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Lesson 7 from: The Photography Starter Kit for Beginners

John Greengo

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Lesson Info

7. Focusing

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

In this lesson, the instructor discusses the topic of focusing in photography. He explains the different methods of focusing, including manual focus and autofocus, as well as the different focusing areas and modes available on cameras. He emphasizes the importance of getting the focus right in the field and provides tips for choosing the appropriate focusing method for different situations.


  1. What are the two main methods of focusing in photography?

    The two main methods of focusing are manual focus and autofocus.

  2. How does autofocus work on most cameras?

    Autofocus is typically activated by pressing halfway down on the shutter release button. The camera will then focus on the subject and can be taken by pressing the shutter release button all the way down.

  3. How can the focusing point be changed on a camera?

    The focusing point can be changed depending on the type of camera. Some cameras have physical switches or buttons on the lens, while others require accessing the camera's menu.

  4. What are the different focusing areas available on cameras?

    Cameras typically offer options such as all points activated, a group of boxes or a large box area, and a single point that can be moved to different areas of the frame.

  5. What types of subjects are best suited for all points focusing?

    All points focusing can be useful in chaotic situations like birthday parties, where the camera will focus on the closest subject.

  6. What is the difference between single autofocus and continuous autofocus?

    Single autofocus is used for stationary subjects and involves focusing on a subject, stopping, and then recomposing if necessary. Continuous autofocus, also known as servo, is used for moving subjects and allows the camera to continuously track focus as the subject moves closer or further away.

  7. What is the AF-A mode on cameras?

    AF-A mode is an automatic mode where the camera chooses between single autofocus and continuous autofocus based on the movement it detects. However, this mode is not always reliable and it is often recommended to manually choose the appropriate autofocus mode for different situations.

Next Lesson: Metering

Lesson Info


All right, we've been talking about exposure for most of the class at this point, shutter speed, apertures, ISO. And this is a very different beast, you might say. It's a very different challenge in getting the right focus set. And there's been a lot of technology changes that I've seen in my lifetime that have changed focusing dramatically from when I got started. So let's start off with the old traditional way. Most cameras you can manually focus and that is why there are manual focus rings. They're not all equal. I will let you know that right now. Typically the higher-end lenses have nice, big rubberized, smooth focusing rings and there are some times and places where manual focusing just works out really well. A lot of time in landscape photography or architectural and in closeup work as well. You set it and then you're done with it. It's very simple. You can see it right through the viewfinder and then you can move on with other things. In some cases where autofocus, autofocus is...

