Toggling Your Focal Point: Focus When the Subject Isn’t Centered

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Vertical focal point

In photography, shooting a photo that’s in focus isn’t always as simple as pointing and shooting. I mentioned a while ago that I use Back Button Focus, and have recently talked about setting your aperture to avoid blurry images. When you look through the viewfinder, you’ll usually see a bunch of dots — your focal points. Depending on the camera brand and model, you will have more or less of those dots. And more professional cameras tend to have a lot of them, giving you many options to change your focal point depending on how you are shooting or cropping your image.

Focal Points for different cameras

{diagram source: Nikon USA}

When you hear a photographer referring to “toggling” their focal points, it means they change it with every image they take, or move it around. Many cameras are automatically set to have all focal points activated at the same time in a standard configuration, like in the image below, but this makes the camera try to average the focus across the entire scene:

All focal points selectedFor a more crisp focus of a specific subject, you can change your focal points individually.  If you shoot landscape (horizontal) or portrait (vertical), move those focal points around depending on what part of your image you want in focus. This is also more noticeable when you have an small f/stop that delivers a very shallow depth of field — such as 2.0 — with only that small part of your image in focus, and the rest of your image out of focus.

For example, if I am photographing one person, I generally set my aperture to 1.8 or 2.0. I want their face mostly in focus, with the background blurred. Whether I shoot in portrait or vertical orientation, I also want to keep in mind the rule of thirds that suggests the face would be in the top third of the image. Then I select a focal point at the top, when my camera is shooting vertically, so the face is the most in focus in the image.

In this image, you can see the model’s face in the top third, with the background blurred. The face,  specifically, her eyes, are where you set your focus. If you aren’t sure how to change the focus points, use the button near your thumb area; check your camera manual for more specifics. I push a button with my right thumb, then turn a wheel with my right thumb just after, for example.

Focus on the eyes

Using this diagram as a reference where to set the focus:

Setting focus on vertical image

Then, if I switch my shooting angle, and take a landscape shot, but want the face in focus, I toggle the focus so that the model’s face is most in focus.

How to set your focal point

The alternative to toggling your focal points is to either:

a) Do nothing and keep it set to auto with all points in focus, or

b) Focus and recompose, keeping the center dot in focus, which often leaves the subject out of focus when you recompose or move the camera.

I love toggling my focal points, and though the concept can be tricky at first, after fiddling with it a few times, it becomes more natural, and your images and more intentional.

photo credit: Kristen Duke, diagrams as sourced

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