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My shit ain’t sharp

Q: I HAVE A LOVELY 50MM 1.8 LENS AND A 70–200MM 2.8. MY IMAGES ALWAYS SEEM TO BE A LITTLE SOFT, YET WHEN MY BOYFRIEND GETS A HOLD OF MY CAMERA, HIS PHOTOS ARE ALL IN FOCUS. SAME SETTINGS AS I HAD BEEN USING TWO MINUTES BEFORE. WHAT THE HECK?! SHALL I JUST PASS THE BUSINESS OVER TO HIM?

A: Nailing focus is a learned skill. First, check your shutter speeds. The rule of thumb with shutter speeds and gaining sharp photos is that you do not want to handhold a camera slower than 1/focal length. So for the 50mm you want to keep your shutter at 1/50th or higher. For the 200mm you would want to be at 1/200th or higher. I highly suggest something like 1/250th or faster for that 70–200 lens when you are at 200mm. It’s a heavy beast. It is possible to get focus at lower shutter speeds but you have to be rock steady, as does your subject. VR (vibration reduction) and IS (image stabilization) lenses can help.

Next. How are you focusing? I see a lot of photographers set their camera on some sort of continuous focusing mode. That means the camera is tracking focus constantly on a set AF (auto focus) point. If you are focusing on the eyes of your subject and then you slightly recompose the photo, the AF point could pick up on something else and change focus from the eyes. I also see a lot of photographers using the “auto” AF point detection thing. It sort of reads the scene and decides a focus point for you. The camera typically picks the wrong thing to focus on.

Also note: AF points were placed in your viewfinder by engineers. Not artists. They are not composition anchor points. They are focus points. Do not compose photographs based on those areas in your viewfinder.

I’ve seen a lot of people use the back button focus technique, but then as soon as they half press the shutter release, the camera focuses again because all the buttons aren’t configured correctly through the menu system. I don’t use the back button AF technique. It got really popular to do because some really popular photographers said that’s how they do it. I saw tons of people switch to it not because it worked better for them, but because someone said that’s what they should do. Half press AF works better for some folks. Back button works for others. It’s a personal preference, and whatever you pick you have to be good at it. If you are a back button focuser then make damn sure that half pressing the shutter release doesn’t also initiate focusing.

I’ve taught at a lot of workshops and I’ve watched people struggle with focus over and over and over and over again because they don’t understand the focus systems of their camera; they don’t understand the different focus modes; their buttons aren’t configured correctly; they’re dropping their shutter speed too low for the lens they have; they hold their camera wrong; or they focus and recompose, but when they are recomposing they move the camera far too much and blow the focus.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve grabbed a camera from a workshop student and gone into their menus and made a number of changes to their cameras. Not only do I change AF modes, I turn off auto brightness on the LCD, turn off image rotation on the camera (but not computer), turn on RGB histograms, highlight alerts, on and on and on.

I’ve asked folks, “Why is your camera set up like this?” and the reply many times is, “Ummm. I don’t know.”

Know your gear! Know each button. Know each menu setting. Know why it is doing what it is doing. Know how to change it. Know what the focus system is doing. Know your different metering modes. Know what to change and how to change it. That camera will never be a natural extension of your arm until you know it inside and out.

So, to your question—Keep an eye on that shutter speed. Steady holding on that camera. The hand you are holding the lens with needs to be cupped under the lens as though you are making a “U” with your hand (with your palm facing toward you). Don’t hold it on the side like you’re making a “C.” Nothing screams “amateur” more than holding a lens on the side. Separate your feet. Have a strong stance. Pull that camera into your face. Make sure your AF point isn’t constantly changing focus (unless you’re shooting a moving subject). Make sure when you recompose you do so very carefully, and do not lean forward or backward after focus is locked.

097_01_holding_wrong_sm.jpg

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My oldest son, Caleb, demonstrating both the proper way and the wrong way to hold a camera.

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