In Focus..?

Whilst I’m busy sorting my photographs from Fuerteventura and the photographs I took this morning when I made a trip with my good friend and fellow blogger Poppy to capture the sunrise, I thought I’d write this quick article that I hope some of you will find useful.

With modern digital cameras, we tend to take focus as a given.  We all have auto focus so why would we ever resort to manual focus?  There are times however, particularly with landscape photography, when auto focus can let us down and to get optimum results, we do need to think about manual focus if this is an option with a particular lens.

When taking landscape photographs, we’re usually looking for maximum depth of field.  We want our pictures to be sharp from front to back.  Using auto focus, if we focus on our foreground interest, there’s a good chance that whatever our background might be is going to be soft.  Similarly, if we auto focus on whatever is in the distance, our foreground interest is going to be soft.

To get over this, we might resort to focusing at the hyperfocal distance using an app on our phones to determine where that is but again, there’s a good chance this won’t actually give you the best result.  Hyperfocal Distance Focusing is great for producing column inches in photography magazines but not much else in my experience.  The hyperfocal distance will give you a theoretical optimal point but in all probability, your photograph will not be as sharp as it could be.  The optical physics maybe spot on but I have never managed a good sharp result using this method and boy did I try.

As a rule of thumb, if we auto focus approximately one third into a scene, we’re going to get a sharp picture with good depth of field but where exactly is one third into a scene?  This can be a little difficult to determine.  This is where a bit of experimentation comes in as every lens has a sweet spot.  A spot on the focus ring where you’re going to get optimum focus from the front of your picture to the very back.  An hour or two spent in the garden determining the sweet spot on your particular lens can be time very well spent.  Particularly when it comes to long exposures at night where there’s a good chance there’s not going to be an option to auto focus on anything anyway.

I’m lucky enough to own an AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 lens.  It’s a beauty but when I first bought the lens and started using auto focus, I wasn’t particularly happy with the results I was getting.  So, I got an app for my phone having read various articles on hyperfocal distance focusing but I was still not happy with the results I was getting.  I knew this lens to be an exceptional one so I wasn’t really sure what was going on.  I solved the issue by going out into the garden with tripod and laptop nearby and started to experiment.  After a little, well actually a lot, of trial and error, I found the sweet spot on the lens where everything, front to back was sharp.  I never auto focus with this lens now.  I don’t focus at the hyperfocal distance.  I manually set the focus ring to my sweet spot and it works everytime.  Here it is, conveniently right on the right edge of the infinity symbol so I didn’t have to mark my lens in any way..

dsc09423frNow, even if I go out in the dead of night to photograph the Milky Way for example, I don’t need to worry about trying to auto focus my lens maybe using a torch to illuminate a distant object to get a focus point.  I just set my lens to the sweet spot and I know I’m going to get a good result.  An hour or two spent experimenting with your particular lens, really getting to know it, can save an awful lot of hassle whenever you go out to take pictures.

To prove my point, here’s one of the pictures I took this morning, up on the Malvern Hills just before the sun rose.  As you’ll see from the very tight crop below particularly, the bench and the buildings way below the hills and the trees in the distance are all in perfect focus.  You can even read the dedication on the bench, ‘In memory of John Alfred Knight who with his wife Maureen and family, loved these hills’.  The combination of the Nikon D800e and this amazing lens really do create images with the most incredible detail.

dsc_9151a14mm f/11 1 sec. ISO-100

dsc_9151-214mm f/11 1 sec. ISO-100

And here’s a picture taken just as the sun rose above the horizon bathing everything in golden light.  It was about minus 3°C up on the hills this morning.  A little different to Fuerteventura to say the very least.  I had to get up at 4 to make it to this point in my wheelchair by first light but I think it was worth it.. :-)

malvern-sunrise14mm f/11 1/8 sec. ISO-100 Lee .9 graduated neutral density filter

Adrian Theze Photo logo_2



58 responses

  1. hmunro

    A focal sweet spot, eh? Thank you for this wonderful tip, and for your beautifully illustrated tutorial.

    November 8, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    • It’s different for every lens, even lenses of the same type but it’s there. I’m glad you found this useful! Thank you! :-)

      November 8, 2016 at 7:08 pm

  2. Beautifully photographed landscape with a hell of a lens! Perfectly framed.

    November 8, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    • Thank you Paula! It’s a beautiful landscape to photograph! :-)

      November 8, 2016 at 7:08 pm

  3. Very good information and good photowork. ‘m waiting for more pictures.

    November 8, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    • As ever Lou, thank you so much! :-)

      November 8, 2016 at 7:09 pm

  4. Amazing end and middle photo! Your patience has really paid off. This has been a good nudge up the backside for me to stop ignorning manual options on my canon dslr. ps- i’m off to fuerteventura on Sat, how was the weather?

