Oh Zack what am I doing? I'm trying to start out as a portrait photographer, have a lovely 50mm 1.8 lens (never used wide open) and an L 70-200 (same). My images always seem to be a little soft, yet when my boyfriend got hold of my camera at the weekend his photos were ALL bang in focus. Same settings as I had been using 2 minutes before. What the heck?!! Shall I just pass the business over to him?
Nailing focus is a learned skill. First, check your shutter speeds. The rule of thumb with shutter speeds and gaining sharp photos is you do not want to hand hold a camera less than 1/focal length. So for the 50mm you want to keep your shutter at 1/50th or higher. For the 200 you would want to be at 1/200 or higher. I highly suggest over 1/250’th for that 70-200 lens when you are at 200. 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 and IS 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 point. If you are focusing on the eyes and 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.
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 but NOT because it worked better for them. 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.
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, the different focus modes, their buttons aren’t configured correctly, they’re dropping their shutters too low for the lens they have, they hold their camera wrong, or they focus, 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 but 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 needs to be cupped UNDER the lens as though you are making a “U” with your hand (thumb on the right). 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.
Lastly, check out this answer I gave for other focus / sharpness issues.
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