Focusing | Center and Recompose the shot or Use available focus points

I had planned on diving into the components that make up exposure, but operating in typical ‘David Burke’ fashion, I am going to sidetrack and talk about focusing for a bit. Missi, brought a few questions to my attention and again I feel the explanation is worthy of a post.

The jist of the question was:

Do you use the center focus point to focus your shot then recompose OR do you use the focus point selection joystick to focus your shot?

Personal Preference will prevail here. There are a lot of opinions on what to do here. I used to focus then recompose until I learned a better way to do things. When shooting available light, I now choose to move my focus points for a 2 reasons.

  • I typically shoot with a Large Aperture (1.4 – 2.8) which creates a very shallow depth of field (DOF). If I were to use the center focus point and recompose technique, chances are the area I locked the focus on will now be on a different focal plane causing it to be out of focus. By using my focus points available, I compose first, move the focus point to the desired spot and shoot.
  • My camera has 51 focus points (as seen below). They are there to make my shooting experience easier. Moving my focus points on the Nikon D3 is a breeze and extremely fast. I recently considered downgrading to the Nikon D700 bodies (solely for the light weight of the bodies), however the deal breaker for me was that the focus points do not move as quickly. They are a tad bit sluggish for me and that is a big deal to me.
  • Nikon D3 Focus Points

Here is a shot of Bryleigh using a 2.8 Aperture.

Using your Focus Points

Using your Focus Points

See how out of focus everything is around her? Even her arms go out of focus. That is the beauty of using a Large Aperture. If you look closely, her right sleeve is on approximately the same focal plane as her eyes, so the sleeve is sharp too. I put the focus point on her eyes and the pressed the shutter. If I would have focused on her eyes and then recomposed the shot (using the 2.8 Aperture) the writing on her shirt would have been sharper than her eyes. When I am shooting portraits, both produced and lifestyle, I focus on the eyes. I want them to be the sharpest part of the image.

If you are used to the recomposing method, it does take some getting used to, if you make the switch. I encourage you to try it and do some tests to see if it works well for you. I think Glass is a very important factor of the equation as well. The better the glass the better the image will be ultimately.

All that said, the center focus points are definitely more responsive and sharper than the outer edge points (You can see in the example of my focus screen above, that the center area focus points are larger than the outer edges points) I still believe that the outer edge focus points give me sharper results than would focusing with the center spot then recomposing the shot.

I shoot like this: Compose, Expose, Focus, Shoot (repeat often ;-))

*Note* When I am shooting with smaller apertures f8+ and off camera lighting, I am not as particular about the focus points. I have some leeway here, because I am using a smaller aperture which yields a greater depth of field (more areas are in focus). Large apertures, the eyes can be sharp and the nose and ears will be out of focus. The small apertures will keep all three areas in focus well.

Chew on this and post any questions or comments in the… uh comments section. LOL.

Comments 7

  1. I also shoot wide open (f/1.4, f/1.2) so I have to be extremely careful if I focus and then recompose, although it is my preferred method. I find that my center focus point tends to be the most accurate, which is why I prefer that method. Good stuff!

  2. Good point on the D700, although I love it for other reasons. This may sound silly, but I tend to not have a “muscle reflex” preference (yet) on which way I turn my camera for verticals, so often times I have to switch around my focal point a lot! The focus and recomposing method can really help me there.

  3. Oh my gosh, David, you are the man! Thanks for the great explanation (and the cute pic of your daughter. Her eyes are gorgeous!) I do have times when my images are not as sharp as I’d like and I bet this is to blame since I’m almost always shooting at larger apertures. I’ve never used a D3, so I wonder how my D300s compares as far as moving the focus point around. It seems to me that I’d miss shots fooling around with that, especially when things are moving quickly. Have you used the D300 or D300s? If so, do you consider it’s ability to move focus points sluggish as well? (My husband will say, “Don’t answer that, or she’ll want a new camera! It’s not an option now anyway, but good info to know.)
    Did you have any thoughts on the Auto-Area AF (big white rectangle) mode? Am I right to not use that?
    Thank you!!!

  4. DB, you’ve covered a really great topic. I wanted to chime in on the D700 and agree that the focus points are very sluggish to move around ( I compare it to playing “frogger”), but I still choose to move them rather than recompose. Having the focus buttons wrap around the frame when moving them does help with speed, but it takes some practice to get good at it. Very rarely have I recomposed a shot and really liked it, just based on the sharpness factor.

  5. Post

    I want to clarify that the D700 is an AMAZING machine! If I never touched a D3 I would never know the difference. I am just spoiled. I guess that is what the extra $2500 is for. LOL!

    Heather – You kick butt at the focus recompose method. You should contribute a post here!

    Leeann – To help yourself and workflow, you should pick a direction to turn for verticals and stick to it. Consistency will only make you better and think less while shooting.

    Missi – Forgot about the big white rectangle. I will post about this too. In short I use it when Tracking a subject that is coming towards me. This enables be to compose and shoot without having to worry about setting the focus point.

    Beth – Frogger = excellent analogy! You warned me of this phenomenon after you shot my D3. I only confirmed your discovery. You rock!

    Everyone else – Any more comments/Suggestions/Opinions? Chime in please…

    Thanks all!

  6. David-

    I am just now learning my away around the D700 which I just got, I big upgrade from my D40x. Loving the camera but have struggled a bit on focusing so this article comes in at a great time. Here is my question: When I am following my 16 month old around, I keep the AF on continuous mode (C) and try to focus on one of her eyes. What I have found is that, when shooting in the range of f1.6-f/2.0 with my 50mm; the second eye goes a bit of out focus. Do you still suggest using the 51 points on the D700?

    1. Post

      Hi Andy,
      Thanks for the comment. The D700 is a killer machine! Congrats on the upgrade. For your focusing.. In my opinion, I would try using f/3.2-4.0 while chasing my 16 month old around. When they are moving a lot and quickly, it will be very difficult to get both eyes tack sharp using such a shallow depth of field (if they are slightly off the focal plane). Also I use all 51 points on my D3, but that very well may be overkill for you. I would try it and then try a reduced set to see which is more efficient for you. Good Luck!

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