    November 8, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    • I’m glad I’ve given you a nudge Hannah, it really is worth exploring the manual options. As for the weather in Fuerteventura right now, we had a couple of days of stormy weather, great for photography, the rest of the time was clear blue skies, perhaps a little cloud in the morning that cleared by lunchtime on some days, otherwise, a few people have questioned my ethnicity in jest since I’ve been home so that should give you a clue! Enjoy. I certainly did! :-)

      November 8, 2016 at 7:37 pm

  5. I think it was worth it too Adrian! And thanks for the tips. I do use manual focus with my macro lens as that often makes it easier to focus – otherwise it tends to hunt! I haven’t tried with landscapes yet, but will bear your suggestions in mind.

    November 8, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    • Thank you Jude! Manual focus is the only way sometimes and a couple of hours getting to know where your lens’s optimal focus point is really does making taking pictures in certain conditions effortless. :-)

      November 9, 2016 at 8:27 am

  6. Sue

    Wow, what a great walkthrough, Adrian. Alas, having given up my heavy SLRs and gone over to MFT, my lenses no longer have distance markings on them….I guess the super expensive ones do. So I am doomed to auto focus!

    November 8, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    • The lenses for my Sony A7R are the same Sue, the manual focus ring has no guidance at all. For the most part though, auto focus works so I wouldn’t say doomed, it’s just useful to be able to go to a focus point in certain conditions, confident your pictures are going to be sharp. :-)

      November 9, 2016 at 8:30 am

      • Sue

        Well, yes, doomed was a bit OTT….and as I rarely shoot landscapes, it shouldn’t be an issue!

        November 9, 2016 at 10:02 am

      • Your photographs are lovely Sue and always sharp as a pin. This issue is much more one for landscape photographers definitely! :-)

        November 9, 2016 at 5:19 pm

      • Sue

        Many thanks, Adrian!

        November 9, 2016 at 6:51 pm

      • :-)

        November 10, 2016 at 8:55 am

  7. It was certainly worth getting up so early, Adrian. This sunrise is pure magic and a joy to watch. Ever since you showed my the sweet point, I operate my 14-24mm like this too. I only brought the 24-70mm with me to Norway and I do miss the wide angle.
    Will get in touch!
    Dina x :-)

    November 8, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    • Thank you Hanne! I’m glad this tip is working out for you. It’s useful being able to just go to a point on the lens, knowing everything will be sharp. I’m the opposite to you, I’m missing my 24-70 as it’s being repaired. I do really enjoy the 14-24 so I’m getting by.. Speak soon! :-) x

      November 9, 2016 at 8:32 am

  8. Great photos and totally agree that manual focus, especially with situations where the light is so soft (ie before sunrise) my lenses do much better when I take over ;)
    Thanks for sharing, the filter does wonders on the last one!

    November 9, 2016 at 2:25 am

    • Thank you Ron. Yep, manual focus is the only way to go sometimes. I hadn’t used my .9 before but was really pleased with the results here. It allowed me to balance the exposure and add drama at the same time. A good combination! :-)

      November 9, 2016 at 8:49 am

  9. Great tip Adrian and great images.

    November 9, 2016 at 6:01 am

    • Thank you Edith! Very much appreciated! :-)

      November 9, 2016 at 8:50 am

  10. Fabulous pictures ChillB . It really was quite stunning up there yesterday morning despite the cold .. a somewhat different view looking out of the window up there this morning !

    November 9, 2016 at 9:07 am

    • Thank you Poppy! It was indeed quite stunning on the hills. A rather wet and dreary one this morning but a little warmer at least! Missing that extra 20 odd degrees at the moment! :-)

      November 9, 2016 at 5:17 pm

  11. Glad to hear I’m not the only one disappointed with the ‘magic’ of hyperfocal focussing!

    November 9, 2016 at 10:05 am

    • I tried so hard Noeline thinking, having read the articles, that this was the answer to sharper photographs. I thought I must be doing something wrong and then I spoke to a friend who understands optical physics, it was he who pointed out that it may be a theoretical optimum but not one that is necessarily useful on a practical level to a photographer. I think it’s one of those things that comes along in photography every now and then, rather like ‘exposing to the right’ that gives the photography journalists something to write about but doesn’t actually benefit the photographer in any practical useful way.

