Autofocus is such a wonder-tool in our cameras that I'm sure quite a few of us have no idea how we ever managed to take tack-sharp photos without it. But how many of us actually use it to its full potential? There's a bit more to auto-focus than the single or one shot default. Without further ado, here's a quick primer into the different auto-focusing modes you're likely to find on your camera, and when best to make use of them.
One or Single shot
This is probably what you think of as 'auto-focus'. You point your camera at your subject, you line up your auto-focusing points over it, you half-depress the shutter button, and the camera attempts to focus on the subject. When it finds focus, it 'locks' onto it until you complete the depression of the shutter button or release it and re-focus your shot. This mode is great for most subjects that don’t move a lot.
Canon calls this mode 'One shot'; you'll see it marked as 'AF-S' on Nikon, Fujifilm, and Sony cameras; Olympus refers to it as S-AF and Pentax as AF.S.
Continuous or Servo mode
When you're shooting fast-moving subjects and want to keep them in focus, try using continuous or servo mode. While you half-depress the shutter release button, the camera will repeat the auto-focusing operation in order to keep your subject sharp as it moves across the frame.
Canon reckons its servo mode can track subjects approaching or receding at upto 50 kilometres per hour, making it good for capturing plenty of sports.
Nikon, Fujifilm, and Sony refer to this mode as AF-C; it's marked as AI Servo on Canon cameras; on a Pentax you'll see it as AF.C; and it's C-AF on an Olympus camera.
Intelligent or Automatic auto-focus
'Intelligent' focus is a half-way house between single shot and continuous auto-focus. When you half-depress the shutter button, the camera is set to recognise movement in the subject. For subjects that don't move, the camera will use one shot auto-focusing. Should it detect movement from the subject, it will automatically switch to continuous auto-focus and start to track the subject.
While this mode might seem like the best of both worlds, and it can be very handy particularly if you're photographing children or animals, it can sometimes be a bit of a let-down and isn't quite fast enough to deliver the results you want.
Canon calls this mode AI Focus AF. It's AF-A on Nikon and Sony cameras, while Pentax refers to it as AF.A.
It was learning to align the focusing markers in an SLR that first got me hooked on photography, almost 30 years ago. Back in the early 80s, auto-focus was only just beginning to make its way into cameras. Now we often wonder how we cope without it. But still, there are times when auto-focus simply won't do and you need to switch to manual focus, maybe for macro shots or some landscapes. If there's no obvious manual focus option on your camera, try looking on your lens: there's likely a switch to be flicked there.
Often, but not always, your camera will help you by beeping or flashing when it thinks that you might have achieved focus on your subject. If you're using live view rather than through the lens, try using the manual focus assist option that lots of cameras have now. Rather than displaying the full frame, it zooms in on the area where you've focused, making it easier to hone in with precision on your subject. It's a useful tool to demonstrate just how big a difference a small adjustment can make to your focusing, too.
Exploiting your camera's capabilities
Your camera is gifted with heaps of different tools to help you get the shots that you envisage; there's more to it than exposure and metering. Don't forget to make use of them - that's why they're there!