Shoot Like a Pro: Tip #6

Tip #6 is: Control your focal point.

If you don’t actively control where your camera is focusing in an image, your camera will make assumptions about what you want. These are often incorrect and will ruin an image more completely than even the poor exposure problems we’ve been talking about.

Let me give you a couple of examples where the camera will fail you when it handles the focal point: A simple example would be photographing a person against a distant background. You’re using a shallow depth of field (large aperture, f 4.5 or so) to blur the background and highlight your subject. You want to frame the picture such that your subject is off center in the frame. You wouldn’t want a boring picture with the person in the dead center of the frame, would you? You frame the shot and press the shutter button and you’ll get a nice sharp picture of the background. Your subject will be completely blurred and unrecognizable. Your picture is a complete failure.

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Another example: Let’s say you’re photographing a Tulip. You’re really close to the flower and you’re shooting with a shallow depth of field so the background will blur, leaving the flower in focus. Let’s say you also want to frame the Tulip off center in the image and you want the center of the flower in focus, not the petals. Now you need a very precise focal point. If you don’t do anything, the camera will focus on whatever is in the center of the frame and it will focus on whatever is closes to the camera. You will wind up with a picture of the background in focus, or perhaps the edge of the Tulip’s petals. The center of the flower will be out of focus either way and the image will be a complete loss.

There are a few different ways to correct this problem and I’ll touch on a couple of them here. The first one I’ll cover is controlling the focal point by moving it in the camera itself. Most any serious camera will allow you to move the focal point in the frame in some way. On my Canon DSLR you press a button that is near where your thumb rests on the camera, then turn the wheel just behind the shutter button. Notice that these controls fall close at hand so it’s easy to move the focal point. You may need to look up how to do this on your camera as it may be different.

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When you press the button with your thumb (As you turn the wheel by the shutter button you will see the focal point move around the available places in the camera. Just turn the wheel until you get the focal point you want on your subject and take your picture. Presto, perfect photograph. It’s really quite easy to do. Remember that the focal point will stay where you left it, so be sure to move it on the next shot to where you want it.

Another, perhaps slightly quicker way to control the focus point is to point the center of the camera at your subject, even if that’s not how you want to frame your photograph. Press the shutter button down part way until you hear the beep that indicates your camera has focused. Your camera may or may not beep, but there should be some indication in the viewfinder that your camera is focused. In my camera it’s a big dot on the bottom of the frame. Now, without lifting your finger, re-frame your shot the way you want it and press the shutter button the rest of the way down. Your picture should now have your focal point where you want it. Quick and easy.

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I’ll more likely use the first method when I’m shooting on a tripod and the camera is locked down on my composition. I’ll use the second method if I’m shooting freehand. You should be aware that your camera has many different focus modes as well. I won’t go into that in depth here because it is a complex subject on its own, but you should know that you can tell your camera to focus on a small spot, or a region of various sizes and shapes.

You can also have your camera focus continuously on moving subjects. This topic is something you should really get to know if you shoot moving subjects frequently. If your dog is running toward you and you’re holding down the shutter button and shooting continuously, you will only get focused pictures if you’re in the correct focus mode. Usually called something like Servo Focus.

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So now, if you’ve followed this series of posts, you can shoot a photograph with control over depth of field and shutter speed. You can get correct exposures every time, and your pictures will be in focus. That’s pretty much it for the technical aspects of taking pictures. Now you just have to figure out what to shoot and how to shoot it. Easy right?

Actually, I think what depth of field you choose and how you compose your photographs are the most difficult aspects of photography. How you do these things make the difference between a competent photograph and a good or even great one. In fact, I’m not even sure how to begin to teach these things, but I’m going to give it a try in the lessons ahead.

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