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Family Time:
Letís learn to focus!
by Bill Hartley
Family Time is written for family photographers and children. The focus is to get folks new to photography past what can be a daunting mountain of technical detail and jargon.

In last monthís column we discussed how to look through the cameraís viewfinder, and learned that if you canít see it, you canít photograph it.  In this issue we will continue learning about how to use the viewfinder and how to focus our camera as we look through it. 

Finding our subject through the viewfinder is the first step in photographing it.  Focusing is the second step.  Only through properly focusing our cameras can we ensure getting good sharp photographs - not fuzzy soft ones.  When a photographer refers to a sharp image, they are referring to how a picture looks; if an image is sharp, the details in the photograph are clear and clean, lines are crisp, and colors ďpopĒ off the page.  You get sharp images by focusing properly.  

Back in the old days learning how to focus a camera was one of the more difficult tasks a photographer would have to do in order to take good photographs.  Because of this difficulty, camera manufacturers developed fixed focus and autofocus cameras, enabling more people to get better pictures.   

Almost every consumer camera sold today comes with one of three different types of focusing abilities: fixed focus, autofocus, or manual focus.  Some of the more advanced cameras allow you to choose between auto and manual focusing.  

Let me describe each type so you can tell which you have:
Fixed Focus
 A camera with a fixed focus lens cannot be changed or adjusted.  This type of camera has a lens that is optically designed to have everything in focus from around four feet to infinity.  It is important to keep in mind that this lens canít focus on anything closer than four feet, so anything closer than four feet from the camera wonít come out sharp - even though it looked fine in the viewfinder the subject will be soft and fuzzy in the picture.  Fixed focus lenses are what you usually get with disposable cameras and with point and shoot cameras that canít zoom. 

Using Fixed Focus.  Make sure your subject is at least four feet from your camera.  Then compose your image while looking through the viewfinder.  Once composed, depress the camera shutter release button and take the picture. 

A quick way to determine how far four feet is, look across your kitchen table, side to side.  If you are sitting in one chair and your child or friend is sitting across from you, they will be about four feet away.  

Autofocus.  Most cameras beyond basic point and shoot cameras sold today are autofocus cameras and there is quite a range among them - from basic autofocus to top-end pro systems.  The lenses of these cameras can do the focusing work for us.  It is important to know, however, the camera does not focus on everything you see through your viewfinder.  It only focuses on one point.  With a few exceptions it will focus on a pinpoint that youíll see in the very center of the viewfinder.  Although this is usually not a problem, you do need to keep it in mind.  For example, if you have two friends on swings and you position them evenly in the viewfinder frame, your camera will focus on the center point.  In this case, it will be in between the two, picking up the background (which will be in focus) and leaving your friends out of focus (see images below).  

In a minute Iíll explain how to keep this from happening. 

Using Autofocus.  
Step 1:  Look through your cameraís viewfinder.  

Step 2:  Depress the shutter release button slightly (halfway) with your right index finger.  This will activate the autofocus mode. You should see your subject moving back and forth slightly in the viewfinder (very little movement, you may need to look hard).  The simpler cameras will not have a feature that will enable one to see.  When the movement (the cameraís focusing) stops, your subject is in focus.  Then depress the shutter release button completely.  Itís that simple.   

Autofocus cameras focus on whatís in the center of the viewfinder.  So when two people are in the picture, 
focus is sharp behind the subjects (top photo).  
Focus on one subject, lock focus, and recompose 
for a sharp image (bottom photo)

There are, however, a few other things you need to know about autofocus in order to take the best possible photographs and solve problems like the one with your swinging friends. Your cameraís autofocus goes into operation only when you depress the shutter release button all the way down, without pausing, your camera may not have enough time to focus properly.  Which in turn, may cause your photographs to be soft and out of focus Ė the camera needs time to focus.  If your autofocus keeps moving back and forth, this means your camera is unable to focus.  You are most likely too close to your subject or there isnít enough light. Autofocus wonít work if itís too dark. 

Most autofocus cameras today come with built-in focusing locks.  This means that once your camera has focused, it will remain focused or locked at the initial given focal distance until you let up off the shutter release button.  

[Below left and right:  .] 

This focus lock feature can be used to solve the above problem we had with our friends.  Remember, I wanted them in focus and not the background. 

Step 1:  Place the center of your viewfinder frame on one of your friends. 

Step 2:  Put your camera in focusing mode by depressing the shutter release button. 

Step 3:   Focus on your subject and continue holding the shutter release button down.  This will put your camera into the locking mode.  

Step 4:  Recompose your image by moving your camera around.  Then depress the shutter release.  It is that easy.  Note:  Do not take the pressure off the shutter release button, you need the camera to stay focused at the point of your subject, if you release pressure, the camera will refocus.  

As you can see this focus locking function can be a big help in certain situations.  In most cases you need to remember to take your finger off the shutter release button then depress it again, every time you want to focus and take a photograph. 

Manual focus cameras have a split-image focusing viewfinder that splits the image in half when you're out of focus (top). Keep moving the focus ring until the subject is whole and appears sharp 
(bottom image)

Manual   Letís look at how focusing works in some traditional cameras and todayís single lens reflex (SLR) cameras.  SLR cameras come with many different types of focusing screens (what you see in the cameraís viewfinder).  The most common focusing screen is called a split-image screen.  When you look through your cameraís viewfinder at your subject, it will appear split in half, top to bottom.  In order to focus on a subject, you need to have both halves, top and bottom, lined up with each other to form a complete scene.  The pictures on this page show a subject out of focus and the same subject in focus.  

Using Manual Focus.  
Step 1:  Look through the viewfinder.  

Step 2:  Use your thumb, index and middle fingers to rotate or turn the lens focusing ring back and forth.  You roll the focusing ring of your lens, clockwise or counter clockwise.  If the halves move farther apart when you rotate the focusing ring, turn the ring in the other direction.  When both halves line up to make a complete image, without a step between halves, youíre ready to take the picture. 

A good way to practice your SLR focusing technique is to first focus on subjects with straight edges and lines.  A straight line is easy to see if it is lined up or has a step.  Always make sure the line becomes continuous or one piece in the screen, if itís not, you will have an out of focus photograph.  After you have mastered straight lines, try curved lines.  Curved and squiggling lines are much harder to focus on.  Then try to see how fast you can get a subject into focus.  Focusing with manual camera takes practice but once you get the hang of it, itís easy.

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