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I began to discuss the autofocus modes of various dSLR cameras in previous posts including Taking Control of Your Canon Autofocus System and Taking Advantage of the Autofocus Systems of the Nikon D5100 and the Nikon D7000

In this post I wish to go into more detail about one of the reasons it is important to take control of your autofocus system, namely not allowing the locations of the AF Points in your viewfinder to dictate your final composition.

As I mentioned in previous autofocus posts, one of the essential steps in taking a successful photo is controlling where the camera focuses.  If you allow the camera to auto focus by choosing its own focus point(s), it typically focuses on the closest object.  This may or may not be what you want to focus on, so you should select where the camera focuses using the Auto Focus Points.  For example, you often want to focus on a subject’s eyes, but if you allow the camera to choose the autofocus point itself, it may select another part of the face, or somewhere else on the body, or even a raised hand that is nearer to the camera than the face to focus most sharply on.

In addition, there are reasons to use the outer focus points and not just focusing with the center AF point and then recomposing.  First, if you are taking several shots of the same subject and framing, you will not have to re-focus with the center point and recompose between each shot.  And by controlling exactly where you focus, you then have greater, more precise control over the use of dramatic depth of field.  Also, if you use the center point and recompose, you have swept the camera in an arc to recompose, and are thus always focusing at a distance behind the subject.  This may not be as noticeable when the subject is further away, but for a close subject – especially when using shallow depth of field – the difference is critical.

One of the additional critical reasons to take control of your autofocus system is so that you don’t let the location of the AF Points dictate your composition. What happens when the subject you want to focus on is not located exactly under one of the AF Points? Even with 9 or 19 or more AF Points to choose from, they will not always be located exactly at or near where you need them to be.  Recomposing or re-framing your shot is often necessary so that you can capture exactly the image you wish to and not one dictated by the locations of the AF Points as you see them in the viewfinder.

Canon 7D 5D mark II 60D T3i 600D autofocus system AF point choose select set setting
Figure 1 – The desired framing and composition of the shot I wish to take, yet no AF Point, including the selected lower right point (the larger point shown in red here) is located exactly at the woman’s head where I wish to focus. (Canon 7D viewfinder shown)

Canon 7D 5D mark II 60D T3i 600D autofocus system AF point choose select set setting
Figure 2 – Image is temporarily framed to place the selected AF Point over the woman’s head, Shutter Button is pressed half-way and held to lock focus at that distance, image is recomposed to the desired framing of previous Figure 1, and Shutter Button is fully pressed to capture the image.

Figure 1 shows the desired framing and composition of the shot I want to take, but the woman is not located under an AF Point. This composition is desired for me because it captures the entire window along with some space around it, as well as some space in front of the woman for her to “walk into” – but not an excessive amount of space. So I manually select the lower right AF Point (using Single-Point AF Mode), temporarily frame the image to place the selected AF Point over her face or head, press and hold the Shutter Button half-way to lock focus at that distance (Figure 2), and see the Focus Confirmation Light illuminate in the viewfinder. I then recompose back to the final framing I want (Figure 1) and press the Shutter Button fully to take the image. Even though the subject is moving, I do not need the sophisticated tracking of AI Servo (Canon) or Continuous Servo (Nikon) Focus Mode to keep her in focus. I can quickly lock focus using One Shot (Canon) or Single Servo (Nikon) Focus Mode, recompose, and take the image without the camera-to-subject focus distance changing significantly.

With the example images above (Figures 1, 2), focusing on the wall would not have been tragic because the distance between the subject and the background is small, and if a medium or narrow aperture such as f/8 or f/16 is used both the wall and the subject may be in acceptable focus. If the background was further away, and/ or a wide aperture such as f/2.8 was used – especially with a telephoto lens, and if the image was enlarged, you would clearly see that the camera focused on the wall and not the woman. Not to mention the fact that the wall is a somewhat consistent area of color and the AF system may have difficulty properly focusing on it. So it is best not to take shortcuts such as focusing on the wall and hoping the subject will also be in focus, because in many other situations you will not have this option. It is best to take the photo properly and to learn and practice the habit of working in the more rigorous manner if you want all your photos to be sharp.

If you would like to learn more about the autofocus systems of your Canon or Nikon dSLR camera, as well as learn to use the other features of your camera including metering modes, Aperture and Shutter priority modes, all the menus and Custom Function settings, and more, have a look at my Full Stop e-book camera guides. In addition to explaining the features and settings, the guides clearly explain when and why to use them in order to capture the images you desire.

Take control of your camera and the images you create!

Learn more about the e-books by clicking on their titles or on the banner below:
Canon 7D Experience
Canon T3i Experience
Your World 60D
T2i Experience.

