Focus is an issue no matter how good your camera is. There is no perfect camera that will nail focus each time in every situation. Even the top dollar DSLR cameras have issues with sudden movement and low light situations. The more movement and the lower the light, the harder time it will have. Occasionally it is even hard to pull focus in perfect lighting situations. Over the years there are a few things I have learned to do that assure I get perfect focus “almost” every time. I may attempt to record a video explaining this process. The more I write, the harder I realize this is to explain without being to physically show you everything I am talking about.
Before I dive into my setup on my Canon 5D Mark III I want to mention that I have had this setup on my previous camera which was the Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 60D, Canon 40D and my very first DSLR camera, the Canon 20D. For those of you who use Nikon, I know there is a setup to achieve this as well.
There are a few tools you can use to make it easier to keep focus. The main tool is a tripod. If your subjects are not moving targets, a tripod is a good idea. If your camera is more of an entry level camera or a bit older of a model, I would suggest a tripod. Newer cameras are pretty amazing at detecting movement. Using a remote trigger can also help you keep focus because it keeps your hands off of the camera. You won’t need to go to these extremes unless you are shooting in very dark situations where you have to set your shutter speed down under 1/40th.
I have attached a diagram of the buttons I frequent on the back of my camera. Keep in mind that these are only buttons that I use to manage focus. There are other buttons that I use to manage exposure. Take a moment to look at the diagram and the labels of each button so you are familiar with what each does. Your camera may have different labels for the buttons and if your camera is not a 5D Mark III, the buttons are most likely located elsewhere. If you are unfamiliar with where these buttons are located on your camera, refer to it’s manual. I had to refer to my camera’s manual so I could make sure I used the correct names for each button. I had my own names for them but did not want to confuse anyone.
My process will only work if you are shooting in Manual Exposure Mode, Shutter-Priority AE or Aperture-Priority AE as far as I know. I rarely shoot in anything other than Manual Mode.
There are a few settings that I changed in my Canon 5D Mark III to make using these buttons easier. The first thing I did is disable shutter button auto-focus. This means that when I push the shutter button down 1/2 way on my camera, the camera does not attempt to focus. I disabled this because while shooting weddings, things change quickly. Every time I touch the shutter button, which sometimes is on accident, I do not want my camera to attempt to refocus. I want total control over when my camera attempts to adjust focus. On Canon DSLR’s, this is a custom function you must change in your camera’s setup menu. Each camera has a different location for this setting. Every Canon DSLR has a different menu system, so it would be hard for me to explain it to you. Just Google search it or look through your camera manual.
I also changed my cameras focus mode to AI-Servo (this is a Canon setting, I believe it is called AF-C for Nikon cameras). Default is OneShot. OneShot is good for situations with no movement or if you want focus to stay put. If you are shooting landscapes, OneShot is just fine for you. However, OneShot autofocus operation makes it challenging to maintain focus at a wedding or if your subjects have a tendency to move. AI-Servo is for moving subjects. AI-Servo tells the camera to be ready for movement using predictive autofocusing. This is not a perfect system, but it helps a lot. OneShot stops the camera from attempting to refocus every time during a set of burst shots when you hold the shutter down to capture multiple photos in a burst. AI-Servo allows the camera to search for focus, however, this is only going to work if you hold down the AF-On button while you are shooting.
I still use my camera’s autofocus, I just do not allow autofocus to take place when I touch the shutter. In my diagram, notice the button labeled AF-On. That button tells the camera to go ahead and autofocus. Using that button, I pull my focus. There is a process to my focus beyond separating autofocus from shutter release. Let me try my best to map that out for you. In the future I may try and record a video showing exactly how I do this.
Step 1 – I frame my shot: Before I can choose who or what to focus on I have to have an idea of how I am going to frame that shot. At weddings, this is a quick decision that mostly involves using the rule-of-thirds to place my subject(s) in the frame. I don’t get carried away with off-center shots or creative placement until I have nailed a good solid shot. After I have my main shot nailed I may play around with placement and framing.
