Focus and recompose is a very commonly used photography technique. Photographer focuses on the subject that needs to be in sharp focus then recomposes the photo in order to achieve a more pleasant composition by adhere to photography rules such as the rule of the third and golden section. Modern cameras have multiple focus sensors, which appears to have made this technique not as useful as it once was. Some even claim that it causes focus errors due to the optical characteristics of modern camera lenses. However there are still occasions that you find the focus and recompose technique useful and without focus errors. Read on to find out some tips of focus and recompose technique.

When is this technique useful?

  • When you do not have enough focus points on your camera. Canon EOS-1D Mark III has a 45-point autofocus system. Nikon D40 has only 3 focus points. Do not settle on less than perfect composition. Do not shot now and crop later. Take your time to learn composition techniques.
  • When you are in a difficult focusing situation. Typically the center focusing sensor is the most sensitive and accurate. It may be the only sensor that can give you a good lock on the subject in some conditions. Some cameras have focus-assist system that only works when the camera is pointed to the main subject, not the ocean or sky behind it.
  • When you do not have time to fumble with the focus sensor selection. Most DSLRs have easy to access focus point selection but many point-and-shoot cameras do not. You probably do not want to spend time going through the menu system while your best photo opportunities disappear.

How to focus and recompose correctly.

If your understanding of this technique is as simple as the following 1-2-3, you may be wrong.

  1. Place AF sensor on subject and half depress the shutter release button.
  2. While keeping the shutter button at half depress position, recompose.
  3. Take picture.

While it can be this simple when your camera has the correct settings. It can also produce some poorly exposed and out of focus shots if the camera settings are not appropriate. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Is the camera in continuous focus (AF-C, or AI Servo) mode? The camera in this mode will continuously seek focus at the selected focus point. The focus will be off when you recompose.
  • Does the shutter release button lock the focus when it is half depressed? It is possible to configure the shutter release as, you guessed it, shutter release only on some cameras. Focus can be achieved with a separate AF button (eg. AF On button in Nikon). No matter what the camera settings are, the key of this technique is to achieve focus and lock focus before recomposing the shot. If you do not like using the shutter release to activate the focus, that’s not a problem.
  • Does the shutter release button lock the exposure? You may or may not want this depending on the specific shooting situation. The scenes before and after the re-composition may have drastically different brightness. You will need to decide what the proper exposure needs to be. In one example, you want to focus on the face of a person then recompose to include the background. Locking the exposure is most likely desirable. Spot or center-weighted metering is likely better than matrix or evaluative metering to ensure proper exposure of the face. Locking the exposure may not be the best choice in some landscape shooting situations. Again, be careful with the settings on your camera.
  • Are you using flash? Modern DSLRs have TTL flash system. Recomposing can completely ruin the exposure of the subject of interest. In this case, you will need to determine the correct flash exposure, lock the flash output, then recompose to take the photo. On Nikon system, it is called “FV Lock”.

Don’t worry too much about the focus error issues you may have read at some places. Test done by Bob Atkins has shown that it is not an issue with most practical cases and can be avoided by paying attention to the worst case scenarios.

Posted in: Tips and Techniques on August 7th, 2007. Trackback URI
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