How to Toggle your Camera’s Focal Point for Better Photos

How to Toggle your Camera’s Focal Point for Better Photos

Inside: Read my detailed tutorial on how to choose your camera focus points and choose which part of your image you want in focus.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.  Any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me at no extra cost to you.  I only recommended resources I use and love!

Before I learned how to use my DSLR camera I found myself in need of a creative outlet.

A Pinterest search turned up some cute glass tile pendant necklaces and I got excited to try my hand.  I made a few and felt so pleased with my craftiness I wanted to show them off with photos.

I studied the photos on the tutorial’s website.

The pendant in the photo’s foreground looked sharp while the background looked blurry.  Such a nice effect.

I loved how it looked and wanted to figure it out.

What’s the Secret to Choosing the Focal Point?

I laid my pendants out on a white table cloth and arranged them in rows.

I took a few shots with my nice DSLR and checked the back of my camera.

Arghhh…why couldn’t I get the one I wanted in focus?

I tried everything I could think of.

I changed my camera angle and took the photos from the side.

I moved closer in, then further away.

How hard could this be?

But no matter what I did, I couldn’t get my camera to focus where I wanted it to.

One shot would have one pendant in focus, but never the one I wanted.

The next shot would have them all in focus.

And the third would be a shot of the wall behind them!

After 20 minutes of attempts to get my camera to focus where I wanted it to, I gave up.

“What am I missing?” I thought.  “What’s the trick to this?”

Why Its Important to Choose Your Camera Focus Points

A great photo has a clear focal point.  The focal point should be in focus and stand out from the rest of the image.

In Auto Mode, most cameras will choose the focal point for you.

As you look into your camera’s viewfinder you will see an array of focal points.  When you depress your shutter half way you’ll notice how one or more of the camera focus points light up.

camera focus points

If you’re lucky, when you shoot in auto mode, one of the camera focus points will fall on your subject.

But as often as not, when your camera decides for you, you’ll get an unpredictable result.

In the image below I wanted to flower in focus, but the camera chose the leaf instead:

photo of flower demonstrating how to choose your camera focus points

I got the result I wanted when I chose the camera’s focal point.

photo of a flower demonstrating the power of choosing your own camera focal point

Learning how to choose your focal point will take your photos to the next level. 

 

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A Powerful Setting!

Toggling your focal point is powerful.  Here are three reasons why:

First, it’s powerful because you can tell your camera what’s most important in your image.

Here, I placed the focal point on my daughter.  This told my camera I wanted her in focus, not the poles or trees behind her.  When paired with a wide aperture the background blurs while the subject remains sharp.

Second, it’s powerful because if there’s something between you and your subject you can incorporate it into the foreground of the image without confusing your camera as to what you want in focus.

In this shot, I told my camera to focus on my son as the subject of the photo, not my daughter in front of him.  This added nice depth to the photo, and my camera knew what I wanted in focus.

Last, it’s powerful because you can use it to create interesting compositions while shooting.

In this photo I used the rule of thirds to compose my photo with my son in the right third of the frame.

boy playing soccer with focal point overlay to show how photos was composed and shot

 

Confusing Terms

I’ll be the first to admit that photography terms can get confusing.  The words focus, auto, and mode get thrown around a lot and not always in reference to the same camera function.

In this tutorial I’ll use the term single point focus to refer to the camera setting that allows us to choose and toggle our focal point.

But this camera function may be called something different based on the camera model.  On Nikon cameras it’s called the AF area mode.  On Canon cameras it’s called single point AF.

How to Toggle Your Camera’s Focal Point

Step 1 – pull out your camera manual.

Remember that manual that came with your camera?  Time to dig it out!

If you can’t find it, Google can help.  Most camera manufacturers provide copies of their camera manuals online.  You can search for your Nikon camera manual HERE, or your Canon camera manual HERE.

Every camera’s a little different so you’ll need to find out how to switch to single point focus – or whatever term your camera manufacturer uses – on your camera.

 

Step 2 – Get Out of Auto Mode

You can’t choose your focal point unless you shoot in manual mode, or a semi-manual mode.  If you shoot in Auto mode the camera will choose both your exposure settings and focal point for you.

 

Tutorials

Here are some tutorials to help you switch your camera to single point focus:

Canon Rebel

Nikon D300

Nikon D5000

Canon 5D Mark iii (see page 14)

Step 3 – Practice!

Once you get your camera set to single point focus practice using your camera’s multi-selector wheel to toggle your focal point.

On most cameras, it looks like this:

Look through your camera’s viewfinder. Use the arrows on your multi-selector wheel to toggle your focal point up, down, left and right.

