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50 Things Photographers Need to Know About Focus: An Enthusiast's Guide

50 Things Photographers Need to Know About Focus: An Enthusiast's Guide

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50 Things Photographers Need to Know About Focus: An Enthusiast's Guide

276 pages
2 hours
Jun 3, 2019


While focusing your camera seems like it should be a no-brainer—there’s autofocus, after all!—it’s often not a simple task. Depending on the shooting situation, your camera, and the countless scenarios that can “throw off” the focus, the task of achieving sharp images with great focus can be deceptively challenging.

If you’re a passionate photographer eager to learn the best ways to achieve tack-sharp focus in your images, these 50 focus-based principles are exactly what you need to take your work to the next level. With photographer and author John Greengo as your guide, you’ll quickly learn nearly four dozen techniques for achieving focus in every shooting situation. You’ll learn:

    • How to optimize autofocus no matter what kind of camera you have (DSLR or mirrorless)
    • How to master manual focus
    • Which focus modes and focus areas work best for different situations
    • How to use your camera’s autofocus aids, such as magnification and focus peaking
    • Techniques to keep your camera stable, either handheld or on a tripod
    • How shutter speed and aperture affect sharpness

Written in the author’s friendly and approachable style, and illustrated with examples that clearly show how each technique can help you capture great photos, 50 Things Photographers Need to Know About Focus is designed to be an effective, fast, and fun way to learn how to achieve great focus in your images—no matter what situation.


    Chapter 1: Focus Basics
    Chapter 2: Autofocus
    Chapter 3: Mirrorless Autofocus
    Chapter 4: DSLR Autofocus
    Chapter 5: Customized Autofocus Controls
    Chapter 6: Autofocus Aids
    Chapter 7: Autofocus and Lenses
    Chapter 8: Manual Focus and Lenses
    Chapter 9: Exposure Control for Focus
    Chapter 10: Advanced Focusing Techniques
    Chapter 11: Other Focus Topics
Jun 3, 2019

Despre autor

John Greengo is a photographer who specializes in photographic education, from online training to local workshops to photo tours. In his teaching, his enthusiasm for photography is readily apparent, where his unique blend of illustrations, animations, and photographs makes learning photography easy and fun. John is a life-long resident of Seattle, Washington, and a typical Northwest outdoor adventure lover. Starting with a college degree in photography, John combined his love of photography with his enthusiasm for travel and adventure. From biking and hiking, to canoeing and kayaking, he’s undertaken a variety of journeys that has led him to the far reaches of the planet. Many of those travels came while working with world famous photographer Art Wolfe on his television show Travels to the Edge. John assisted in the production of the show and acted as Art’s all-around technical guru for all things photographic. Find John online at johngreengo.com.

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50 Things Photographers Need to Know About Focus - John Greengo



Focus is perhaps the most important of all camera settings to get correct at the moment of capture. The unforgiving lens has to be set correctly to avoid taking blurry shots. An out-of-focus image can’t be fixed after the fact. The problem lies not in the tools; the modern camera has more than enough to solve virtually every focus problem. The challenge lies in knowing which tools and techniques to use for any given situation.

The technology continues to evolve, with new options, such as facial recognition and subject and eye tracking, available. Keeping your knowledge and understanding of these new features up-to-date can be hard. This book will help you gain a better understanding of all the modern options and how to use them.

Traditional solutions are still important, too, because they serve as a way to solve problems that technology cannot. Manual control, in many cases, can be the quickest and easiest solution. From auto to manual, the 50 concepts in this book will give you a greater understanding of all the focus options, as well as tips on how to implement them for achieving sharp focus on all of your images.




In a world full of autofocus cameras, it’s amazing how much work a photographer needs to do to make sure each photograph is properly focused. Whether you are manually focusing or letting the camera do the work for you, there are numerous factors that can dramatically alter the focus of your photo. With each major camera innovation—autofocus, digital, mirrorless—a new set of controls and possibilities has emerged. Never have there been so many ways to focus (and so many options to control that focus). Camera menus now offer pages of options dedicated to focus. To master the skill of focusing, you must be aware of the options, know how they work, and then apply the right technique to successfully capture the subject in front of your lens. An understanding of how we got to where we are today will clarify the importance of focus and why we have the tools and techniques that we now use.


