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What are Focus Points in Photography and How to Use Them?

Are your images blurry, or out-of-focus, tired of missing those perfect shots? Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, understanding focus points in photography will help you to capture tack-sharp, photos. In this article, we’ll demystify focus points, empowering you to unleash the full potential of your camera. We’ll let you in on our secret every photographer should know: Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

So why do we focus?

Focusing in photography isn’t just about clarity, but it plays a crucial role in directing your viewer’s attention and dictating the mood of a shot. In its simplest definition, “focus” refers to a specific portion of an image that’s sharper than the others.

Consider focusing to being a maestro conducting the orchestra. When photographers say “focal point,” they usually mean that part of the shot they want to steal the show. It could be a single point or several, and guess what? You decide on where to focus.

Think of it this way. What’s the first thing you’re drawn to when looking at a photograph of a person? Bingo, it’s the eyes. Naturally, as photographers, you’d want the eyes to be the sharpest point, the focal point in your photo.

However, focusing doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all. This is where your handy little friends, focus points, come into play. Picture them as invisible dots scattered across your frame, ready to jump into action whenever you decide. An active focus point could be at the centre or at the corner of your frame, focusing on that part of the scene that lies “under” it.

So, next time you’re behind the lens, take a moment before hitting the shutter button. Ask yourself, “What’s my focal point?”

Where to focus

Understanding where to focus when taking a photograph can dramatically enhance your images, strengthening communication with your viewer. But how exactly do you determine your focus point to get that winning shot? Let’s unravel this together.

Selecting and enhancing your focus point involves being alert to composition, light, and colour contrast—basically, the visual weight within your frame. It may seem a bit challenging at first, but hold on; trust me, it gets better with some practice. Here’s a breakdown of points to consider:

  1. Embrace Composition Guidelines The positioning of your subject within the frame plays a crucial role in focus point determination. Follow the ‘Rule of Thirds‘, placing your point of interest off-centre, possibly within a 3×3 grid’s intersections or grids.
  2. Make Use of Leading Lines: Frame your shot in a manner that a visible line draws your viewer’s eye towards your subject. Keep an eye out for streets, railways, or even wall edges.
  3. Creating negative space can effectively accentuate your subject by simplifying your scene. Creating a negative space around your subject by using an empty area – the sky, a water surface, or a wall, perhaps.
  4. Identify your Main Subject: The general rule is to focus on your main subject. If you’re photographing a person, focus on their eyes. The same goes for wildlife or insects. (Insects: this is where Don Komarachka and I debate)
  5. Play Around with Unexpected Focus: Want to be a bit adventurous? Focus on an unexpected part of your photo to draw attention. For instance, in a portrait, you might focus on the person’s hands instead of their face.
  6. Use Light and Contrast: Look for areas with strong light contrast when framing your shot. This helps emphasis your focus point while hiding any distracting elements.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to where you should focus in your photograph. It’s a creative, artistic decision primarily based on the image you want to capture and the story you want to tell. After all, photography is all about experimenting and experiencing.

Understand the purpose of focus points in photography

Focus points are an incredibly powerful feature of your camera. They allow you to precisely control where the camera will focus, ensuring that the subject you’re photographing is sharp and clear. With a wide array of focus points to choose from, you have the flexibility to frame your shots exactly as you envision. Taking full advantage of focus points will greatly enhance the quality of your photographs. They help you nail that perfect shot by allowing you to pinpoint and track your subject with precision.

Whether you’re capturing a fast-moving athlete or a beautiful wildlife moment, focus points ensure your subject stays sharp and in focus. So, don’t underestimate the power of focus points.

Phase detection vs contrast detection

Let’s dive into the autofocus systems and introduce you to the two heavyweight contenders – Phase Detection and Contrast Detection. We need to understand them to master the art of perfect focus.

Phase detection autofocus is superfast and tracks moving subjects like a pro. It doesn’t call in a heavy load of computational work from your camera, which is a relief. But keep in mind, it’s prone to errors and internal misalignment. No worries though, as some cameras let you calibrate your phase detection system to minimize these potholes.

