Photography Focusing

Focus Modes in Photography: 6 Different Types to Know

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Written By Nate Torres

In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about the different focus modes used in photography.

I’ll be touching on what a focus mode is, why they’re essential, and the different types of focus modes.

Let’s dive in!

What Are Focus Modes In Photography?

Focus modes are different focus settings that are available on your camera. They control how your camera focuses on your subject or focal point.

Have you ever been at an event or a party with some friends and you’re looking for them in the crowd? You might recall how when scanning for your friends, you blur out the crowd, and then when you find your friends they become sharp and clear. That’s like what your camera does when focusing.

The type of focus mode you have selected will focus differently, but each mode essentially serves the same purpose, to focus.

Modern DSLRs and Mirrorless Cameras come with different focus modes.

Choosing the correct focus mode is a lot like selecting the right gear when you are driving, it depends on the situation.

Just as you wouldn’t put your car in high gear when driving up a winding mountain, there are certain focus modes that would be more optimal depending on your photography scenario.

Let’s take a look at the different focus modes.

Types of Focus Modes in Photography

Regarding the different types of focus modes in photography, there are three primary focus modes and other specialized focus modes.

different focus modes on camera
different focus modes on my Canon 6D Mark II

Some of these focus modes are named differently depending on the camera brand you are using (Canon, Nikon, Sony), so I’ll be sure to list all the different names they go by.

I’ll be mentioning the term “AF” a lot which just stands for “Autofocus.”

1. Single-Servo AF (AF-S) or One-Shot AF (Canon)

The Single-Servo AF, as it’s named in Nikon and Sony Cameras, and the One-Shot AF, as it’s named in Canon Cameras, is the best focus mode to use when you are photographing a stationary subject.

This focus mode works by locking focus on your subject when you half-press the shutter button.

The focus will be locked until you fully press the shutter down to take the shot.

When photographing a portrait, landscape, product, or any other stationary subject, this is your go-to focus mode.

Still confused? I recommend this video:

What is Servo Mode vs One Shot AF - Explained in 2 mins + troubleshooting
What is Servo Mode vs One Shot AF

2. Continuous-Servo AF (AF-C) or AI Servo AF (Canon)

Continuous-Servo AF (AF-C), as it’s named in Nikon and Sony Cameras, and AI Servo AF, as it’s named in Canon Cameras, is the best focus mode to use when photographing moving subjects.

This focus mode works by continuously adjusting the focus on your subject when you half-press the shutter button.

For example, if you are photographing someone running, you’ll put your focus point on the subject, half-press the shutter button, and follow them with your camera, then when you’re ready to take the shot, you press the shutter all the way down.

When you need to photograph a sporting event, wildlife, or any other scenario where your subjects are in motion, this is your go-to focus mode.

As a pro tip, this focus mode, along with burst mode on your camera, works great together.

When I use this focus mode, I’ll set my shutter to burst mode and then when I’m following my subject with the focus point, I’ll hold down the shutter button so it takes multiple shots to ensure one of them looks good.

Want to explore further, check out these two videos, explaining Continuous-Servo AF and AI Servo AF:

Photography for beginners - Continuous servo autofocus
Continuous Servo AF (Nikon)
Canon AI Servo AF Quick Tips | Full Compass
AI Servo AF (Canon)

3. Automatic AF (AF-A) or AI Focus AF

Automatic AF (AF-A), as it’s named in Nikon and Sony Cameras, and AI Focus AF, as it’s named in Canon Cameras, is the best focus mode to use when you aren’t sure whether your subject will be stationary or moving.

This focus mode works by using the Single-Servo AF/One-Shot AF when your subject is still, and if your subject starts moving, then it will switch to Continuous-Servo AF/AI Servo AF.

Pretty handy, right?

If you are a beginner or in a situation where you aren’t sure whether your subject will start moving, like an animal, for example, then this is your go-to focus mode.

These three focus modes are often referred to as the primary focus modes, so let’s now take a look at some other specialized focus modes.

Want to dive in further, check out these two videos:

How-to and why: Nikon's automatic AF fine tune feature
Automatic AF (Nikon)
ONE SHOT vs AI SERVO vs AI FOCUS | AF-S vs AF-C | Back-Button AF
Discusses AI Focus (Canon)

4. Manual Focus (MF)

Manual focus will bypass any automatic focusing and allow you to manually adjust the focus ring on your lens to achieve the desired focus.

While this focus mode is not as popular as the autofocus modes, it may come in handy, especially in tricky lighting scenarios when your camera is having trouble autofocusing (while this doesn’t happen quite as often anymore with advances in lens and camera technology).

As mentioned, this focus mode will give you complete control but it is challenging to use, especially if you are photographing a fast-moving subject or can’t tell whether or not your subject is in focus in the viewfinder.

I recommend sticking with an autofocus mode, but if you want to go old school or just try it out for learning purposes, give it a go!

Want to explore manual focus further? I recommend this video by Paul Farris (Photo Genius):

Manual Focus Vs Auto Focus - Photography tips for beginners
Manual Focus Vs Auto Focus

5. Face Detection and Eye Detection

Some cameras like the Sony A7 III, A7R IV, Canon EOS R5, EOS R6, Nikon Z6, Nikon Z7, Fujifilm X-T4, Lumix S1, and Olympus OM-D Series have advanced features that can automatically detect and focus on human faces or even specific eyes within the frame.

As you can imagine, this is incredibly helpful when you are photography portraits, street, headshots, weddings, or any niche of photography that involves humans.

Want to explore these focus modes further, I recommend this video:

EOS R Quick Tips: AF Method — Face Detect + Tracking and Eye Detect AF
Face Detect + Tracking and Eye Detect AF

6. Zone AF

Zone AF allows you to select a specific focus zone or point within your frame for more precise control over the focus area.

In Zone AF mode, you select a zone or area within the frame where you want the camera to focus. This zone is typically larger than a single focus point, covering a broader area.

Zone AF is useful in scenarios where you want to focus on a subject that occupies a significant portion of the frame or when you have multiple subjects at varying distances from the camera.

It’s a semi-automatic mode, meaning that once you select the zone, the camera’s autofocus system will determine the precise point of focus within that zone based on the subject’s contrast and distance.

It can be faster than using a single focus point because it allows the camera to quickly assess the scene and adjust focus within the chosen zone.

Zone AF is often employed in situations like event photography, group portraits, or scenes with multiple subjects where you want to ensure that a specific area is in focus but don’t need pinpoint precision.

Want to explore Zone AF further, I recommend this video:

EOS R Quick Tips: Understanding Zone AF
Understanding Zone AF

The Importance of Focus Modes in Photography

Focus modes are vital in capturing clear, sharp pictures, precisely focusing the camera’s attention where it matters the most.

Be it the delicate dew on a flower petal during the early morning or the swift moves of a football player surfing through his opponents, understanding the different focus modes and area modes will lead to sharper, more focused images in these varying situations.

They’re your best tools in your photography toolbox for achieving optimal clarity and depth of field.

Understanding the different focus modes is not just about turning a knob on your camera but more about learning to create visually impressive images by harnessing the maximum potential of your equipment.

So remember, choosing and understanding the right focus modes for your photography is just as important as framing the perfect shot!

Lastly, remember that understanding and experimenting with these modes are key to elevating your photography game.

Practice with these modes, adjust your strategy based on your understanding, and soon your pictures will be a testament to your growing acumen.

Happy Shooting!