The Secret Weapon of Photographers: Back Button Focus For Sharper Images

If you’ve read photography blogs, hung out on photography forums, or hung out with other photographers, you may have heard the term “back button focus” mentioned.  It’s possible you’re not sure what it’s all about, or maybe you heard that you can get sharper photos with back button focus but you’re not sure how.  You might even wonder if it’s something you need to do or not.  This post will break all that down for you.

First, what is back button focus?

Simply put, back button focus is using a button on the back of your camera to achieve focus rather than using the shutter button for focusing.  It will depend on your camera brand and model as to which button exactly you will use for this function.  I shoot Canon.  Pictured below is one of my Canon bodies; the AF-ON button on the top right is used for back button focusing (BBF) on both of my bodies.  Other Canons use a different button, depending on the model.  Different brands also have slightly different setups, so consult your camera manual to determine exactly which button is used for back button focusing.

Back button focus photo 600x400 The Secret Weapon of Photographers: Back Button Focus For Sharper Images
pin it4 The Secret Weapon of Photographers: Back Button Focus For Sharper Images

What is different about back button focusing (BBF) and how can it give me sharper images?

Technically, using the back button to focus does the exact same thing as the shutter button: it focuses.  It doesn’t use any different method that will inherently give you sharper photos.  On the surface, both buttons do the same thing.  There are a few advantages to back button focus – and they can help you get sharper.  The main advantage of BBF is that it separates the shutter button from focusing.  When you focus with the shutter button, you are both focusing and releasing the shutter with the same button.  With BBF, these two functions take place with different buttons.

You can use BBF in different focus modes.  If you are using one shot/single shot mode, you can press the back button once to lock focus and focus will remain in that specific spot until you press the back button again to refocus.  This is advantageous if you need to take a number of photos (such as portraits or landscapes) with the same composition and focal point.  You do not need to worry about the lens refocusing each time you touch the shutter button; your focus is locked until you decide to change it by pressing the back button again.

If you’re using servo/AF-C mode, back button focus can come in even more handy.  When you’re using this focus mode, your lens’ focus motor is continually running, trying to maintain focus on a subject you are tracking.  You may also be firing off a number of shots while you’re doing this focus tracking.   Say you’re using shutter button focus and you’re tracking a subject, but something comes between your lens and your subject.  With shutter button focus, your lens will attempt to focus on the obstruction as long as your finger stays on the shutter button, shooting photos.  However, when you focus with the back button, this is not a problem.  Remember how I said that BBF separates the shutter button from focusing?  This is where it comes in really handy.  With BBF, if you notice an obstruction come between your lens and your subject, you can simply remove your thumb from the back button and the lens focus motor will stop running and will not focus on the obstruction.  You can still continue to shoot if you wish.  Once the obstruction moves, you can put your thumb back on the back button and resume tracking focus on your moving subject.

Is back button focus necessary?

No.  It comes down to being a matter of preference.  There are some photographers who do benefit from it, such as sports photographers and wedding photographers, but even they don’t have to use it.  I use it because I tried it, liked it, and became accustomed to using my back button to focus.  It now feels natural to me.  Try it to see if you like it and if it fits your shooting style.  If you don’t like it, you can always go back to shutter button focus.

How do I set up back button focus on my camera?

The exact process for setup will vary depending on your camera brand and model, so it’s best to consult your manual to determine how to set up back button focus on your specific camera.  A couple of tips (I’ve learned these from experience!):  some camera models have the option of having both back button and shutter button focus active at the same time.  Be certain that you are picking the mode that is dedicated specifically to back button focus only.  Also, if you have a wireless camera remote that allows for autofocus, chances are your camera body won’t autofocus using the remove if you have BBF set up on the camera.  If you do need to autofocus and use a remote, you’ll need to change the camera back to shutter button focus temporarily.

Back button focusing is not a necessity but is an option that many photographers find indispensable.  Now that you know what it is and what its benefits are, try it out and see if it’s for you!

Amy Short is a portrait and maternity photographer in Wakefield, RI.  You can find her at www.amykristin.com and on Facebook.

 

How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time

Whether you’re a hobbyist or a pro, getting perfect focus for your photos is one of the most important parts of photography.  There’s a lot to know about getting sharp pictures though, and sometimes it’s confusing to know what to focus on (pun intended…ha ha) if your images do not appear to be sharp or in focus.  This post will give you a better understanding of how focus works and what you can do to improve the focus in your images.

