SmartPhotos Basics: Focus / by William Wallace

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One of the most basic techniques to master in photography is how to focus on your subject. There are times when a blurred subject is okay (and I’ll cover that at a later time) but for the most part you will always want to be able to control the focus of what you are shooting in your photos. One of the biggest problems for many smartphone photographers seems to be the ability to produce a clear image. I'll address some common problems and provide solutions that will have your photos focused and sharp. 

Tap Method

Most phones have the ability to focus by touching on your screen at the point on which you are focusing. When you tap on your subject in this way it should bring the face, barn, tree, car, or whatever you are shooting into focus. If you are close to your subject (really close for most phones) then your background and foreground will have a slight blur. Your subject, however, should still remain in focus.

Tap the screen over the subject to bring into focus.

Tap the screen over the subject to bring into focus.

Center Focus

Another way to focus on some phones or camera apps is to have the focus set for the center of the screen so that whatever is in the center will be in focus when shooting. This is certainly an acceptable way to focus but certainly not my preference. Flexibility in being able to focus on your subject wherever it may be on the screen is a definite plus.

The focus will set on anything inside the circle. This is a fixed focus.

The focus will set on anything inside the circle. This is a fixed focus.

Manual Focus

Manual focus is available on some smartphones. This technique allows the focus to be set according to distance from close up (macro) to way out there (infinity). Manual focus is handy when you want to set the focus on a stabilized subject. For example, if I wanted to appear in a group photo I would set my phone into an adapter mount on a tripod. Manually I would then set the focus on the group, set the timer for 10 seconds, tap the shutter button, and join the others, knowing my shot would be in focus.

You adjust the focus yourself in manual focus mode.

You adjust the focus yourself in manual focus mode.

Correcting Blur Issues

There are times when you tap to focus but you may still have a photo that is blurry. There can be a number of reasons for blur in your photo after focusing. Camera shake can destroy focus on your subject. This is especially common when shooting very close, especially with a macro lens. Another reason for blurs when shooting with your smartphone is low lighting. If your subject happens to be moving (rowdy kids or a leaf blown by the wind) you will also see a blurry result on your photo.

Better Stability

How do you win the blur battle? Camera shake can be reduced with greater stability of course. Holding your phone with both hands on your device and your elbows close to your side seems to provide better stability than when you try the one handed approach or your arms farther away from your body (holding both arms high overhead or squatting with your phone close to the ground). To increase stability try bracing yourself against the side of a building, tree, or wall. You may also try placing the bottom of your phone on a table or other stable surface while holding and snapping at the side.

Using the timer setting with a tripod can reduce camera shake and also allows you to appear in a group photo or higher quality selfie.

Using the timer setting with a tripod can reduce camera shake and also allows you to appear in a group photo or higher quality selfie.

Did you know that you can also experience camera shake by simply touching the shutter button on your phone? So the solution to reduce camera shake as much as possible is to purchase a tripod or gorilla pod with a smartphone mount/adaptor, putting your phone into the mount, and then setting your phone to fire with the timer setting or using the volume button on your earbuds or a remote shutter release. You will still need to set the focus on your screen by tapping on your subject before using the timer, earbuds, or remote.

Your earbuds can be used to trigger the shutter by pressing the volume control on them. This reduced camera shake from touching the screen.

Your earbuds can be used to trigger the shutter by pressing the volume control on them. This reduced camera shake from touching the screen.

Low Light Issues

If the blur is due to low light then you may notice that your phone has trouble focusing when you tap on the subject in your screen. Your best solution is to try and provide some more light. You’re welcome to try your flash but it’s not going to be the best solution. If you’re indoors and you can find a nice window with diffused daylight, that will be a fantastic remedy. If you have a friend with you have them use the light app on their phone to help light the area a bit. You may also try other light options such as positioning your subject where there is better light, bouncing light with a white sheet or poster board onto your subject, or using various external light sources. I’ll be doing a future post that deals specifically with low light situations. Until then use these simple tips.

Handling Movement

If a moving subject is the cause of your blur there are a couple of things to do. In the case of a moving kid or similar situation you might try the sports mode available in the settings menu of your native camera or camera app. The burst mode is also an option in this situation. Most phones and apps are set with this being an automatic feature or one that you set up manually in the settings. Once it is activated you can hold the shutter button down and it will fire off a number of photos that you can then go back and select which is best. One other way to capture a moving subject is to use a panning method. This is where you attempt to move the phone at the same speed as your subject while at the same time tapping the shutter button. It takes some practice but can achieve some nice results.

I’m Here to Help!

Whatever your issue is with focusing for sharp results in your smartphone photos, I hope that one or more of these tips on the basic technique of focusing will be helpful to you. I’m always available to help you find solutions to whatever is going on with your photography. Please feel free to drop me a note by email or social media and I’ll do my best to help you find the answers you need. If this post has been helpful to you then please let me know and use the “share icon” below to send it to a friend or someone you know who is trying to improve their smartphone photography!