Practice until you get comfortable doing it.

Give it a try!

Get out your camera manual and find out how to toggle your camera’s focal point.  You’ll have a powerful photography tool for whatever you want to shoot – craft projects and kids alike! 

Want to improve your own photos right now?  Sign up for my free e-course HERE.

Free Download – Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet

Free Download – Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet

Inside: New to photography?  Start here!  Download my free DSLR photography for beginners PDF HERE.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). I only recommend tools and resources I use and love!

I looked down past my large, round belly, to the brand new DSLR sitting in my lap. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child and I couldn’t wait to take beautiful photos of our new baby.  

But as I read the instruction manual and fumbled with the camera settings my excitement waned. I wanted to take great photos, but had no idea where to begin.  

“A photography class is what I need!” I mused.

A few days later a discount on a local photography class landed in my inbox and I registered right away. 

Surely this would unlock the mysteries of my camera and have me taking beautiful photos in no time.

I went to the class one week before my due date, larger and rounder.  I paid close attention and scribbled notes on ISO, aperture and shutter speed.  

I was sure I understood.

Then it was time to go out and test my new knowledge by taking photos in manual mode. And I was LOST.  

I couldn’t remember

-which setting to choose first,

-which setting controlled which aspect of the photo, or

-why I thought this class was a good idea in the first place!

How was I supposed to hold all this information in my head???

DSLR Photography for Beginners

I checked my notes again.  I was still lost.

In frustration I switched the camera back to Auto mode.  

The instructor came by to check my progress.  He saw that I’d reverted back to Auto.  I felt the heat creeping into my cheeks.  

“It’s challenging, isn’t it?”, he said. 

“Um, yeah, understatement of the year” I thought.  I was ashamed to admit I’d already given up.

My scribbled notes weren’t cutting it. This photography class didn’t deliver the results I’d hoped for.  

I needed someone to simplify this for me.

This article explains the exposure triangle in depth.  I want you to read it all.

But if you’re like I was and need a simple photography cheat sheet that will eliminate the overwhelm of choosing your camera settings, you can download it below:

DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF

If you’re new to photography, the exposure triangle is the first thing you need to understand.  It’s the foundation for understanding how to use your dslr camera.

 

photography for dummies pdfEvery camera (even your camera phone) utilizes three elements – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO – and balances them to create an “exposure,” or image.

When you shoot in auto mode your camera makes the decisions for you of how to balance the three elements of the exposure triangle based on the scene you’re photographing and the light available.

When you shoot in manual mode you get to do the thinking and choose the best settings for the lighting you’re in and the effect you want to achieve.

Taking control of my camera settings and learning manual mode was the key to learning to take photos I love.  

Let’s look at the function of each leg of the exposure triangle.  We’ll start with ISO:

ISO Settings

ISO stands for “International Standards Organization.”  

That’s not important except to know there are internationally recognized standards for this camera setting.

Your ISO setting determines how sensitive your camera’s sensor (the part inside your camera that captures an image) is to light.  The lower your ISO setting, the less sensitive.  The higher the setting, the more sensitive.

The higher you set your ISO, the more light your camera will be able to “gather”.

Most entry level DSLR’s have an ISO range from 100 to 3200 or 6400, while pro-level DSLR’s have ISO ranges up to 32,000 and even higher! 

A higher ISO setting has one major drawback.  The higher you set your ISO, the more “noise” you’ll get in your photos.

Higher end cameras can handle this noise better than entry level DSLR’s, so the better your camera, the better it’s ability to shoot in low light where you’ll need to use a higher ISO setting.

A higher ISO setting also limits the range of highlights and shadows (known as the dynamic range) your camera can capture.

For these reasons, it’s best to keep your ISO setting as low as possible.

ISO Examples

I took this photo of my daughter watching fireworks under dark low light conditions. I have a higher-end DSLR and my ISO setting was at 20,000!

photo of girl watching fireworks at night illustrates digital noise caused by a high ISO setting

When I zoom in (below) you can see the noise caused by the high ISO setting. This noise is considered undesirable in terms of image quality.

To avoid this always keep your ISO setting as low as possible.

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Shutter Speed

The next leg of the exposure triangle is SHUTTER SPEED.

Shutter speed refers to how long the camera’s shutter stays open when you snap a photo, expressed in fractions of a second.

For example, a shutter speed of 1/125 means the shutter will stay open for one one-hundred-twenty-fifth of a second (which isn’t long at all)!  

You’ll sometimes see shutter speed written as a whole number, like SS 125, but this can be confusing, so it’s best to write and think of it in fraction form.

The smaller the fraction, the faster the shutter speed.  