On the other hand, contrast detection autofocus plays the patience card. It requires your camera to process more data, resulting in a bit more time to lock focus. Although it isn’t a fan of speed and moving subjects, it scores high in precision, directly measuring the data from your camera sensor. If your subject ain’t running like The Flash, like in landscape photography, contrast detection is your go-to buddy.

Phase Detection:

  1. Fast and efficient at tracking moving subjects.
  2. Camera calibration to minimize errors.
  3. Ideal for use via the viewfinder.

Here’s the list converted into a table format:

Fast and ideal for tracking moving subjectsMore prone to errors and internal misalignment.
Less computational work for the camera.Provides a limited number of autofocus points.
Calibration options to minimize errors.Ineffective in low contrast scenes.
Sensors specifically designed for precise focusing.Not as precise as contrast detection.
Most DSLRs today adopt this system.Could be complicated for beginners.

Contrast Detection:

  1. Precise with static or slow-moving subjects.
  2. Doesn’t rely on dedicated sensors for focusing.
  3. Usually utilized via the rear LCD screen.
Gives you complete control over your photo's focus.Can be time-consuming, especially when precision is required.
There are no limitations on the camera or lens you're using.Requires a steady hand and a good eye.
There are no limitations on the camera or lens you're using.Might not be convenient when rapid shots are needed.
Helps with precision focusing in challenging conditions or tricky subjects.In low light conditions, manually focusing can be quite challenging.
You can lock the focus for a series of shots.It often requires the use of certain features like focus peaking or magnification which might not be available on all cameras.

Tip: Use these autofocus systems wisely based on your requirements. For instance, if you’re shooting a sports event or a hectic wedding scene, the speed of phase detection may be beneficial. But when you’re into portrait or landscape photography where precision is vital, contrast detection comes in handy. Happy shooting!

focus points in photography

Manual Focus vs Autofocus

Let the debate begin, autofocus vs manual focus, these two have always been jostling side by side, each having their own charm. There is a time and a place for both.

Let’s kick things off with the killer features of both:

  1. Manual Focus allows you to have total control over the focus in your photos.
  2. With Manual, you can precisely adjust focus, great for when the camera’s autofocus is having a tough time.
  3. Autofocus, on the other hand, is like your very own sharp-eyed sidekick that does all the detailed work for you.
  4. Autofocus is usually faster, more efficient, and pretty handy for photographing moving subjects.

And now, let’s dig into the pros and cons, shall we?

Manual Focus:

Unlock creative freedom and precision with manual focus, allowing you to take full control over your subject’s sharpness, depth of field, and artistic vision.

High precision with static and slow-moving scenes.Not as fast as phase detection.
Makes use of the main sensor for focusing.Struggles with tracking moving subjects.
Supports an almost unlimited number of autofocus points.Slower focus due to increased computational work.
Excellent for high contrast and well-lit scenes.Less effective in low light or low contrast scenarios.
Generally used in an array of cameras, from mirrorless to compacts.May struggle with subjects that have similar textures.


Never miss a moment with the game-changing benefits of autofocus, effortlessly capturing sharp and focused shots every time, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the art of photography.

Quick and convenient, saving time for you.Not all cameras and lenses come with an autofocus motor.
Highly effective in tracking moving subjects, thanks to systems like AF-C (Continuous Autofocus).In certain lighting conditions, autofocus may struggle or fail.
Often more accurate, making it a favourite for sports and wildlife photographers.The system might choose to focus on the wrong subject in complex scenes.
There are different autofocus modes (AF-S, AF-C) to suit different situations.Constantly using autofocus may limit your learning of photography fundamentals.
The system is even capable of choosing the subject to focus on.Certain cameras might not have all autofocus modes.

Importance of Focus Points in Photography

focus points in photography

1. A Focus Point allows you to focus on a specific part of the photograph.

A focal point in photography is a critical piece that highlights the most important part of your photo. Imagine a scenic image of a park; the focal point might be a vividly painted bench, becoming the showstopper amongst the surrounding greenery.