First, the basics.

Autofocus vs. manual focus.

Modern DSLRs all have the ability to autofocus.  This means that they will automatically pick on a specific point or area chosen by either you or the camera.  The autofocus systems in DSLRs are getting more and more advanced and are quite accurate.  Most cameras have focus motors for autofocus built into the camera.  However, some do not, and require that the lens has a focus motor in order to autofocus.  Be sure to understand whether your camera autofocuses via the body or the lens so you know which lenses are appropriate for your camera if you want to be able to autofocus.

Even though DSLRs have very good autofocus systems, you still are able to manually adjust your lenses.  This means that you are controlling the focus of the lens vs. the camera focusing the lens.  Note that manual focus is not the same as shooting in manual mode.  You can shoot in manual mode and use autofocus.  You can also shoot in modes other than manual and manually focus your lens.  Switching a lens from auto to manual is easy. It is nearly always done via a small switch on the lens body, usually indicating “AF” and “MF”, as pictured below.  There are some lenses that even allow you to manually fine-tune while the lens is set to autofocus; this is called autofocus override.  If you are not sure whether your lens can do this, check its specifications.

Autofocus switch 600x400 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time
pin it4 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time

Should I even use manual focus?

This is a good question.  Autofocus systems are very good, so when and why should you choose to do things manually?  For the most part, autofocus is the way to go.  It’s fast and accurate.  Also, modern DSLR focus screens are not built to handle manual focusing like the focus screens in old manual-focus film cameras were.  It is extremely hard to manually focus DSLRs at wide apertures because their focus screens are not made for this purpose.  That said, there are times when you will want or need to use manual focus.  Some lenses are manual focus only, so your only choice will be manually focusing such a lens.  There are modern lenses that are manual focus only and there are also older lenses which can be fitted onto modern cameras that will need to be manually focused.  Another situation where manual focus comes in very handy is shooting macro.  Macro photography is a very precise discipline and the photos tend to have a very thin depth of field.  This can sometimes confuse the autofocus system, or autofocus may not land precisely where you want, so you may be better off manually focusing to get a shot you want with the focus where you want it.

There are lots of focus points.  How should I use them?

Your DSLR has lots of focus points.  Maybe even lots and lots!  The most important thing is to use them all.  Not necessarily at the same time, but you should rely on all your focus points to get perfect focus…so use them!

So what are the best ways to use them?

Above all, choose your focus point(s).  Don’t let the camera choose them for you!  I repeat, choose your focus point!  When the camera chooses your focus point for you, it’s just taking a wild guess as to where it thinks the focus should be.  Something in the photo will be in focus….but it might not be what you want.  Check out the example shots below.  In this first photo, I chose my single focus point so that the lily would be in focus.

manually chosen focus point 600x400 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time
pin it4 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time

Now look at the next photo.  Everything in the next photo is the same as the first one:  lens, settings, my position.  The only thing I changed was that I changed the focus point selection from single point to having the camera select the focus point.  As you can see, my intended lily is no longer in focus but a flower towards the middle has now become the focus point.  This is what the camera randomly chose.

camera chosen focus point 600x400 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time
pin it4 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time

Should I use single point?  Multiple points?  I’m so confused!

I don’t blame you.  There are sometimes an overwhelming number of configurations of focus points on our cameras, and it’s hard to know which one to choose.  Some cameras have less focus point configurations than others, but most all have at least the ability to choose one single point and also a somewhat larger group of points.  Single point focus can be used for a lot of photo types.  It’s king for portraits.  Put the focus point on the eye of a single subject, or focus 1/3 way into a group of people with a single point.  Use it for landscapes and put your focus just where you want it.  You can even use it for sports if you’re good at tracking subjects.  Note that when you use single point focus, it can be ANY single point, not just the center point.  Using multiple points can be helpful when shooting sports with fast moving subjects who are somewhat far away and are hard to track and keep under one single point.  If your camera has a more advanced autofocus system you may have multiple options when it comes to using more than one focus point at a time.  Take the time to understand what each one does so you can use them to their fullest.  Multiple point focus is not really one to use when shooting single or group portraits.  But if you are taking a portrait of some sort using this mode, keep this in mind:  there are times when you have multiple points enabled that it may look like there are focus points on several people’s faces.  This does NOT necessarily mean that each person will be in focus.  Even though the camera is showing multiple focus points, it’s actually only picking one of those points, the point with the most detectable contrast, to focus on.  Be sure that your depth of field is wide enough to fit your entire group.