very quick and it can be extremely accurate but sometimes it's a little bit fussy in how it works. So with autofocus on cameras, which is something I still like quite a bit, you typically press halfway down on the shutter release to focus. This is the default system. There are ways of turning this off and using other systems. And then you press all the way down to take the photo. And so pressing halfway down, you let the camera do its focusing thing, and then you can take the photo from there. And so realize that your shutter release is that two-stage device. Now, switching back and forth between autofocus and manual focus will depend a little bit on the type of camera that you have. Some cameras will have switches or dials or buttons on the outside of the lens with the camera. Most of the newer cameras, especially the mirrorless ones, will have some sort of menu you need to jump into. Most cameras have a full menu and they also have a quick menu that just has a few of the essential items in there. And this is usually one of those more critical items that is in the quick menu. So you shouldn't have to dive too far into your camera to figure out how to go back and forth from autofocus to manual focus. So we're gonna talk about autofocus in this section here. And so there are two main areas. And the first of these two main areas that we're gonna talk about is the focus area. What are the different options on where you can focus in the frame? One of the benefits to mirrorless cameras is that they use, generally speaking, a much larger area, almost encompasses the entire frame from side to side. The DSLR will often have a smaller range and a smaller number of points. Now, some DSLRs have lots of points. It depends a little bit on how much money you spend and which model you get. But a lot of cameras will have a group of focusing points that are generally concentrated around the middle of the frame. One option is to have all points activated. All right, so this is the simplest system, or I should say it's the most simplistic, in that what the camera will do is it will look over the entire area and it will focus on the first thing that it finds. And when I say the first thing that it finds that means the first thing from you, whatever is closest is what's gonna be in focus. And so that's not always gonna work all the time. So next up, and most cameras have this, is a, what I would call a group of boxes or a large box area, something larger that's not the whole area that you can direct but is not so small that it's hard to direct. But you'll also have a single point, and it can be an individual box that you can move anywhere that's available on your particular camera. You will see the same options with the DSLR. You'll have all the focusing points but typically they don't cover as large a range as the mirrorless. You'll have an option of groups that you can set left, right, up, and down. This will vary from camera to camera, of course. And then of course you will have a single point where you can be very precise about focusing in the middle. And so some people just leave the focusing point straight in the middle and they work with it from there. Other people move the focusing point around. It depends on how you like to operate your camera. And so one of the new must-have features in cameras is the AF joystick. And so this is something that a lot of people really like, is on the back of the camera, I can show you on this one here, there's a little tiny nub in here, and you can go left and right and up and down, and it actually kinda feels kinda fun on it. It's like a little, you know, joystick for a video game, and you can move that focusing point left, right, and up and down. Now, some cameras will have touchpads like this, they'll have an up, down, left, right and you can use that. And that works pretty well in many cases. And so you wanna be aware of, you know, what your camera has and how easy it is to change these type of features. So when we talk about the focusing area the first thing that you need to know about the way cameras work is cameras are not like humans. They need particular contrast. And so if we've selected these middle boxes for focusing, the camera in this particular case will not be able to focus because while there is something there, there's clouds, it doesn't have any contrast, doesn't have any lines, and so the camera can't figure out how to focus on something like that. It needs something that has definitive lines and contrast, as I say. And one of the most common problems in photography is somebody goes over, they pick up a camera, and they press down and you can actually sometimes hear the lens go (making hydraulic sounds) "I don't know, it's a broken camera." and what's actually going on in that case is that they do not have something of contrast in the active focusing point. And so I love those situations 'cause they're, it's like a trombone, just (making trombone sounds) and I just pick it up and it just goes (making a single lens sound) click, take a photo because I knew exactly where to put that box over that area that had white lettering on the black background 'cause that had really good contrast. And so once you know what's the active point and where it will pick up on, it'll focus in an instant. And so you can focus under really low light if you know where to focus. And so blank white walls don't do well. A brick wall, you know, in between where the grout is and the red brick, that's gonna work really well. And so if you're close, it doesn't count. You gotta be, you know, right in there. Now, as I mentioned before, if you were to select all the focusing points, the default area in this photo would be this one rose here in the front left. And that may not be where you want to focus. And so the all focusing area I think is probably best suited to birthday parties where it's chaotic and just, you know, whatever's right in front of the camera I'll focus on is fine. But as a photographer, you're probably gonna get particular about what's in focus and what's out of focus. And if you said, "No, I don't want that rose in focus. "I want the other rose," then you gotta move the box or boxes to that particular area that you want in focus. And so this all points focusing doesn't work out real well in a lot of situations. It's something that I very, very infrequently use because there might be something interfering with me and my subject. One time where I do use this is if I'm photographing birds in flight and there's no trees or anything between me and the bird. The bird's the next closest thing and that's fine. A soccer or a football game would be horrible because you got players and referees crossing in front of you and that might not be the player that you're focused in on. And so for most people who are, you know, really trying to get more precise about their photography, you wanna use a smaller focusing