Taking control of your camera’s autofocus points

Imagine you’re at your 4th grader’s first school musical. You’re about 6 rows back, the room is packed, and there are at least 10 potential heads in the way of your shot. But you’re excited because you’ve got your new camera and an 18-55mm lens.

You’re child’s on stage, you’re shot is set, you press the shutter button half way to focus, and your camera keeps locking focus on the back of a head two rows up. Frustrated yet? I’ve seen photos that end up like that. I can tell what the intended subject was, but its clear the camera  wasn’t making the connect. So did you blow all that money on a camera that wasn’t going to get the job done? Nope. You just need to bump up the knowledge of what that camera is capable of and figure out how to master it…and don’t worry, it’s not too tough.

Out of Automatic (kindof)

First thing you’ll need to do is get out of Auto mode. If you’re just getting started, and don’t have the basics of shooting manually down, P or Programmed Auto mode is the simplest place to start. Read about B&H Photo & Video’s article explaining camera modes and Canon’s article titled “Why P-Mode?“.

Canon t4i focus points

Nikon D3200/D3300 Focus points

Your camera has a series of focus points. Different cameras have different amounts. Usually, the more expensive the camera, the more focus points. When you look through your viewfinder you’ll see a layout of squares. When you press your shutter half-way, one or all will turn red. When you switched to Program mode, you opened up your ability to set a specific focus point.

Changing Focus Points

On a Canon EOS Rebel Series camera (t1i – t6i) press the right-most button on the back of the camera (fig. 1), then move the selector wheel (fig. 2) until your focus point is in the desired location. Press the shutter button half-way to lock focus, then take your shot. This will allow you to set your focus on a subject in the background while not focusing on the foreground. (Remember your child on the stage and the heads in the way?)

On a Nikon D3— or D5— series camera, choose an auto-focus area other than “E” (Auto-area AF). (Check your Camera Manual’s section on Autofocus on the specifics of this). Then use the multi-selector (Fig. 3) to choose a focus point. Press the shutter half-way to lock your focus, then take your shot.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3



Like the old adage says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well”. Are you sitting around at home before bed, browsing Facebook or reading blogs? Grab your camera and practice. You don’t even need to take a shot. Just practice the process of switching focus points and locking in your focus. Then step it up and chase your kids around the house, lock in your focus and take the shot. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be.

Go give it a shot and have fun!


Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg

Visiting Williamsburg

Growing up 20 minutes from Valley Forge, PA, frequent trips into the historic parts of Philadelphia, both my wife and I developed a pension for our colonial history in America. We’re a good 10 + hours from PA now, but have our fill of cobblestone streets and tri-cornered hats in the historic village of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

When we visited in the summer, we asked an employee her favorite time of the year to visit the village. “Christmas”. She replied, without hesitation. So with much anticipation, we made our plans and hit the road just after Christmas.

Williamsburg is, as we expected, beautiful at Christmas. While there are no lit trees and no Christmas trees (as these would be introduced from German immigrants some time after the Revolution) there are wreaths adorned creatively with dried fruit and an assortment of greens and other natural things.

We did our usual tour of the Governor’s Mansion, the capitol building, the carpenter’s shop, stores, shops, and squeezed (literally) into the Cheese Shop in Merchant’s Square for lunch. Get reservations at The King’s Arms Tavern, Chownings, or Christiana Campbell’s in the village for dinner, but by all means get into the Cheese Shop for lunch. It’s well worth the crowds and the wait.

The highlight of our visit was undoubtedly the tour/program titled “Christmastide at Home“. Actors and actresses depicted scenes from colonial times through World War II as they may have been throughout the town. This was held at night and thus the town was lit by open fires and candlelight. Needless to say, it was beautiful and nostalgic.

