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Digital Photography Sharp Focus

Sharp focus is essential to digital photography. An unfocused picture is essentially useless. While many puritan photographers insist on using manual focus lenses, the newer generation of auto focus lenses do a pretty good job, when used right.

Regardless of the method of focus used, always focus on the sharpest part of the subject being photographed. In the case of a living subject, always focus on the nearest eye; a lifelike eye expression makes the difference between an award winning portrait and a mug shot. For other objects, focus on the sharpest corner or pattern. This will provide a depth to the image.

In the case of distant objects such as scenery, it is best to simply lock the lens on the "infinity" setting. This saves time in composing the shot, since the autofocus mechanism does not need lock onto any part of the image. It also reduces vibration since the auto focus motor will not be spinning.

While a sharp focus is necessary, sometimes a "soft focus" technique will provide better results, for example with portraits.

Soft focus filters allow these effects by deliberately diffusing the subject. This makes soft flesh tones and hides lines and blemishes.

A cheaper trick is to fog the lens. Lock the focus, either manually or with auto focus, then breathe on the lens glass. Then click. This creates a warm fuzzy look to the image. In the olden days of film movies, romantic scenes were often shot after rubbing vaseline on the camera lens, that would make the scene look soft and surreal. Putting vaseline on your DSLR lens is NOT recommended!

The biggest culprit for out-of-focus pictures is camera shake. Large lenses tend to be heavy, and the human hand can only be so still. Using a tripod or a monopod (which is a tripod with just one leg, providing a steady base to take the weight of the camera) will eliminate hand shake.

The other main reason for fuzzy pictures is the very mechanism that is supposed to provide sharp pictures. In most DSLR cameras, autofocus is performed by a motor built into the camera body. It spins a cam that connects to the lens and focuses the lens. This motion of the motor produces torque and vibrations, however small, but it can make the difference between a sharply focused photograph and a worthless fuzzy wuzzy image. Some cameras allow you to "lock" the focus, this eliminates any movement during the shutter action.

Many lenses come with Vibration Resistance or VR. This can eliminate the vibrations from auto focus, albeit at a much higher cost per lens.

Most DSLR cameras allow you to choose the auto focus method. Either fixed, where it "locks" on the spot in the middle of the viewfinder frame; or floating, where it attempts to compensate focus constantly.

Many digital SLR cameras lock the focus when you use "spot metering", which also locks the aperture exposure and shutter speed settings when you partially depress the shutter release button. This allows you to recompose the image without losing the AE and focus.

The floating auto focus feature can be useful for fast moving objects. However, coupled with a faster shutter speed that is necessary to capture motion, the image quality and sharpness will suffer. Manual focus can dramatically help in this case. Some photographers use auto focus to lock the focus setting, then engage the manual focus switch, this effectively locks the focus setting and allows one to pan the camera to chase the moving subject.

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