point. Now, I don't have as much time as I might like to go into these new intelligent focus areas but this is something that's becoming very common on the new cameras. We have some cameras, and not all cameras will do this, they will have subject tracking. You can say, "All right, start with this box "right here and if something, like, notable "happens in there, follow it anywhere in the frame." And it will follow it and it will show you how it's following it in the frame. And so this is something that's gonna be coming more and more common. Now, obviously this is using something as we know it as artificial intelligence. It's trying to figure out what you want to focus on and then follow it wherever it goes. Now, most professional sports photographers are not using this because it's prone to making mistakes. "Oh, did you wanna focus on the player or the referee? "I thought you wanted to be on the referee." And by just choosing a particular box you control where the box is by where you position the camera. Here you have a little bit less control but it can do wonders and it's improving all the time. Going in a little bit more tightly cameras now have face detection. This is pretty easy. They understand these two dots with this line below it and this other funny line. And it can pick up faces and it can follow the faces, and more and more cameras are offering this. And for portrait photographers it's fantastic. If they have a hat on, their hands are out in front, the camera is focusing not on what's closest to the camera but on the actual face. But when you talk to portrait photographers it's not just the face they want in focus. They want the eye in focus because that's generally what the human eye goes to is we wanna make sure that the eye is sharp. And so if one thing has to be in focus it's probably gonna be the eye unless you're focusing on something else. You know, if you're photographing lipstick or earrings then you may want it to be someplace else. But generally speaking, when you're photographing a person, you wanna have the nearest eye in focus. Now, once again this is generalities. There's a lot of reasons to break that particular rule. And many cameras will have eye tracking and they'll show you where the face is and they'll have a box that's moving around that's following that eye. And so the cameras are getting better and they're changing very quickly in these intelligent focus areas. And we're gonna see more and more people using these as they become better and better. And so right now these are pretty good quality. The face and eye tracking I think are pretty well honed at this point. The subject tracking is still a little bit iffy with most of the cameras that I have seen. But for a lot of the time, I'm choosing an area to focus on on something that I want and just choosing a particular size box, either a small or a medium or a larger box, depending on how erratic the movement is. If the subject is stationary, you know, it's a rose and I wanna photograph that one rose coming out of the vase there, then I'm gonna use a small point area. If I'm focusing on a cyclist coming down the street, well, there's a little bit more erratic movement and I'm using a longer telephoto lens and it's harder to keep that small little point, so I'm gonna use a larger group of points in that case. And so there's a lot of different options because there's a lot of different ways and things to shoot. So that was the focus area. Now this is the counter, the other important topic, which is the AF mode, how the camera focuses. The main primary way that a lot of people shoot photos is in what's called single auto focus. And this is where the camera will focus on a subject, stop, and then you can recompose if necessary. And so let's take a look at how this would work. So if we have some subjects and we want them in focus, you'll see that we have an area of good contrast with our center focusing point. We will press halfway down to focus, and boom, our subject is in focus. And then we would press down the remainder of the way and we take our photo and all is right with the world for a brief moment in time. All right, let's now get a little bit more creative. Let's say, "Well, I don't want them "right in the middle of the frame. "I would like them off to the side "because I'm a creative guy." All right, now, notice where that focusing point is. There is no contrast there. So when you press halfway down, the camera is gonna go out of focus because it's trying to focus on something that isn't there. And it's probably gonna focus on infinity or closeup or who knows what. And so that system is just not going to work. When you press down on the shutter the camera won't fire in that example of, you know, not getting it in the right area. So let's try this again. And we have to do just a little bit of contortion here. We're gonna put it back in the middle 'cause this is where we focus. Now, you'll notice that we are halfway down on the shutter release. This is called focus lock, and all cameras have this as a default out-of-the-box setting. All right, even though there's all these different brands, this is how they all work until you deprogram them, which you can do if you want. So now that we've got it focused, now we get creative, move them off to the side, and the camera is locked in to focus there, and then we press all the way down and take the photo. So we got in focus what we wanted but we also composed how we want it, and that's what photography is about, control, getting everything that you want. And so that is one way of doing it. Now, those of you who are paying attention might want to shoot your hand up and say, "Just move the focusing point." And that's another way of doing it. We just want to have multiple solutions to solving different types of problems because maybe you want this picture off the left but the next one off to the right and the next one up above and the next one down below. And moving that focusing point around every single time gets to be a little bit of a hassle. So in some cases, this is a better system. So that is known as single autofocus. The other type that is very different is continuous autofocus, sometimes called servo, which is a motor that moves. And so this is for action and subjects that are moving closer to you and further away from you. And so in this case, as a subject is coming closer to you, you press halfway down, the camera will start to focus, and then when you press all the way down it will continually track that subject as it gets closer to you. And as you can see in these photos, the subject is in focus with every single one of those photos and then you can go through and you can pick off which ones you think look best or fits your needs. But you have all of them to choose from because they're all in focus. And so be aware of situations where subjects are coming towards you or away from you. If you