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What are Focus Modes and Why are They Important?

Milky Way from Skyline Drive, VA

Today’s digital cameras offer two main ways of controlling the focus on your camera – Manual and Autofocus.

Manual Mode is just like it sounds – the photographer controls the focus (instead of the camera) and manually turns the focus ring on the lens to bring the image into focus. This form of focus is useful when photographing night scenes, since many cameras have difficulty with locating a subject in a dark scene that it can use to focus. Manual focus is also recommended for photographing fireworks, because the camera would be attempting to focus every time the shutter is pressed, and would miss the optimal time to photograph a burst of fireworks. Manual focus is also useful when the photographer wants a certain area of the image in focus, and the camera consistently “locks on” to a different area in the image.

In Autofocus mode, the camera and lens control the focus in the image. If you are shooting fast-moving genres like wildlife, sports, or street activities, then you should use Autofocus. There are several Autofocus modes, and depending on the camera manufacturer, they are called by different names. The Autofocus modes are Autofocus Single, Autofocus Continuous, and Autofocus Hybrid.

Meadowlark Gardens, Vienna, VA

Autofocus Single mode is used when you want the camera to lock the focus on the subject that you want to photograph. This mode is called AF-S on a Nikon, One-shot AF on a Canon and Single-shot AF on a Sony.

a baseball player swinging a bat at a ball

Autofocus Continuous mode is used when the subject is moving. Once the focus is set, the camera will continue to track the movement of the subject no matter where it is in the frame. Sometimes, depending on the conditions (lighting, depth of field and the focusing speed of the lens) it can be challenging to use Autofocus Continuous, since the camera may acquire and lose focus. The Autofocus Continuous mode is called AF-C on a Nikon, AI Servo on a Canon, and Continuous AF on a Sony.

Goldfinch at Burnside Farms, Nokesville, VA

Autofocus Hybrid mode is a combination of Single and Autofocus modes and is used when there are times when you aren’t certain of which autofocus mode to use. The camera will evaluate the image and if there is motion, the camera will switch from Autofocus Single to Autofocus Continuous to track the subject. Hybrid Autofocus is best used when the subject’s movements are unpredictable, and is AF-A on a Nikon, AI Focus on a Canon, and Continuous on a Sony.

Knowing which focusing mode to use depends on whether or not your subject will be static and should be part of the preparatory work needed in anticipation of the shoot.

Photos by Sherryl Belinsky

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