Photography 101: Focus

This brief tutorial is directed towards my “beginner” and “enthusiast” photographer friends. Those of you who are professionals or advanced amateurs know all of this stuff already. When I look at a photograph, any photograph, I immediately go through my mental checklist of things that have to be technically correct ALWAYS.  If these three things can’t be successfully checked off I don’t even waste my time considering the creative merits of the image.  A good photograph is a blending of the technical requirements and the photographer’s creative vision—you must have both.  But technical ALWAYS comes first. At a minimum I am looking for:

1.  A well-focused image.

2.  A well-exposed image.

3.  A well-composed image (composition).

First, the image must be well-focused.  By well-focused I mean crisp, sharp and with sufficient depth-of-field (DOF) to keep the critical area(s) in focus.  In photography we use the term “tack-sharp” a lot.  DOF is a function of the aperture (f/stop) setting, and focal length (FL) of the lens; it determines the area that will be in focus.  Shooting portraits, for example, you may wish a shallow depth of field.  This provides sharp focus on the facial plane, with a pleasing out-of-focus (OOF) look in the background (called Bokeh).  The longer the lens (FL) the shallower the DOF.  A few popular Canon lenses for portraits are:  the Canon EF 14-105mm f/4L (shooting at 105mm FL), the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L or 4L and the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro.  Shooting scenics wide-angle is usually better (FL = 16, 18, 24 or 28mm) with aperture settings of f/8 or higher).

Rule of Thumb

Telephoto lenses = Shallow DOF

Normal lenses = Modest DOF

Wide-angle lenses = Deep DOF

*  The caveat being, a large f/stop (smaller number) produces a shallower DOF, while a small f/stop (larger number) produces a deeper DOF (examples:  f/1.4 produces a very shallow DOF, while f/32 produces a very deep DOF).

What to focus on.  With digital SLR’s you can preselect the number of focus points (FP) you want to use.  99% of the time I use a single (one) FP.  On scenics I will occasionally use more FP’s, sometimes up to 9 (my particular camera’s maximum number).  With pocket cameras and iPhones it can be more problematic—just make sure you have the primary FP on the critical area.  On living creatures (humans, animals and insects) that is ALWAYS the eye.  If the eyes are OOF you’ve lost your image, and nothing you do can redeem it.  My procedure for photographing living things:

I preselect one FP in my SLR (for me that’s always the center point).  I place the FP on the eye that is closest to me, and depress my shutter button halfway (this locks the focus).  I can then move my camera, recomposing my image in the viewfinder without losing focus on the eye, even though the FP is no longer on the eye.  When I am satisfied that the composition is to my liking,  I then depress the shutter button completely.

Don’t confuse critical focus with motion blur and/or camera shake.  If you’re not familiar with those photographic terms take a moment to Google them for a clearer understanding.  I have included a few sample images to illustrate the points I made in this brief tutorial. Happy shooting.

An out-of-focus image in the critical area(s) is NEVER acceptable (even if it’s creative genius).   If the critical area(s) are tack-sharp, some softness in the rest of the image can be acceptable (and even creatively desirable at times).  Again, I reference the example of a portrait with the facial plane (especially the eyes) in sharp focus, with the background receding softly into a pleasing out-of-focus look.  

Sample Photos

Babe color

Maya WEB

 IMG_3710 HR


I don’t know if these short tutorials are helpful or not.  I certainly don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence or experience.  They’re definitely geared with the “beginner” or “enthusiast” photographer in mind.  So many new photographers, in this digital age, lack the fundamental photographic knowledge we learned in the “olden days” shooting film.  It’s all readily available online, of course, but some lack the desire to delve deeper into the subject.  If you like taking pictures, I hope these tutorials will inspire you to study the subject in further depth.  You can Google any photographic topic you want, and there are some terrific free video tutorials on YouTube and the like.  It’s a subject I am passionate about, and I would like to see more amateur snapshot takers up their game to serious photography.  SFD

Cuba Portrait WEB

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Indochine Photography International

*  Expat Journal

The Yucatan Times


*  Indochine Portfolio

*  My NatGeo Portfolio

*  My Portfolio


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