5 Quick & Dirty Tips to Nailing Focus

It’s a sad fact of every photographer’s life. At some point, you will take a photograph that might have been your best if you hadn’t messed up one thing: focus. It’s a reminder that you can be at the right place at the right time and still get it wrong.

camera focus

But there are photography techniques—doable right now—that will decrease the chances of you screwing up focus. I found some really great ones in James Brandon’s Tack Sharp ebook. His techniques are cheap and—better yet—easy to do. Here are a few of my favorite tips that I learned:

1. Carry a tripod with you and use it all the time

Yes, a tripod is heavy (if it’s not, you’re wasting your money). Yes, it might also slow you down. And, sure, you won’t be able to hide from anybody while lugging one around. But if you want the sharpest image possible, you’re going to have to get a tripod.

using a tripod for sharper images

Besides stabilizing you, a tripod forces you to frame your shots and level your horizon, which are creative bonuses. You’ll also be able to achieve the sharpest focus with the slowest shutter speeds (anything less than 1/50 of a second wouldn’t be possible otherwise). Think of your tripod as the ultimate steady hand, one your actual hand can never beat.

2. That said, blistering fast shutter speeds can also increase sharpness

If you absolutely can’t use a tripod, then bumping up the speed of your shutter will increase how crisp your final image will be. For consistent results, 1/1000 of a second or faster is always best. At this speed you’ll be able to freeze action at a football game or a racetrack, for example.

The reason this works is probability. The longer the shutter stays open, the more room for error. Or, to think of it another way, the quicker your shutter closes the less time you have to mess up. At speeds slower than 1/1000 of a second, even the slightest movement your camera picks up—both inside your camera or in front of it—will blur your image ever so slightly (you might have to zoom in on your computer to see it).

3. So what do you do if you’re going hand-held? Are you doing it right?

Okay, so using a tripod is out of the question. But you’ve set your shutter to 1/1000 of a second. So how do you give yourself the best chance of getting sharp photos? One good way is to make sure you’re holding your camera the right way. No duh, right?

hand held camera

One sure sign of an amateur is somebody who holds their camera incorrectly. They zoom in and out from the top of the camera with their fingertips. The correct way is holding the entire weight of the camera with the hand that isn’t pressing the shutter.

The second step is your weight distribution. One great technique is to place one foot slightly ahead of the other while putting 70 percent of your weight into it. The other 30 percent should go to your back one. While you’re doing that, you should also tuck in your elbows. Point them to the ground as if you’re about to shoot a rifle. With these techniques, you’ll decrease the likelihood of shaking while shooting.

4. For super long exposures, use a self timer

When you’re shooting with long shutter speeds—30 seconds, for instance—any movement in the camera can cause problems in the final image. Landscapes, night photography, and group portraits are perfect times to use slower shutter speeds. Most cameras have the ability to use a self-timer that’s hidden in their menus. You can find out whether your camera has one in your owner’s manual. Most will even give you the option for 10 second wait, 2 second wait, and so on.

camera lens

Once the camera is out of your hands and on a tripod, focusing will only be issue of getting the subject into the right settings and distance.

5. Live view and manual focus

Another great technique for achieving super sharp photos is using manual focus in Live View. Of course, this technique works best, like the one above, when you you have a tripod and are able to keep still and think. Landscapes, architecture, travel, and studio portraits are all great for this.

live view lcd

By using manual focus in Live View, you give yourself an ability to hone in on any part of your frame and actually see what’s in focus. Say you’re shooting a portrait and want your subject’s eyes in crystal clear focus, with this technique, you’ll be able to zoom in (there should be a button on your camera with a plus sign) and check your focus. Some cameras can zoom in to 10 times the actual size of the subject. Any time you see something that close, you must be seeing clearly.

But remember these tips aren’t comprehensive. Getting your focus is a delicate dance between many interacting factors. These are just some that every photographer should have in their back pocket.

If you want to learn how to nail focus step by step, you should check out James Brandon’s Tack Sharp – Photography Tips for Nailing Focus. It’s a fast read—in-depth. Like I said, it’s the definitive guide to pulling off the super sharp photos.

About the Author:
I love writing about photography (PhotoWhoa Blog) and I keep it as simple as possible. In my leisure time, I watch a lot of television. I am a foodie and am always on the lookout for new places to eat. I also love to connect with new people across the globe. You will always find me online on Skype and Twitter (@amruta_mohod).

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One Comment

  1. This is a very useful article, particularly the tips on zooming in to focus manually in live view and use of a 2 sec self-timer delay on a tripod. The latter being a great way to shoot fireworks (2-3 secs f/11-22, ISO 100-400 and preset manual focus on a similarly distant object) – this keeps the camera from shaking when you press the shutter release.
    PS – some of my students were releasing their trigger finger from the camera, but still had a hand on their tripod – don’t forget to let go completely.

    Some cameras also have an Exposure Delay mode which further reduces vibrations from the Mirror “Up” action – it waits a second before opening the shutter curtain. If you have this, you may not need the self-timer delay.
    (Do NOT confuse Exposure Delay with Mirror Lock-up, which should only be used when cleaning the sensor – and then only with a fully charged battery to prevent a disaster while you’re in there cleaning).

    “Keep on Shooting” – pd

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