ACHIEVING PROPER FOCUS is critical because it can’t be adjusted, fixed, or repaired after the photo is taken. It must be set correctly before the shutter is clicked.

There have been many demonstrations by tech companies, as well as fictional examples, that show how someone could take an out-of-focus photograph and sharpen it in a software program. You can almost hear them saying, sharpen and zoom in. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s all made up. It doesn’t exist. Adobe Photoshop has been around for more than 30 years and the best it can do to bring focus to a blurry photograph is a feature called Smart Sharpen, which adds a bit of contrast to the edges of your subject, giving the illusion of adding bit of sharpness. In 30-plus years of software development, there has been no real progress in taking an out-of-focus photo and turning it into a sharply focused image.

An out-of-focus image is a problem everyone can easily identify. The only reasons to keep an out-of-focus photo are either personal, emotional reasons; if it happens to be of a critical news event; or if it was an intentional, desired result. When culling through my own images, if it’s out of focus, it’s headed for the garbage.

I’ll often look at an out-of-focus image closely to try and determine what went wrong. There are a limited number of issues, and sometimes the metadata can reveal whether the problem is the shutter speed, focal length, or aperture. I have no problem with deleting out-of-focus images because I don’t believe a rescue in the form of fix-it software is going to become available in the foreseeable future. A software program that sharpens blurry photos is an exciting concept, but it doesn’t exist in practicality so far. Any software program is going to struggle to create data where none existed in the first place. For example, if you take a photo of your friend wearing a patterned blue shirt and your resulting photo is wildly out of focus, the blue shirt is going to look like a giant blob in various shades of blue. Without knowing what the shirt really looks like, current software programs have no hope of re-creating this lost information.

Potential future technologies may allow focusing after the image has been taken. There was a lot of excitement surrounding a new technology called the light-field camera. It captured light differently from conventional photographic systems and as a result, images could be refocused after the fact. The idea was that every time you took a photo your camera actually took a series of photos with every imaginable focus option and saved it as a single file. Then, upon reviewing the photo, you could change the focus point or the depth of field.

When in the field, always ensure that the photos you are capturing are sharp, because fixing an out-of-focus image isn’t possible.

ISO 100; 1/6 sec.; f/11; 24mm; Sony ILCE-7RM2

Despite the fact that the technology was widely acclaimed and praised as a great innovation; and despite more than $140 million dollars of investment and two different actual products being brought to market; the idea never caught on. There were many reasons why this product didn’t succeed, but regardless, it’s an example of the fact that solving the focus issue is difficult. I’ve no doubt that software programs will make incremental improvements, but a software breakthrough that fixes the focus problem is unlikely in the near future.

For the time being, we’re stuck with getting things right in the field. Not to worry; there have been numerous advancements with cameras that will assist you in achieving perfect focus. Simplistic autofocus systems introduced in the 1980s have come a long way and now offer new features such as subject tracking. Unfortunately, all this technology is accompanied by confusion because each manufacturer has their own unique system with its own controls. While it’s beyond the scope of this book to cover every camera in detail, the industry as a whole is well covered. Differences between cameras are surprisingly small, and the general operation is often similar from system to system.

Issues of focus are usually related to the focusing of the lens, but there are a number of things that impact the clarity of an image—lens quality, shutter speed, and depth of field—that we’ll tackle in this book. Whether you rely on modern autofocus systems or prefer to work with manual lenses, this book will help you bring your images into sharp focus.

Many aspects go into obtaining proper focus, whether it is by manually focusing or using the camera’s autofocus.

ISO 100; 1/125 sec.; f/2.8; 300mm; Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Sharp focus is a result of correctly balancing where you focus, what shutter speed you use, and what aperture you choose.

ISO 1600; 1/160 sec.; f/5.6; 35mm; Canon EOS 5D Mark IV


WHAT IS FOCUS? In the world of photography, focus refers to light rays passing through a lens and converging on the imaging device. This is generally accomplished by a lens element, a group of lenses, or the entire lens moving so that an image can be formed on the imaging sensor.

