Some photographers just seem to get lucky with a camera that always nails focus instantly. What do they know and do that makes their camera autofocus better than yours?

My observations of many photographers on workshops and 1-2-1 sessions is that they don’t do all they can to help their camera focus quickly and accurately on the intended subject. Much of time it’s not settings, but choice and a way of working so here’s my tips on how to improve your results.

Pre-focus your lens

If your intended subject is over 10 metres / 30 feet away from you then aim the camera and lens at something about that distance and pre-focus. Then lift your finger off the shutter or back button. Now with your lens prefocused close to the intended distance, it is easier for you to identify if the subject is in the frame and for the camera to correctly identify and get it in focus.

If you aim your long lens at a bird in the distance, and the lens was starting at minimum focus, then you may not even be able to tell if the bird is in the frame. Ask yourself how can the camera find the bird and focus on it though the same lens?

For super close subjects – macro – the same works in reverse, prefocus the lens on something closer and you’ll find the camera locks on and doesn’t need to hunt to find the subject.

Also remember that lenses take longer to focus over close range distances than they do at longer distances. There are more steps of adjustment in the 1 meter to 2 meter range than in the 10 meter to 20 meter range.

Photographers using back button AF will know that they can stop focus by releasing the back button. I focus with the shutter button but for long lens wildlife shots I reconfigure the AF-ON button as an AF STOP button. For me I simply press the AF-ON button to temporarily lock the focus where it is.

Focusing through foreground distractions

Sometimes there’s other elements in the shot that get between you and the subject. We all love a bit of out of focus foreground bokeh blur, but how do you stop the camera focusing on the foreground object?

With a DSLR this is where using a single or smaller group of focus points is better than using all of them. You choose where the AF points want to be and ensure they don’t land on the foreground you want blurred.

Mirrorless cameras with clever subject detection sometimes work perfectly and ignore the distractions, other times you have to act. Reduce the AF to a smaller area not the whole frame. EOS R/RP/R5/R6 will still track faces – but not eyes – if you select one of the Zone AF methods. Other EOS R-series cameras can track the face and eye with any of the AF methods. Use a single AF point to guide the camera where to find the subject.

Models behind veils and mesh

If your subject is partly obscured, then you might need to focus on the foreground first, then lift your finger off the shutter / focus button and move forward slightly so that now the subject is in focus enough and the foreground out of focus enough not to trip up the AF. The model in the picture above was positioned behind a fabric mesh that sometimes caused the camera to focus on the mesh, not her eyes. When it did I released the shutter and leant forward then pressed the shutter again to force the camera to focus on her eyes.

You moved the AF point AND chose the wrong focus area

I have had numerous photographers with recent EOS R6 Mark II, EOS R8, EOS R7 and EOS R10 cameras join me for workshops. One of the troubles I’ve seen is when photographers unwittingly move the AF point right to the lower corner of the frame, where it hides under the shooting information on display. Even with face detection and only a human face in the frame, the camera tries its best to look for a subject in the corner of the frame, but struggles. Switching to whole area AF where there is no initial AF point fixes the user created problem.



Advent Calendar of Tips

This year I’m writing a quick tip each day up until the 25th of December, here’s some of the others I have already posted.


About the author

Full-time photo tutor and photographer. I love to share my knowledge and skills to make photos, videos and teach others. I write books and articles for photo magazines and I always have at least one Speedlite flash in my camera bag