Understanding The Art Of Photography Focus

You have the perfect position, the perfect angle, and the perfect frame. The subject of your photo moves into the screen and you snap the shot.

Proud of your set-up and confident you’ve nailed the shot, you call it a day. It isn’t until you’re back at your desk editing the photos that you notice the subject was out of focus.

You’re not alone. I can almost guarantee that this has happened to every single photographer on this planet on more than one occasion.

And while I would love to tell you I have the answers to eliminate this problem for good, I can’t. There are far too many variables that can create an unfocused photo.

However, I can let you in on some of my secrets to drastically improve your hit rate and boost your confidence. And these secrets primarily come from having a strong understanding of the art of photography focus.

So let’s take a look at the fundamentals of focus in photography and the secrets I have learnt that have helped improve my photography skills.

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Moody Golden Sunrise on top of Stacks Bluff overlooking Tranquil Tarn

What Is Focus In Photography

Technically speaking, focus in photography is the process of creating an area of rich sharpness and contrast in a photo, clearly defining the subject.

But more than just creating a sharp image, when used properly, focus will draw the viewers’ attention to the exact point the photographer wishes to emphasise. Understanding where that point should be and achieving perfect focus is what makes the difference between a good shot and a great one.

This process is achieved by either manually moving the focus ring of a lens or relying on the camera’s autofocus capabilities to lock on to the chosen subject.

The point of focus can either be a certain subject or the whole frame, depending on the composition you’ve chosen.

Why Is Photography Focus Important?

You could argue that focus is the most important aspect of photography. A photo that lacks perfect focus will appear soft or blurry, resulting in the subject of the image blending in rather than standing out. But more than just a soft image, if you focus on the wrong point in the frame, you run the risk of completely losing the intended mood and subject of the shot.

Choosing the right point in the composition to use as your subject and focal point is extremely important in creating a clear purpose and avoiding confusion. This significantly helps to highlight the message you, the photographer, are trying to portray and can create a professional grade photo.

And frankly, it just looks so damn good! Nailing a perfectly in focus and crisp shot is one of the most pleasing feelings for a photographer. No matter which discipline, whether it be landscape, wildlife, action, or any of the other niches in photography, a perfectly focused image is far more appealing to the eye.

Sunset over Mt Victoria on what is one of the best day hikes in North East Tasmania

Manual Focus vs Autofocus

When we are talking about the differences between manual focus and autofocus, it’s important to remember these are both methods of achieving a common goal – perfect photography focus. The difference, however, doesn’t lie in the goal, but in the method used to reach it.

As time goes on and we continue progressing through the life of photography, I predict autofocus will be the number one choice on almost all matters. But that’s certainly not to say manually focusing is dead.

Manual Focus

As you can no doubt guess, manual focus is the process of physically rotating the lens’s focus ring to achieve perfect photography focus. The process of rotating the ring shifts the plane of focus forwards and backward so you can set it to the desired location in your image.

Manually focusing can be a tedious task as sometimes the smallest adjustments can make a massive impact. It is also much slower to accomplish than autofocus.

Although most of the time photographers will revert to autofocus, manual focus still plays a massive role in the world of photography. Manual focus is a skill that is highly beneficial in circumstances where your autofocus system struggles and perhaps the most common struggle is shooting in low light. Autofocus systems need light and contrast to work effectively and when it is dark you’ll notice a serious lack of performance. Which will become immediately apparent if you plan on performing any night or astrophotography.

Manually focusing in photography also comes in handy as a method of fine-tuning your autofocus. Sometimes your camera will get it slightly wrong and you can achieve the perfect result by fine-tuning the focus ring. This is particularly helpful for landscapes, portraits and any other type of static shot.

While autofocus systems are getting better and better, manual focus will always have a place and is a technique you need to master along your journey to mastering photography.

Tips To Master Manual Focusing

  • Use camera’s guide, if your camera is fitted with a manual focus guide.
  • Zoom in to 10x magnification and fine tune your focus.
  • Use autofocus as a start and switch to manual focus to fine tune it.
  • For Astrophotography, pick the brightest star and use it to set your focus.
Manually focusing for an astrophotography photo at Echo Point Campsite on Lake St Clair

Auto Focus

Autofocus is accomplished by the camera body and lens working together to drive the focus ring to the exact position it needs to be.