      November 9, 2016 at 5:24 pm

  12. I remember you mentioning this to me before. A salient reminder. Thanks.

    November 9, 2016 at 11:16 am

    • Thank you Mr Dragon! I’m glad you found the reminder useful! :-)

      November 9, 2016 at 5:25 pm

  13. I like your thought on the sweet spot to never have to think about focusing when you want maximum depth of field. However, I think it’s fair to say that it really works because this is such a wide angle lens. With a telephoto lens or even somewhat shorter lenses, this will not work in all situations, simply because the depth of field will not cover the full range from near to back any more. And of course depth of field always depends on the aperture, and I see you have captured all photos in this post at f/11. Nevertheless, I think this is a great tip as long as one understand the limitations. :-) By the way; gorgeous photos—as always.

    November 9, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    • Thank you Otto! Yes, there are definite limitations to this method. It does work particularly well with this lens and I am much more reliant on auto focus with my 24-70mm lens. I should have made that clear in the article. I was speaking specifically about landscape photography and again, I should have mentioned that f/11 is the ideal aperture to achieve the best depth of field. But as you say, it is a useful tip, spending time getting to know your lenses and what they can do. Thank you for pointing out the limitations to this approach, they are important to understand. :-)

      November 10, 2016 at 8:55 am

  14. Great post Adrian…..very useful

    November 9, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    • Thank you Mark! :-)

      November 10, 2016 at 8:55 am

  15. You write so clearly – not something everyone can do! And this is very useful. I admit I haven’t located the sweet spots on my favorite lenses, and you’re right, all it would take is a bit of time in one spot. Can this wandering soul accomplish that goal? We’ll see! ;-)

    November 10, 2016 at 1:26 am

    • Thank you Lynn! I’ve found it was time well spent and really born out of necessity with this particular lens. I wasn’t getting the results I knew I should be so had to knuckle down and work out what was going on. I have other lenses I really ought to experiment with but as this is my ‘go to’ landscape lens, I haven’t been disciplined enough to sit down with my other lenses and work through the focus points with those. :-)

      November 10, 2016 at 9:00 am

      • Well, that makes me feel better! ;-)

        November 13, 2016 at 8:24 pm

      • :-)

        November 14, 2016 at 10:00 am

  16. A very useful article, Adrian. We get so used to Auto-Focus that we forget that there’s a button that switches it off! Only last week I was out with the camera and it wouldn’t focus, couldn’t work out why – tried various things including detaching the lens and re-attaching it and then discovered (yes, you’ve guessed) the AF/M button had been accidentally moved. Duh!
    There’s a button on my Nikon for AE-L/AF-L that can be programmed various ways to lock either Exposure of Focus or both and I was reading the camera manual to clarify its various options and thinking: I’m never going to be able to remember all this when I am out. But in those instances when you want some real personal control over the focus point, it makes eminent sense to decide to disengage the focus and control that manually, and then use the button just to lock Exposure. Simples! as the Meerkat would say.

    November 10, 2016 at 8:46 am

    • Thank you Andy. I have done exactly the same as you. I too have the AE-L/AF-L button. Like you I read the manual and decided what I was reading was never likely to sink in enough to be useful in the field. There are so many brilliant innovations on my D800e and yet I use it just like my first ’70’s Zenit SLR with the benefit of a built in light meter.
      My eyes tend to glaze over very quickly when reading manuals for anything. I scroll through the menus sometimes and see list after list of things I can change and adjust but have taken the line that ‘what ain’t broke, I’m not going to fix’. I bought a book when I bought the camera and the first chapter included 10 essential settings. I’ve never changed them or any other setting from that day to this. I’m happy with the results I get with my rather simplistic approach to the technology and that’s good enough for me! :-D

      November 10, 2016 at 9:10 am

      • Yes – simple is good. I spent five weeks trekking in the Himalayas in 1969 with my first film SLR – a Pentax S1a with a meter theat clipped onto the prism housing and somehow connected to the speed dial. I shot 25 rolls of Kodachrome and barely had a failure and that included very bright light, snow scenes and altitude up to 18,000ft. Frankly it was miraculous what that camera achieved with such a basic set-up. My first Nikons were a pair of Nikkormat FT3s bought in ’77 that lasted me right through my film era and on which I shot all my B&W work for ‘A’ and ‘F’.

