Tech of the Month: Focus

Our new monthly feature “Tech of the Month” is my space to study photography and to share what I learn. In the first edition, I explore one of the most basic and yet most important questions for the soon-to-be (travel) photographer: Which part of the image to focus on and how to get the camera to do that.

I use photos with objects at different distances from the camera and/or a shallow depth of field for illustration. Here is a picture of my neighbor’s cat:

On the left: a picture of my neighbor's cat. On the right: a close-up of the wall she likes to sit on.

On the left: a picture of my neighbor’s cat. On the right: a close-up of the wall she likes to sit on. (Olympus OM-D EM10, using Touch AF)

My neighbor’s cat is not prettiest but she was patient enough to let me take the same picture twice. First, focusing on her, then focusing on the wall she likes to sit on. That second picture is obviously screwed. I am never going to attract your interest to that little section of the wall that I focused on. But once the technique of focusing is mastered, it can be used as an important element of image composition. Try to use the focus to tell your story or to compose images according to the Rule of Thirds.

On the left: a house for sale in Italy. On the right: a wall in Italy.

On the left: a house for sale in Italy. On the right: a wall in Italy. (Olympus OM-D EM10, using Touch AF)

In the image above, I tried to create two different pictures from the same scene. The first is the image of a house for sale in Italy (“vendesi” = “for sale”). The second is a close-up of an old-world wall, and the window blinds in the background tell you that these walls have once been inhabited. Below is a similar study featuring street art in Barcelona.

The topic of this picture is either the bird (left), or the pink of the door bells (right).

The topic of this picture is either the bird (left), or the pink of the door bells (right). (Olympus Pen EPL-3, using Grid AF)

I hope I was able to convince you that focusing is a great tool. If not, head over to a photography platform like flickr and search for pictures tagged with “focus”. You’ll find tons of professional pictures over there!

In this picture from L'Aquila, I used the focus to create an image according to the Rule of Thirds: The focus is in one of the intersections of a grid (the yellow lines) that divides the picture into nine equal parts. In addition, I held the camera such that the chain follows the lower horizontal line of the grid. (Olympus OMD EM-10, Touch AF)

In this picture from L’Aquila, I used the focus to create an image according to the Rule of Thirds: The focus is in one of the intersections of a grid (the yellow lines) that divides the picture into nine equal parts. In addition, I held the camera such that the chain follows the lower horizontal line of the grid. (Olympus OM-D EM10, Touch AF)

So how do we get this to work? The key is to get familiar with your camera – I will go ahead and get familiar with mine.

My camera is an Olympus OM-D EM10, a mirror-less system camera with a larger image sensor than a compact but still smaller and lighter than a DSLR. It has the following focusing options (as far as I know!):

Off-center focus can be achieved with compacts as well. In this picture, I focused on the star but kept the street in the image to show that small treasures my be hidden on the side. (Panasonic DMC TZ5, Grid AF)

Off-center focus can be achieved with compacts as well. In this picture, I focused on the star but kept the street in the image to show that small treasures may be hidden for those who keep their eyes open. (Panasonic DMC TZ5, Grid AF)

  • autofocus (AF)
  • face priority
  • focus lock
  • Grid AF
  • Touch AF
  • manual focus

Which options does your camera offer?

Autofocus and face priority are standard on all modern digital cameras, including smartphones. In AF mode, my camera prioritizes close, central objects. If I add face priority, it tries to detect faces in the image first. I rarely use the full AF but it is well-suited for parties and at times also for street photography. If I want more control of the image, I have to use one of the other options.

Focus lock is available on many compacts and may help if more advanced focusing options are not available. You can use it to force your camera to focus on a particular thing of your choice even though AF is turned on. To do that, place your chosen object in the center of the image first. Press the release button half-way down. The camera will now focus on that object. Keep the button pressed while re-adjusting the camera position and only release the shutter when you are done composing your image. Keep in mind that focus depends on distance; if you get closer to your object or move away from it, you will have to refocus. It takes a little bit of practice to take pictures in this mode.

Grid AF on my Olympus OM-D EM10 (Android phone, using AF)

Grid AF on my Olympus OM-D EM10 (Android phone, using AF)

Grid AF lets me choose an area of the picture, and the AF will focus on the nearest object within this small area. This option is often found on better compacts, bridge cameras, µFTs and DSLRs. I use this method a lot, both with my old Pen and with the new OM-D. The pic on the left shows the focus grid on my camera’s LCD screen and the picture below was taken with this method.

I used the grid AF of my old Pen camera to draw the attention to missing part of the map that has been eaten by the deer in the background.

In Nara (Japan), I used the Grid AF of my old Pen camera to highlight the map or, to be more precise, the missing part that was eaten by the deer in the background. (Olympus Pen EPL3, using Grid AF)

Touch AF is a newer technique that allows you to select the focus area via the touch screen of your camera. It is available on newer camera models and high-end smartphones and it is even more fun than it sounds!

Manual focus is an option in system cameras and DSLRs. I never use it but I read that it is useful if you have your camera mounted on a tripod and want to take a fast series of pictures of objects at a constant distance (a possible application is sport photography).

My favorite settings: use Grid AF to set the default focus point according to the Rule of Thirds (I prefer to focus on the upper right or lower left intersection of lines), activate face priority and use the Touch AF to compose individual images. In the electronic view finder, I use the focus grid instead of Touch AF.

PS: My first idea was to use only cat pics for this post. But unfortunately, not all cats are as patient as my neighbor’s. This one preferred to roll around in the dirt and insist that I stroke her instead of taking out-of-focus pictures …

    Stop taking pictures! Stroke me instead! I don't care about your stupid monthly photo tips!

Stop taking pictures! Pet me instead! I don’t care about your stupid monthly photo tips! Who does anyways?? (Olympus OM-D EM10, AF and face priority)

If you stayed this long, why don’t you leave a comment and let me know what you would like to learn in December?

Or you could also ..




 
This article was published on perelincolors.com

18 thoughts on “Tech of the Month: Focus

  1. luciledegodoy

    Hi! It’s very useful and clear. I liked the explanation and examples. The tips are great. Looking forward to the next one. I’d love to learn more about the best use of light. Thanks. And have a good weekend!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. LifestyleswithLia

    Thanks for sharing this info with us!!! Photography is a great passion of mine and you’re advice and tips were very helpful…I’m curious about how the rule of thirds works and now I understand better!
    Greetings to you from NYC!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sandi

    This was so helpful — and just the sort of thing I was hoping to learn about composing pictures. You did a great job of walking us through the steps: now, to see how your focal tips translate to my camera(s).

    Like

      1. Perse

        Yeah I haven’t done much photography, but when I have I’ve had a horrid time focussing…I just can never get it right.

        Like

  4. Sandi

    Sadly, I discovered yesterday while on a search for “solitude” that the Coolpix L320 does not seem to offer the grid option for focusing: everything seems to be set to AutoFocus, depending on what scene setting you choose or that the camera detects. I wound up using my iPhone 5s, which didn’t seem to offer a grid mode either, although I need to look into that more.

    Like

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