Nailing your focus and taking sharper photos is a common problem among beginning photographers. So, in this tutorial, I will give you some tips and the camera settings you’ll need to know in order to find focus and get sharper photos every single time.
Some of the camera settings and tips for finding focus and getting sharper photos include:
- Focus mode (single, continuous, auto – AF-S, AF-C, and AF-A)
- Focus point mode (when to use single point, when to use zone/multi, when to use auto)
- Drive mode (single or continuous, when to use each)
- Using a large aperture, especially in low light
- Focus on an area with contrast
- Focus on the eyes of a person
If you do not have the user manual for your camera find a PDF copy online.
There are several different settings on your camera related to getting sharp images. You need to choose the most appropriate one for each situation in which you may be photographing. Let’s go through them one by one, so you know which settings to apply in various different scenarios.
6 Tips and camera settings you need to know to get sharper photos
#1 Choose the appropriate Focus Mode
Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras (as well as many compact cameras) have a setting for the Focus Mode. This allows you to choose how the camera focuses according to the subject, either locking on the intended subject or tracking it as it moves.
There are generally four focus modes (some cameras have more):
- Single Shot Focus Mode: called One-Shot on Canon cameras, AF-S on Nikon and Sony, AFS on Pentax, and S-AF on Olympus.
- Continuous Focus Mode: called AI Servo on Canon, AF-C on Nikon and Sony, AFC on Pentax, and C-AF on Olympus.
- Auto Focus Mode: called AI Focus on Canon, AF-A on Nikon, and Sony, AFA on Pentax.
- Manual Focus: pretty much the same on all cameras – M.
Note: It would be really nice if all the camera manufacturers could get together and use the same names, right?!
Okay great, so what does all that mean?
Well in a perfect world you could just pick Auto Focus Mode and let the camera do all the work for you.
But, if you’ve been using your DSLR for a while you’ve probably moved away from most of the auto settings for a reason – sometimes, and often, the camera gets it wrong. This is no exception.
This setting (AF-A or AI Focus) is supposed to be the best of both worlds but in reality, most photographers never use it because the camera usually chooses wrong. So it will try tracking focus on a stationary object and not lock focus for you – or it may not pick up a moving object properly.
Single Focus Mode
This mode is best used for focusing on stationary objects, anything that is not moving,
The camera will engage autofocus and do a focus lock when you press the shutter button half-way down.
You may hear a beep when Focus Lock is achieved (you can usually disable that if it annoys you as much as it does me, look in your camera menu under sounds).
This mode is also best combined with using a single focus point (more on that below).
Continuous Focus Mode
Continuous focusing is best for moving objects, particularly ones moving away from, or toward the camera.
Pressing the shutter button half-way down in this mode will engage the autofocus, but it will never give you Focus Lock.
Instead, the camera will continue to adjust focus on the subject, as it moves.
This is ideal for shooting sports, quick-moving toddlers, pets, etc., anything where there is action. This mode is best combined with a zone, or multiple-point focus (more on that in #2 below) focus area.
Auto Focus Mode
This setting is supposed to be the best of both worlds. The key phrase there is “supposed to be”!
In this mode, the camera will pick either Single or Continuous focus mode for you, based on its assessment of the subject.
The problem is – just like any auto setting – there is a chance that the camera will get it wrong, and you’ll end up with a blurry photo.
Unfortunately, I can’t think of any pros that I know that use this mode – I certainly don’t. It’s usually the worst of two worlds, and frequently more shots are out of focus, than are in sharp focus. So your best option is to select one of the two modes above.
Some cameras have a quick switch button to toggle back and forth between them (Canons do) or you can do a custom setting for each. Once again, consult your user manual to see what your camera can do.
Note: If you don’t have the printed user manual, or can’t find it, just do a Google search for the name, model number, and the words “user manual” for your camera and you should find a copy of the PDF. Download it and put it on your smartphone so you have it with you at all times as a reference. It’s also searchable, which makes finding particular things like customizing settings easier.
