Take Back the Control, and Focus

Cameras are great! They are tools for capturing our lives and expressing ourselves, but there are times when they just don’t get it right. Using the auto features on a camera will often work and produce the desired vision but … it’s those times when they don’t that can be exasperating. There are certain situations, when using auto-focus, the lens will have trouble bringing into focus what you want in focus. Low light, low contrast, trying to take a picture of something behind another object and active subjects are all situations that can bring on the frustrating state of the lens searching for focus but never achieving focus lock. There is a solution! Slide the button on the lens over to MF (manual focus). Follow me as I tackle some of these situations on my photographic journey . . .

We have had some clear nights here in Los Angeles lately and the city lights have been shining and twinkling brightly. Wanting to capture the lights of downtown with the outlying suburbs, I drive to my favorite city light vantage point, set up with a tripod and find that in the low light of night, manually focusing the lens is the best way to achieve focus.

_MG_8386It makes me feel as if I am in an airplane looking out at the lights below.


On a recent bike ride, I spot five great blue herons in a field behind a chain link fence. This is a rare occurrence in my experience on this bike path, the most I have seen before is three. Wanting to capture all five in one shot but not being able to get around the fence, I put the lens in manual focus and use the focusing ring to focus through the fencing. Maybe not the ultimate shot but I was able to capture it nonetheless._MG_5542

Can you see them? Then, I kept manually focusing, so any fencing wouldn’t interfere with my intended subject, and zoomed in on them, one and two at a time, through the links.

_MG_5545 _MG_5548

Sitting in my backyard, I notice the flash of white of a Matilija poppy peeking through the other foliage in the garden. I decide to take the shot through the other foliage, which is out of focus, and thus creating a frame of sorts for the poppy.

matilija copyA hummingbird is flying around a sage bush searching for nectar, so I focus on the area using manual focus and capture it. Pre-focusing on the spot the subject is expected to appear is a technique to use to help you get the shot.

hummingbirdThe pre-focus technique will work for sports, dancing, anything where the subject is in motion and is in a fairly predictable location. Simply focus on the spot the subject is expected to appear using the focus ring in manual focus and take the shot once the subject enters the frame.

Now you are ready to take on some difficult shooting situations and conquer them!

~ Susan

Using Catherine’s lovely alliterative terms from last week,

The camera doesn’t always get it right in auto modes. Certain situations, such as low light, low contrast, moving subjects and subjects behind another object, are best approached with the lens in manual focus rather than auto focus.

Familiarize yourself with your lenses and the manual focus ring on them (it is different from the ring you turn on a zoom lens to zoom in and out.) Think of situations where you have had trouble focusing in auto-focus. Go out of your way to put yourself in those situations this week.

Get creative in low light or shooting through objects. Take a portrait in candle light or in a garden search out a flower or fruit hiding behind leaves and see if you can capture it through manual focusing.

Pay Attention and Focus

Focus . . .

Shih tzu dogMaybe it’s just me, but why can it be so hard to focus sometimes? Is it that there is so much to do that choosing one or two things to concentrate on is downright difficult? Or, is it that fun opportunities trump work, which can be OK, for awhile, but eventually those responsibilities won’t be able to be put off any longer? Once the decision has been made to buckle down and focus on a task at hand, it can be eye opening.

Shih tzu dogPhotographically speaking, focus is important. It shows what a photographer is trying to express by drawing attention to an object or person or part of a whole. Yet, achieving focus on the subject in your pictures can be as difficult as focusing on areas of your life. For DSLR users, I have a few tips to offer and aid in finding focus this month. First things first, it’s time for you to tell the camera what you want to focus on and don’t rely on the camera to know what you want automatically. When in auto mode, the camera chooses the focus points based on the shooting conditions. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it doesn’t and when it doesn’t it can be frustrating. You end up with your subject out of focus and something in the background in focus. To correct this, put your camera in manual, aperture priority, shutter priority or program mode,Shih tzu dog choose a focus point and take back creative control.

Shih tzu dogIt can turn your world upside down, in a good way! Now that you are out of auto, the first thing is telling your camera where to focus. Go ahead get bossy! Most modern cameras have at least nine auto-focus points (some have many more), which are the spots the camera will look to achieve focus when you have your lens set to auto-focus. Using the selection point button, you can choose one of the nine points by highlighting one and then using the dial to move the highlighter to the different points. If you highlight all the points the camera chooses automatically which point for each shot, so choose one. Often, the center point is the most sensitive and hence fastest at achieving focus, because it uses cross type focusing and the others don’t. But, maybe you don’t always want your subject in the center of your picture. What then? You can do one of two things; either change your auto-focus point to one of the others that is closer to your subject or focus using the center point and then recompose your shot. To do this, push half way down on the shutter button and when focus is locked in, you will either see a red highlight of your focus point and/or hear a beep, keep holding the shutter down half way while recomposing your shot and placing the subject where you would like; then push all the way down on the shutter button taking your shot.

Shih tzu dogWhile recomposing, it is important to remember to keep your subject in the same focal plane or risk loosing focus. Now, go out and practice, practice, practice!

This year, we are offering suggestions of ways to practice and hone the skills you may learn from Backyard Sisters and feel free to let us know how it’s going.

To Recap:

  • Getting out of auto mode and telling the camera where to focus, will give you more creative control in your photography.

Challenge Yourself:

  • Think about what you want to say in your photos this week and how focus can help convey that message.
  • Use any mode but auto and use the center point to focus lock and recompose
  • Also, try switching auto focus points using the point selection button


  • Try using the eyes of a person or an animal as your focus point in a photo this week. If the person is angled and the eyes are not on the same plane, focus on the eye closest to you.

Keep in mind, according to Mark Twain, “you cannot depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”

Imagine away,