Better Pictures Project: Understanding Focus Modes on your DSLR Camera

out of frame, out of focus

We’ve all had this happen, right? Your camera focuses on the background and leave you all blurry. Figuring out my camera focus has dramatically changed my pictures this year, so I wanted to share a bit of what I’ve learned, and experiment with other options!

First of all, most DSLRs have three focus modes. One focuses on still objects, using a single focus point… one continually refocuses on a moving object in focus until you are ready to take the pictures… and one automatically chooses between the two other options. Here’s some more technical descriptions, if you prefer: 1, 2.

The problem is, I could never figure out which one made the most sense for blogging! I use a tripod, so there is no photographer half-pressing the button to manually trigger the focus… I need the camera to find me in the picture, and focus all on it’s own. Time for a Better Picture Project experiment!

single area Collage

First up, Single Area focus mode, which focuses on a still object with focus based on a single focus point. (Or so I understand, at least. Correct me if I’m wrong on any of this!) It did put me in focus most of the time, but notice how in the second pic it focused sharply on my dress and cowl, but my head is a bit out of focus? In the third pic, I was off to the side and the tree in in focus, not me.

Verdict: Ok, but doesn’t seem the most reliable. I want to be in focus all the time!

dynamic area Collage

Next: Dynamic Area focus mode. As I understand it, this mode uses multiple points of focus to keep a moving object in focus. However it works, it got all of my pictures sharply in focus as I walked away from the camera.

Verdict: No complaints! It worked well following me as I moved.

auto af Collage

Finally, Auto Area focus mode. This one is supposed to automatically which of the two settings above are best for the shot. According to the Nikon website, this setting also is programmed to focus on faces, though I’m not sure if my camera is too old for that feature. This is the default setting for the camera.

Verdict: In focus all the time!

Which is my favourite? Drumroll, please… They all worked better than I expected! I thought there’s be a clear winner, but there was very little difference. The Single Area focus mode seemed the least reliable, but it did give me some great photos. I think I’ll keep the camera on Auto Area focus or Dynamic for now.

So why do my photos sometimes turn out blurry? It turns out the answer isn’t actually focus mode… it’s me!

manually focused on snow Collage

When do I get blurry pictures? When I interfere with the camera, of course! Above, I’d used the shutter button to focus on a some footprints in the snow… and below, I’d focused on the left-hand tree branches. Notice how the focus is locked and it’s not refocusing as I move backwards and forward?

manually focused on tree Collage

This is how I used to take pictures all the time, until this summer! I’d focus on something, go stand where I thought I’d focused, and dance back and forth trying to get in the sweet spot. It’s a bit mind-boggling that if I’d just turned the camera on and stepped in front, I would have had much better pictures!

As proof, I turned the camera off and back on, and took these without changing a single setting:

turned camera off and on Collage

BAM! All perfectly in focus. Learn from my mistakes people, and trust the camera to do it’s thing.

Yes, this is a long post that basically says “Leave your camera on full auto”, which is never what a good photographer would tell you… but if I was unconsciously making my life harder, than I’m sure some of you are too. And when there is no photographer being fancy behind the camera, I think it’s important to figure out how to make photography quick and easy! 

Does your camera focus automatically, or is it something you struggle with? I’d love to hear your tips and tricks, and what you do to get in-focus shots!

18 thoughts on “Better Pictures Project: Understanding Focus Modes on your DSLR Camera

    1. If you read it and find it useful, would you let me know?? I’d be happy to be a “dummy” if it was a good resource! 😉


  1. Oh goodness, yes that’s what I’ve been doing. Focussing then dancing around in a sweet spot. I’m surprised I don’t have more useless photos now you mention it!
    I don’t have a tripod, but I really must get one. Instead I pile a garden chair on top of a garden chair on top of a side table and use masking tape to attach my camera to the chair slats. Sometimes it slips and my heart stops, sometimes it’s ok!!! I think that’s why pictures of my Princess are usually more successful, combined with her youthful good looks of course!!
    I can’t thank you enough for this brilliant series and have recommended it to others.


    1. Oh. My. Girl, got buy a tripod. You can get one for cheap! It’s worth not breaking your camera!!!!!!
      (And thank you – I’m so glad other people are enjoying the series, ’cause I’m having fun and learning a lot myself!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting! Someday I hope to have a good camera and use your tips. Meanwhile, what is that fabulous shift dress you are wearing?!?! Love it. Its a totally ” me” dress. 🙂


    1. It is yet another Sew Over It Ultimate Shift Dress! I’ve made, um, 5 this fall? And I love them all! I did add my own darts in the back of this one…


  3. The day I got a camera with a remote was life changing. I used to have to do the “focus on one spot then go stand there” trick all the time. I used a chair and kicked it out of the way with only a couple seconds to pose before the 10 sec timer went off. Ugh, it was awful. Now I just leave the camera on auto and turn my camera screen backwards so I can see myself in the frame and snap away!


    1. Bahahah – I can just picture you shoving the chair out of place and trying to pose in time! Remotes are so, so much better. I wish I had a screen that I could turn around – i bet that’s another innovation that once you have it, you can’t imagine life without it!


      1. Oh man, I do this with a tall lamp or my ironing board, and it’s such a huge pain! I keep chickening out of buying a better camera, tripod, and remote because of the financial investment, but it would make my life so much easier! Thanks for the info on focus modes – I’m going to file it away for the future.


  4. LOL I’m going to pull out my tripod soon and see if I can figure out taking some simple shots on my own. I don’t have a remote, but i think I can download an app on my phone. Your posts have really been getting my mind rolling and have put me in a better place when thinking of my pics so thank you very much for being so diligent with this series 🙂


    1. I”m glad the Better Pictures project has been helpful! You always have lovely pics, so you are doing something right! 🙂


  5. Just finally getting to read this post now. I was saving it until I had time to concentrate. And then it was super simple! XD Joke’s on me!

    I need to try this because I always use autofocus but my face is often out of focus. I never notice on the small camera screen but then I get back to my computer and I’m disappointed by it. It’s fine, I use the photos and all, but I’m increasingly annoyed by it. So now I have something to play with!

    I also want to see if I can set some permanent settings so that, for instance, the flash defaults to no flash, rather than autoflash. Or maybe change the light sensitivity settings? My camera seems to want to flash when it’s even just a teeny bit overcast, and if I switch between automodes I have to reset that setting every time. V annoying.


  6. Hahaha! I picked up my camera to follow along with you as I read and then laughed out loud when I came to the end….”leave your camera on full auto” she says! Great post Gillian! Thanks for keeping it real…and simple.


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