For example, SS 1/800 (one 800th of a second) is faster than SS 1/50 (one 50th of a second).

Shutter speed can be used to capture motion blur.  A slow shutter speed can make running water look silky, or lend a sense of movement to a photo.  To achieve this look you would choose a longer shutter speed, such as 30 seconds.  

This shutter speed is not written as a fraction, because it’s longer than a second.

This site has great examples showing how to create motion blur using a slow shutter speed.


For handheld photography it’s best to set your shutter speed at 1/125 or faster, especially if photographing a moving subject (like a child).  

In most cases, a faster shutter speed is better.

One important note:

set your shutter speed higher than the focal length of your lens.  For example, if you have a long telephoto lens, such as a 200 mm, your minimum shutter speed would need to be 1/200.

A slower shutter speed can lead to blurry photos.  This is known as “motion blur.” A fast shutter speed will be able to freeze the subject’s motion.

A faster shutter speed also allows less time for the camera to capture light, so with a faster shutter speed less light will reach the camera’s sensor.  A slower shutter speed gives the camera more time to gather light, so more light will reach the camera’s sensor.

Shutter Speed Examples

These photos illustrate how shutter speed can help you achieve a sharp photo.

This photo was taken at a fast shutter speed of 1/8000.  That’s one eight-thousandth of a second.  Note how sharp and in focus the flower is, even though the wind was blowing:

photo of flower taken at shutter speed 1/8000 shutter speed 1/8000

This next photo was taken at a slow shutter speed of 1/60 (that’s one 60th of a second). 

1/60 is too slow for a handheld shot, and too slow to capture an object blowing in the wind.

photo of flower taken with a slow shutter speed shows motion blur shutter speed 1/60

For sharp photos, set your shutter speed at 1/125 or faster.

What Aperture to Use

The third leg of the exposure triangle is known as APERTURE, also referred to as f/stop. The aperture you use depends on the effect you’re going for.  Let me explain.


Aperture may be my favorite of the three legs because it’s what creates those beautiful blurry backgrounds that set a great photo apart from a snapshot.  This is what most people think of when they picture “professional photography.”

Aperture means “opening”  

The camera has an opening inside of it that allows light to pass through to the sensor.  The f/stop number, expressed as a fraction (yes, fractions again!) refers to how “wide open” or “closed down” the camera’s aperture is.

The wider the camera’s aperture opens, the lower the f/stop number will be, and the blurrier the background of the photo will be.  

The more closed the camera’s aperture is, the higher the f/stop number will be, and the less blurry the background will be.

Some situations call for having more of your photo in focus.  Landscape photos, for example, should have the whole scene in focus and you’d need to use a narrower aperture to achieve this. 

A photo of a large group of people may also call for a narrower aperture setting so everyone will be in focus. 

The aperture you choose depends on what you’re photographing.

A wider aperture (lower f/stop number) lets more light reach the camera sensor.  A narrower aperture (higher f/stop number) lets less light reach the camera sensor.

The terms can get confusing!

I had a hard time keeping this one straight when I first started learning manual mode.

Think of it like the iris in your eye. When the light is dim your iris opens wider to let more light in.  When the light is bright your iris closes down to let in less light.

In practice, the most important points to remember about aperture are:

A lower f/stop number will give you a blurrier background. 

If you’re photographing a larger number of people or a landscape a higher f/stop number will be needed.

Aperture Examples

The photos below illustrate how your aperture, or f/stop affects your photo.

This photo was taken at f/3.2.  Notice the nice blurry background:

photo of tulip with a blurry background taken at wide aperture f/3.2

In this photo I changed my aperture to f/7.1.  Notice how the background doesn’t look as smooth.

photo of tulip taken at narrower aperture f/7.1

This photo was taken at f/16.  Notice how the background is much more in focus and we see more of the distracting elements in the background.  The photo taken at a wider aperture blurs them out for us.

photo of tulip at f/16 f/16

If you want a blurry background, choose a lower f/stop number.

FREE DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF

Five years later after my third child was born I’d finally gained a good understanding of how to use the exposure triangle.  

I don’t want you to struggle with it for as long as I did, so I have a simple photography cheat sheet for you. It will help you when you’re trying to decide on your camera settings.  

You can print it and take it along with you when you’re out shooting.  Download it below.

I truly love my photos now that I’ve mastered shooting in manual mode and understand how the exposure triangle affects my photos.  

Learning manual mode was the key that unlocked the mysteries of photography for me and allowed me to take beautiful photos I love.

Eliminate the overwhelm and get help choosing your camera settings.  Download your FREE Photography Cheat Sheet for Beginners:

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