What are the autofocus drive modes about?

These modes govern how the focus motor in the lens/camera performs.  Depending on your camera brand, the modes will have different names.  Single shot/AF-S mode means that the focus motor comes on just once when you use your shutter button or back button to focus.  It does not keep running.  Focus is in this single place until the camera refocuses with another half press of the shutter button or press of the back button.  This mode is great for portraits and landscapes.  AI Servo/AF-C mode means that the focus motor continues to run while focus is tracked on a moving subject.  In this mode, the shutter button or back button is kept pressed while tracking the subject in order to keep the focus motor running.  This mode is great for any subject that moves (sports, animals, children on the move).  It is not generally used for portraits.

What is toggling my focus points about?  How about focus and recompose?

Toggling your focus points means that you are choosing your focus point yourself and you are moving, or “toggling” that point around until you pick the point that is over your intended area of focus.  Today’s cameras are made for toggling!  There are so many focus points in them…use them!  Toggle away!

Focus and recompose is a method where you lock focus on a subject (usually, but not always, using the center point), then keep the shutter button half-pressed while you recompose the shot to place the subjects where you wish.  Then you take the photo.  In theory, focus should stay locked on where you initially placed it.  However, this method can sometimes become problematic, especially when you’re using wide apertures with very thin focal planes.  Focus is on a plane…think of a piece of glass that extends up and down and side to side infinitely, but its thickness depends on several factors, including aperture.  When your aperture is very wide, that “piece of glass” is very, very thin.  Recomposing can cause the focal plane to shift (think of moving that thin piece of glass slightly), and that can cause your intended focus point to shift.  Both photos below were taken with the same settings.  The focal length was 85mm, and the aperture was 1.4.  The first shot was taken by toggling my focus point to my subject’s eye.  His eyes are in sharp focus.  In the second photo, I focused and recomposed.  In that photo, his eyebrows are in sharp focus but his eyes are fuzzy.  My focal plane, which is very thin at 1.4, was shifted when I recomposed.

toggle focus points 600x400 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time
pin it4 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time

focus recompose 600x400 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time
pin it4 How To Get Perfect Focus Every Time

Sometimes it is necessary to focus and recompose.  I occasionally take photos where my subject is somewhere outside the range of where my camera’s focus points reach.  So, I will focus and recompose in those situations.  If doing so, it’s just important to try as hard as possible to not move your focal plane, and if possible, use a somewhat narrower aperture which will help.

My photos aren’t in focus.  What should I do?

There could be a number of reasons  why your photos are not in focus.  Try to troubleshoot using the following list:

  • Your depth of field with the aperture you’re using is too thin to get everything you wanted in focus.
  • Your camera is choosing your focus point and is not putting it where you want it.
  • You are trying to focus on something closer than your lens’ minimum focus distance (all lenses have a minimum focus distance.  In general, except with macro lenses, the longer the focal distance, the farther away the minimum focus distance.  Some lenses have it marked on the lens barrel.  If not, you can check online or in your lens’ manual for this information.)
  • Your shutter speed is too slow, causing motion blur
  • You were shooting in very low light and it was difficult for your camera to lock focus.
  • You may have the autofocus drive mode set incorrectly (i.e. using single shot on a moving subject, or using Servo/continuous focus on a still subject.  Both of these can cause blur.)
  • You are shooting on a tripod and have IS/VR on.  This function should be switched off when the lens is on a tripod.
  • Your lens has a true autofocus issue.  Often this is just a slight issue where the lens is focusing a bit in front of or in back of where you would like it to focus.  To test that it is the lens, you should put your lens on a tripod and take photos of something such as a ruler to see if your focus falls where you intend.  You can also find charts online to test focus.  If you find your lens’ focus is off, you can perform adjustments yourself if your camera has autofocus microadjustment or fine tuning options.  If your camera does not have this option, you will need to either send the camera to the manufacturer or bring it to a camera shop to have the adjustment done.  If the issue is that the autofocus on the camera is actually damaged or broken, this would need to be corrected by the manufacturer or a camera repair shop and would not be able to be corrected by micro adjustment.

Now go out there and get those sharp images you’ve always wanted!

