Five Beginner DSLR Focusing Tips for Shooting Tack-Sharp Photos

If you recently upgraded from a compact camera to a DSLR, one of the first things you probably noticed was that focusing is done completely differently. Instead of simply pointing your camera at a subject and letting the camera figure out what to do, you now need to think about autofocus points, which often don’t seem as “intelligent” as the focus systems in point-and-shoot cameras. The truth is, autofocus points are extremely powerful and give you a great deal more freedom — you just need to know how to use them.

To get you started, here’s a great primer video by photographer Phil Steele. Over the course of 9 minutes, Steele steps through five fundamental tips for achieving fine focus and tack-sharp photos: ditching full auto, focus and recomposing, looking for edge contrasts, using manual pre-focusing, and making use of live view to aid in manual focusing.

(via DPS)

  • Angus

    I disagree….I shoot motorsport for a living and I’d never rely on manually prefocussing to get a sharp picture. Cars move too fast to be able to judge when to release the shutter accurately (especially as a beginner), and the AF systems in cameras these days will do a much better job over many more frames.

  • Vickie Sceifers

    What a great post! I got a Nikon D7000 a few months ago and always struggle with being in focus. I use it for video more than photos, but a couple of these tips are definitely going to make a difference. The last one especially is spot on!

  • mclarlm

    Well, you probably have better gear. I’m on a mirrorless camera with CDAF, and it can’t keep up with cars. I pre-focus, try my best to time the right moment, and rely on having lots of frames.

  • Happy_Tinfoil_Cat

    I’m surprised about how much he uses ‘focus & recompose’.

  • Jeff Willey

    I don’t disagree in conditions with good lighting, but once it becomes a challenge for autofocus (especially on lower end and older cameras), manual pre-focus is a definite necessity! You are right though, the margin for error is extremely narrow.

  • John MacLean Photography

    I concur on all of his points and I work exactly the same. One thing to note that wasn’t mentioned was the lens aperture and ambient light plays a big role in how well the AF will work. Slow lenses and dim light are murder on AF.

  • kirsty

    I think people should thank you for such a clear and helpful video, simple, to the point and greatly appreciated.

  • Mansgame

    I agree with him. Also am glad to shoot Nikon…that joystick thing looks confusing.

  • James R

    There’s no need to use the ‘prefocus and set lens to MF mode’ on cameras with the AF-ON button, you can just set the custom function so that the camera only focuses with AF-ON (and not by half pressuring the shutter) and save yourself all the fiddling with the AF/MF switch on the lens – this way is much faster.

  • Phil Steele Photo

    Thank you Kristy!

  • Phil Steele Photo

    Angus, Thanks for the comment. Maybe the particular photos I chose here were not the best to illustrate the point, because a car coming directly toward you is pretty easy to keep an autofocus point on. But consider a car passing you from left to right at 200 mph while you’re panning to follow it and shooting through a chain link fence. Can you always keep the autofocus point on the moving car? And what if it focuses on the fence instead? I agree that there are many, many cases in sports and action where autofocus works great and saves the day. But everyone knows this, and everyone uses autofocus by default, so there’s nothing to learn there. So I’m trying to get them to think about cases where keeping an autofocus point on a moving object may be harder than simply pre-focusing and then never having to worry about focus at all.

  • Jemi

    I agree, use pre-focus for some situations.

  • ys_lee

    Why is this being downranked? Focus and recompose can lead to slightly out of focus shots. It might work with lower density sensors, but higher density sensors can show up the mistake at shallow DoF.

  • Happy_Tinfoil_Cat

    Personally, I don’t like this technique for the reason you state. His tip about moving in a parallel sensor plane may help me.

    I didn’t intend to say ‘focus & recompose’ was “wrong”, I’m just
    surprised that he said the majority of his shots use that technique.
    Especially since he has high end cameras. Granted, the ones he showed
    were 7D’s which have the same focus point pattern of the Rebel series.
    You really don’t need a joystick for 9 points since it only takes a
    split-second to select the one you want. But since he likes the
    joystick, I’m assuming he has the cameras with dozens of focus points
    and the gee-whiz focus mechanisms that come with them. So I’m surprised
    and apparently, others are not so surprised.

  • Tim

    It completely depends on your shooting situation, I find it much more convenient to shoot using one focus point and recompose rather than change focus point all the time, especially when shooting portraits. The human face can change it’s expression much faster than i can change my focus point and i wouldn’t want all my shots to have the eye on the same place in the frame.

    You can minimise focus-shift at wide apertures by choosing the focus point closest to the eye to recompose too, it dosen’t have to be the middle point all the time.

  • Chris

    Thanks! Great tip on live view focusing. Had no idea you could do that.

  • Kamil

    Thank you,

  • Rupam

    Watz d fun of using your third eye then?? Manual is adventure.