Make Better Photos NOW! Part 2 – Seize the Focus!

Last week I began my new series of instructional photography lessons for beginner photographers by introducing the Rule of Thirds and discussing how we can apply it to our photography.  Using the Rule of Thirds can be a good first step in taking control of your photography and moving from taking snapshots to making photographs.  Today we will continue our beginning photography series by grabbing our focus by the horns and beating it into sweet, sharp submission.  It’s just another step in learning to MAKE BETTER PHOTOS!

CHOOSE OR LOSE (your focus)
The first step you need to take in really getting control of your focus (if you haven’t done this already) is to switch your camera from the mode in which the camera decides the focus point to the single-point focus mode where you decide which focus point you will use and change that point by moving a directional joystick/pad on the back of the camera.  If you are used to just pointing your camera in a general direction and just pushing a shutter button then this might drive you mad for the first few days of using it because you actually have to think about what you specifically want to focus on.  After you get used to it though then it will drive you mad to go back to the old way.  With the old way you can never be totally certain about what the camera is going to focus on.  That can cause the problem of what you want in focus not being sharp while something that you don’t care about is perfectly sharp.  Obviously this is not ideal.

Once you’ve consulted your manual and gotten your camera set to single-point focus then when you look into your viewfinder you will see all of the possible focus points as usual.  Depending on your camera the currently chosen point might be lit up in red or it might be outlined with a box.  You can move that point around depend on how you’re holding the camera or what you want to focus on.  Another option is to “focus and recompose.”  This means that you point at something with the chosen focus point, press the button halfway down to focus and then rearrange how you have the subject framed in your viewfinder while still holding down the button and then take the picture by pressing the button all the way.  So you’re focusing the camera on what you want to be focused and then shifting the whole scene while that focus point stays in focus (ideally – there can be issues).  If you choose to move the focus point around according to what part of the frame you want in focus then you’ll need to think about what you want to focus on and then move the focus point to the right spot every time you lift the camera to your eye.  This will become second nature before too long.

STARING DAGGERS (sharp eyes!)
When you are shooting standard portraits where a face is the dominant part of the photo then it is of the utmost importance that you focus on the eyes always.  The only time you wouldn’t do this is if you are specifically making an artistic decision to have the eyes out-of-focus (probably unlikely 99.99999% of the time).  If the eyes are not as sharply focused as any other part of the photo then you already do NOT have a good portrait by most standards.  This is seriously a critical thing when it comes to any discussion of focus in portraits.  This actually makes things a little easier for you on single point focus because you don’t have to even think about where to put the focus point – you just put that camera up to your eye and adjust the focus point to be right smack on the subject’s eye.  If the subject is not directly facing you and one eye is closer to you than the other then focus on the closest eye.  Sharp eyes are a sharp photo.

In the example below from the latest photoshoot that I’ve posted to my blog I show a picture of a headshot I took.  I shot this at a 160mm focal length and an aperture of f/2.8 so that I could render the background of trees and park into a nice, creamy featureless backdrop and keep the viewer’s attention on the face.  Shooting at a very wide aperture (such as f/2.8) makes for a very shallow plane of focus.  Had I focused on the nose the eyes would not be in focus at all due to this shallow depth of the focus plane.  As it is I focused directly on the eyes and you may notice that the tip of the nose is actually a bit blurry.  That’s OK!  As long as the eyes are sharp it’s not abnormal for other parts of the face or head to be out-of-focus when shooting a dSLR at wide aperture.  Some prefer for all facial features to be in focus but I actually like the softness of parts in front of and behind the eyes being a bit defocused while the eyes are perfectly sharp.  And they are sharp as you can see from the 100% zoom in of the eye.

eye zoom Make Better Photos NOW!  Part 2   Seize the Focus!
Another thing you have to consider in trying to achieve sharp photos is shutter speed, or the length of time a camera’s shutter is open.  The shutter covers the camera sensor and when you hit the button to make a photo the shutter opens and exposes the sensor to the scene before you.  Any movement that happens faster than the shutter can open and close during that cycle will lead to a type of blurriness that is caused by the natural little movements of your body as you hold the camera.  No matter how still you think you are holding the camera you are moving some.  If your shutter speed is too slow then the pictures will not be perfectly sharp.  If your speed is fast enough then the shutter opens and closes so fast that most camera shake will not affect the photo.  The rule of thumb for choosing a focal length when shooting a mostly still subject is 1/focal length is the ideal shutter speed.  So shooting at 200mm you should have at least a 1/200 shutter speed.  When shooting at a 28mm focal length you’d only need to be higher than about 1/30 of a second shutter speed.  This is because the longer you zoom out the more apparent little movements are.  These speeds can be fudged some if you have a stabilized lens (called VR for Nikon and IS for Canon).  That will allow you to go even slower than the rule.  How slow you can go depends on your steadiness, wind, caffeine intake, etc as well as the quality of the lens’ stabilization.  I have made sharp shots as slow as 1/10 of a second at 200mm on my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII but the VR on some of my other lenses is not quite that good.  Two other things that can help get rid of camera shake are to lean against something solid when taking the photo and also to brace the camera by holding your off-hand UNDER the lens.  You see a lot of people grabbing the lens by the side but holding it right up under the lens means less shake. Faster shutter speed is always better IF you are going for straight sharp shots.  Sometimes it’s fun to step out of the box and purposefully create some blur.

If your subject is moving then these rules for shutter speed go out the window.  It doesn’t matter if you are as still as a stump at 1/30 if your subject is running by – he would just be a blur anyway because of HIS motion!  When shooting sports if you want sharp shots then get as fast as you possibly can with your shutter speed.  Crank up your ISO setting as high as you dare and try to get that shutter speed up to 1/1250 or faster for football action photos or fast motion shots (unless you want to convey motion by purposefully allowing a blur).  Shooting sports is a whole different discussion though.

Be sure to watch that shutter speed because if you are too slow and have some camera shake you may not notice it on your camera’s LCD screen but you will notice it when you open those photos on the computer.  Ask me how  I know!  Well that about wraps it up for a very basic intro to making sharp photos.  Now for your part.

Yes, yes.. more homework.  We’ll have you whipped into shape and making great photos before you know it.  This week I want you to figure out how to put your camera into singe-shot focus mode if you haven’t already.  Then practice framing tighter portrait shots using the Rule of Thirds we discussed last week.  Put that focus point right at the intersection where you are placing the eye and start making some great portraits.  Practice framing all of your face and head shots this way and make yourself ALWAYS focus on the eye.  Watch that shutter speed and try shooting with various focal lengths, always adjusting the shutter speed to avoid camera shake using our rule of thumb.  Your photos will be better almost instantly!

Feel free to post questions or share shots with me.  God bless and happy shooting!


Click here for Part 1 of the Series Make Better Photos NOW!


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