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PHOTOCADEMY Lesson #5, getting the most from your DSLR's focusing system.

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Don't shoot one more photo without watching this video. Many photographers have no idea how to properly use the autofocus system in their DSLR, watch this video for a full tutorial with examples. Keep shooting!

Video Transcript

Welcome to PHOTOCADEMY Lesson #5, FOCUS your way to Sharper Photos. In today's lesson we will be going over the one part of creating a photo that everyone takes for granted, focus. It seems many people don't pay enough attention to it which is probably why we see so many out of focus images on the web. There are a few different components that make up the focusing system in your camera, plus you need to remember that aperture affects how much of the image is 'acceptably sharp'. We will go over each of these components and help you to create sharper photos.

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Lets understand how autofocus systems work. They need an area of contrasting colors to lock on to. A solid colored sweater with consistent brightness probably isn't going to be a good place to lock on. The human face is usually good like the eyes or mouth. Diffused light gradations like on this egg usually are not a good choice either. Dark or shadow areas of an image are not usually good choices to accurately focus on. Look for brightly lit areas with contrasting colors, and a final tip it's usually easier for your camera to lock on to objects that are not moving, especially in low light situations.

The first step in shooting sharp photos is your autofocus mode. On most cameras there are three settings, manual, single and continuous. Canon has four, manual, ai single, ai focus and ai servo. Canons ai single and servo are the same as Nikons single and continuous and they add the ai focus mode which is a hybrid of the other two. In manual mode you must use the focus ring on the lens to adjust focus, simple right? The next one is single, it allows the camera to lock onto a subject and then stop adjusting focus once it has locked on. Most cameras won't allow the shutter to release until focus has locked. The last mode is continuous. As you might have guessed it continually changes focus points and attempts to lock onto any subject until you depress the shutter all of the way.

Let's talk about making the camera focus. Personally I can't live without shutter actuated focus which is the default. When you depress the shutter down half way the autofocus motor will start. Some people prefer to use back button focus which I think is a mistake. When you have to push the back button with your thumb you can't move the focus points which is our next segment. It can work fine for shooting video, but I have never found a good scenario to use it when shooting still photos because you cannot move the focus point and keep the focus motor running at the same time. Using the shutter actuated focus you can do both simultaneously, allowing for quicker focus lock if needed.

The next piece of the autofocus puzzle is what Nikon calls Af Area Mode. This is the most important setting when it comes to focus. Many people that I've taught don't even know it exists. This mode has a few settings. The first one allows the camera to guess where the most important part of the image is and sets the focus point. This rarely goes well and is hardly ever accurate. We suggest only using this mode when you hand someone else your camera to take a group photo with you in it!

The mode you should use most of the time is what Nikon calls Single Point AF. This setting will allow you to focus with pin point accuracy, especially when you turn on all of the focus points your camera has built in. Not sure why, but many bodies from the factory only turn on a small portion of its focus points. We highly suggest using all of them.

Once you turn on single point af you will be able to move the points around inside of your viewfinder with your multiselector or wheel on the back of your camera with your thumb. With some practice this will become second nature. This mode is great for many scenarios, especially portraits. We'll go over using the modes in a bit.

One more mode that Nikon has is called Dynamic Area AF. This mode is similar to the single point mode we just talked about but the camera will also read information from focus points surrounding the one you chose to lock on. I will often use this mode for sports or fast moving subjects when a solid lock can be difficult.

So now we know the different components of the autofocus system in your camera, how do we use them? Single af mode and single point af should be used for portraits, landscapes, products or pretty much anything that is sitting still in the cameras viewfinder.

We can use continuous mode with dynamic area af for sports, birds, animals or moving subjects even the kids in the yard. Dynamic area af is also good for low light conditions.

Manual autofocus mode is great when you are working in very low light conditions and the camera can't autofocus or your desired focus point is out of the range of the focus points in the viewfinder.

Every photographer has heard of the technique focus and recompose. We don't recommend it especially when shooting a shallow depth of field. Since the plane of focus moves with your camera, a shallow depth of field can send important objects in the frame out of focus. Always try to use a focus point in the viewfinder first, but if your point of focus is outside of the focus point range try manual focus. Remembering that your plane of focus is parallel to your camera will go a long way to sharper images.

Let's talk about your homework. Go through your older images, zooming into at least 100% and find the sharpest point of your images. Is it where you intended? Hopefully it is, if not spend some more time practicing with your camera. Read your camera manual to find out how to move the focus points, change the area modes, and autofocus mode. Shoot with each of your lenses and compare the accuracy and and speed of the autofocus system with your camera. You will notice more expensive lenses focus faster, so will shorter lenses.

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