Photo: Aleksandr Ozerov/Shutterstock

Travel Photography Tip: Introduction to Focusing Modes

by Kate Siobhan Mulligan Jun 25, 2013
Kate is a faculty member in the MatadorU Travel Photography program.

Hordes of people purchase DSLRs every year with the idea that the camera will somehow take better pictures for them. The truth is that a DSLR gives you more options and more decisions to make, and if you’re not willing to learn to make them correctly, the results will be on par with, or sometimes even less desirable than, a point-and-shoot.

One common complaint, usually from beginners (but not always!) still grasping the onslaught of buttons and menus, is that “my images aren’t sharp.” There are lots of reasons for this, but for many folks, the problem is they haven’t selected the correct focusing mode.

Nearly every DSLR has 4 possible modes for different travel photography situations, and each is very distinct. Which one is correct for you?

1. Continuous Focusing Mode

On Canon: “AI Servo AF”
On Nikon: “AF-C Continuous-servo AF”

This is the mode for a moving subject. The camera’s focusing system actually tries to track the subject as it moves, which is pretty brilliant. Usually this is used when the subject is moving towards you or away from you, as the distance from you is changing rapidly.

When the shutter is depressed halfway, the camera will continuously refocus on what it thinks is the subject (hopefully, and usually, the object that’s moving around). You then are free to fire away. Some may still be blurry, but hopefully a few frames are sharp (though the background may be blurred, of course, if you’ve moved the camera while shooting to keep the subject in the frame).

This is still very much dependent on your other settings. For example, is your shutter speed fast enough? If you’re still struggling with keeping your shutter speed up, consult Introduction to Tv, as well as this Understanding exposure.

  • Good for: Moving objects
  • Not good for: Portrait photography, landscapes, macro
  • Pros: Does some of the work for you by tracking movement
  • Cons: Eats battery life through constant refocusing
2. One Shot Focusing

On Canon: “One-Shot AF”
On Nikon: “AF-S Single-Servo AF”

This is the opposite of Continuous — once you have depressed the shutter halfway to focus, it will hold that focal distance/point until you release the shutter again.

This is probably the most common mode used by professionals to ensure they’ve set up the correct focus. The focal point should fire up red in the viewfinder, or the camera can make a beep, or similar, to let you know the focus was achieved.

This is great for any still-life shots, such as portraits. However, for anything moving, if you’ve locked the focus and the subject moves, it will likely result in blur.

  • Good for: Portrait photography, studio work, still lifes, landscapes
  • Not good for: Action, moving subjects
  • Pros: Locks and holds focus, alerts you when focus is achieved, allows for recomposing
  • Cons: If the subject moves, you must release the shutter and refocus
3. Auto Servo / Focus Mode

On Canon: “AI Focus”
On Nikon: “AF-A Auto Servo”

In this mode, your camera will assume the subject is still, unless it moves, in which case it will automatically switch to Continuous mode. In theory this sounds perfect, but feedback from most photographers is that it often results in a misaligned focus or misses the focus altogether.

For example, if you’re shooting portrait photography and you lock focus on a person’s eyes, but you’re in Auto mode, that person may shift slightly, causing the mode to switch to Continuous, and perhaps refocusing on, say, the person’s nose. All in all, as with most “auto” modes, it tries but often fails. It’s always recommended to keep the decision with the photographer.

  • Good for: Macro (sometimes)
  • Not good for: Most everything else
  • Pros: Makes the decision for you
  • Cons: It’s often wrong
4. Manual

That’s right — once upon a time there was no Auto focus, and photographers had to actually look through a viewfinder and see if the image was sharp. If you’re struggling with Auto, go ahead and try to manually focus it. The switch (AF/MF) is on your lens.

With “Live View” you can watch the focusing on your screen — in fact, you can zoom in right to the center of your subject and watch the focus magnified, just to be sure. Then fire away.

There are many scenarios where professionals switch into Manual (low light, long exposures, star trails, macro, studio work) but it does take practice, so give it a try when nothing’s on the line.

  • Good for: Still lifes, night and portrait photography, studio work, macro, abstract
  • Not good for: Action, any situation with little time to focus
  • Pros: You’re in full control
  • Cons: You’re in full control

* MatadorU is an online community and offers courses in travel journalism, including travel photography.

Discover Matador