Nikon D7000 Experience
Nikon D5100 Experience.

full stop dslr photo photography camera manual guide for dummies canon nikon

For those with other cameras, check out my Ten Steps to Better dSLR Photography which also discusses taking advantage of any dSLR camera’s autofocus system.

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When selecting a new dSLR camera, many people seem to look at the latest offerings, attempt to compare their many features, and determine which one, in or near their price range, is “better.” But this is the backwards way to approach it. Of course a continuous burst rate of of 126 JPEGs at 8 frames per second is “better” than 58 frames at 5.3 frames per second. But do you need the ability to take 126 consecutive images in 15.75 continuous seconds? Ever? Certainly the ability to to control both the method and the sensitivity of AI Servo Tracking is impressive and powerful, but do you even understand it, wish to learn about it, need it, and will you ever use it? If a camera’s features don’t fit your needs as a photographer, it is not a better camera for you. In fact, it may be a worse camera for you because its complexities and options may serve to work against you and your image making.

Douglas J. Klostermann Photography
Iquitos, Peru

When you are trying to determine which new dSLR camera to purchase or upgrade to, you need to first consider and determine your needs, and then see which camera fills those needs. Not the other way around where you look at the new features and determine if you really need or will use them.

For example, I began shooting with a Rebel XT and took it on an extended trip where I shot lots of outdoor dance and festivals (see the Peru and Dance galleries here for the results – those are all shot with a Rebel XT.) I soon discovered this camera wasn’t fulfilling my growing needs and I made a mental list of what my next camera needed:

  • more focus points which are more strategically positioned (the Rebel XT only has 7 focus points in a simple cross pattern which did not suit the way I focus and compose)
  • faster frame rate in continuous shooting mode (it only has 3 fps which wasn’t good enough for catching a good burst at the peak of action)
  • better sealed body (I ended up in several very dusty or wet situations)
  • integrated sensor cleaning (see “dusty or wet situations” above)
  • more megapixels (the 8 MP of the XT just weren’t sufficient when it came to cropping and post-processing)
  • battery with longer capacity (I used it on weekend trips to the middle of nowhere with no electricity, but didn’t want to have to buy and take more than 3 batteries)
  • larger LCD screen to better review photos (the XT has a tiny screen)
  • grid in the viewfinder (I just can’t keep it straight sometimes)

Amazonia Shipibo Vendor
Iquitos, Peru

These are the features I looked for in my next camera. I didn’t work backwards and wonder, “Do I need or will I ever need auto lighting optimizer and highlight tone priority?” If I had exposure issues on my list, I would have looked for these kinds of features, but I didn’t. I didn’t wonder, “Do I need multiple flash remote firing? Should I worry about that?” That wasn’t on my list because it wasn’t a need I ran into, ever, in months of shooting. I don’t even own multiple flashes and wish to minimize using the one. I didn’t ask myself, “Do I need an extensively redesigned focus system with AF Point Expansion and Zone focusing?” I nearly always choose my own focus point – I don’t want the camera choosing the closest point which is bound to be a dancer’s flying hand and not their face, so I don’t need that. No matter how awesome and advanced it is, even if the subjects are moving. I’m pretty quick with the focus point selection, I just need more and better placed focus points. If you haven’t run into a need for certain features in your months or years of extensive shooting, you aren’t going to suddenly need it just because it is now offered on a camera. Sit down and make your list, then look at the cameras’ offerings.

And please be aware, no new camera will help you instantly create better photos. Or better yet, all of the latest cameras will help you take better photos, but equally so, none any better than the others. If you wish to take better photos, just chose one of the cameras and get out and shoot. Learn how to use the basic settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focusing modes and focus points, exposure metering modes, histograms) and then concentrate on composition and telling a story through your images. Get a book like Bryan Peterson’s newly updated Understanding Exposure to get a handle on the essential functions and relationships of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  Or have a look at my Full Stop e-book camera guides for various Canon and Nikon dSLR cameras!  And see the following posts to help you on your way:

How Pros Photograph

Deconstructing the Shot

Pucallpa kids and boat
Pucallpa, Peru

Need a lens to go with your new camera? Read about choosing a lens other than the kit lens in this post Why You Shouldn’t Buy the Kit Lens, and learn about the Best Lenses for Travel Photography here.

If you are interested in researching or purchasing the equipment or books I use, discuss, or recommend, I would appreciate it if you use this referral link to Amazon. Your price will be the same, and it will help support my blog and my work. Thanks!  And for those of you across the pond, click here for my referral link to Amazon UK. If you are in another country, click on one of my Amazon links, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click on your country for your local Amazon.