Step 2 – I set focus: In most wedding photos, especially the unposed shots, there is a main focus. This makes it easy to decide where to focus. 95% of the time I am able to use the AF-On button to pull perfect focus on my subjects. When my shot is framed, I press the AF-On button to focus on my subject. If my subject is not right in the middle of my frame, I point my camera directly at the person or object I want to be the center of focus and then reframe my shot. On rare occasions doing this will result in the subject being out of focus because I moved my camera after pulling focus. I use all prime Canon lenses, so I don’t have this problem nearly as much as I would if I was using an entry level lens that has more issues with banding.
If I can not get good focus because of the placement of my subjects or objects in my frame, I use the AF Point Selection button which allows me to move the point of focus from the center of my frame to any other location. Depending on how many points of focus your camera allows for, this can mean you have a lot of options, or just a few. Regardless, you will have options to move the focus point elsewhere.
Using the Multi-Controller Switch you can move the focus point from the center to any of the other focus points. Some cameras do not have a Multi-Controller Switch but most have a 4 position switch that allows you to go up, down, left and right.
In weddings, I choose the Bride as my main focus and I focus in between her eyes in an attempt to make sure her eyes are in perfect focus. I try to align the groom so that he is also just as focused as the Bride.
In some instances, it is hard to pull focus even with these this process. When it is dark out and my camera begins to struggle with focus I use this 3rd step to assure I am getting sharp focus.
Step 3 – I Use Magnification: The Magnification button allows you to get in really close to your point of focus. Sometimes I will hit this button and zoom in 10x on to my subjects eye and then hit the AF-On button. If it is really dark out, I may just manually focus using the focus ring on my lens. To use magnification, I also have to turn on my camera’s electronic viewfinder screen. On my Canon 5D Mark III, using the electronic viewfinder (EVF) can help a lot in dark light situations. When I hit the AF-On button, the EVF will increase the exposure of the image so I can see my subjects better. When you press the shutter down to take the picture, it exposes according to your settings.
In this photo, the groom dipped his bride so there was constant motion. My subjects were not still when I captured this photo. There was movement. Because of my camera settings and my process for maintaining focus, I was able to grab this image with sharp focus in-camera.
Your Shutter Speed and F-Stop can affect focus. During weddings, I try my best to shoot at 1/160th for my shutter speed. If there is sudden movement, I want to make sure I get it. Many times I have been shooting at 1/100th or 1/125th and my subject ends up a bit soft. I hate soft. I want tack sharp focus every time.
It is also easy to miss focus if you are shooting at a wide F-Stop. This means that the lower the F-Stop number, the easier it is to miss focus. This is because of the wider your F-Stop, the shallower the depth of field. To explain further, this means that the focus fall off is much quicker. My ideal F-Stop is something higher than f5.4. All of my lenses are either 2.8 or wider with my widest lens being 1.2. If I was to shoot at f1.2, I could focus on the tip of my subject’s nose and their eye would be blurry. Even if the widest F-Stop your lens has is a 5.4, I suggest you try and keep your F-Stop at least 3-4 stops away from wide open.
It is not easy to shoot at 1/160th and f5.4 if you are not shooting outside during daylight. This is where ISO comes into play. On the Canon 5D Mark III I can shoot at 5400 ISO and get very usable photos. During the wedding reception, I often have my camera set to 1/160th shutter speed and f5.4 to make sure I capture movement and nail focus even when subjects are moving around and dancing. This means increasing my ISO and during a nighttime wedding reception I will set ISO very high. It is easy to get rid of noise in your image using modern versions of Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.
I don’t like to try and sharpen out of focus images in Photoshop or Lightroom. I prefer to nail focus in camera where it is done best. Attempting to bring back focus in an image in post-production never looks right. If I do any sharpening in post-production it is to add intensity to an image.
My Last Thought On Focus:
We spend a large part of our day focusing on things. That is the main job of our eyes. I wear glasses to see far, so I know how important focus is. I get frustrated when I can’t focus on things. Because of this, I make absolutely sure the subjects in my images are in focus and that the focus is sharp. It is that extra attention to detail that I desire because I can’t stand not being able to focus on things myself.
I hope that this article didn’t confuse you. Camera settings are difficult to understand and they take practice to master. Check out my free course “Ditch Auto – Start Shooting in Manual” which will teach you the fundamentals of manual settings on your DSLR Camera.