Manual Focus Mode
This one should be fairly self-explanatory, but be clear that Manual Focus and Manual Shooting Mode are NOT the same!
Manual Shooting Mode and Manual Focus are NOT the same and do not have to go together.
I often see confusion between these two – Manual Shooting Mode and Manual Focus. Many times I hear my students tell me they’ve been told to shoot “all manual” and they took that to mean focus as well. Let me say this here:
You do NOT have to use Manual Focus if you are shooting in Manual Mode for exposure!! You CAN, but it is not necessary or mandatory to so so.
To focus the camera in this mode you need to physically turn the focus ring on your lens.
This mode is handy for doing things like macro photography, some night photography, or for times when you want to first use autofocus and then lock it (you can do so by switching to Manual Focus to disengage AF for doing night photography, for example).
Personally I almost never use Manual Focus Mode as I find it really difficult to do so, especially on a moving target. Your camera has a sophisticated focusing system – don’t be afraid to use it. You are not cheating by doing that!
If your camera has Live View mode, or you’re using a camera with an electronic viewfinder (like a newer mirrorless camera) that has focus assist or focus peaking – then Manual Focus is a lot easier and usable.
But if you’re using a DSLR it can be challenging (especially for “mature” eyes like mine) so choose one of the other autofocus modes to help you.
So the bottom line here is that picking the Focus Mode according to your subject is your best option.
If your subject is not moving (or is moving side to side but not changing its distance to the camera) go with option #1 above, single shot (AF-S, One Shot).
That will give you a nice clean focus lock and sharp image.
If your subject is moving toward or away from you (or rapidly in random directions, like a child) then option #2 or Continuous Focus Mode (Servo or AF-C) is your best bet.
If you have another brand of camera, check the user manual to find out about your focus modes, and what they are called. But, likely they will be similar to the ones above.
#2 Choose the appropriate focus point setting
When you look through your camera’s viewfinder you will likely see several dots or squares. When you press the shutter button half-way down, one or several of those dots will light up or become highlighted.
Those are your focus points, and which one(s) light up indicate precisely where the camera will attempt to focus.
There are three common options for setting up your focus points (your camera may even have more than that, but you know what I’m going to say next – read the manual).
Single Focus Point
One single point is selected by you, and the camera focuses only on that spot.
This is the best choice for non-moving subjects. You have more precise control over where the focus is set. This is really important when you’re using a large aperture and a very shallow depth of field.
The center point is what’s called a cross-type focus point (that means the camera looks for contrast both horizontally and vertically). Whereas in many cameras, most or all, of the other points see contrast on only one axis (vertically).
If you also choose the center point, it will usually give you a quicker and more accurate focus in tough situations. So if you’re in a dark room or shooting in low light, using the center point will assist your camera in being able to focus.
Check your user manual once again, to see which type of points your camera has outside of the center. But know that if you aren’t sure, you can always just use the middle one to be safe.
Zone or Multi-Focus Points
In this setting, the camera uses a set area of focus points or a larger zone (a portion of the scene) to find focus.
It’s the best option for moving subjects as it’s harder to get a single point on a moving target.
Ever try photographing a toddler or bird flying in the sky using Single Point Focus?
It’s frustrating at best, and you get few, if any, good results at worst. Try zone or multi-point instead, and the camera will look within those points for the subject.
Results will vary from camera to camera, and some are better at this than others though. So if shooting sports or moving targets (kids, pets, etc.) is a priority for you, look for a camera that gets good reviews in the focus category (fast focus, number of points, tracking focus).
Auto Focus Point Selection
With this option, the camera chooses which point to focus on for you.
Cameras are getting smarter now, with things like Face Detection, but what often happens is the object that is closet to the camera ends up being the sharpest. But, if that is not what you intended – if you wanted that pretty flower behind the fence sharp, and the fence in front blurry – the camera gets it wrong.
Honestly, the only time I personally use this setting is when I hand my camera to someone else to take a photo of me.
