This is obviously a very popular question because if your photos aren’t sharp, they’re nothing. They’re unusable. No matter how great the lighting is or how wonderful the scene, you simply can’t use the photo if it’s out of focus and blurry.
Here’s the thing you need to remember when it comes to focusing on a scene; your camera is always in focus. That is, your camera is always in focus on something. It may not be the thing you want to currently focus on, but it’s certainly in focus. To help get my point across with this, I’ll need to do a bit of explaining.
Think of it this way – you’re standing there in a field with camera in hand. It’s held up to your eye and you’re ready to take your shot. There are two men standing in front of you holding a big piece of glass. A HUGE piece of glass and it’s perpendicular to you, meaning that you could run right through it and smash it if you wanted to. You’re looking at the flatness of the glass. Not the edge or anything like that. We’ll consider this piece of glass a plane. Now, I want you to think of this plane as your focal plane. It’s pretty thin and it can be moved closer to you if you walk towards it or it can be moved away from you if you move farther from it. Whatever object is at the same distance as the glass will be in focus. If you want to focus on something that’s closer to you, you would need to either adjust the focus on the camera or simply walk backwards a bit. The same is true if you wanted to focus on something that’s farther away from you. Adjust the focus or move forward a bit.
Focus is simply the plane at which something is sharp in a scene. When you focus your camera, you’re essentially taking a shortcut. Instead of physically moving your body or the camera, you’re moving some elements inside of your lens. Those elements are moving for you. So that’s the first thing you need to understand. Focus is just a flat plane that runs perpendicular to you. Multiple objects at multiple distances can’t be in focus at the same time in a scene without making an adjustment that I’ll discuss in a moment. Don’t be fooled by cameras that have 45 focal points and think that you’ll be getting all sorts of things in focus at certain distances while things right next to them will remain out of focus. When an object is in focus in a scene and there’s another object that’s right next to it and at the same distance from the camera, it’ll be in focus too. There’s no way around that.
Now, think about how thick or thin that piece of glass is. Its depth depends on your camera’s distance to it as well as your aperture setting on your camera. So if you’d like to have multiple items that are of varying distances in a scene in focus, you’ll need to either back away from those objects to make your depth of field deeper or shrink down the size of the aperture hole inside your lens to accomplish the same thing. This is the equivalent of raising the aperture number. To reduce the thickness of the plane of focus, you’ll need to either move closer to the object or increase the size of the aperture hole in your lens.
To answer the question of how to take the sharpest photos, you first need to understand what focus is and then you need to understand how aperture works. I just explained both of those concepts above. Without understanding these concepts, you’ll be relying on your camera’s jazzy technology and you’ll never be able to truly rely on what your camera can accomplish. Believe it or not, you can capture crisp, clear, and sharp photographs with a lens that has no focusing abilities at all. All you would need to do is move closer to or away from your subject and wait for it to fall into focus at the proper distance.
Okay, I’ve said enough about that. Let’s move onto something more exciting.
To ensure you get the sharpest photos possible, here are a few techniques:
1. If your subject is not moving, use a tripod and set your lens to manual focus. This way, you’ll be able to slowly creep your lens so it’s perfectly focused on your subject.
2. If you find that something in your scene is in focus while something else isn’t (that you’d like to be), try reducing your aperture or moving away from the object until everything is in focus that you’d like to be.
3. Use Single Point Auto Focus mode on your camera. Instead of allowing your camera to make the decision for you by hunting all over the scene, you take back control and tell it exactly what to focus on. Meaning, at what distance on which to focus.
4. If your subject is moving, take advantage of Multi Point Auto Focus on your camera. This is a great time to allow your camera to do the work for you.
5. If your camera has a rear LCD screen, turn your mode to Live View. Then, adjust your focal point (the box in the middle of the screen) to hover directly over what you’d like to focus on. If your camera offers touch screen, simply touch the area.
6. If you find that your camera keeps hunting for something to focus on when using Auto Focus, set up Back Button Auto Focus to lock your subject in and then take your shot.
I’ve written about focus extensively on the blog, so I invite you to look through the posts I’ve linked to below. Before you do that though, I want to impress upon you how important it is to refrain from just whizzing through this stuff. It takes training and patience to become a good photographer and to understand certain concepts. But remember, you only need to learn these things once. After you do, you’ll remember them forever.
Question: As a beginner what should I do?, Should I focus manually or keep it in the auto mode?
Answer: As a beginner, I would say for you to keep your camera set to auto-focus if you’re hand holding your camera and manual focus if you’re using a tripod. It’s tough to take sharp photos while hand holding your camera and using manual focus at the same time, especially if you’re close to your subject or if you’re using a wide aperture. In these cases, your depth of field can be very shallow. Let your camera’s auto-focus feature do the work for you.
On the other hand, if you’ve got your camera set up on a tripod, go ahead and get some practice with the manual focus. It’s a lot of fun and since your camera won’t be moving at all, you can really dial in on your subject to get the sharpest focus possible.