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Focus modes

Unless you’re going for an artistic, creative look, our goal as photographers is to capture sharp, in-focus images. A fundamental aspect of doing so is understanding which focus mode to use on your camera so you can capture your subject with precision and accuracy.

If you use the incorrect focus mode for a particular situation, you could be using the wrong tool for the wrong job. Like trying to screw in a screw with a hammer...

What are focus modes in photography?

In photography, focus modes are a set of settings on a camera that determines how the camera and lens focus on a subject.

As a photographer, you must know when and why to use each focus mode. For example, if you want the best focus, a subject that is not moving will require a different focus mode than a subject that is moving.

Now, there are really only two types of focus modes that you need to know as a photographer – manual focus mode and autofocus mode.

Manual focus mode (MF)

Manual Focus Mode is just what it sounds like. You, the photographer, need to manually adjust the focus on your subject by using the focus ring on your lens.

To switch to Manual Focus, you can switch it to MF on your lens:

You adjust the focus by turning your focus ring either clockwise or counterclockwise until your image is sharp and in focus.

While manual focus exists, many photographers do not choose this option and instead rely on the numerous autofocus modes provided to use with modern cameras and lenses. So why does it exist, then?

Manual focus is not the preferred choice for general photography and should only be used in specific situations where your autofocus is struggling. Situations such as:

  • if you’re photographing in a low-light setting like a concert venue or at night
  • if you’re photographing through obstacles like a fence or a hole
  • if you need very precise focus control like in macro photography.

Other than that, I recommend always using a specific autofocus mode and taking advantage of the lens and camera technology available to modern-day photographers. So this leads me to my next point, autofocus mode.

Autofocus mode (AF)

The autofocus modes on your camera use internal lens motors and advanced camera technology to focus on your subject. To switch to Autofocus, you switch it to AF on your lens:

As I’ll cover in the next section, there are various autofocus modes suited for each photography scenario. Knowing what each autofocus mode is and when you should use it is the key to understanding and mastering the focus modes so you can capture any subject, during any time of day, in sharp focus.

Which focus mode should I use?

So, regarding each focus mode, here’s the recap.

You’ll use Manual Focus Mode (MF) when Autofocus is not working and is having trouble working its magic, such as during low-light scenarios or when you need super-fine control, like during macro photography. But in general, you’ll want to use Autofocus Mode, which leads me to the next section!

Let’s look at each autofocus mode in detail.

What are autofocus (AF) modes in photography?

As mentioned, setting your camera to a specific autofocus mode means your camera and lens will focus for you. However, you need to know the different types of autofocus modes and when to use each. And before we dive in, in order to access your Autofocus Modes, you should find a button somewhere on your camera that says AF:

I'm using a Canon Camera, so if you can't find it on your camera, just do a quick search online for a specific camera!

Single autofocus mode (AF-S/One-Shot AF)

The first autofocus mode we have is Single Autofocus Mode.

This autofocus mode is called One-Shot AF on Canon Cameras and AF-S on Nikon and Sony cameras. Single Autofocus is meant for a stationary, single subject, as the name suggests. As a portrait photographer, this is my go-to autofocus mode, as my subjects are always either standing or sitting still in a fixed pose and do not move around much.

Single Autofocus Mode locks your focus when the shutter button is half-pressed down. So the technique here is to put your focus point on your main point of emphasis, which will be your subject’s eye if you’re taking portrait photography, a raindrop on a leaf if you’re taking macro photography, etc.

Once you put your focus point on this point of emphasis and press the shutter halfway down, then that’s when you recompose your shot to the correct composition that you want. In order not to lose your focus point just after one image, many photographers, such as myself, set up back-button focus.

This allows us to place the focus point and autofocus, take a shot, recompose, and take another shot, all while holding down this back button. This means that instead of having our shutter button function as the autofocus and the action to actually take a photo, we split up these two actions into separate buttons.

The back button will act as the autofocus, and the shutter button will be used solely for snapping the shot. I recommend that all photographers set up back-button focus, as it’s really easy to do.

On my Canon 6D Mark II, I set it up by going to the Custom Functions in my menu, and from there, I can change the buttons: If you have a different camera brand, you can quickly search online for how to set up back button focusing for it.

It’ll make your photography focus and life a lot easier.

Continuous autofocus mode (AF-C/AI Servo)

The second autofocus mode we have is Continuous Autofocus Mode.

This autofocus mode is also called AI Servo on Canon Cameras and AF-C on Nikon and Sony Cameras. Continuous Autofocus is meant for moving subjects, such as an athlete running on a track, a car driving down a road, a basketball player jumping to the hoop, etc.