Amy Short is a portrait and maternity photographer from Wakefield, RI.  You can find her at www.amykristin.com and on Facebook.

 

How to Use Photoshop and Lightroom Together for Great Images

Before and After Step-by-Step Edit: How to Use Photoshop and Lightroom Together for Great Images

The MCP Show and Tell Site is a place for you to share your images edited with MCP products (our Photoshop actions, Lightroom presets, textures and more).  We’ve always shared before and after Blueprints on our main blog, but now, we will sometimes share some favorites from Show and Tell to give these photographers even more exposure.  If you haven’t checked out Show and Tell yet, what are you waiting for?  You’ll learn how other photographers are using our products and see what they can do for your work.  And once you are ready, you can show off your own editing skills using MCP goodies.  You might even make new friends or gain a customer…. since you get to add your website address right on the page. Bonus!

 

Today’s Featured Image:

By: Tara Fletcher

Studio: Tara Fletcher Photography

Equipment Used: Nikon D610 35mm 1.8

Settings: ISO 100 F2.5 SS1/640

Software: Lightroom, Photoshop

MCP sets used: Enlighten Lightroom Presets, Inspire Photoshop Actions, Newborn Necessities Photoshop Actions

Sometimes combining programs speeds up your workflow and lets you get the looks you want.  Things like noise reduction are best done in Lightroom. But for optimal control, Photoshop is still number one.

In Photoshop CS5:

  • Newborn Necessities Sugar and Spice 76% opacity, Crying for Contrast 44% opacity;
  • Inspire: Brilliant Base 50% opacity, Increase Exposure 9% opacity, Beaming (turned off love light) 29% opacity.

In Lightroom 5:

  • Enlighten Chamomile, Cropped, Sharpened Amount: 57, Radius .8, Detail 20, Masking 78, Noise Reduction Luminance 16. Added a post crop vignette, Highlight priority Amount -25. Exported and resized Long Edge 960px, Res. 72ppi

Blueprint4 600x800 How to Use Photoshop and Lightroom Together for Great Images
pin it4 How to Use Photoshop and Lightroom Together for Great Images

Instantly Make Your Photos Look Better on the Web

Have you ever wondered why your photos look terrible online when they looked amazing in Photoshop?

The way your photos look often relies heavily on the specific website or social media platform where you upload the images. Compression saves space and many places on the web, especially formats like Facebook, compress heavily.  We have FREE tools to help, such as the Facebook Fix actions, but sometimes their algorithms still make a mess of pictures. Unfortunately, much of this is out of the photographer’s control.

Here’s where we can help: Color problems on the web

One aspect to web images in your control — the color range matching original edit.  “Why does the color when I upload look totally different than when I am in Photoshop?” This questions crosses my inbox daily from frustrated photographers. If you notice that the color zaps out of your images as you upload them online, you likely need to check your color space. Read and bookmark or pin the graphic below, as a quick tip to convert your photos to the sRGB color space for optimal viewing online.

Quick Tip 8 600x362 Instantly Make Your Photos Look Better on the Web
pin it4 Instantly Make Your Photos Look Better on the Web

Now it’s your turn.  If you have more tips on making your photos stand out and look better on the web, let us know in the comments below!

The Best Ways To Get Better At Photography

To me, the best way to get better at photography is to practice.  Sometimes though, especially if you are photographing your own kids or things you love, it’s easy to have blinders on when analyzing your own work.

I think back to when I first started in photography — I thought I rocked.  I had an SLR and a prime lens.  I could get background blur, and usually I even followed the rule of thirds.  So… the photos must be amazing. Well, they weren’t.  And looking back now, I wondered how people rarely told me that my photos needed improvement.

But, there’s more to photography than nailing your focus.  Everything has to come together from the focus and composition to capturing emotion, the lighting and the exposure.

 

Quick Tip 4 600x362 The Best Ways To Get Better At Photography
pin it4 The Best Ways To Get Better At Photography

 

The best way to judge your work is to get feedback from peers and mentors that you respect.  I’d say “get constructive criticism” but it’s not just that you get it, it’s who gives it to you. Make sure you ask photographers for opinions when you find their work inspirational.  Look for people who don’t just say “that’s great” or “that sucks”- but who give you tips, tricks and things you can practice to improve.

If you practice and work hard, some day you may have others asking you for critique… and it likely will be sooner than you think.

If you are looking for photography and editing advice, join our MCP sponsored group here.

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