Creating focus points is an art in itself. To master it, here are some expert tips:

  1. Placing the Focal Point: Follow the rule of thirds. Divide your frame into a 3×3 grid. The intersections make for the best focal points. Place your subject there, never in the center.
  2. Selective Focus: Use a wide aperture (like f/2.8) in the settings. This reduces your depth of field, blurring out any distractions present around your subject, making it stand out.
  3. Play with Exposure: Consider underexposing (darkening) parts of your image. This will make any light regions pop out, naturally pulling the viewer’s attention.
  4. Utilize Light Source: Use a ray of sunlight or a shaft of light making the surrounding environment appear darker, and hence highlighting your subject.

2. Focus Points allow you to quickly and easily autofocus on a moving object.

Focus points in photography are the game-changers giving you an edge when capturing lively, active scenes. They’re like your camera’s magic eye, choosing where to sharpen the visuals and make your shot stand out.

  1. Focus points decide what your camera sees as the main subject of your frame, often the bulkiest or fastest object.
  2. These points let you switch the areas you want in focus, manually or with a touchscreen.
  3. Modern cameras have advanced features allowing you to have multiple focus points. For instance, capturing a chirpy parakeet mid-flight becomes a breeze with multipoint focusing.

Just remember, more autofocus (AF) points mean sharper, better-focused shots.

3. Focus Points aid in capturing photographs in challenging lighting conditions.

Understanding focus points in photography is key to capturing great images, even in challenging lighting conditions.

To make use of focus points in challenging light conditions:

  1. Pay attention to light contrasts: Frame your subject in areas with significant light contrast. This typically occurs when the sun is high or light comes through an opening like a window.
  2. Clever positioning: Position the focus point in brighter sections of the frame, ensuring the viewer’s attention is drawn there.
  3. Use darkness strategically: High light contrast can hide distracting elements in the shadows, keeping the focus on your subject.

Applying these techniques will lead to better-focused images, even in complex light conditions.

4. Focus Points can aid in the creation of action shots:

Focus points are the secret sauce for capturing breathtaking action shots. They allow you to effortlessly track and maintain focus on moving subjects, freezing the perfect moment in time. Here’s how focus points make it happen:

1. Choose the right focus point(s):

  1. Look for focus points that cover the area where the action is happening.
  2. Place your focus point on the subject to ensure it stays sharp.

2. Utilize continuous autofocus (AF-C) mode:

  1. Enable continuous autofocus to track moving subjects.
  2. Your camera will adjust focus as the subject moves, ensuring sharpness throughout.

3. Consider focus point selection modes:

  1. Single-point mode: Great for isolating a specific subject in action.
  2. Expanded or dynamic area mode: Useful for tracking a subject across multiple focus points.

Imagine photographing a skateboarder performing tricks. Choose the skater’s face as the focus point using continuous autofocus. This will ensure that your camera captures their movement with sharpness and dynamism.

5. Use Focus Points to Capture Portraits and Close-Ups

Get ready to level up your portrait and close-up game with the power of focus points! When shooting portraits, using focus points allows you to highlight the subject’s eyes or face, adding depth and personality to your shots. Here’s how to make it happen:

  1. Activate your camera’s autofocus (AF) mode.
  2. Select a focus point near the subject’s eyes or face.
  3. Lock focus by half-pressing the shutter button or using a dedicated focus lock button.
  4. Compose your shot, keeping the focus point on the subject.
  5. Capture stunning portraits with sharp, captivating details.

Remember, focus points are your secret weapon for achieving professional-quality portraits and close-ups that truly shine.

Tips and Techniques for Using Focus Points

example of focus point in camera

1. Experiment with different focus points and sizes

I very seldom settle for the default focus points. Often when getting the camera set up I’m working on changing where I want my focus point to be, and how many focus points I’m going to use.

  1. Try different modes: Go beyond single-point mode and explore dynamic area or zone modes. They let you track subjects across multiple focus points, ideal for fast-paced action.
  2. Vary the size: Larger focus point sizes are perfect for capturing big subjects, while smaller sizes offer precision for intricate details.
  3. Step out of your comfort zone: Don’t be afraid to play around and see what works best for your style and subjects.

Remember, the beauty of photography lies in exploring and pushing boundaries. So go on, embrace the joy of experimentation with focus point.

