All About Autofocus: Focus Area vs Focus Mode for Beginners

All About Autofocus: Focus Area vs Focus Mode for Beginners

Do you ever wonder why you’re not nailing focus despite being told that your camera and lens are both fast and sharp enough for the job? It might not be because you’re missing the moment or going soft in the eyes. The solution might be buried in your settings. Even the smallest cameras are feature-rich and heavy on options. Post-production software can only fix so much when you fudge your focus. Here are the 2 most important settings menus to explore before shooting an event or family gathering.

Autofocus Basics: Focus Area vs Focus Mode

Your Focusing Area is how your camera knows where in a scene to direct focus. It allows you to pick a certain area in your frame to use your focus points on.

An example of your Focus Area choices on a Sony a7R II.

An example of your Focus Area choices on a Sony a7R II.

Each camera has a different number of focus points at its disposal. While not required for good photography, better and newer cameras tend to have more focus points. You can find out how many focus points a camera has in our Specs section of our listings under AF Points:

1DXII-60D-Focus-Point-AF-Compared-BorrowLenses

Canon 1D X Mark II’s AF points compared to the Canon 60D.

Examples of Focus Area

Focus Area selection choices tend to be some variation of the following:

Single Point Selection or Center
Zone-Based Selection (different numbers of points within a restricted area of your angle of view)
Auto/Dynamic/Tracking Selection

Think of Focus Area selection as choosing between whether you want focus points to prioritize a single target in your scene, a group of targets within a larger set of targets in a scene, or any target in a scene at any time. Later in this post, we’ll share how to find the Focus Area settings for a variety of brands.

A Focus Mode (not to be confused with Focus Area) changes the behavior of focus, such as whether a camera will reattempt focus every time a subject moves around or just lands on a designated area and locks focus despite the subject’s movement.

Example of Focus Mode choices for the Sony a7R II.

Example of Focus Mode choices for the Sony a7R II.

Most cameras only have variations of 2 basic Focus Mode types: single mode (AF-S) and continuous mode (AF-C). Single modes will put focus exactly where you have placed your focus point in your viewfinder. Continuous mode will reattempt focus when the subject moves within the restrictions you have placed on it with your Focus Area.

An example of the usefulness of AF-S. If your focus point is placed on the child, it will not reattempt focus on the butterfly.

An example of the usefulness of AF-S. If your focus point is placed on the child, it will not reattempt focus on the butterfly.

In AF-S, the shutter will often not let you take a picture if the subject falls out of where your focus point is. In AF-C, the camera keeps measuring focus and readjusting for as long as the shutter button is half-pressed. While AF-C is ideal for action, it is a drain on batteries. AF-S can be very precise if you plan your scene.

An example of the usefulness of AF-C mode. Focus attempts to keep up with bursts of action.

An example of the usefulness of AF-C mode. Focus attempts to keep up with bursts of action.

How to Change Your Focus Area and Focus Mode Settings

Check your camera’s manual for further instructions on how to adjust your Focus Area and Focus Mode settings. We’ve pulled a few for you from popular brands to save you some time. Details will vary based on your exact model.

Canon Focus Area

Focus-Area-Canon

Canon Focus Mode

Focus-Mode-Canon

Note that AI Servo is Canon’s way of describing continuous focus. AI Focus is a kind of “auto” mode that will switch between AF-S (or One Shot) and AF-C (or AI Servo) based on situation. Your mileage may vary on how effective AI Focus is.

Nikon Focus Area

Focus-Area-Nikon

Nikon Focus Mode

Focus-Mode-Nikon

Sony a7 Series Focus Area

Focus-Area-a7-Series

Sony a7 Series Focus Mode

Focus-Mode-a7-Series
On some cameras, like Olympus' OM-D series, you can simply touch the LCD in the area where you want focus, making it easier than ever to nail your shot.

On some cameras, like Olympus’ OM-D series, you can simply touch the LCD in the area where you want focus, making it easier than ever to nail your shot. Full-Time Servo Focus for video is becoming more popular and allows continuous, silent AF when shooting in movie mode. This feature is available in the Canon 7D Mark II, Nikon D750, and Sony a5100, among others.

Olympus Focus Area

Focus-Area-Olympus

Olympus Focus Mode

Focus-Mode-Olympus

Pentax Focus Area

Focus-Area-Pentax

Pentax Focus Mode

Focus-Mode-Pentax

Selecting Your Focus Point

It isn’t always intuitive how to select your focus point location in your viewfinder. Whether you’re working within a single-point focusing area or wanting to move around entire focus point groups, you need to know how to actually adjust your focus point’s location where you want it in the viewfinder.

Here is how to find that on most advanced Canon cameras (such as the 5D Mark III):

Focus-Select-Canon-Advanced-DSLR

Here is how to find that on most beginner Canon cameras (such as the Rebel Series):

Focus-Select-Canon-Beginner-DSLR

Here is how to find that on most advanced Nikon cameras (such as the D800):

Focus-Select-Nikon-Advanced-DSLR

Here is how to find that on most beginner Nikon cameras (such as the D5500):

Focus-Select-Nikon-Beginner-DSLR

Even if you aren’t using a Canon or a Nikon, the method for finding how to toggle your focus points is similar in all cameras. Check your own camera’s manual to find exact instructions.

Panasonic-manual-location-borrowlenses

If you’re renting a body, check our Manual tab in the gear’s listing. If there is no manual, most are available online or contact us and we’ll try to accommodate.

There are other important settings to be aware of, especially as a beginner. Check out the following tutorials to supplement this one:

3 Major Graduation Shooting Tips
• Semi-Automatic Shooting and Metering Modes
• Exposure Compensation and Overriding Auto
• Large Group Sharpness and Focal Planes

New DSLR Owners: What You Must Know About Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors Before Choosing a Lens
• What is a full frame sensor?
• What is a crop frame sensor?

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Alexandria Huff's photography and lighting tutorials can be found on 500px and her blog. She is a Marketing Coordinator for BorrowLenses.com and also writes for SmugMug. She learned about lighting and teaching while modeling for photographers such as Joe McNally and has since gone on to teach lighting workshops of her own in San Francisco. Previously, she shot motorsports for X-Games, World Rally Cross, and Formula Drift. See her chiaroscuro-style painterly portraits on her website.

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