choose single focus, you might get one photo in focus but you might not get any because by the time you focus and then press the remainder of the way down on the shutter release they're gonna have moved a little bit closer to you and be a little out of focus. And so when I go into a sporting action environment this is generally the first thing I change on my camera because it's the biggest mistake that'll ruin all your photographs if you don't have it set right is you want to be continually tracking their action. Now there is one more mode, not all cameras have it, most cameras do, and it's weird if you listen to the name. It's auto-autofocus. And so it's automatically choosing one or the other. And so it's either doing single or it's doing continuous and the camera is deciding based on movement that it may or may not see. And as you might imagine, I'm not too fond of giving control over to the camera as to whether something is moving. For instance, your dog, okay, if you have a dog. I know that dogs can move around quite quickly but they can also sit and stand still. And so if your camera focuses on your dog while it's sitting but then it jumps up and starts running around, it's gonna be in a single mode, not a continuous mode. And I think it's pretty easy for most photographers to think about, "What am I shooting? "What am I trying to do? "Is single or continuous better? "Is it action, is it not action?" And then setting it accordingly on your camera. So let's look at both the AF area and AF mode and how I would use that in different situations. So with single, we talked about focus lock and recompose. And so if I have the center focusing point selected and I want the eye, the nearest eye of my beautiful subject here, in focus I will move the frame over, focus on the eye, move it back, and take the photo. And you know what? That's what I did here and it works pretty well. And the idea with this is that it's very easy to do but if you wanna do it again and again and again, it gets to be a little bit of a hassle because you have to go through that same process over and over again. So if you know that you are gonna be taking multiple photos and you have one composition that you really wanna work with, you can just move the focusing point over, which does take a little bit more time, just a couple of seconds. And so the first shot is a little bit slower on the setup, but it pays off when you wanna take the second, third, fourth, 10th, 20th shot. It's all in the right area. And so generally my decision is to leave the focus point in the middle, and then when I really get engaged on a subject and I have a composition I'm working with, then I will move it to wherever it needs to be in the frame. With continuous moving subjects, action photography, it's just too hard to use a single point. As I say, you're often using telephoto lenses and that means it's magnifying your movement and it's hard to keep that exactly where it needs to be. So typically I like choosing this box or a large group of box, it depends on the camera that you have, so that it has a little bit more to work with in tracking the subjects. And so use a large area. Now, if you know you want your subject off to the side, you're gonna have to move those boxes off to the side. And this is usually something I'm thinking of as a situation is developing. "Oh, you know what? "I'd like them on the left-hand side "so I'm gonna use that little joystick. "I'm gonna move those boxes a few clicks "over to the left-hand side." And so I'm pre-determining this three, four, five seconds ahead of time, sometimes much further than that, sometimes it's just a last-second, "Oh, I've gotta get "that focus point over there." But this gives you very good control and if you have a decent camera and a lens that can track focus pretty quickly you're gonna end up with a lot of pictures in focus, which is what you want. You want your subject where you want it in focus. So we have single and continuous for stationary and action photography. I tend to wanna avoid the AF-A mode. Just as a side note, a lot of you I bet have cameras that if you look on the top of the camera, they have a little green auto mode where everything is automatic. When you put your camera into the green auto mode it is undoubtedly in the AF-A mode, just the most simplistic mode for the camera. But the cameras are actually, I hate telling people this 'cause they spend a lot of money on a camera and I tell them, "Your camera is dumb." So it just can't determine super-simple things like we can determine like that's action and that's not moving, and your camera can't do that. So there are some systems that tend to work really well. So for the focus area, we have single, group, and all. We do have those new intelligent ones as well, subject, face, and eye tracking that you might wanna test out in your camera to see how good they are. And then we have single, auto, and continuous. And for a lot of my more precise photography that's not moving around too much, I like choosing a single point with single autofocus so that I can just be very exacting on that. But as things get a little bit more chaotic then the group size and the autofocus points get a little bit larger. There are some cameras that do not have a group option. They either have a single or all. And if you're photographing action in that case I would go with all. And so continuous and all or continuous and group works quite well, and then single single works well. Now, the other intelligent ones are ones that you're gonna have to determine if they work for what you're doing with your camera 'cause not all cameras have it and how good they are varies a little bit from camera to camera. So there's lots of focus options in there and I have spent the vast majority of my time talking about autofocus here but there are areas that you can get into, and we're not gonna get into it in this class, where the camera can help you focus, either with something called peeking, which will show you little halos of where the subject is in focus. It will also have little indicators telling you if your subject is in focus, a distance scale along the bottom. And so we've never had more options for focusing these days. But in the world of photography, focus is one of the most important things that you need to get right because how many years have we had Photoshop now? 25 years, 30 years? They still cannot fix out of focus images. We've had all this technology, if you've seen Blade Runner, any sci-fi movie and all this sort of thing. You know, they talk about, "Oh, just sharpen the image. "Now zoom in," and, "Oh, look at this. "Oh, we found new information." That hasn't happened. It's not real. If you don't get it right in the field you'll be throwing that photo away. You have to get focusing right in the field. And so, learn your camera, get out there and practice, and figure out what works for you.

