Focus with Intent
Whenever you take a photo, from a snapshot to a well-planned shot, you are deciding where to focus. Whether you know it or not. These days, focusing has become a very passive operation. A smartphone camera's sophisticated face detection system locates human faces in the frame and automatically focuses on them for you. It assumes that the person's face is the main subject of the photo unless you tell it otherwise. In essence, you are deciding to let the camera decide where to place the image's focus. This is great news! You don't even have to think about it anymore, right? No more accidental shots of blurry people with sharply focused restaurant signs in the background.
While today's technology gives us a solid start for making good images, you can make them even better. If you really want to take your photos to the next level, you can pick up where technology leaves off and fine tune the focus. In other words, you can focus with intent.
Consistently good photography requires making deliberate choices on almost every aspect of the photo. Proactively focusing is one of the most important aspects to get right in camera, that is to say, while you are taking the photo. It's one of the few things you can't fix with software after the fact. Yes, software has sharpening tools, but they can only go so far.
How do I make my camera focus where I want? Do I have to focus manually?
No, thank goodness! Autofocus cameras can do it.
Digital or Film Cameras. Most camera viewfinders look something like this grid pattern illustration. While the details vary from camera to camera, the default focus point is usually set in the middle of the frame, marked with a little square.
Note: Some cameras allow you to change the focus spot from the center to another part of the viewfinder. Be sure to read your instruction manual to learn more about your camera's focusing options.
To select your focus point, aim the little square at the object that you want in focus. Push the shutter release button halfway down to lock the focus. Don't let go. If the sounds on your camera are enabled, many cameras will beep when your image is in focus. That typically means that your subject will be dead center in the middle of the frame. At this point, you have a choice:
1) If your image is framed to your liking, press your finger all the way down on the shutter to complete the shot. Or,
2) If you don't like the framing, with your finger still held halfway down on the shutter button, reframe the image to a more pleasing composition. Then press the shutter all the way down to complete the shot.
Smartphone and Tablet Cameras. Even your smartphone or tablet will let you more proactively choose your point of focus. You can tap on the part of the screen that you want in sharpest focus. My kitty "graciously" gave me 4 seconds of his attention to demonstrate this with my iPhone X.
Where should I focus?
It depends! Whenever you take a photo, quickly ask yourself, what is the "so what" of this photo? What is the main point? Whatever the answer is, that is where you focus.
The Eyes Have It
When photographing a person, the "so what" of the photo is usually the person. But which part? The majority of the time you'll want to focus on the person's eyes. The eyes hold the expression, and sometimes the lack thereof. The same principal applies to animal photos, too.
When working close up, you'll specifically want to aim for the iris of an eye. It takes some practice. The slightest movement on a close up shot can cause a miss, like this one. On the first shot, I accidentally caught the corner of her eye. On the second shot, I correctly focused on her iris.
When the Eyes Don't Have It
Sometimes, however, the "so what" is something entirely different than the person in the photo. This is especially true in commercial and educational photography. The focus should be on the part of the photo you want to emphasize. In the first photo, I'm emphasizing the businesswoman. In the second photo, I'm emphasizing the information on her business card.
The same holds true for animals, like this green-winged macaw. In the first photo, I'm emphasizing the bird. In the second photo, the "so what" is the color and texture of the bird's feathers. Why the feathers? Honing in on feathers or other distinct markings can help identify the species. We know this is the green-winged macaw as opposed to the similar-looking scarlet macaw because of the prominence of green feathers and absence of yellow ones, which you can see here on its back.
While you may never intend to take commercial or educational photos, learning where to place your focus is still useful in everyday life. Take a standard shot first, then take additional ones where you focus on the details. Here are a few examples:
- A child losing a first tooth. Focus on the gap where the tooth used to be.
- A child showing their artwork. Focus on their proud accomplishment.
- A student. Focus on the student's A+ grade on a test.
- A graduate. Focus on the diploma so that you can clearly read the words in the photo. These shots are great for posterity. Future generations can match up the person and their education in one photo. For example, looking ahead 50 years, your kids can say "That's a picture of Grandpa John. He got his degree in engineering at Virginia Tech way back in 2010."
- A bride. Focus on the wedding invitation held by a bride with date, time and location in focus.
- An injury. Focus on the wound for documentation purposes.
- A product return. Focus on the flaw of a product that you want to return to the manufacturer.
- A product sale. Focus on a special feature of a product you are selling on eBay. Maybe that special feature makes the item worth a lot more money!
Practice, Practice, Practice
Focusing with intent may seem a little unnatural at first, and it does require some practice. Take some shots, review them on a larger screen, like a desktop or laptop, zoom in on your intended focus point, and adjust your technique if needed. Be sure to take multiple shots when working close up. It's easy to miss. Once you get the hang of it, proactively focusing will not only become second nature, but you will also enjoy the benefits very quickly.