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The reasons why
What is the subject of the picture? All the way through this manual we have noted that technique is the servant of vision and intent. If the picture is intended to be sharp, then it needs to be just that. The accuracy of focusing is a basic CameraWork skill.
The primary function of focus is to identify the important and significant subject matter. Your camera cannot read your mind; it does not know what you are thinking and cannot differentiate the importance and significance of the many areas of different illuminations reflected onto the sensor.
Your role as the photographer in charge, is to decide what is significant within the picture frame and select the point of sharp focus.
Where should the focus be?
Focus on the element that has the greatest significance for you. This is you as a photographer giving your viewer a clear indication of where you want them to focus their attention within the picture space.
There is an unwritten law in photography that the largest element in a picture that is sharply focused – is the subject matter. If you are allowing your camera to choose what to focus on there is a good chance that a large subject with contrast will be the point where the camera locks focus.
This may or may not be the subject of the picture. It is also true that a tiny picture element that is sharp will also be significant and be the point of focus.
There are conventions rightly or wrongly about where the point of sharp focus should be placed, in portraiture it is generally advisable to focus on the eyes it is closest to the camera. How are you going to use the conventions of photography to make your own visual language?
In most cases, it is preferable to allow the camera to lock focus before releasing the shutter. An unsharp picture is not worth having if it is intended to be sharp. The accuracy of focusing has pre-potency which means focusing has a potential effect on every stage that follows in picture making process. Digital photography will forgive you many errors apart from out of focus pictures. Post-processing of a raw file cannot fix soft pictures.
The job of negative space (see the picture opposite) can be used to point the viewer to an area of the sharply focussed subject matter.
Check critical focus with Live-view / Focus Assist
My preference is always to use the viewfinder. If you use your camera on a tripod, then live-view is the preferred option. Most cameras have the ability in live-view to magnify the picture on the back of the camera 5 or 10 times to check for critical focus before pressing the shutter release.
I have heard of landscape photographers using a loop on the LCD to check focus and depth of field – but then you know that sharp focus is an over-rated concept. Just because a photographic has extreme acutance (edge sharpness) it does not make it better or more truthful or expressive.
Single focusing point
Set your focusing system to an active single central point. This method allows you to be in control of where you want to place the point of focus. If you are not sure how to set up a single point of focus – RTFM – read the friendly manual. When buying a camera check the means of moving the single focus point away from its central location – is it quick and easy to do?