When you look at your lenses, they probably have a switch on them that enables you to flick between M or MF (manual focus) and A or AF (autofocus). In manual focus mode, you do the work to get your subject sharp in the frame. Choose autofocus, and your camera will lock focus on the subject in your shot. Except, your camera offers a lot more than just “autofocus”.
There are, in fact, a range of different focusing modes within autofocus. By choosing the right one for your shooting situation, you can get a whole lot more out of your camera and improve your photography.
Table of contents
- Manual focusing mode
- Autofocusing mode
- Single shot focusing mode
- Continuous autofocus mode
- Hybrid focusing mode
- Autofocus area modes
- Single point focusing mode
- Dynamic-area autofocusing
- Group or Zone AF focusing modes
- Auto area AF
- Eye and Face AF
- What autofocus mode should I use?
- Back button focus
As well as different focusing modes, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras usually have a choice of autofocus areas or points, too. By combining the right focus mode and focus area for your shooting conditions, you can make getting the photo you want a whole lot easier.
From action shots to wildlife photography, here’s everything you need to know about your camera’s focus modes.
Manual focusing mode
Manual focus mode is when you use the focus ring on your lens to adjust the focal point of your image yourself. It is how photographers focused their lenses before autofocus became widely available. While autofocus has several advantages over manual focus, there are some situations where manual focus is a must. First, when you shoot in low-light conditions, autofocus will struggle to identify your subject. You, on the other hand, will be able to lock on to it and ensure that it is sharp using the focusing ring.
Manual focus is best for astrophotography, too, as you will be able to focus on infinity, or at least close to it. It’s also useful if you a shooting still life subjects or anything where the depth of field is very shallow. You can be sure that your focus is set to your subject, not something in front or behind it.
Autofocus mode is a bit of a misnomer. Cameras today come with a variety of different autofocusing capabilities that suit just about every shooting situation imaginable. Confusingly, every camera manufacturer has different names for the same autofocus modes, depending on whether they are best for static subjects or designed to follow moving subjects. We’re going to look at them here, with their different names and different purposes.
Single shot focusing mode
Single-shot focusing is the most basic of the autofocusing modes available to you. When you half-depress your shutter button, your camera will lock onto your subject, and that’s where it will focus, even if your subject moves. You then press the shutter button the rest of the way down to take your photo. The next photo that you take will require you to refocus.
Single shot autofocus mode is known by these different terms by the major manufacturers:
- Canon: One Shot AF
- Fujifilm and Nikon: AF-S
- Olympus: S-AF
- Sony: Single Shot AF
As single-shot autofocus does not follow your subject, it is best for stationary subjects, for example, landscapes and some portraits. Using this AF mode makes it easy to focus on the hyperfocal distance in a landscape image.
Continuous autofocus mode
Continuous autofocus mode (sometimes called Continuous Servo AF) is best for capturing moving subjects. This makes it the best choice for sports and wildlife photography, and other fast-moving situations, for example, at a children’s birthday party.
In this auto-focus mode, your camera will follow your subject and remain focused on it, even if it moves about within your scene.
Of course, there’s no standard naming convention for it. Depending on your camera manufacturer, you will find it called:
- Canon: AI-Servo AF
- Fujifilm and Nikon: AF-C
- Olympus: C-AF
- Panasonic: AFC
- Pentax: AF.C
- Sony: Continuous AF
Hybrid focusing mode
Hybrid autofocus, or hybrid AF, is theoretically the genius child of single-shot and continuous focusing. Depending on whether or not your camera can detect movement in your subject, it will use single shot or continuous autofocus. Unfortunately, this mode can be a bit jumpy and won’t always produce the best results.
It isn’t available in all cameras, but when it is, you will find it called:
- Canon: AI Focus AF
- Nikon: AF-A mode
- Sony: Continuous focus
Autofocus area modes
As well as different autofocus modes, you can fine-tune how and where your camera chooses to focus in a scene for even better results. You do this using different autofocus area modes.
Depending on your camera model, it will have a different number of focusing points spread across your viewfinder. For example, a Canon EOS 5D Mark III has 61 autofocusing points. Canon’s 6D has 11 focus points. You can direct your camera to use just one of these points to settle on the focal point or a group of them. If you select all of the focal points, then effectively your camera will choose the focal point.
These are the main autofocus area modes. And yes, you guessed it, different camera makes give them different names.
- Single point or manual point AF
- Dynamic AF area or AF point expansion
- Group or Zone AF
Single point focusing mode
With single-point AF area mode, you select one of the autofocusing points across your scene. The default is the center point. It is usually the most accurate point and the most convenient. But, you can choose from any of the others, and this will be the location of your focal point.
If you have selected the center autofocus point when out shooting, you can still compose shots according to the rule of thirds without having the subject in the center of the frame. You use the focus and recompose method. Set the focus on your subject by lining up the red dot of the autofocusing point over it and half-pressing your shutter button. Still, with the shutter button half-depressed, recompose the scene so that the subject is where you want it in the frame. The focus will still be on the subject. Fully depress the shutter button to take the photo.
You select a focusing point, but the camera activates the focusing points around it so that should your subject move, they will pick it up, too. This is good for action photography as it helps you to keep your focal point accurate while you are tracking a subject.
Some cameras also offer 3D tracking or Intelligent tracking and recognition in this mode. This assists with maintaining the focus on moving subjects.
Group or Zone AF focusing modes
If you are photographing a group of people, so you want all of their faces in focus, opting for group or zone AF is a good choice. In this autofocusing area mode, you choose several focusing points that are grouped together to act as your focal point.
Auto area AF
This mode is when your camera decides where to focus. It’s probably best avoided.
Eye and Face AF
Eye and face autofocusing area modes are usually found in mirrorless cameras or in dSLR cameras in LiveView mode. They do pretty much what you’d expect: lock focus on a subject’s eyes. This is a great choice if you shoot portraits, wildlife photography, or do street photography.
What autofocus mode should I use?
Choosing the right autofocusing mode for your subject matter can help you to get the images that you want. Remember, though, that manual focus is best in low light conditions, for astrophotography, and often for macro subjects.
This table isn’t in any way definitive. It’s just a suggestion to help you out because there are so many choices. You won’t always find these recommendations useful but they are starting points.
|Subject||Autofocus mode||Autofocus area|
|Landscapes||Single/One shot||Single area|
|Eye/Face or Single/One shot|
Eye/Face or Continuous
Back button focus
When you use autofocus, you usually half-depress your shutter button to allow your camera to find its focal point. However, you can often use a button on the back of your camera, usually labelled AF-On, to find focus, too. If your camera doesn’t have a dedicated AF-On button, you can usually configure one to act that way in settings.
The possible autofocusing combinations can feel overwhelming. Start small. Begin by selecting either a single shot or continuous focusing, depending on whether your subject is static or moving. When you are accustomed to these, introduce the different area-focusing modes. You’ll soon find it natural and you’ll know the best combinations that produce the best photos in different situations.
Manual mode is best in low-light situations or for macro and astrophotography. Autofocus is best for almost all other situations, especially if you need to be quick.
AF-S (one shot or single shot autofocusing) is best for landscapes and static subjects. Use AF-C (continuous or servo autofocusing) to keep subjects that are on the move in focus.
Autofocus area modes dictate where and how a big an area your camera uses to find the focal point in a scene. You can use just one point in the whole scene, or a group of points.