Introduction to Focusing Modes and Focus Points: Lesson 9

We’ve spent a lot of time covering the basics in photography to enable you to shoot in any of the program modes from the aperture, shutter speed or manual. Today I’d like to start a new topic that will help you understand the focusing system of your camera. Using the focus modes settings can only be done in these program modes, but you’re ready for that now.

Having a tack sharp image is usually the goal in photography. In some instances for creative purposes, some photographers may want softness or blur.

Here I’m going to be discussing Focus Modes and Focus Points in regards to your camera. The actual steps you take to get razor sharp focus is in the next installment of Beginning Photography.

Because of the variety of camera manufacturers and the systems they use, it’s impossible for me to cover each one. Instead, since I am a current Nikon user and have used Canon in the past, I will be referring to these two popular makes throughout.

The principles will be the same regardless of the DSLR you own, but you may need to get into your user manual to find those settings and features.

Check the Diopter on Your Camera

Diopter Nikon Camera

Look around the viewfinder and you will find a small dial that turns. The diopter dial when turned adjusts your vision for a clear image. Just turn until the image in your viewfinder looks maximally sharp.

This doesn’t affect the sharpness of your photograph. It only adjusts your vision through the viewfinder to see a sharp image.

Make Sure the Auto Focus (AF) is Activated

To use AUTO FOCUS ensure the switch on the camera body with AF/M is switched to AF. The same is true if you have a lens attached with the AF/M switch. If you are having trouble focusing check these two switches.

Focus Switch
Nikon AF/M switch on the camera body

For some other models, this is done in the menu system, so you may want to check your manual or Google setting your camera to AF for your manufacturer.

Focusing Modes

You can access the setting either in the menu system and/or a button on your camera. On Nikon and Canon cameras there is usually an AF button. When the button is pressed you rotate the command dial to make the selection.

The two images below are just an example of how the menu system for setting your focus mode may look.

AF Modes on Nikon
AF Modes on a Nikon Menu
Canon DSLR selection with AF button and Menu

AF-S (Nikon) or One-Shot AF (Canon)

This is a single focus capability. If you have a stationary subject you may want to use this mode. Common uses are for static or still shots and portraits.

AF-C (Nikon) or AI-Servo (Canon)

Selecting this will give you the ability to continuously focus on a subject even if moving. This is particularly helpful for shooting sports, wildlife, events, and children playing.

AF-A (Nikon) or AI-Focus (Canon)

One of the newer and most useful modes is Auto depending on the situation. It gives you the best of both worlds. It focuses on your subject if it is still or when it starts to move.

Think of weddings where you have to shoot on the fly when the bride is stationary and starts to move. The camera decides whether to use AF-S/One-Shot or AF-C/AI-Servo. It works pretty well most of the time, but for sports, kids, and wildlife I would set your focus mode to AF-C/AI Servo.

M (Manual Focus)

There are times you may need to manual focus your camera. A good example would be focusing on something in the background when you have a lot of movement in the foreground. Some high-end product photographers use this as well.

Focus Points

Now that you have a grasp on the different focus modes your camera has to offer, let’s discuss focus points.

Focus points are either round balls or squares appearing as overlays in your viewfinder. When focus is achieved these focus points will change to red or green indicating which focus points are used.

To change focus points types you either access the setting in the menu system or by pushing a button and rotating the sub-command dial.

Focus Points
AF Points on a Nikon D4

The above is an example of a 51 point focusing system on a Nikon. You can see a single point, 9 points, 11 points, 21 points, and 51 points. Not all of the focus points may be available for every focus mode and will vary by manufacturer and model.

Having all of these focus points does not mean they will all be used, just that they are available to the camera to use for focusing.

More focus points in wildlife and sports photography are essential. Having your camera in AF-C/AI-Servo mode with a group of focus points will help you to get sharp images.

Locking Focus

To focus our cameras requires a half-press of the shutter button. When the shutter is held at half-press the exposure is locked for that photograph.

In the viewfinder of your camera, with a half-press, you will see a box or circle in the center of the frame. This is your focus point(s).

Focus Point Active

When you achieve focus a light indicator flash in the viewfinder, usually on the bottom. You may also hear a beep unless that feature is turned off.

Where the focus points rest, is where the camera will focus. At times, that is not where we want in our image composition. For example, a portrait where you want the subject off to the side in focus only.

We can do this by:

  • Putting the focus point on your subject
  • Half-press the shutter to lock focus
  • Holding the shutter half-pressed, then recompose your shot
  • Once you are satisfied with the composition fully press the shutter to take the photograph.

Trouble Shooting

Troubleshooting problems with achieving sharp images can be from numerous causes.

  1. The focusing system depends on the contrast in the scene to help with focusing. This works with the lens receiving light and the sensor being able to discern contrast and focus on those areas. If there is low light or no contrast you may have trouble autofocusing.
  2. If you are too close you may be closer than the minimum focusing distance and that is dependent on what lens you are using. The minimum focusing distance is the closest you can be from your subject and be focused.
  3. Your shutter speed is too slow. Remember for handheld photography what the minimum shutter speed is for that lens.


In this topic we learned about focus modes and focus points, how to access them and what they are used for.

There is much more to focusing and getting sharp images and now that you understand your cameras focusing system we will dive right into that next time.


Place your camera in different focus modes. In each mode, explore the focus points available to choose from. For this exercise I want you to place the camera in Single or One Spot focus mode. Select 1-9 focus points. Have a model stand in front with room for a background. Focus on the model, then with shutter release half-pressed to lock focus, recompose your shot to your liking.

To make it really interesting review the aperture priority mode to get that nice blurred background. And don’t forget to focus on the model’s eyes and facial features.

As an invitation, if you would like to send me what you shot you can e-mail me at [email protected]. I’d love to see your work!

As always, have fun!

Introduction to Focusing Modes and Focus Points: Lesson 9
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Welcome! My interest in photography spans 40 years and started with the purchase of my first SLR. Since then my passion has grown to landscapes, beach scenes, and travel photography primarily. Photography techniques I particularly enjoy are long exposures, and what I call splash art. You can see these on my gallery page if it interests you. Currently, I live on Amelia Island in Northeast Florida with my beautiful wife and our wonder dog, Fuji.