Without getting into the science of it, your camera body will see the image, make a decision about where the focus should be, and then drive the focus ring to the correct position. Cameras are able to accomplish this task in a split second, a hell of a lot quicker than you or I. And that’s why autofocus is an extremely important tool in a photographer’s life.

Just point the camera, press the button, and voila, perfect focus.

Ok, there is a little more to it than that and by a little, I mean a lot…

Autofocus systems are complex and the settings are by no means universal to every photo you shoot. Below I’m going to go over the autofocus system and how it works to give you the best chance of understanding the art of photography focus.

Hiking to Hanson's peak from Scott Kilvert Hut in Cradle Mountain National Park

What Are Photography Focus Points?

Photography focus points are areas on a camera’s sensor that are sensitive to light and contrast differences. It’s thanks to these little dots that our cameras are able to quickly and accurately achieve focus. These points appear as empty boxes displayed on either your LCD or viewfinder, visually representing the points in which your camera can reliably focus.

Generally speaking, having a larger number of focus points in photography is considered better as this allows for more opportunity when composing a scene. However, it is a common misconception that a higher number of focus points is all that matters.

Not all focus points in photography are created equal and it’s important to know what type of points your camera uses and where they are located.

While having a higher number of focus points is beneficial, there is more to consider. Let’s look at the two different types of focus points that your camera may have.

Linear Autofocus Points

Linear focus points detect a change in contrast along a single dimension and can only sense in either the horizontal or vertical plane.

These focus points work best when detecting contrast that is set perpendicular to the camera’s sensor and is the most common autofocus points. But while they’re the most common, linear points are generally the most limited and the least reliable type of sensor.

These focus points are commonly found around the edge of your camera’s sensor, leaving the centre for the more accurate autofocus points.

Cross-type Autofocus Points

Cross-type AF points detect a change in contrast across both the vertical and horizontal dimensions, making for a reliable autofocus point.

These points are commonly found in the centre of your camera’s sensor and will be more successful in tracking objects when compared to linear points.

When moving onto high-end cameras, you will see an upgraded version of this type of sensor – the dual cross-type autofocus point. Basically, these are two cross-type points placed on top of each other with the benefit of contrast detection in 4 dimensions. This is massively beneficial when tracking fast-moving subjects.

Photography focus point on the Canon 90D LCD Screen

Photography Focus Area Modes

Now that we know what photography focus points are, we can move on to how to use them. The area modes refer to the number of focus points your camera will group together and use to focus on your desired subject.

There is a wide array of options that basically allow you to choose how much control you or your camera has over the focusing process.

Each area mode has its benefits and situation where it excels and understanding the difference will help you choose the correct autofocus area mode for each scenario.

Single Point Autofocus

Single point autofocus is the most honed in version, using just one single focus point from your camera. Having such a specific point gives the photographer almost every ounce of control over where the lens sets focus.

This mode is great for shooting still subjects, allowing you to set the focus point to exactly the desired location. This is ideal in photography styles such as landscapes and portraits, where the subject is predictable and steady.

It does, however, get a little tricky when the subject is moving. If you take into consideration that the camera will constantly try to focus on where you direct that tiny little point (assuming you’re in AF – C mode), you can easily miss an erratically moving subject. There is no automatic subject tracking in single-point AF, adding to the struggle of capturing fast-moving subjects. Though this isn’t impossible, it is quite difficult and requires much practice and persistence.

Honestly, single-point AF is the mode I use on most occasions, even in my mountain biking photography. It allows for exceptionally crisp shots and for me to choose exactly where I want the focus to be. But of course, this came with a steep learning curve and a lot of trial and error.

Luckily, there is another way to nail those fast-paced subjects such as wildlife and action photography.

