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How to Easily Understand Focus Modes for Better Photos

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Related course: Photography for Beginners

Important Introduction

Understanding focus modes is key to getting the photo you want in a hurry – it’s the difference between in focus and out of focus results.
You’ve probably struggled to focus in the past and not been entirely sure why it just won’t lock on exactly what you want it to. Don’t fear, this post will tell you everything you need to make sure you never lose focus again.

One Shot / AF-S

This is the simplest of all of the focus modes and it does exactly what it says on the tin: focuses for one shot.
You would typically shoot on this mode with subject that’s not moving as the camera will only focus once when you depress the shutter button halfway.
This is the recommended mode when you want to use the camera’s focal lock to focus on the subject, then move the camera to recompose the frame. The camera will not focus again in this mode until you lift up the shutter button and depress it again.
Photo of a white building with a colonnade against the blue sky

AI Servo / AF-C

Photographers often refer to this to as continuous focus. It focuses when you partially depress the shutter but still monitors movement in the frame, making any necessary adjustments for you between the shots, without the need to remove your finger from the shutter button.
This mode is useful for shooting a moving subject, such as at a marathon or any other sporting event.
You would not be able to use the camera’s focal lock to recompose a shot in this mode; you’ll find that the camera continually tries to focus.

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Photo of a person driving a kart

AI Focus / AF-A

This is probably the least understood mode and is actually a mixture of the two mentioned above.
When the camera has only slight movement, it will act as though it’s on One Shot / AF-S mode, allowing you to use the focal lock feature.
When the camera detects movement, the focus mode act instead like AI Servo / AF-C mode and track the subject.
This may sound like the best focus mode to use but I still tend to set mine to one of the other modes as I usually know what I’m shooting and what to expect. This mode does come in handy when you’re shooting still objects that are likely to move without much notice, such as a bird on a perch.
Photo of a dog on a beach with the sun going down in the background
If you want to separate your focus from your shutter, you can learn more about back button focus here.

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6 comments
    1. Predictive focus is a feature commonly found on newer Nikon cameras, and it works in much the same was that AI Servo does, except it’s more accurate because it can work out the movement that takes place between when the camera focuses, and when the image is captured (this is known as the release time lag) and adjusts the focus accordingly. This is not a different mode on your camera, it takes place when you set your camera to AI Servo. Thanks, Josh

  1. Thanks for the info. Since you don’t do much post-processing, do you shoot raw? My photos tend to look a little flat, therefore need some post processing. Maybe I need some camera settings advice. Thanks!

    1. I do shoot raw, but I keep any processing to the minimum, it’s just not what i’m about when it comes to photography. I wouldn’t call myself in an expert in post processing so I just fine tune my photos. Thanks, Josh

  2. I own a Nikon D3100 as my 1st DSLR and the manual isn’t great. This article is well written and has explained these modes to me very well. Thanks

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