Where to Focus When Taking a Photograph

by Apr 13, 2024Photography Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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Where to Focus When Taking a Photograph

A question often asked is, “Where should I focus when taking a photograph?”. It appears this causes a lot of confusion, possibly because it’s intrinsically linked with depth of field. In this article, I want to explore the question of where to focus when you’re taking a photograph.

The Subject is Important When Deciding Where to Focus

First, I want to emphasise that the subject is important when deciding where to focus. If we look at a typical landscape photo like the one below, I will take a different approach when deciding where to focus compared to the portrait next to it.

Comparing where to focus in a landscape photo with where to focus in a portrait

The different approaches of where to focus are down to the depth of field and how I want to use it.

In the Landscape photo, the aim is usually to have everything appear in focus from the nearest to the furthest object. However, in the portrait shot, we use a shallow depth of field to highlight the subject and separate it from the background. Despite these different approaches, where we place the point of focus is critical to both.

If we don’t position the focus point correctly in the Landscape, we might not achieve sufficient depth of field to get the entire image in focus. In the portrait, if we don’t position the focus point on the subject, the subject won’t be in focus, but the background may be.

There is One Point of Focus

There is only one point of focus in a photograph, and that is where we place the camera’s focus point when taking the shot. Although this may seem obvious, it is less obvious that only that point is in focus. As we move further away from that point, the photograph becomes progressively out of focus.

This is where the concept of depth of field comes in.

The depth of field is the area of the image that appears to be in focus. The landscape image above has a full depth of field. In other words, everything appears to be in focus from the nearest to the furthest object. However, the portrait photo has a shallow depth of field. That’s because only the people are in focus while their surroundings are out of focus. In fact, not all areas of the subjects are in focus, and some less important areas, like their hands, appear blurred.

Let’s examine how we achieve these different effects and where to focus to achieve each.

Consider Depth of Field When Focussing

Before we answer the question of where to focus, we first need to understand how we will use depth of field in a photograph. Landscapes typically have a full depth of field, but most portraits might use a shallow depth of field. We use these different approaches to control how the viewer’s eye travels around a photograph.

In a landscape photo, we might want the viewer to explore the entire landscape, looking from the foreground to the background. This is why we use a full depth of field. However, in a portrait, we want the viewer to focus on the subjects, so we use a shallow depth of field to throw the rest of the image out of focus. Our attention then naturally falls on the subjects that are in focus.

Similar approaches to depth of field are also common in other photographic genres. For example, in product photography, it’s common to have the entire product in sharp focus but everything else out of focus. At the same time, we might also use lighting and a false background to remove possible distractions, focusing attention on the product.

The Effect of the Focus Point on Depth of Field

When discussing controlling Depth of Field, most photographers immediately consider using the lens aperture. A small aperture (a high f-stop) produces more depth of field than a wide aperture (a low f-stop). But remember, where we place the point of focus also affects the depth of field.

Here are a couple of things to consider.

  1. The depth of field, the area that appears to be in focus, extends twice as far beyond the point of focus as it is in front of it.
  2. The closer we place the point of focus to the camera, the shallower the depth of field.

There are a couple of other factors, which I discuss in my depth of field article if you want to know more.

Where to Focus

Now you have the complete picture (excuse the pun), let’s look at some examples of where to place the focus point in a photograph. We will start by considering the portrait photograph below.

When using a shallow depth of field in a portrait focus on the subjects eyes.

Here, the point of focus is on the eyes of the subject. This is important because if the eyes are out of focus, we tend not to connect as closely with the photo. At the same time, a shallow depth of field has been used to throw the background out of focus. To achieve this, we would use a wide aperture.

However, you should also notice that sufficient depth of field has been used to keep the features of the face in focus. Other parts of the subject that aren’t as important as the face have been allowed to blur. A soft vignette has also been added around the edge of the frame.

Typically, when we take a portrait of a person, we like to keep the entire face in focus. The best way to do this is to focus on the eyes. We then need to check the depth of field to ensure we have sufficient to keep the face in focus, but not areas that are less relevant.

We can apply the same approach to product photography. The product is the most important part of the photograph, so we need to keep it entirely in focus. We could choose to do this using depth of field, lighting and editing techniques, or a combination.

In sports photography, we might focus on the key aspects of the action. At the same time, we choose a depth of field that throws other, less important parts of the photo out of focus, but not so much that they aren’t recognisable.

Where to Focus in a Landscape Photo

Now, let’s apply what we’ve learned to a landscape photo.

Where to focus in a landscape photo

Here, we want the image from the closest grass to the furthest mountain to appear in focus. To achieve this, we would use a smaller aperture than the one used in the portrait photograph.

But if we use an aperture that is too small, we can encounter a problem called diffraction. You can learn about diffraction and my recent problems in my camera diffraction article.

In the landscape photo you see above, I used an aperture of f/8. Correctly placing the focus point was sufficient to achieve a full depth of field with this aperture.

My approach is to focus in the central area of the frame, placing the focus point on a point, typically around 20 to 30 metres from the camera. With a wide-angle lens, that’s usually all that’s required. I then take a moment to check the results on my camera display zoomed in to full magnification. By checking the nearest and furthest points in the frame I can see if I have achieved full depth of field. If I haven’t, I may choose to use a smaller aperture or adjust where I focus.

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Summary of Where to Focus in a Photograph

Where to focus in a photograph should be a secondary consideration. First, you need to decide what effect you are trying to achieve. Is it a full or shallow depth of field? Are you trying to focus on the subject? What lens will allow you to do that best?

Once you know the answer to these questions, you can decide on the photo’s best aperture and where to focus. If you have any questions, leave them below, and I’ll try to answer them.

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