I put it on auto everything, and hope it works out. I trust the camera more so than I trust another person (who doesn’t know my camera) to get the right focus point on me.
I have more out of focus photos of myself than I care to discuss.
Most of the time my camera stays on Single Point Focus. When I’m shooting something moving, then I will often switch to Zone Focus.
This should help you decide which is right for whatever you’re photographing.
Here’s another article about autofocus that might help explain some of these terms: Understanding Camera Autofocus
#3 Choose the appropriate Drive Mode
The next setting you want to learn is Drive Mode. There are three common ones:
- Single frame
- Continuous low (slow burst)
- Continuous high (fast burst)
Rushing more often than not results in nothing sharp, properly exposed, or well-composed. Read more about slowing down in this article: Do You Wait for the Decisive Moment or do You Spray and Pray?
NOTE: Even though the names are the same as Focus Modes, these are very different and they both need to have your attention!
Single Shot Drive Mode
In this mode, the camera will take a single exposure when you fully depress the shutter button.
Even if you hold the button down, you will only get one photo. So, this mode is the best choice for non-moving subjects.
Take a shot, review it, take your time, then tweak your settings and take another shot if you need to. You don’t need to high-speed burst photos of a building – it eats up memory, causes editing nightmares later, and the building is not going anywhere.
Often beginners feel the need to shoot rapid-fire or take multiple images in hopes of getting one in focus. Don’t be that person.
The better approach is to slow down, shoot one at a time, and get it right the first time.
Continuous or High-Speed Burst Drive Mode
Pressing and holding the shutter button in Continuous or Burst mode will result in your camera shooting a series of images.
For example, if you are photographing sports, a rapidly moving child, or doing a panning type of shot – these are all good examples of when continuous high speed is a good choice. But for most things, especially those not moving, stick to single.
How many shots the camera takes depends on your camera’s frames per second rate (or fps – this ranges from 3-12 images per second). Consult your user manual again to find your camera’s fps rate.
Clearly, the continuous or high-speed burst drive mode is the obvious choice for shooting moving subjects. It increases your chance of capturing the peak of action and getting an image that’s sharp.
There are also other options in Drive Mode including the self-timer. That allows you to press the button and the camera takes the shot a few seconds later.
This can be helpful if you are using a tripod as just pressing the shutter button can introduce camera shake, causing a blurry image. It’s also handy if you don’t have a remote or you want to get in the picture yourself.
So use a remote trigger if you have one, or the self-timer, both of which allow the camera to fire without touching it, keeping your photo nice and sharp.
Non-camera setting things you can do for sharper images:
The last three points are not camera settings but things necessary for nailing the sharpest photos in even the toughest of situations. Let’s dig in.
#4 Use a large aperture
Okay, so the aperture is a camera setting but this one is specific to focus problems, especially in low-light conditions.
If you are shooting in dim light and are having a hard time seeing, so is your camera. If your camera can’t see, then it can’t focus.
More light coming through the lens will help your camera to see and be able to focus better.
This is why most of the expensive professional lenses all have large apertures like 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, etc.
But you don’t have to fork out the big bucks for those – get yourself a simple prime lens with a large aperture. They are lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and easy to just keep in your bag for times you need more light.
In the image above using the 50mm f/1.8 lens, you can see how much more light will go through the largest opening (f/1.8) as compared to the smallest (f/22).
Even the one in the middle at approximately f/8, you can see how exponentially larger the one on the left is in comparison. It’s just like the pupil in your own eye – what happens when you enter a dark room? Your pupils dilate or open up, really large.
NOTE: Compare the opening in the middle to the one on the left above. If you are shooting with a standard kit lens like an 18-55mm (or similar) it’s likely that at the 55mm focal length the middle opening is close to the best you can do with that lens. Can you see the power of the little 50mm f/1.8 now?
This is what you must do for your camera to help it focus.
#5 Focus on an area of contrast
This is something I see beginners struggle with frequently, and nobody talks about it!
