Better Focus Results

Three tips for sharper photos

Autofocus is taken for granted. When I think back to some of the great sports and action shots made before it was introduced, I appreciate and respect the photographer’s talent. Each was a master at their craft. When autofocus was implemented into SLRs, the landscape began to change. Crude and unreliable at first, the technology kept getting better until it was a given that autofocus was here to stay. It keeps getting better, faster, more accurate, and more reliable. For this I am extremely grateful. My number of keepers has gone up exponentially. So even with all the improvements, why is it that photographers still get images that are not sharp? Hopefully the following tips will net you sharper photos.

Select The Proper Focus Point: When I teach a workshop or lead one of my photo tours, one of the biggest “Aha’s” I hear is, “I can move the focus sensor to place it where I want?” If the active focus sensor is aimed at the background and your subjects are only a few feet in front of you, they will not be sharp. To activate an autofocus sensor, press half way down on the shutter. Then press or turn the command dial to place the focus point over the subject. This ensures the lens sees what plane you want sharp.

Single vs Continuous: If the subject does not move, activate “single shot” autofocus. You will hear a confirmation beep when the plane at which you place the focus sensor is sharp. Landscapes, architecture, posed portraits, interiors are all examples of subjects that work better using single shot. Continuous should be used when the subject moves, especially if the path is erratic. As always, the sensor should be placed over the moving subject. The beauty of continuous mode is the camera predicts the movement of the subject and adjusts for variations at the time the shutter opens.

Work Within the Limitations of Your Gear: One reason photographers get frustrated with their less than sharp photographs is they expect more out of their equipment than what it can produce. Many autofocus advancements have been made, but if you exceed its capabilities, it can’t deliver. I photograph a lot of birds in flight and by no means do I expect every image be sharp especially if the bird flies directly at me. Slow lenses and entry level cameras can’t equal the capabilities of pro equipment. And given the situation, even the top pro equipment can’t net a tack sharp image every time the shutter is pressed.

In the three images that accompany the article, I used different focusing techniques to acquire a sharp photo:

A - In the first I used Single Focus. In that it’s a basic scenic with no movement and everything out in the distance, I stopped my lens down to f11 as it’s one of the sharpest apertures on my lens. I used the center focus point and everything in the photo was rendered sharp.

b) For the photo of the sandhill crane flying in front of the rainbow, I used Continuous autofocus (it’s a Nikon function / Canon equivalent is AI autofocus). I locked onto the bird using the center AF point and let the focus automatically transfer to a focus point on the right so the bird had space in which to fly. I set the focus to 3D Dynamic AF as this mode enables the camera to transfer AF points while panning with the subject.

c) The white feathers of the great egret at dawn lacked contrast. So did the water in which it was standing. In that the camera had trouble acquiring focus given the lack of contrast in the two above sections, I placed the focus sensor on its beak. Placing it on the beak provided my system a point of contrast and ensured the focus would be accurate.

Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours.

15 Comments

    Russ,
    This is my biggest frustration-trying to get sharp focus. this article helped (as usual, you nailed it!)..
    I’m wondering where you placed the focal point on the first picture? I have heard to place it about 1/3 of the way into the scene.
    thanks for all the help! I love your articles….

    Sue – for scenics that contain foreground elements, the 1/3 rule works. For scenics where subjects are at a distance, placing the focus point on an area of contrast is imperative. Hope this helps

    Which would you say to acquire, if you had to choose between one or the other, a better lens or a better camera/sensor to improve your chances of approaching shots like those above.
    If a camera, does full frame or non full frame make a difference for tack sharp photos, or is it more the speed of the camera.
    If a lens, would you recommend a “prime” lens or a zoom.
    And of course the answer I am sure is it depends on what you shoot (basically travel landscapes and nature, but generally not wildlife)

    Rona – if you have any advanced amateur DSLR, if you concentrate on travel and landscapes, you should be fine using that body. This being said, invest in a very good lens. Realize this is very generalized advice and there are other factors that come into play. I’ve seen many good images made with an iPhone. It depends on what the final product is regarding size, sharpness and digital noise. The larger the photo, the more you’ll need both a good DSLR and a good lens. Hope this helps.

    Thank you yes. I rarely try to do anything more than a 5x 7 and an occasional 15xwhatever but am always shy of what I see in pro level equipment. duh!
    I am attending imaging USA this weekend and plan to try different lenses on my Nixon 3200.
    Perhaps ill join you on a future photo tour.

    Hi,
    For landscape photos why not forget the auto focus and focus for the hyperfocal distance?

    This will assure that the image will be focused up to the infinite.

    I take multiple staggered images to compile into panoramas. Would I use Shutter or Aperture priority to obtain crisp photos that knit together without the telltale join lines?

    Great advice about focus in general, too. I plan to follow it. A suggestion I have is to use a tripod to steady the camera after you set your focus point, then attach a shutter release cable (or use a Blue Tooth device if you have one) to take the shot. I learned that blurriness is caused less by an inaccurate focus point than it is by camera shake when depressing the shutter button.

    If there isn’t space for a tripod, look for something sturdy (flat top of a boulder or a tree) to lean on while shooting. Steadying the body will steady the shot, at least somewhat.

    Russ,
    Thank you for the informative post, and great shots! You mention your f-stop setting in your landscape photo, which is something I struggle with, and have researched on-line. I have not able to find a lot of meaningful information. I know what f-stop is and the how it plays with the other setting. What I don’t know is how the number relates to the real world/my lens. For example, I was shooting my daughter’s soccer game yesterday and the team huddled up around the coach, which I felt would make a great shot if I could get everyone in focus. I was set-up with a low f-stop number, for the high-speed action of the game. So I just threw it to f4.5 and hoped for the best….and I didn’t quite hit the mark. Is there some way to determine how f-stop relates to real world depth of field?

    Thank you for the help. I’ve been going nuts trying to get sharp focus for flowers and other plants. I didn’t know about setting the auto focus by pressing the button halfway down and setting the dial to keep it where I want it. I plan a long weekend experimenting with this.

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