Focusing a Point and Shoot Camera
Everything in photography composition can be boiled down to just three things:
Where the camera is pointed i.e. what is in the viewfinder/viewscreen
What is in focus and what isn’t
It is the last of these that I want to deal with here. As always, this will be written with point and shoots in mind but most if not all will be transferable to dSLRs. I suspect that this will be old news to most dSLR owners though.
A working definition of in focus: something that looks reasonably sharp to the eye when viewed 1:1 on a screen. This is enough for most photographers needs. Anyone that goes deeper into this topic soon comes across expressions such as circles of confusion (which is a photographic term and not a description of the morning after a very good party) and the concept that sharpness isn’t a binary concept but rather a sliding scale from perfect focus to where it looks fine to the human eye to where it is blurred. As always I’ll be more than happy to discuss this in the comments if anyone is in the slightest bit interested.
HOW WILL KNOWING THIS STUFF IMPROVE MY PHOTOGRAPHY?
It will give you a means of deciding what part of an image is in focus and what isn’t It will enable the focus of an image to be objects other than those nearest the camera and/or in the middle of the picture. Do this and nothing else and it will give your images an edge. Example if you want to shoot a portrait nine times out of ten you’ll want the persons face and especially eyes in sharp focus and the background blurred to drive attention to the face but a shot where the background is in focus and the face a blur can make for a really interesting shot, creating a feeling of dislocation and unease or simply showing the environment if that is what is more important.
I always set my cameras up to lock focus when the shutter button is half pressed. In other words I;
Look at a scene
Decide what I want in focus
Center it in the camera
Half depress the shutter button
Make sure that the object is in focus
Compose the shot with finger remaining on shutter button
Fully depress the shutter button.
This sounds like a lot of work but it becomes instinctive very quickly (as in minutes) It is much easier than trial and error or hoping that the camera knows what you want to achieve.
Unfortunately most cameras don’t default to this mode of operation, like many things in life the designers assume see a problem where there isn’t one and introduce levels of complexity to get around this non-existant problem. You will probably have to check the instructions for your camera to see exactly how to simplify things. The key wording will be something along the lines of AF-lock or Auto Focus lock and will involve going into the menu setup to make it a persistent change. If you have lost the instructions, Googling the camera make and model number will usually lead to a downloadable copy of the instructions. Any problems, put your make and model number in the comments and I’ll try my best to get instructions to you. I am familiar with most methods but it would be way to wordy and time consuming to list them here.
Remember, we are after a set up where you see something, center it, half press the shutter, compose the shot, the focus stays locked and you shoot.
For me, the best thing about a dSLR is that the autofocus can be turned off and then I can point the camera exactly where I want it then focusing, saving the centering and half pressing the button step. I probably work manually 99% of the time. Unfortunately it is not possible to do this with most point and shoots so the extra steps are required.
AT THE MOVIES
There is a technique called racking that is used in movie making that is used to dramatically shift the viewers focus from one character to another. The shot is set up by having the characters at different distances from the camera then starting the shot with one in focus and then, during the scene shifting the focus onto the other. This technique is often used when the first character imparts shocking and unexpected information and the camera starts off on that character then that moves onto the second which adds intensity to the reaction by only having the second character in focus.
A quick tangent; One of the best ways to learn about composition is to watch TV and movies, seriously I am not joking. When setting up a shot, nothing is accidental, everything has a definite purpose, you are being manipulated by the director. A good photographer can look at anything on a TV or movie screen and know what the director is trying to achieve, what emotion he or she is trying to ellicit, with that specific shot without any other context.
My test of a good movie is whether the director can suck me in to such an extent that I either completely forget about the technical side of the production. Tarrentino and Hitchcock are probably the only two directors that achieve this with what appears to be ease. Spielberg never did.
The bright side of all this is that I can watch any old crap and still get something out of the experience even if it is just a different lighting or framing technique and, if all else fails, a lesson in what not to do. Watching TV and movies critically will improve photography more than reading all the books and articles (including this one) ever written!
Personally I learned more about lighting by watching movies than I ever did by reading stuff by other photographers. Next time you are watching a really boring movie just work out which direction the light is coming from and try to work out if there is a reason for the lighting being the way it is, e.g. soft and diffuse or hard and dramatic, and how the director is trying to manipulate you by his or her use of lighting. Everything learned can be applied to still shots.
TECHNICAL STUFF WORTH KNOWING
Anything a given distance away from the camera will be exactly as sharp (in focus) as anything else exactly the same distance away.
The smaller the aperture the more of the image will be in focus. On most point and shoot cameras this is where knowing what the named settings actually do comes in useful as they normally don’t allow for direct control over aperture size (f stop). If you want everything in focus choose landscape setting – this setting forces the smallest usable aperture.
The planes of focus get bigger the further away from the camera. All else being equal, the area (volume to be more accurate) of acceptably sharp focus become progressively larger the greater the distance from the camera. I’m not sure of the exact relationship but it isn’t linear, e.g. close to the camera, only a fraction of an inch may be acceptably sharp but yards will be acceptably sharp further away. This is why macro photos usually have large parts of the image out of focus and landscapes tend to be largely in focus.
There is a plane where focus is absolutely sharp then there is a volume where it is acceptably sharp. This volume increases in depth with distance and/or a smaller aperture. Acceptably sharp is not an absolute as it depends upon factors such as the human eye and type and size of output.
Two other things impact just how sharp an image can be at the time of taking a photograph and that is the quality of the lens and the quality of the sensor.
In post production a little softness can be sharpened but not a lot. Personally I am not obsessive about having part of the image tack sharp but most photographers are (I think).
Set the camera up as described then experiment, take the same shot but with different distances in focus and see how different the impact is. The same composition can feel very different. Front focus tends to give immediate impact whereas focusing on something further away is a great for drawing the viewer in. Focusing on something off center is a fairly straightforward way of making an image appear dynamic and interesting as opposed to static and, well, boring.
We have all seen thousands if not millions of images and 99.99% of these have the focus front and center (literally not mataphorically). The human brain latches onto things that are different. Next to utilizing good lighting that doesn’t come from the top of the camera shifting the focus around is the easiest way to raise an image above the level of snapshot.
Until Next Time…..