5 : Focus Points


Controlling focus points

Get ready to dive into the second lesson about focus! Last week, we discussed how different focus modes can help you capture your subjects depending on how active they are. This week, we'll be exploring the other side of controlling focus: Focus Points, also referred to as Focus Areas.  It's easy to get these two settings confused, which is why we're tackling them one-at-a-time and back-to-back.

As a review: your Focus Modes indicate whether you want the camera to track a moving subject or one that is stationary. Focus Points, on the other hand, allows you to tell the camera where in the frame you want the lens to focus on. Tag-teaming these two camera features  is what will help you attain sharp focus throughout a wide variety of tricky situations, from kids running toward you, to sports pictures, to quiet moments.


Depending on the model of your camera, you may have multiple options to choose from. In this week's lesson, however, we'll discuss the two ends of the focus area spectrum: auto focus area mode and single point area mode.

Auto Focus Area Mode

When your camera is set to auto focus area mode, your camera (not you!) will choose what to focus on. In most cases, your camera will choose either the closest object or a prominent face. This is a great mode to use when photographing groups, because the camera will take all the subjects into account when deciding what to focus on.

Single Point Area Mode

When your camera is set to single point area mode, you are in charge of what the camera focuses on. You'll be able to toggle the focus point around the frame, indicating exactly what you want your camera to focus on. This is a wonderful mode to use when photographing everyday life, single children, close-ups, and scenes in which the object you want in-focus is something other than what the camera might choose.

Shooting in Single Point Area Mode is a skill that every DSLR owner should know and take advantage of, because it allows you to assume complete control over what your camera focuses on! Let's look at how to set your camera to Single Point Area Mode:

focus mode picture 2.jpg


If you shoot with an entry-level Canon, there should be a button at the top-right-back of your camera that looks like a rectangle with five dots inside of it. This is your focus area button. Activate your camera by pressing the shutter release button down half-way, then look through your viewfinder and press this button. You should see dots appear. If they all appear, your camera is set to Auto Focus Area Mode. To change this to Single Point Area Mode, simply turn your control dial and notice that a different single dot lights up with each turn.


If you shoot with an entry level Nikon, you'll need to set your camera to Single Point Area Mode first before you're able to toggle your focus points. Often, you'll find this mode by pressing the lowercase "i" button on the back of your camera two times - once to bring up the control screen, then again to select a specific setting to change. 

Once you've done this, use your circle control button on the back of your camera to select the "focus area mode" icon. If your camera is set to Auto Focus Area Mode, this will look like a filled-in rectangle surrounded by brackets. To change this to Single Point Area Mode, click the "ok" button on this icon and toggle to select the option that looks like a small set of brackets inside a larger set of brackets.

Once you've selected Single Point Area Mode, use your circle control button on the back of your camera to toggle the focus points, watching them light up individually as you look through your viewfinder. Hint: be sure to activate your camera by pressing the shutter-release button down halfway first!

If you have a Nikon and your focus points aren't moving when you toggle them, there's a chance that your focus point setting is locked. Look for a small switch on the back of your camera that has an "L" and a dot... switch this from the "L" to the dot to unlock it!

focus mode picture 3.jpg


If you shoot with another brand of camera or a Canon/Nikon with extra settings, don't worry! You can easily search YouTube for "DSLR focus area + your camera brand name or model" to watch a video that explains how to do it. You can also reference your camera's manual, either physically or online, for specific directions.

So... What Do I Focus On?

When shooting in single point focus mode, it's essential that you toggle your focus point onto the exact area that you want in focus or you'll end up with a shot that's focused on the wrong thing! There are a few general guidelines that will get you started in the right direction for most images:

  • Close-ups: Focus on your subject's closest eye.
  • Farther away (mid-length or full-body pictures): Focus on your subject's face.
  • Two subjects: Focus on the subject closer to you, then raise your aperture number to one that widens the slice of focus enough to encompass the second subject.
  • Three or more subjects: Either focus on the subject who is the middle distance from you OR put your camera into auto focus area mode.

Of course, there will be times that you'll prefer to focus on something other than your subject's face. In these cases, place your focus point on whatever part of the image you'd like in-focus, veering away from the guidelines above!

Creative Prompts

Below are a few ideas to help you get started with this week's lesson:

  • Take a close-up of your child.  Toggle your focus point to line up with his or her closest eye.
  • Step back and take a shot of your child from a bit farther away. Toggle your focus point to line up with his or her head.
  • Try to photograph two children together. Practice putting your focus point on the child's face in front, then adjusting your aperture to deepen the slice enough so it encompasses the second child.
  • Practice switching back and forth from Single Point Focus Area Mode to Auto Focus Area Mode. Often, taking sharp pictures of three or more people is best done in Auto Focus Area Mode.
  • Take a picture of three or more people, first in Auto Focus Area Mode, then in Single Point Focus Area Mode. Again, be sure to adjust your aperture to encompass all of your subjects. Make a note of which focus area mode you prefer when taking pictures of groups!

Share your images!

Have you joined the Shoot Along Facebook group yet? If not, head on over and check it out! You'll find an interactive group of photography-lovers just like yourself, as well as professional photographers who are there and ready to help!  We'd love to see the images you're taking, and our Facebook group is the perfect place to share them!