Photographing Williamsburg

Photographing Williamsburg at Christmas was a lot of fun. The wreaths and greens were extras tacked on to the beautiful period architecture, brickwork, and horse-drawn carriages. The weather was overcast most of the time and I used this to my advantage. (cloud cover provides soft light while bright sun casts sharp shadows.) I purposefully looked for times when crowds dissipated or for areas that were less occupied and found some beautiful shots. The green in front of the Governor’s Mansion is a prime shot. I took a few on more busy (not rainy) days but got my favorite shot just before it rained. Crowds were down, mist covered the expanse between the road and the mansion, providing a foggy, moody look.

Architecture is always somewhat of a challenge for me, so I used the opportunity to practice. The houses in Williamsburg are fairly close together so getting an angular shot wasn’t always going to work. Plus the sidewalks were filled with tourists so taking head-on shots allowed me to minimize the amount of sidewalk in the shot, thus allowing me 1-2 second gaps without people.

For the mansion shot and for the gnarled looking tree behind the fence, I used a slightly higher aperture (f/4.5) to achieve a wider depth of field, thus keeping more of the land/subjects in focus. I took lots of shots of wreaths, but my favorites were those that I could put in the foreground and give some depth behind. I used a wider (lower numbered) aperture to decrease the depth of field which blurred the background.

Using One Lens

One of the reasons I enjoy shooting with a DSLR (I use a pretty basic, Canon t4i*) is that I can use different lenses for different scenarios. I brought along a couple different lenses, but decided to limit myself to just one. I did this for a couple reasons. First, since I was traveling with my family, I wanted family pictures. My ultrawide 10-20mm lens does not work well with people. Its excellent for landscapes and architecture but makes people look a bit odd. My Tamron 28-75 f/2.8* would have worked fine, but I decided on my Sigma 30mm f/1.4*. You don’t hear too much about this lens or focal length but I absolutely love it. I had to move my feet to “zoom” but it was wide enough for houses, but was tight enough for nice family/kid shots. The wide aperture also works nicely in low-light (using a wider aperture lets more light into the camera sensor allowing a faster shutter speed – good for active busy kids!). I liked the limitation. It caused me to think a little differently since I didn’t have zoom feature to rely on. I also only had to carry my camera around. No worries about switching lenses, no lugging around extras. It was a good experience.

I hope you’ll make the trek to southern Virginia to experience Williamsburg sometime. Its a beautiful look into American colonial history. If you have the time, visit Jamestown National Park, the Jamestown Settlement and the Yorktown Battlefield while you’re at it.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the gallery!

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Shooting Jellyfish: Photographing fish in an aquarium


Canon T4i, Tamron 17-50, 33mm, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 1600

We went to Charlotte, NC a couple weekends ago and visited the incredible Discover Place. What a fun day! Heaps of stuff for the kids, an IMAX, aquarium, terrariums  with frogs from all over the world, and more science experiments than you could shake a stick at.

This guy was really tough to capture. First, it was really dark in the aquarium but I didn’t want to set my ISO too terribly high. I had my Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 lens on which opens wide enough to keep my shutter pretty fast (Opens wide=aperture can go to 2.8, letting in more light…This in turn lets the shutter open and close more quickly…I’ll cover this in another post too).

My main problem was maintaining focus. The wide-open aperture of f/2.8 provided a small depth of field to maintain focus, so if the jellyfish moved away from me, I had to re-set focus. One helpful way to accomplish this is using Canon’s Al-Servo focus system which does a pretty good job of tracking the motion of your subject. Check your camera’s manual if you’re not sure how to set this. Also, if your camera’s lens doesn’t open to 2.8, set it for the widest you can. (The lower the number the wider it is!) Go to f/3.5 or 4 if you can. If you’re not quite comfortable with manual shots, switch to sports mode for these shots. Sports mode will set your auto focus to Al-Servo (or whatever Nikon calls it), open the aperture, and increase the shutter speed to freeze the frame as quickly as it can. It will also increase the ISO to accomplish this and will set your shutter to auto. That means if you hold down your shutter button it will “rapid-fire” photos.

I kept my autofocus button down, tried my best to follow the jelly, took about 10 different shots, and got this one. I like it too!