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Ratings and Reviews

Kanoelani Patenaude

I am a pro photographer in my dreams, where I know the in's and out's of my camera; however, reality proved differently, as real life would tell you, I was a deer caught in headlights just looking at my new 7D Mark II. I am a photographer enthusiast without the skills, but a lot of love for the moments one, or the profession/hobby of it can capture. I mostly shoot my husband, friends, and community surfers in the lineup, and of course, my children, who rarely sit still. Thus, I switched from Nikon to Canon, venturing on the 7D Mark II for the grand reviews of how stellar of camera it is for action shots (surfing, and kids, this was a no brainer). That said, and overwhelmed with the way beyond my skill set, but noted desire and aspiration to grow, I made the purchase, and sought help rather quickly as I wanted to feel confident with what I was utilizing to capture the best memories possible. I came into this John's courses knowing the "on/off" button, and "auto" shoot mode. I came out of the course feeling like the pro in my dreams, and ready to shoot manual. John's teaching style is on point, and his detailed visuals are a huge plus. My first shots post this photography kit course, I thought were great for my first educated shoot, and shockingly, I even received and email from one of the sponsors of the surfers I captured, asking if they could use my image for their sites and publications. Not bad for a newbie. Though, my intent was never a business purpose, I did not know if I should charge a small fee, or give it for free. I don't mind free as it's not my business, yet I don't want to ruin it for any professional photographers in town doing the same thing that are charging. Perhaps another course to help me with that. I highly recommend courses by John Greengo! Thank you so much, John!


I'm not sure my first review posted. But I LOVE this class! John Greengo is a great, engaging teacher who is really adept at representing the concepts visually and excellent at explaining them verbally. I love how he goes through examples with photographs he has taken. Even though I only have a Nikon Coolpix digital camera, it does have Manual, Shutter priority, and Aperture priority modes. Through his class I've gotten a really good sense of how to balance ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. It's a great overview for me especially since I am new to photography, I can play around with some of these settings, and I have a greater understanding of what I might need in a higher level camera in the future. Money well spend! (For $29, this is an absolute steal). John Greengo is an awesome teacher and I hope to take more of his classes in the future!

Megan Wagner

John is extremely articulate and is a great teacher with lots of visual aids and metaphors to help understand photography. I have been doing photography for a few years now and this class was a tremendous help in boosting my knowledge and refreshing my memory in multiple aspects of photography. The graphics that John uses are helpful and he even goes through images and asks which settings would be best to use and will go through the why. He makes things easy to understand and is very clear about the information he provides. I am so glad I took this course and I would highly recommend it even to an experienced photographer. Thank you John Greengo!

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