400mm zoom and I found using a remote with a monopod made the lens much more usable. Rather than trying to hold the lens and fumble for either the shutter release button or the focus button on the camera body while looking through the view finder I used the remote to make the lens focus and to take the picture which left me one hand free to hold the monopod/position the camera.

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  22. Andrew

    Well THANKS TO MAGIC LANTERN we Canon users do have 1-CLICK 100% magnification on most rebels and semi pros dslr.

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  23. Michele Menier

    Excellent article Matt! Your tip on setting the custom sharpen in camera to highest point was great. Thanks a bunch!

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  24. Daniel Sullivan

    Brilliant! Also, use this trick to see if your lenses needs to be calibrated with your camera bodies. http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/article_pages/cameras/1ds3_af_micoadjustment.html

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  25. Kaitlin

    Great article! I fully expected your typical “1. Don’t use too high an aperture 2. Faster shutter speeds” etc. but this article actually gave some good insight :) Thanks!

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    • Matthew Saville

      Oh trust me, Kaitlin, I am ALL about being able to nail focus wide open, in any sort of light you could possibly wish. What good is a lens / camera if it can’t nail perfect focus at any aperture in any light? ;-)

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  26. Livingston Lee

    Excellent article. I just start using back focus and I love it. A friend of mine told me back focus and use the shutter to lock it.

    Take a little getting use to but now it’s the only way.

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