How to Tuesday #34 – Learning Portrait photography sometimes starts with learning where and how to focus.

As beginning photographers there’s alot on our minds. Aside from going through our mental checklist of various Must Do’s like:

How to Turn Camera On / How to Hold Camera Correct / Set Correct ISO / Where is  my Shutter Speed Wheel? / and the list goes on…

Sometimes it’s the easiest factors of photography that escape us like – Where Do I Set My Focus? I think I can help in this department, so let’s go through a few scenarios and break them down…

Where Do I set my Focus Point and which Focus Point do I use when photographing Portraits?

Most of the time, I mean 99.9% of the time, in portrait photography you will want to focus on the eyes of your subject. If they eyes are the stairway to the soul (as some may say) then you want your viewers to be looking directly into the eyes of your subject. If you have the ability to have your subject’s eyes facing you then it will be easy to find the focus and lock in tight. 

As  you see in my portrait of the lovely Jodi, my focus point is at her eyes. I deliberately set my Auto Focus Point at her eyes and set my Auto Focus there, then recomposed and snapped this shot. I was using my Paul C. Buff 60″ octabank on her left side..and see that nice warm glowing hair light on her right side? Well that was the soft setting sun popping that warm glow for us! Two light set up…one artificial, and one natural. As you can see, photographing portraits at the Golden Hour in Louisiana is one of my favorite things to do!

How do I set my auto focus point for the eyes in my portrait photography?

In all cameras, we have the ability to get OFF of our Default Modes (these are modes of focus, ISO, and other features that come standard w/ the camera when we first turn it on) and customize our photographic experience. Keep in mind, when we first turn our cameras on, our Auto Focus default mode will be set on a “focus to nearest” feature, meaning the camera wants to focus on the “closest object”. If our subjects are always the first thing we see in our compositions, this default feature would work perfect…but that’s not always the case! In the terms of this How To Tuesday, we want to depart from the default setting, and go to the Single Point AF feature. In the Single Point AF we can move/toggle the focus point to the place we want our camera to focus…and in this case it’s the EYES!

In the above photo of Luke, you can see my how my multi point focus pattern lays over my full composition. Note the middle box is highlighted as that is my favorite focus point…but in this case I want to be able to utilize my focus points to find Luke’s eye, then recompose the least amount of distance from Focus Point to Final Composition. This way I know I will be in focus no matter what aperture.

I set my focus point to the box closest to his eye, then recompose, and shoot.

Learning to properly auto focus during portraits will take some time, but you will learn!

This kind of technique doesn’t come naturally for all photographers. Some of us hold our strengths in the creative aesthetic moments and we cringe when “another damn button” needs to be pressed or clicked to make our job easier. If you are a portrait photographer that doesn’t want your subject’s eyes to be in the middle of the frame every time, this is one feature you will need to learn! Practice! Practice! Practice! Practice your portrait photography on a tree, a house, a pet! Do whatever it takes to get comfortable so that you can utilize this feature as second nature!

If you think you’d like to learn how to use these tactics and much much more in a real life portrait setting, then you should check out my NEXT WORKSHOP – “Art of the Photographic Portrait” on August 20th in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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