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How to Focus for Better Food Photography

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Related course: Photography for Beginners

When it comes to food photography tips, there is no right or wrong focus mode. Both manual or autofocus can give you great results.

But, there are times when using manual focus is better and vice versa.

Let’s look at some focusing options, when to use them, and where to focus for your ideal shot.
An overhead shot of a camera on pink background, food photography tips

Manual Focus

Manual focus is when you take complete control of where the camera focuses.

You turn the ring on your lens until the area you want to be sharp is in focus.

The problem is that in food photography, we often work with macro lenses and a narrow depth of field. This means that you need to be very precise with focusing.

Being a touch off can cause you to miss focus. This is a big concern if you have less than 20/20 vision.

Another issue with manual focus is that it can be difficult for the lens to focus in a dimly lit environment.

Luckily, many DSLRs these days have features to assist with manual focusing.

For example, on a Canon camera, the focus point lights up when the focus is made. The focus confirmation light will also come on.

If you have a Nikon camera, rotate the focus ring while looking at the bottom left-hand corner of the viewfinder. A circle will appear when your image is in focus.

When it’s not in focus, arrows will show which direction you need to adjust.
A close up shot of a 35mm camera lens, food photography tips

Auto Focus

Autofocus is when the camera intelligently adjusts the lens to focus on your subject.

No matter how brilliant the automatic features on a digital camera can be, they don’t get it right 100% of the time.

Autofocus (AF) is no exception. The AF system can miss focus or struggle to lock onto anything, especially in low light. This will result in a blurry image.

The subject influences how well your camera autofocuses. Autofocus is most affected by the level of light, contrast, and any motion caused by the subject or camera.

In food and still life photography, we are perhaps only concerned about motion when we take a pour shot.

Your camera can have difficulty focusing when there’s not enough light. It can also be a problem when a scene does not have much contrast or the colours are very monochromatic. In these cases, the AF system can’t locate an edge to lock onto.

In these situations, the lens will focus back and forth, without locking onto a point within the frame.

Today’s DSLRs and lenses generally have strong focusing abilities. But you still need to take control of your camera somewhat to get the best images.

In the image of the baby artichokes below, I focused on the front middle artichoke. The artichoke in the foreground is also in focus. We read from left to right, so it makes sense for the subjects in the middle or right hand of the frame to be more in focus.

For the image of the red fruit, I focused on the fruit at the front, which gave me a blurry background.
Beautiful food photography diptych of baby articles on a wooden board, and a bowl of plums and peaches

Autofocus Modes

Single-Servo AF

In this mode, the camera focuses when you half-press the shutter button. This mode is often used by food and still life photographers. It is for shooting stationary objects.

Using this mode, you can use a technique called “focus and recompose”. This technique can help you focus in challenging situations.

Press the shutter halfway down, and then move to change where your subject sits in the frame. Your camera will lock focus as long as you keep the shutter pressed.

This is an excellent technique to use if your camera doesn’t have a focus point close to where you want it.

Keep in mind that your plane-of-focus will shift using this technique. If you have a very shallow depth-of-field, you can end up with an image that looks unfocused.
Behind the scenes of a product photography shoot - food photography tips

Continuous-Servo AF

In this mode, the camera will continue to focus as you keep the shutter button pressed halfway.

You’d use this mode to capture movements, such as pour or action shots taken in a restaurant or kitchen.

If you’re half-pressing the shutter to focus, this autofocus mode can make it challenging to use the focus and recompose method. Because the camera keeps focusing, it might focus on the wrong part of the scene or subject.

If you want to take action shots, it’s a good idea to use back button focus.

Back Button Focus

Back button focus is when you assign the focus function to a button on the back of your camera. This technique separates the action of focusing and taking a picture.

It’s a great technique, and some photographers keep their cameras set to back button focus. This allows you to focus the shot and then recompose while keeping your subject in focus.

With back-button focus, you focus once, recompose, and continue to shoot. Don’t press the focus button again unless you move your subject.

Food photography requires making constant adjustments. With back button focus, you can shoot and make adjustments to your composition without having to worry about focusing each time. This can result in a much more efficient workflow.
Image of a DSLR on atripod with the back button focus highlighted - food photography focusing tips

How to Use Focus Points

Different cameras have different ways of choosing focus points.

On both my Canon cameras, there is a button on the back with a cross within a rectangle. This signifies the focus points.

You can hold this button down and find your desired focus point by turning the dial on the top of the camera.
focus modes for food photography
As you shuffle through the focus points, each one will light up to show which is being used.

If it’s set to automatic focus point mode, however, all of them will light up at the same time. Just be advised that it’s not a good idea to allow the camera to pick the focus point for you.

With food photography, you want to take control of where you put the focus.
focus modes for food photography

Where to Place the Focus Point

Focus guides your viewer’s eye to what is essential in the shot. Before you pick up your camera, think about what is it that you want to emphasize.

When you’re shooting food, it’s generally a good idea to focus on the front of the dish, or the foreground. This will capture the viewer’s attention and give the image a pleasant blurry background. This effect is attractive in food photography.

Garnishes are also a good place to put the focus. If you’re doing a pour shot, then the pouring action is an excellent spot to place focus.

In the shot of the oatmeal on the left, I focused on the toasted coconut topping. For the image on the right, I focused on the pouring action. This left the front of the cinnamon buns out of focus.

Ordinarily, I would focus on the front of the food, but in this case, I wanted the viewer’s attention on the pouring of the icing.
Beautiful diptych of porridge with fruit and a hand pouring cream over cookies
If you’re shooting overhead, everything in the frame should be in focus. Be sure to shoot at an aperture of at least F5.6, or else there will be elements that look blurry or out of focus.

Both of these photographs below were shot at F5.6. You can see that all the elements are in focus. While a blurred out background works in food photos taken at 45 degrees or straight on, it isn’t the best for an overhead view.
Luxurious overhead diptych photos of dessert with fruit
If you find that the focus point doesn’t fall on your subject, then you can try manual focus. Hopefully, you’re shooting tethered to Lightroom.

In that case, you can check your focus by magnifying the image on your laptop. Make sure that the area you wanted in focus is sharp enough. If it’s not, take another shot.

Conclusion

One thing to mention is that you should calibrate your lens to your camera. Skipping this step can result in focusing issues, no matter what you do.

You can learn to do this yourself, but a camera technician will probably be faster and more accurate.

Once your camera and lenses are calibrated, play around with manual and autofocus and see which mode suits you better.

If you have perfect eyesight, you may prefer to use manual mode when shooting static subjects. If you choose to autofocus, try using back button focus.

Each approach has its challenges. With these food photography tips and a bit of experimentation, you’ll discover which focus mode you feel more comfortable using.

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