3 Tips on Focusing on Difficult Subjects

This post was inspired by reader Cassandra who wrote

“I just bought the P510… love love love it. Shot the moon- can’t believe the clarity. Shot a deer in the woods… couldn’t get it to focus past the tree branches- how can I focus on the subject during superzoom when there are objects nearby that the camera prefers to focus upon? help!  “

This is a really common problem for DSLR users, Bridge Camera users and Point and Shoot camera users alike.  The main difference between them being the choice of focus modes available to each.  The Focus Mode allows you to change how the Auto Focus system determines where the focus should be in the frame.  In DSLR cameras you also have the option to focus manually.  Let’s look at 3 tips which will help you with focusing on difficult subjects.

Focus Points

1. Check your user’s manual to see how many focus points you camera users.  The focus points are the little red or green blinking lights you’ll see inside the viewfinder or on your LCD screen when you half press your finger on the shutter button right before you actually take the picture.  DSLRS and some Bridge cameras will actually let you select which one of these focus points you would like to use.  The default setting is Auto Focus Point selection where the camera choses what IT thinks you want to be in focus.  90% of the time it gets it rght as it usually focuses on the closest thing or the largest thing in the frame.

But if you are trying to be a little creative, this may not be what you want to focus on .  This is especially true if you are using a large superzoom where you might be focusing on something really far away , through trees or slightly obscured by something in the foreground.  In this case you might find it best to select the Center Auto Focus Point.  That way you know that only whatever is in the centre of the frame will be in focus.  Again check your user manual to see how to do this for your particular camera model.

Focus Lock

2.  But what happens when you don’t want your subject to be dead center of the frame.  Afterall don’t we all hear about the Rule of Thirds for a pleasing composition? That means your main subject needs to be off center a little. In order to focus on off center subjects you have a couple of choices.  If your DSLR allows it you can select a focus point that is over the subject that you want to focus on.  You will have to consult your specific user manual to find out how to do this .  Alternatively you can use the Focus Lock Method.

Focusing on Difficult subjects

The Focus Lock Method is where you –

  • focus on your subject with the focus point set to the center.
  • Then hold your finger on half way on the shutter button.  (If you haven’t noticed before, the shutter button of your camera has a point half way where focus is obtained and then you fully depress the shutter button to take a picture. )
  • When you keep your finger held on the shutter button half way down the focus is locked on your subject.  You can then recompose your shot to the left ror the right, up or down to reframe your subject the way you wish.
  • Then fully depress your finger on the shutter button to take the picture.


Focus Lock Method

Moving Subjects

3. The first 2 tips work very well for stationery subjects or at least those that aren’t moving too fast.  If you find yourself shooting at your kids’ T-ball game, it may be a little harder to focus on a moving traget using the methods outlined above.

This is where you need to change Focus Modes.  Again, you will need to consult your manual on how to do this for your particular camera model.

In Canon you’ll be changing from One Shot to AI Servo mode and for Nikon it’ll be AF-S to AF-C.

Servo Mode

You can now lock your focus on your subject and  keep shooting while the camera will constantly readjust the focus on your subject as you press the shutter button.  Makes  catching toddlers on the move so much easier!


Happy Snapping



P.S. For lots more in depth information about how to use your DSLR to the max check out my newly revised online “Master your DSLR” course.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Joe kelly - September 29, 2012

Ingrid just got my
iPad sorted I email etc sorry was not ready for your live class can you forward me a recorded version as I all find it very useful for further reference thanks

Freelance Photographers - September 29, 2012

Those 3 tips are great! I can’t wait to test it on my DSLR camera to shoot fantastic picture of my subject. Thank you very much!

Brian Idocks - December 3, 2012

Well said. I have seen too many people struggle with focusing. It is by far the one thing that will ruin a photo. Bad focus cannot be fixed. Thank you for sharing.

Ingrid - December 12, 2012

Your welcome Brian!

Ingrid - December 12, 2012

Of course!

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