It's time to focus

Inevitably the more I learn about photography, the more I develop a desire to buy new photography gear. So far I've mostly held off, but one thing I have bought is a new lens (Sigma 35mm f/1.4).  It allows me to shoot at much larger apertures (i.e. lower Fstop numbers), which can be advantageous in two ways. Larger apertures can be helpful when taking pictures in low light  because the lens opening is wider. But more importantly, shooting wide open (i.e. larger apertures) can allow you to create those dreamy shots where the subject is in focus with a hazy background (in photography terms this is called "bokeh"). If you only have the kit lens that came with your DSLR it can be hard to achieve this look.

So far, so good? Well, not quite. After returning from a divine vacation in the Dominican Republic and taking a closer look at the pictures taken with my brand new lens, I noticed something. Disappointingly, the focus was off in many of the pictures taken at these large apertures.

Look at the photo below taken in the early morning light (side note: Maelle thought 6:15 a.m. was a good time to wake up on vacation, so I decided to make the best of it and take some pictures). At first glance it looks okay but if you look closer you can see how much sharper the grass is than Maelle's face. Not exactly the look I was going for.

Likewise instead of Maelle's eyes being in super sharp focus, I ended up with a super sharp button in the photo below.

Since then I've learned that it can be very difficult to nail the focus when shooting at large apertures. It's therefore important to ask yourself if this aperture really is the best choice. Also, the depth of focus can be less than a centimetre at large apertures so if your camera is set to Automatic Auto focus selection (which mine was) there is a good chance your focus will be off. In this mode the camera will focus on the nearest subject with adequate contrast to one of the focal points (which may or may not be what you want to be in focus).

I now try to manually select my Autofocus (AF) point, forcing the camera to focus where I want it to. There are two basic ways to do this:  the focus-recompose method (select the centre focal point, press the shutter button halfway down to lock the focus and then recompose the shot) or select the focal point closest to your subject. Here are two additional articles that you may find helpful:

Changing Your Focal Point
Many People Use All Focus Points on Their DSLR, Learn to Break the Mould!

How do you know if your focus is spot on? After you've taken a photo review it on the playback mode and zoom in on the eyes (they should be sharp). It can be pretty tough to see the focus accurately just be looking at the image at full size.

It can still be a challenge to get the focus tack sharp (since shutter speed, camera shake and lens quality all impact sharpness), but I'm noticing positive results when I take control over my camera's focus.


Goodbye Auto, Hello Manual?

One thing that I've learned about my DSLR camera is that shooting on Auto mode means that my camera is guessing on the correct exposure. Mind you, it is an educated guess based on a predetermined formula that sometimes works well and produces balanced images. But it isn't always right for the picture I want to take. There are certain situations in particular where a camera is fooled on Auto mode and taking control can make a big difference. Take the following sets of pictures as an example:

The photo on the left below was taken in Auto mode, while the one on the right was taken in Aperture Priority with an additional 2/3 in Exposure Compensation (click here for a good explanation of Exposure Compensation). In scenes like the one below - that are bright or have a lot of white - the camera can be tricked in Auto mode to underexpose the subject (in this case leaving Maelle's face too dark).  To compensate for this, I increased the ISO to let in more light, decreased the aperture (to make the lens opening larger) and increased the Exposure Compensation. In the resulting image, the side of the blanket is slightly overexposed but I figured it was a worthwhile trade off to get a well exposed face.

LEFT ISO: 200, Aperture f/4.5 SS 1/250     RIGHT  ISO: 400, Aperture f/3.5, SS 1/500, +2/3 EV
Again for the photos below, the photo on the left was taken in Auto mode while the one on the right was taken in Aperture Priority mode. In the Auto photo, the flash made Maelle's face look a bit flat and overly white and also changed the colour of the front of the couch.  When I shot the photo on the right, I switched off the flash and lowered the aperture to let in more light, which also had the positive effect of decreasing the depth of field to focus on Maelle and leave the back of the couch/scene blurred. Because I was using a shallow depth of field (i.e. a low aperture number), I made sure to select my focal point on Maelle's eyes.

LEFT ISO 400, Aperture f/4.0, SS 1/60     RIGHT ISO 400, Aperture f/2.2, SS 1/160

So have I been able to completely say goodbye to shooting on Auto mode? The short answer is no. I try to consistently set the White Balance, ISO and focal point myself I'll discuss how to do this in a future post) but I generally shoot in Aperture Priority (a semi-automatic mode), instead of full Manual. See this article for a description of why Aperture Priority can be a good mode to use. I am also beginning to experiment in full Manual mode when I have the time (i.e. my subject is not rapidly crawling over the place!) to play around with settings. But there are times when I do still shoot in Auto mode.

Here are some tips I've found helpful:

1) Expect to fail
Once I started to move outside of Auto mode, I was often frustrated that sometimes the pictures were worse. I had to remind myself that although my ratio of hits to misses might be low at the beginning, it would change over time.

2) Try taking one photo in Auto first, review, then change it up
If I'm faced with a difficult shooting situation, one thing I've found helpful is to use Auto as a starting point. Take the first photo of your subject in Auto and see what the camera does. Review the shutter speed, ISO and aperture the camera has chosen and see what you think is working and what isn't. Experiment with different settings.

3) Start small
It can be hard to remember to change all the settings at once, so try mastering one setting at a time. Take pictures in Program mode (where the camera still chooses the Aperture and Shutter speed), but experiment with changing White Balance or ISO. Then move onto adjusting the Exposure Compensation if the photo is too dark or too light. Or try taking pictures in Aperture Priority and let the camera worry about shutter speed. Sure, your end goal may be to be comfortable in Manual but you don't need to get there all at the beginning.

Finally, if you're looking for a great book to help you move beyond "point and shoot" I'd highly recommend Beyond Auto Mode