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Gear & Apps

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

By Matthew Saville on May 1st 2018

Question: How To get Perfect Focus On a DSLR?

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: 6 Tips For Better Autofocus and Sharpness

First, an easy tip: as any archery expert will tell you, holding your breath while you pull the trigger is almost the right idea, but not quite.  Actually, you should gently exhale as you click the shutter.

Secondly, as we learned from Zombieland Rule #2: Double Tap! If you ever find yourself trying to hand-hold at 1/20 sec, two or three clicks will give you a better chance at eliminating camera shake. Also, if you ever find yourself trying to hand-hold photos of a close-up subject at f/1.4, again you want to click 2-3 shots every time.

Unfortunately, that’s only a  small portion of the whole sharpness equation, and since this is such a complex subject, let’s break it down point by point:

1.)  Never trust your viewfinder

Unfortunately, your DSLR’s optical viewfinder is just not designed to display precise focus. 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, you’ve seen just how dim they are and yet how much better you can see the plane of focus and depth of field.

Yes, some cameras have manual focus assist options that can work well, but the bottom line is that your viewfinder is not the optimal gauge of focus, even if you are photographing landscapes at f/11.

[Learn More: Master your histogram and achieve perfect exposures with Photography 101]

2.)  Learn to discern sharpness on your LCD

Unlike your viewfinder, and contrary to popular belief, you can indeed determine PERFECT focus on the back of your camera. New photographers sometimes express frustration because sharpness seems to be different on their camera and their computer. Thankfully, this is only true if you don’t know what to look for on the LCD screen.

There are two things you can do to help with this:  First, determine which level of zoom best represents “actual size” on your computer.  Some DSLRs like the Canon 6D and Canon 5D Mk3 use the term “actual size” for one of their zoom ratios, as do many modern Nikons.

Second, crank your in-camera sharpening WAY up.  (Picture Style / Picture Controls) This is only advisable when shooting RAW, however, and don’t forget to turn it back down afterward, if you ever shoot JPG or video. Excessive in-camera sharpening is DEATH to fine detail in JPG images and video files. Still, it makes a jaw-dropping difference for determining focus quickly on the back of your camera when shooting RAW still photos!

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.  Older cameras such as the Canon 5D Mk2 might not have it, but most modern cameras do.

Are you wondering what “1-click 100% zoom” even means? It’s quite simple: The moment after you click an image, and it appears on the rear camera LCD, you would usually have to hit various different buttons… “zoom in, zoom in, zoom in, scroll left, scroll left, scroll left” …just to check the sharpness of one off-center face in a portrait.

However with the 1-click 100% zoom customization, a single click (usually the “OK” or “SET” button) takes you right to 100% magnification, and if you used a confirmed AF point, (not the focus+recompose method) it will even zoom in to that exact off-center spot!  On Canon, you want to set your zoom to “Actual Size”. On Nikon, you want to set it to “Medium Magnification” if 100% is not mentioned. Sony, Fuji, Pentax, and others are similar.

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

Bonus Tip: If you have a recent Nikon camera, then after you have zoomed in to 100%, if you are shooting portraits you may be able to use a very exciting feature- face detection scrolling! When zoomed in, look for “instructions” in the lower-left of your LCD. Usually, dialing the front sub-command dial will scroll from face to face, allowing you to check for blinking eyes and smiles in a group portrait extremely rapidly!

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 Autofocus 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 aisle 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!)

[Learn More: Master Single and Continuous Autofocus with Photography 101]

5.)  Figure out your preference and customizations for Autofocus

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!

In portrait and wedding photography, it is not uncommon to be doing things like bending over or crouching / leaning awkwardly to get a creative angle, or shooting hand-held at rather telephoto focal lenghts and/or shallow apertures. These conditions are just begging to result in a terribly low keeper rate for any subjects that are closer than ~10 feet away at a fast aperture, and/or at any distance when shooting around 200mm.  All the camera knowledge in the world (and sometimes even stabilization) cannot save you, if you shoot “sloppy”. Shifting your body/balance by just an inch can throw an  f/1.4 close-up portrait totally out of focus, for example.

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,  play it safe whenever possible. Keep shutter speeds as fast as possible, and steady your stance so that your body doesn’t sway back or forth as you shoot.  Also, it may sound like a cliche joke, but your caffeine intake can indeed affect the steadiness of your shots, 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
(2nd photo: 100% zoom crop. Single-point AF, in continuous servo, was used.)

Autofocus Calibration?

At the end of the day, sometimes your camera just isn’t cooperating.  It’s time to calibrate your autofocus!  You can simply take all your cameras and lenses in for service if they are under warranty, or if you feel like paying quite a bit, however the technique of AF microadjustment itself is pretty simple, and harmless to experiment with.

Simply start off by shooting a static photo (from a tripod) of a static subject, such as a tree in the park, and frame the shot so that you can see the grass or other textured surfaces in front of and behind the subject, with a clear transition from foreground to background. With your in-camera sharpening turned all the way up, you should have no difficulty identifying front-focus or back-focus errors.

Topics like this are the fundamentals that can make a significant difference in how you operate, and if you’re looking to go from the ground up then check out Photography 101 as your fundamentals crash course. Of course, SLR Lounge Premium members get to stream it along with all other courses.

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Stay tuned for more simple & effective photography tips & tricks for more of the best education in photography, check out SLR Lounge Premium.

Until next time,
=Matthew Saville=

 

*This article was originally published in 2013

 

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

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Robert Arnold

    Thanks Matt, great tips!  So, on Canon you use back focus and AI-S 90% of the time?  (I always use the back focus, but only use continuous when there’s action that moves a lot)  I’m pretty sure the AI-S locks on your focus point(s) and then tries to track that spot across the 61 pt. matrix.  When would you turn off the AI-S? What about the other 10% and why?  The ring above doesn’t seem tack sharp; I’m guessing you used 8 points to focus (and not a single point) and it locked slightly behind on the pattern of her hand.

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  2. Robert Vincent

    For photographers these are very nice tips and tricks. In photography focus on an object this is very important to get more detail view.  Basically focus more need in close shots. Lots of people buy DSLR camera but they dont know how to use it properly, this is why they always use auto function of the camera. But this post can be turning point for them, all the points included here in a very nice way which are really helpful, and example over here included those very helpful to understand the whole thing. Excellent piece of writing. 

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  3. 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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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Arec,

      Of course. Unfortunately, since ML is not readily available on all brands, nor is it something that I would advise the “average” photographer to attempt to mess with, it is not something I can advise to the general public, to beginner photographers. But, thank you for mentioning it here, though rather snidely.

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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. Jill Schindel

    Thank you – another excellent article!

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  7. 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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  8. 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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  9. 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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  10. 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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  11. 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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  12. 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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  13. 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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  14. 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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  15. 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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  16. 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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  17. Bob Heathcote

    Great article, BTW. Going to share this for sure

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  18. 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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  19. 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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  20. 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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  21. 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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  22. 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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  23. 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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  24. 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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  25. 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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  26. 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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  27. 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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  28. 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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