Best Uses For Single Point AF

  • Stationary and predictable subjects
  • Landscapes
  • Portraits
  • Product photography
Moody sunrise at the Bay of Fires with a single point photography focus point visible

Spot Autofocus

Spot autofocus acts almost the same as single point AF with one minor difference, the focus point is slightly smaller. What you will generally see as the focus point is a square within a square signifying you are focusing on the smallest point possible.

Spot AF is about as specific as it can get and is an option for those wanting to ensure the camera is focusing on exactly the right location. For example, if you zoom in and focus on someone’s eye, spot AF will enable the option of focusing on a particular point of someone’s eye such as their pupil.

Honestly, I haven’t noticed any difference between single point and spot AF, and as a result, you can choose whichever tickles your fancy.

Best Uses For Spot AF

  • Stationary and predictable subjects
  • Landscapes
  • Portraits
  • Product photography
Moody sunrise at the Bay of Fires with a spot photography focus point visible

Dynamic Autofocus

This is where we start to use the camera’s intelligence to ensure we nail our photography focus.

Dynamic Autofocus utilises the best of both worlds in that the photographer chooses the point to focus but the camera will track the subject if it strays from said point. This is perfect for wildlife and action shots where erratic movement is to be expected. When it’s almost impossible to predict where and when the subject will move, utilising dynamic AF will increase your chance of nailing the shot.

Generally, dynamic AF is represented as a grid of focus points (mainly 9 points) with the centre point being larger, representing where the camera will focus.

The idea is that you aim the centre point on your subject for focus but if your subject suddenly moves, the camera will track it to the outer focus points displayed.

Best Uses For Dynamic AF

  • Sports photography
  • Wildlife photography
  • Action shots
  • Unpredictable subjects (such as children)
Using dynamic autofocus to nail photography focus on a mountain biker in St Helens MTB Trails

3D Tracking Autofocus

3D tracking Autofocus is moving to the more automated side of photography focus. Basically, the photographer will select the subject by touching the LCD, or the camera will determine the subject automatically, and then the focus point will follow the subject anywhere in the frame without the need of panning the camera.

Most modern cameras will incorporate face tracking or eye-tracking as part of these auto modes, which can be a massively desired function.

It sounds perfect, right? You get to choose the focus and the camera does all the work in tracking it!

While this may sound great and seems to make dynamic AF redundant, it doesn’t. In many fast paced scenes, 3D tracking AF isn’t as fast or accurate as Dynamic or single-point shooting. And in some cases, It will confuse the subject with a foreground object.

3D tracking autofocus is widely considered a great tool for videographers, but is lesser used in photography.

Best Uses For 3D Tracking AF

  • Wildlife photography
  • Videography
  • Subjects moving slowly
  • Portraits
Eye autofocus on Canon R6 of a potrait mountain biking photo

Group Area Autofocus

Group Area or zone autofocus is similar to Dynamic AF, but rather than choosing a single focus point the photographer selects an area where they want the focus to occur. The camera will then use several focus points specified within the area and automatically focus on the nearest object within the area of focus.

This is another very useful autofocus area mode for erratic situations such as birds in mid-flight or a lion chasing down prey.

Best Uses For Group Area AF

  • Wildlife photography
Using zone autofocus as a photography focus technique to capture a Wedge Tail Eagle in frame

Auto Area Autofocus

Now we have crossed the line and switched to complete auto mode. With Auto Area Autofocus, your camera will scan your entire composition and select a subject to focus on.

While this may sound great, more often than not your camera will get it wrong and choose a point you have no interest in making the subject.

In my experience, the camera will just focus on whatever is closest to the lens. This is hardly ideal for almost all scenarios in photography.

I definitely don’t recommend using Auto Area AF, I may be a little old school but I believe that with most aspects of photography, manual settings produce the best photos.

Best Uses For Auto Area AF

  • None what so ever!
Beautiful sunset from Stacks Bluff Tasmania using auto area autofocus as the focus in photography

Camera Focus Modes

Another major factor in photography focus is what mode to choose. The key to determining the correct mode is to understand whether your subject will be moving or not, as this makes up 100% of the decision of what mode you should be in.

Single Autofocus

Single autofocus will lock onto a focus point and maintain this focus distance while ever the focus button is depressed. This focus mode is perfect for subjects and scenes that are known to be still.