        November 10, 2016 at 4:51 pm

      • I couldn’t agree more Andy. Simple is best. As I said, I do sometimes look through all those menus thinking I must be missing something, this is a £2000 plus camera, why am I using it just like my first SLR? Then I realise I bought the camera for the sensor, I don’t need help with taking a correct exposure I don’t need to mess with things like white balance in camera so yep, I keep it simple. That must have been quite a trip, trekking in the Himalayas. What a wonderful experience that must have been and the photographic record you have I’m sure you treasure. :-)

        November 14, 2016 at 10:18 am

  17. Thank you for sharing your knowledge Adrian!

    November 10, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    • You’re very welcome. It’s a pleasure. Thank you! :-)

      November 10, 2016 at 4:14 pm

  18. Black Lightness

    wow…what a great sky…what a great colors of sky…nature and morning sky can give as great moments with all her beauthy…a can not find words to expres myself…

    November 10, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    • I know exactly what you mean! Thank you! :-)

      November 14, 2016 at 10:12 am

  19. These are wonderful, Adrian! Easy to see why you love the lens. :)

    November 13, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    • Thank you Camilla. It is a brilliant lens. :-)

      November 14, 2016 at 10:12 am

  20. Best article so far – especially dissing hyperfocal – which made me laugh – my daily work lens is my Sigma 12-24mm which I know inside out generally used at 17mm interestingly – Sigma are producing some cracking lenses at a fair price – and with software lens corrections now as capable as they are those perfect prime lenses are less important than perhaps they were in the past. In fact image quality is so good in many ways that it is like saying I prefer a Canon over a Nikon (the kit is top notch) it is whatever menu system you are comfortable with. I have a full set of FX lenses am I really going to change to another manufacturer because of some marginal improvement nope; would I love the new Fujifilm Medium Format Camera when it’s released of course I would but it wont happen unless I win the lottery. Still Cameras will continue to improve (however the improvement will be marginal) but I believe 4K video (or what ever follows it) is probably the future as the extracted stills selected at that opportune moment then cropped to suit is real quality available now. Sorry gone off all over the place Adrian – but to summarise wouldn’t it be nice if the manufacturer offered us a sweet spot, marked on the lens – we pay enough for them :-)

    November 16, 2016 at 10:52 am

    • Thank you very much Scott! Glad you enjoyed this. I was interested to read what you had to say about Sigma lenses. I really should take a look. I know what you mean about winning the lottery, I’ve quite a shopping list myself! I agree with you about manufacturers providing us with a sweet spot. It would help if the infinity symbol actually equated to infinity focus at least. The markings on the lenses we have as they are are not accurate so far as I can tell. :-)

      November 18, 2016 at 7:20 am

  21. Whenever I come across a reference to the Malvern Hills I think of Ken Russell’s 1962 film about Edward Elgar.

    November 16, 2016 at 11:17 am

    • Not a film I’ve seen Steve. I will have to try and locate a copy. Of course the Malvern Hills are said to have inspired so many of his compositions and I can understand why. As a photographer I find this area incredibly inspiring and I’m not surprised that other artists do and have done too. :-)

      November 18, 2016 at 7:21 am

      • I’ve never been to the Malvern Hills nor to any rural areas of Britain. I hope I get the chance.

        I found Ken Russell’s film about Elgar on YouTube, though I don’t know if it’s there legally.

        November 18, 2016 at 3:16 pm

      • I do hope you get the chance to visit one day. The countryside of Britain is really so very beautiful and as our population increases and there is constant pressure to build houses, we’re lucky that so much of it is preserved. Thank you for the link. :-)

        November 18, 2016 at 3:39 pm

  22. The photographs are amazing, Adrian.
    Thank you for sharing this landscape photography tip, you are generous with demonstrating tools and technique!

    November 18, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    • Thank you so much Karen. It’s always a pleasure to share a tip when I can. I have so many tutorials in my head and yet so little time at the moment it seems to write them. I hope that with winter approaching, perhaps I’ll get a bit more time to share more. :-)

      November 20, 2016 at 2:37 pm

  23. Thanks for posting this Adrian – I’ll try this out with my Nikon lenses. I’ve also found hyperfocal distance not reliable.

    November 18, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    • Thank you very mcuh Simon! I really do wonder why there were and still are, so many column inches and expert testimony to the effectiveness of hyperfocal distance focusing when it simply does not produce good results. :-)

      November 20, 2016 at 2:36 pm

  24. Absolutely breathtaking photos!

    December 9, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    • Thank you so much Pablo! :-)

      December 14, 2016 at 7:11 pm