Focus and recompose, or compose and focus?

portrait photography focusPortrait photography often means short depth-of-field.  In fact, when the photographer is close to the subject and a low aperture (such as f/1.8) is used, then the depth-of-field an be as short as one inch (3 centimeters?).  Even slight variations in focus can take the focus off the model’s eye and make it slightly blurry.  In portrait photography, the eyes must be in perfect focus, but we don’t mind leaving the skins slightly out of focus because it adds to the smoothness of skin.

Many beginning photographers are taught to use the center autofocus point, obtain focus while pointing that center focus point on the eye, and then recomposing so the eye is placed according to the rule of thirds.  This technique is called focus and recompose.  When this technique is used, it changes the plane of focus just slightly.  Often times, when extremely short depth-of-field is used, this can throw off the focus on the eye.  Even just moving the camera to recompose may mean the photographer scooting back or forward a half an inch, which will remove sharpness.

When extremely short depth of field is used, it is preferable for photographers to change which autofocus point is used rather than always using the center autofocus point and then recomposing the shot.  This may annoy you for a few weeks after switching to this method, but in the long term, your sharpness will thank you.  Almost all professional photographers use the focus point selector rather than the focus and recompose method when shooting short depth-of-field.

There’s a catch to all of this.  If you’re shooting an entry-level DSLR, you probably don’t have many autofocus points on your camera.  Many entry-level DSLRs only have 9 autofocus points.  Sometimes this might work out and an autofocus point just happens to be available where the model’s eye is; however, you will find many situations where there simply isn’t an autofocus point to cover the place where you want to focus.  For this reason, the focus and recompose method is more practical for entry-level DSLRs.  If you have lots of autofocus points, however, then consider forcing yourself to switch over to the compose and focus method.

Once you’re comfortable with the basics of how focusing works and you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you will want to learn how to do back button focusing.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. kc00l says

    I started using the compose and focus method recently.
    I own a Pentax K-X, i.e. an entry level DSLR, and I used the central focus point from day one, mostly because the K-X lacks visual confirmation of focus point. Focus and recompose is my method for most of my pictures.
    I recently acquired 2 lenses which are faster than my kit and experienced for the first time the counterpart of a shallow depth of field : the area I focus on is often blurry… Most often the subject moves after focusing (kids) but other times that’s me moving perpendicularly to the focus plane during picture recompose.
    I finally tried putting camera in focus point select mode and I’m quite satisfied of the results.
    Pictures are sharper and I can focus faster on moving subjects too without the need of recomposing.

  2. says

    My luck finding this site. Also trying hard to shoot sharp portraits with K-x with mixed success using focus/recompose using central focus point. Appreciate the info. K-x appears not the friendliest for changing focus points as posted by kcool, but at this point it has to worth a try. Pretty much same scenario, faster lens. Looks like a lot of practice on the horizon.
    Appreciate the comments.

  3. says

    I have a Canon 5D and I’m struggling with the limited number of autofocus points as I’d like to specialize in child and family portraiture. I really hate to switch to Nikon, but the 51 autofocus points on a Nikon D700 is hard to ignore.

  4. says

    This was a helpful post that challenged my prior learning on focusing and composition – and that’s a good thing!

    However, I have a Canon 550d so am limited for now…

    Thanks

  5. Nate says

    Hi Jim, I have recently purchased a Canon 1100D/T3i? I have been shooting on aperture priority with some shots in autofocus and others in manual focus. I have a 50mm f/1.8. I shoot in manual only for practise to see if I can produce as sharp an image as the auto focus. What i wanted to ask is when shoot in Manual. I adjust the focus rectangle to where on the frame I want to focus, from the tripod I then roughly compose the image, use the 10x zoom to really try to sharpen the image then take the shot without re-composing this image. The reason I do this is because I can not work out how to display the same focus rectangle through the viewfinder on this camera and go through those steps it seems it can only be done from the LCD screen at the back? Is there a way to use the digital zoom and focus through the viewfinder?

    Thank you in advance
    Nate

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