You’ll find different names for these modes across different brands (One-Shot, AF-S, etc…) much like any other menu item, but each camera will have a dedicated mode for this.

Continuous Autofocus

Continuous autofocus is perfect for any scene where the subject is moving. In this case, your camera will constantly refocus on the point selected while ever the focus button is depressed, which is perfect for tracking moving subjects.

Look out for modes such as AI Servo, AF-C, and so on to access continuous AF on your camera.

Hybrid Autofocus

As you’ve probably guessed, hybrid autofocus is a combination of the above two photography focus modes. It works by allowing the camera to analyse the scene and determine which mode to use. While this may seem like a good feature, manually selecting your mode is a far better option.

By relying on the camera to make the decision, you’re essentially adding another step to an already difficult and time-sensitive process. My suggestion is to make a judgment beforehand and select the appropriate mode, as in almost all circumstances you will know if your subject will be moving or not.

What Is The Best Autofocus System?

As with focus points, there is more than one autofocus system and they’re not all created equally. Certain cameras use different methods to achieve autofocus and each has its benefits.

There are two main AF systems used today and knowing which one your camera utilises is going to play a massive role in achieving perfect photography focus.

Contrast Detection

Contrast detection autofocus works by calculating a difference in contrast between the subject and the other parts of the scene. This method is tremendously accurate but does come with some shortcomings.

Contrast detection generally requires more data to accurately focus, making the process work more slowly. On top of that, this system generally struggles to achieve any sort of focus in low contrast situations, such as low light photography.

Scenarios Where Contrast Detection Shines

  • Well lit scenes
  • Landscapes
  • Stationary subjects
  • Portraits

Scenarios Where Contrast Detection Struggles

  • Low light photography
  • Fast moving subjects (rapid, unpredictable movement)
  • Sports and wildlife photography

Phase Detection

Phase detection autofocus is unmatched in speed. This method has a great ability to swiftly focus on erratically moving subjects, thanks to its lesser demand on computing power. The downside, however, is that as a result of the faster focus method, phase detection may not be as accurate as contrast detection.

While phase detection may be less accurate on paper, the success rate is still very high – assuming you understand and implement all the steps of how to focus in photography.

Phase detection doesn’t only work extremely fast, but it is far more reliable in low-light photography because the camera isn’t relying on a difference in contrast to distinguish the subject.

Scenarios Where Phase Detection Shines

  • Low light photography
  • Fast moving subjects (rapid, unpredictable movement)
  • Sports and wildlife photography

Scenarios Where Contrast Detection Is Better Than Phase Detection

  • Landscapes
  • Stationary subjects
  • Portraits

Differentiating Contrast and Phase Detection

When it comes to choosing between these two modes, you may find yourself at a loss. That’s because choosing how the camera focuses isn’t an option like most other focusing modes. Generally, the type of camera determines what detection methods are available and the main choice of camera these days is between DSLR and Mirrorless.

DSLRs are almost always equipped with both types of focus detection methods and accessing them is as easy as switching between the viewfinder and LCD display. The viewfinder will utilise phase detection, whereas the LCD switches to contrast detection. So it’s not just a coincidence that most sports and wildlife photographers shoot through the viewfinder, while landscape artists take advantage of the LCD screen.

But moving onto the new craze in cameras – Mirrorless. Mirrorless cameras have been around a long time but only recently have they gained massive popularity. This is mainly thanks to advancements in focusing technology.

Mirrorless cameras generally only use one detection method and up until recently, this was primarily contrast detection. But thanks to innovation, a hybrid system has been developed and is finding its way into many new mirrorless cameras. The idea is to obtain the speed of phase with the accuracy of contrast and as we keep progressing, this is proving to be an outstanding development in the camera game.

This hybrid system is known as Dual Pixel Autofocus and is being introduced into both DSLR and Mirrorless cameras. I have recently acquired the Canon R6 and, being equipped with Canon’s latest CMOS system, I’m blown away with the results for accurate and fast autofocus.

It will pay a great deal to understand the type of focus detection your camera has in order to maximise your success with accurate focusing.