Continuous Autofocus works by the camera continuously adjusting the focus on your subject as long as you keep the autofocus button half-pressed.

As a portrait photographer, I mostly use Single Autofocus Mode, but there are occasions when I need to use this mode. For example, when I want my subjects to walk either toward me or perpendicular to me, I want to capture them in a natural pose mid-walk.

So, for example, in this scenario, I have my subject stand, I place my focus point on them and press my back button focus button to autofocus. Then, I tell them to start walking, and I start taking photos of them.

The camera will keep the focus point on them as they're walking, and I just need to focus on keeping the focus button pressed down while composing my shots. If you’re shooting a really dynamic session where the model is moving or dancing, this mode will also work great because it allows you to capture more fluid, dynamic movements that would be hard to hold in a freeze frame otherwise.

Of course, if you’re photographing something fast, like a bird flying through the sky, a race car on a track, or a football player running down the field, you’ll most likely want to use this autofocus mode.

Hybrid autofocus mode (AF-A/AI Focus AF)

The third autofocus mode is Hybrid Autofocus Mode.

This autofocus mode is also called AI Focus AF on Canon Cameras and AF-A on Nikon and Sony Cameras. Hybrid Autofocus Mode, or Automatic Autofocus, combines Single Autofocus and Continuous Autofocus.

Hybrid Autofocus works by having the camera automatically switch between single and continuous autofocus modes based on the movement of your subject. If your subject is not moving, it will use Single Autofocus, and if your subject is moving, it will use Continuous Autofocus.

Pretty neat, huh?

This autofocus mode is a very versatile option, perfect for, as I mentioned earlier, taking portraits in a dynamic session. For example, during some portrait sessions, some models, especially professional ones, like to flow from pose to pose:

This means they’re constantly going from a static to a moving subject. In cases like this, Hybrid Autofocus Mode may be your best choice.

Other examples include if you’re photographing wildlife or small children and their movements are unpredictable, with sudden bursts of action prone to happen at any moment.

Which autofocus mode should I use?

So, regarding the Autofocus Modes, here’s the recap.

  • If you have a subject that is not moving, it’s best to use Single Autofocus Mode (AF-S/One-Shot AF)
  • If you have a subject that is moving, it’s best to use Continuous Autofocus Mode (AF-C/AI Servo)
  • If you have a subject that is switching between not moving and moving, it’s best to use Hybrid Autofocus Mode (AF-A/AI Focus AF).

Now that we’ve covered each type of autofocus mode, you must also understand the different autofocus area modes.

What are autofocus area modes in photography?

The autofocus area modes determine how your camera uses the autofocus point to lock focus on your subject. So, as a recap of everything so far, we first set our focus mode to one of two focus modes – Manual Focus or Autofocus Mode.

Now, there are three main Autofocus Modes – Single Autofocus Mode, Continuous Autofocus Mode, and Hybrid Autofocus Mode. If we chose to use an Autofocus Mode and selected one of the three Autofocus Modes, now we must set an Autofocus Area Mode, which will determine our autofocus points:

Note that the following Autofocus Area Modes, which I'm about to discuss, are not on every camera, depending on what brand you're using. For example, my Canon camera does not have Dynamic Area AF, but this feature is found on Nikon cameras.

Single-point AF

The first autofocus area mode is Single-Point AF. This autofocus area mode has your camera focus using a single, selectable point or area. Single-Point AF offers the most precision by allowing you to target a specific part for focusing.

This is great for portraits, headshots, macro photography, product photography, or any other scene when you know exactly which part of the image you want in sharp focus.

As a portrait photographer, this is my go-to autofocus area mode. Placing this single focus point on your subject’s eyes will ensure your subject’s eyes are sharp. Combine this technique with a shallow depth of field, and you will have that beautiful bokeh image.

Dynamic-area AF

The second autofocus area mode is Dynamic Area AF. This autofocus area mode is available in some cameras like Nikon cameras. It allows you to select a primary focus point, and your camera will then use surrounding points to maintain the focus if your subject moves.

You can usually select the number of surrounding points, such as 9-points, 21-points, and 51-points, allowing you to determine how much camera assistance you need in tracking your moving subject.

Dynamic Area AF is most suitable if you have a moving subject and you need a buffer zone for the movement. For example, if you are a sports or wildlife photographer, you can use this mode to keep your moving subject in focus. This is because if they momentarily move out of the initially selected focus point, your surrounding points will assist in maintaining the focus.

