One of the most common questions I see during my private photography tutoring sessions is “Why isn’t my photo in focus?” and variants like “why aren’t my photos sharp?” and “I can’t seem to get sharp photos…”
Creating images that are in sharp focus and that appear sharp is fairly straightforward, but there are a couple of pitfalls that many new photographers fall into. You might be surprised to learn that many of them have nothing to do with focus itself.
#1 Continuous vs Single Focus Drive
Topping this list is the most common problem I see: using the wrong focus drive mode.
This mistake manifests itself as slightly front or back focused images, usually with quickly moving subjects.
Most new photographers don’t realize that their auto focus system is configurable. Besides options like using area vs single point focus, cameras allow you to control whether the focus system tries to keep focusing or stops after it achieves focus. Most cameras have 2 options: Single and Continuous.
Avoid Single, Use Continuous
Single auto focus drive was created to allow photographers to focus (half press the shutter button) and then recompose their photo. That was needed because early auto focus systems had very few focus points clustered around the center of the frame.
Modern focus systems have a lot of points spread out. Move your focus point where you need it and use continuous focus drive. It works with moving subjects like flying birds or running children, but also in stationary situations like portraits. In fact, if you are making portraits and using a shallow depth of field, your subject’s and your breathing is enough to loose focus in single focus drive.
Single Focus Drive
When your camera is in single focus drive, and you half press the shutter button (tell the camera to focus), the auto focus system will try to focus. As soon as it thinks it has focused, it stops trying. To get it to focus again, you have to release the shutter button and start over.
Single Focus Drive has different names on different camera systems:
- AF-S: Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Fuji
- S-AF: Olympus
- One Shot: Canon
There are a number of major catches with single focus drive. If you are photographing moving subjects, such as wildlife or children, they will likely move out of your plane of focus before you take the picture. To compound the problem, if you are shooting with a shallow depth of field (a small f-number like f/2), even TINY movements like your or your subjects breathing will move them from the plane of focus.
Continuous Focus Drive
In continuous auto focus drive, the camera starts trying to focus when you half press the shutter button. Unlike single drive, as long as you continue to half press the shutter button, the camera will continue to try to focus. It focuses continuously.
Continuous Focus Drive also has different names on different camera systems:
- AF-C: Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Fuji
- C-AF: Olympus
- AI-Servo: Canon
Continuous focus drive requires you to keep your focus point(s) on the subject until you release the shutter (fully press the shutter button). Once upon a time (15+ years ago) that could be tough since auto focus systems had few focus points and were not very good.
Today, that isn’t as much of an issue. Focus systems have a lot of focus points. Most focus systems have some form of subject tracking (think “missile lock”) to aid you on quick moving subjects like running dogs or flying birds.
#2 Wrong Focus Area
Sometimes you are using the correct focus drive mode but simply fail to focus on what you wanted to focus on. As the photographer, you are responsible for where your camera focuses. A camera is just a bunch of rocks and dead dinosaurs. You are the photographer.
A camera is just a bunch of rocks and dead dinosaurs. It isn’t smart.
This mistake sometimes manifests itself as sightly front or back focused images, but more often as very inconsistent auto focus. Sometimes your subject is mostly in focus, other times, the tree in the background is in focus, or the grass way in front. The auto focus systems will seem to have a mind of its own.
In addition to focus drive mode, most cameras have a variety of focus areas available. If you are consistently finding that your images are focused on the wrong part of your subject, or something else all together, you might need to change focus areas.
Most cameras use an automatic, “just pick the focus point for me,” focus area by default. Chances are it will pick wrong.
Here is where things get slightly less simple. Focus systems are one of the major areas of competition between camera companies. Even different camera models from the same company tend to have different options available. Your camera’s manual is the place to look to understand the specific focus modes available to you. Never the less, here are a couple of common modes:
Single Point Focus – The Lowest Common Denominator
I’ve never seen a camera that didn’t have a single point focus area so we will start there. If you set your focus area to single point, you should notice a single focus point lit up in your viewfinder. Your focus system will focus only on what is under that focus point.
You can move that focus point around. On Nikon cameras, you simply use the four-way pad on the back, or on newer cameras that have one, the little joystick. Most Canon cameras require you to press a button first and then the wheel or four-way will move the focus point. Most other camera companies handle it in one of those two ways.
Regardless of how you move your focus point around, put it where you want your subject (or the part of your subject, like their eye) and focus.
Single point focus provides the most direct control over what you focus on of any of the focus areas. I use single point focus a lot since it provides direct intentional control over what is in focus.