When a lens is focused properly, a single point from the field of view is rendered as a single point on the image sensor. In general, the higher the quality of the lens, the finer the point of focus that can be rendered. A high-resolution sensor should be matched with a high-resolution lens.


Inadequate lenses were a notable problem as digital cameras rapidly moved to higher and higher resolutions. Some users moving to higher megapixel cameras were still using older lenses that couldn’t resolve the necessary detail the high-capacity sensors were capable of. Owners would complain that the images from their new high-megapixel camera didn’t look any better than those from their old camera. This was because a higher-quality lens was required to resolve the necessary detail.

Focus is clearly related to resolution, but in a different part of our imaging device. Both focus and resolution must be increased if we want to see more detail in our photographs. A sharp lens on a low-resolution sensor is no better than a blurry lens on a high-resolution sensor. Two trends in the photographic world that showcase this relationship are an increase in full-frame, high-resolution cameras and the introduction of large, heavy, expensive lenses. With top-end sensors hovering in the 50-megapixels range, quality glass is a must. Nikon, Canon, Sony, Sigma, Leica, and others have been introducing fixed focal length lenses that cost multiple thousands of dollars to match the imaging potential of these new sensors.

Sharp, in-focus, high-resolution images contain lots of detail that will keep the viewer’s eye moving throughout the frame.

ISO 100; 2 sec.; f/11; 90mm; Sony ILCE-7RM2


Obviously the optical quality of the glass elements within a lens determines a great portion of how sharp a lens is, but there are a surprising number of elements that factor into the sharpness of the image. Camera movement, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, filters, and tripods all have a role to play. In upcoming chapters, we’ll look at the most common factors that can cause an image to be less sharp than it could be.

While there are innumerable ways of creatively making unsharp images, our goal here is to figure out the best ways to achieve the highest level of sharpness. If we then want to travel down a different path, we are free to do so. Having the knowledge and using proper techniques for achieving maximum sharpness will free us to concentrate on the more creative parts of photography.

High-resolution images have more than enough detail for a wide variety of applications, including cropping and enlarging.

ISO 100; 1/10 sec.; f/11; 24mm; Sony ILCE-7RM2

Providing a point of sharpness lets you be the director of the story in your photograph. The viewer’s eye will be drawn through the photo to these important elements.

ISO 100; 1/80 sec.; f/1.4; 50mm; Sony ILCE-7RM3


THE BEGINNING OF the modern autofocus era begins with the Minolta Maxxum 7000, introduced in 1985. Until this, all lenses needed to be manually focused or, in some rare cases, were fixed and could only focus on subjects a certain distance away. The autofocus revolution upended the camera industry and ushered in a wave of new cameras and lenses that make the system work.

All the major manufacturers were anticipating this coming technology and introduced their own version of autofocus within a few years of each other. The first autofocus cameras were novel and interesting to many, but the professionals weren’t convinced. It took a couple of generations of cameras and some quality lenses before the pros started to jump on board (Figure 3.1).

Since that time, autofocus has evolved and improved to the point that newly introduced manual focus cameras or lenses are a rarity. The phase detection system (section 12) that has been used on all the DSLR cameras to date has strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, it is quite fast and, with the help of a dedicated sensor, is amazingly adept at tracking action (Figures 3.2 and 3.3). The dirty secret of phase detection is that it can be faulty in achieving perfect focus. The system may need to be fine-tuned with calibration (section 17). The system itself may be imperfect, but when it’s tuned properly and operated by a skilled photographer, it’s capable of producing perfect photos at the rate of 10 or more frames per second (Figure 3.4).

Controls for where the camera focuses (section 5) and how the camera focuses (section 6) are available on most cameras. The higher-end cameras tend to have a fair number of customizable options when it comes to the additional focus controls available.

Learning the ins and outs of a particular focusing system has become a rite of passage for every photographer with a new camera. Each new camera offers a slightly different twist on the technology. The capabilities and features vary from one manufacturer to the next, but are broadly similar within price categories.

Lots of credit for these similarities can be given to Nikon and Canon’s fierce battle to be the pro favorite. Nikon kept their same lens mount when switching to autofocus cameras, allowing owners of new cameras to use both newer and older lenses. This proved to be a great short-term strategy because legacy glass was very important to most users. The downside is that the Nikon DSLR

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