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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

Camera focus points & focus areas explained

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Following on from last week's free tutorial looking at the range of different camera focus modes and how to use them ( If you missed it, you can find it on my website in my in my photography blog here). This week we are finishing our look at focussing with a look at the choice of focus points and areas. In choosing the focus point (or area), you are basically telling your camera WHERE you want it to focus.


Why does choosing a focus area matter?

When learning how to use our cameras, we all start out using fully automatic focussing, where your camera decides where to focus. To do this, it has to decide what the main subject of your photo is, and focus on that (as a general rule, you will want the main subject in focus!). In most cases, cameras will get this right, but there are times when it won't. Imagine for instance that you are at a wedding and using a shallow depth of field; you want the bride (the main subject) to be in focus, but the people standing behind her to be blurred for artistic effect. You are on autofocus, and your camera decides to focus on the person standing just behind the bride. When you get home and look at the picture, you realise that the bride is slightly out of focus! In order to prevent this, you need to understand how to unlock your camera options for taking control of where it focuses.


Your options will be camera make, type and model dependent

The focus area options that you have available to you will be dependent on the type of camera (simple point and shoot, DSLR or mirrorless), the make of camera (Canon, Nikon, Sony etc) and the exact model. This means that in this tutorial I have had to generalise, and you will need to check your manual (looking for 'focus points' or 'focus areas') to establish which options your camera has, and how to select them.


Smartphones and point and shoot cameras

If you camera is a camera phone or a compact ('point and shoot') camera, then your likely to have only the following options:

  • Auto. This is the default and it is where the camera decides where to focus. It works OK most of the time!

  • Touch focus. If your camera has a touch sensitive screen (all camera phones and some compact cameras) then you can touch on the screen where you want the camera to focus. This is usually more precise than using auto.

DSLR cameras

Entry level DSLRs will have 9 or 11 focus points across the scene, whilst more expensive models can have up to 51 focus points. These points are used by the camera to focus, either using all of the points, some of the points or by selecting an individual point. So, the options on your camera for choosing where to focus are likely to be some or all of the following:

  • Auto. This is where you allow the camera to decide where to focus. It uses all of the focus points and decides where to focus based on what it detects is in the scene. This is often the best option for moving subjects, as your camera will attempt to track the subject (as long as you have continuous autofocus enabled - see my blog article on focus modes on my blog page for details).

  • Touch focus. If your camera has a touch sensitive screen then you can touch on the screen where you want the camera to focus.

  • Spot focus. In this mode, you can choose a single focus point for the camera to attempt to focus. You can choose whether you want to use the central point, or one of the other focus points. Placing the selected point over the main subject will ensure that it is in focus, and is therefore the most accurate mode. An example of the point selection from a Canon DSLR camera is shown below (the point in green has been selected).

  • Zone autofocus. This allows you to select various subsets of the focus points (as a group / zone) to focus on. Also on the photo below, on the top row you will see a number of icons indicating the various groupings of focus points that can be selected.

Pro tip! One of the simplest ways to ensure accurate focus is to use the 'focus and recompose' technique with spot focussing. First choose the central focus point. Next place this point over your main subject (where you want to focus). Press the shutter half way to achieve focus. If you now keep the shutter half pressed, this will lock the focus and you can recompose the frame (move the camera to get the composition you require) before pressing the shutter fully down to take the shot, still keeping the main subject in focus (unless it has moved - in which case allowing auto focus to track it would have been better!).


Camera focus point selection
Camera focus point selection

Mirrorless cameras

I've been a (Sony) mirrorless camera shooter since I started my photography journey more than a decade ago. One of the advantages of mirrorless cameras over DSLR cameras is the focus system (which is partly why all of the main camera manufacturers offer mirrorless models!). Unlike DSLR's which have a small number of focus points, usually centred around the middle of the frame, mirrorless cameras have hundreds of focus points across the vast majority of the frame. For example, my current main camera, the Sony A7RIV has 567 on-sensor phase detection autofocus points that cover 99.7% of the frame vertically and 74% horizontally. In my experience, this gives far more accurate and flexible focussing, and provides a wider range of focus options summarised below:

  • Auto (called 'Wide' area on Sony cameras). This is where you allow the camera to decide where to focus. It decides where to focus based on what it detects is in the scene. This is often the best option for moving subjects, as your camera will attempt to track the subject (as long as you have continuous autofocus enabled - see my blog article on focus modes on my blog page for details).

  • Touch focus. If your camera has a touch sensitive screen then you can touch on the screen where you want the camera to focus.

  • Zone focus. This narrows the focus area to a zone across the middle of the frame and is useful when tracking moving subjects.

  • Centre focus. This narrows the focus area to a square around the centre of the frame and is useful for tracking moving subjects in the centre of the frame, or using the focus and recompose method for stationary subjects (see Pro tip above).

  • Flexible box. This is the mode that I almost always use when I'm shooting landscapes. Essentially this gives you a box that can be modified in size (small, medium, large) as well as moved anywhere across the frame. So essentially I move the box to where I want to focus, and this ensures that my main subject is always perfectly in focus.

  • Eye autofocus. As having the eye in focus is the key to shooting portrait, pet or wildlife photos, eye autofocus is a gamechanger. Using the camera's autofocus system, the main subject is first identified, then AI is used to identify the eye, and the focus system locks on this. This means that I can achieve eye focus at the touch of a button. In addition, it's even possible to tell the camera if it's a human or an animal eye, to increase the chances of a focus lock. In my experience, although it's not fool-proof, most of the time it works well, even if only one eye is visible, or if the eyes are partially closed, or viewed side-on.

An example of the Sony focus area selection screen is shown below. Only the main options are covered above.


Thanks for reading

I hope you enjoyed this short tutorial on focus points and areas, and that it's helped to explain what can be a confusing aspect of photography. If you found this helpful (or if you didn't!), or if you have any questions, I always welcome feedback - just drop me a message through my contact page and I guarantee I will get back to you. And of course, if you want to learn more, and you're within travelling distance of Devon, I would love to welcome you on one of my training courses. Check out the 'Training' tab on the top menu of my website to see all of the options.



Mirrorless camera focus area selection
Mirrorless camera focus area selection

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