Missile Lock – Subject Tracking
Most focus systems have an “area” that adds intelligence. On Nikon it is called “3D”. Other companies call it something different. You have a single focus point you move around. When you half press the shutter button, the camera will try to follow whatever was under the focus point around the frame using image recognition.
It works like missile lock. As long as you keep what you want in focus in the frame, the camera should keep it in focus.
Subject tracking modes are great for fast moving subjects like birds or animals that might be hard to keep exactly in the same spot in the frame.
Most cameras have a variety of other modes. For example, many cameras have face-detect or eye-detect auto focus that find the human face and focus on the eyes for you automatically. Many cameras have variants of single point that make the point larger and give you more wiggle room.
Experimentation and your camera’s manual are the places to look to understand the options available to you.
#3 Omni-Directional Light
You may not realize it, but the quality of the light you are photographing in affects whether your photo appear sharp or not. Scenes with directional light, whether soft or hard, tend to feel sharper than scenes with omni-directional light.
If you have looked at your images and your subject appear to be the most focused thing in the image, but it just doesn’t look sharp, consider the light in the photo.
Directional light, even very soft directional light, creates shadows. Shadows are what our brains use to determine shape and see texture. Directional light, especially hard (that is from a point source) light, highlights edges, curves and texture. Images with directional light will feel sharper than images with omni-directional light.
Have you ever noticed that landscape photos takes on gray overcast days seems soft even though you are sure you nailed focus? The omni-directional light (coming from every direction almost equally) does not highlight the edges. It doesn’t give your brain any queues as to where the sharp hard edges are.
Directional light, such as that on a bright sunny day, highlights and brings out edges and textures. It adds contrast to the image. Directional light will cause a photo to feel sharper.
None of this means you can’t make great photos on a gray overcast day. Those photos will feel different than those taken on days with directional light. Embrace it and incorporate that softness into the image you are making.
#4 Junk “Protective” Filters
People love to put “protective” filters in front of their lenses. The logic goes that if something happens, they will “save” the front element.
I personally think they aren’t worth it and almost never help. I’ve never seen one save a lens but have seen the opposite where they actually cause more damage. Use your lens hood and save your money on the “protective” filters. I’ve personally seen lens hoods save multiple lenses during drops and hard bangs.
Disagree? That’s fine. Remember, the cost is more than just the $ the filter cost.
There is an image quality cost to putting a filter on your lens, especially if you opted for anything but the most expensive (multi-coated) ones. Here is a more in-depth discussion of multi-coating.
Lens makers put a TON of work into “multi-coating” for their lenses. What is multi-coating? It is oils and films that are put over the optical glass to change how it responds to light. Most coatings are designed to minimize and control ghosting, flares and reflections inside the lens. All of those effects will harm the final image, usually in the form of reduced contrast and sharpness.
When you stick a $50 not-multi-coated “protective” filter in front of the lens you are undoing that. This also applies to useful filters like circular polarizers and neutral density filters. Junk filters won’t necessarily cause problems all the time, but in difficult situations, such as photographing into back light or into a scene with lots of contrast, they can wreck your image.
In short, don’t put a cheap filter on an expensive lens. If you feel you must put a protective filter on, buy and use multi-coated filters. The same applies to circular polarizers.
If you are having focus problems, remove all filters and test. If the problems goes away, strongly consider throwing the filter in the garbage.
#5 Bad Lens
Don’t jump to this one first, but sometimes your lens is just broken or poorly designed. Diagnose this problem by creating a controlled situation. Photograph in good directional light from a sturdy tripod. Make sure your shutter speed is high enough (follow the reciprocal rule of 1/focus length or faster). Use the same subject. Test your lens at different apertures and zooms and with image stabilization on and off.
If you find that some combinations are just not sharp, well, you might be up against the limitations of your equipment. Most lenses, particularly inexpensive lenses, are soft “wide open” (at their fastest aperture). If the lens is always soft, you could have a copy of the lens that has been jarred or broken in some way. Or, your model might not be a good design. Remember that most old film era lenses and early digital lenses were designed for much lower resolution than modern digital cameras have.
Borrow or rent another copy of the lens and test if you think yours is just broken. While your at it, borrow or rent a different model lens that does the same thing.
Why isn’t my photo in focus?
These are the five common mistakes that can keep you from achieving consistently sharp focus:
- Using the incorrect focus drive mode,
- Selecting the incorrect focus area for your situation,
- Shooting in omni-directional light,
- Installing a junk filter on the front of your lens and
- Having a low quality or broken lens.
There are other issues that could play into a lack of sharp focus, but these 5 are by far the most common issues I see. Start from #1 and work through the list making sure you are using your camera right, and finally that your gear isn’t broken.
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.