Caleb Buster riding through a rough rock garden in a Full Face mountain bike helmet

What Is Back Button Autofocus?

You may hear the term back button autofocus thrown around a lot and wonder what on earth people are going on about. For a while, I was confused about what this magic little button did, and what on earth the hype was all about.

But what I learnt wasn’t so exciting.

Back button AF is exactly as it sounds. A button on the back of your camera is used to activate autofocus, acting exactly the same as half depressing the shutter.

To be honest, at first, it baffled me that someone put time and effort into creating this redundant button.

But I was naive, and it wasn’t long before I learnt the benefits.

Basically, back button AF improves your control and steadiness over the camera as you pan and track moving subjects. It removes any chance of a false fire when you’re trying to aim the lens.

Honestly, I found this little button massively beneficial to my sporting and action shots. Trying to half-depress the shutter button nearly always resulted in a misfire, startling me and making me lose my subject.

Laugh all you want, but it happens! The clunk of the shutter actually made me physically jump, throwing my readiness to shoot, not to mention the quick blink can be detrimental to your aim if you aren’t ready for it.

This little miracle of a button can be found on most cameras and even if it isn’t, you can program another button to perform this task.

I’d encourage anyone to familiarise themselves with this method of photography focus. For such a small adjustment, you can see massive results.

Scandi Flick in perfect photography focus into a berm on Air Ya Garn after discussing the 27.5 vs 29er wheel size debarcle

How Do Camera Settings Affect Photography Focus?

Achieving perfect focus in photography isn’t all about what modes to set you camera in, though that does take up a fair chunk of it. Your camera’s settings play an important role as well, just in a slightly different way.

While your aperture, shutter speed and ISO don’t affect how your camera focuses, they do play an important part in the sharpness and clarity of an image. This is known as the exposure triangle and it can be a photographers most basic, yet valuable tool.

There is no point getting all of the above correct only to find you’ve missed the basics and so, I’ll run through these settings in order of which I believe your camera should be adjusted.


The aperture should be the first priority when determining your settings, as you need to decide exactly how much of the image you want in focus. Are you shooting an epic landscape where you want everything to be tack sharp, or are you shooting a portrait where a beautiful bokeh is desired.

You need to assess the depth of field you desire and set your aperture accordingly. Remembering lower f-stop numbers create a shallow depth of field while larger numbers increase sharpness throughout the entire image.

If you fail to set this correctly, parts of your image intended to be in focus may be blurry and vice versa. Aperture is – in my opinion – the most important setting of the exposure triangle and as a result, an important part of photography focus.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed refers to how fast the shutter opens and closes in order to take the photo and, depending on what you’re shooting, the shutter speed can vary massively. Shutter speed affects focus mostly when shooting moving subjects. If the shutter is set too low, motion blur will become a major problem and render a photograph unusable. Whereas if the shutter is set correctly, you will get a tack sharp final image.


ISO is a photographer’s worst enemy, but a necessity nonetheless. ISO refers to fake light created by the camera and is basically used to allow you to set the correct shutter speed and aperture. The higher the ISO the more light and faster you can set your shutter speed.

But there’s a catch.

As you increase the ISO, you’ll introduce noise into your images which, in turn, creates an unwanted grainy effect. As you move into higher-level cameras, you’ll be able to push the limits of ISO higher and higher but as a general rule, you should keep your ISO as low as possible while still accommodating your other settings.

Like most other focusing settings, if you understand the exposure triangle and also the limitations of your camera, you’ll set yourself up for success.

Watching the sunrise from the peak of Mt Freycinet while hiking the Freycinet Circuit

Composing For The Best Photography Focus

Finally, the most important aspect of photography in general – the composition. While composition may not affect how your camera focuses, it’s the broader picture that’s at play here. If you compose your image correctly, it will draw the viewer’s attention to the exact point of focus, creating an effect that emphasises focus.

Incorrect composition may lead to a distracting image with no clear focus point, which can take away from the sharpness of a photo.

There is no shortcut to mastering photography composition and by no means is it easy. But with plenty of practice, you’ll develop a style and in turn, create masterpieces of your own.