In order for your camera’s autofocus to work, it must be able to detect contrast in the area you are pointing it at. Hence, why the center point is more accurate, and why you cannot focus on a plain wall – it simply won’t happen.
So look for a well-defined line, or a spot that has clearly dark and light areas, and aim your camera’s focus point there. If you’re having trouble, download and print out this target, take it along with you, and hold it where your subject is in order to focus before you shoot.
#6 Focus on the eyes
Lastly, when you’re photographing a person, you always want to make sure that one thing is in sharp focus – their eyes.
Even if you’re using a super shallow depth of field, and the eyelashes and ears are out of focus – that’s okay. As long as you have the eyes (specifically the iris/pupil part) in focus – your photo will look sharp.
This is because not only are the eyes the windows to the soul, but that is the place where viewers of your image will look.
Try an experiment where you focus on the ears instead and make the eyes out of focus – see how odd it looks?
But what if the subject is turned a bit sideways and their eyes are not the same distance away from the camera? In that case, make sure the eye nearest to the camera is the one you focus on. Again, try it the other way just to see, but I think it looks odd.
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Advanced option for taking sharper photos
Back Button Focus
One final option is one I use pretty much all the time – Back Button Focus Mode.
Normally, pressing the shutter button on your camera halfway down activates the autofocus. But many cameras offer customization of that function with something called Back Button Focus.
Essentially what this does is assigns the focus function to another button on the camera, usually one on the back, near the top of the camera.
If you want to try it, check your manual to see how to set up your camera or read my back button focus tutorial. Then instead of focusing with the shutter button, your camera will focus when you press one on the back of the camera.
It takes a bit of getting used to, but this is how the professional sports shooters do it. My friend who used to shoot for the local newspaper showed me this trick years ago, and I leave my camera this way all the time now.
Why would you want to use Back Button Focus?
There are many reasons why you might want to consider shooting this way including:
- It is really handy to lock the focus using the back button (and Single Focus Mode – AF-S/One Shot), recompose your image, and shoot away with the shutter button. Then you do not have to worry that the camera will attempt to refocus each time.
- This is great for night photography where you need to focus on something bright and then disengage the autofocus because otherwise the camera will try and refocus on its own. In the dark, it will be unable to do so, and you end up with a blurry mess or no photo at all.
- It’s also great for photos of still subjects (like portraits), especially when you’re using a tripod. You can lock focus by pointing the camera and specific focus dot at the subject’s eye. Then you can recompose your image, not having to worry that each subsequent shot will also be sharp.
- For shooting HDR and bracketed images this is helpful as well because your focus will not accidentally shift between shots causing an alignment issue later.
- Surprisingly, although it seems counterintuitive, this method works better for fast-moving objects using the continuous focusing mode, than using the shutter button. Using your thumb to hold the back button down the whole time, the lens is being focused even in between shots using high-speed or burst shooting mode. This is how most of the sports photographers I know set up and shoot. Also, it’s great for panning!
Once again check your manual or YouTube for how to set this up with your camera. Keep in mind that this option may or may not be available on your camera model, or it may be called something else entirely.
Look for the term “back button focus” or “setting custom button functions”. Once you find it make sure that not only does it set one of the back buttons to focus but that it also turns off the focus function from the shutter release button.
THIS IS KEY! You DO NOT want the shutter button to control focus.
Watch this webinar for more!
Recently I held a free webinar online and I went over these six tips, then I spent about an hour answering all kinds of photography questions. I covered everything from the histogram, composition, blue hour, light painting, and tripods. Check it out here:
Summary and action plan
Okay, now it’s your time to practice. Start by picking a non-moving subject and try the settings that I suggest for that.
Then get yourself a moving one (kid, pet, traffic, etc.) and try those settings. Remember for both to make sure you focus in an area of contrast, and on the eyes, if you have a human or furry subject (someone with a face).
Then really put it to the test by shooting in a dimly lit area. Use your largest aperture and all the tips for shooting in low-light (you can find more here: Tips for Low Light Photography).
Review the tips again if you can’t remember.