Modern cameras generally have superb autofocusing systems that can get the vast majority of subjects sharp in a jiffy, but they’re not 100% foolproof. Let’s take a look at some of the most common focusing problems and how to tackle them.
Common focusing problems: 01 Camera focuses on the wrong subject
Many people like to let their camera decide where to focus, but the problem with this is that it usually assumes that the subject is near the centre of the frame and the closest object to the lens.
If you’re subject is off-centre and/or there are objects between the camera and the subject you are likely to find the camera gets a bit confused and may focus on the wrong thing.
The easiest way to avoid this problem is the set the AF point yourself. To do this you need to set your camera to Single-point or Flexible-spot AF mode.
This option has many names, so you may need to check your camera’s manual to find out which is the right option.
Once the option is set you may need to use control button to activate it and then you can use the navigation controls to select the AF point that overlies your subject.
Autofocus point options – what subjects should each be used with?
Best camera focus techniques – 10 surefire ways to get sharp photos
Focus modes – how, when and why you need to change your AF settings
10 reasons why your photos aren’t sharp (and what you can do about it)
Pre-focus vs Tracking: when and how to use each technique
Common focusing problems: 02 Not enough light
One of the biggest problems that faces the average autofocus system is lack of light. A camera needs to be able to see the subject clearly for it to focus the lens.
Many camera’s have an AF assist light that will operate when light levels fall to help the lens focus, but it has fairly limited range.
If you find your camera is struggling to focus in low light, shining a torch or other light source on the subject can help.
Alternatively, you can focus manually (the extra light may still be required to do this.
Once the subject is sharp, turn the light off and set the camera to manual focus mode (unless it was in that already) so that the camera doesn’t attempt to refocus when you press the shutter release to take the shot.
One of the reasons that professional photographers spend so much money on top-end cameras and lenses is that pro-level cameras usually have super-sensitive AF systems and the lenses have a large maximum apertures such as f/2.8 and f/2.0.
Large aperture lenses let more light reach the camera’s AF system and this (combined with the more sensitive AF system) results in sharp images even in very low light.
SEE MORE: 9 situations when AF will fail you
Common focusing problems: 03 Contrast too low
Even in good light a camera’s autofocus system needs to see an edge, or some contrast to be able to focus on a subject.
If your camera is struggling to lock-on, try selecting an AF point that is over an area of contrast. Phase detection AF points are usually either linear or cross-type.
Cross-type AF points are more sensitive because they are able to detect contrast in two planes rather than just one.
Even entry-level SLRs usually have a cross-type AF point at the centre of the image frame, so this is often a good choice of point for the ‘focus-and-recompose’ technique.
A layman’s guide to depth of field: how to check and affect sharpness like a pro
10 common exposure problems every photographer faces (and how to overcome them)
How to use focus lock on your digital camera
Getting sharp images: every technique you need to know starting out
Master your camera’s autofocus – which AF points to use (and when to use them)
Common focusing problems: 04 Subject too close
Cameraphones and compact cameras can usually focus much more closely than a compact system camera or SLR, so if you are tying to focus on a nearby subject and you’re camera is failing, try moving back a little.
The nearest focusing distance extends with focal length, so if you can’t focus at the telephoto end of your zoom lens, you may be able to with the wide-angle end (although the image will look quite different).
Sometimes a lens may have close enough focusing for your subject, but the autofocus system won’t stop hunting (adjusting focus).
In this case it’s best to switch to manual focus mode and focus the lens yourself.
You may find it easier to adjust the lens to its closest focusing point and then move the camera backwards or forwards until the subject is sharp.
Common focusing problems: 05 Inaccurate manual focusing
Many photographers have a romanticised view of optical viewfinders, but even with these revered devices it sometimes hard to see enough detail to get a subject sharp.
Thankfully modern technology brings a solution – Live View mode.
If you compose the image on the screen on an SLR you can magnify the view so that you can see very fine details while you focus the lens.
In low-light the camera can also apply gain to make the scene easier to see.
Compact system cameras operate in full-time live view mode and you can usually see a magnified view in the electronic viewfinder (if there is one) or the main screen to aid focusing.
Slow shutter speeds: how to achieve consistent exposures every time
Understanding shutter speed as a creative tool: freeze and pan with total confidence
Annoying problems at common aperture settings (and how to solve them)
Panning – how the pros capture motion (and the best shutter speeds to use)
Focus and focal length: the TRUE benefits of using a DSLR
Common focusing problems: 06 Camera fails to adjust focus when subject moves
In Single-AF mode the camera will focus the lens once the shutter release is half-pressed and it won’t adjust if the button continues to be held down.
This makes it ideal for shooting motionless subjects and using the ‘focus-and-recompose’ technique because it will only refocus the lens if the button is released and pressed again.
However, if the subject moves closer or further way from the camera after the initial focus is made, it will not adjust and the subject won’t be sharp.
Step forward Continuous AF mode. In this mode the camera will focus the lens for as long as the shutter release button is depressed half-way. This makes it an ideal choice for moving subjects.
Common focusing problems: 07 No AF point over the subject
Sometimes there isn’t an AF point directly over the subject so you have to employ the ‘focus-and-recompose’ technique, mentioned several times in this article.
To do this you simply set the camera to Single-AF mode (not continuous), select a suitable AF point (the centre one is often preferred as it is most sensitive) and then position it over the subject before pressing the shutter release half-way down to focus the lens.
Then, still keeping the shutter release button held down, recompose the image before pressing the shutter button fully home to take the shot.
How to focus your camera for any subject or scene: free photography cheat sheet
Getting sharp images: every photo technique you need to know starting out
Digital camera tips: how to choose the best AF mode
Focus tracking: 4 ways to ensure pin-sharp action photos
77 photography techniques, tips and tricks for taking pictures of anything