2. Utilize the Focus Point Selection Button on Your Camera

  1. First, locate the focus points in your camera. When gazing through the viewfinder, you’ll spy several dots or squares. Just press that shutter button partially!
  2. Lighted dots? Bingo, those are your focus points. That’s exactly where your camera is planning to focus.
  3. Let’s get into our options: There’s a single focus point, optimal for non-moving subjects. You choose one spot, and the camera focuses there.
  4. Dial in Zone or Multi-focus Points for moving targets. Here, the camera uses a cluster of focus points to track the subject.

3. Experiment with Different Focal Points to Find Your Unique Style

Photography is all about capturing the world from your unique perspective. One way to infuse uniqueness is experimenting with different focal points. You can isolate your subject for a clean, uncluttered focal point, or play with contrasting colours to achieve vivid results.

  1. Isolate Your Subject: Keep the scene simple and let your subject steal the show. Remove any distracting elements that might divide attention from your chosen focal point.
  2. Experiment with Body Parts: When shooting portraits, the eyes are traditionally the go-to focal point. However, feel free to focus on other areas. Hands feet…
  3. Play with Multiple Focal Points: Street photography often employs this technique. Establish a primary focus point and multiple secondary points to guide the viewer’s eye through the scene.
  4. Remember, every photograph is a testament to your creativity—so enjoy the experiment, have fun and keep exploring!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using Focus Points

1. Not Focusing on the Right Point

An all-too-common slip-up in photography is forgetting to set the focus point. Often, it results in viewers drawn to unintended elements in the image. To avoid this, follow these tips:

  1. Pay attention to your focal point; ideally, this should be the sharpest part of your image, like the subject’s eye.
  2. Remember that focus decreases as you move away from your focal point based on your aperture.
  3. Utilize your camera’s autofocus, aiming it at an area with detectable contrast. For example, avoid plain walls as there’s little contrast for the camera to latch onto.
  4. Practice and familiarize yourself with your camera’s settings. Consider printing a focus chart to aid in setting your focus points.

2. Using the Wrong Point for the Shot

When setting up your shot, remember to check your focal point. . All to often we get in a hurry to click the shutter button, and forget about where the focus is set. Done it many times.

  1. Ditch the idea that more focus points offer better composition.
  2. You may think that the camera is focusing on all points, but it’s not! It’s just picking one.
  3. Choose your focus point wisely. A lens can only focus at one distance, so make sure it’s on your subject.
  4. Use your AF point selection button, available in all modes more advanced than ‘Auto’.
  5. Half-press the shutter to confirm where the focus point is.

4. Not Using the Autofocus Mode Properly

Let’s talk about a common hiccup in photography – not properly using the autofocus mode. Sure, you’ve probably faced it at some point, right? You’re out there, camera in hand, lined up the perfect shot, but then comes the struggle – the frustrating dance between you and your camera as it fails to focus where you want.

  1. Choosing the Wrong Autofocus Point: Ever noticed all those tiny points light up when you half-press the shutter button? Those are your camera’s autofocus points. But here’s the kicker – all of those points are usually ‘active’. That means your camera could focus on completely the wrong thing unless you manually pick the right point. So, next time you’re in a standoff with your focus, check your autofocus points. Brick wall taking the center stage instead of your friend? Switch to another autofocus point.
  2. Getting Too Close: If the camera can’t focus, it’s sometimes because you’re just too close to your subject. Every lens has a minimum focusing distance. Get closer than this and your gear just throws in the towel. The solution? Step back a little and retry focusing.
  3. Low Light: Cameras and darkness; not exactly the best pairing. If you’re shooting in low light, your camera often struggles to find anything to focus on, no matter which autofocus point you choose. In such situations, a torch, lamp, or any light source can come to your rescue. Any illumination on your subject, even from a small torch, helps your camera detect an object to focus on.
  4. Switch to Manual Focus: And then there are those times when autofocus seems to have taken a day off. That’s when we turn to reliable, old school manual focus. It needs a bit of practice, but then what doesn’t, right? If you’re struggling, just rotate that focus ring on your lens manually to set the focus.