Group area AF

The third autofocus area mode is Group Area AF.

This autofocus area mode works by using a group of points you selected and is often found on Nikon cameras. These groups of points will function larger than a single point but will be more focused than having the entire frame in focus.

Group Area AF is great for tracking smaller groups of moving subjects, such as athletes or birds in flight, because there will be a reduced chance of your camera focusing on the background or foreground by mistake.

Zone AF

The fourth autofocus area mode is Zone AF.

This autofocus area mode is often found on Canon cameras, and it's similar to Nikon's Dynamic and Group Area AF. Zone AF divides your viewfinder into larger zones, with your camera focusing on your subject within the selected zone.

Zone AF is great for subjects that are moving within a predictable range, such as a car on a race track or athletes on a sports field. In other words, you know the confined area, and you’re telling your camera, “Okay, focus within this selected zone.”

Auto-area AF

The fifth autofocus area mode is Auto-Area AF also sometimes called auto selection.

This autofocus area mode works by having your camera automatically select the focus point(s) based on your scene. Auto-Area AF is best when you’re in fast-paced situations like an event, a wedding, or a party, and you have little time to select a focus point, and your subject is moving unpredictably.

Essentially, when you need to quickly capture moments without manually selecting focus points. So, unlike the previous autofocus area modes discussed, in Auto-Area AF, you’re pretty much giving your camera full control to identify and focus on subjects throughout your entire frame.

Just note that with this autofocus area mode, your camera will often prioritize the subjects that are closest to your camera or will try to recognize specific patterns like faces.

Face/Eye detection AF

The sixth autofocus area mode is Face/Eye Detection AF.

This autofocus area mode works because your camera automatically detects human faces or eyes and automatically focuses on them. This autofocus area mode is primarily used for portrait photography but has also become increasingly useful in wildlife shots, with some cameras also offering animal eye detection.

Which autofocus area mode should I use?

Now that we’ve covered the different autofocus area modes, the question remains, “Which autofocus area mode should I use?”

The different autofocus area modes can seem a bit confusing, and there is a lot of overlap between them. First, it's important to examine your camera and see what autofocus area modes are available.

For example, on my Canon 6D Mark II, I have access to Single-Point AF, Zone AF, and Auto Area AF:

If you have a different camera brand, you may have other autofocus area modes, such as some of the ones I just mentioned. Now, to better understand which autofocus area mode to use, I wanted to provide a specific scenario and then examine which mode would be best for specific situations.

So, let’s say you’re photographing a birthday party. Given certain scenarios that could happen at the party, let’s look at when each autofocus area mode would be best.

  • Single-Point AF would be best to capture a portrait of the birthday person sitting still, opening gifts, or blowing out candles on the cake, as you can precisely select the focus point on the eyes, ensuring sharp focus.
  • Dynamic Area AF would be best if you’re photographing moments such as guests moving predictably, like walking towards the cake. You need to keep focus on a moving subject with the help of surrounding focus points, compensating for minor movements within the selected area.
  • Group Area AF would be best if there is a group of people gathered for a group photo or engaging in an activity together, and they’re somewhat spread out. You need to focus on the group as a whole without the risk of having your camera focus on the background or a single person.
  • Zone AF would be best for a dynamic scene like kids running around playing a game or dancing, and you need that larger zone to cover the activity area so your camera can focus on any subject within the zone.
  • Auto-Area AF would be best when it’s getting hectic and you want to capture candid moments quickly, such as people mingling, spontaneous reactions, and surprise moments.
  • Face-Eye Detection AF is best when you’re taking a candid or posed portrait and want to ensure your subject’s face or eyes are in sharp focus, such as when they’re interacting or posing for your camera.

So just remember:

For controlled, precise shots like portraits or detailed shots, Single-Point AF or Face/Eye Detection AF would offer the accuracy you’re looking for.

For action and movement shots, Dynamic Area AF is meant for a single subject, Group Area AF is meant for a group, and Zone AF is Canon's version that sort of combines the two for a zone of subjects.

For spontaneous, unpredictable moments, Auto-Area AF would allow you to focus quickly without manually selecting a focus point.

In conclusion, understanding and effectively using the various focus modes available to you is crucial if you want to achieve sharp, well-composed images.

The best way I learned focus modes was to understand the various ones, as I mentioned in this guide, and then use each one in different scenarios, such as with single, stationary, and moving subjects and then with multiple, stationary, and moving subjects. This will allow you to see which mode is best for what.

Good luck, and have fun!

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