When it comes to food photography tips, there is no right or wrong focus mode. Both manual or auto focus can produce great results in most circumstances. However, there are times when using manual focus is better, and vice versa.
Let’s look at some focusing options, when and where to use them, and also consider where to focus to get your ideal shot.
Manual focus is when you take complete control of where the camera focuses. Simply, 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 just a touch off can cause you to miss focus.
This is obviously 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 if you’re shooting in a dimly lit environment.
This is not going to affect you if you’re shooting in a studio, but if you’re doing restaurant photography it can be a problem, particularly for candid shots.
Luckily, many DSLRs these days have features to assist with manual focusing.
For example, on a Canon camera, the focus point that is in focus will light up when the proper focus is achieved. A focus confirmation light will also turn on.
If you have a Nikon camera, watch the bottom lefthand corner of the viewfinder as you rotate the focus ring. A circle will appear when your image is in focus. When it’s not in focus, arrows will indicate which direction you need to adjust.
Autofocus is when the camera intelligently adjusts the lens to focus on your subject.
Like any other automatic feature of a camera, autofocus (AF) doesn’t always get it right. The AF system can end up focusing on the wrong part of a scene, and sometimes can struggle to lock onto anything. This will result in a blurry image.
The subject greatly influences how well your camera autofocuses. The most important factors influencing autofocus is the level of light, contrast, and motion–either of the subject or the camera.
In food and still life photography, we are perhaps only concerned about motion when we take a pour shot.
Your camera can struggle to focus when there’s not enough light, or when it’s faced with a low-contrast or uniformly coloured scene because the AF system can’t locate a clear edge.
In these situations, the lens will focus back and forth, looking for something to lock onto.
Today’s DSLRs and lenses can focus faster and more accurately than ever, but as with other automatic functions like metering and exposure, you still need to take control of your camera somewhat to get the best results.
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 stone fruit on the right below, I focused on the fruit at the front, which gave me a blurry background.
In this mode, the camera focuses when you half-press the shutter button.
This is the mode most commonly used by food and still life photographers, as it’s predominantly used for stationary objects.
You half press the shutter in this mode, and then you can recompose the image by slightly moving the camera up or down, or from side-to-side. This is a technique called “focus and recompose”.
Provided that you don’t move your finger off the shutter, your camera will lock focus.
Even if your digital camera has a lot of focus points, they don’t always completely fill the frame and you still can’t focus exactly where you want it. Using this technique give you more flexibility.
One thing to keep in mind when using this method, is that you might end up with badly focused images when recomposing at wide apertures and close distances.
Your focus plane shifts when you recompose, so if you have a very shallow depth-of-field, or are too close to your subject, recomposing can result in an unfocused subject.
The camera will continue to focus as you keep the shutter button half pressed.
You would use this mode in a situation where you need to capture movement, 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 difficult for you to utilize the focus and recompose method. Because the camera keeps focusing, it can potentially 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 function of the focus to a button on the back of your camera. This technique separates the action of focusing from that of taking a picture.
When you remove the focusing function from the shutter button, you are able to focus the shot and then recompose as needed, while your subject stays in focus.
When the shutter button controls your focus, the camera will attempt to refocus agains soon as you recompose the shot and press the shutter. This can leave your subject out of focus. You can avoid this with back button focusing.
Another problem is that if you are using the “focus and recompose” technique with the shutter button, you’re constantly moving the camera to lock focus, which distracts you from fine-tuning your composition.
With back-button focus, all you have to do is focus one time, recompose, and shoot as long as necessary. Unless you move your subject, you don’t have to press the focus button again.
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.
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 far right on the back of my camera with an icon that looks like a cross within a rectangle. This signifies the focus points.
You can hold this button with your thumb and find your desired focus point by simultaneously turning the dial on the top of the camera.
As you shuffle through the focus points, each one will light up to show which is being utilized. 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 focus.
Where to Place the Focus Point
Focus guides your viewer’s eye to what is important 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 also give the image the nice blurry background that’s so attractive in food photography.
Garnishes are also a good place to put focus. If you’re doing a pour shot, then the pouring action is a good spot to place focus.
In the shot of the oatmeal on the left, I focused on the toasted coconut topping. For the shot on the right, I focused on the poring action, which 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.
If you’re shooting overhead, everything in the frame should be in focus. Just be sure to shoot at an aperture of at least F5.6, or else there will 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 looks great in food photos shot at 45 degrees or straight on, it doesn’t work for an overhead view.
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 easily check your focus by magnifying the image on your laptop to make sure that the area you wanted in focus is sharp enough. If it’s not, just take another shot.
One thing to mention is that you should calibrate your lens to your camera. Skipping this step can result in focusing issues not matter what you do.
You can learn to do this yourself, but a camera technician will probably do it more quickly and more accurately.
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, but with these food photography tips and a bit of experimentation, you’ll discover which focus mode you feel more comfortable with.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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