Some neat tricks to grab sharper photos:

  1. Focus Mode: Try using the appropriate focus mode for the situation (single, continuous, or automatic as AF-S, AF-C, and AF-A in camera parlance).
  2. Contrast: Always focus on an area with contrast. The camera loves differences in light and shade to lock on to.
  3. The Eye Rule: If you’re photographing people, focus on the eyes. Chances are, if the eyes are in focus, everything else will be too.

And here’s a bonus tip – dig around for your camera’s manual or find a PDF online. It contains a wealth of information on how to tweak and handle those focusing issues.

5. Trying to Focus While Shooting Moving Objects

Focusing on moving subjects is a common hurdle many of us face. We’ve been there: you’ve got the perfect fast moving subject, maybe a bird in flight or a bustling crowd, and you attempt to lock focus, only for it to get into a blurry mess. Discouraging, but remember, it happens to the best of us.

So why does this mistake occur? Moving subjects are, well, moving. This constant change confuses our autofocus systems, reducing its accuracy significantly.

  1. Firstly, select the continuous autofocus (AF-C) mode. This enables the camera to continuously refocus on the ever-changing position of your subject. A neat trick, eh?
  2. Next, choose the right AF tracking mode. Pick either Auto-area mode if you’re on the move yourself, or Dynamic Area mode if you’re shooting from a fixed point. This way, your camera can more effectively track your subject.
  3. Now just keep firing shot after shot, even as your subject zips about the frame. Don’t get discouraged if not every shot is a keeper; even a hit rate of 75% is stellar.

But of course, no autofocus system is foolproof. Things can get tricky, especially when lighting is poor. Cameras, just like our own eyes, struggle to focus in low light conditions. In such cases, the good old manual focus mode coupled with live view can be a true savior. Try lighting your subject with a torch or headlight to assist in focusing.

A very creative way to focus on a moving subject is to capture motion blur, intentionally blurring the subject in motion. For this, you’ll need a slower shutter speed, like 1/30 seconds or even less. This creates a fascinating contrast between the still and moving elements of your scene.

Reality is, focusing can be tough in some situations, and not just with autofocus. Manual focus can also be quite the challenge under specific conditions. So when in doubt, try the above techniques, and you’ll be capturing sharp, dynamic shots in no time.

6. Not Taking the Time to Practice

Photography is an art form marked by mastery of various techniques, one is focus. If you’re recently finding your photos are blurry and less sharp than you’d like, then it’s high time for a little focus on focus!

One common mistake is not taking the time to practice. Here’s why practising with focus is essential and a few tips to avoid this mistake:

  1. Mastering Focus is a Skill: In this point-and-shoot world, it’s easy to rely on autofocus. However, understanding how to manually control focus is a valuable skill.
  2. Understanding Your Focus System: Know how your camera’s autofocus works. Each camera has a different way to select and control focus points.
  3. Improving subject clarity: Focusing is instrumental in ensuring your composition comes together as envisioned.
  4. Avoid blurry outcomes: Correct focus will save you from the heartache of blurry photos, which often are discarded.

Conclusion: Enhancing Your Photography Skills with Focus Points.

Wowzer, let me first apologize for such a long post. When I started to write this post I never thought is would this long. However, understanding and controlling your focus points can absolutely take your photography skills to the next level. You’ll find that with a little practice, your eyes will naturally identify the strong focal points. This improved instinct, in turn, makes your images more compelling and better at communicating your intended message. So, don’t shy away from experimenting and remember, every great photographer was once a beginner, trying to figure out focal points just like you. In the end, it’s this journey of learning and experimenting that enables you to capture those astounding shots that leave your viewers spellbound!

Frequently Asked Questions

A camera focuses by utilizing autofocus mechanisms that detect contrast, movement, or distance to achieve sharpness. These mechanisms analyze the input from focus points, allowing the camera to adjust the lens position and create a clear, focused image.

The focal point is crucial in photography as it determines the area of sharpness and draws attention to the subject. It allows photographers to create depth, emphasize details, and guide viewers’ eyes to the intended point of interest in the image.

The types of focus in photography typically include manual focus, single autofocus (AF-S), and continuous autofocus (AF-C). Manual focus allows precise control, while AF-S locks focus on a specific point, and AF-C tracks moving subjects.

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